Musicial teamwork: the keys to collaboration

10 things to remember when you’re working with other musicians.

I just got back from Oregon where I played the part of Peter Gabriel in a re-creation of his Secret World Live concert experience. A nine-person band, two hours of songs, custom-built set pieces and stage extensions, 3D image-mapping and projection, choreography, the list goes on.

It was one of the most involved shows I’ve ever participated in from a planning perspective. In the execution, it went even better than I’d imagined — and we had the audience dancing in the aisles from the start of the concert.

Afterwards, I wondered “How the hell did we just pull that off so well?”

Simple answer: teamwork.

As musicians, we can forget when we’re stressed or (worse) desperate, but effective musical teamwork is built on a few basic concepts:

1. Time is your greatest resource.

Athletes don’t just show up for the first game of the season. There’s months of practice (and sometimes pre-season games) beforehand. The same should go for any musical project or production.

I was asked almost a year in advance if I wanted to participate in this Peter Gabriel tribute. The personnel (music, lighting, design, production, PR, etc) had mostly all been determined nine months ahead of the target date for the show. And the show itself had been dreamed up and storyboarded even further back than that.

I watched the original Secret World Live film and listened to the album nonstop for months and months. So much that I still hear my daughter singing Peter Gabriel songs to herself while playing with her toys.

The date and venue — a beautiful concert hall in Portland called Revolution Hall — were locked in well in advance, and the team did several technical walk-throughs to measure stage dimensions, explore lighting options, etc.

Leading up to the show we had two full weeks of rehearsal in a practice space that had been taped-off to the exact dimensions of the stage.

We had two days with a choreographer.

We had three days with our sound engineer at the rehearsal space, dialing in individual mixes and effects.

There are a hundred other details that needed to be ironed out as well, and the only reason the ironing got done is because time was on our side.

Plan well in advance. Budget your time accordingly.

2. Work with reliable people.

My friend Anders, a fantastic drummer and one of the producers of the show, was the person that asked me to be the singer. I immediately told him the idea made me nervous because my voice sounds nothing like Peter Gabriel. Gabriel’s voice is somehow both raspy and full, even when singing higher tenor and falsetto lines. Mine is much… clearer. (Less of that cool, rock rasp).

Anders assured me that no one expected me to sing LIKE Peter Gabriel, but that I was being asked because I had the vocal range to cover both baritone and tenor vocal lines, and more importantly, he knew I’d do my homework and step into the role with conviction and my own sense of emotional delivery. I would show up prepared.

All that to say, Anders was counting on me to do SOMETHING good, even if it didn’t exactly mirror Peter Gabriel in delivery, and to not slow down the momentum in rehearsal, because I’d be ready to get to work. He could rely on me.

Same goes for everyone on the team, all fantastic musicians, technicians, builders, etc. But more important than talent was preparedness.

Be ready.

3. You’ve got to be MORE than talented and reliable.

So yeah, talent and reliability are crucial. But there’s something else that is just as important to your musical team’s ultimate success.

It’s tough to define because it’s different for each team member, but I’ll explain it this way: One of the guitarists also served as the musical director, one of our backup vocalists was an important part of getting people out to the show thanks to her network of friends and followers, the bassist knew about set design and fabrication, the drummer was in charge of van and gear rentals, and so forth.

You’ve gotta bring something to the table besides your immediate musical contribution. Web design? Writing skills for your press release? Photography? Deep pockets? Whatever it is, contribute something beyond your talent and dependability.

4. Get over yourself and take chances.

This probably sounds like a self-help cliché, but if you don’t put yourself into situations that challenge you, you aren’t going to grow.

For me (and for most of the band) there was an initial discomfort with replicating the theatricality of the show, which is all about bridging distances. There are awkward, suggestive, and joyous dance moves, dramatic duets, and plenty of moments when I’m singing on my knees at the front of the stage while staring into the eyes of individual audience members. I’ve never considered myself a naturally charismatic performer, I’m more of a workman-like singer-songwriter, but this role required that I push through my inhibitions in a way that was frightening (at first) and ultimately… freeing, engaging, successful.

I think in this regard Anders had more faith in me than I did in myself.

The risk I took was showing up to practice ready to make a fool of myself, and to never nix ideas until we’d actually tried them. I think this helped everyone in the band get over themselves and just… dance.

I’m sure there’s a similar way in which you need to overcome something on your next big project, whether it’s writing a more vulnerable song, stepping out to the front of the stage for your solo, or risking rejection when you reach out to bloggers.

Risk it.

