In a pro-career spanning 40 years and 5 countries, Cincinnati-born jazz guitarist Greg Chako has released ten albums and played countless shows around the world. His bi-weekly column, "Notes From The Desk Of A Jazz Guitarist” shares his expert tips on becoming a better player and person.
Things They Typically Don’t Teach You in Music Schools
Getting good on your instrument is, to a large extent, a solitary endeavor. You will spend hours upon hours alone getting your technique together. When you’re dedicated to learning your instrument at a high level, you are likely not out there in public meeting people and developing your social skills. And I can tell you from personal experience (as a former DMA student at The Eastman School of Music) that they don’t seem to count social acumen among the many prerequisite skills required for entry at any of the great music conservatories.
But being really good on your instrument may not necessarily lead to success at the jam session or as part of your local music gigging scene. That’s because when you’re trying to be active on the playing scene, you have to deal with other people directly, both onstage and off, and that involves communicating well in person as opposed to communicating solely through your instrument.
Playing with other people is something you cannot easily perfect in the privacy of your own home, even if you use quality play-along recordings like Jamey Aebersold's. When you play with other people in a public setting, you’ll discover that it is completely different than the practicing you’re doing at home. Having to manage your emotions with all that is potentially happening onstage with a live band, and playing in front of a live audience, is a challenge to ultimately master.
But, if you are one of those guitarists like me, who once practiced for hours upon hours in solitary, then the good news is that the remedy for shyness and timidity in public playing situations is the very same as how we improved our instrument skills: PRACTICE!
You need to practice getting out there and interacting with people!
I have lived in multiple cities and countries. Well before my various moves to a new place, I went on to the internet to search for the “scene” I hoped to be a part of. I sent emails in advance of my arrival. I made phone calls, what sales people call a “cold-call,” because we don’t know the person we’re calling. Many people are not comfortable making cold-calls, much less to willingly interact with total strangers in person. But these are things we have to get comfortable with if we want to gain the all success as a player that we can get.
My own process was to do the advance research in order to learn who the power brokers were, where the performance venues were, and most importantly, who the key players on the scene were. There’s much we can learn from researching online. There’s more you can learn by calling and speaking to people on the phone. But of course, we learn the most through in-person interaction.
Once you know who the players are and where the venues are, go out to hear them perform. Leave your instrument at home (or in the car). Just be an audience member. Observe what the band is doing, how they are interacting with the audience, what songs they are playing, how long the soloists solo, etc. If it’s a steady gig or a jam session, then it’s likely that they’ll be a number of songs that they’ll play every week (I know I do), and it’s to your benefit to learn as much about their repertoire (the titles, tempos, keys) as you possibly can, before you commit yourself to interacting with them. Assess for yourself where you are with your playing skills compared to them. Be realistic with your assessment.
Like a businessman who is about to interview in-person for a company he knows nothing about, he learns as much about that company as possible before the in-person interview. By observing performers as an audience member, you are sort of doing “in-the-field” research about what it takes to be part of that playing scene. That research can help you to avoid ineffective behaviors and best inform your future actions.
Once you’ve done your homework, so to speak, you have to introduce yourself and talk to people. Be humble and sincere. Ask questions to find out what you can about the local scene. Let it be known that you’re keen to play, learn, and meet other like-minded payers.
Though some musicians will be less forthcoming than others, many (including myself) like talking about the musical scene they’re involved in. For one thing, we players on the scene never know where our next gig or our next student is coming from, so generally speaking, it’s our habit to be friendly and approachable to everyone we meet on our gigs.
I can’t tell you how many more gigs and students I have gotten simply by reaching out and asking for help with contacts, and by being pro-active in talking to people in general, be they listeners in the crowd at one of my shows, or someone I’m line with at the grocery store! It’s called effective networking and it’s not something they necessarily teach you about in music school.