Monday, October 15, 2012

Overcoming Obstacles

Squids Travels: October 15th, 2012

In the music and entertainment business I've learned that the hard part isn't doing the actual gig. It's juggling options quickly to solve a problem or navigating your way through whatever obstacles come your way. This is the part they don't tell you! Great musician? Congrats. Skilled engineer and think you'd make a fine producer? That's nice but it's only part of it. If you can't think on your toes and solve problems as they come you can pretty much forget about doing it professionally. That's what I've learned in my years working in music. I had to learn it early on because when you get an opportunity to do a big gig you are thrown right into the water and it's sink or swim. I'll tell you about that in a moment but first let me tell you what reminded me of this today.

This morning I was faced with a possible cancelation of a session I have booked at the end of this UK trip coming up this month. I didn't panic even though I already have the studio, the hotels and the engineer (who happens to be Alan Parsons!!!!) all set! I even extended my stay one more day so I could do this session. So instead of freaking out I calmly examined the problem and came up with some reasonable solutions. I had to let go of my expectations and not be attached to the outcome. Whatever happens happens. You have to give some room for things to flow the way they naturally will and you can't force things no matter how much you've set your heart on something. What will be will be. Fortunately in the end the solution turned out to be even better than the original plan. Now instead of it being one session that almost got canceled it's going to be two sessions with one done during this trip and another at a later date to cover the rest! Whew! So this morning started off with uncertainty and with some thinking on my toes I was able to turn that around into solid confirmations with some extra icing on the cake!

Take a little trip back!

Now let's go back to December 1993... young Squids in LA doing all sorts of unusual gigs including this big one that came along!

One of the first times I learned these valuable lessons about what other skills you need to have besides being good at what you 'think' your job is (ie. playing your instrument well if you're a musician) was when I was part of Barbara Streisands's New Years Eve concert event at the MGM Grand in Vegas 1993/94. I was hired to play keyboards from the side of the stage but instead of playing actual music with the 70 piece orchestra conducted by Marvin Hamlich I was off on my own with a little TV monitor you can see in the picture above that showed me everything Barbara was doing in the acting sequences in between the music numbers. My job was to trigger the sound of actors' pre-recorded voices and follow the script to respond in a virtual dialog between Barbara and unseen "psychologists" in a skit written by Barbara and the Bergmans (see below)

To me that gig seemed EASY! You needed to have the technical know how to sample everything which I did. You also needed to have some sense of comedic timing to know when to wait for the audience to laugh and to respond naturally as if you were the actor yourself. Kind of an unusual gig for a keyboard player but Barbara was confident I could do it from the minute she met me when I walked in the door and explained it to her at the Sony lot in LA where they rehearsed the show for 2 weeks. 

But, even though I was confident I could do the actual performance and even though I even went to her house many times with the Bergmans to go over it in addition to rehearsals there was something new about that gig that I was not prepared for. First, everyone there was at the top of their game. Some of the best session players, top engineers and you pretty much knew everyone there had done something impressive to be hired to do this gig which was a big deal because it was her first concert in something like 20 years. It was the opening of the MGM Grand in Vegas on New Years. A lot was riding on it and there was no room for any screw ups. I actually got to see a video crew get fired. I saw Barbara and this crew not understanding each other on something as simple as rewinding the video to the right spot. She kept asking and getting frustrated when it didn't happen. The next day they were not there! So... yikes. The shark pit! Then it was my turn...

I had the phrases of the actors from the script in order mapped chromatically across my 2 octave keyboard. No problem! But then she surprised me and wanted to jump back 6 lines. Just then I realized that I didn't prepare to pop in on any line at a moment's notice. So she says in rehearsal in this big echoey room with everyone else silent "David? Where are you? Are you? Are you..." and meanwhile I am looking at the script and counting my keyboard notes backwards so I hit the right one... because if I hit the wrong phrase she might think I could do that live and there's no way she'll take that chance! That's the shark pit button pressed by me! So, I told the engineer to tell her to hold on a second while I  find it. He says that and she says in this big Wizard of Oz-esque voice "David, we can't have this..." and then I got the line. The whole thing was probably only about 15 seconds but it was terrifying. That night I learned the script backwards and forwards, I practiced dropping in at any moment and I labeled my keyboard with notes. I realized quick that the hard part wasn't doing the gig itself but actually getting through the rehearsals! 

The next day she did the same test. She said "Let's go back a few pages" and then immediately said the line. She was JUST about to say "Davi..." when I had the line ready. That was it. She knew I 'got it'. She didn't try to test me again and didn't say a word about it either. Ironically after that it was back to being a pretty easy gig and at the end of the second show the late great Marvin Hamlich came up to me and said "You were perfect!" His wife came up to me after and said I should be proud because he rarely says that! 

So, that's one of the times early on for me where things weren't how I thought they'd be and I had to think on my toes and react. It's sometimes sink or swim and all you can do is your best. But your best isn't just how well you can play your instrument. It's your people skills or how resourceful, how organized, how punctual or how good you are at problem solving and many other things that get you through the challenges you will likely face. To be able to overcome the obstacles is as important as being great at what you do.

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