Putting Together the Band/Common Recruiting Mistakes

This is a series of articles on building an Irish/Celtic band in Arizona. In Part 1, I discussed the questions: “Do You Really Want To Be A Professional Musician?” and “Do You Really Want To Do Irish Music?” In Part 2, I looked at “Can You Fill The Role Of Band Leader?” and in Part 3 “What Kind Of Irish/Celtic Band Do You Want To Build?”

WHO SHOULD BE IN THE BAND?

In the Irish movie, “The Commitments”, the band manager advertised in the newspaper for musicians “with soul” and held auditions. What followed was hilarious as some of the least likely musicians to perform “soul music” auditioned. None the less, having a clear idea of kind of musicians that are needed is fundamentally sound. Holding a blind casting call for an Irish/Celtic band is not.

1) DEFINE THE STYLE OF MUSIC DESIRED – In Part 3, there was a discussion of the kind of music and styles that might be considered. This will define the type of players needed but also how to sell it to prospective band members.

2) DEFINE YOUR NEEDS – A “traditional band” needs a strong collection of instrumentalists who play Irish music instruments that blend together properly. Most pub band needs a lead vocalist, a second vocalist, and a fiddle.

Most folk and pub bands have at least one guitar player. Many pub bands includes a bodhran player as a primary instrument and the ones who do not have a full time player use the bodhran as a secondary instrument. The typical four piece pub band has a fiddle, guitar, bodhran, and either mandolin or bass guitar.

Instruments define the band more than any other factor. It is hard to imagine a harp in a pub band or saxophone in a traditional band or an accordion in a new age Celtic band. Sometimes bands will use instruments for certain specific pieces such as a the harmonica, highland pipes, bass fiddle and the like; but regular use tends to define them in a specific way. Instruments such as the flute, whistle, accordion, five string and tenor banjo, Irish bazouki, harp, hammer dulcimer, an uileann pipes are all popular.

Celtic rock bands generally include a percussionist that plays full drum kit. Instruments such as the highland pipes are being included in a variety of situations including rock vocals by the touring band Brother. It is extremely rare for a traditional or pub band to use a keyboard, although the contradance band Clusterfolk and touring bands such as the Natalie McMaster band uses keyboards to good effect.

A band leader that is a strong instrumentalist may need to find strong vocalist in order to do pub work. A pure vocalist that does not play an instrument will need a larger support band than one who plays something.

Instruments tend to blend in fairly specific ways. Most bands find that the banjo is “too thin” to be played regularly without guitar support. A new age Celtic group may want to find a flute or harp player. Seisiuns with only whistles and bodhrans have not been very successful.

The point is that the mix of instruments and vocal talents is very important. A mismatch of performers is unlikely to be successful even if they are all fine musicians in their own right.

RECRUITING

In recent years, most of the new Irish/Celtic bands have emerged from contacts made at the various seisiuns (informal Irish music sessions) or as a result of contacts made while playing in other Irish/Celtic bands. There are a variety of reasons why this seems to work better than other approaches such as recruiting people from “out of genre”. Seisiuns give a forum to watch players without an overt audition.

1) OBSERVE OVERALL PERFORMANCE SKILL – Almost anyone can learn to do one or two pieces competently if they practice enough. By watching someone at a seisiun, it is possible to see how quickly new material is absorbed, how well the player blends with other players, and the consistency of their playing.

2) DETERMINE THE SCOPE OF THE PLAYER’S REPERTOIRE – Players who are new to Irish/Celtic may not know that many songs (vocals) or tunes (instrumentals only). A great singer who only knows a half dozen songs may not be ready to perform as a lead vocalist for several months. Irish/Celtic concert performers might be able to get away with using sheet music, but pub bands and most other performers have to know all of their regular material by heart. A typical pub gig involves upwards of three hours of performance, so just learning the repertoire is a major challenge. Being able to do it well and to have it mix properly with the other players is an even greater challenge. Seisiuns are one of the few places where the player’s repertoire can be evaluated and expanded.

