I had finished my series of blog posts on 'The Reliable Musician' - the skills and qualities that musicians need (aside from playing) to get on well when playing with other people. However, a few conversations with people about how we can actually 'teach' or pass on these skills have prompted me to write a bit more. The qualities and habits I've written about have been described by various people as 'common sense' but also as 'unwritten rules' or 'unspoken agreements' - how do we encourage our students and the other musicians we come in contact with to behave in these helpful ways?
I suppose writing a series of blog posts was part of my attempt to explain the behaviours that I think make for a good, reliable musician - behaviours that I've seen the positive results of (and the problems that the opposite can cause). I can only hope that people visit my blog and/ or see them pop up on social media and find them useful. If there's a sense that these are some sort of secret, hidden rules that only (some) musicians know about though, maybe we need to state them more clearly.
We can talk to our students about these things - we don't need to present them with a list of rules for going to rehearsals, but maybe if it's the first time they've joined an ensemble, there's no harm in reminding them that they need to take a pencil, might need a music stand etc. It's worth us talking about our own rehearsals/ playing work and how we prepare for these. We can model good behaviour by responding to their enquiries promptly and talking about/ demonstrating how we work on the music we need to practise.
We can encourage good habits by stating our expectations of our students and ensemble members - if we're arranging an event we can give out information sheets, or emails, reinforced by verbal instructions if needed, about what people need to bring and how early they need to be there. We can give clear directions, such as needing to respond with availability by a certain date, or what people need to do if they can't make a rehearsal.
We could talk more openly about the behaviours that make us want to work with people, and be less tolerant of the ones that don't. But it can be difficult to challenge someone's behaviour, especially if it's gone unchallenged for a long time. Sometimes musicians will be 'not invited back' if people find them unreliable, but often the link between the unreliability and the lack of future work isn't made clear - and how does anyone learn from that? Do we worry that people will be upset, or that they'll be angry and defensive if we tell them what the problem is?
Musicians are renowned for worrying about their reputation - which is usually based on how 'good' they are, but perhaps they need to worry more about their character - taking this to be their habits and behaviours around working with other people. And if we get frustrated by the way people behave, then we need to think about the best ways to influence that behaviour and somehow teach/ explain/ demonstrate how their habits affect other people, and therefore inevitably themselves.
I think this is the last part of this series, although I'll probably hit 'post' and think of a whole load of other things to say!
Most of the qualities I've written are really about awareness and putting other people first.
Getting to know what's 'normal' and expected for the group you're playing with is really important when it comes to working well with people. Observe and ask. Is the conductor open to group discussions during the rehearsal or do they want you to save any questions for the break? What's the atmosphere like - is it full of jokes, or are you expected to take things very seriously? How do other people behave in the group? If you want to fit in, you may need to modify how you behave - of course, you might decide that you the culture of that group doesn't suit you, and that's fair enough too, but you can only find this out by observing and being aware of what's going on around you.
Generally, musical training encourages self-awareness - recognising your habits and what you're doing when you play your instrument. I recently read this article which describes two types of self-awareness - internal (which is knowing yourself well, probably what we normally refer to as self-awareness) and external, which is to do with being aware of how others see us and how are actions affect them. This article suggests that being good at both makes people good at 'leading' and I reckon a combination of the two makes for a musician who is good to work with too.
Make it about them not you
Most of these qualities are really about putting other people first, about not making yourself the centre of everything. About calmly getting on with the 'job' (or acting calm, even if you're not feeling it) and not making a fuss. If you're playing in a group, you're not the most important person, nobody is. If it's just you and an accompanist, you're still a team. Even if you're playing solo, completely on your own, if there's any sort of audience there, you're not the most important one. But all of the above habits are good for you too - being organised, informed, and on time makes things far less stressful, and they make you the sort of person who is valued, respected, and asked to do things.
Nobody expects you to be perfect, and you will have to odd 'off' day where you accidentally double-book yourself, forget your music stand, don't leave enough time to get to the venue, or inexplicably play like you haven't practised even when you've done loads, but if you're generally reliable, people know that's an off day and not your usual style. If you're exceptionally highly skilled at playing, you might be able to get away without doing some of these things - you could be late, demanding, difficult and diva-ish - but even then, imagine how much better it would be to be brilliant, reliable and friendly - what a combination!
I'm borrowing this phrase from a friend of mine who uses the word 'cheerful' a lot - not a word I had heard or used a great deal before I met her, but one which I now think should be used more! I don't mean you have to be relentlessly happy all the time, but constant complaining and muttering about things is really off-putting and disrespectful to the people around you. If you have a problem with something musical and someone can help, ask about it! If you have an issue with something else to do with the group, find an appropriate time to raise it with whoever can do something about it.
