How To Start and Run a Band

mount-everestSo you’ve played around in a few bands over the years, and you’ve seen things that worked and things that didn’t. And perhaps you’ve wondered if you could put together something that was better.

Congratulations! By having a vision of something greater than what you’re in now, you have achieved half your goal of having your own band. But that was the easy part. The other half takes sustained, hard work, and there are no shortcuts. But if you’re serious about starting a band, you’ll find the work enjoyable.

First Steps

As with any new venture, time spent planning what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to go about it is never wasted. (That’s especially true if you’re launching this new project with another musician.) As badly as someone may want to climb Mount Everest, he doesn’t wake up one morning, decide to climb that day, and immediately set out. It’s the same with a band, a business startup, or a marriage. You’ll be far more satisfied with your band if you don’t skip these first steps.

  • Begin with the end in mind. Be very clear with yourself about why you want to form a band in the first place. Know what kind of music you want to play. Covers? Originals? Rock? Progressive? Jazz? You’ll want to have a clear direction in mind before you begin inviting other musicians to the party.
  • Write a good mission statement. If your mission is to just play out and have a good time, don’t expect to attract great players or book huge gigs. Your statement should address where you want to go, what you’re going to do to get there, when you expect to arrive, who will help you, and how you intend to get it done. A mission statement solidifies direction in the minds of all involved and helps discourage time-wasters from auditioning.
  • Set measurable goals. Identify specific dates for key events, such as hiring personnel, learning songs, and recording a demo. Establish how often you need to play out and where. Come up with actual dollar figures you think the band can make its first year, second year, and so on. Write these down, and make sure your new band members buy into them.
  • Write down your rules. Be sure to make clear what you will and will not tolerate when the band is together. Never assume anything. Communicate your policies on drugs, alcohol, punctuality, preparedness, and so on to all who audition.
  • 03-Social-Media-Management8777Start networking now. You probably have a Facebook page, but don’t ignore other social media platforms that can help you as well. LinkedIn is a great site for musicians, as a profile there says you’re serious about the art and business of music. And with 340 million users, Google Plus shouldn’t be ignored. Use a combination of these networks to identify clubs and their owners. Contact them now, before you build your band, and start building relationships with them. This will help you later on, when your band is ready to play out.

Don’t be discouraged if these first steps take a couple of months or more. Better to plan thoroughly now than to wing it later on. Besides, if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

Getting the Band Together

Now that your planning is done (or almost done), it’s time to put the band together.

  • Don’t rely on classified ads to find musicians. Craigslist is fine, but you should also contact other musicians to find out who they know. Turn to your networks on LinkedIn and Facebook to help you identify good prospects. Visit some music stores and pick the brains of the salespeople. They’re better than any website when it comes to knowing people that are looking for bands. There are also sites that help bands and musicians find each other, such as Bandmix and the new Giggem.
  • Hire the right musicians. They need to be a little better than you are, or at least at the same level. If they’re better, you’ll be challenged more. And be willing to wait. The good ones are probably working, and you may need to make your case to them more than once. Besides, a bad hire wastes your time and sets you back.
  • Establish a regular rehearsal schedule. It’s better to have short, effective rehearsals than marathon sessions. Two or three hours is plenty of time if everyone is on time and comes prepared. (Those are two of your rules, right?) You may feel the urge to push a session past that, but you’ll just wear everyone else down and lose any efficiency you thought you’d gain.
  • Create a website, establish a social media presence, and start a mailing list. Stick with just a couple of platforms at first. Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus need regular attention, and the person who handles your social media doesn’t need to be overwhelmed.
  • Assign responsibilities. Decide who will book gigs, who will run sound, and who will handle the website and social media.