3) EVALUATE THE PLAYER’S STYLE – Just because a player is a fine musician and knows the material does not mean he/she is a good fit for what the band is trying to do. For example, a pub band needs vocalists who are comfortable doing rowdy drinking songs in addition to slower material. A traditional band needs vocalists who can sing without accompaniment and even better – sing in Gaelic. Often, the player needs to be able to do more than simply be able to play the kind of music the band does. The player needs to enjoy it and thrive on it. Style mismatches frequently lead to unnecessary conflict.

Some instrumental players do a great job with solo pieces, but are uncomfortable accompanying vocalists or playing for dancers. The ability to accompany other instruments is a crucial skill. Playing with others in a seisiun is a good start and give the observer a chance to evaluate how they do.

Out of genre players may need to learn a new style of performing. Standard folk singing style is usually too “laid back” for doing pub work. Church singers are inclined toward an overpowering style that does not fit Irish ballads. Classical musicians generally struggle when first learning Irish modal keys and dance rhythms. Classical violinists have to learn a totally different bowing style to play Irish fiddle tunes.

4) DETERMINE THE DEGREE OF VERSATILITY OF THE PLAYER – The smaller the band, the harder it is for players to do only one thing. The only real exception is the fiddle.

For example, it is rare for a trio to have a vocalist who does not play an instrument. Some instruments are not appropriate for certain songs. Some instruments like the banjo usually sounds better a certain kind of backup such as a guitar. Many fiddle tunes require strong guitar support. Someone playing a wind instrument such as a flute or whistle cannot sing at the same time, so may need to learn to use a vocal accompaniment instrument to do vocals such as the guitar or even the bodhran.

A large band (four or more) can have the luxury of having specialists such as a player who only sings, plays guitar, or only does percussion. However, it is not uncommon for larger bands to switch instruments in order to avoid having every piece sounding too much alike.

Seisiun players get a chance to demonstrate their versatility because experimentation is encouraged. It may be helpful to have players who are primarily instrumentalists add variety by doing just one or two vocals.

5) EVALUATE THE DEDICATION OF THE PLAYER – Since seisiun players play for the love of the music, it is easier to tell how serious the musician is by watching him/her play over a period of time. Being in a band is a lot more demanding than just showing up at a few seisiuns. Someone not already in a band but cannot find time to go to seisiuns, probably won’t find time to dedicate to a band.

6) EXAMINE THE PERSONALITY OF THE PLAYER – Some people are easier to get along with than others. Getting involved with a band is like entering a marriage. “High maintenance” people can be more trouble than they are worth, not matter how strong their skills. In the movie “The Commitments”, the lead singer is a real jerk who drives out one player and alienates the rest. Watching how someone treats everyone else is valuable.

Prospective players in turn will be watching how the band leader acts. Difficult people have a hard time recruiting strong players and even more trouble finding gigs.

7) ASK OTHER PLAYERS ABOUT A PARTICULAR PLAYER – The seisiun community is fairly close. The other players have a pretty good idea as to how good someone is, although no single opinion should be given too much weight. There is usually a consensus opinion about a player’s skill, repertoire, and personality.

This can be especially useful in evaluating instrumentalists. It takes a good ear to pick up whether a player is skipping notes or is not really getting it right. If you are looking at fiddle players, ask other fiddle players what they think of the performer’s play. It is also useful to ask step dancers if the player can play dance music. The only downside with relying on the consensus of seisiun players is that some players use seisiuns to work on practicing secondary instruments. We have a fine guitar player who only plays an accordion at seisiuns, but plays backup for a well known touring performer when he comes to town and sometimes when he goes to Europe.

8) TAKE THE TIME TO DEVELOP A PERSONAL CONNECTION – Even after going through everything else, developing a personal connection is important. Someone could be a fine player but if the personalities don’t click it would be a mistake to hook up.

Most players get to know each other by sitting around “jamming” outside of the seisiun scene. This process needs to develop at its own speed. Even if the connection does not turn into a regular performance band, there are always opportunities to do “pick-up” performances or have the player sit in with the band.

A common source of tension occurs when the player may not be in total agreement with the direction the band is going. It takes time to become totally clear on what the band is trying to do.

COMMON RECRUITING MISTAKES

There is no magic formula for finding the right players for the band. Some approaches seem to be less successful in recruiting players for the typical Irish/Celtic band (I will leave out the “rock style” and “folk/rock” categories that allow for a different approach).

