From my Bucket List: Small Ensemble Musings

“As good as I am, I’m nothing without my band.” ~ Steven Tyler

I was thinking about some of the things on my bucket list, most of them job, family and music related. I am not brave enough to share my list, but I do often talk about some of the things on the list. This blog post is where I attempt to wax poetic about the music things I’ve done in the last ten years.

Dissoance2010suzyMeOne of the first groups I established was the Dissonance. It was a 4-horn band playing jazz standards. Having returned to music performance after a ~30 break, I went about taking lessons, buying music, amps, and such. Eventually we even got a world-class vocalist to join the group.

I was fortunately enough to attract some really talented friends to join the group. We played 6 to 8 gigs a year and practiced every other week. These were heady times.

PGSQ09fbAbout 4 years ago I started up a sax quartet that gigs 4 to 5 times a year and practices two to three times before the gig. Once again I was able to entice some really good players to sit in. Don’t get me wrong, the players have changed over the years. But a lot of really good players don’t mind sitting in with a group where the music, events, and practices are all taken care of by someone else.

Fun2009For the last seven years or so I have run the Microsoft Jumpin’ Jive Orchestra (was Microsoft Jazz Band). This has been the most enjoyable, most time consuming project of all. Imagine getting 20 people to show up every week for practice, finding music that is interesting to the audience and challenging to the players, and schlepping all the gear around.

I have some thoughts that run through my mind that I thought I’d share with my gentle readers. These are not presented in any order or precedence. And they come to you from a hobbyist, who although plays in paid gigs every year, has never been in a musician’s union and will never make any money running these groups. It truly is a labor of love. You can hear (probably way too many) videos of the various groups on my YouTube Gandalfe’s Channel.

1. What ever music ensemble you want to put together, picking the performers will be the one of the most challenging part of the operation.

a. Sometimes the best player is not a team fit. There will those who love to play who want to just show up for one practice and the gig. With sadness and firmness, I have to let these folks walk. Most of them have more playing opportunities then they can handle.

b. Then there are the folks who who show up for every practice, but never get their parts down. It is pretty easy to see that they aren’t practicing. Too many of these players and the good players will leave.

c. Sometimes a great player will leave for no apparent reason. Always take the time to determine why this happened. This is a people game; you live and die by the people who are passionate about your project. When they leave, it’s time to take stock of what’s going on. Sometimes they will tell you what precipitated the exodus; most times they will not.

d. Don’t get to emotionally attached to one player. This is a group, and as such, no one person should have undue influence.

2. Be open to change. Everyone has a favorite song, genre or instrumentation. But if the group wants to try something new, the leader has to be flexible enough to give it a go.

a. I’m a Basie guy. But most of our audiences can only take so much Basie. Sigh… I just need to be happy with 2 or 3 Basie numbers a concert.

b. If someone brings a number to try, no matter how out there it is, try to give a read. Usually the band will agree with you and the song will not make it.

3. Get gigs for the group. Just having a practice session might be fine for some people, but the best players need to perform. That’s where the growth is. I try to make as many of them for pay as possible, even if it is $20 a player.

4. For a hobbyist there is no money in music performance. Keep your day job. But enjoy, no revile in chances to perform publicly.


I started all these groups so that I could perform. Now I sub for another band regularly, have a regular 6-day theater run of a USO band every year, and fill the rest of my dance card with time in the Woodinville Community Band.

I hear so many musicians say that they only play alone at home. I can’t relate. To me, being a musician is more about the people and group ensembles. Practicing by myself, although necessary, is not where I want to spend all of my time. I truly understand that it takes certain skill group to run an organization, let alone a music ensemble. But maybe some of my musing will be start of another great group.

About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra) a GOLD sax quartet, and enjoy time with family and friends.
This entry was posted in Band, Band Management, Big Band, Bucket List, Hobbies, Jazz, Music, Sax Quartet, Seattle, WCB, YouTube and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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