Professionalism… what is it? How does one get it? And how can it be cured?
“Ello! I have a rash on the inside of my leg… is that professionalism?”
“No, that must have come from the world’s oldest profession. Common misconception.
The world of musicians – The world that you occupy – is extraordinarily small. Pathetically so.
No, I’m not saying that one bad review should stop you from getting to play a venue or working with somebody else, but when you are consistently screwing up, you’re going to get replaced, and people stop working with you and it is REALLY FREAKING HARD to get back into good graces (like, I almost put the word impossible down… that’s how hard it is).
So what is it that distinguishes one person from another? Professionalism.
I ask once again
Professionalism… what is it? How do we improve in this area?
There a few things that will set us apart and keep us looking professional. Personally, I want to work with somebody professional over an unkempt abundance of talent. Furthermore, we need to hold people accountable for their lack of professionalism, because when we fail to do this, we encourage that behavior to continue. Damn!
In the world of math, it looks like this
I’ve worked with a lot really good players, but lacking in being professional, and I have vowed to myself never to work with that person again. Honesty to God, I have a list that I keep in my journal.
Obviously, I’m not talking about anybody who reads this.
So we don’t need to insert any names here. I have listed some things that you can do to be more professional and therefore be used more often and get reoccurring gigs! This is important because reoccurring did mean you can have a career doing this.
1. Understanding the weight of saying, yes.
The world of music is unique in a lot of ways, maybe none more so than the verbal agreement. Meaning that when you say yes to something, that means you are committed to that thing. Many musicians are selfish, no surprise there. You might think that you can do whatever the hell you want to do, and that’s OK. You simply forgot that you had a previous engagement that night, or maybe you’re just feeling a little tired, and that means these rules don’t apply to you. But you can’t do that!
All of this means a few different things. First off, don’t say yes before you understand every part of what you agree to do.
- when are you practicing? Which specific days? What time?
- Are you getting paid? How much total? How are we splitting it up? Is there a bar/food tab?
- Where is the show? Do they have a specific place to load in? Do they have a green room?
- How many songs do I need to learn? Are they in the original key? Are we editing the song down?
- Am I expected to promote the show? Do you have a poster? Are any other bands playing with us?
These are all questions that 100% should be asked before you agree to play a show with anybody. Once you say yes to somebody, you are committed to this venture. If you want to come off as professional if you’re going to continue to get work. You have to understand what you’re committing yourself to.
Are you tired before a rehearsal? Drink some coffee. Are you a little sick, too bad, suck it up. Hungover, don’t even get me started, you’re an idiot.
Are there exceptions? Yes.
- Sometimes people take it vantage of you, and that is totally fine to back out of one.
- A family tragedy
- You are unable to leave the toilet
But those circumstances RARELY happen. I would even say that most of you reading this blog have never been in a situation like that during a show.
If you say, “I will play for you at the show” – You cannot show up late to the show. You need to move your schedule around. The number of times construction has slowed you down, or doctor appointments that just so happened to be on the same date as the show… It’s all bullshit. STOP LYING! BE ACCOUNTABLE! Start calling that person on their shit! I’ve lied, I’ve been lazy. I’ve “gotten lost” on my way there. I’ve slept in, it’s NOT OKAY! And every single time we spare the tough conversation we encourage that behavior to continue. I said, “Yes.” I have to be there, and on time… no exception.
You should be asking way more questions then just saying, “Yeah, sure I can do that.” Just because you’re not the bandleader of that show doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of what time soundcheck is, what days you’re planning to practice with the full band, how many songs you should be playing, what the setlist looks like, you don’t need to be in charge and make those decisions but you need to know when those things are happening.
Dirty Dan Trick: You can ask the bandleader to send you the set BEFORE you say yes! So if you’re not interested in playing the set… you know before you have committed! What?!? Yes! It’s a sneaky trick!
2. Being…. Punctual.
You are leading the band; you have to be telling people when you’re expecting them to be at rehearsal/at the venue.
Dirty Dan Trick: I always plan for them to be there 15 to 30 minutes before you actually want them to be there. Always give yourself cushion if your show starts at five, and your soundcheck is at 3:30, you tell everyone to be there at 2:30. Why 2:30? Because soundcheck doesn’t mean you’re loading in. It means you’re loading in well before then soundcheck means you are on the stage, all ready to go at 3:30. So people need to get there before that time!
If you’re not the bandleader. Don’t be a dick. Help out the leader! Be there early, don’t make plans the same day as the show. Plan on being at the show early. If the practice starts at 6:30. Don’t show up at 6:30! If it takes you 15 minutes to unload and set up your stuff, you shouldn’t be there a minute later than 6:15. This isn’t a hard concept to grasp. I understand that life comes up, and we miss things. But if we’re always late, always causing problems, why the hell would anyone want to continue working with us? When was the last time you showed up 2 hours early for a gig? Do you remember how easy it was to set up, do you remember how comfortable you felt on stage?
