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From Amateur to Pro: A Discussion with John Miller

From Bedroom to Business- John Miller by John Kuhlman-1

Bassist John Miller

In previous articles in this series exploring what it takes to make it as a professional musician today, we’ve talked to working bassists making a living in a wide variety of musical scenarios ranging from bar bands to studio sessions to Las Vegas entertainment spectaculars to solo artists. In the fifth installment of our series, we move from life on the stage to one underneath it: working on Broadway.

If you want to play on the “Great White Way,” John Miller is a man whose name you should know. Or perhaps more important, he should know your name. Miller is an icon on the New York City music scene and has been a working bassist since 1966 and a music contractor since 1981.

As a bassist, Miller has worked with a dream list of artists including Leonard Cohen, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Jimmy Page, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross , Mose Allison, Larry Coryell, Tommy Flanagan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Madonna, P Diddy, Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Portishead, Tim Buckley, Gil Evans, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, John Pizzarelli, Pete Seeger, and the New York Philharmonic.

As a contractor, he played a critical role in hiring the musicians for more than 100 Broadway shows including Newsies, Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, Hairspray, and The Producers.

Bass Musician Magazine: Based on your experience as a working bassist and as a music contractor, what are the musical skills you see are consistently lacking in bassists trying to make the transition from playing at home to gigging for pay?

John Miller: Sometimes I’m astonished by the technique of bass players I hear: slapping, tapping, chords, and harmonics. But in the work force where I live, the ability to sight-read is what quickly distinguishes those with greater working potential.

From Bedroom to Business- John Miller by John Kuhlman-2

Bassist John Miller

Those of us who grew up playing rock, jazz, country, reggae, folk, etc; sight-reading was not part of our early education. For classical players on the other hand, sight-reading was a prerequisite to their playing. They grew up with sight-reading as an integral part of their skill set.

For those who need to improve their sight-reading, the good news is that there are plenty of books and DVDs out there to help. We all need to make sight-reading a part of our daily practice. Use a metronome.

We should be constantly asking ourselves these questions:

“Do I rush?”

“Do I drag?”

“Do I know the repertoire required in my musical world?”

“Can I transpose?”

And always; “How well do I read?

Practicing our craft is a gift we give ourselves. We perfect that which we do well and hopefully, work on the things we don’t.

The second thing I sometimes find missing from aspiring professional musicians is putting one’s ego aside and playing what’s needed.

We all know the importance of good time, intonation, good equipment, punctuality, and being of good cheer. Our goal is to understand how to “lock in” with other players and have an ease and openness in our playing, and spirit, that make others comfortable playing with us.

When I look at musicians who work all the time, I don’t hear flashy drum solos, tapping on the bass or shredding on the guitar; except when called for. What impresses me most is their intense focus on using their skills to match what the leader is hearing and what the music dictates. Not throwing in arbitrary licks or playing what is safe and always works. I see them wrestle with “what is the essence of what the leader is hearing”.

BMM: What non-musical skills do you think are critical for success as a working musician?

Miller:  Attitude is first and foremost.

I’ve had situations where after a gig or a long running show a leader has said to me, “I love the way that musician plays, but I don’t want to use them again.” And the reasons, usually, have less to do with ability and more to do with attitude.

I hear comments like: “Seemed not to care… always came late… didn’t fit in with the rest of the musicians… wouldn’t take my suggestions…always had excuses…had an attitude.”

People like to work with people who make it easy for them. And most remember an entrance and an exit. See to it that both go well. Cultivate a reputation for being gracious.

From Bedroom to Business- John Miller by John Kuhlman-3

Bassist John Miller

After attitude comes the idea that we all should be in the mode of correcting our position and not be protecting our position.

I tell everyone the leader is the Buddha. The musician who can respond positively to comments and criticism from the leader will work more than the one who can’t. As hard as it is to take, for all of us, criticism can often be helpful.

I tell my fellow musicians that we’re in the “service business.” Because of this I try to use the pronoun “I” as infrequently as possible. As a freelance bass player I know that a great deal of thought has already been given to the music I’m asked to play. That’s why the music has the word “Bass” on the upper left corner of the page and not my name. In fact, the only time it said “John Miller” was when I did my own album, “Stage Door Johnny – John Miller: takes on Broadway.”

But I didn’t know this when I started out. Many years ago I was doing a jazz trio album with the late great composer/pianist Cy Coleman with Ronnie Zito on drums. After listening to a take, Cy said, “You guys are dragging.”

I was young and foolish enough to reply; “Cy, I think you’re rushing.”

Thank God Ronnie kicked me under the table so Cy couldn’t see it. I assumed that meant to stop talking. When Cy left Ronnie said, “Perhaps Cy is rushing, but that’s not the point. Our job is to make it comfortable for him. So if that means that you and I both play a little on top of the beat…so be it. He’s the leader. We’re not.”

So now if a singer tells me they want a waltz to be played like reggae, my job is not to say, “Are you kidding me?” My job is to say, “You got it.” I will give that singer the best 3/4-time reggae I’m capable of playing. Now, if the singer asks me; that’s another story.

This isn’t learned in schools. It’s learned by experience. I feel badly for those who can’t, or won’t, learn it.

If you are receptive to hearing the leader, I believe your odds increase of having a more productive career. If you’re not receptive, your odds decrease.

Most of the work I’m involved with as a bass player and contractor do have leaders; someone who is in charge. But there are many musicians who play in bands and ensembles with no designated leader and all members have equal participation. Listen to each other and not just musically.

BMM: It sounds like you’re saying musical skills will only get you a ticket to the game. Whether or not you stay, play or sit on the bench depends on your interpersonal skills.

