We spoke in a previous article about regularly redefining and evaluating yourself as a musician. I’ve been doing this for the past two decades, and it’s always a work in progress. I do a lot of sight-reading (American Idol, soundtrack sessions, etc.), and I often play shows with little or no rehearsal. Although there’s never a dull moment in this line of work, it can be taxing because I can’t afford to fail.

My only real chance to spend time developing how I approach the music is with my band Arrival. When playing other people’s music, I have to execute quickly, efficiently, and with as few mistakes as possible. While I don’t think you should be afraid to take risks—I’m always dreaming and striving to push myself to do more than the bare minimum—to progress and succeed as a freelance musician your failure percentage has to be very low. Let’s discuss this and get to the bottom of what is expected of us as professional drummers.

Other People’s Gigs

I feel like a big part of my life is taken up by waiting for other people to do their jobs well. I’m often shocked at the difference between what my failure rate is compared to the average person’s. I frequently interact with corporate employees who make major mistakes but still keep their jobs. I often think to myself, If I did my gigs like that, I’d be canned immediately.

As drummers, we have the entire performance sitting in our lap. We have the power to make the music loud, soft, fast, slow, beautiful, or downright bad. That’s why there are no truly great bands with bad drummers. On any gig, whether it’s a high-pressure performance on live TV or a local club date, the drummer has to keep it all together. But as the gigs become more high-profile, so do the expectations. This is true with any performance-oriented job. For example, the flight commander of a space shuttle can’t have as many workplace errors as a store clerk.

I’m always interested when drummers let the amount of money they get paid, or the number of people in attendance, affect how much effort they put into the music. That’s like a football star saying, “I’ll run faster and score more points when the money is right and the stadium is full.” There have been many times when I didn’t feel like writing detailed charts, programming electronics, or carrying gear onto flights. But these “burdens” contribute to being more successful and performing well and decreasing my failure percentage. With proper preparation and a professional attitude, I can go into situations with confidence and play my absolute best.

The Return Customer

I’ve done records for younger pop artists who weren’t raised doing live shows. My generation of players grew up playing gigs all the time. And they ran the gamut from small clubs to large arenas, with great and sometimes awful sound systems. But every one of them was a learning experience. I’ve had conversations with new artists as they’ve debated whether or not to take seasoned players on the road or pick up less experienced players that will work for a quarter of the wage. I always remind them that their audience is full of paying customers, and you need them to want to return. Take the financial risk and hire the best and most experienced players you can find. Some listened to my advice, but some didn’t. Unfortunately, the ones who cut corners aren’t around anymore.

I know I sound like a broken record, but you should always give more than what’s expected of you. As a full-time musician, it’s vital to my survival to keep people coming back. So take a second to take stock of who you’ve worked for and how well you’ve executed the gig. Are bandleaders calling you back? Is your fan base growing? In the music industry, where the number of quality jobs is very small, you can’t afford a bad reputation.

The bottom line is there’s little chance of being successful without taking some risks while maintaining a small percentage of failure. You want to be able to stretch the edges of your abilities, and developing professional work habits is what gives us the ability to live in that space. This is what Dave Brubeck is speaking about in his quote. We work in a performance industry. We can’t approach our jobs with a “just enough” attitude, as some in the everyday working world do. We don’t have the luxury of unlimited customers, and the competition is too high. There’s no doubt that the ones who work the hardest are the ones who get the gigs. You may not see results instantly, but diligence will pay off. As a great jazz musician once told me, “You don’t need to tell anybody how great you are. I’ll let you know—your phone will ring.”

Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit russmiller.com.