February/March 2015

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part 6 – Last-Minute Emergencies

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part 6 – Last-Minute Emergencies

Over the past five NZM issues I’’ve taken you step-by-step through the hands-on process of nightclub gigging – from transport to soundcheck, changeovers to set order, and even stage etiquette.

I’ve outlined how to deal with most situations, and what should happen when things go right. But they seldom do, which is why the last item in our Peak Performance series deals with when things go wrong. Not that you should be a pessimist – but rather, you need to expect that part of your job as a performer is dealing with emergency situations. No matter what happens, the show must go on.

Technical Emergencies & Emergency Kits

The most obvious, easiest thing you can do to prepare for the unexpected is to anticipate it. The basis of everyone’s emergency kit should be a charged cellphone, some spare cash and a relative level of sobriety. Those three things may get you out of the worst situations immediately. Add to that a dependable set of procedures such as I’’ve laid out for you in the first few articles of this series; reliable transport, safe storage of instruments, and so on.

After these universal safeguards come each player’s instrument. Guitarists should have at least two complete sets of strings at all times, and perhaps even one or two extra 1st or 6th strings, depending on how your strings last and playing style. Add to this extra picks and a backup for any other device you may use, like a capo or slide. Build a basic repair kit with a screwdriver, string winder and wire cutters.

You might also throw in a tuner and your own DI box. Bass guitarists may only need one extra set of strings, but everything else is essential.

Then there are the externals like effects boxes, amps, and cables. It’s not reasonable to carry a backup cable for every single box on your pedal board but you should have at least a few extra shorter effects cables, spare instrument leads and a backup amp-to-speaker lead. Spare fuses, tubes and batteries should also go into your emergency kit for each one of your devices that needs them. Throw in an extra jug lead while you’re at it, because they break down more often than you might expect.

Drummers usually have this sorted, as set up and teardown for their kits is already pretty involved. Nevertheless, extra snare head, another drum key and many spare sticks are a given. A bag of hardware is useful when the vibration from playing causes things to fall off – wingnuts, bolts, cymbal sleeves, felts, pedal springs and beaters, etc. And of course, a patch kit is essential for emergencies, along with a roll of gaffer tape.

Logistical Emergencies

Every gigging situation has its own unique set of variables. There may be no other way of safely getting your gear in the venue other than to cart it several blocks or risk a parking ticket. You may realise on the day that you haven’’t planned how certain band members or their gear is going to arrive.

Obviously, this is a topic so messy that there’s no way to cover any specific problems, the only thing you can do is to prepare. For logistical band emergencies this involves three steps. The first is to think individually. Each band member should be preparing as much as they can to handle their own personal business in relationship to the gig. Each of you should have your own checklist, with things like: “How am I getting to the gig? Do I know how we’re going to deal with changeovers as the middle act?”” and so on.

The more that people personally take responsibility for the logistics of an event, the easier it is to implement the second step, thinking collectively. Once you can count on everyone to have thought ahead to sort what they can on their own, then you can come together to solve those problems that only a group can solve. Sometimes it takes several heads put together to anticipate a problem, not to mention think up a range of possible solutions.

The third step is what develops after a series of performances – learning from experience. In some ways, the whole business of popular music is a constant emergency, because there’’s no set way of doing anything, everything is ready to come apart at any time. A manager spends more time putting out fires, tying down loose ends, and building bridges over huge pits in the road up ahead, than they ever spend in booking gigs. The only road map is a sense that develops over time of what upcoming crisis needs management. Sometimes that sense of what to expect is the only insurance a professional musician can rely on.

Personnel Emergencies

These are the hardest to do anything about. Almost nothing can be done to save a gig if your drummer breaks a leg getting out of the van or if your keyboardist walks off in a huff during the middle of a set. A situation that takes a (non-replaceable) band member out of the mix is usually best dealt with by cancelling the appearance with as much grace as you can. If the band can perform an impromptu gig as a smaller act without the missing member, then you may add a certain spontaneity to your appeal.

The most common personnel emergency is conflicted personal feelings. We’’re all human, and we all perceive and imagine things differently. Sometimes the tension around performing brings many contrary emotions to the surface in a way that puts members at odds with each other and threatens to stop a gig before it starts.

Sometimes, the only thing that really helps is to listen. If someone has been holding on to a grudge for months and just has to air it before soundcheck, then you may just have to let them get it off their chest. It might even help the band move forward over a crisis that some members didn’t even know existed.

After hearing people’s grievances, the best response for the gig’s sake isn’’t to argue or challenge, even if some of the statements were hurtful. If you feel that the band can still move forward from that personal crisis and have a successful gig on the night, then it pays to be supportive, and for the moment accepting of your bandmate’s feelings. Remind everyone of the responsibility that’s been taken on by booking the gig, the followers who are gathering in the audience, and the opportunity that awaits by following through. Remember that the noblest part of us is the ability to get past our grievances and mutually face the challenges ahead with optimism and courage. Then get on that stage and give it everything you’’ve got.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.