Can you hear it or are you just listening?

by John on August 4, 2010

I started working for a society band in my junior year of high school. It was 1989; I needed to earn money and thought this would be fun. Little did I know that sixteen short years later in 2005 the gigs would finally come to a close but the lessons that I learned still resonate with me to this day.

Now I need to let you know that I wasn’t a musician, I was the muscle. My official title was “Band Boy”. Job Description wise it was pretty simple, show up before the gig and unload the van, push the gear into the venue, setup the gear and then come back when the party is over to break down gear, load up van and leave.

The musicians were all in their late sixties and early seventies. The genre of music was basically what we called “Society” I called it old white people music. Porter, Gershwin, Sinatra, (and even some Tom Jones). It was “Now That’s What I Call Music circa 1939 through 1950.” They were all transplanted from the northeast living out their retirement in South Florida. They were a motley crew of ages, experience, intelligence and hustlers and their advice; well their advice could be called at times, unique.

For example, the first lesson that I learned was about leadership. Simply put “The band leader always gets double.” He is usually the one whose name is synonymous with the band. The clients hired him and he’s got the pressure to make sure that the gig goes smoothly. When I think about how this relates to HR that’s an easy one.

I did notice a concept that the musicians talked about called “Faking”. You’ve heard of this one right, fake it till you make it? No one knows that you don’t know how to play that tune in any other key, but hey they’ll be drunk and as long as it sounds good… Yeah even that one translates to HR and not in the most positive light.

Some other gems that I learned along the way:

  • Always show up to the gig ready to play. You may not have time to get ready in the bathroom before the gig starts. Be ready to work.
  • Stay for the first few minutes of the gig to make sure that the sound is right. Seeing the faces of the peeps that walk into the room listening to the opening notes of “S’wonderful” helps gauge how well you setup the band. Did you do the job right the first time and don’t need to make adjustments?
  • It’s a 3 hour minimum during the week and 4 hours on the weekend. No one works for free. (here’s the homage to “Pay the Writer”)
  • Musicians who are skilled in the classics have a broad repertoire and are in demand. Much like candidates who have the skills you need for your team, they’ll always be in demand.
  • It’s OK to change the words to the songs every now and again. The bandleader changed the lines to “Hello Dolly” and used it as his final song of the night. For me, it was my cue to be ready to break the band down. Creativity drives continued successes and keeps everyone engaged and on their toes.

  • Finally, the last lesson is to train your ears and eyes to hear the room, not listen. While prepping for my Sophomore Music final, I got into a round of “name that tune” with the pianist Sy Mann. (Classically trained and gifted with perfect, perfect pitch, Sy told me about the only class he ever skipped so her could attend Gershwin’s funeral. Yeah, that Gershwin.)

    Sy was putting me through the paces and I was naming the tunes with relative ease that is until he switched keys. Nothing changed, but the switch from major to minor and I was completely stumped. I was listening carefully, but it didn’t make sense. I was thoroughly confused.

    The A-ha moment came when he said to me softly “John, it’s the same tune but I’m playing it in the minor keys.” I looked up, shook my head in disbelief and then watched (and heard) him playing Tchaikovsky . All I could do was quietly laugh and continue shaking my head in utter disbelief.

    Sy taught me in that session that humility trumps hubris. That you need to hear the overall message to understand the tune, and that you must always practice your craft. Timing, teamwork, and precision will always help your performance, and those actions will pay off in the long run.

    I miss you guys. Wherever you are, I’m sure the band sounds great and everyone is dancing!

    This posts musical inspiration: Gershwin, Porter, Melody Gardot, Tony Bennett, Jesse Winchester, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Joel

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