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The Lessons of Going Pro

Randy Kulik and Ami Kulik | August September 2023

Personal Perspective

After 35 years as a band director at the elementary, middle school, high school, and collegiate levels, I decided to retire. Shortly thereafter, I started playing with a professional big band in Northwest Indiana. A year later, I was asked to be the music director for rehearsals and band leader on gigs. This shift created an interesting but challenging transition from working with students to professional musicians.

As an educator, the teacher is the smartest person in the room. Standing in front of a group of professional musicians can be intimidating. Now you are dealing with people who know as much or more than you do. The leader must acknowledge that the players are colleagues, not subordinates. Credibility with the group relies on genuine respect. Musicians immediately detect a disingenuous comment where the leader is being patronizing instead of complimentary. Moving from educator to professional band leader seems simple, but a shift in mindset is necessary for working with pros.

Professional Disposition
Professional musicians are quite serious about their music, their role in the ensemble, and how they are regarded by their colleagues. As the music director, I found that my temperament with students was not suitable for professional players. Students came to the class to be educated and knew they would be corrected. Professional musicians are rarely corrected when dealing with the utilitarian aspects of performance and assume that their performance will generally be considered flawless. Well, this is not always the case. I quickly discovered that correcting a musician’s mistake was tantamount to stabbing him with a knife in broad daylight with 20 cell phones recording the felony.

If the pro bass player is rushing, I make a general comment to the entire rhythm section. If the problem persists, it’s mandatory to have a private conversation with the bass player stating that a particular rhythmic figure may be getting “compressed” – rather than saying it is “rushed.” Compressed is a clinical word, but rushed can be seen as personal attack. Plus, as a member of the trumpet section, a comment to the rhythm section may be seen as none of my business. I am not saying that professionals can’t handle criticism, but often a gentler approach works best.

Band leaders have to maintain a delicate balance while keeping the peace with a professional group. A harmless comment during rehearsal can easily be interpreted as critical and judgmental. At other moments directors may need to step in to quash criticism or harassment of one player by another member. Just as with a classroom of younger players, the leader must make clear that personal attacks will not be tolerated.

A professional baseball player who hits .300 makes $40 million a year, signs autographs, and gets standing ovations despite failing to get a hit 70% of the time. Professional musicians are expected to give an outstanding performance every time they play. The comparison seems unfair Musicians should be acknowledged for playing well, so praise is warranted. Acknowledgement for a job well done is a necessity for both students and professionals. I will routinely stop a rehearsal to point out a great drum fill, an awesome sax solo, or a brass section nailing a chord reminiscent of the Basie Band. After the initial awkwardness of receiving a compliment subsides, the recipient will start to grin.

Know the Music
A professional band can read down just about anything, but the leader still must have thorough knowledge of the music. A perfectly well-read performance still may not sound stylistically authentic. Because my band plays standards, knowing multiple recordings of a particular tune, including different styles, goes a long way when addressing a tricky figure or argument over tempo. Frank Sinatra recorded multiple versions of the same tune as a laid-back swing, an up-tempo opener, or as a mellow saloon song. If I need to specify that a tune should be played a certain way, I’d better have accurate information to back up my assertion. More importantly, the band leader can never say “I don’t know.” The leader always knows. A lack of knowledge or confidence can hurt morale.

Choosing Literature
When selecting music for the band, player input can be helpful, but be careful. When I became the music director for the band, I was reminded that professionals come to a rehearsal with decades of experience, which can lead to a free exchange of ideas. There’s nothing wrong with the leader accepting suggestions from professional musicians. A leader who refuses good ideas usually lacks confidence. Being in charge doesn’t mean being a dictator.

Leadership requires balancing your authority with the importance of a collegial atmosphere. A suggestion for a chart must evaluated based on the best interest of the ensemble and the audience. It is not unusual for a typical rehearsal band to be more interested in entertaining themselves. This is a big mistake. Audiences typically do not understand all aspects of a jazz performance and may be confused or get bored. The director does need to make the final decision regarding a particular chart’s acceptance by the audience. The audience is the ultimate consumer. Always know, however, that the leader owns every decision, even when accepting input from others.

Jazz Improvisation
Jazz improvisation is one of the most personal forms of musical expression. Teaching improv to students can be challenging. Directors don’t want to stifle a young musician’s development as a soloist with burdensome criticism. Similarly, the band leader should never ever take issue with a pro’s improvisational chops. Professional musicians are vetted before they join the band. Some play lead, some are section players, and some are considered jazz soloists. Once they are identified as a soloist in the band, the decision is made.

While there are some jazz soloists who seemingly never play a bad lick, we all trip over ourselves from time to time. No one knows better than the soloist that they played a lick that stepped out of the changes or was rhythmically dumb. Never criticize an improvised solo. In the rare instance where a soloist doesn’t realize that their solos aren’t cutting it, facing the issue is comparable to an elephant walking on eggshells without cracking them.

First, never discuss it in front of the band. Any comments made at this time must be general and non-threatening. “Wow, the modulation during the bridge is a real pain” or “blowing changes in Gb is a real bear…why didn’t they just write the chart in F.” Sharing the pain as a fellow soloist is safe. A direct criticism could be a musical death sentence. While pros may seem to accept correction when playing a wrong pitch or rhythm in a written part, they may lose confidence in their solos and volunteer to solo less often.

Written solos, on the other hand, are a different issue. If a player is struggling with a written solo, they need to be given the opportunity to correct the problem. If a player simply can’t handle the part, it must be passed to someone else. A leader is ultimately responsible for the band’s performance.

Dress Code
Glen Miller reportedly had his players wear matching socks, along with suits and ties. While the socks idea may be over the top, dressing well will never be out of style. We wear black shirts and pants and light blue ties. We add a black jacket for a wedding or corporate event. Basie’s band dressed like bankers. with matching suits and ties. Looking like stiffs, but really knowing how to swing is a great combination.

I remember my first rehearsal with my pro band. I had a full agenda with charts typed in order from most to least important. I also had goals and expectations for the rehearsal, and, most importantly, pencils. When I started passing them out, there was immediate laughter, especially when I said “please take a pencil and pass the rest down to your neighbor.” The point was, I fully expected everyone to mark their parts when I asked. Pros don’t own pencils. I reminded them that marking down important information was just as important for a potential sub as it was for them.

When passing out new charts, I always have the pages taped together with the chart number clearly printed. Professional musicians don’t like to deal with mundane organization. Basically, they are expected to show up to the gig, play the show, get paid, and leave. Hoping for anything more will simply create disappointment for the director. That is not a slam to professionals. It’s important that the leader understand the role of the musicians in the band.

The educational and professional music arenas do have some similarities. Those similarities carry advantages and disadvantages. While the organizational skills used in teaching do help with the general aspects of running a band, a director has to adopt a different mindset when switching from students to professional musicians. Adults will instinctively think they are being treated like kids if the former educator points out mistakes or asks for quiet during a rehearsal. However, there is no point to rehearsing if the band simply reads through charts with no musical focus or vetting by the director.

Pros talk during rehearsals and occasionally make silly mistakes. These issues need to be addressed, but patience and careful word choice are keys to success. As educators, we sometimes view students as our children. They are stuck with us. This is not true with pros. An inappropriate comment made to a professional can end a relationship. When you find yourself losing patience, chill, take a deep breath, think before you speak, and move forward. Oh, and handing out Jolly Ranchers after rehearsal never hurts.