When I was in college, I earned money by playing for private parties on weekends. Known as “club dates,” I worked for a violin player/bandleader who I’ll call Glen. He would usually call me Tuesday or Wednesday and let me know where I was playing that weekend. Sometimes he would be there, other times not and someone else would be leader. After a few gigs, I started leading some of them and got the extra $20 for being the leader.
Though Glen had a stable of musicians, I never knew who was going to be in the band that night. But, we all knew a couple of hundred tunes and anything we didn’t know was a 60 second hum-along, conversation after which we faked it. From Bar Mitzvahs to weddings, company holiday parties to retirements, we played them all. If they paid, we played. I wasn’t going to be discovered for a record deal but, I could make rent in 2 weekends.
Some of the musicians were classmates, some were locals, even a couple of guys who had played with this or that Big Band in the 40s. There were some great musicians I could barely keep up with and others, drunks I had to carry for the night. But, each week was a new experience. One in particular stands out to this day.
Why they booked the Glen Cawley (fictitious) Orchestra for the East High School Prom, I will never know. Even though this was pre-DJ, it was a lousy fit. Glen was there on violin and vocals along with me on saxophone, a keyboard player, guitar (old guy, rhythm mostly), bass and a drummer. I had worked with all them many times before and even though the pairing was strange, I thought we could have some fun and make some good music. Especially after Glen left. Glen would usually have 2-5 bands working on a Saturday night and he’d spend 30-60 minutes at each party.
The leader calls the tunes, which requires a good understanding of the audience, plus shaping and pacing each set – particularly the last one. If the band wanted to work at overtime (very lucrative), we’d pack the dance floor for the last 15 minutes of the party and get everybody hooting and hollering. So, when we said “Thank you and goodnight, please drive home safely,” we’d be greeted with shouting and applause “More, more!” or “Don’t go!” We’d start packing up VERRRRRRY slowly and sure enough, the Father of the Bride, or Sheldon Glickman’s Dad would come up to me and say the magic words “How much for another hour?” Even then, closing the deal was a rush.
So at the East High School Prom, Glen is calling all the popular tunes of the day. “Rolling on a River” to “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” we played a succession of up tempo pop hits. The dance floor was empty. The large, diverse group of high school students stood around talking drinking punch, eating snacks and generally looking bored (or for the spiked punch). After a set of this kind of stuff, Glen announces a break, then tells me he is going to the next gig and I’m in charge.
After 10 minutes, we came back and I called “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the Percy Sledge hit. I started it with two notes “When a” alone on saxophone and took it up an octave so those high Es screamed out and got the group’s attention. When we came to the 3rd high E “Man,” the band came in on the downbeat in a nice slow, sexy ballad. I could see the audience’s faces lighting up as they grabbed (key operative word) their dates and headed to the dance floor. It was wall to wall.
We continued to play mostly ballads, blending in an occasional uptempo tune to keep everyone awake (and their clothes on). The dance floor was never less than half full the rest of the night. Kids were coming up to the bandstand making requests, waving at us and smiling. Hopefully, we helped them have a memorable, if not a little more fun Prom.
So, why discuss a medley of my hits? Allow me to deconstruct what I learned here, that is helping me succeed to this day:
FLEXIBILITY/ADAPTIVENESS – When you never know who will be on the bandstand with you, if you want to sound like a real band, you must listen a LOT, and adapt to each others’ styles. On a sales meeting, you may have had contact with one or two attendees. The others in the room are wildcards who can make or break you. The plan you had for the meeting may be completely wrong with this new dynamic. Being flexible, listening to the verbal and reading the non verbal cues is critical so you can adapt for the unexpected. Sometimes, you just have to be brave enough to can your plan and jam. (Those can be the most frightening/enjoyable/successful/exhausting professional experiences.)
LEADERSHIP – That $20 was important to me, so I took every opportunity to demonstrate that I knew how to work an audience, call the right tunes and keep the band in line. Glen would always ask the client if they were happy so even if he wasn’t there, he knew what went on. I made sure to introduce myself to the client to let them know we were there for their guests’ pleasure and anything we could do to enhance the evening was our pleasure. Leadership can be an intangible quality, but you demonstrate it with mastery of your product, competition, client and industry knowledge. Demonstrate this to your prospects and you earn the right to recommend, advise and steer the meeting. Without this, you become a pushy control freak who doesn’t listen to them.
PREPARATION/OBSERVATION – When I got to the hotel ballroom, I was really surprised to see we were playing a high school prom. I reviewed in my head all the Top 40 tunes I knew (Girl from Ipanema was NOT going to happen) so that I was prepared to play the kind of music this group was expecting to hear. When Glen left after playing all the pop stuff, I immediately called a love song. Why? Think back to YOUR Prom (if you went to yours). You and your date were all dressed up, cleaned up looking great and wanting to have a great time. Touching played an important role in having that great time. You don’t want to flap your limps around in a spastic way, getting sweaty to “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” you want to hold your date really close, smell their perfume/cologne and whisper to each other. That’s what ballads are for. Understand the group you are meeting with. Know EVERYTHING you can know about them, their needs and challenges before you meet. Ask QUESTIONS to understand what you do NOT know. Then provide them the solutions you can offer to meet those particular needs and challenges. Give them what they need, don’t sell them what you’ve got.
I had a lot of fun playing those gigs in college (some of them were really awful, like the time the piano player and trumpet player got into a fist fight after a New Year’s Eve dance in a Church rec hall). Little did I realize then that I was learning things that would help me all these years down the road.
Looks like I went a little overtime. Don’t worry about time and a half. We’re good.