You hear a pro band play or solo instrumentalist play and notice how cool they sound. (I mainly refer to piano or guitar.) One of reasons they sound cool is they probably know what they are doing! They are professionals. Right?
In addition to being professional musicians, behind the average listener’s awareness are these additional pro skills:
1. Faking it! As professionals we have learned to make stuff sound good even if we don’t know what we’re doing, or just can’t play a certain part of something well. I’ve done it, my friends have done it, and I’ve seen top acts on YouTube do it. (Maybe you’ve done it too!) Non-professionals can fake it too, if they can, as it’s sort of a “human skill,” you could say. Of course there are times when you don’t fake it. When I’m doing a reading session, I read what’s on the page and can either play it correctly or not. Sometimes you only get one chance, sometimes you can take some time and work it out. And at certain gigs you fake it!
2. Only playing what you can actually play. A pro knows what he can and can’t play well. When it’s time to sound good, we play what we know we can play. If the gig is a little loose we might try for things that could be a little out of reach and blow it… but who cares! Shooting for the next level is always fun. But there’s a time and place, and a pro knows when and where those are. And sometimes the feeling of what is played supersedes the notes being played so it doesn’t really matter.
3. Finding your way after getting lost. (Especially when reading music.) You’re playing a reading gig, get distracted for a minute, look away from the page… then have to find the exact location where you were in all of about a few seconds. This can happen to anybody. And without losing the beat for an instant. Also, you take your eyes off of the page to look at your instrument for a second then have to find your place on the page again. This is a common skill with guitar, bass and piano players. You might have experienced this while reading a book. You’re reading along and someone asks you a question, you look at them and talk a minute, then relocate yourself on the page you were reading. Has it ever taken you a few moments to find your place again? Well… on the bandstand you don’t always have a moment. Sometimes we only have a second. But when a pro does need a few moments to get reoriented we can do it without standing out, causing a scene, losing the rhythm or screwing something else up. It’s a nifty pro skill. (And I suppose this could apply to finding your way back to your car after playing a party on the 12th floor of a major hotel while having to go through the kitchen and service doors!)
4. Taking cues. Pros often have eyes in the back of their heads and telepathic powers. And sometime we can just feel exactly what’s going to happen next, while other times it’s noticing a slight head turn, finger movement or eyebrow lift. Cues can be very subtle, or very overt!. This important skill entails being comfortable enough with what you are playing so you are extroverted and can have your attention on the environment, and most importantly, being aware that you should be aware and are willing to do this. When a group of musicians are playing together, there times when everyone should be aware of everyone else.
Well…, there are four interesting pro skills. Non-pros can have them as well, and sometimes a pro doesn’t display one of the above qualities as needed. Whatever—it’s not always cut and dry.
I was talking about this with one of my students the other day and thought you might find this interesting.
I hope you did. If not… fake it and act like you did!