You’ve GOT To Play Live As Soon As PossibleNov 15, 2022
When I was in college, I had the great fortune of working with an amazing composer and jazz ensemble director named Stan Gosek. Stan has nurtured multiple generations of musicians, as well as compose hundreds of songs from simple pop tunes to the most complex big band charts ever written (think Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Frank Zappa…then hit it with adrenaline!).
One of his student bands was actually the last group to record a few length album at George Martin’s AIR Studios in Montserrat before it was destroyed in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo. Many think the Rolling Stones album Steel Wheels was the last, but it wasn’t. Stan’s Leeward Rendezvous album (credited as Solid State and the Statesingers) was recorded a few days after the Stones left the island.
I should know…I was there!
Imagine being 19 years old and looking at your monitor mixer in the grandest studio in the world and seeing the names Mick, Keith, Woody, Bill and Charlie!! Quite a heady moment, indeed. My favorite bands of the 80’s, everyone from Duran Duran to The Police to McCartney himself, had platinum awards decorating the halls. Too bad I hadn’t learned to be a Practice Warrior yet, because I’m not too proud of my playing on that recording. Fortunately for me, I dare you to produce a copy of that album!!
But let’s get back to Stan The Man! I hope everyone in the world can find a musical mentor as we had in Stan. He pushed us. He gave us slack (enough rope to hang ourselves sometimes!). He made us want to play his music perfectly, which was a mean feat for a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears music students, most of whom would not even pursue a music career.
Stan had a remarkable and most unusual method of auditioning the members of his ensemble each August; he would get every potential musician in a rehearsal room and…well…rehearse! Yep. He’d pull together 5 saxophonists, 4 trombonists, 5 trumpet…ists(?), and a full rhythm section (piano, bass, guitar, drums and percussion) and go through a song. Then, he’d ask the musicians waiting around to substitute for the other players, and he’d go over the song again with these new musicians. To say auditioning in front of your competition was a nerve-wracking situation is an understatement to say the least. It did, however, allow the cream to rise to the top, as the more capable and experienced players proved their mettle and earned their spot. I’m not ashamed to say that it took me until my sophomore year to earn one of those spots.
This process would take four rehearsals to complete. Since the band rehearsed twice a week, this meant the final band only would congeal after two weeks.
Stan would always book our first full-length performance two weeks later!
This meant that the actual, finalized group would only have two weeks (four rehearsals) to learn how to play some of the sickest instrumental music we’d most likely ever see. I think it was my second year in the band that I had the nerve to ask Stan what the hell was wrong with him!
“Stan, why on earth do you have us play our first gig only a month after the first audition? We’ve only had our actual band together for two weeks!”
Now, here’s the sentence that I would come to regret saying, but resulted in one of the greatest lessons this great man ever taught me about music.
I said “We aren’t READY to do a live show in front of an audience!!”
Stan smiled at me through his hip-dude goatee and kind eyes and laid a truth bomb on me that I’ve carried through my whole life.
“Christopher” he said “You’ve GOT to play live as soon as possible.”
Full of youth and piss and vinegar, I held my ground. “But Stan” I pleaded “We aren’t ready. We need a few more weeks at least!”.
Stan laid it out. “Look, nearly every high school and college big band rehearses for three months until they finally put on a Christmas show, right? I will absolutely guarantee you that they won’t play that concert ANY BETTER than we play our show two weeks from now”.
“How is that possible?” I asked, my voice lowering to a soft cadence as all youthful arrogance and pride got reduced to child-like bewilderment.
“It’s the audience” he explained. “Playing in front of an audience is a totally different experience than being in this rehearsal room. The sound is different. The energy is different. The feeling is different. Your nerves are different. Your awareness is different. You’re more self-conscious. You’re more anxious. You’re more apt to make mistakes.”
“In other words” he said, winding up for his game-winning pitch “you have to play in front of an audience as soon as possible. You have to rehearse the live experience. Bands who wait three months and play their first show in mid-December don’t go through the experience we do in late September. We are rehearsing a different skill than just playing the music. We are rehearsing playing the music…LIVE!”
…and boy was he right! When we played our first show just two weeks after finalizing the group, it was a rough experience for sure. But it wasn’t the performing of the music that was rough; it was the performing of the music in front of other people that was the REALLY challenging part.
Stan would have us play anywhere and everywhere he could during the semester. We’d do everything from a three-day, 3-show-a-day tour around New York state to little noon concerts in the student union. By the time we got around to our holiday show, we already had at least two dozen gigs under our belts. Our band was firing on ALL cylinders, and we’d blow a hole in the sky during that final Christmas gig. I would always think, “What if this was our first live concert of the semester? I think we’d have sucked!!”
We would have. Stan knew this, but I didn’t. But now I do, and it was a powerful and fruitful lesson. During my long career (30 years and counting), that wisdom of getting the live experience under your belt as soon as possible has served me well. It was lesson I began imparting as well, whether I was encouraging a 5-year old to perform in her first recital, a jaded teenager to jam in front of his friends or a newly-retired adult to get up during that open mic night and let it rip!
No matter where you are in your musical development, I say this with whole-hearted abandon and full-throated excitement: You’ve GOT to get in front of an audience as soon as possible!!
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