Big or Small

Never take the stage without asking one of these...

“Ugh! ‘September,’ again? Let’s get this over with.”  

Not so fast.

We all know musicians who have built themselves into MONSTERS--absolute crushers worthy of and ready for the biggest gigs and opportunities.  They leave jaws on the floor wherever they go. They are legends in the making.

We all know musicians who have, well... chosen not to take that path.  

Which do you want to be?

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Because every time you pick up your instrument–no matter what the gig is–you are practicing.   

And if you are not becoming more of a MONSTER, you are becoming less of one.

Some people think that the day they get their big break and find themselves in the stadium, they’ll magically transform and perform differently than they do right now in the banquet halls.  Nope. You’re the same person. These are the training grounds.

So, next time you feel yourself rolling your eyes as you take the stage, instead stay humble. Instead, take this moment to practice being a MONSTER.

It’s simple.  Just ask yourself one of the following 13 hyper-humbling MONSTER QUESTIONS every single time you take the stage–even if it’s the umpteenth time you’ve played “September.”

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  1. Are you playing the tune correctly? Is that SORTA how it goes or EXACTLY how it goes?  Don’t settle for close enough. (And always be cautiously skeptical of any sheet music.)  We all know someone who blows our mind by playing even the deepest cuts just like the record.  How do you think they got that way?
  2. Are you technically executing at the highest level?  If this “September” was an audition for Earth, Wind & Fire, would you get the job? Is every note in time, in tune, and with a beautiful sound?  Would you be psyched to let your students hear you now? It shouldn’t be just classical musicians who fine-tune and polish musical excerpts to perfection.  Treat the music you play with the same craftsmanship.
  3. Is your stylistic impression dead-on? Every musician on every recording has a distinct character. Dynamics, phrasing, vibrato, articulation, feel, tone, and so much more.  Do your best imitation of the musicians you are covering. In a typical jobbing set, you are taking a journey through many disparate musical eras, regions, genres and styles.  Sound different on every tune.
  4. Are you off-book? If you’ve played this song so many times that you are sick of it, you’d better not need a chart!
  5. Are you part of a unit? Are you locking in perfectly with your section or your band? Are you matching phrasing, articulation, intonation, and style?  Do you sound like a single voice? What could you do to level up as a team? It doesn’t matter if you’ve played together for years or if you’ve just met. And remember: playing it together > playing it your way.
  6. Do you know the WHOLE song? I once watched a saxophone player quietly teach the bass line to the bassist on his sax, so the band could nail a last minute obscure request. Could you be this hero one day?  This knowledge of ALL the parts is something every aspiring music director needs. Cultivate the biggest possible ear.Giant worm creature with mouth tentacles attacking humans


  7. Can you contribute beyond your instrument? Are there opportunities to sing backup vocals?  This may be the perfect low pressure opportunity to begin singing in a performance setting!  People with free hands or who don’t play every song, can you grab a percussion instrument? Bring a tambourine, shaker, cabasa and/or cowbell to every gig.  Learn what patterns are hip for different tunes. Look to the drummer and precisely lock into the groove.
  8. Are you moving? Maybe you can play “September” perfectly, but can you play it perfectly while two-stepping?  Stage presence and movement are paramount skills and this is the perfect place to practice.  If you don’t know what to do, imitate somebody else on stage who does.  Take video of yourself! (Yes, some us would rather peel off our skin than watch that video. Do it anyway.)
  9. Can you be creative? Some gigs are OK with you adding your own creative touch.  Building on a precise knowledge of the original material, how can you make the arrangement your own?  If the song doesn’t originally contain your instrument, can you write yourself a part? Doing so on-the-fly is one of my favorite games.
  10. Who are the examples? If you’re not learning, you’re not paying attention. Who is CRUSHING it right now on the stage?  What can you learn from their example? Who is NOT CRUSHING it right now? What can you learn from their example?  What example can YOU set to your peers?
  11. Are you being a good hang? Are you having fun? Is everyone enjoying spending time with you?  I’ve watched great musicians get fired from high-profile gigs for being annoying to work with–and they were not always told the real reason why they weren’t called back.
  12. Are you connecting to the audience? Is there a smile on your face? Are you making eye contact with the crowd and playing TO them? Are you operating a piece of machinery or are you communicating an emotion?  Remember: if you are playing a wedding, people in the room are having the most important night of their lives. Are you participating in that--or just collecting a paycheck?
  13. Record EVERYTHING and listen back on the way home. That’s not a question.  Just do it. ;)

Imagine spending all those gig hours concentrating on these 13 MONSTER QUESTIONS.

How much more of a MONSTER would you be in 6 months? 2 years? 10 years? 

Leviathan: a giant octopus attacking ships


Bryant Smith
Contributing Editor

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