Hang Time (Part 1)
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Many people think professional musicians have the best job in the world and in many cases it's true. Musicians get to "play" with passionate, creative people, see the world, receive the adulation of fans, and, in some cases even become rich in the process. But because of such enticing possibilities there is a never-ending crush of skilled players jockeying for good gigs, which creates a friendly but authentic rivalry which raises the standards of professionalism for everyone involved. To take a paying job as a musician it is assumed that you can give the artist, band, or producer what they need, with ease and conviction, and on great sounding gear. These expectations don't generally faze an aspiring musician. Part of what compels players to attempt music in the first place is a shared inner confidence that filters out those who would be hampered by such demands. But there is another, often non-verbalized component to success that can keep us from your goals no matter how well we play or how great we sound. It is called our "hang factor". If we can't get a long with players off stage, it will considerably decrease the time we spend on stage.
The world of professional music can be everything you've always imagined, but not all the time. And it's normally only after a lifetime commitment that a less considered side of the business begins to emerge. Long drives, frequent waiting, schedule changes, lack of privacy, etc. Eventually the highs of playing can be interspersed with deep lulls of boredom. Exciting shows can be followed by disappointing ones, and sudden plan changes can affect sleep patterns and eating schedules. After a while the emotional ups and downs of the music business can start to sap your energy and kindness, and this is a good time to consider how you might be affecting the people around you, because bad moods tend to be the time when we are most in jeopardy of lowering our hang status.
Everyone reacts differently to surprises, disruptions, and annoyances. In an intimate endeavor like music, however, bad moods and hurt feelings are not only awkward but can stifle creativity or even stop the whole process. Everybody is a joy when things are going well but if you're no fun to hang with during the hard times you put yourself at a huge disadvantage for getting work. Players who disrupt the mood of the group don't tend to get as far or stay as long as players with better composure. The good news is that your character faults don't have to limit your career. You can turn it around and become a good hang anytime you choose. Before any damage is done.
Bigger issues quickly work themselves out but some of the less noticed offenses can also stack up in time. Here are some less discussed "Bad Hang" offenses that many people may not even realize they have been committing:
Anyone can end up late once in a while but chronic tardiness can be very draining on the people with whom you work. Not only is it rude to make others wait but to run behind schedule can be costly in the studio and create huge problems on the road. On tour, if one person is regularly late everyone else begins to delay their arrival times accordingly. Soon there becomes a "meeting time" and a "band time". Then someone shows up late for "band time" the clock is recalibrated yet again. Bands can do this until their departures are so far behind schedule that they have to skip meals or miss load-ins and sound checks on the other end. You can't control when the rest of the band will show up but you can make sure you aren't part of the problem. True professionalism is only recognized by true professionals, and those are the players you want to side with anyway.
Proper hygiene is a relative term and some people are more comfortable being dirty than others. Some people are allergic to deodorant. That's fine. Just make sure you don't stink. Likewise, consider what your socks smell like if you want to take off your shoes on long drives. Just because you spend a lot of time together doesn't mean you are with your family. And then there's tobacco. Smokers are usually polite while having a cigarette but often don't realize how bad they smell directly after the act. An equal offense is wearing thick aftershave, cologne, or perfume. One time I was on an overnight drive with a player whose Petrulli oil had so permeated the bus that I had a dream I was at Woodstock! Traveling with a band tends to cram players into close confines for long periods of time. If people can smell you for more than a whiff or two, you are likely overextending your boundaries.
If your musical self-worth is too great to accept direction you are limiting your options and probably driving people crazy at the same time. Temporary feelings of superiority are not worth the separation they create. It's more fun to have a good working relationship than some unnecessary illusion of respect. I once did a tour with a horn player who operated on a different level than the rest of the band. One day he complained about having to step over a guitar case to get in the van. When somebody suggested it might have been easier just to put the case inside rather than step over it, he replied the immortal words: "I don't do gear." We never brought him out again after that but in a way he never stopped traveling with us. The sentence "I don't do gear." went on to become a popular inside joke, usually spoken right before load in/out, or whenever someone was perceived to be acting in an egocentric manner.
As a wise sage once said, "Discomfort is like gas. Keep it in and it affects you. Let it out and it affects everyone." I was in a band that booked a short East Coast tour in the middle of winter once. Even before leaving we could see it was routed straight into a storm the locals were respectfully calling a "Nor'Easter". Between the anticipated cold, delays, and traffic snarls this was destined to be a challenging trip. So on the first drive we decided to have a contest as a band by trying to go the entire run without complaining. It was quite a test and there were many close calls. One night we unloaded our gear at the back door of a venue in the freezing wind and snow only to discover that nobody was there to let us in. Our van and trailer were already gone to look for parking and we were forced to stand in a windblown alley until someone came to open the door. As the snow piled up on our cases somebody yelled "Damn!" We thought we had him but he added, "Damn refreshing, this brisk air!" As it got colder one line built on the next and soon we were all cursing loudly at how "effing incredible" it all was. Nobody wants to be around a whiner. It is unattractive and unproductive. If you don't think you complain much anyway try banning it completely as an option. Every little whimper you overcome will be a sign of progress.
Sulkers are silent whiners, which is even less acceptable. At least whiners have an opinion and the courtesy to let you know what they're mad about. Sulkers suck the energy out of a room like a seizure. To sit in the corner with your arms crossed and your head on your chin is only permitted as a sleeping position. It is important to remember that just because your mouth is closed doesn't mean you aren't still communicating.
I was in a band once that ordered some expensive tour posters and when they arrived we found an obvious misspelling in the copy. It was too late to change the error or get a refund and I was filled with self righteous indignation. Never mind the fact that I hadn't helped design the poster, proofread it, or seen to it's printing. I hadn't bothered to be involved at all but still felt compelled to drill for answers on how such an oversight could have occurred. I was more interested in who was to blame than how to fix the problem. It's important to remember that the business of music often requires you to take care of many details. Pointing and pouting about the hurdles without offering a solution doesn't change the situation for the better. You can't be a team player while throwing grenades at your teammates.
Most professional musicians are able to overcome the small differences they may have with their band mates and go on to enjoy great working relationships but it never hurts to take an honest look at your behaviors and attitudes. Nobody is perfect but if you are at least mindful of the aspects within your control you will have much better odds of getting along with others. Most of the problems that arise are easily surmountable when analyzed from a different perspective. Part 2 of this topic will discuss a few of the factors that may cause a musician to lose their poise, and explain how you can process the pressures and strains of music life so that they won't give you (and the people near you) as much grief.