Jamie Fraser
More than just a church organist...a total musician.

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In this section Jamie shares with you some guidelines on not just working with him, but also with musicians in general, to make the music fit your vision of the event you're planning and to make the performance the best it can be. No matter who a musician plays for, the organizer of the event—which Jamie compares to the executive producer of a TV show—has a definite vision as to how the event is to turn out. The organizer decides where the event will be, what type of food will be served, how the room is to be lit, what the color and style of the tablecloths will be, and so on, and yes, what type of music will be played. Since you're looking at this website, Jamie assumes the "executive producer" to be you, or that you are scouting musicians on behalf of the event organizer. Whatever the vision for your event, Jamie wants to work with you to make your event a memorable one.

Guideline 1: Always hire a professional

Since by looking at this website you're telling me you're considering me for your event, it kinda goes without saying, but this is solid advice no matter what event you're planning. The late oil-well firefighter Red Adair once said, "If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur." Perhaps an extreme example of getting an amateur to do the job can be seen in this video. I don't think you want someone like that to do your event, but then I'm sure that if you knew of such a person, you'd eliminate them from consideration instantly.

A Midas Mufflers radio ad that aired in the Maritimes in the early '80s made a great analogy: "If you want a plumber to make a nice, neat, water-tight job, you want a man with savvy, a man with experience. Same thing with mufflers." Same thing with any professional in any field, including musicians. What you should always look for is someone whose musicianship is at the journeyman professional level or above, as these levels will exemplify this analogy. Eric Starr and Nelson Starr, writing in The Everything Bass Guitar Book, define musicians of this caliber as "highly skilled, experienced, and often extremely gifted musicians. They make their living as a musician, though they still work mostly in a localized setting...Journeymen musicians also tend to be unionized. Subsequently, they are usually called hired guns or mercenaries. Hired guns are musicians who play strictly for money. They do this because music is their profession and often their only source of income." The union I belong to is the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, the Canadian branch of which is known as the Canadian Federation of Musicians. This video, produced primarily for those who are just joining the AFM, gives an overview of what the AFM does.

While it may be cheaper to get a non-union musician, such musicians tend to either play just for the fun of it or at the semiprofessional level. For simplicity's sake, we'll refer to these people as amateurs. Sci-fi writer David Gerrold might as well have been talking about degrees of musicianship when he wrote in his book The Trouble With Tribbles (1973):

There is a plateau of professionalism that every writer who is going to make it must rise above—there's a level beyond which the amateurishness disappears from his thought and sentence structure and he begins to display a sense of competence and skill in his approach to his material that will eventually win him the all-important compliment, the cheque. Once that plateau is passed, nearly every time that writer sits down at his machine, he will produce readable constructions of words. The "unknown" is the person who will achieve and surpass that level of professionalism. The amateur is the one who will never come near.

A little later in the book, Gerrold's discussion of TV producers is a good metaphor for how I see your role in planning your event and why I feel the need to be better than anyone else you're considering:

Consider: a producer is handed two story premises. They're pretty much the same. Both are equally workable and would make good scripts. But neither is outstanding, just competent. He can only buy one of them; what does he do? He looks at the names of the writers.

If one is a pro and the other's a neo who's trying to break in, which one does he choose?

Which one would you choose?

If you said the neo, you're a hopeless idealist. Go back to square one, you're fired.

If you're a producer, you're a busy man; you haven't got time to run a writing class. You know that a fellow named Robert Bloch already understands television writing; he doesn't have to have it explained to him. He's a known quantity; all you have to worry about is getting him to fit his story into the concept of your show.

On the other hand, you've never heard of David Gerrold—who is this kid anyway? Why should we take a chance on him? He's not doing anything better than anybody else we're already talking to.

And that's the key to breaking into television.

You're competing with the pros now. You have to be better than they are.

You have to do something outstanding to make the producers notice you. You have to do it on merit alone, because you have no previous credits and nothing else working for you.

Amateur musicians are not likely to have developed their musicianship to this kind of level. That kind of development calls for a higher level of discipline that is illustrated in a lost interview published in Read magazine in 1999 (original source unknown) and dated September 26, 1984, in which Frank Zappa said this:

Any ex-musician is an ex-musician for one of two reasons. One, he is not good enough to be in the band any more. Or two, he had a career opportunity that led him to resign his post, for which there are probably thirty people waiting for his job. I have no problem getting people to volunteer to subject themselves to the discipline that's in the band. And if you knew anything about the band and the crew, there is a spirit of accomplishment that surrounds this touring unit that is really quite remarkable, second only to being in the Marines, because this band can go out there and do anything. And they know it. And they are thankful that they are rehearsed to the point where even under the most adverse circumstances they can go out and do a two-hour show that will kick your ass. And the crew will have the thing up and down in record time, and everybody gets along, and they're happy to be doing it.