Keeping It Moving

  • Book your first gig within 2 months of your first rehearsal. This keeps the momentum going, for a booked gig helps drive rehearsals: it’s a measurable goal. Also, a band needs a shakedown gig early on to identify problems that need to be worked out. Open mics are perfect, low-key events for a first gig, and it’s okay if you don’t make any money on this one. But send out email reminders about your gig, hand out business cards to everyone there, and get email addresses.
  • Gig regularly. Not doing this is one quick way to kill a band. You don’t have to play 120 dates per year, but you need to play out as often as it takes to achieve your goals.
  • Band_Practice_by_BiffnoLearn new material and rehearse it regularly. Not doing this is the other quick way to kill a band. Keep up with the set lists for each venue, and make sure you swap out material before you return to one of them. And make sure everyone involved in your new project understands the difference between practice and rehearsal.
  • Oil the machine. Don’t neglect marketing. You have to keep the fans coming back. Keep the website up. Post regularly on Twitter and Facebook. Your fans want emails from you; don’t disappoint them, but don’t spam them, either. Work the crowd during the break and collect email addresses. Repeat.
  • Have outside interests. Don’t make music your whole life, even if it is your life. Make time for church, family, friends, and hobbies. You’ll be a better musician because of it.

Is it possible to have a good band and not do some of these steps? Which ones are you going to skip?  The fact is that all bands do all of these things at some point, or they break up. There are no other options, no shortcuts. You have to gig regularly, or there’s no point in starting a band. You have to learn new material, or fans will stop coming to your shows. And if you’re going to play out, who wants to play with sub par musicians who break the rules?

Starting a band is hard work, and keeping it going is harder still. But if it’s in your blood, if doing anything else makes no sense to you, then embrace your calling and begin charting your path to success. The rewards are worth the trouble.


Image credits: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 –

The Digest, Volume 3

The Digest is a new weekly feature to the Sketchbook blog. Each issue provides an annotated listing of links to relevant articles about events, trends, people, and things that have a direct impact on us as musicians. If you find The Digest useful, or if you want to suggest improvements, please let me know. Also, if you have content you’d like to see included, please send a message via Twitter or Facebook and let me know that as well. And share the love by passing The Digest on via email or social media.

Is Reading Music Important for Drummers? by the MD Education Team on Modern Drummer.

Should drummers learn how to read notation, or can they do just as well in their careers without that skill? The Education Team at Modern Drummer wanted to find out, so they asked a few professional drummers. Jeremy Hummel, Jim Payne, George Marsh, and others weighed in with their takes on the subject. The consensus? It sure won’t hurt you, and it may well help you land a sweet gig.

What Record Labels Are Looking For When Scouting Artists, on Music Clout.

The first thing that will attract industry attention is a full calendar of well-attended gigs, at which you sell your CDs and merchandise. But that’s expected of everyone: you have to make your act stand out. Have a band app out for the iPhone and Android? That could give you an edge. So can striking a careful balance between writing music that sounds familiar yet uniquely familiar to A&R representatives.

Is Your Art a Hobby or a Job, on Grassrootsy.

While the IRS has its own definitions of these terms, Grassrootsy has a handy checklist to help us decide. Do folks know you write music? Are you not making any money from it? It could be a hobby. On the other hand, if folks you don’t know come to your shows, you have a job on your hands.

Five Lessons You Can Learn From My Album Mistakes, by Shane Lamotte on DIY Musician.

Why spend good money on album production when you can’t give it away? Find out some of the lessons Shane learned such as why promotion is at least as important as production (“If you build it, they will NOT come.”), and why it’s important to build a buzz before dropping $20,000 on an album.

The Four Deadliest Practice Mistakes Ever – And What To Do About Them, by Grace on Artiden.

It’s estimated that over 93 percent of pianists don’t know how to practice piano properly, Grace says in her introduction, usually because they don’t focus on the connection between the entire body and the piano. Most of the time pianists focus on the connection between the fingers and the clock. Feel like you simply must get in three hours today? It’s quality, not quantity.

Interview With Entertainment Lawyer Joseph Stallone, by Aaron Bethune on Play It Loud Music.

Ever wonder what the difference was between copyright and trademark, and whether your band needed one or the other, or both? Can someone steal your song, and what can you do if that happens? Blogger Aaron Bethune sought out the answers to these and other questions from Joseph Stallone, a noted Texas entertainment attorney. Download the podcast to find out about managers, contracts, and your band’s most important asset – its name.

How to Network On the Gig, by Geraldine Boyer-Cussac on The Successful Musician.

Most of us probably don’t spend enough time building our networks, and that’s a shame, really, because it’s these very networks that can help us land jobs. Dr. Boyer-Cussac observes this is especially tragic when musicians fail to network with the very people they are working with. She advises going for diversity in your network, along with reaching out to people whom you do not know very well.

Ten Lies We Tell Ourselves About Networking, by Hannah Morgan on US News.

Dr. Boyer-Cussac tells you how to network; now Hannah Morgan tells you why you won’t. We whine that we don’t know anyone, or that we don’t have time, or that we’re too shy (but we will play our instruments in a crowded stadium!). Fortunately, noted speaker Hannah Morgan has some good advice for fighting against this negative self-talk.

The One-Sheet and Why You Need One, on Music Clout.

In order to have a loyal fan base that will come see you, watch your videos, and buy your material, they first need a way to find out about you. There are people who can help you, by just spreading the word. Help them out: give them the one-sheet, a 50-year-old music industry concept that is still good today.

The Pirate Bay Goes Cloud-Based to Dodge Police Raids, by Tom Pakinkis on Music Week.

“Moving to the cloud lets TPB move from country to country, crossing borders seamlessly without downtime,” according to a statement by The Pirate Bay. Worst of all, those hosting providers have no idea that they’re aiding and abetting the illegal file-sharing site.

Putting the Work In Working Musician

Jason Parker is one working musician. Really. I know this primarily because of his handle on Twitter, @1WorkinMusician, and because he’s written about it. His website even has the tag line “Makin’ It Happen – Livin’ the Dream – Payin’ the Bills.”

I remember reading one of his blog posts last year in which he celebrated his ten-year anniversary as a musician who makes his money solely from playing jazz trumpet. “When I quit my day job in 2001,” he reflected in his article, “I had no idea what my life would end up looking like, but I knew that whatever the outcome I’d be happier if I at least tried to build my life around my passion for playing music. From where I sit now, I can’t imagine it turning out any other way!”

So what must one do to get to where Jason sits now? How does one prepare to make the leap of faith from music as a hobby to music as a profession? Guitarist and author Cameron Mizell spells it out for you in his excellent article, “How To Find Work As a Gigging Musician.”

Before setting out to find work, Mizell advises musicians to take stock of their musical and networking skills. In short, understand your skill sets, reputation, and how the rest of the community sees you. Those two metrics will have a direct influence on what sort of work you get.

Making sure your musical chops are tight is fairly easy, though it does take dedication and work. In addition to ear training, Mizell strongly advocates learning how to read music. You’re simply more marketable if you can read, and you’re able to accept more diverse work, including Broadway. Finally, have a tune ready that you can play solo and at the drop of a hat. That way you’ll be prepared at an audition when you’re asked to “play a little something.”

Getting to that audition in the first place may be the hardest part, however, and you’ll need to know how to network in order to keep your calendar full. Mizell mentions reciprocation, paying it forward, using college connections, and using the internet as excellent ways to reach out to those who can hire you. Following up an audition with a handwritten note or recommending one of your students for a gig are two great ways to make sure your name gets some positive circulation. Developing relationships through social media tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn, and maintaining a good, user-friendly website are also important to your reputation.

From there, Mizell runs down a list of key groups who hire musicians, music directors, churches, TV/film professionals, schools, and the military among them, and you should read his descriptions of all of them. (I have a few more possibilities listed here.) Making money with cruise ship gigs, in a Broadway orchestra pit, or with a military band may not be your cup of tea, but the point here is that not pursuing these gigs needs to be a choice you make for you, not one some limitation (like having no reading or networking skills) makes for you.

Keep working, keep learning, and keep doing, and soon you’ll find yourself ready to follow in Jason Parker’s footsteps by becoming one more working musician.

Falling in Love With Practicing: Gretchen Saathoff’s Goal-oriented Practice

In this book, my goal is to help teachers and students alike make steady progress in learning music.

Gretchen Saathoff’s concludes her introduction to her e-book, Goal-oriented Practice, with this humble yet powerful statement, and it doesn’t take one very long to find out that she delivers on her promise. In fact, it is her humility (“I was not a prodigy”) that endears the reader to her, and thus she easily becomes a collaborator with the student.

Saathoff begins the journey by taking the student through the first steps of setting up the practice environment, offering steady yet subtle encouragement along the way. The opening section clearly establishes camaraderie: “Our longevity as musicians,” “the shoes we wear.” She also avoids technical jargon whenever possible, using everyday words and phrases with which a beginner would feel more comfortable.