Miller:  In general, yes, that’s my experience. There’s no lack of talent out there. The biggest challenge I find for all of us is where do we get our work? My view is that most of the work we freelance musicians get comes from the recommendations of our fellow musicians. Not from a conductor. Not from a contractor.

From Bedroom to Business- John Miller by John Kuhlman-4

John Miller Quartet +2 at the Cutting Room in NYC

When a leader calls, with whom I’ve never worked, odds are pretty good that someone from the rhythm section suggested me. Nothing’s better than the regular player suggesting you to sub for them. We musicians are each other’s contractors: them for you and you for them.

Let’s say you are planning your aunt’s 50th wedding anniversary. Right away, you’ve become the contractor. You’ll first be looking for players who have the required musical skills. Next, you want players who will show up on time, won’t eat all the food, and won’t make the guests uncomfortable.

But finally, you want musicians you really enjoy playing with. You’ve quickly discovered that contracting is not an arcane practice: it’s common sense mixed with your taste and your musical judgment.

What you have done for your aunt’s party is no different than what any contractor does. Clearly, our goal is to always be on that list of musicians other musicians enjoy playing with.

BMM:  Let’s talk about gigs for a minute. There seem to be two schools of thought. The first is that you take every gig that comes your way. The second says to be more selective and manage your reputation. What has your experience taught you?

Miller: Certainly in the beginning, take everything. There’s always something we can learn from each gig. I never know who I’m going to meet, who might be meeting me for the first time and even, who might be listening.

From a practical sense we never know where our next gig is coming from. For years I’ve heard my friends say:

“This piano player plays all the wrong changes; I’m embarrassed to be seen playing with them.”

“The drummer rushes; it’ll sound like I’m dragging.”

“The singer sings out of tune.”

Play well no matter what the circumstances are. Rise above. I guarantee that when you’re good, people will notice.

If you’re fortunate enough to get to the point that your phone is ringing all the time, then you can choose to be more selective.

BMM:  So, to get out of the bedroom you have to just get out of the bedroom…

Miller:  I have a backboard and a basket at my house in Massachusetts. I’m doing everything from lay-ups to three-point shots to foul shots. I’m practicing all my cool moves. But there’s a huge difference between me practicing alone and me playing basketball with others. With others, it’s a different game.

The same holds true with music. There’s something in that communal dynamic which cannot be achieved by practicing alone at home.

No one has ever called to say, “I heard you practicing; you sounded great. Are you free Saturday night?”

BMM:  We’ve covered the basics so far, but what is the one question you feel you need to be asked? The question whose answer would perhaps shed some more light on what it takes to make it as a professional musician?

Miller:  I think I’d like someone to ask me, “What’s the tough stuff?” Because, honestly, as a contractor, the worst is that you can’t give work to all the deserving musicians. There are simply not enough gigs. And many who deserve the work are just not going to get the call. That’s tough for me. Especially when the call involves the more lucrative gigs and I know how badly they’re needed.

I know both sides of that phone call. As a contractor I know one person is going to be really happy and lots of others will wonder, “Why not me?” And as a bass player, sometimes I get the calls and sometimes I don’t. I know exactly what it feels like not to get the call.

Music is so primal and so intrinsic to who we are, that professional rejections are often more profound than personal ones.

But if we can find a way to learn from those rejections: to keep going, to keep playing, to want to get better in all of the different areas that people want to work with us; those rejections won’t stop us. They may even inspire us.

Also, no one has asked me what my thoughts are about when we don’t get the gig. Our minds go racing around. The following are some of the troubling questions whose answers – if there are any right answers — vary with each situation. Here are mine:

Why didn’t I even get a call to audition? (You may never know.)

I worked for the leader before, why didn’t I get the call for the next gig? (You may never know.)

Should I call them up and ask why? (Not a good idea.)

Is that bugging or being proactive? (Bugging.)

Should I tell them how badly I need a gig? (Really not a good idea.)

Does the leader just not like me regardless of how great I play and how nice I was? (You may never know.)

BMM:  Making the transition from serious amateur to professional musician is definitely a challenging path to take…and is one that seems to be littered with bodies and broken dreams. We’ve heard many non-musicians, and even experienced musicians, tell aspirants not to waste their time. Find a career that pays the bills. How do you respond?

Miller:  Some time ago I got a knock on my door and it was a neighbor who wanted advice about his son who was in high school at the time. He was a classical trumpet player who I would hear practicing; he sounded good.

His father wanted me to talk him out of becoming a professional musician by explaining how tough the business was and the realities as I saw them. He wanted him to go to law school like he had.

Me: “Do you love your job?”

Dad: “I don’t love being a lawyer…but it’s a job and I can provide for my family.”

Me: “When you come home from work do you like to read up on law issues?”

Dad: “Are you kidding? I like to unwind and forget about the job.”

Me: “Do you like hanging out with other lawyers and going to see other lawyers working in the courts?”

Dad: “Absolutely not.”

Me: “Do you get an overwhelming sense of joy when you’re working?”

Dad: “Who does?”

Me: “You don’t want me talking to your son. My world is surrounded by fellow musicians who love what they do; who work tirelessly for an unattainable perfection. They want nothing more than to be playing music, listening to music, studying music, going out to hear music and hanging out with fellow musicians.”

We are the lucky ones.

p.s. He became a lawyer.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Interview with John Miller | Las Vegas Bass

  2. Peter Dratch

    April 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    John Miller inspired me when I was 14, and reading this interview, inspired me all over again. He spoke of following a leader as a bassist, but back then he was the leader to a bunch of teenagers. He taught us what it was to be part of a group, to do something special together.

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