And that's what the discipline is all about. A guy who leaves the band and complains about the discipline—he's maybe regretting the fact that he's not in the band any more. And so how else is he going to get his name in the paper than to say that I'm a dictator? Well, the fact of the matter is, I am the dictator. I'm the guy who signs the cheques. I'm also the guy that has to take the responsibility for everything that goes wrong. And along with that, I have the responsibility for making sure that the band delivers a good performance to an audience that's bought a ticket. So it's not really being a dictator—it's being the referee between the audience and the band. The audience buys a ticket and I say, "Okay, band, you have to do this, and these people want it good, so give it to them good." And if they don't do it well, they either have to improve themselves or they go. The word in the band is, "Will that be an aisle or a window?" Which means your ticket back to Los Angeles is right over here. And everybody knows that. And I've sent two guys home already from this tour...

But see, the people who find that baffling would be the people that have a union mentality. The union mentality means that too many people do too little work for too much money, and then go on strike in order to get more days off. There are a lot of people like this in the world who think that's the way things ought to be. My attitude is this: I pay money to have a service performed for me on behalf of an audience that pays money to have a service performed for them. And I'm there to make sure that if somebody buys a ticket to my show, they're not going to be disappointed in it. They're going to see a band that knows what they're doing, that does it well, and delivers entertainment for the money that's spent. The same thing on a record. Whether you like the style of the music is irrelevant. The quality of what's put into the show is definitely there, and that quality is the result of a huge cash investment that I have to put out before the tour even starts. It costs a quarter of a million dollars to make a band sound like that. That's talking about two months of rehearsal, six days a week, eight hours a day. Everybody's on salary; the crew is on salary. I have the cost of all those salaries plus the rental of the hall that we rehearse in, the equipment and all that stuff—I pay for it before I get a nickel from anybody buying a ticket. There's not too many groups that will take that kind of a risk, and not too many groups that have one man in the group who takes that financial risk himself. And that's the way I do my business. So if there's something wrong with that, then let me know.

As an illustration of the lower level of discipline, I've worked in bands some of whose members don't help out to the fullest extent possible when it comes to tearing down gear. They might leave some gear lying around, which is disrespectful to the next act coming in because it forces them to be the first band's clean-up crew, thus cutting in to their own setup time. They may not consider the logistical needs of the next act coming in, and so they might turn off a power bar or other piece of equipment that the next act expects to be left on. I've worked in bands some of whose members don't come in with their homework done: in one band, for example, the two vocalists frequently couldn't come to an agreement before coming to rehearsal as to which of them was going to do what line for a given song, and that led to us repeatedly wasting time in the studio. I could go on and on. The bottom line is that a musician at or above the level of a journeyman professional will never be that negligent. That level of discipline is part of what you are paying for.

There's a story involving Picasso. He was in a Paris market when someone approached him about drawing a quick sketch on a napkin. Picasso agreed, producing a sketch in five minutes, only for the person to balk at the one-million-franc price he asked for. Countering the person's observation that it had taken Picasso only five minutes to draw that, Picasso replied, "Well, it took me forty years to learn how to do that in five minutes." This illustrates another part of what you're paying a professional musician for: the years of training to get to the level he is at. How much of that degree of competence are you likely to find in someone who at most does music to earn only a tiny fraction of his annual income?

Then, for professional musicians, there are also administrative costs associated to doing business. I wrote a whole blog entry back in 2009 that explores this in greater depth. This website, for example, costs me US$140 a year, including SSL certificate. My fee includes part of that continuing cost. And what about other promotional materials such as business cards? Promo kits? Audio and video production? You'd be helping to pay for that too. If I'm called upon to prepare special music for a particular gig and I don't have it in hardcopy, I have to take the time to transcribe it, and so part of my fee includes the ink and paper I use printing it off, what I spent buying the computer equipment and software I prepared that transcription with, and even what I'm spending on the utilities needed to even run that stuff off. Would an amateur do that? And then if the professional is an AFM member, then of course there are annual and gig-specific union dues to pay—and on top of that there are gig-specific pension contribution payments to be made on your behalf to the Musicians' Pension Fund of Canada. If a musician in Canada is to do a gig in the States or vice versa, they have to pay fees to acquire the appropriate visa: last I heard, for Canadians seeking to do gigs in the States, this fee could be as high as US$2,960 for expedited processing of a P-2 visa with a turnaround time of at least five months. I could go on and on. Somehow, the fee a professional musician will quote you doesn't seem all that high after all, does it?

