Jeff Coffin is, by any interpretation of the phrase, a successful working musician.
For starters, Jeff an internationally recognized saxophonist, bandleader, composer and educator.
He is a 3x Grammy Award winner from Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, a member of the Dave Matthews Band, leader of Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet, and gives masterclasses all over the world as an in-demand clinician and Yamaha Performing Artist.
In addition to the bands listed above, Coffin has shared the stage and the recording studio with a “who’s who” of musicians such as Van Morrison, The Dixie Chicks, McCoy Tyner, Phish, Chris Thile, My Morning Jacket, Willie Nelson, Widespread Panic, Branford Marsalis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garth Brooks, Umphrey’s McGee, Maceo Parker, the Wailers, Bob Mintzer, DJ Logic, Galactic, Kirk Whalum, Brooks and Dunn, Del McCoury, Yonder Mountain String Band, Martina McBride, and many, many others.
I was privileged to interview Jeff over the phone on April 3, 2012 and we talked about a host of different topics including his newly mastered Mu’tet record, the evolution of the record business, the creative process, and the art of sitting in with other bands.
The excerpt below is Jeff’s response to my question…
What does it take to be a successful working musician?
“Well I think first and foremost, the one given – if you want to be a professional musician, the one given – is that you have to be able to play your instrument at a very high level. You have to be confident on your instrument, and that’s where it starts. Every musician that’s out there should be able to play their instrument and play it well, in my opinion.”
“And then it gets into other common sense things, fundamental things… be prepared, be on time, be early, easy to work with, be malleable, be able to sort of go with the flow, don’t vibe people. Realize that there is going to be situations, especially on the road or on a gig, that aren’t perfect. Flexibility, there’s that word again.”
“Don’t show up and make a bunch of excuses. Nobody cares. If you don’t play well or if it’s in a bad key, nobody in the audience cares about a bad key. They just know it didn’t sound good. And you can be like, “Oh, well, man, that was just in my C#.” And he may as well be speaking Esperanto to them. It doesn’t matter. Who cares?”
“So you have to be prepared. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to make mistakes. You’ll learn from those mistakes, and reevaluate and work on the things you need to work on.”
“I think if people do those very few, particular things then they’ll be good.”
“You’re right. It does start with… you have to be at a very high level on whatever your specialty is.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t mean that you have to play flute as well as you play saxophone or clarinet as well as you play saxophone, but it does mean that you have to work on those things if that’s what the gig calls for. You can’t be going up there folding and expect to be called back.”
“What would you expect from somebody coming on your gig? That’s what I would ask somebody else. If you were the leader, what would you want from your musicians? And I can almost guarantee you that the things that you would want, they want the same things.”
“That’s a great point.”
“It goes back to the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Yeah, it’s weird that most people don’t look at it from the other person’s perspective. All they can see is from their vantage point.”
“Whether it’s excuses about showing up late or not having their instrument in working condition or not knowing the material, they’re not looking at it from the other person’s perspective when they share those excuses. It’s a selfish perspective, and that’s why it comes out that way. But if they would think like the other people in the band – from their perspective – they wouldn’t share that because they wouldn’t want that if they were that other person.”
“Right. I mean, I refuse to babysit. If you can’t get your ____ together enough to do what you need to do, then… I just don’t have any interest in working with people like that. There’s too many other things that I want to do and that I have to do to be dealing with those kinds of people. I’m just not interested.”
“Yeah, it’s tough to think about it as a leader because I want to have grace for other people, but there are just certain things that are not acceptable. Obviously every situation is subjective and you have to analyze it individually, but it’s hard sometimes when one person brings a lot to the table but there’s these one or two things that are just always gnawing at you or they always do. What’s the trade off? What’s the balance? Is there a balance? When do you cut that person loose and how much grace do you have for that person?
“Yeah. It’s challenging, man. On every level, it’s a challenge.”
“Yeah. I think one of the essentials might be just embracing challenges. Because if you can’t embrace challenges you are not going to be successful as a working musician.”
“I think that’s part of it. Embracing challenges has a lot to do with being flexible. I think you’re really on to it with that word, man. I think that’s a big part of it… flexibility. I think that if you get rigid, you get tight, and then you can’t move. So with the flexibility, it gives you a lot of options. Being flexible, there’s a lot of ways to move.”
If you like this article, I invite you to leave a comment below and spread the word by clicking the buttons below to share on Facebook, Twitter, Email, or any of your other favorite social media sites.