Do you think that when Gary Clark Jr. shows up for a gig, he is there like 15 minutes before he plays? Hell no! He’s there most of the day (well, I mean the soundcheck is around like 2 pm, then he goes and dinks around town). If you have a gig be there on time, stop cramming so much into that day. Don’t pretend you can’t move stuff around or get off work early.
3. Always Be Positive.
Have you ever been to a show where you see one of the musicians is in a terrible mood? It really messes up the show. This is especially true for musicians on a local level. Is the sound in your monitor terrible at the show you’re playing? As an audience member, I honestly don’t care, you should be smiling! Part of what we’re doing is acting we’re transporting people away to another place. I understand if you’re a punk band and part of your act is “being angry,” but most of us are not in a punk band. In fact, most of us are trying to get people to be happy or feel the same emotion that we’re feeling! If you’re in a local band, your sound is probably going to suck. That’s just part of what happens! Actually, that’s always true, so accept it, be surprised when the sound comes out right! There are things that you can do to help the sound guy, I’ve written an article specifically dedicated to that!
Maybe the bandleader snapped at you; once again, as an audience member, I don’t care… you keep smiling! At that point, the lack of professionalism is on the bandleader, not you. Do not argue on stage! Whatever the bandleader says on stage at that point, that might have as well been written in the Bible! If the bandleader messes up that’s on the bandleader that’s not on you, your job is not to argue with the bandleader and to ask, “Are you sure?” Now I’m not saying it’s not OK to politely remind somebody, that maybe they skipping a song in the set, but let the fault be on somebody else, not you. My cousin Spencer always says it best, “BE PART OF THE SOLUTION, NOT THE PROBLEM.” If you’re causing problems for the band on stage, good luck finding another gig. Actually, no, screw you. I hope you don’t play anymore. Maybe that sounds harsh, but I think the time has come for us to start being protective of our act and the other members in the band. If a set goes sideways, you all go down together.
Dirty Dan Trick: When you’re in the venue, don’t say anything bad about the venue. Don’t talk shit on the opening band. When you’ve returned to the car, say whatever you want. But in the venue, practice being positive. If you’re playing a bar and the bartender is rude, don’t snap back. If the sound guy is terrible. Don’t mention it on stage, don’t be passive-aggressive. NOBODY IN THE AUDIENCE CARES. You’re only hurting yourself. I will always pick someone I like that has good energy over someone who is really talented but brings the energy down. It only takes one person in the band to change the energy of the room.
4. Acknowledgment and Being Easy to Work With.
Once you agreed to something, you 100% need to respond to whatever the person is sending you about the show. A simple thumbs-up is OK. You just need to acknowledge that you got the information that they were trying to get to you.
If something comes up (which is totally understandable, we all have a lot going on in our lives). You need to let the person know immediately! Act as though a band practice is just as important as the show. I understand that sometimes, you are not able to attend a rehearsal. There should be very few excuses to not show up to practice, or to duck out of practice early. But if something happens, you need to let them know immediately. You do not have to backtrack and tell them why you didn’t make it or make up some piss poor excuse. You messed up. Just own that you messed up. You need to say to them this is what’s going on and I am really sorry I can’t make it. That’s the end of the text. They deserve the respect that you promised you were going to give them.
As a bandleader, I want to get bad news immediately so I can plan around that thing. It’s OK, that happens, and sure, sometimes I’m annoyed, but I would rather hear immediately something went wrong.
Even just being late, it’s incredibly rude to not let them know you’re running late. (Whatever stupid excuse you’ve given for being late, it’s not a good one). Do not leave them in the dark. I can tell you from YEARS of experience that there’s nothing more frustrating than learning fifteen minutes before a rehearsal or a show that someone is not coming.
Open communication is pivotal and keeps you looking professional.
Dirty Dan Trick: Immediately respond when you get the text. Don’t assume you’ll remember to respond later. You won’t remember it. I am terrible at this! If I immediately respond, even if it’s a “Let me get back to you.” It sticks in my mind and keeps the bandleader happy.
5. Respect the Charts.
The first practice is always a little wonky. That’s OK, you’re trying to figure stuff out. I totally get it. Here’s where I find a lot of people mess up, though.
The first practice is not the time to figure out what your part is. You’re wasting everyone’s time, and you’re really rude. Let me just really hit this home. This is not OK, and I see it A LOT.
You should already know what you’re doing! It’s not a time to try new things when everyone’s expecting you to know your role. I understand, and in some circumstances, it’s OK to come in knowing that you are going to be learning parts. But unless the bandleader tells you that you are going to be working out a new piece. Before the first practice, you should be able to play through the song in its entirety. – Duh!