If you don't like the music, well, that's something you have to put up with sometimes - if you like the majority of what a group plays, then try to see the odd 'horrible' piece as a learning experience. If you don't like the majority of what a group plays, then you'd need to have another very good reason for carrying on playing with them (maybe you're getting paid huge amounts of money and that's more important to you at this point of time). Grumbling about it isn't going to change how much you like it.
Despite the photo above, a comedy grumble about a tricky key signature is usually acceptable. It is fine to explain if something is difficult on your instrument - a group of flautists I play with has a non-flautist as a conductor, and he's very open to learning about the peculiarities of the flute and why we are struggling with something in particular! Explanation is nearly always much more useful than complaint or excuses (more on this below).
You should apologise if you're (occasionally, unavoidably) late for rehearsal. You should apologise if you accidentally knock over your colleague's music stand or hit them on the head with a piccolo (if you're doing these things deliberately, you probably shouldn't be there). You really don't need to apologise if you play a wrong note or make another musical mistake - for one thing, everyone does it. For another, there's a chance that nobody noticed anyway, and by apologising, you're just drawing attention to it. If they did notice, they already know about it - if they think it needs to be pointed out, they'll point it out ("remember that's a B flat in that bar"). If they think it was just one of those slips that happens to everyone sometimes, they won't mention it, so you don't need to mention it either. Everyone has bad days, and everyone knows that everyone else has bad days, so if you're having a bad day, just do your best, try to remain as cheerful as possible and don't make a huge show of what a bad day you're having.
Often apologies sound like justifications - "I know what I'm doing, really, I just didn't do it that time". Instead of telling people you know what you're doing, it's far more convincing to show that you know what you're doing, by doing your best to concentrate, practise and improve. It's fine (and indeed a good idea) to acknowledge things you need to work on - say you're in a quintet and you're trying to figure out part of a piece, and you know that it'll fit together better once you've mastered those semiquavers, then it's good to say "I know my timing is a bit off there, and I need to practise those semiquavers before next time" - it shows awareness, both of what you're doing and how it affects the whole (then do go and practise that bit for next time).
Don't make excuses
The same goes for making excuses - "I haven't had time to practice this week" (that will either be obvious, or it won't, either way, you don't really need to tell everyone). As discussed in the last post, explanations are OK, if they are helpful - if you tell the conductor "my flute has suddenly broken and I can't play any Fs" that is possibly useful, as they then know there's a technical issue and there's no point in replaying that bar with all the Fs in it this evening, because no number of repetitions is going to make it sound right.
This isn't to say you shouldn't offload to your friends if there's something bothering you about a group - or you had a bad tone day or you just can't stand a piece of music that you're having to play - that can be very therapeutic and a good idea, indeed a better idea than muttering behind your stand when you should be listening to the conductor. Playing music isn't going to be completely fun all the time, and it's unlikely that a group is going to completely suit you 100% of the time. If you're unhappy a lot in a particular group, then maybe it isn't right for you. If you can cheerfully accept that there will be bits that are challenging, find that fulfilling and get on with what you're there to do, things will be much happier all round.
So you've got yourself organised to get to rehearsals regularly, and on time. What now?
Listen to recordings of the pieces you're rehearsing to help you get to know them. This really helps them stick in your head, and can often answer questions that you have about how something should sound. It helps rehearsals run more smoothly if everyone knows what the outcome is meant to be.
Listen to other people - both musically and in what they're telling/ asking/ suggesting/ discussing that you do. Listen for instructions about what you're doing next, which bar you need to play from, and how you need to try to play it. Listen when other people are being given advice or directions, because these could apply to you too, and they might affect how you play your part. If the conductor asks one section to play from bar 126, there's a good chance they'll subsequently ask everyone to play from the same place, so listen to that bar number even if you aren't playing this time through. Listen to how your part fits in - is it supposed to blend in or stick out? Listen to how other people are playing - do you need to match them or sound different?
Listen to people talking about their experiences and learn from them.
As mentioned in the previous post, I think a diary is vital - either online or paper, or both. Put things in it, soon after you know about them. Check it. If you forget to put things in your diary, how about setting an alarm to remind you once a week (or however often is useful) to sit down and update it?Same thing for checking it regularly. Stop trying to remember when everything is happening, and get it all out of your brain onto paper (or virtual paper).
Write notes in rehearsals, whether it's on the music itself (in pencil, or the librarian will scowl at you), or on a post-it note or in the back of your diary if it's not relating to a particular bar/ note but something you need to remember more generally.
Other people's annotations on the sheet music can be useful too. You might find helpful hints that people have worked out for how to play a particular trill, for example. However, be aware that old scribblings might not be relevant to your group's (or this particular) performance - don't trust someone else's markings that you're not doing the repeats, unless you know that's definitely true!
