On Time And In Tune

Before moving to Nashville in 1999, I asked a lot of musician friends what skills I would need to improve my chances of getting work in Music City where everybody is a guitarist. I had a music degree and I knew I could play well enough to hang with other guitarists but I wanted to know what separated the guys who worked from the guys who worked… at a pizza place.

The best answer I got was from my friend Richard Aspinwall who had lived and worked in Nashville for years as a sound engineer and player. He put his pants on just like the rest of you — one leg at a time. Except, once his pants were on, he made gold records with Garth Brooks.

He had a very short answer for me when I asked about going to Nashville. He just said, “You’ll do fine. You’re always on time and you’re always in tune.” And the wisdom of that little statement helped me to work consistently alongside some of the best players in the world. I never made any gold records, but I rarely was hurting for work. I got gigs because of following simple rules that I didn’t necessarily learn in music school.

So is it really that simple to work in a town like Nashville? Just be on time and be in tune? Not exactly. But it is true that there are often-overlooked skills that separate the pros from the wannabes. Whether you are looking to play professionally as a career or once a month in the worship band at church, these little skills are usually not that hard to learn and adopt but make a big difference in not just your playing but your contribution to the band. And that makes everyone happy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of the tips I have learned from Richard and the other musicians I have worked with as a player, music director, and producer. Some of them will be general and some will deal directly with your instrument. So be sure to subscribe via RSS or email and check back starting tomorrow where I’ll dig deeper into “on time and in tune!”

8 Replies to “On Time And In Tune”

  1. You are so spot-on with this one, Joe and it has applications far beyond the musical realm. It really is true what Jesus said in Luke 16:10: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.”

    Being an elder in my church I have had a few guys come to me through the years asking whether I thought they were a good fit for “full-time ministry” or maybe even suited for foreign missions. Sometimes the answer is yes. Other times I have to level with people and tell them, “No. In my opinion I don’t think you are a good fit.” Almost without exception the people I’ve had to “level with” consistently and habitually failed in the areas you describe here. These are people who, for whatever reason, simply could not or would not show up “on time and in tune,” metaphorically speaking.

    One guy in particular was just sure he was cut out foreign missions. He had three people (his pastor and two of his elders) from our church tell him flat-out he wasn’t ready. He thought we were crazy and he went out on the mission field anyway…where he flamed out spectacularly. After laying low for a few years the same guy approached me late last year asking for a letter of recommendation because he was interviewing for a youth pastor position at another church. I refused to give him the letter, citing Luke 16:10. This is a guy who has attended our church since 2005 and has been on time to our services maybe (MAYBE!) five times. This is a guy that will disappear for months on end and won’t return phone calls, emails, or texts about how he’s doing or what is going on. This is a guy that, at best, only makes it to church twice a month. And it is really too bad because (to extend the musical metaphor) he has all of the “chops” it would take to be a great youth pastor. He is personable, has an uncanny ability to connect with kids on the fringe, has a tender heart toward youth in general, and loves the Church. But he can’t show up “on time and in tune.” He has been nowhere near faithful in “a very little” and it sabotages him at every turn.

    Being faithful, following through on your commitments, and showing up “on time and in tune” is one of the very best ways you can honor Christ, be a blessing to His Church, and give joy to those who keep watch over our souls (Heb. 13:17).

    1.  Man you’ve nailed it! It’s certainly true that this principle applies to everything. Tomorrow I’ll tell a story about my first gig in Nashville that I essentially stole from a guy who was arguably a better all around player but never put a tuner pedal in his rig. I’m also reminded of a certain guitar player at Coleman Jr High who shall remain nameless in case he Googles himself who had all the gear, all the chops, and all the hair but couldn’t even sit in with our band on a simple Van Halen tune!!

  2. From a pastoral perspective, here’s the deal. I’d rather have a mid-level player who is dependable, on time & in tune than a pro-level player that thinks they can come in whenever they want.

    I’ve had much greater talent mad at me because they wonder why I don’t use them in leadership at our church. Simple observations would answer their question. The rising stars (or leaders in the case of our church) are dependable, on time and always in tune in every application.

    If you don’t prioritize these few keys, you’ll never make it… no matter how “talented” you are.

  3. I agree Joe.  I have learned that there’s also politics in everything.  When working with Artists, you have to keep your mouth shut.  Ask them “what are you feeling?”(in terms of guitar parts,tone,etc).  Do exactly what they want, even if you personally think it’s not the right thing to play.  Also, when it comes to Nashville specifically, you have to know the balance of when it’s appropriate to play for little to no money, and when it isn’t.  Knowing how to not let someone take advantage of you and also finding a way to let it be known that you’re doing this for a living and for enjoyment without getting a reputation of being “stingy” or a “buzz kill”.  As you know in Nashville, there’s always someone looking for an opportunity to play and chances are, they’re probably as good, if not better than you.   To summarize, play for the artist and for the song, not for yourself.  Also, be “tone conscious”.  These are things that you help ingrain in me.  So, thank you! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *