Four years ago, a friend of mine got a gig as bandleader on a show called Odysseo, an equestrian circus by Cavalia. He was looking for a guitarist who could play classical guitar, acoustics, and who had a background in improvisation. There would be a four-month period of creation followed by a North American tour. The pay wasn’t great, to be honest, but it wasn’t bad either. Mainly, it meant I would get a chance to get a steady paycheck without hustling for gigs. But it would also mean breaking ties with the local music scene in Montreal, where I was deeply rooted. Life on the road keeps you away from your family, friends, and from the circle of musicians closest to you. Tough decision, but I eventually signed a two-year contract. The timing seemed right, allowing me to reflect on my career while putting some money in the bank.
I am a guitarist, but consider myself more of a composer thanks to the advice of a wise teacher who once told me I had to study composition even though I really just wanted to be a player. I am still studying music today: I undertook a doctorate in Composition and Sound Creation at the University of Montreal.
My musical education goes back even further. I first started in a college jazz program where I pursued both classical and electric guitar. Then a few grants from the arts councils of Quebec and Canada (we Canadians are lucky enough to have those) allowed me to study and play with masters in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and London (Mordy Ferber, William Beauvais, Derek Bailey, Elliot Sharp, and Charlie Banacos, to name a few). Settling back home in Montreal, I carved my niche as a guitarist and composer in the avant-garde and jazz scene, while getting by with day jobs and pursuing a master’s in Contemporary Composition.
One might think that engaging in so many genres of music for over 15 years would prevent you from achieving success at any particular one. In my case, however, the amalgam—being versatile at everything, but not an expert in anything—made me into something singular.
BEING YOURSELF VS. BEING SOMEBODY ELSE
Jazz musicians spend a lot of time transcribing other people’s music. Learning John Coltrane’s phrasing on one of Miles Davis’ ballads, studying Kurt Rosenwinkel’s harmonic textures, learning to swing like Elvin Jones—all of these processes may enrich your vocabulary. Of course, you run the risk of losing yourself when impersonating others.
It was always essential for me to stay true to what I really wanted to do, which was to play my own music as well as participate in other projects that appealed to me. I did put out records in Montreal, Japan, England, and the United States, but even with the many tours I went on, I always struggled to make a living as a self-employed guitarist (as most of us do in the 21st century). After years of toiling in the music scene, I realized it was time for me to take a break—to make a living as a guitarist. Wait, what?
On Odysseo, the composer was a guitarist. This, for me, was a poisoned chalice. Sure, it was refreshing to play for someone who knew the instrument in all its subtleties—a rarity, since many composers struggle to write for the guitar—but I was put in a situation where I had to mimic the composer, the guitarist, and the person. I even had to play his guitars!
Having to get into his hands and mind to replicate his every movement made me understand the difference between being hired for what you do, and being hired to execute. One requires you to be original; the other demands you do as you are told. After suffering for quite a while, I eventually accepted my fate, only to discover I was actually learning a lot. Letting go of your ego to impersonate somebody else is a great lesson in humility, and I realized that other people’s approaches to my instrument were not only just as valid as mine, but once mastered provided me with new skills.
After touring with Cavalia’s Odysseo for almost two years I scored a gig (and a substantial pay raise) with the Cirque du Soleil show Kurios. It was great to be part of a new creation: learning to work with the composers (pianists and a drummer, a welcome change), recording the album, and seeing the birth of a show that would be performed for 15 years. I had much more freedom during creation, having to arrange most of my parts and find my way through the music.
Both Odysseo and Kurios had bass players leading the band, calling the shots, and triggering some pre-recorded music on Ableton Live sequencers. Because we were all following the same click track, it was easy for us to turn on a dime and deal with the unpredictability of acrobatic numbers. And because 70 horses were not always equally in the mood to spark joy onstage, the length of any performance could be stretched on Odysseo. Fortunately, having the music scored in a jazz-composition fashion allowed us to shuffle and repeat any section. The drummer, as is usual in the circus world, was in charge of most of the cues and visual punches linked to the action onstage. My role was then to be able to improvise at any given moment over a well-orchestrated score influenced by Spanish, African, and Arabic styles of music—without seeming too idiomatic. On the other hand, Kurios was composed in a linear orchestral way, resting on more predictable acts performed by some of the best acrobats on earth. Solo sections were then well-defined and structured in an electro-swing score, also meaning more stability in the way we had to perform.
Both shows featured violin, drums, bass, guitars, and a female singer. On Kurios we also had a percussion player, an accordion player, and a cellist who was equally skilled on piano. Playing with talented musicians is a major asset, giving you the chance to bring the music to another level. Cavalia being a small company, musicians were hired through word of mouth, while Cirque du Soleil has its own well-oiled casting machine that hires great talents from all around the world. It is then the role of the composers and of the bandleader to get the most out of every musician and balance the score to give every member of the group a chance to shine. Because the show will be repeated at least 500 to 700 times in a two-year contract (on top of the many rehearsal hours), it is crucial to make everybody happy. You do this by respecting all individuals and allowing them to deploy their abilities.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
Touring is hard on the body. If you maintain a healthy balance you can make it right, but it’s easy to fall into a routine where you wake up late and just waste the rest of the day idly before going to work. On a typical week, you play nine to ten shows and are exhausted by Sunday night. But as a musician there’s always the mentality that “you can’t complain if you are working.” This is true to a certain extent, but you have to be careful to get the right amount of sleep and manage the lures of the touring life (there’s always a party to go to somewhere).