Of particular interest to me was the section on warming up. For years I had labored under the notion that I should warm up at least 20 to 30 minutes before beginning practice. In fact, in Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique, Alfred Cortot prescribes an hour devoted to finger exercises. Saathoff flatly disagrees:

Playing etudes for hours is not necessary from my point of view….A warmup of, say, ten minutes should be sufficient. That is enough time to get used to a piano at a performance venue.

And with the preliminaries dispatched, Saathoff moves on to the most important portion of her book: learning the music.

It is easy to see that Saathoff enjoys her role as a collaborative pianist. As I mentioned earlier, her voice is gentle and encouraging, and the student can’t help but become infected with her enthusiasm for the learning of music. Mindless repetition doesn’t work, she coaches. Set goals for today, tomorrow, and the day after that. Break the piece down into sections, phrases, even measures if you need to. Take a break. And pay attention to the fingering, because that’s where mistakes start – before the mistake happens.

Naturally, she ends with the same, upbeat tone that runs through the entire book: “you will be successful.

As a jazz and pop pianist who is now getting back into classical music, I found Goal-oriented Practice to be an excellent investment. I have used lessons from it in teaching my own students, and all musicians, regardless of skill level, would do well to keep a copy near the piano within easy reach.

For ordering information, visit Practice e-book price $19.95; bound $24.95


Note: This review was originally published on August 29, 2011 on Tumblr. I have moved it to this blog for the sake of consistency. The text remains unchanged.

The Talent Myth

Am IdolDoes talent always propel one to the top? Of course not, says David J. Hahn, but it’s an important attribute to have in getting there. In fact, a musician won’t make it too far without it. But if it’s all a musician has, then he’ll find himself able to go just so far and no further in his career.

We’ve all heard it’s not what you know but who you know. Most of us can come up with a few names of people who have made it in spite of having absolutely no talent. (Or so we say.) But think about that for a moment. Is it really true? Could someone who was completely without talent keep getting better and better gigs? Of course not.

If you’re competing for gigs against some uber-talented players, you may not be able to top their chops. But according to Hahn, the good news is you can still land the gig by developing a few skills, most of which are completely unrelated to talent. They are as follows:

  1. Punctuality. Being late isn’t cool – it’s unprofessional. If you’re always late, word will get out that you’re unreliable.
  2. Sight-reading. Musicians who can sight-read have more employment options than those who don’t. If you can’t read, what are you going to do if a song gets substituted at the last minute, and you’ve never heard it? Reading skills also deepen your knowledge of music and theory, and you’ll be a better composer or songwriter if you have them.
  3. Sociability. Don’t be a jerk. You can be replaced.
  4. Consistency. Make sure the people who hire you always see you as being positive and upbeat.
  5. Flexibility. Like REO Speedwagon said, “roll with the changes.”

To be successful as a working musician, you must first make it to the level where others recognize your talent. Then you must set yourself apart from the scores of other talented professionals by learning and using secondary characteristics (social skills) so that employers will want to hire you. These skills will enable you to keep the gig – which is what all of those years of study were for, anyway.

How To Learn Music Quickly

There are times when we have plenty of time in which to learn music. Recitals and concerts are two examples that come to mind for which the performer usually has several weeks to prepare. But there are other times when things go awry: a band member gets sick or has to travel out-of-town, and he or she needs a sub.

Fortunately, you get the call to fill in. Unfortunately, your initial reaction is that of a deer staring into headlights. What do you do?

The first thing you do is relax. This is a show, not brain surgery. Then you realize (again) that you’re a talented musician and that the project is easy if you just break it down into these steps:

  1. Get Organized. Make sure you have the music on CDs or MP3s and that you have charts or a score to look at. (Make charts if you don’t have them.) Find out if you need to memorize it or if using charts is acceptable. Get a copy of the set list and make sure the music is in the order of the list. Finally, block off practice times in your appointment book.
  2. Recorders that have a variable speed control, such as the Tascam LR-10, help musicians slow down difficult passages for transcription. For more information, visit

    Really Get Into the Music. Begin by looking at the music carefully. Notice things like the key signature, tempo, and features such as chords, arpeggios, dynamics, and so on. Next, listen to the music while looking at the score. Mark difficult passages while you do this. (Pianist Gretchen Saathofff cautions that the music “won’t sound like you” if you listen to another artist’s interpretation before practicing it, and I agree for the most part. However, if the music director tells you that you need to sound like the record, or if you only have a few days, then really go to school on the recording.)