The bottom line to all this is that a professional will take music preparation and performance very seriously, much more so than an amateur will. And if you hire a professional, you are pretty well guaranteed a top-notch performance that will make your event more memorable than someone less competent would. To the extent that the musicians you hire do their job well, that will attract more people to the next event you hire them for. But if you hire musicians that take a so-so attitude about the music, they may undermine the profitability, or at least the memory, of your event. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Guideline 2: Book early!

I can't stress this enough. The farther in advance you book me, the more likely I am to be available for your event, and the more preparation time I will have in order to be the most effective I can be at providing you with a top-notch performance. I've gotten calls for weddings, for example, that were to take place less than a month later, or sometimes even less than a week later. That says to me that some clients get so caught up in organizing the other aspects of the wedding that they tend to forget about the music until the last minute. I got a call once from a potential client on a Wednesday for her wedding that coming Saturday, and had to turn her down because my band had already been booked for months to play an out-of-town wedding reception. I don't know if she ever actually managed to find an available organist, but I do know that she was having a much harder time trying to find one than she would have had if she'd booked well in advance. It's like trying to call a telethon in its dying minutes in order to make a pledge—is it easier or harder to reach an operator at that point in the show? I think we both know the answer to that one.

I cited above the example of my sometimes getting requests to do special music, which in some cases I have to take the time to transcribe and sometimes even transpose to fit my vocal range. One such case involved a funeral for which one of the pieces I was to play was one that a member of the family had written. I was approached for the gig on the Saturday of the Easter weekend, and the funeral was scheduled for that coming Tuesday. Because I was given the material in an MP3 file, and because the composer's tessitura was lower than mine, I had to transcribe and transpose the material—but because I'd already had to do the Easter Vigil on the Saturday evening and an Easter Sunday mass the following morning, I wasn't able to start the transcription/transposition process until the day before the funeral. That didn't leave me with a lot of preparation time, and the result was less than satisfactory to me.

As a third example, I once did a wedding for which the bride and groom made change after change to their music selections all the way up to the day of the wedding rehearsal. I can't think of a better example of how disrespectful this is to a musician's preparation time. When you're planning the biggest day of your life, you don't want the music, or any other aspect of the event for that matter, to be a detriment to it. A good parallel to this situation occurred when Claudia Christian left Babylon 5 in the wake of a breakdown in contract negotiations. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski stated that she left the show of her own accord, but Christian avers that she was released when she requested a leave of a few episodes in order to do a film project and that she have something in writing to that effect for the benefit of the producers of that film. There had been some uncertainty as to whether there would even be a fifth season of Babylon 5. By the time the season finally got green-lit, the writers were in a logistical bind. In the event that Christian was not coming back to continue playing Susan Ivanova on the show, there was a new character, Elizabeth Lochley, being planned that would take over Ivanova's role in the series plot. But if she was coming back, Lochley would have to be written out. As Straczynski noted, "You can't whipsaw the writing back and forth—is she in, isn't she in, maybe she is, maybe she isn't—and hope to have anything in shape to shoot...Normally we have a longer lead time; this time we didn't, and this has already put the scripts back a bit. The script with [Lochley] is written and in; if I take it out now I have to replace it, and there isn't time." You don't want to put your musicians in a similar situation.

Nor should you be too rigid in your repertory requests, as these people were. As noted below in Guideline #5, I may have to make adjustments to the final program to accommodate circumstances that may pop up at the last minute, circumstances that are beyond my control and yours.

Keep in mind, too, that depending on the music market, a musician may have his hands in multiple pies. Except for those lucky enough to play in one ensemble that pays them enough to make a living at it, or who are performing music on the side while taking on a nine-to-five job, musicians tend to have to take on multiple gigs. For example, there was a time in my career where I was simultaneously working in four ensembles in addition to pursuing a solo career that partially involved playing the organ at two churches. And that's on top of the administrative aspects of being a business as a musician, not to mention squeezing in a personal life. You may be thinking about just your event, but don't make the mistake of assuming the musician you're hiring has more hours in the day than he really does. Though I am proactive in managing my time, something unexpected may still pop up that will cut into my preparation time for your event, and I want to keep such adverse impacts on my time to a minimum.

Guideline 3: Clarity is power!

In any step of the planning process, music planning included, the clearer you are in making your intentions known, the more effective your subordinates are going to be at doing their jobs in a way that moves the end result closer to your goal. You could have people working in an orchard picking apples all day long, but if your orchard produces several varieties of apples and you don't specify you want grannysmiths on a given day, they're liable to give you macintoshes instead.

The same thing applies to your selection of music. For the wedding I just mentioned in the third example of the need to book early, the bride and groom wanted me to do a special Ugandan hymn that I had never heard of, and for which I was subsequently lucky enough to be able to obtain a recording of the melody. However, they had provided me only with the title, and I knew from experience that several hymns could be known under the same title (Catholic Book of Worship III, for example, has two hymns titled "Come, O Long-Expected Jesus"). But when I presented the melody to the bride and groom, they never once explicitly confirmed that this was the hymn they wanted, not even after I played it at the wedding. What better way to set up uncertainty in a musician's mind?

Now, I realize there are times for which people organizing an event don't have a clear idea of what music they could select for their event. This is particularly true of funerals, where the people organizing them are so caught up in the grief over the loss of their loved one that they can't easily focus on the need for music at the funeral. As a result, I've included the repertoire section of this page to offer you some suggestions. I'm open to doing something special if you want me to, but as I noted above in guideline #2, you will need to give me adequate time to prepare the material.

Guideline 4: Never interrupt the performance

This isn't quite so critical if you're hiring a band, because there you can talk to any one of the musicians to say things like "Last call for alcohol" or "We'd like you to play such-and-such", and the rest of the musicians will cover for him in that brief moment. When you're dealing with a DJ, he doesn't have to worry about being interrupted because it's not going to affect the performance of the artists whose recordings he's playing. But when you're dealing with me as a solo performer, I don't have anyone to back me up, and in situations like this, this guideline is crucial.

I went to a science fiction convention in the summer of 1994, where actor Marc Alaimo (perhaps best known as Gul Dukat on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was one of the guests. He said something that has made an incredible difference in the quality of my performance.

Now, before I tell you what it was, I'll tell you why it has made such an incredible difference. Two weeks after the convention, I got a last-minute call to play the organ at a wedding that would take place that coming Saturday. (I was replacing another musician who had bowed out.) A day or so afterward, my mom got a call from her family in the eastern townships of Quebec—they live in the Montmagny-St. Jean Port Joli area, east of Quebec City but close to the Quebec-Maine border—in which she learned that her oldest sister had died. As it turned out, the wedding and the funeral were to take place in back-to-back time slots, in locations a six-hour drive apart. Obviously I couldn't both play the wedding and attend the funeral, so I decided to stay home and do the wedding. Though I was happy for the bride and groom, I had some understandable difficulty keeping my focus on the quality of my performance. The incredible difference came when I remembered what Marc Alaimo had said at the convention: "People are paying you to entertain them, so don't screw around with the performance."

Truer words were never spoken. I believe that saved my performance from becoming a total artistic disaster. Since then I've come to realize that there is no logistical difference between playing to entertain people and playing to help people worship God, and that there is therefore no differences in the professional responsibilities involved between the two. While a church service, regardless of its nature, is not meant to entertain people, the outcome should instead be to maximize the spiritual impact, and the better a musician performs, the higher the spiritual impact. As a result, I've always tried to make sure that my performance is the absolute best it can be, and that I come across as the type of journeyman professional I talked about above in guideline #1.

And there's one primary way I do that. If you're playing music, you could read from a music score all day long, observing all the changes in volume, tempo, and so on, but you don't really have to refer to the music if you're super-familiar with it. Though I can read music, I prefer not to because the arrangements presented there have a tendency to lock you into someone else's approach to the tune. You can easily get by if all you have is a set of chord progressions and the melody. I believe that a large part of the performance has to come from inside you, and that is an ability you already have. It's not something that a music teacher can give you. It's something that hopefully he can awaken within you.

Let me give you an example. Have you ever seen the movie Mr. Holland's Opus? There's a scene in it that really demonstrates this concept. There's this girl in the movie who is learning to play the clarinet, and she's been trying and trying and trying and never succeeded at the level she wanted to. Eventually she tells Mr. Holland that she's giving up the clarinet. Holland asks her what she likes most about herself, and she says it's her hair because it reminds her dad of a sunset. Holland says, "Play the sunset." And she does, surprising herself with the improvement in her performance.

One of the things Anthony Robbins teaches over and over again is that human beings do things for two reasons: to avoid pain and gain pleasure. When you focus on how doing something will be painful, you're not as effective at that task as you would be if you were focusing on how doing that thing would be pleasurable. The girl was associating pain to playing the clarinet. All Holland had to do was get her to associate pleasure to the process, and that immediately changed her emotional state and thus her playing.

A large part of the reason why I got good at what I do is that I saw music as a form of escape. As a child growing up with Asperger's at a time before it was publicly known to be a thing, and long before I was aware I had it, I incurred psychological pain on an almost-daily basis, mostly at the hands of other kids my age. Around the time I entered high school, I was also taking one-on-one lessons in jazz and improvisation, and in high school I finally had a level of freedom that I hadn't had before: to improvise on the pianos there any time I could. In this way, I was avoiding the psychological pain inflicted upon me by the bullies and gaining pleasure through doing something I absolutely love to do.

Through all that attention to my music, I was also creating something of a world of my own. My performance, be it of my music or someone else's, is basically saying, "This is what my world is, and the emotions it is evoking within you are what it feels like." And in order to manifest a world of your own in your mind's eye and in the mind's eyes of your audience, you have to be absolutely focused on what you want to accomplish.

But have someone interrupt the performance, and that world—and thus the performance—will be disturbed. No matter what impression you might have gotten from movies and TV shows that depict musicians talking and playing at the same time, that's an unrealistic depiction of what musicians can do. That sort of depiction makes sense from a storytelling standpoint, especially given the broadcast time constraints of episodic TV, but playing music is like speaking a language. I can't "speak" the language of music and talk and sing at the same time. Remember, I'm a solo musician, entirely responsible for all the music that you hear. If you want to come up to me to discuss something, I would appreciate it if you would either write me a note or come see me in between songs. That way we avoid or at least minimize the possibility of spoiling the evening for the people on the dance floor. Under normal circumstances you wouldn't walk up onto stage in the middle of a stage play and interrupt the scene. So why should a performance like mine be treated any differently?

Guideline 5: Timing is everything

The planning of the music should be a two-way street, particularly for events at which you're planning to have presentations along with the music. Remember, you're the "executive producer" here, and I want my music to fit the concept of your event as much as possible. If you're leaving it up to me to decide what music to play, then what I'd like to do is meet with you about a month prior to the event to discuss my proposed music program, so that if you want the music momentarily interrupted at certain points in order to do verbal presentations in between songs, we can work out those points up front. It's better to do it that way than interrupt my playing in the middle of a song. If my program proposal doesn't meet your expectations, we can change it at that point. If I need to record new backing tracks for certain songs—which for the time being is quite likely—then that month will give me plenty of time to prepare them.

Once my program meets your approval, I will provide you with a copy of it for your reference, including the length of each tune. This will be especially useful if you're planning to have your event involve presentations. If, during the course of the event, you see an appropriate time coming up for one of the presentations, you can refer to the program, gain from that a ballpark idea of how much longer the tune or medley I'm currently playing will last, and give me a hand signal of some sort so that I'll know to stop at the end of that song.

There may arise a situation where I might have to make a last-minute change to the program to accommodate circumstances that pop up at the last minute. Frank Zappa, quoted from the same interview mentioned above, approaches this sort of thing like this:

The choices are based on some scientific reasons, like: What are the acoustics like in the hall? Can we get away with this type of material here? And, do they speak English here? Are the vocalists well? Does anybody have a sore throat that day? Little things like that—you can change the show to accommodate what your circumstances are.
With that in mind, ideally it should be the artist's decision as to what material out of what has been chosen can best be played under the given circumstances, or how the performance can be adapted to fit the circumstances. For example, the gig I did with Nile Groove at Obsession Lounge was in the wake of an accident in which I had injured my hand to the point where I wasn't able to play certain lines. I had to either adapt those lines to something simpler or omit those lines altogether. Getting together with you to preplan the music for your event gives us time to come up with a contingency plan ahead of time.


Now, under other circumstances the gigs mentioned in Guideline #2 would have gone over much more smoothly than they did. The clients involved hadn't called me with their choices set in stone early enough that I could do the job to their satisfaction and mine. And if I'd had the hindsight and flexibility I have today, I would have given them a copy of my program proposal ahead of time. But there just wasn't enough time for me to do all this, and so they were stuck. I don't think that's a place you want to be in.

And that's why I'm offering these guidelines, to help you become more aware of how I work as a soloist and become better at organizing the music aspect of your event. Every event you organize, every "show" you executive produce, gives you experience that you can tap into in order to be even better the next time around. And I believe that by following these guidelines, you'll be doing not only me a favor, but other musicians as well for your future events—and end up having your events a) move consistently closer and closer to your vision, and b) become more memorable.

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