- If you’re using a sheet, you should be bringing in these charts to this practice.
- Have a roundabout idea of what sounds are going to be using during the rehearsal. (In this song I will have reverb, this song has chorus, that song has overdrive, etc.)
Become somebody that everybody wants to play with. It’s one thing to be fun and high energy on stage. It’s altogether another thing to have a sense of professionalism with your craft. I know that doesn’t sound romantic or exciting, but everybody needs to be practiced or needs to be there on time if I need to be sober, everybody needs to bring at least the appearance of wanting to be there.
Dirty Dan Trick: If you are the bandleader, I have learned that you really should be sending the crew a setlist for them to listen to, do this over Spotify or Apple music. My boy over at Juniper Ridge (Garrett Bowers) is a master at this. He sends you chord charts in the right key, he sends you the setlist in its entirety, he sends you the songs. Be that guy! It’s one of the many reasons I will continue to work with him! The trick is to send more than you think you should send them as the bandleader. If you are not the leader, ask for these things. You should be given everything you need if you’re playing with someone. Does that seem overwhelming, it’s really not that hard to do. Take an hour and get it done.
6. If You Don’t Have Something Nice To Say, Don’t Say Anything At All.
Haha! This is a BIG ONE! It’s incredible how much this really hurts the person talking as well. Before we start let’s give out this trick
Dirty Dan Trick: Everyone talks shit. They’re saying things about you. I have said negative things about my favorite people to work with. It’s just human nature. So when you catch wind of something bad about you, remember that you’ve said something damning about someone else before, and next time, don’t say anything.
Everyone knows during practice that people are going to complain about somebody else. Everyone knows that Mike can be a scrub. Honestly, if you do not hear it – it’s probably because it’s about you.
Just think about how many times did you go off to someone after a practice or a show and bitch to somebody close to you.
Just sit there and think about this. I mean, really think about it before I move on. Is it every single show/practice!? Probably, and that’s OK, you deserve to be able to do that, but I also realize that everybody else is doing that, and it’s probably about you as well.
No more! Now we are becoming professional. Think about who you’re venting to, this is incredibly important. If the drummer shows up late. You should not complain to the singer about him showing up late. We all know he’s late, and it’s not your job. It looks terrible on you! It doesn’t help the drummer, and now you just made the drummer’s problem your problem and effected his attitude.
So who’s job is it then? The bandleader! They will pull the drummer to the side and tell them it is not OK that they showed up late. Stop getting involved with other people’s drama and problems.
I want to make this blatantly clear when you complain to other people you’re working with. You create a terrible environment. That is true 100% of the time. You’re not making people feel closer to you. You’re pushing everyone away, even the people that are complaining to. That is true 100% of the time. That’s what your boyfriend/girlfriend is for. That is NOT what your bandmembers are for. Your job is not to complain about the other members of your band. If you consistently find yourself wanting to complain about one specific person, kick that person out of your group. It’s easy! That’s a big sign that they are hurting the project, and you have SO MUCH going up against you, deadweight is unacceptable.
7. Be able to have a tough talk – Be prepared to have a hard conversation.
As a bandleader, your job is to have tough conversations with the members of the group. If they are not living up to what that they agreed to do, you need to talk with them! You are not helping them by not telling them and sparing their feelings.
Are people going to be upset with you, yes? That’s part of the job.
If you can not handle that, then you are not cut out to be a bandleader. That might seem harsh, but that is the God honest truth. Let me be clear that your music will always suffer, and you will never break through any sense of success because you are holding yourself back because you were not able to talk to somebody and tell them you are not cutting it.
You should always be kind! Please, for the love of God, be kind. But I guarantee that the bassist you’re playing with also knows that he did not practice the set and that he is messing it up and that if he continues to do that, he will not be able to play with you anymore. If you do not have the conversation, he will continue to skip practicing by himself and will not improve. You will always be frustrated with him, but the fault is really your own for not talking to them about that. You are in charge of making those things happen.
On the flip side, if you are a member of the group and the bandleader comes up to you and tells you you are not cutting it, that is not a personal attack. Be professional and take it for what it’s worth.
“You’re right, I did butcher that guitar solo.” Or, “You’re right, I was late, and I’m really sorry, and I will not do that again. I understand that if I continue to be late, you will not hire me again.”
If you fire back at them and give them an excuse for messing up, then you are in the wrong. I don’t care if the justification is valid; you are wrong.
If the bandleader is consistently wrong, stop playing with that person! I don’t understand how that’s a hard concept! You are not bound to the people that you know and are playing with right now! If you consistently show an amount of professionalism, you were going to move up the chain of talent.
Realize that a lot of people around right now will not be moving up with you. That’s how it goes. Everybody has a dream, very few people get that dream. And those who lack professionalism will never get that dream.
