Showing Up: The Key to Success

by Roy Burns

A young drummer asked me the following question while I was conducting a clinic.”What is the most important thing I have to do to become a successful musician?”

I answered, “Show Up!” He smiled and said, “There must be more to it.” And he was quite right. There is a lot more to it.

It also means showing up on time, with your instruments, with your music (if needed), with a clear head, ready to play.

The problem is, if you don’t show up, or if you always show up late, no one needs you. In any business, and especially in the music business, time is money. Overtime costs on recording sessions and TV shows are expensive and getting more so each year. If you are late and as a result become responsible for overtime payments, it could well be your last recording session or TV show.

This goes double for a young person on the way up. If you show up late for an audition you may find the job already taken. Or, you may find the person upset because you are late and he no longer cares about hearing you. No one really wants to work with an undependable genius! No one really wants to work with an undependable person period! It adds strain and worry to an already difficult and often frustrating business.

Playing music, of any kind, entails feeling. How can you achieve a good feeling musically if everyone around you is feeling disturbed because you were late? How can you achieve a good feeling if you were in a panic worrying that you might be late? Accidents do happen, but word gets around quickly if you are habitually late. To generate a good feeling, you must feel good, both to yourself and to others. Then your music will feel good as well. A good reputation, as an accomplished and responsible musician, may take several years to establish. However, you can establish a bad reputation just by blowing one big concert, TV show, club engagement or recording session.

The next requirement about showing up is to do so with a clear head. Alcohol and drugs may make you feel confident initially, but it’s a false form of confidence. Alcohol and drugs wear off. True confidence doesn’t. Also, true confidence or belief in yourself will never give you a hangover.

Bring all of your tools. Many top studio players carry extra snare drums, cymbals, and a variety of sticks and mallets with them on each recording session. You never know what to expect. Be prepared for the unexpected. Ask the leader or contractor ahead of time if anything unusual or special will be required. A little extra planning will save you some anxious moments and often help avoid a potentially embarrassing situation.

Being ready to play involves several things. First of all, you must practice so that warming up on the job is minimal. When you hit the stage at a concert the first tune must be hot. It may set the mood for the entire concert. A sloppy, disorganized or cold band will turn the audience off and it may be difficult to get them back. If you are rusty or cold because you didn’t practice, the musicians around you will be quick to notice. Even if you don’t make obvious mistakes the chances are that you will not play with your customary sense of sureness and the other players will feel it. So warm up at home and when you get on stage or in the studio, be ready to play.

A number of years ago, Lionel Hampton called me for a recording session. We were to start recording at 9:00 am. This meant we all had to be up early. Most of us had played the night before. There were a lot of sleepy faces that morning and a lot of hot coffee was being eagerly swallowed.

Clark Terry was featured on the session along with Hank Jones, Coleman Hawkins and J. J. Johnson. A stellar cast indeed.

We played through the first tune, a medium tempo swinger. After a couple of times through the tune it was decided that we try a “take”. The instant the red light was on and we were recording, Clark Terry was hot. He came in steaming on his solo and inspired everyone. Here he was, at 9:00 am, with very little sleep, and he was hot. After that first take, we all felt less tired, thanks to Clark. It was a great lesson for me; one which I have never forgotten.

Louie Bellson is another musician who is always ready to play. He is also ready to talk with any young drummer who happens to be around.

Both Clark and Louie are always encouraging to young musicians. The encouragement they gave me on the way up was a real boost at a time when it helped most. They also set a great example, year after year, of what the word professional really means.

The last part of being ready to play is attitude. If you are enthusiastic about playing, the people around you feel it. If you drag into the place, they will feel your drag as well.

Notice what often happens to a band when a guest artist sits in for a few tunes. If the guest is a good player and generates enthusiasm for playing, the entire group picks up. Suddenly, the band is more alive. Everyone is listening, feeling and participating in the music. The guest artist is like a spark plug and ignites the band and often the audience.

Just the opposite can happen as well. Attitude makes the difference. If two musicians play with equal ability, the one with an enthusiastic attitude will usually be the most successful because he generates a good feeling to other musicians. And when you think about it, isn’t that what it’s really all about?

So start by showing up, on time, with your instruments, with your music (if needed), with a clear head, ready to play. If this attitude can become a part of your approach to music and the music business you will find more and more people showing up to hear you.