A certain dose of discipline goes a long way: you’d be amazed how much you can do in a week. On a nine-show week, I’d get Monday off, Tuesday to Thursday would be one-show days, and then the rest of the week were two-show days. Musicians are usually on show-call at 6:30 pm on a one-show day, which leaves a lot of time in the schedule for practicing, jogging, composing, and doing all the things you want to do for yourself.
While in Mexico, I came up with the idea of a composition marathon in which I challenged myself to write and learn 30 songs in 30 days. I had to be able to compose the song, play it, and post it online on the same day. I ended up doing about 20, but still found myself in the best shape ever after the project. It’s all about keeping busy and active, while retaining a certain energy level to be able to perform every night.
I’d stay in one city for six to seven weeks without getting a week off when doing a big-top show. Then I could either go home or follow to the next city.
When playing arenas, it’s a totally different story: you spend a lot more time traveling, since you are changing cities all the time.
INVENT YOUR OWN JOB
A lot of people think it’s crazy to quit a job playing music that gives you close to a six-figure salary and offers everything you need: travel, food, lodging, and a gig every night.
But it’s easy to fall into a pattern where you feel content just playing the shows, knowing that you are making a good living. You risk losing yourself in boredom or mental exhaustion. Performing nearly 400 identical shows a year takes its toll. It’s not exactly assembly-line work in a gray factory, but the repetitive side of it may lull you into something you do not want to be.
I believe the best way to sustain the touring lifestyle for many years is to have your family go with you (though family accommodations are not what they used to be), find happiness in knowing that you are bringing joy to people, keep learning new things that feed your artistic instinct, and allow yourself to play differently every night—even if it means not always giving a flawless performance.
Failure will bring new ideas and help keep you on your toes.
For me, the two-year stints I did with each of these productions were perfect. I’m happy settling back in Montreal now, a place where I can be myself in projects that suit me, with people who embrace the experience I have gotten on the road. You are your own little business, and traveling the globe lets you know there is a market for you.
SIDEBAR: CLASSICAL VS. ACOUSTICS
As classical guitarists, we tend to look down on those steel-string axes as lesser instruments. We often are quite wrong in the end (I actually spent a fortune on a Beauregard guitar which, I adore). Strumming is an art in itself. An acoustic guitar requires lots of exploration before it lets you call it your own. On Odysseo, I played a classical and three acoustics with alternate tunings. Doing so I discovered a whole new world of possibilities, which eventually influenced the way I now play and understand the guitar.
Using acoustics can come in handy, as they are easy to integrate in an amplified group, while a classical guitar requires a lot of magic tricks to get your sound “right.” You will never come close to a perfect sound, but you may reach a certain quality that is far from bad if you persevere and do some research. The “right” amplified sound is a sound you will be comfortable playing. You will never be as inspired sonically and technically as you are when playing in a room by yourself or in a solo concert situation in a chamber music venue. All in all, I prefer to see the amplified classical guitar as an entirely different instrument—the response just isn’t the same.
You have to accept situations for what they are. Between your fingertips and your eardrums is a guitar, a piezo pickup, a compressor, a filter equalizer, a wire, a soundboard console with more EQs, reverb, more wires, and a pair of in-ear monitors. You are not simply playing guitar, you are dealing with a chain reaction in which every decision and component affects the way you play and how the audience perceives you. Therefore, having a great relationship with your monitor soundman is crucial. He or she is the person in control of what you hear. A good mix, in which everything is at the right level and well-panned, often defines the relationship among you, the music, and your colleagues.
Many musicians make the mistake of having too much of themselves in their mix (“More me, please!”). I try to have less guitar in my mix than I would when unplugged. It’s the best way to stay alert, hear everything, and be confident in my playing. Keep too much of yourself in the mix and you might get self-conscious, or believe that you are playing too loud. (Hint: You never are unless somebody complains.) You then risk playing too softly and not sending enough signal to the sound engineer.
Piezos don’t have to be your enemies, merely a necessary evil. A better signal-to-noise ratio for a thinner sound is an obvious trade-off. On Odysseo, I played Godin classical guitars—they actually have great pickups—and a Yamaha suited with its own built-in piezo. My signal was split into two outputs so I could control my effects with Ableton Live and send a dry signal directly to the mixing board. With Kurios, I had the chance to play my own instrument crafted by Bruno Boutin—it had a K&K pickup, which I processed through a Tonebone Pre-Z, giving me more body and EQ options. This is still my favorite setup today. In a small venue, I usually try to blend 80 percent piezo and 20 percent microphone to get a little more texture. Piezos give you precision; microphones give you life.