Dirty Dan Trick: When you have to have a tough talk with someone. Be true to yourself, don’t beat around the bush (I am terrible at that). If someone is dinking around, tell them you care about them as a friend, but it’s not working out as a bandmember. That’s okay! I know a lot of musicians I like, but I would never be in a band with them. Just because you play guitar doesn’t mean we should play together. Cutting someone from the group isn’t always the answer. Sometimes you just need to look someone in the eye and tell them it’s not cool that they showed up 45 minutes late, or that it’s the equivelant of sticking your middle finger to everyone in the band if you didn’t listen to any of the songs before practice. That’s really rude, and you NEED TO TALK TO THEM ABOUT IT! Don’t call someone out on their bullshit infront of everyone… that never works. Pull them aside before or after the rehearsal/show and tell them that it’s not okay that they *fill in the blank* Understand that they will probably get mad. If they do… do you really want to work with them? I mean, honestly? You have to be able to make corrections. I promise you can find someone else to fill their role. Have some self-worth. Don’t ever get heated. You are in the right here! Once you get mad back, you’re in the wrong.
8. Discipline and Practice
Dedicate the time that you need to dedicate to learning this song. If you’re the bandleader and you do not know how to play the song all the way through before the band gets there, you’re a failure. Before the first practice, you must be able to play the song from start to finish, I’m not saying 100% clean, but you must understand what this song sounds like. That takes time to be able to learn.
This is important.
You are not the person that can step into any room and play immediately. You’re not.
You are not talented enough to come into any room and play the song start to finish without practicing.
You are not the world’s greatest drummer.
You are not the greatest guitarist that’s ever played.
Just because you know music theory does not qualify you to skip out on practicing the song.
Professionals do not wing-it.
As soon as you catch yourself thinking this, you’re dead wrong. You cannot wing it at this point in your career. You have to know what you’re doing throughout the song. Stop overestimating how talented you are.
Stop thinking you’re the exception. You are not the exception.
Every musician has a different amount of time they need to dedicate to learning something. Learn how long it takes you to learn a song. If you do not have enough time to absorb the number of songs, you need to learn. Then you need to tell the bandleader, “I cannot play that show with you.”
Refer back to rule number one! Ask questions! You need to know what you’re signing up for. If the bandleader gives you more homework, then you can tell the person I cannot learn that song. I agreed to do seven songs, not eight. Please be considerate about it. But don’t let them spring something on you. That is a lack on their part.
Remember that If you have to learn 14 new songs in a week, and you cannot do that because you do not have the time it takes to learn those songs, do not say yes to the gig.
“But I’m being paid to do it, and I could use the money.”
You cannot make that money. You do not have enough time to make that money. You’re not getting paid to play there! You are getting paid to practice to be able to play there. That’s an important mentality to have.
Dirty Dan Trick: Just because you are saying “yes” to the gig does not mean you are saying yes to playing every song in the set. You can walk off stage for a couple songs! Especially because it’s not the 1960s’! Hell, bands do it all the time! Understand that “kind of knowing how to play Sweet Child O’ Mine” really means you can’t play that song. You are much better off stepping off that song. It’s okay to tell someone you can’t play one of the songs! That’s why it’s so damn important to know what you’re getting into!
9. Don’t noddle.
Just because you have a noisemaker in your hands doesn’t mean you should be making noise – it sets a weird precedent for the practice/show. Noddle all you want in the comfort of your home. Or dedicate specific time during practice to jamming. But playing in between songs is INCREDIBLY destructive to the flow of rehearsal or a live set. It is one of my biggest pet peeves.
Think about this – let’s say you only get together once a week to practice. You only get to practice for two hours because everyone is busy. ONLY TWO HOURS. And if you spend 45 seconds every time you stop and mess with the barracuda riff, that adds up quickly. You can not multitask, you’re not listening to whatever the bandleader is saying, you’re obviously not focused on the song you’re actually working on. STOP PLAYING BETWEEN SONGS! AHHH!
If you’re the bandleader, run a tight ship! Stop noddling right when it starts. Tell everyone to focus up! It’s going to happen. Stop letting it happen! Band members will be annoyed, but they will be focused, and they will greatly improve!
Dirty Dan Trick: Don’t let everyone turn the noise to 11. If you notice that you’re not getting everyone’s attention between songs, you need to stop them from playing. I find that most of the time, people will start messing around if they’re turned up really loud. It also helps if you have the setlist right in front of you, this serves as a band itinerary. Let the band warm-up, sure. But after they’re warm, keep them from noddling.
If you notice a lack of professionalism in somebody and you keep using that person and getting frustrated, that is not on them that is on you. Stop using that person even though this is a small pond; it’s easy to find somebody else that can do their job and do it really well! Professionalism does not mean you’re getting paid. But if you consistently show professionalism, you’re going to start making money really fast. I promise you will enjoy what you’re doing more as well.