Thanks for the comments regarding my first "Freelancing" column. I truly hope this series can be of help to those of you who want to start doing more gigs.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions, or
to tell me what the scene is like in your town. I want to pick up where I left off
last time, which is looking at the qualifications for being a good
freelancer. We talked about being businesslike, being versatile, and
confidence. But in addition, we need to chat a bit about reading music,
having a good ear, and how to actually hustle the gigs. Onward...
There's an old joke worth repeating here...how do you get a
guitarist to turn down? Put some music in front of him. And, there is
indeed a bit of truth to that saying. Fact is, from my experience in the
biz, I truly believe that overall, guitarists are the worst readers of
any instrumentalists. Saxophonists, flutists, clarinet players,
violinists (strings in general), and many others -- all of these folks are taught to
read from the get go, and reading (including sight reading) is pretty much
second nature for them. But, not so for guitarists. For the most part,
we learn how to play by copping licks from recordings. This leads to
good improvisational abilities (which is, of course, a good thing in
itself, and something that many classical musicians have difficulty
with), but what happens when a reading gig comes up? That's right, we're
in big trouble. And, what kinds of gigs require reading skills? Plays,
symphony pops concerts, chamber music, some jazz gigs, and studio work
(sometimes) are definitely situations where some level of reading is
essential. Of course, this requirement is going to vary from city to
city and gig to gig, but if you can't read, just forget about these
sorts of freelance jobs...and since I have done a ton of them, I am
definitely glad I have some (at times pitiful, but enough to survive)
ability to read music.
OK, so what's going to get you by on a reading gig? Well, first of
all, there are different levels of reading, and obviously, some are
going to be more difficult than others. Sight reading is the
hardest. As implied, you come in, and read a piece of music that you've
never seen before, hopefully perfectly. This is not so easy, and I am
not so good at it. This is the level of reading skill expected in the
big burgs (NYC, LA, and anyplace where jingles, movies, and TV work is
happening). I was fortunate to meet the legendary session maestro Tommy
Tedesco in the early 80's. The things he did were flabbergasting, and
taught me a lot, namely, that I don't want to be the guy on the gig
when John Williams needs a guitarist for his latest movie. Those fellers
write some very tough stuff, and you are expected to nail it
pronto...sorry. So, if the big studios are calling you, better be able
to read like you read the newspaper; otherwise, let someone else do it,
and save yourself mucho embarrassment.
Other gigs where sight reading comes in handy are chamber ensembles
and occasional jazz gigs. In chamber music, the guitar will often be a
part of a small ensemble, such as cello and piano or flute. Here, the
repertoire is classically oriented, and again, you need to come do it
real quick. I've only got a few of these calls over the years, and I
have been smart enough to turn them down -- I don't like looking stupid.
Then, there are some jazz gigs where quick reading is essential. I got
called for the last couple of years by Bill Hill, principal percussionist with the Colorado Symphony, to do a couple of jazz gigs, and a number of his original pieces were written out. I did get the music in advance, so it wasn't exactly sight reading, but it still scared the hell out of me because all the other guys were monster
readers. Somehow I survived, and Bill still likes me. A good word of
advice...find out in advance what you're walking into, so disaster is
less likely to strike. Never take a reading gig above your ability...you
But, fortunately, sight reading is not always required, thank God.
For example, on shows you can often get the music well in advance and
learn it, which takes the terror out. Over the years, I've done many
plays, including Grease, Man of La Mancha, Little Shop of Horrors,
Oklahoma, and numerous others, and the requirements were not nearly as
stringent as a sight reading gig. Also, these shows had
fairly simple guitar parts, mostly chord chart stuff, not many notes per
se (of course, "simple" is relative). Also, on a play like "Grease," I
have often been allowed to improvise a lot, because the goal is to sound
like the time period and play the right licks. In "Grease," again, you
need to know your 50's stuff to sound authentic...that's another skill
entirely. The charts keep you in the right place, but you are allowed to
play your own licks. Now, this may vary from musical director to musical
director, but often the guitarist is expected to be able to do
this...while the other folks are strictly reading, we are the instrument
that can putz around a bit from the written notes. In fact, you are
often liable to find, written on your part, such messages as "Freddy
Greene," or "Muddy Waters" or "70's funk." This means you have to know
those styles, and are expected to play in that bag. That does not happen
with the other musicians on the gig, just guitarists. I like that
syndrome, cause I can fake a lot of styles well.
