Teach Your Students How to KEEP Getting Gigs

Words by Dr. Shawn Royer

There are hundreds of musicians that play well in any city. Musician-contractors have a choice of who to call when they need a musician to fill a spot. If your students play well, they may get one call. It’s your students’ job to not throw away their shot. 

We know that our students need to practice their instrument/s, be great sight-readers, learn all the standard repertoire and/or excerpts, and prepare any music that they are given in advance of the gig. The following guidelines, however, are the extra-musical things to teach them to ensure that they KEEP GETTING CALLED.

These 9 tips are based on real situations that I have personally experienced or encountered – either as a freelance musician or as a musician-contractor, hence the oddly-specific examples I’ve included throughout. Many of these stories are also the reasons why I rarely hire college students for gigs… Please share these tips with your aspiring future professional musicians!

     1. Follow through with your commitments

This means keep track of your commitments and don’t double-book yourself. This also means DON’T CANCEL on a gig unless you are actually sick or have an emergency. 

Don’t cancel 3 hours before the gig because you have too much homework or because you forgot that your college ensemble rehearses at the same time as the gig and that your college ensemble director will not let you miss their rehearsal for a gig and you really don’t want an F. Don’t forget about the gig and not show up because you never put it in your calendar. Don’t cancel when you get the reminder email because you never wrote it down or because you accepted another job that pays more. Don’t assume a gig is cancelled because you didn’t get a timely reminder email. If you get an “are you available” text/email/call and you respond that you are available, assume that you are booked for that gig unless you hear otherwise.

       2.  Be ON TIME for your gigs

This means arrive at your gigs with plenty of time to park, find the building, use the restroom, get your instrument/s put together, warmup, and tune BEFORE the scheduled start time! A good rule of thumb is to always plan to be in your chair with your instrument/s assembled at least 30 minutes before the downbeat… doublers should plan to be in their chairs a full hour before the downbeat!

       3. Be friendly, professional, and NICE TO WORK WITH

Many contractors call the people that they like to work with because they are both good musicians AND good company. Don’t start drama, don’t complain about the other musicians, and don’t be arrogant. Act MATURE and don’t flirt with or otherwise engage in inappropriate behavior with high school students (common sense, right?!). Also, don’t punch or otherwise touch another musician on a gig because they gave your students bad ratings at a music contest (also, seemingly common sense) or for any reason. Just keep your hands to yourself. 

Also, DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR OTHER GIGS. This includes not asking the people around you if they are also playing another session or other gig that you are playing. Nobody likes a bragger. Besides, these conversations often lead to drama, confusion, and/or hurt feelings.

Keep your conversations appropriate while on the gig and while hanging out with your colleagues. Do not talk about inappropriate subjects or use profanity loudly after the gig while at a restaurant with the band. This includes talking about sex, showing that you are racist, misogynistic, or homophobic, or sharing your political beliefs. 

Also, stay sober on your gig. Don’t show up high and don’t get drunk on your break. You may think that the alcohol is helping you play better, but it’s really not.

     4. DO NOT give your contact information or business card to the music director

If you were contracted for a gig by a contractor and/or are filling in/subbing for someone that asked you to cover for them, DO NOT under ANY circumstance circumvent that person and attempt to give your contact information directly to the music director, even if the director asks you for it. This is a sure way to get black-listed quickly by the contractor. If the director asks you for your information, let them know that you can be reached through the contractor. You may, however, share your information with the other musicians if they ask you for it, or you may ask the other musicians for their contact information.

     5. Make sure you have all the EQUIPMENT you may need for your gig

For example, make sure you have all the doubles, mutes, reeds, pencils, instrument stands, etc., that you may need. If you’re told to bring your own music stand and/or stand light, then bring your own music stand and/or stand light. (It’s always a good idea to keep a music stand in your trunk just in case.) If you’re not sure what doubles you will need, ASK in advance.

