Concerted efforts

A tale about music, a friendly audience and a learned lesson or two.

I’m an amateur musician. I come from a typical post-war Italian single income family. money was never abundant but enough to get my sisters and I through a fairly comfortable upbringing.

The priorities for us kids were school and sports, in that order. So I never had a chance to get proper musical instruction. Instead, I picked up an old guitar laying around the house and learned a few chords and basic licks on my own. I spent many afternoons and nights alone in my room, trying to make sense of this beautiful but at times unfathomable instrument.

Through the years I kept playing and learning, seeking like minded people passionate about guitar and music.

Ten years ago I finally managed to put together a band of “mature” musicians (we’re all in our middle-to-late fifties), playing mainly the blues, rock ballads and the occasional harder rock. We started to play local venues, not for money of course, but for the love of music.

In 2007 we played a gig that to date remains the biggest we ever played. This is the account of how my band and I prepared for that milestone gig and how, along the process, we learned a thing or two about business.

The ultimate reality check is that you are never as ready as you think you are.

Hard work in Stazione Centrale (Milan, Italy)

So we had about 12 weeks to go before the big concert, and this fact alone demanded the urgent development of a serious and detailed plan.

Truth is, we never really had much discipline for practicing, building song routines, refining arrangements, etc. We always struggled to find enough time to be all together and work on our songs. On the other hand, we knew very well that if we didn’t want to fail miserably we had to get at least a ten songs set together. And we’d better make it polished and tight.

Luckily, we managed to find the right place for practicing almost by accident. Our lead guitarist knew of a small room just below “Stazione Centrale”, the main railway station in Milan, where he used to practice and play years ago.

We quickly checked the place and it turned out to be just perfect. All it needed was a thorough cleaning and to move out some old furniture and music gear left over by previous users.

The upside of this place was that there was no danger of bothering anybody, as the room stood just a few meters below the main railway tracks! The downside was that it was free only on Saturday afternoons, plus it was in the center of Milan so the traffic to get there would be fierce.

We managed to get most of us together for a few Saturday afternoons in a row, and actually started practicing some songs, although of the six of us, only four were real regulars. Choosing the ten songs for the set wasn’t that difficult, and we printed out all the music sheets and lyrics for all the musicians. Then, my lead guitarist and I would chase the band missing member’s to get them up to speed with the songs.

Getting to the concert venue too early

As the date of the concert got closer, preparations got hectic. Stuff like selecting which guitar to play, getting them ready — replacing strings, checking setups — trying out guitar effects and arrangements. Doubts started to creep in too. Did we pick the right songs for the audience? Can I sing this song in that key?

Then suddenly the unexpected happened. The very same week of the concert, I had to catch a flight to Phoenix, Arizona for some business meetings. I had to scramble to make my way back to Italy on early Saturday morning, the very day of the concert, trying to memorise lyrics and chords while sitting on a plane flying over the Atlantic ocean.

As soon as I arrived home at about 8 am, I went straight to bed, trying to catch a few hours’ sleep. At around 4 pm we made our way to the venue, ready to familiarise with the place, checkout the stage, setup out our equipment and perform our sound check.

The first surprise was that the roadies were still putting the stage and the lighting rigs up. There was simply nothing to do for a few hours — which I would have gladly spent catching up on sleep!

Meanwhile backstage …

As the hours went by, things started to become rather frenetic backstage. We were the supporting number to a very famous Italian singer and his group, ultimate professionals with loads of gear, technicians and roadies.

So it was kind of cool to be part of all the preparations behind the scene, seeing how the pros worked in synch and followed a precisely organised set of rules and practices.

We were also interviewed by a local TV station, and I played an impromptu acoustic piece with our female lead singer on vocals. That helped control the anxiety buildup. (btw: unfortunately neither the interview nor the song was ever aired or made public, as far as we know).

And then we tried to keep warm as the evening was falling, and with it the cold (this was late October).

The 1 minute sound check

Time for our sound check. And we waited. And we waited some more. The pros were taking their time. I recall that they were unimpressed with the mixing console setup and some of the PA equipment provided by the organisers, so they took a very long time to complete their sound check.

At the end we were thrown on stage and had what felt like a 60 seconds drill. More than a sound check it was a “are the connection working” check. Nevertheless, we were ready (or so we thought…).

This is it: act 1

Suddenly it was our turn. We had seen people coming and the place starting to fill up, and tried to concentrate and loosen up at the same time, warming up on the guitars and the other instruments.

But when you get the call on stage, you know you’re bound to have butterflies in your stomach. Only — it did not happen! I guess the reason for that is that we had been waiting for this chance for such a long time that we were not only ready but super-eager to go.

The first part of our gig turned out to be ok. The first couple of songs were a little too tense, the music wasn’t really flowing that well. But then we managed to relax a bit, and we did improve on the playing, and the audience seemed to like it too.

The long wait.

There were other performers after us, I remember a belly dancer and a children choir singing “We are the world”, and other stuff. It slightly felt like a circus, or a Fellini movie. Weird…

So here we were, drinking hot tea in the backstage, thinking about how the first part of the gig went and exchanging tips and feedbacks. It felt like we had to wait forever, and I remember how cold it was getting and how we were desperately trying to keep warm.

This is it: act 2

Part 2 went a lot better. We meant business, and the songs we chose and played turned out tighter and probably better assorted too. So we just gave everything we had, and even got the audience to sing with us. It all worked very well until the grand finale on the notes of Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s door. Due to the lack of practice with the group, our drummer kept missing the cue and kept on drumming through. We had a hard time to make him understand it was time to wrap the song up, but at the end we managed to. It was slightly embarrassing, but the audience most probably never noticed anyway!

After the gig

Off the stage, the adrenaline went rapidly down. The main thing I remember is how suddenly very tired I felt — my body being on a timezone in between the US and Europe obviously did not help. We barely had time to congratulate each other, collect our gear and get back to our cars.

Looking back we should and could have played better. I guess this is quite normal with performers. You look back at your performance and can’t help but think of all the things you could have done better. Instead, I think we should be proud of what we had achieved, and of having finally lived our dream of being on a big stage in front of 5000 people, opening for a big ticket performer.

So what did we learn?

Well, for me it was a great learning experience. I finally had proof of how much I love being on stage, performing in front of people. It’s not unlike a business situation, similar indeed to presenting at a big conference or sitting in an important panel. You have all eyes on you, you know you can’t fail and at the same time you have the power.

People expects you to entertain them. To surprise them maybe. To take them places. I just love it.

The other thing I learned, is that it doesn’t matter how much you practice, you will always feel you should have practiced some more. I think this is because things will happen on the day that you never thought of. Like not enough time for warming up, sudden technical problems, challenging weather, an unruly audience, anything really. Again, I guess you can easily draw a parallel with business situations were you enter the meeting thinking of being well prepared and on top of things, only to realise that someone else out-smarted you.

The importance of strong teamwork was also a fundamental learning, especially in the preparation stage.

Surprisingly, the players that had practiced less still managed to deliver. I like to think that it was because the others — the hard practitioners — built the right container, a positive safe environment for them to do so. Business similarities spring to mind once again.

Great leaders give a sense of purpose and empowerment to employees, and then just get out of the way and enjoy the show.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading about our biggest ever show.

For us it was an exciting and rewarding experience, that got us closer as a group of friends, musicians and human beings. Nowadays we don’t have much time to see each other anymore, as they say life has taken us into rather different directions.

All is left is a wonderful memory to cherish. Forever.

I’m the author of “Leader$hip, an insider guide”, check it out on Amazon or on my website.