The Art of Band Leading


Duke Ellington Playing Piano


Being a solo artist who hires accompanying musicians (sidemen) requires a certain set of skills that maximize individual and collective benefit, working to ensure all involved get paid well and perform at their best. Thus it is important to have a certain set of skills, or develop certain qualities to be a successful leader on and off the bandstand. And though not everyone wants to actually lead a band, having these skills and qualities also ensures that you will be a successful sideman: the first choice of bandleaders themselves.

What also makes these skills and qualities extra important is that they give us the skills and mindset necessary to succeed in other areas of our life. Being able to apply them to our financial management skills, lifestyle, major purchase decisions (house, car, etc.), relationships, and so on builds a strong base for our musical careers, making sure our lives don’t interfere with or adversely effect our ability and opportunities to perform.

The first thing we must do is develop our talent in a way that maximizes our creative and technical abilities. Write the most interesting music you can, making it challenging, creative, logical, flowing, a mix of easy and challenging keys, and so on. Sometimes less is more, and simplicity is the key. Sometimes the music should push the musicians to play at their best technical level. A great way to maximize our own playing potential is always practice (concentrate) like you are in front of an audience. The way to do this is to imagine a crowd is watching you. What this does is ensure you will practice the piece at a manageable speed, not make careless mistakes and just brush them off, prepare your mind/body for the “joyful stress” of live playing, and develop superior powers of concentration.

Next we must take this kind of focus and consistency from practicing and apply it to band leading. We now must: choose the set list, make sure all arrangements are in the right key and contain no transcription or transposition mistakes, send out the set list and charts to members as soon as possible (sometimes even via e-mail months in advance), schedule rehearsals, or at least create an evening of music one can prepare for sufficiently if there is no time for any rehearsals, and the band will meet at the sound check for the first time, which happens a lot in jazz combo gigs.

This also highlights another very important quality a bandleader must have in order to be successful, as well as the kind of leader sidemen prefer to play with. As your career as jazz quartet leader for example often relies on finding a new set of sidemen for each gig, you want to maximize your chances of getting the best players by creating such a positive experience for your band, the word will get out and people will want to be onstage with you. I have seen way too many “bandleaders” scuttle their careers by doing the opposite; so developing a certain kind of personal character in band leading is essential. This means you should always surround yourself with sidemen who are better musicians than you are, and no matter how many awards or praise you get as a musician, always consider your sidemen as the real key to your success. Developing or cultivating true humility is hard to do, but it is essential as a bandleader, and can be accomplished when you know that the other three people in your quartet will make you play better; bring out your best. One great way to express this is to be open to suggestion, asking the group if there is something they think might help your music reach the audience more powerfully, etc. This is your chance to learn, and see your music from an “outside” perspective, and I’ll guarantee you will benefit from it much more often than not.

The positive flip side to this open-mindedness is leadership: being able to take suggestion and also have the confidence to reject changes without being dictatorial about it. It is your band, and you have the final say in what goes on. And if the sidemen don’t like it, make very sure that you are not being unreasonable. Beyond that, all bandleaders will face resistance of some sort no matter how reasonable you are, so do not be surprised by it. It will happen, and how you manage it will demonstrate to your sidemen that at least you listened to them. Showing them respect also does not mean pampering them. Hold your self to a higher standard than others, but never forget to (politely) hold your sidemen to the standards they should hold if they claim they are professionals. A great way to do this is to make sure the group understands in advance before agreeing to play with you that you run your band a certain way. If they don’t like it then you are giving them a fair chance to say no to working with you, as it should be.

It is also not a crime for a bandleader to be bold, to step up to the plate and not bend to public tastes and opinions, IF one’s creative vision conflicts with them. One should never assume that if one’s music is not popular, or a genre that is considered experimental/avant-garde, that the public is “at fault” if it is not received in a preferable way. Ignorant audiences do exist, but more often than not, resistance to our music should be considered an opportunity to either improve what we do or continue to make it as we see fit. But the audience is never “to blame” for your career. Our only goal as artists is to make our stuff, put it out there, and hope it finds the kind of people who like such a thing, no matter how many or how few they are. If “society” is to blame for 100% of our career, then we are deluded… not victims. Even artists like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba found a way to reach their audiences after being treated horribly by the apartheid government of their native country South Africa.Their example should embolden us to be true to our art, no matter what the cost. Clarinetist Ivo Papasov himself risked imprisonment and/or being murdered by the government for merely making his own music: a way of resisting the Bulgarian Socialist enforced nationalization of ethnic minorities. Being disliked for the right reasons is important, if it happens at all. 

We must take responsibility for our part, especially when it is our fault. If you have a free jazz trio and you get yourself booked as an opening act for a death metal band, you deserve every swear word launched at you by the audience for not being smart enough to know you are probably not going to be liked very much that night. But the flip side is that if you think your band plays a kind of free jazz that a heavy metal audience might be surprised to find that they actually like, then have the courage to book the gig and accept the results. There is a difference between genius and garbage, and we as artists must concede that we are potentially capable of both, no matter how great we think we are. But if we know the difference, then we can cement our reputation as a strong leader by making a stand… at the right time, for the right reasons. A good band leader will be disliked by some people and liked by others. So make sure we earn our resistance and praise the right way, for being true to our art and damn good at it as well. Even if we go down in flames, we can still earn respect for having the courage to fight to the very end.

