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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 will pay.
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.
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