Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The music business allows artists to play for a living while enjoying a never ending stream of new people, places and experiences. With hard work and some good breaks you can even make a decent living. But the competition increases as you ascend the ladder and you can't always expect to have a great gig and job security, too. Getting into a good position and keeping it require not just that you're a good player, but that you're a good person to be around.
Musicians generally tend to draw more from the side of the brain that controls music, creativity, and emotion than the side in charge of logic and critical reasoning, and while this "Right Side" brain is well suited for making music, it isn't always as good for dealing with long, grinding tours and high pressure sessions. On the road there are decisions about the air temperature of the bus/van, how loudly to play the music, and when and where to stop for food. And that's before you play the first show! Studio work also has its share of stress, with high pressure choices regarding parts, tones, takes, and mixes. Professional music can be a prickly business and will sometimes touch off internal conflicts that can build into bigger problems.
Each of us comes with our own unique conditioning and we tend to gravitate towards other people with similar sensibilities, but it's not as easy to manage the people with whom we interact in our professional lives. The music business combines players by their musical interests rather than their personal backgrounds or levels of emotional maturity, which can drive people who might not normally associate with each other into compressed relationships and limited confines.
Despite these difficulties most musicians are aware that developing a reputation as a "bad hang" is the quickest way to lose career traction. When an artist, band leader, or producer is hiring a player, no amount of musical skill can trump an icky feeling inside. If you don't work well with others it's often just as easy to take a chance on the next person down the list. If it's a good gig there will be plenty of players available to call.
So how do we toughen ourselves to a hectic and unpredictable lifestyle when we just want to dream and create? How do we keep ourselves in a positive frame of mind when we feel frustrated, angry, or fearful? The first step is to look at what type of situations make us anxious in the first place and identify the feelings those conditions trigger. Then we can examine the actions we tend to take when we start to feel uncomfortable and see if it's possible to make different decisions in the future.
As you examine the negative feelings on the job you will find that they almost always come down to anxiety, frustration, and anger. But if we look one layer beneath those feelings we see that they all lead to the same basic emotion of fear. We become anxious when we are afraid something might cause us to become upset, and concerned when faced with potential discomforts. (When will it happen? And how will we handle it when/if it does?) And then there's frustration, which tends to arise when something is already happening; usually something we are afraid may not stop. Even with something small, the idea that it's out of our control threatens us. Along with the thought that it could get worse. But the emotion that fear most often looks and feels like, however, is not anxiety, tension, or frustration, but the reaction these feelings often build into - anger.
Imagine a vicious dog, barking on the other side of a fence. Dogs don't generally go around looking for trouble but they will react if their territory or personal safety is threatened. It's important, then, to realize that when a "mean" dog barks it isn't because he feels mad. It is because he feels threatened! The same dog who protects his interests against a stranger will act very differently when playing ball with his owner. He will act "normal" when not in fear!
The nice thing about fear is that we can usually reduce the feelings down to one of two possibilities. Either we are afraid of losing something we have (security, status, comfort, possessions), or afraid of not getting something we want (food, sleep, credit, pay, quiet, etc.). Our anxieties and frustrations can come about and feel perfectly justified but once we are aware that the base emotion is fear we can end the problem at its deepest level by investigating exactly what is making us afraid in the first place.
I was doing a fast, aggressive song during a session once and the producer came in after a pass to say he loved the parts and feel but wanted to try some darker cymbals. I switched the cymbals up and we did another pass. This time he wanted to go back to the brighter cymbals. I switched them back again. At that point I realized I was starting to feel some slight bristles. The song we were tracking needed a lot of energy and I wanted to give him a passionate drum track. But I was hitting my hardest and didn't know how many attempts it was going to take. We did another pass and after a pause he asked if we could try a different snare drum. That's when I felt the bristle turned to anger. I was giving him great takes and he still wasn't sure about the tones! The fact that my feelings felt justified only made it worse. I thought about refusing to play another note until he figured out what he wanted. I thought about teaching him a lesson about how sessions are "supposed to work."
The choice is always ours to do what makes us happy, but astute players know that offending a producer is not the best route to career advancement. So instead of letting the tension mess up a working relationship I went inside myself to try and figure out where the feelings were coming from, and when I did, realized what was making me so mad… I was afraid of sucking! We were tracking a fast, powerful song that needed a lot of energy and I was worried that by the time we got the sounds worked out my energy might be sapped and my drumming might sound weak or lazy. I explained this to the producer and he understood at once. We both wanted a killer drum track. We just had to figure out how to achieve our mutual goal.
By taking an honest look at my feelings I was able to see the issue more clearly and convey my concerns in a manner the producer could appreciate. In the end, I was happy with the performance and his tone ideas sounded great. The most important thing, though, was that there were no lingering issues that might hamper us from working together on future sessions.
In the last part of this topic we will look more deeply into some of the triggers that can affect our moods, and examine a case study from the road, when a small little issue almost wrecked an entire European tour.