At some point in the process of Building Your Band™, probably not long after its inception, you’re going to want to add musicians beyond those you personally know. Normally this is done is through a process of auditions. I’ve seen a trend of using video interviews to weed out the first round of auditions, and that could have some utility if you have a lot of auditionees and don’t want to have to face them all and/or if you want make the barrier to entry higher. But eventually you’re going to want to meet with someone face to face.
For some reason, this seems to be perceived as a rather stressful situation. But I want to argue that stress is what happens when we let someone into a band that shouldn’t be there. I would suggest that there are two reasons we’re holding auditions. One, because we want to work with good people, not just talented people. And secondly, because we want to be able to set those people up for success and not create situations in which they can’t live up to our expectations.
We’ve all been in bands that have worked, and others that have not worked. This is my list of things that I think are important when everything is working, and therefore these are the things that should be covered in the interview.
Prerequisites. There are going to be any number of prerequisites that are informed by your community values. Those may or may not be things like membership or a particular faith experience or testimony.
Dependability. In two areas, punctuality and preparation. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to rehearse because a key person isn’t there. Being late or not giving yourself enough setup time disrespects everyone else’s time, as does not having done your homework (learned the chart, prepped your sounds). This is not something you want to be fighting every time this person plays. As high as you can set this bar in the audition process, do it. Close the doors at 1 min after the appointed time. Require them to bring marked up copies of their charts showing their prep. Ask for references.
Equipment. I just can’t take a musician seriously if they don’t have their own equipment. The most obvious question is how are they staying proficient if they don’t have their own axe? First comes the commitment to their craft, then comes the gig, not the other way around.
Keyboardists need to differentiate themselves from pianists, and part of the way they do that is having command of an arsenal of sounds (vice playing yours). Similarly you couldn’t possibly know a guitarist’s sound without hearing their rig. And wouldn’t you want to hear the bassist’s amp so you have some idea how they hear bass? I would even ask a drummer to bring in their own snare (and if they have any favorite cymbals) so you have a sense of their taste as well. And if your acoustic guitarist shows up without a built-in pickup, it raises questions of how they will play week to week. You wouldn’t even think of asking a mandolin or cellist to audition unless they had an instrument, right? The instrument is such a vital part of the sound that every person brings, I think it deserves to be part of the audition.
Theory: scales / chords (M/m/7ths/sus) / key signatures / time signatures. You don’t need to bury someone with theory, but you have to have a sense of how far they have gone and how much that impacts them given the context of the kind of music you do. I was surprised to learn one day in the studio that one of my favorite drummers didn’t know what a 2/4 bar of music in a 4/4 song was. However, it made little difference, because I could play it for him and he got it after one try – beside the fact that his time was always impeccable. But there is a judgment call here. If you don’t know the difference between a M7 vs. a m7, do you want to spend rehearsal time explaining that? Or maybe you don’t care enough and can say “ignore the 7ths, someone else will cover those”.
Proficiency. Sure you need to play at a certain level, but communicating what needs to be played is part of that. Ideally, someone could learn a song by ear from an MP3, both riffs (specific key notes) and chords (which they voice however they want). I wouldn’t require someone to know how to read sheet music “notes”, and in fact I would consider needing notes to actually be a liability. So, a solo instrumentalist that can play by ear is invaluable. In fact, everyone should be able to improvise. And the ability to read a chart, even sight-read a chart is just as important when the inevitable set list changes come up.
Time. Everything that happens musically happens against this canvas. So the ability to play in time or to set time even, to create a pocket, to not rush or lag, but to push or to pull just the right amount, even with contradictory dynamics (fast and soft, slow and loud), is essential, as is the ability to play to a click. Everyone is somewhere on this scale. This is one of those things that never stops being important, and continues to be more important the longer you do this. Make playing in time to your satisfaction part of the audition.
Pressure. I’ll be honest and say I don’t understand the argument that an audition is a lot of pressure. Playing with a half dozen or dozen potential team members in a closed room is not pressure. Playing with a fantastic band and not being able to keep up is a lot of pressure. Having to cover the intro to a song in a service in front of hundreds or thousands of people with stage lights alternately blinding you and leaving you in the dark is a lot of pressure. I would argue an audition should be friendly and positive and you should set that tone, and folks better be able to handle that little bit of pressure.
Capacity. This is the ability to remember changes or arrangement choices, and it’s something we all have to build up. It looks like this: “Ok people, listen up, we’re going to double the intro, then go right into a chorus before dropping back for the first verse. We’ll then do a normal chorus, verse 2 and chorus before going into the bridge. On the bridge I want everyone out except the acoustic guitar and kick on 2&4, and then we’re going to build back up on a double bridge, then right into the chorus a cappella with only the drum kit. Then everyone in for two more choruses, and end on the first line of the first verse without resolving. Got it?” Ideally someone can hear that once, see it in their head, maybe jot a few notes down on their chart, and not miss any of those changes an hour later when you’re doing it live. And do that equally well for six other songs.
Personality. All things being equal, even things being a little unequal, personality plays a huge role in getting the gig, and more importantly, in getting called back for the second or third gig. This is true for session musicians – the best our discipline has to offer – so why wouldn’t it be true for us simple live musicians? We need to be able to take direction, to accept critiques and suggestions, to try to respond to the vision of a producer. So make critiquing and suggesting changes part of your audition process. See how people handle it, how they respond. See if they take it personally, or if they really try to hear what you are saying and try to do it. Get off on the right foot and let people know that taking feedback and open honest communication is key to success.
X-factor. This is art. Although music has some logical and even mathematical structure to it, it is ultimately judged on the basis of intuition and interpretation – the ephemeral “beauty” if you will. This is another way of saying that not everything that counts can be counted. Auto-tune gets you perfect pitch. An emotional gut-wrenching interpretation comes from a heart overflowing. You can judge what you hear against some of the other factors we mentioned, but don’t get too wrapped up in doing a consumer report index for each audition. Folks are either above the line (in) or below the line (not in), and you’ll know the answer to that question. If they are above or below the line you can rank folks, but there is no number that says they are in or out.
So those are my thoughts. Anything else you think I missed?