Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tough Choice

Because playing music is such an intimate activity, the skill levels and personalities of those of us who play together get commingled. Perhaps snarled might be a better descriptor. An age old conundrum has recently come to the fore in my career and I don't think I'm the only professional musician who faces this issue on a regular basis. The question is: Would I rather play with mediocre, fair to middlin' level musician who I get along with well personally or is it more satisfying to work with people with high levels of skill even if I find them to be insufferable, boorish or downright awful to be around?

In order to avoid insult I will keep the details vague, but I began to feel rather depressed in the middle of a gig recently because I was playing yet another set with someone who really has to be corralled, both rhythmically and harmonically. It was not fun. It is never fun trying to play under these conditions, as I've discussed in earlier posts. Yet the guy I was wanting to throttle so much during that gig is someone I really like, respect and enjoy hanging with off of the bandstand. He also hires me quite a bit (which is a whole other dimension of this dilemma).

I used to work with a drummer of medium ability whose opinion on this was clear: "Give me an asshole who can play." Sometimes I feel that way. Then I get on a gig with someone who can really play but whose ego or negative vibe sours the experience personally (even if the music is really happening). I'm not even sure the question should be what do I prefer. Maybe more important factors apply here, such as: what is this experience doing for my development as a musician? How is this gig or relationship affecting my career? What is an acceptable stress vs. musical quality level for me?

Ideally I want to play with excellent players who I love. That's a given. I feel fortunate to have been in that desirable position many times over the years. But the truth is that too much of the time I seem to be in with a crowd of people who I really like but who just don't play at the level to which I aspire. This is undoubtedly the result of many decisions I've made during the course of my career. I think the problem stems from the tough choice itself; I don't know how to answer the question so I can't take steps to solve it.

I'd be interested to hear what other folks think about this.


Jacque said...

This is indeed a tough one to respond to, and yet I feel compelled to do so.

I certainly grew tired of low-quality gigs (meaning artistic quality), a fact which played some part in my taking a full-time day job (insurance benefits played the largest role in that decision however). I don't regret turning down the occasional boring gig that is offered to me.

But were I making my living playing as you are, I guess I would say that is why they call it work: you don't always get the plum assignment with the crack team -- even in your day gig!

The other terrifically important component--which you didn't address--is the quality, involvement and enthusiasm of the audience. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I'll pose the question to you: Does bringing joy to the audience redeem low artistic quality? How does the reaction of the audience affect your stress level--is it a mitigating factor when other aspects are unpleasant?

For me, it can be. I once scribbled a sort of manifesto for myself, to be meditated on before the umpteenth performance of some tired classical "standard," to remind me that someone in the hall might be hearing the piece for the first time tonight; someone else, an aging music lover, might be hearing it for the last time; someone else might have been dragged here by his wife, but my performance might reach that person and affect him... . Thinking this way helped me rid myself of some of the cynicism that inevitably creeps in.


Bill Harrison said...

Good question, Jake.

It does matter to me how much the music "matters" to the audience. One reason I like to play in the theatre is that it seems that what I do really does affect the outcome of the performance in a more direct way than many of my other gig situations.

Bringing something worthwhile musically to an audience is a big factor in the attitude I bring to work. I discovered this years ago in the midst of an 18 month run of Always, Patsy Cline. When I successfully remembered that most of the audience would be seeing the show and hearing us play the songs for the first time, it was much easier (and much more fun) playing that particular show.

The questions you raise do require more space than a comment. I'd love to read your "manifesto" and have the feeling I'd agree with most of it!

Jacque said...

I'd be surprised if I could find the original scrap of paper that manifesto was scrawled on. But the essence of it is captured in the last paragraph of my comment. Just add some details to the "people" to make it feel a little more real, and probably some sort of personal exhortation to both find the spirit and soul in the music, as well as to ignore the cynicism of tired colleagues.

- Jack