Obviously you have to read the music, but also read any instructions you've been sent/ given. Most groups communicate by email these days, or they might have a members web page with dates etc on. Read them. Reply if a reply is needed (and by the date you're asked to reply by). Ask about things you need to know that haven't been covered, but otherwise read, note down what you need to, and don't be that person texting the night before to ask if there's a rehearsal when you can check your emails/ the website/ your diary. Sometimes you'll be asked to fill in some sort of form (e.g. Doodle Poll) to conform your availability or attendance - unless you have some sort of technical difficulty doing this, then follow the instructions and fill in the poll (because if you don't, the person managing it then has to collate information from emails and texts and things people have said to them in passing, instead just seeing it all together in the poll... can you tell this one is a bit of a personal plea?!).
Extra musician bonus points are given for reading ABOUT the music you're playing - what do you know about it? Why was it written? What period of history is it from? How does this affect how it's played? This doesn't have to be extensive research in a library archive, even a quick glance through a Wikipedia article can help!
And to help you do all this... be prepared
Being prepared by practising goes without saying, I hope. But just in case it doesn't... if you have access to the music, then at least some level of familiarity of it is extremely helpful. It may be that your group does a lot of sight-reading (we do at flute choir, it's one of the aims to help people improve their sight-reading skills!), but if you're expected to practise outside rehearsals, then do. Don't be the person who is obviously only reading their part once a week (and yes, it is obvious), whilst everyone else is squeezing in five minutes a day and getting to know the piece.
For rehearsals - take a music stand - unless you're specifically told that you don't need to take a stand, you probably need to take a stand. Take your instrument(s). Take a pencil. Take your music - I've got a tray near my front door with all the music I'm currently working on, so if it's Tuesday and I'm going to orchestra rehearsal, I can grab the folder with my orchestra parts in. If you tend to forget things, write yourself a list and stick it to the front door and check you've got everything before you leave the house. If you think you'll forget to check the list, set a reminder on your phone for five minutes before you need to leave the house, to remind you to look at the list.
If you know that instructions are likely to come by email, check your emails regularly. It's all about getting into habits that make it easier for you to turn up and do a good job.
The first part of my series on the skills that make you the sort of person people want to make music with talked about being on time. This second part leads on from that, and can be summed up simply as 'be there'.
Even worse than being late is just not turning up without letting anyone know. If you say you're going to do something, do it. If you later find you can't do it, then let people know as soon as you can, and if you not being there is going to cause a problem, offer a solution if you possibly can, such as finding someone else to replace ('dep' for) you at a rehearsal. As with normally being on time, if you're normally dependable, people understand that you might occasionally need to be absent through illness, an unexpected situation at home, an occasional accidental double-booking, or something else that comes up where you need to make a decision whether to attend. Even nice things, like a holiday that means you miss one of the weekly rehearsals you go to, are not generally a problem if you let people know well in advance. If you regularly agree to do things and then don't turn up, that is a certain recipe for not being asked back, asked to do other things or recommended to other people.
The thing is that rehearsals are not just about learning your part - in fact, that's what practising at home is for. They're about learning to play together as a group, and how the piece works as a whole. They're about finding out how your conductor/ group specifically wants to play that piece and for all the little bits of information that you pick up along the way. They're about getting help with those bits that you can't quite figure out on your own. Even if you can play it all easily, the other people around you also need to get used to playing with you and hearing how it sounds as a whole.
I think there are two things that help you do manage to 'turn up' - the first is keeping a diary. 'Keeping' a diary as in actually writing in it (or using an electronic one). Put appointments in as soon as you can - I generally put everything in my Google calendar immediately, then sit down once a week or so to update my paper diary. Whatever works for you, but don't rely on scraps of paper or your memory. However good your memory is, writing it down helps to reinforce it, and it gives you space in your brain to think about more important things like what to have for tea. Of course, if you put appointments in a diary, you do then need to remember to look at it, so get into a pattern of checking it regularly. If it's an electronic one you can usually set it to remind you of things too, so if you're likely to forget to check it, you can get it to beep at you and tell you to go to rehearsal in two hours' time. The time it takes to set all this up is worth the time - and hassle - it saves later.
The second thing is not over-committing yourself. Musicians (especially when they're training/ at university etc) are often told that they need to say 'yes' to everything - don't turn down an opportunity. You might never get the chance again! Or they get swept away with enthusiasm and want to do EVERYTHING. The trouble with that is that you can end up too busy, things start to clash with each other, and you get so worn out that you can't manage to do any of them well. It is tricky to get the right balance for and work out what to prioritise, and I fear that perhaps you do have to reach the point of doing too much before you realise that you need to let some things go. If you start to find yourself feeling over-stretched and letting people down because you've got too much happening, then you probably need to scale (musical pun not intended, but since it's there I'll leave it in) it back a bit.
