Thursday, September 18, 2008

Music at Work

On weekends, I play in a band, and have been doing so for about three years.

A lot of people might think this is a frivolous way to spend my free time. Given the image of the music business, many might think we're into drugs, sex (as well as rock 'n' roll).

The truth is that my band is made up of guys like me. We're all in our 50's. We all enjoy music. And none of us have any expectations we'll be raking in Grammy awards and seeing gold albums on our walls.

Another truth is that playing in a band is, in many respects, like running a business. Here's how.


Unless you're a very talented musician like Frank Zappa, in a band, it's really important that everyone be playing the same song in the same key, at the same tempo and at the same time. Otherwise you have cacophony (a musical term for chaos).

Each member of the band has his/her part in the piece.

Drums provide the rhythm, tempo and time signature that everyone else depends on to keep together. Bass provides a foundation for musical structure of the piece. The other instruments (and I'm including voice as an instrument) fill in the melodic and rhythmic components of the piece. Usually, the onther instruments will perform solos in turn - each having an opportunity to express their interpretation of the melody of the piece.

Together, it sounds wonderful - better than any part individually. However, if someone doesn't do his/her part properly, the musical term is "train wreck."


Communication on stage - or in a jam session - is critical to the success of the performance. When we watch jazz musicians play, it difficult for most of us to understand what's going on and how/why different players come in at different times.

Uusally, before starting, the players agree on an arrangement and in which order everyone will solo. While we've all heard songs where someone shouts out something like "Play it, Johnny!", most musical cues are a form of non-verbal communication. They could be the nod of a head, a particular sequence of notes that indicates the conclusion of a solo or just looking eye-to-eye at the next soloist. The non-verbal cues make the whole performance look seamless when done properly.

The basic structure of the song - melody and chords - provides a framework for soloing, and some of the cues, but direct communication between musicians is what really makes it all work.

Music also requires good listening skills.

As you're playing, are you playing in the same key as everyone else? Is everyone hitting the same point in a bar at the same time? These listening skills help the musicians adjust how they play so they all are synchronized.


Most people think that a band plays by picking songs and just getting up and playing them.

However, there's an element of positioning in any band. Will the focus be on blues, country, rock, jazz, folk or some other genre? There has to be consensus among the players on what style of music will be played and, once this consensus is reached, the common interest in the genre helps inspire and unite the musicians.

In our band, we have regular meetings to discuss adding songs to our repertoire. We might reject some as being too country or too heavy for what we consider to be our style (and skill). Songs get added when we all feel we like the tune and/or beat and would be fun to perform.

The analogy in business would not only be positioning, but also strategy.


In sales, marketing and politics (among others), the ability to get up in front of an audience and deliver an engaging presentation is a critical way of connecting with the audience.

So, too, with music.

A good performance depends on preparation or, in musical terms, rehearsal. Our band rehearses weekly for about 3 hours and we systematically run through our repertoire of songs we perform as well as work on songs we WANT to perform. It takes us about six weeks of rehearsal to do our entire catalog.

In our rehearsals, we make certain we have the basics of the song down pat, but also work out our solos so, while each performance might be a little different, we've each established the basic approach we want to take to our solos.

By rehearsing like this, when we get up in front of an audience, we all feel comfortable about what we're going to do.

All bands work off a set list. Think of this like a playlist - a sequence of songs to be performed. We put the songs in a particular order so we have something at the beginning that's familiar and gets the audience's attention. Similarly, the closer of each set will be a song strong enough to leave the audience wanting to hear more. We'll vary the tempo of the songs in between so the mood doesn't become monotonous.


When we listen to a studio recording, we are hearing a finely tuned version of the piece, whereby each bar is usually recorded over and over again until a perfect "take". Every time you listen to that recording, you will hear exactly the same rendition - note-for-note.

In a live performance, the basic structure of the piece may be pretty close to the recorded version, but the solos will most likely be different.

The solo represents an opportunity for the performer to express his or her own unique interpretation of the piece. While the performer may have a rough idea of how to structure the solo, each performance is different. That interpretation can be influenced by the performer's mood at the time, cues from the other musicians and by the audience response. In some respects, the solo is the opportunity for a performer to demonstrate true musicianship - more than just an ability to play by rote.

We sometimes have had guest performers join us onstage for a number or two, and the injection of a new group member creates a whole new dynamic for the performers.

If the guest artist is a singer, the other musicians have to follow the singer's lead and style - which can be very different from those of the singer they normally work with. Adapting to a different performer requires using those listening and communication skills I mentioned earlier. This usually is helped by the basic structure of the song (chords and melody).

When a performance like this comes off really well, it is as much a tribute to the musicians' communications skills as to their musicianship, and it usually makes the performance more interesting to the audience. It builds confidence among the team members that they can handle forces that could be potentially disruptive.


For the members of my band, the band is an outlet for our creativity, but also an oportunity to connect and enjoy playing with each other. It's also something we can all see us continuing into retirement.

So, the message I want to leave you with is that an individual's hobbies can help them develop skills that are useful of which can be applied in their jobs. Hobbies make us more interesting as people by adding dimension to our character. Explore these with your staff.


A New Name

I decided the original name for my blog wasn't conveying the message I really wanted to get across.

In keeping with the thought that employees have more value than might be apparent on the surface, I felt "Hidden Talent" was closer to my vision.