(Note: it is important to also remember that, as psychologist Robert Zajonc proved, Novelty is most often associated with uncertainty and conflict, emotional states that produce negative affect. So we must remember that even if we make audiences familiar with our music, some will grow fond of what we do, but other will remain resistant to it because it remains negatively affective often for reasons beyond our control: memory, cultural background, aesthetic taste, etc.

For example, we learn things through active experience, participating in education (teachers ask questions, students try and answer them). As we participate we apply our reasoning/values and construct meaning in our minds (how we “process” information). The next step in “knowing” is revisiting that information as new data is introduced to us, revisiting and reconstructing what we learnt previously. We do this in many areas of “knowing” and then connect our knowledge, ideas, and beliefs about art to religion, religion to politics, politics to philosophy, etc. Then when our beliefs are undermined or challenged by evidence to the contrary, we experience “cognitive dissonance”, and can either change our beliefs… or find a way to make the new evidence consistent with our beliefs, i.e. refuse to believe the new evidence, reinterpret certain scriptures as figurative rather than literal, etc. This also occurs in aesthetic taste, and all artists are critiqued and/or rejected by at least a few people because of this phenomenon). 

This means you must also be resilient. Not only will you have to lead a band when disputes arise, but face off against critics, certain audiences, club owners, sound technicians, booking agents, airport ticket counter clerks, customs officials, hotel managers, and various other people in charge of what is not under your control. AND you will often have to face off against these people while pressed for time, sick, jet-lagged, hungry, and/or in your second or third language… often all of them simultaneously if you are performing oversees. You will be tested by overseas performing, expect it and prepare for all things going wrong all at once so you are ready for anything and everything. The great bandleaders inevitably are coolheaded, and hold themselves to a higher standard than others. Thus, if you effectively deal with resistance, you can make the lives of those around you better, and gain great respect for being willing to shoulder your responsibilities without complaining about it. You’re the leader. You don’t get to whine or cry!

This means you must come to embrace failure and rejection, completely and openly. 1000 rejections = 1000 opportunities to develop thicker skin and greater wisdom. We all make mistakes, but once we reduce these mistakes to a minimum, we must accept and deal with the mistakes and lack of wisdom by others. Every leader is different, but I have noticed that the great ones, deep down in their souls, love the difficulties of leading. It is “fun” to them on an existential level. They relish creative conflict, and aren’t afraid to lose a few battles to win the greater war of their career. In this sense leading is fun, and if you don’t find it fun, then don’t be a bandleader. It is hard and stressful, and not for the faint of heart, especially in the 21st century. There is no shame in having other priorities in your life. But if you are a natural born bandleader, then you must do it. They say “the north wind made the Vikings”, because they had so much to overcome and so much cold weather, freezing water, and bone chilling wind to contend with it made them super strong and ferocious. Relish the vicious “north winds of band leading”, they are the only way to the top.

The next thing then to consider is what happens on the bandstand, especially your banter. Some people are good at just going with the flow and talking between songs. Others are better at just introducing each tune and keeping the banter to a minimum. I even know some people who type out their banter before hand so they always have something clever or interesting to say between songs if they need it. Whichever you prefer, it is wise to remember this quote from Voltaire: “the secret to being boring is to reveal everything”. Many of my favorite bands and artist say next to nothing, only speaking to the audience for the first time five songs into a performance. What this does, if done correctly, creates interest in what you might say next, if you are going to say anything at all in the next 30 minutes or more. This style is not for everyone, but it is a good example of how certain personalities can use this technique to great advantage. So your banter should be effective by being suited to your personality, while also considering how the audience might react to it. As time goes by you will find the right approach for your personality, and then if some audiences not respond to it as favorably as others, at least you know that you being true to yourself and have done the best you can.

Finally, the summation of all these skills or ideas is you should be a bandleader at all times. It is not something you shut off and turn on. It makes (or at least can make) you a certain kind of person; a person who makes things around them better by being a positive, responsible, thoughtful, in control of themselves, courageous and strong in the face of doubt and opposition. Band leader Duke Ellington would greet late night visitors to his hotel room wearing a suit and tie, with a flower in his lapel, even if he was woken up at 2 am; he held himself to this almost unbelievable sartorial standard in the same way he approached writing music and leading his band. Duke sent a clear message to the world; he was the gold standard for bandleaders because he practiced what he preached.

The art of leading a band is something that one learns over a long time, but keeping these few basic ideas in mind you will be set to maximize your success at any stage in your career.



5 thoughts on “The Art of Band Leading

  1. Is it PC to call the ‘sidemen’. i am kidding. Y’know, in England lines men in football, petitioned for the new title of assistant referee & won. They are no longer linesmen. This just reminded me of that.
    i never led a band, when i was in a band we had a bully bassist & he ran the show, i was too young & just pleased to have been asked to be in the band, but because he didn’t lead the band well i ended up quitting to go play gigs on my own, because “i didn’t need to take his shit when i can do shit on my lonesome.” Not an actual quote. But i did start to veer off from the band when i tried to give input & though i am no musician i know more about music technically than any one else, but my opinions fell on deaf ears & the band fell apart when i left. i suppose i should blame you for not having written this article earlier. haha.
    Some good advice as ever Mr Schnee. As to leading i got offered a few management positions in my life & always turned them down, even now i rebel against my wife calling me boss or 사장님 to guests. i know i know, belief in yourself n’ all that, but i like being the little person, even though people tell me i am not.

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