Saturday, October 2, 2010

But the Rules Said...

A couple of weeks back, I had the privilege of playing a gig with an R&B group called Will Power named for the band's singer and lead guitar player, Will Osborne.

I'd never rehearsed with the band and we'd only jammed together once. Nonetheless, Will gave me a list of thirty or so songs that we would be playing along with a couple of CDs and asked me to come play. So, I got out a pad of paper and a pencil, loaded the CDs into iTunes, and began writing down the chords and horn lines.

I love R&B music. I mean, I really, really love it. I've had a dream since high school of putting together a really great R&B band with a full horn section, guitar players, keyboards, background singers, drums, bass and percussionist. You know, one of those twelve to fifteen member bands that plays everything from Respect to Get Behind the Mule to Oakland Stroke to Moon Dance. Just listening to all the tunes that Will had sent me was a joy as I scribbled down the chords and reference parts. I played the music all day long while I worked and then in the car on the way to the gig. I was totally jazzed and ready to make some music.

Loading In
When Iris and I arrived, we found Will unloading equipment from his truck. We helped him get everything in as the rest of the band arrived, Jeremy on drums and Mark on bass.

The venue usually has soloists and duets, not full bands, and a good portion of the 8x8 stage was occupied by a spinet piano, one that Mark quickly informed us we could not move.

But not to worry, we'd figure it out.

As I looked at the pile of equipment surrounding the stage, it became clear that we would need to adjust a bit. I looked for Mark to talk about the piano (it was his gig and his relationship with the club) but couldn't find him. So, I found the restaurant manager and asked her if it would be OK to roll the piano around to the front of the stage. She smiled and said, "No, problem!"

We rolled the piano around to the front, Jeremy downsized his kit, and voila, we had enough room. When Mark returned and saw the rearranged stage, he told me, "Look, you can't just move stuff around. You've got to listen to me about this."

I let him know that I'd asked the manager and she was cool with it.

Taming of the Sax
As everyone plugged in and tuned up, I began warming up my sax. When you first pull a saxophone out of the case and begin playing, it resists you and you have to be a bit forceful to get it to do what you want. If you want to be quick about it, you have to play loudly. As the instrument gets warmer, it becomes more compliant and you can begin to play with more finesse. That night, my sax was redoing adolescence and I played loudly to get it in line.

As I played, I glanced over at Mark who appeared to be thinking, "What the heck have I got myself into here."

He leaned over and told me that we really had to watch the volume. They don't usually have bands and the owners didn't want to annoy the patrons with something that was too loud. I nodded and headed out to the parking lot behind the building to get my sax in line.

One Night Stand
With everyone set, we ran through a couple of tunes to warm up. Mark continued to remind us of his concerns about the volume and we did our best to not be too loud. The people sitting near the stage seemed to enjoy our sound check and no one threw anything. So we were ready to go.

The evening was a lot of fun. We played three sets of great R&B tunes. Everyone played well. Patrons applauded and cheered, and even got up to dance. However, Mark who's a really good player, continued to be distracted by his concerns. At one point someone passed him a note that one of the patrons thought the band was a bit too loud. From my read, the crowd seemed to be having a great time.

At the end of the night, after we packed up, I wanted to thank Mark for the gig and to talk to him about having more fun and hanging on less tightly, but he'd already left. I guessed that he'd had made the whole evening somewhat of an ordeal and just needed to split. I also figured that, since it was his gig, he might want to go back duets and solo work, or at least gigs without sax players.

You Never Know
Night-before-last, Mark sent this really sweet email to the band:
I have herd the cries of the crowed, and the patrons have overwhelmingly stated they want WillPower. They were very impressed with Mark T. They never see a great sax player (or any sax player for that matter), but I herd maybe 15 times tonight this statement: Do you have the Sax player with you?

Well Mark T, you left an impression. But it was the entire band they liked. Mark just put it over the top, and as a result, they LOVE WillPower.

I will be honest. The first night was difficult for me because of the little space I had to stand in. I would like to see if that can improve. I also was very concerned about the volume level all night. That is a challenge but I think a good sound check will fix that. Mark, I thought you did a great job with the way you controlled the sax. I know that must be very difficult. But you have great control of that instrument, in every way...

...As I said, I had a difficult time with the first gig. It was mainly because of the rules the house lays down, and makes all the bands adhere to. Because WillPower was so well loved, they dropped all of that for us.

I wish someone clued me in that night. It would have helped me to relax, and not be so difficult on you guys. I hope you understand all of that. Normally when bands are loud, they don't get asked back. That's what I thought we were going to have to deal with. But the music was so good, nobody cared about the volume. Even the owner. She was just happy to see a full house. We got the credit for that. So do it your way gents. It works!

Breaking Rules
So often, we take rules literally without thinking about the motivations that inspired them. In the case of the club, the owner wanted to ensure that her patrons had a great experience. The rule about loudness wasn't about amplitude, it was about pleasure: playing music that is pleasing to the audience.

We often let rules stop us in our tracks without questioning them, without digging down to their core, without understanding what they're really trying to achieve. People make rules doing the best they can based on their experiences and understanding. Sometimes, the rule-maker's experience and understanding are substantial and sometimes limited. Some rule-makers welcome rule-breakers who are in touch with the motivations that underly the rules. Others are more determined to enforce compliance.

The thing is, you can't always tell. So, in a situation where the sign says this, but you're pretty sure it means that, what do you do?

Happy Saturday,

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