However, people do and will understand, and generally respect other people's decisions to prioritise one thing over another, whether that's a one-off or in the long term. They might be disappointed if you don't choose or stop coming to their 'thing' but if they get huffy/ rude about it, I'd suggest that maybe you don't want to work with them anyway. They don't need to know all the details and it's fine to turn down an offer with a simple "I've got a prior commitment that day, but would be interested if you need someone again in future". If you can recommend someone else who might be able to do it instead, that's even better and often much appreciated.
Yes, sometimes the decisions are difficult. You might not get the chance to do exactly the same thing again, but actually, I'm not sure that many 'opportunities' are so life-changing that it'll drastically damage your musical career (whatever that means to you) by not taking them. On the other hand, being known as a person who reliably turns up is definitely a good thing.
I've had lots of conversations recently about the qualities that make the sort of musician that other musicians want to work with (for work read any sort of musical activity that you want to take part in, paid or not). Being able to play your instrument goes without saying, but there are other qualities that are just as important. In fact, many people I've spoken to would rather work with someone who demonstrates these qualities and behaviours, above someone who is technically 'better' at their instrument. I've also been reading a lot about letting go of the stereotype of the 'artist' as someone messy, disorganised, unhealthy, self-destructive (see Elizabeth Gilbert's 'The Artist's Way' for interesting discussions on this). For most people, you'll do better work and get more work if you're organised and disciplined, rather than believing that you can 'get away' with not being these things because you're in a creative environment.
I started writing a blog post about these qualities, but it got rather long, so I've turned it into a series instead. Lots of these are things that you don't need to be inherently good at, you basically just need to decide to do them and, well, do them. It might take a bit of practice if you're not used to doing them, but you're a musician, so you know what practice is all about, right? Decide what you want the outcome to be, do the stuff you need to do to reach that outcome, repeat it often until it becomes habit. I'm often told that I'm 'so organised' but I don't think I'm a naturally organised person - it's just that I see the benefits of being organised massively outweighing any advantages to being disorganised!
No. 1 - Be on time
There's an unwritten rule that if a rehearsal 'starts' at a certain time, you should be there about fifteen minutes before that time, in order to set up and be ready to start playing at the start time. I remember being told about this by a teacher years ago when I went to my first youth orchestra rehearsal. Obviously, travelling can be unpredictable, so if you can aim to be there a bit before that in case of delays, even better - you can always have a wander around outside if you're there before anyone else. I speak from many years of being early for things and having to wander around for ten minutes. If you're always early, and you help to put the chairs out, you get extra musician bonus points (which don't come with any rewards, except the recognition that you are a prompt and helpful person, and hugely appreciated for it). Likewise, if you have a break in rehearsal, be back promptly at the end of it - the social aspect of playing in a group is very important, but if you know you've got fifteen minutes break, then make sure you fit in your cup of tea and your visit to the loo well before you need to be ready to play again, rather than chatting for 14 and a half minutes then rushing around and being late back.
If you usually arrive in plenty of time, then people will be far more accepting of the odd occasion when you are late. If you're late every single week, that's annoying and doesn't tend to make people think favourably towards you.
There are exceptions to any rule, of course, and once you've been (early) to the first rehearsal you can figure out what happens in each particular group. For example, my flute choir 'starts' at 10am, but the building only opens just before this, so it's a relaxed start to rehearsals - get there as close to 10 as you can, get set up, get started once most people are there (usually about quarter past). It's also fine for people to only come to part of a rehearsal, but that won't work for every group. Get to know what is the norm for your group. If you know in advance that you have an unavoidable appointment, let someone know you'll be getting there later (and check that's OK). If you get held up in traffic, hopefully you'll have someone's number so you can text and let them know. If you genuinely can't get there until right on the start time every week, then it's probably worth mentioning it to the group leader - I reckon most people would rather know that someone is keen but can't get out of work any earlier than think that you're just not enthusiastic enough to get off the sofa in time.
The arguments I hear against this are predominantly a) "I'm rubbish at being on time" and b) "but it's supposed to be fun!". If you tend to get distracted and forget what time it is, then end up not leaving on time, set an alarm! The benefits - not being the person that everyone else is rolling their eyes at as you squeeze through to your seat, knocking over music stands on the way, and also being seen as a reliable musician that people want to work with - are well worth it. And yes, music is generally meant to be an enjoyable, satisfying thing to do ('fun' is a tricky word, often suggesting the opposite to working hard and being disciplined, but that's a whole other discussion), but I'd argue that it's more enjoyable if you're not stressing yourself and other people by turning up late. You get the best out of the rehearsal by being settled for the start, and being there for the whole thing. If there's a conductor, they're happiest when everyone turns up on time, and a happy conductor is definitely better than an unhappy one!
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!