     6. Wear the attire you are asked to wear for the gig

Most emails with the details for the gig will tell you what to wear. If, after reading the email, you are still unsure of what you are expected to wear, ASK THE CONTRACTOR. If you show up in jeans or biking shorts for a fancy gig, change in your car or take your dress clothes (that are hanging on a hanger) into the restroom or green room to change BEFORE entering the stage or the area where the audience is lounging. Don’t plan to set up the performance area in your biking shorts if guests and/or the people that hired you are already there. 

Also, make sure that your clothes are clean, free of wrinkles, appropriate, and that they cover all of your personal bits. Do not wear super short skirts, shorts, or crop tops. If you are sitting in the front row of a band or orchestra, or if you play the cello, bass clarinet, or alto saxophone, I strongly advise against wearing skirts or dresses unless the hem falls well below the knee while sitting.

If you feel that a gig does not pay enough money for you to wear what the contractor has asked you to wear (i.e. a $50 gig where they’ve asked you to wear a tux), it’s probably best that you kindly turn down the gig in advance rather than accepting the gig but then showing up in other clothing. If you show up in the wrong clothes and then tell them that the gig doesn’t pay enough to wear the prescribed clothing, you will look like a jerk and you won’t be called back.

     7. Subbing… DO NOT hire, contract, or otherwise reach out to a sub or replacement without first getting approval from the contractor to do so

If you do have to cancel a gig due to illness or an actual emergency, or if you are asked to do a gig but you are not available, you can offer to help find a sub or replacement, but DO NOT reach out to anyone else without first getting approval from the contractor to do so. Contractors often have “first call” lists, which means that they may already have someone else in mind to call. If they want your recommendations or if they want you to help find a sub, they will ask you for your help. Your sub will be really embarrassed if they arrive at the gig and the director gets mad at them because they have no idea who your sub is or that you wouldn’t be there. 

Likewise, a sub should not call another sub without permission. The person you are supposed to be subbing for will get very upset when they run into you at another event when you are supposed to be subbing for them but you (the sub) got a sub for yourself and didn’t ask or tell them about it.

Also, if the gig is a run (a series of performances that happens like every night for a week or more), leave your music at the gig if possible – just in case you get arrested or have another emergency – so that someone doesn’t have to break into your apartment to find the music for your sub… But also don’t get arrested. And if you have to cancel, it is always your responsibility to get your music to the sub!

If you are playing a rehearsal and you are splitting a run with someone else, or you have someone that you know will be subbing for you, or if you know that you are subbing for someone else, make sure that you mark every change, cut, addition, etc. neatly, clearly, and large enough in your music so that anyone else who reads it will see and understand your markings. Don’t leave important markings out to try to make your sub look bad so that you keep being the “first call.”

     8. Have GOOD HYGEINE

Arrive to your gig freshly showered with a clean mouth, combed hair, and wearing deodorant. If you think you can get away with not showering the day of a rehearsal or gig, I promise you are wrong. If you are the featured performers at a church and you walk in with oily bed-head, it is embarrassing to the other musicians, the contractor, and to the music director, and they will suddenly remember how many other great musicians in town like to shower and comb their hair. 

Do not smell like weed, cigarettes, or alcohol when you arrive to your gig. If you smoke something on your way to your gig, you will smell like it, even if you think you don’t, so don’t do it. Also, always brush your teeth before your gig! 

DO NOT wear perfumes or colognes, especially if you are working in a small enclosed space such as a pit or recording studio. Some people are really sensitive to smells and this is a great way to inspire someone to complain about you.

     9. READ AND RESPOND QUICKLY TO YOUR EMAILS/TEXTS!

Always READ and RESPOND quickly to emails and texts about gigs… even if the gig isn’t for a while, there might be an action item in the email that needs to be handled immediately (i.e. sending in a signed contract or W9 in advance so you can get paid on time, etc.). Also, it’s unfair to expect a contractor to wait for your reply for more than 24 hours. If you can’t do the gig, just tell them that. Don’t leave them on “read” and, for the love of God, don’t wait to reply because you feel bad for saying “no”.

Dr. Shawn Royer (she/her) is an Assistant Professor and Chair of the Music Department at Marian University. She also is a Yamaha Performing Artist and Vandoren Artist Clinician.




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