This article is written for all of us (and we have all had these moments; it is human nature), who ever thought that we were more important than the music we are playing. Ego is a very strong word and can be extremely prevalent in an artistic environment where our creativity can be judged at any moment.
As human beings, we all have a bit of ego. We have all had accomplishments that we have been very proud of and would love to brag about them. I know I have had these moments in my music career as well as my personal life (who doesn’t want to brag about their kids). The key to keeping these emotions from going overboard is in our attitude towards expressing them. This article is about the difference between ego and attitude, and how as musicians we need a bit of both, though balancing the two is the key to having positive musical experiences.
This word is defined as “a mental position; the feeling one has for oneself.” (Yes…I am a drummer and have no business using a dictionary, unless I don’t have a practice pad handy of course). We have heard our parents say to us “Don’t have such a bad attitude” or “Get rid of that negative attitude,” and I am sure there are many more you could fill in here. Our attitude is our personality, our approach to problem solving, dealing with stressful situations, and other daily events are directly related to our emotions and attitude. As human beings, we all deal with situations a little differently, as we are all unique. As musicians, we also deal with situations differently, but when our attitude slides out of control we start heading towards the ego side.
Musicians and artists as a whole can be a very insecure and defensive bunch. We are constantly trying to move ahead in our art, create new works, develop new techniques, etc. And all the while our art can be judged, criticized, picked apart, and hopefully even praised by our peers or anyone able to experience our creativity. This is a tough emotional balance for artists, and sometimes our attitude (when kept in check) is the only thing that can get us through. I share the same attitude as a lot of my fellow musicians, in that I create art for myself and my own expression, and it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t like my work. This is how I think, but society sometimes doesn’t feel the same way and is quick to judge anything in its path. Not fair, but it is the reality.
To have positive musical experiences in life, we must posess the right attitude and approach to what we do. As a predominant “side guy” in the industry, I am hired to play a lot of different styles of music. Most of this music is written by the artist that has hired myself and trusts me with their songs (a very big responsibility that I will cover in a different article). My attitude towards this artist and his musical creations are very important to me. I respect anyone who has written a song, good or bad (try it, it is not that easy). Also, are their any “bad” songs, or is it just our personal tastes that make them “bad” in our mind? (This is also another article).
When I am hired for a gig, the word attitude takes on several levels. I need approach the gig with a positive business attitude. Be organized, prepare the material properly, get all the details from the artis—communication is key. I must also be aware of the musical attitude for the show . Do I need a big kit? How big is the stage? What do the songs require for my gear choices? Does the artist have any preference on what gear I use? This may sound odd, but I have had artists prefer a certain sound (ride, snare, etc) for their live show. Hey, it is their music I am hired to play. I absolutely have to approach each song with the right attitude as well. Is the song rocking and I can border on a little cockiness? Is it a ballad and a sensitive brush approach is necessary? Is it a pop tune where a machine like attitude is required? Every song on every gig has it’s own personal attitude. I challenge you to be aware of this always.
You can see that our attitude can be the difference between a positive or negative musical experience. My advice to students is to always try and make good musical choices while playing, and to be professional in our approach and attitude towards our gift of getting to play music.
Ego is defined as the self-thinking, feeling, and acting distinct from the external world (so far no paradiddles on my Webster’s). As I had said earlier, my thought on ego is that it is attitude gone out of control. It is one thing to be proud and excited about positive things going on around us, both musically and personally, but it is another to constantly express these to everyone around us all of the time. This is ego.
Ego is quite a strong word and connotates very negative feelings and emotions. One of the best, or worst, examples of this is when a musician lets his ego take over on a gig. I have been on shows where players have put themselves so high above the music they are playing that I have almost had to leave the gig. “This music is mindless and boring,” “I would rather be home practicing than here playing these #@&* songs”. These are a couple examples of quotes I have heard over the years. I won’t even start on the money side of things, and how much these players figure they are worth! I am sure you have some gems of your own that you could share. My biggest peeve is when ego takes over on stage, and musical judgment and choices are tossed out the window, and it becomes the side guy show. One thing is for sure, you don’t remain employable for very long with a big ego.
By no means am I saying that I am perfect or exempt in the ego department. I have let myself get too big for my britches and made bad musical choices on a gig, or even comments that were self-absorbed. We all do this; it is human nature. But the lesson is to keep it all in check. I have a great group of musician friends that have no problem keeping each of us grounded and real if one starts getting too big for their britches.
When I was younger, I wondered if some very accomplished musicians were allowed to have a big ego, almost a free pass. As I aged a little, I realized that this theory was far from true—almost to the point of being anti-ego. One thing that I have done, and still do to this day, is to try and get a hold of musicians when they are through town to pick their brains. Now this may sound like stalking, but I want information from other players. We are all in the same industry. A lot of times I have to call the hotel where the group is staying and ask for the person by name, introduce myself and tell what I do, and see if they have a few minutes to hang out and chat. Sounds crazy, but I have met some amazing people and learned very valuable lessons in the process.
There was supper with Cactus Moser (Highway 101), a post show hang with Billy Thomas (Vince Gill), a one-hour pre-show hang with John Blackwell (Prince), a post show visit (and almost a laundry hang) with Mark Schulman (Cher), an afternoon with Chester Thompson (Phil Collins), lunch with Billy Ward (my muse, check out his latest trio CD and upcoming DVD), and this list goes on. One thing that I learned about them all, aside from their amazing musical abilities, is that they all posses this very real, anti-ego quality. They gave up time in their very busy days, to essentially hangout with a total stranger and talk music.
These experiences continue to be inspiring to me as I play music and meet more musicians like these amazing people. The lesson in all of this is that even though we all have different attitudes, and all have the potential to be egotistical at times, we need to keep things balanced and in check. We should never put ourselves above the music we are playing, it is a gift to do what we do, and we should never let our emotions go overboard.
Jayson Brinkworth is a professional musician, educator, author and owner of Music In The House based in Regina, Canada. Find him online here.