Mario DeSantis climbed the stage stairs slowly with help from his friends and settled into his position behind the keyboard, just as he has done since 1947. A drum roll drew all eyes to the center of the stage as the announcer boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mario DeSantis and the Mario DeSantis Orchestra!” Through thunderous applause DeSantis acknowledges the crowd. Then, with the confidence and authority that only experience can bestow, he counts off his mighty ensemble.
To seek advice from legendary band leaders like DeSantis makes a lot of sense. I also spoke with Aaron “Professor Louie” Hurwitz, leader of Professor Louie and the Crowmatix, and Mark Wenner, leader for the legendary blues band The Nighthawks, and asked them to share their best advice for effective band leadership. Below are the 10 leadership tips they gave me.
10 Leadership Tips from the Pros
1) Always be prepared. It sounds like the Boy Scout motto, but DeSantis still prepares every book for every player on the bandstand. He pulls charts from his library and personally arranges each folder. In rehearsal, he is in command because he’s done his homework. This echoes advice given by Professor Louie. He won’t bring a song to rehearsal unless he knows it cold first.
2) Showcase your band members. This advice from DeSantis was something his father said to him, “Play eight songs for your audience, and two for your band members.” A good band leader knows how to showcase the talent he has on stage with him. He shines a light on them and takes great joy in letting them show their skills.
3) Respect the people in your band, their families, friends, and fans. This tip is directly from the Professor’s playbook. It sounds simple; especially when you consider that you probably picked each of them. But, notice that this has little to do with their ability as players. It’s about them as humans and the people they have gathered around them. Treat all of them as precious, because they are all a key to your success. They are your support system.
4) No drama; keep focused on the music and the mission. In the same way that you respect each of your players and their inner circle, you also must respect their privacy. Your job is to ensure that the music wins and that everybody gets to keep their job. That is your mission. Stay the course. Even in a band that is a complete partnership, somebody has to be the one to keep the organization on course. You can divide up responsibilities, but you’ll almost always find that at the core of every successful band there is a central “driving force.”
5) Take care of the band. Physically, mentally, emotionally, artistically, it all counts. And never treat your band like sidemen. From making sure everyone can make a gig to deciding who plays the solos, make sure that everybody is cared for.
6) Artistic integrity counts. Wenner emphasizes the need to provide an artistic outlet for every band member. It’s usually artistic differences that cause a band member to quit. A good band leader also knows when an individual member’s tastes drift too far away from the band’s mission and style.
7) Be decisive. Know the band’s mission and make the tough calls that will move the band forward. Sometimes it’s simply choosing the right material or the right gig, but sometimes negotiating a band member’s departure is the only way to keep the band on course.
8) Be more than fair. People let you make decisions, if they know that you are going to be fair. Each decision you make drives home that point. It starts with the small ones. From sharing the workload to divvying up the money at the end of the gig, be prepared to make the call that serves everyone equally, even if it means you have to work a little harder or share a little more of the profits. While the band is off-stage, the band leader is on the phone or doing paperwork. It goes with the territory.
9) Look to the future. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day struggles of keeping the band together and gigging. But, a wise band leader is always looking months and years ahead. Money needs to be saved for recording sessions, new gear, repairs, and emergencies.
10) Treat it as a business. In order to lead a successful band you must treat it like a business, with budgets to be made and expenses to be endured. You’ll probably find yourself doing the kind of work you never intended to do when you began playing music. Making sure that everyone on the bandstand, and on the crew, is paid for their work is the job of the leader. “It’s a job,” says Mark Wenner. Even if it means, sucking it up and taking less (or nothing) for yourself.
In the end, if you’re lucky, you just might find yourself climbing up onto a stage at age 86, like Mario DeSantis, still doing what you love to do, leading a band.