Don’t Make It Harder Than It Has to Be

Leave Your Attitude at the Door

by Russ Miller

Strife happens in life. It’s almost a guarantee. It happens in every business, like when somebody gets a new position in a company and brings his or her own agenda. And conflicts can happen when you have on horse blinders in a specific situation, or when you try to force ideas into every situation. Usually this is based on ego or personal politics, and problems arise when people don’t like listening to the opinions of others. It can be a common source of tension in team efforts, like a band, when one member’s ego nudges that person to try to take over the direction of the entire unit. In this column, I’m going to address two ways that we often attempt to force our ideas into a playing situation.

My Way or the Highway!

I recently played in the house band for a show featuring several Motown artists. The band was in the challenging but fun position of playing each of the artists’ material. Almost everyone on stage was hired by one of the top contractors in Los Angeles. Most of the band members were leaders, musical directors, and contractors in their own right, so there was a lot of experience on stage. Three of the players were brought in by the arranger. These guys have played the featured artists’ material before, so they should’ve been able to give some insight to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, they chose to do the opposite. They were rude and unhelpful, and basically created a negative vibe for the gig. At first I thought they were just used to hearing the music a certain way, so maybe they were a little thrown by how we were playing it. But the odd part was that they were the keyboard player, the bass player, and the trombonist…not the singer, musical director, or bandleader.

Along the lines of what I wrote about in the May 2015 issue, these three musicians were operating outside their roles. They were sidemen on this date, so they really should have just played their parts as best they could and been quiet about everything else. Instead, all three of them would stop the band and comment, roll their eyes at other players, and not really listen to the group. This created an uncomfortable working environment for everyone there—including the artists.

At one point the keyboardist stopped the band in a very dramatic way and said, “I can’t play this song with this feel that Russ is playing.” The musical director and I each asked, “What’s the issue with it?” “I want this one to swing,” the keyboardist said. Now, first of all, I’m reading the chart. It has the groove written out in the first bar, with straight 16th notes on the hi-hat, 2 and 4 on the snare, and a funky bass drum pattern with several 16th-note syncopations. The arrangement was written with a funk/disco feel, which is basically the opposite of a “swinging” triplet-based groove. I had to make a choice. Do I tell him where it’s at, or do I not cause an incident on the stage—in front of the band and artists—and just say “Absolutely. Let’s swing it then!” I chose to respond with the latter.

A lot of things were questionable in this scenario. First, the keyboardist was out of line stopping the band when he wasn’t the leader. He should have asked the musical director about the feel after we played through the song. Or he could’ve approached me after the rehearsal or just trusted that we were aware of what was notated on the chart and left it at that. He caused a scene and also made the MD feel uncomfortable, as if his arrangement were wrong. The most damaging outcome was that the contractor and leader looked at him like, What’s this guy’s problem?

So what’s the lesson here? We often get put into situations in life where we have a choice of whether to escalate things with our reaction or stay cool. After we played the piece with a more triplet-based groove, I said to the keyboardist, quietly, “Is that cool? Sorry for the confusion, but the chart has straight 16ths on it.” He said nothing back. I ended up finding out later in the weekend that the bassist, keyboardist, and trombonist work together a lot, and the keyboardist is usually the leader of the gigs. So he was frustrated that he wasn’t the leader on this one.

The strife in this particular situation was both personal and musical. Those three guys wanted things to go their way, with their friends being part of it. The keyboardist wanted to control how the songs sounded, even if the MD and the artists had intentionally changed things a bit. It wouldn’t have mattered if Tony Williams were the drummer on the gig. They wanted their usual drummer, and nobody else could do right by them in this case.

By coming into the gig with bad attitudes and personal agendas, they probably lost some future work. Several of the other players made comments like, “They won’t be back.” As I wrote about in the April 2015 article on building versus burning bridges, if you have a bad attitude too many times, the phone may stop ringing.

Forcing Yourself

Our primary artistic goal should be to let the nature of the music tell you what to play organically. Listen and react! This is why we train so much on the instrument, so we can paint a fresh picture each time we sit down to play. Of course we have to respect the parts, but there should always be a different delivery of the musical script. You should never play with a “This is where it’s at” attitude, where you fail to listen and react to the other players and are simply regurgitating your parts and hoping it works.

This is an issue with too many machines being used in the creation of music. Machines deliver their part ruthlessly and unforgivingly. But just assembling a bunch of parts won’t make music. It’s the communication and reaction of the musicians playing those notes that really matters. Machines have an agenda. They say, “I’m playing my part, so I don’t care what you do.” But there has to be cohesion between the players in an ensemble to allow great musical moments to happen. Machines can’t do that.

I’ve seen many people play like machines, often forcing in the wrong fills, playing over the lyrics, and playing dynamically out of balance. That’s what happens when you have a musical agenda. You’re essentially saying, “Here’s what I want to do, so deal with it.” In those moments it’s not music; it’s just drumming. That type of approach is also a display of your personal agenda. Allow everybody the opportunity to deliver at his or her highest level of artistry. To do that requires listening, reacting, adapting, and being a servant to the ensemble and the music. And you can do all of that while also allowing an opportunity for magic to happen.

In closing, the best way to enter a situation is with an attitude of, “Let’s make this the best it can be for everybody,” both personally and musically. Everybody knows that there’s no “I” in the word team, but there’s no “I” in the word band either!

Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. His versatility has led him to work with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, and Andrea Bocelli. For more info, visit