5. Delegate.

Once you’ve assembled a reliable team where each member has a particular skill set, it’s time to let go of the reins (a bit). There’s no way the three producers of the show could do everything themselves. So they had to trust that the set pieces would be built on time, that the band would be rehearsed, the PR campaign was underway, etc.

Of course they kept folks accountable with frequent check-ins, but they weren’t micro-managing.

That being said…

6. Every team needs leader(s).

We had three producers ultimately steering the ship. There’s a delicate but powerful balance that can happen when everyone takes ownership of their own area of expertise, while also feeling free to weigh in elsewhere.

With the “command structure” of this production, I deferred to the producers for the ultimate say, but one of our guitar players was tasked with musical direction, so it was his job to solidify the arrangements, make suggestions on everyone’s playing and singing, and so forth; I kinda took it upon myself to assist him with giving queues on stage (where solos end, when we exit a vamp, etc.) since I’m the guy wearing the bright outfit out front and all the players could see me. Our choreographer was in charge of movement, but everyone had input to shape the final show.

Anway, all this to say, it’s easier to make suggestions and collaborate when it’s clear who’s in charge of what, and who gets the final word.

7. Be clear about the rewards and penalties.

What does each person gain from contributing? Upfront money? A share of ongoing royalties? Fun? “Exposure?” What are you expecting? What should they expect of you? And just as important, what are you NOT responsible for?

What happens if you flake out, fail, or otherwise don’t deliver? Are there contingencies?

All of this should be communicated upfront. Terms, splits, payments, etc.

Contracts? Read ’em. If fair, sign ’em.

8. Use the tools.

You wouldn’t set out to create the next great EDM album with a 4-track cassette recorder and an acoustic guitar. (Well, maybe that WOULD be cool, but…)

You need the right tools to get the job done. For this production, with so much dancing, we needed the entire stage clear of monitors and cables, so everyone went with wireless in-ear monitors and wireless packs for their instruments. That required… a LOT of wireless packs, in-ears, plus those fancy antennas to broadcast all those signals. It also meant nine separate in-ear monitor mixes.

So we rented a bunch of gear, along with the same digital board that the venue has in-house. We brought it to our practice space along with all that other stuff to work out the tech and mixing details ahead of time, and saved the custom mix settings to load into the venue’s board on the day of show.

That’s just one of many examples of how we relied on a wide spectrum of tech (image mapping and projection, digital mixing, loops and samples, etc.) to make this show as good as it could be.

I don’t want this to sound like you need a billion dollars worth of the latest gear in order to be successful — in fact, Steve Lacy would tell you the opposite: start NOW with whatever you already have on-hand — but whatever tools you’re using, be sure they’re up for the task. This leads back to point #1: have adequate time to test and adjust.

If you don’t own what you need, call in favors, borrow, rent, or do that thing where you buy from Guitar Center and then return it after the gig (JUST KIDDING!)

9. Throw the Hail Mary.

Despite all the preparation, things will go wrong and you’ll have to scramble and improvise to navigate around the setback.

The only window of time our 3D-mapping expert could get into the venue to dial in his settings was the exact same time as soundcheck, so both processes were competing with one another, and both were delayed. This pushed right up to the time the doors were about to open.

It also meant we didn’t have time to do a cue-to-cue for every single song, which we’d planned to do with our sound, lighting, and projection teams. During the show, a few “important” lighting and projection sequences didn’t happen as planned.

I put “important” in quotes because you know what? No one in the audience knew any different. The music and performance had to carry the moment, and it did.

Things will go wrong. So be it. Roll with it. You might throw a desperate pass and win the game.

10. Celebrate, or at least post-game.

This Peter Gabriel tribute show I played was a success (bragging!) and we knew the moment we stepped off-stage that we’d done a good job. It was all love and congrats and celebration. That’s important. Striving to make a connection with music is a difficult path in life, and sometimes we’re too cool for our own good. It’s important, vital even, to sit on these little victories for a second and soak up the good feeling. (Those feelings might have to power you through some rough patches).

But even if your collaboration isn’t a smashing success, you should still rally the team afterwards, give thanks where thanks are due, figure out what could’ve been better, and assess how you’ll improve the next time around. Don’t just disperse into the night.

Win or lose, every team looks back on the game for lessons and a sense of camaraderie.

Have you had any successful collaborations lately? How about bad ones? Got any tips to share about musical teamwork? Let me know in the comments below.

[Picture of Real World Collective taken by Debra Penk.]

Here’s a video of one of the mellower Peter Gabriel tunes we played with stellar vocals from Margaret Wehr and some lovely audience participation at the end. Also, you can see some of the more animated songs HERE.