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September, 2013

Professionals and Amateurs

by Webmaster

In 2004, the first year of this web site, I wrote a column on Professionalism. At that time I was in several bands. I've been lucky to work with some consumate professionals, who taught me what to do on- and off-stage. I was also lucky enough to be in some bands that taught me what NOT to do on- and off-stage.

Fast-forward. The subject of professionalism has come up again.

I recently booked bands for a large event. Music wasn't the primary focus of the event, but it was provided for a day and a half. I started lining up bands 6 months ahead of time. I went to the people I know, and gave them the first opportunity. I wanted a large variety of music on the stage—something for everyone.

Some bands agreed to play, provided all necessary information, confirmed their times, showed up and performed brilliantly. They consider themselves as professionals and conducted themselves with a high degree of professionalism.

The band that saved the day was Founders: Bands, Singers, Songwriters, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Places to Hear Acoustic Music, Locations, Venues, Clubs, Festivals, Business and Services Supporting Acoustic Music, Music Stores, Musical Instruments, Music Teachers Bob's Basement Band. They were the last band of the day, and I asked them to show up early because their start-time was not set in stone. They showed up earlier than I requested, and wound up playing for almost twice the time they were told. I heard no complaints from any of them. They thanked me for the opportunity to play. And, they were the hit of the event!

Some bands volunteered to play, ignored requests for necessary information, cancelled, opted back in, requested day and time changes, created problems for the sound people and the stage manager, and performed adequately, at best. The stage manager specifically asked me to not book certain bands again the following year. There are some I won't book again. They were just too much trouble.

I have to admit, I'm not a fan of kids performing music. At the last minute, we got a request for a teenage boy to do a set on stage, after we had agreed to book only bands with at least 3 people, for the necessary stage presence, and the schedule was full. We gave him an early set, during a pre-opening event. He was a complete professional on stage, in every sense of the word, certainly suitable for a prime-time spot.

About 10 days later, I was part of songwriters' performance at a big venue. It had a lot going for (prestige) but a lot going against it (outdoors, late night mid-week, competing with other events). I warned the other people in the group to not have high expectations: it could rain, the crowd could be small, the sound could be bad, we could be on very late. I was told to stop jinxing the gig.

I believe that our actions and words have power to influence. In this case, I didn't intend for bad things to happen. I just wanted the group to not have high expectations.

Well, it didn't rain. But, the crowd was small, there was sound bleedover from the main stage, the sound on stage wasn't good, and we were on late. The amateurs in the group complained about the sound, about having to provide their own stools, about the lack of organization, the lack of water provided by the venue. You name it, they complained. The self-appointed leader of the group (a self-admitted control freak) decided to end our portion of the show a half-hour early than our given end-time, leaving the stage dark and quiet when there was supposed to be music. He did not discuss this with us, and argued with the man who booked us. He just broke in, announced "one more song" and ended our show.

The professionals showed up, played their songs, and gave a good show. But, the professional performances were tainted by the attitude of the amateurs.

Will that venue bring us back? If I were running it, I wouldn't. If a band left me with dead air for a time I was responsible for providing music, I'd never book them again.

I've been discussing this with other professional musicians. The consensus: Professionals accept the constraints of the gig, show up and do their best work. Amateurs complain, blame others, give excuses, and do not do their best work. Professionals know that their performance at a gig could determine their booking future gigs (either by that same venue or a listener). Amateurs don't think about future gigs. Professionals have careers. Amateurs have play-dates.

OK. Sometimes we have off-days. We are sick, suffering from lack of sleep, overbooked and unable to prepare sufficiently, or dealing with serious personal problems. It happens. The difference between professionals and amateurs, under these conditions, is not talent as much as attitude. Do you take pride in your work? Do you want to do the best possible job under all conditions? Then you are probably a professional. Do you sulk when you don't get to do things your way? Do you blame other people / conditions when you don't do a good job? You're probably an amateur.

And, yes, sometimes thing happen that interfere with your performance. Sound systems have problems. Electricity goes out. Outdoor gigs get bad weather. An accident makes you late. You can adapt and make the performance the best it can be or you can give up and let it ruin your performance. Forgot the words? Forgot the chords? Keep going until it comes back to you, or stop, make a joke of it, and go on to the next song. And, get over it.

An audience will forgive accidents. It will forgive mistakes. It will NOT forgive a performer who has a bad time on stage.

Years ago, a bandmate and I played at a venue that was next to a railroad crossing. Periodically, a train would come through, blowing it's whistle and drowning us out. We could have pretended the train wasn't there, or tried to compete with train. We decided to make a list of train songs ahead of time. When the train drowned us out, we stopped the song we were doing, and as soon as we could, we started a train song from our list. We made the train part of our show. The audience loved it.

Terry Dalton ran open mics. Harry Tuft runs a monthly open mic at Swallow Hill. Harry is and Terry was professional. But they like(d) to give amateurs a place to start. Events like these are appropriate places where amateurs can perform and learn. Everybody has to start somewhere. You can't practice being on stage without actually being on stage. In that regard, every performance is a rehearsal.

For some people, a professional attitude is built into everything they do. There is pride in doing a job well. For others, a professional attitude has to be learned. Mentors can help. Books and articles can help. Observation can help.

"A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it." — Alistair Cooke, contributed by Warren Floyd

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