One of the hardest things about these gigs is just not getting
lost. You have to follow the musical director, and the charts can get long. There are vamps, where you play a measure over and over while the actors are talking; then, at a cue from the conductor, you continue. You have to really concentrate to
keep your place, but a little experience is a big help here. Then, there
are Symphony Pops concerts, which for me are a bit more stressful than
plays, but again, you can generally get the music in advance. I have
played with Diahann Carroll, Judy Collins, Bill Conti (wrote the music
for "Rocky" and zillions of other things), Broadway Hoofer Tommy Tune,
Ferrante and Teicher, and many other gigs, such as a Beatles tribute,
and big band shows. So far, they haven't found out I suck. The good thing is that you're just one teensy guy in this big sea of musicians, which can work to your advantage. At times, it's simply physically hard to hear the guitar, so if you make a booboo
very quietly, no one notices. I did Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Symph (recorded it, too), and al of a sudden I realized they could not hear a note I was playing. Why? Well, I was playing banjo (tuned like a guitar, rhythm stuff), and was not miked. Sure, you don't want to screw up, but you can breathe a bit easier in such a circumstance. On the other hand, you can certainly have to play some written lines on Symph gigs, and there's no faking it...you must get it right, and fast. Two rehearsals at the most, sometimes only one. Believe me, it's quite possible to look like a ditz, and that would be most embarrassing in front of 80 top players. But, if I can do it, I certainly have faith that you can too, cause reading is not my thing. There are helpful tips in learning lines off of paper, such as simply listening to the rest of the players, and geting the picture of where your part fits in. Sure, being able to read the notes is
essential, but a good ear (more soon) is very helpful, too.
Also, following a conductor can be a nightmare...he/she is the man/woman, and the absolute emperor of the gig -- whatever they say/do is the law. Watching a baton to keep your time is not so easy, especially if the conductor gets a bit artsy, and then they can be very difficult to follow. I did an opera in 1987, "The Marriage of Figaro," with the
Central City Opera, which had two fairly simple classical guitar parts. They weren't that hard by themselves, but trying to follow the conductor almost nailed me. I blew all 3 rehearsals, but was saved when I took a conducting lesson from a friend, who showed me what to look for. It was very stressful, but I got it opening night. I felt vindicated when a reviewer said the conductor was "grandstanding." I, of course, thought
he was, as he was waving his stupid arms around in a fashion that had
little to do with keeping the time. Then again, I played a lot of Pops
with Newton Wayland (who worked with Boston Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler
for years), and he was a gas. Newt seemed to enjoy hanging with the
musicians, and conducted in a straightforward, easy to read manner...you
always knew where the time was, and it made it much more enjoyable to be
on the gig.
Another possible disaster on a reading gig is constantly shifting
time signatures. When I did "Eliot Ness in Cleveland," I was scared to
death on the 1st rehearsal. The measures would go from 4/4 to 3/4 to
3/8 to 5/8 real quick, for example, and you have to figure out how to
count as they change. As I write this article, I am getting ready to do
"Parade" (which won a Tony award last year for best musical), and the
same thing happens. This time, I bought the CD, and I have been
practicing along with the disc -- it's really helping. My advice, if you want to get
into shows and such, is to definitely start working on your reading, and
there's many ways to do that. First, just do it. Read anything, from
practice books to jazz charts to classical pieces, whatever. Not a bad
idea to get some scores from shows, too (from the library or a music
store), and check them out. But believe me, when you go on that first
reading gig, it's gonna go by real fast, and no matter what you
practiced, it won't be like actually having to nail it with an ensemble,
on stage, where you are most likely going to be the worst reader in the
bunch. Having a hard head and a strong stomach is a very helpful thing
on these gigs.
Which brings me to having a good ear. I can't tell you how many
times my ear has saved my poor ass from getting totally lost, especially
on those aforementioned shows and Pops gigs. How does your ear help?