  3. Ask Questions About the Music. Verify the key signatures now – you don’t want surprises later! Find out if solos are to be played note for note and in the original style, or if you’re allowed some latitude for improvisation. Will you be stage left or stage right? (Knowing this will help you set up for practice.) It’s also a good time to find out about such things as attire, rehearsal times, per diems, and so forth.
  4. Practice. Set up as you would for the show. Run through the difficult parts first. Start slowly – no prizes are awarded for finishing first. When you feel confident with the hard passages, go on to the easy ones. Increase your tempo until you’re comfortable with the correct speed. You may want to record your practice session in order to quickly find trouble spots.
  5. Listen to the Music Again. If you made your own charts, now is the time to check their accuracy. If charts or a score was provided, double-check dynamics, repeats, accidentals, and metronome markings.
  6. Repeat Steps 2, 4, and 5.

Above all, never ever tell yourself that the task is impossible and that you can’t do it. Such negative self-talk can ruin your performance and possibly your career. Instead, think of the fun you’ll have at the show, and focus on having a good time on stage. As Matt Baldoni puts it:

Remember, it’s the concert itself that is in fact the reward. You’re not getting paid to do the performance, that’s the fun part. You’re getting paid to prepare for two weeks (or probably less), maybe stand around an airport for 12 hours, sleep in a hotel lobby until your room is clean, or deal with a drummer who plays too loud and just simply doesn’t like you all that much. The reward is the gig, and all the people you’re making feel so happy by being there.


This article draws from four separate blog posts on the subject of practicing and preparing for a show. For more information, readLearning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” by Matt Baldoni, “How To Learn a Ton of Music in Record Time,” by Dr. Geraldine Boyer-Cussac,Sight Reading: 6 Helpful Hints,” by Melanie Spanswick, and “Listen First, Learn Later?by Gretchen Saathoff. Ms. Saathoff has also written an excellent e-book on practicing, Goal-oriented Practice.

Steps to Understanding Notes and Intervals

Not my school, but you get the idea.

I teach piano twice a week to small groups of students at my middle school. Last week I began teaching them about intervals, and I noticed that I wasn’t getting the concept across in all cases. Nevertheless, I forged ahead with the examples in the book as though they were gospel, even as I made a mental note to research other methods for future lessons.

I still hadn’t thought of anything by lesson time today, when, as they were filing into my studio, it hit me.

“Come with me,” I said. “Let’s take a walk.”

We walked to the atrium, which houses two large staircases. They gathered at the bottom while I explained the game. I told them that these steps were the keys on the piano keyboard, and that we were working in the key of C. I announced the names of the “keys” as I dropped note flashcards on each step, starting with C and ending with G. I then told my students to stand on the notes that I called out.

That was fun! Some cried out as they marched up to F, “I’m winning! I’m winning!” Okay, I thought, this was going to work well.

It was time to try intervals. I asked them how many steps they needed to take from C to stand on G. One said 3, another 4.

“Well,” I said, “in music you have to start with the note you’re on and count it. You also count the one you end up on.”

“Oh,” one of them said, stepping off the interval. “One … two … three … four … FIVE!”

“Right!” I exclaimed. “Perfect!”

We went on like that. They counted up from C and down from G, and then they began counting up and down from wherever they were. A third down from F? No problem. A fourth up from D? Easy.

We then went back to the studio and worked out on mini whiteboards what these intervals looked like on the staff. I had them start with C and go up and down by various intervals. It was tougher than the steps, but they were able to get it since they had the concept. We then took our “compositions” back to the stairs and did some “sight-reading.” Finally, back to the piano to hear the piece.

I think my students enjoyed the break in routine as much as the activity itself. They’re in school all day, and my studio is a small, unused office with a donated upright in it. I love it, but to them it’s still a classroom. Today they got to move.

But as much as I enjoyed doing this myself, I doubt I’ll use a staircase to teach glissandi!