By: Konner Scott
Last week, I was hired to play a gig. They pulled me in last-minute because one of their instrumentalists had backed out. Originally they had asked me to play acoustic guitar, but the night before the show, I was switched over to electric. As if this wasn’t enough to create stress, I also didn’t receive the songs to learn until the morning of the show.
In a past life, I would have panicked. But I’ve been in this situation quite a few times by now. Being a gigging musician is more than just learning and practicing songs: it’s learning to adapt on the fly and to embrace discomfort and challenge.
The first question I had to ask myself was: what’s the most effective use of the time I have before the show? I didn’t have enough time to chart out and memorize the songs the way I usually do, so I had to streamline my process to the best of my ability. I decided that memorizing the keys of the songs would be a great place to start.
Once I had the keys down, I practiced a few simple parts over each chord progression. I tried to come up with some ideas that were easy to remember and play, and would work over additional chords in case I completely forgot the chord progression. (The advantage to playing electric guitar, as it turns out, is that I was able to play more of a “lead” part without relying on the chords).
I did the best I could with the hour I had available, and that evening, I arrived at the venue an hour early to squeeze in a quick rehearsal with the band. However, the band didn’t arrive until about a half hour before the show started, and that time was all spent tuning, sound checking, and polishing up other fine details necessary for the show’s success.
One detail that was skimped, however: I still didn’t really know the songs.
We began playing, and thankfully, the first song was a song I’d actually played at a gig a couple years back. I was a bit rusty, but my familiarity with the song helped me to relax and lean into the performance. I made a decision not to add any more than necessary- any note I played would be deliberate, and I wouldn’t risk doing anything that would ruin the atmosphere of the show. I allowed myself to get lost in the song and not think about the impending stress of the remaining four songs that I’d never played before.
It was at this point that the music director- who was playing keyboard- leaned into his microphone and started calling out the chord progressions to the band. It turns out these were new songs for the rest of the band, too, and even though they had rehearsed, the MD thought it would be wise to be in our ears helping guide us through. What a relief! Suddenly, I could just relax, follow his lead, and trust everything to work out. This, combined with the little bit of preparation I was able to do beforehand, allowed me to do my job effectively and contribute to the show instead of taking away from it.
By the end of the show I was exhausted. We only had five songs to play, but many of the songs were extended well beyond their original run time, with long interludes and breaks in between. We played for three and a half hours, all of which I spent learning the songs on the fly and trying to blend with the band.
After the show, the man who organized the performance and who had hired me came up to chat. He told me that he was grateful that I was able to jump in and assimilate with such short notice. He promised that he wanted me back for the next performance, and that they would give me more heads up next time.
This is not an effort to flaunt my abilities. Three years ago, had I been in this situation, I would have undoubtedly freaked out and ruined the show. The entire point is that these past few years of taking whatever gigs I could find had prepared me well for this circumstance. This was far from the first time I was pushed to adapt quickly to an uncomfortable situation, and I’ve found that- as long as I’m willing to put my best effort forward, try to relax, and trust the process- good things tend to happen, and those good things get better with practice and experience.
This is a life skill that extends beyond music. Playing gigs has helped me learn to roll with the punches, but it’s been a skill that I’ve been able to apply broadly. As a music teacher, I will occasionally have to step in and sub for another teacher last minute. This means teaching someone I’ve never worked with before with absolutely no lesson plan, and having to find ways to adapt and make our lesson productive.
It sounds cliché, but it’s honest: we never know what life will throw at us. The best way to learn to handle that uncertainty is to become comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve found that if I’m willing to embrace scary situations, especially when I feel unprepared, I can actually learn how to better handle any new situation thrown at me. And funnily enough, embracing that anxiety can actually make life a lot more exciting and fun.