Simple. Even on those difficult Bill Conti charts, for example, the
piece is following a form, and this form can be deciphered into verses,
bridges, codas, turnarounds, etc. Western pop music (all western music,
actually. I say pop because most of the freelance gigs out there
involve fairly standard forms) usually has a structure, and this structure can be broken down into small components, such as a certain number of measures occurring during a verse, followed by another number of measures on the bridge, and on and on. Also, and
this is oversimplifying a bit to make a point, much American pop stuff
is in 4/4 time. Think about it. Except for "Take 5" and the "Tennessee
Waltz," almost everything we hear/play is in some sort of 4/4 time. This
makes it easier to deal with music in general -- learning to feel in 4 is
a marvelous, helpful tool, because your body learns to feel the measures
as they go by, and since most music is in 4, it follows that multiples
of 4, such as 8, 12, 16, 24, 32, and on and on, will be very common in
music. Thus, if you do get lost, your internal 4 mechanism takes over,
and you can sort of feel where the tune is in the overall structure, and
catch up to it when you get your bearings. Again, it has worked for me a
zillion times. Keeping cool and holding on while the tune cycles back
to a familiar place is a good device for saving face.
Of course, that's one part of a good ear. Another very important ear
gift is being able to hear, and understand, the many various harmonic
cycles of movement that occur in music. The best place to start is
understanding that a scale (any scale, but we'll use the Major scale as
a starting point) has a chord built off of each note, and we number
them, 1 through 7. In the key of C, we get:1 CMA7 2 DMIN7 3 EMIN7
4 FMAJ7 5 G7 6 AMIN7 7 BMIN7 b5.
One of the great discoveries I made in my studies was this: practically ALL American (and European) music is built off of these chords (with variations), and the many ways they can
be put together. From Bach to Hendrix to Dylan to Richard Rogers -- if
you have an understanding of the harmonized major scale, and it's
applications, your chances of success are greatly improved as a freelancer. I've seen guys play tunes I know they've never heard before, and play them very well, because they can hear what's coming next. I have done it myself many times. In fact, here's a pretty basic rule of the freelance life: there's rarely a rehearsal (unless, of course, we are doing a show or a pops; I'm referring to weddings, clubs, etc.,
which we will talk more about next installment)). You are expected to
come on stage, and play whatever is thrown at you, real quick. This can
involve playing tunes you've never heard, or transposing tunes to new
keys, like various jazz standards. Playing "How High The Moon" in an
unfamiliar key can be real tough, but the good cats can do it.
Needless to say, this is oversimplifying, but it's basically true.
Of course, real whacked out modern stuff may not follow these basic
harmonic rules, but on most gigs, knowing the formulas for various eras
will serve you well. For example, in 50's music, a 1-6-4-5 is incredibly
common. In fact, in "Grease," almost every tune uses that progression Makes it easy to deal with the show when you know this. In standard jazz, the fundamental movement is 2-5-1, but cycles of 5ths (like D7-G7-C7-F7) and chromatic cycles (B-7-Bb7-A-7-Ab7) are also very common. Blues, of course, uses the trusty 1-4-5, as does a lot of Chuck
Berry stuff, and a lot of rockabilly in general. The point is this: almost all popular music follows formulas, to a certain extent, (which is one reason it is popular, and one reason it can get real boring, too). All good freelancers know the basic formulas particular to a genre, which is why rehearsals are at a minimum. No need to rehearse a
blues or jazz gig -- get a guy that knows the rules of the style.
Again, this knowledge can save you on even a complex gig like a
show. If you're lost, you can hear the chord progression, know the
general direction it's going, and hop on board when you get your
footing. How does one get an ear? Simple -- get out and play a load
of gigs, even if you don't like them all. I did it by playing a lot of
country gigs in the 70's, where the musicianship was rather low, the gigs were
awful, and I could make all the mistakes I wanted with no danger of
being fired (but believe me, I'd never play those sorts of gigs again).
I had all kinds of tunes thrown at me, and learned them on the spot,
from Merle Haggard to Bob Wills to Carl Perkins to Flatt and
Scruggs. Believe me, a lot of those country tunes are very well written,
and more intricate than you might think. I learned a great deal about
chord movement and voicings, bass line movement ( a whole study unto
itself), and intros/endings from those gigs, and playing all those great
country standards prepared me well to move into jazz. A lot of country
guys are very hot jazzers, so the distance between the two forms is not
as great as many folks think. Even George Benson credits country/jazz
great Hank Garland with getting him moving in the right direction (check
out Hank's "Jazz Winds From A New Direction" to blow your mind). That's
how my ear developed, by playing zillions of gigs with no rehearsal. But, I also took the time to study like crazy, too, to intellectualy understand what was happening. Get a good teacher, preferably a genius who actually performs, it's very helpful.
Jeez...as I write this, I realize how inadequate these words really
are. There are so many things to talk about, but it would take volumes
and volumes. What I tell all my students is this: a teacher is only a
guide, someone who leads you to a point where the lightbulb goes on, and
you say, "Oh yeah, I get it!" There's no other way. So, to sum it
up. Reading music and a good ear are very very helpful to the freelance
lifestyle. You will run into many things that are unforseen, but if you
are good and quick on your feet, you will survive, and get called again.
I never dreamed, years ago as a kid copping Clapton licks, that I would
be playing with a Symphony, and not just once. Is it my goal as an
artist? No, but it's a great experience, and it makes me a better
player, as well as helps pay the rent. Do I want to play shows the rest
of my life? Sure, but I don't want to stop there, either. These are
great ways to make a living, and to learn from top arrangers/composers
as well. Beats the hell out of a "day gig", although there's no shame
in that way, either, if that's what you need for your lifestyle. Please
read between the lines, and I hope to see you next time, when I'll talk
about where the gigs are, and how to get them. Somebody is going to be
playing "Grease" when it's performed...why not you?
...but wait, there's more....
Since I wrote the beginning of this article I've started playing in "Parade,"
and so many of the things I talked about are involved in getting through
this show. First, there's about 80 minutes of music, and it's all
charts. We had one rehearsal, and am I glad I bought the CD and played
along with the tunes in advance, or I would have been toast. That stuff
goes by real fast, and not being a good sightreader would have spelled
disaster. And as I said, the tunes shift time signatures regularly, such
as going from 2/4 to 3/2, or from 3/8 to 6/8 to 3/4. There's also long
holds, where dialogue is happening, and the conductor cues the orchestra
when to start. If you're not paying attention, you're dead. I am also
playing banjo, and that's a whole different story. It's tuned like a
guitar, and the banjo tunes are simply 2/4 dixieland rhythm parts; that
means I'm doubling, so I get paid extra -- comes in handy, and I've
played banjo a number of times over the years.
And the knowledge of song structure, and the ability to hear
traditional chord changes as they go by. I can't tell you how important
that is on this show, because I have gotten lost a number of times, but
kept on counting, and sure enough, I was able to get back on track. An
advantage is that it is not easy to hear the guitar a lot of the time,
which means if I look like I'm playing and keep going, even if I'm
having trouble with the part it's OK, cause nobody can hear me! And,
that's fine with me. I'm not trying to be a hero here, just do a good
job and survive till the next one. I mentioned Tommy Tedesco -- when
reading his Guitar Player columns over the years, it was interesting to
find out that he would occasionally change a part a bit, or drop a few
notes here and there -- and this is on the biggest film and TV projects.
Guitarists often can get away with this sort of stuff. Often, a
composer will find the guitar the hardest instrument to write for, so a
little shifting is OK, as long as you don't get in the way. And, as long
as you do cut the parts when they can hear you, you're OK. In "Parade,"
there are a number of places where the guitar begins a tune, and is very
exposed. Fortunately, they are easy parts, but you gotta be able to
follow the conductor, or you're going to be embarrassed.
You know, "Parade" is touring the country, so in each city, somebody
is going to get this gig. Again, why not you? With a bit of study, and
a strong constitution, it can be done. The money is good, the
conditions are great, and you're playing great music (it won a Tony for
best musical in '99). Yes, it can be nerve wracking, but if you know some
of the tricks of the trade, such as when your part is absolutely
essential, and when you can fake it a bit, you can survive, and
hopefully get called again.
In closing, here's a quote from Bill Frisell (August 2000 issue of GP)..."One night on a gig is equivalent to a month of practice at home..." See you...Hstick.
Good luck, and we'll get into more details about the freelance lifestyle in future editions.
Neil Haverstick is a guitarist out of Denver who won Guitar Player magazine's 1992 Ultimate Guitar Competition (Experimental Division) with a 19-tone guitar piece, "Spider Chimes".
Neil has written for Guitar Player and Cadence and has written two music theory books, "The Form Of No Forms" and "19 Tones: A New Beginning".
His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Stick Man".