Musicians and nonmusicians alike always ask those playing high-profile gigs how they got there. The answers reveal that everyone’s story has unique twists and turns: There is no universal roadmap. But learning lessons on the journey to reach these professional destinations has a lot to do with your attitude and whether you make the best of the breaks that come your way.
My experience of moving to New York after graduating from Berklee was similar to that of many other alumni. I struggled to find gigs, teaching opportunities, and a professional circle that would bring me in. I barely earned enough money to survive. Then I got a call from Ray Monteiro ’03 saying that the saxophone player in his horn section was unable to go on tour with Eric Benét. He asked if could I do the gig.
Disenchanted with my situation in New York, I said yes, packed my bags, and moved to California. When Ray picked me up at the airport, he let me know that I didn’t have the gig for sure, there would be an audition. With my life and dreams packed in those suitcases, I went to the rehearsal-audition determined to create a spot for myself. Ray and I sat with the band and did what we do best until the musical director turned around and said, “Miguel, welcome to the family!” That was the beginning of everything. I also learned a valuable lesson: Don’t be afraid to take big risks and make big moves. You have to play your chances and believe in your craft.
Stepping Back to Jump Higher
After the Benét tour, I was invited to do a TV appearance as a soloist with Babyface. He was preparing to go on tour and was using the same music director (MD) who worked on Benét’s tour. The band and horn section were already contracted for the tour when I got a call to work with Babyface’s horn section for a single BET network event. The call came in two hours prior to the gig. I grabbed my suit and made it to dressing room, where I learned the whole show just before going onstage.
The day that rehearsals for the Babyface tour started, the MD called me and told me to come to the rehearsal. The budget for the tour was set, but he wanted me to play. Production offered me a third of what everyone else was making and told me I would have to share a hotel room. I took the gig nevertheless. That taught me another valuable lesson: Don’t be afraid to take a step back so you can jump higher.
I became permanent part of the horn section with Monteiro (trumpet), Garrett Smith ’99 (trombone), and for a time, Randy Ellis III (saxophone). Together we’ve had many amazing musical experiences. In 2006 the horn section got called to work with Christina Aguilera for her Back to Basics project. That was my introduction to working with pop megastars, celebrity parties, VIP rooms, million-dollar productions, first-class air travel, five-star hotels, packed arenas everywhere, hundreds of thousands of fans, TV appearances, DVDs, and an enormous paycheck. We traveled the world and I experienced it all through the notes of my saxophone. It was a time that I’ll never forget.
We worked for Christina for almost two years, and that experience showed me firsthand how easy it is to lose your sense of reality. Being surrounded by fame, money, and adoring fans can make you start to believe that you are entitled to these things because you are part of the machine. But in truth, when the gig is over, you go back to your apartment and look for another job, while the celebrity goes home and continues to live life in the fast lane. Another lesson: A career is generally not made of one gig; it’s an accumulation of jobs and experiences.
In 2008, our horn section got the call to back Whitney Houston. I arrived at the rehearsal to find “I Will Always Love You” on the music stand and got excited to play the famous sax solo in the song. I was 25-years old and saw a chance to show the world what I could do. After we ran the song and I’d improvised a solo, the MD took me aside and told me to learn the solo on the record. At the time, the lesson didn’t sink in.
A couple of months later, we got called to do a TV appearance with Aretha Franklin. Her song “Respect” has a tenor sax solo at the end of the bridge and once more, I saw it as my chance to shine. Again, the MD took me aside and told me to learn the original solo. I kicked myself for not having a clearer vision and serving the music. This time I got it: Understand history and classic songs. They are classics for a reason.
Later that year we got called to play with John Mayer and B.B. King at the “Grammy Nominations Concert Live!!” TV special. It was an all-star band with keyboardists Greg Phillinganes and Dave Delhomme ’89, drummer John “JR” Robinson ’75, and bassist Alex Al. There was only time for a camera-blocking rehearsal before the performance. Greg had sent us a recording of the song, so we transcribed the horn arrangement and got fully prepared for the show. During the camera blocking, people were on their feet cheering the horn section. It was a great opportunity for us to be part of such an all-star ensemble and to be recognized by the artists. It was a boost to our egos, our careers, and our future. The lesson: Breaks come when opportunity meets preparation.
We also had the opportunity to play with Diana Ross. It was a true orchestra gig with charts and all the doubles for me (including flute and baritone sax). There were dozens of musicians onstage playing classic arrangements of classic hit songs. I’ll never forget Diana grabbing the microphone during the show to say, “Give it up for my orchestra!” It wasn’t just a band; it was an orchestra of great importance to the show.
This Wasn’t It
Later in 2009, the horn section auditioned for Michael Jackson’s “This Is It Tour.” We prepared for the audition in every way we could, from our arrangements to our two-steps to our look. We played with the band first. The MD loved it and asked us to come back and play for Michael. A few days later, we played a few tunes for Michael, who sat a couple of feet away from us. There was an almost magical atmosphere in the room. When we finished, Kenny Ortega, the show’s director, took Michael outside for a talk. Kenny came back a few moments later and said that Michael wanted to hire the band but was apprehensive about having a horn section. Kenny wanted horns and told us that he would get back to us.
At the same time, we were being solicited to go on tour with the Jonas Brothers. We waited for Kenny to call us back, but we had to make a decision and decided to go with the Jonas Brothers. A couple of weeks later, Michael passed away. Between the gig with Diana and this episode, I learned that as a horn player, you have to understand your place in the big picture. Every gig calls for different details regardless of your talent.
Ultimately, we joined the Jonas Brothers at the peak of their success and played in stadiums and arenas across the globe for huge crowds. Again, there were private planes for production, band, and crew, thousands of fans outside every hotel, and social media informing the young fans all about us.
The Jonas camp was business-savvy, but we were the first musicians they’d hired outside their original band. It was a learning experience for both parties. As independent musicians, we had to advocate for ourselves. There were DVDs and reality TV shows being shot and extra performances added to the calendar last-minute without compensation. I can’t fault the Brothers for wanting to capitalize on the opportunities being offered to them, but we had to learn our rights and fight for them. Lesson: Musicians need to fully understand the business and know how to negotiate on their own behalf.
In 2010 we got called to join The Tonight Show Band under the musical direction of Rickey Minor. The legacy of musicians who have been part of the Tonight Show history was daunting. For four years, I was blessed to play music going out to millions of homes every night. The whole experience was joyful and provided me with so many opportunities professionally and personally. That gig gave me opportunities to apply the lessons mentioned above and learn new ones.
In February, Jay Leno retired, and our horn section was invited to continue working with Rickey Minor at American Idol. I serve as a player as well as horn arranger and a programmer.
As I look to the future after a decade in the business, my plan is to remain teachable. There will always be lessons to learn.