A) RECRUITING FROM OUT OF GENRE – Some fine players have joined Irish/Celtic bands without any Irish/Celtic experience and have done reasonably well. Most do not. Irish/Celtic music is substantially different than other genre’s including related styles such as blue grass. Classical players are frequently confused by the radically different accompaniment styles, the heavy use of non-major keys, and distinctive rhythmic patters that define Irish/Celtic music.

Vocalists have to be able to sing in certain keys, due to the nature of the instruments being used. Most Irish songs are done in D, G, A, or C (and their minor key equivalents). Many Scottish tunes are done in B flat. Demanding an odd key can exclude certain instruments such as the whistle, uileann pipes, and to a certain degree the fiddle and mandolin.

Players who are not totally dedicated to learning a new way of playing are very likely to fail. Most players learn by listening to CDs and from other players. Serious players are willing to ask questions of players who play the same instrument. Out of genre players often feel as if they are starting over and may resist the process.

Part of the problem is that the band leader rarely knows the player’s instrument nearly as well as the player, so the out of genre player is likely to resist being told HOW to play. This is not as big a problem with bands doing Celtic Rock or Celtic Pop, but it can be a real problem with bands doing traditional or Irish folk/pub music.

People who appear promising should be encouraged to attend the seisiuns, get the seisiun tune books and lyrics books, and obtain CDs of Irish/Celtic music. Great musicians can pick it up pretty quickly, but it takes a lot of dedication and a certain amount of time. It is better to go through this process prior to joining a band rather than after.

B) PLACING A PRIORITY ON FRIENDSHIP – Most successful bands are made up of people who are friends with one another. However, friendship should never be the first priority – it must be the music. Anytime a band leader is afraid to tell a player that something needs to be improved for fear of hurting the relationship, the band is doomed. Selecting a player just because he/she is a friend rather than because the friend is best choice is always a mistake.

Some of the most intractable problems occur when spouses (or unmarried couples) are involved in a band that includes more than the couple. It can be especially difficult in situations where one of the people is the band leader and other players have problems with the spouse. Some bands handle it well, but the addition of a spouse must be justified on musical terms.

The movie “The Commitments” had a major story line based on the problems of jealousy when band members become involved romantically. Bands with men and women in the band have to make sure that spouses and girlfriends/boyfriends are comfortable with the fact that the band members will be spending a lot of time together.

C) IGNORING TIME CONSTRAINS AND OTHER PRIORITIES OF THE PLAYER – Sometimes the “perfect” player is not in another band simply because the player was unavailable for gigs very often. If the band aspires to play every weekend, the player is unlikely to be available all the time. This person would be a bad choice for one band, but might be great for a band that only wants to play once or twice a month.

It is better to wait than to choose someone who is not a good fit.

D) NOT RECOGNIZING THE PROFESSIONAL NEEDS TO THE NEW PLAYER – Recruiting a strong vocalist but not letting the him/her sing is a classic way to lose someone. Recruiting a song writer, but never performing the material, is another way to drive someone out. It is not possible to give every member of the band everything he/she wants; but the professional needs of those players needs to be addressed.

E) NOT AGREEING ON THE SKILL LEVEL OF THE PLAYER – An major problem can arise when the player disagrees on the band leader’s evaluation of the players ability.

Some players think they are better than they are and should be featured more. In some cases, there are players who can’t sing who insist on doing vocals or doing vocals that are not suited to their voice and range.

The opposite problem emerges when a player refuses to do more than the minimal required. This may mean not being willing to do backup vocals, to learn another instrument, or learn new material. This is not always obvious when starting out. Ask people who played with them in the past about how hard they work at it.

F) CHANGING DIRECTION OF THE BAND – A serious problem emerges when the band changes direction and the player no longer fits the direction the band is going. In many cases, it is easier to start over than to deal with resistance from players who do not agree to the change.

THE SEARCH NEVER ENDS

No combination of musicians lasts forever. The legendary band, the Chieftains have change personnel frequently over the almost forty years (Paddy Maloney is the one true constant). In many cases, the players they have recruited were even better than the people they replaced.

The band leader should be constantly evaluating other players on the off chance that they might be needed or come available. They may be needed to fill in for an absent player or just be added for a gig to add a little variety. If a new player is need, then the band is ready.

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