How To Be A Good Sideman

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to experience being a sideman/student musician as well as a bandleader/school ensemble director.  Having experience on both sides has given me some insights into what it’s like to be in the, often times, thankless job of being the bandleader and what sort of things that I can do as a sideman that will help make the leader’s job easier.  Many of these are no-brainers, but they are worth considering when you’re working for a bandleader you hope to continue working for in the future.  Here are 10 things you can do as a sideman to help get you on the good side of your boss.

  1. Return calls/emails promptly – We all procrastinate getting back to people, myself included, but it takes a lot longer than you might think to book a band of musicians for a particular date.  When I book musicians I usually get in touch with the regular players first and wait to hear back from them before I start calling subs, but I know some bandleaders who will put out many calls for one spot and the first person to get back to them gets the gig.  From my experience, the ones who become the “regulars” in any gig I book are the same people who tend to get back to me sooner, rather than later, in the first place.  If you’re not sure that you’re going to be available for a date, let the bandleader or contractor know right away.  They will appreciate your candor and even if they decide to call someone else they will be more likely to call you the next time than if you keep them waiting for days or weeks to hear back from you.
  2. Arrive early – If you’re not 30 minutes early for the gig, you’re late.  It’s stressful to be 5 minutes away from the start of the show and you’re still waiting for a musician to arrive.  If you’re running late give the bandleader a quick call and warn him or her.  This goes for student ensembles as well!  Obviously, if you’re coming from a class that just got out 10 minutes before rehearsal starts you can’t be there 30 minutes early, but make sure your ensemble director understands your schedule and get there as quickly as possible.  If you’ve got to set up equipment (i.e., your drum set), see if you can get some help hauling your equipment to the rehearsal space to help speed up your set up time.  Along the same lines. . .
  3. Help setup/tear down – I have great sympathy for rhythm section players and other instrumentalists who have to schlep equipment around to play, so I usually offer to help them carry their equipment from/to their car if I can.  They will greatly appreciate it, and the bandleader will notice too (particularly if you’re helping the bandleader with the books or his/her equipment).  At the very least, don’t be in the way of the setup.  There’s nothing worse than hauling heavy equipment around someone who is set up in the middle of the stage area warming up with his hot licks.  If you can’t help, move yourself out of the way.
  4. Keep quiet – If you don’t like something and absolutely must say something about it, wait until an appropriate time and speak to the bandleader about it alone.  Musicians who are negative about the rest of the band in front of the band don’t get asked back or recommended for other gigs.  If you’re rehearsing and the conductor/director is working with a different section, sit quietly and pay attention, you might just need to apply what he/she is saying to another section in your own part.  At the very least, it’s annoying to have people talking while you’re trying to rehearse.  It’s also distracting to be making announcements to the audience when the musicians are cracking jokes behind you.  If you’re doing this, it’s making the whole band look bad.
  5. Leave your ego at home – Don’t start blowing a solo when you’re not invited to or if it isn’t in your part.  Don’t be a solo hog and let other players have a turn.  Don’t be that guy who complains that the band plays too loud, but continue to play louder than everyone else.  The success of the show depends on how good you make the whole ensemble sound, not on how good you sound in comparison.
  6. Dress appropriately – Whatever attire the bandleader asks for, wear it and without complaint.  If it’s left open, I think it’s better to look a little nicer than you might be tempted to dress.  It’s definitely true that audiences will judge the sound of your performance based in part by how you look.  Tuck in your shirt and keep your shoes on, even if your feet are behind the drum set.  Your fellow musicians will be judging your performance too and they aren’t immune to the principle that what they see influences what it sounds like.
  7. Bring the equipment you need – Some of this is instrument specific.  If you’re a brass player, bring all the mutes you think you might need.  If you’re a woodwind player, bring extra reeds and any doubles you might need.  If you’re a string player, have extra strings on hand in case you break one.  Electronic instrumentalists should have extra cables and extension chords.  Keep a pencil in your case for rehearsals so you can mark your parts.  Speaking of which. . .
  8. Mark your parts in rehearsals, but do so appropriately – Never mark your part with pen or scribble all over your part so the next player can’t read it without erasing.  Learn the standard short hand for marking parts so that the next player who plays your part understands.  For example, circling something means to tacet, so don’t circle something unless you’re going to leave it out.  If you’re making a cut, mark it appropriately and don’t scribble over the measures you’re not playing.  If the conductor/director decides in rehearsal to play something a particular way that isn’t marked in the part, write it in, even if you’re already planning on playing it that way or think you’ll remember.  Sometimes emergencies happen and someone else may need to cover your part on the performance.  If you’ve neatly and clearly marked your part in rehearsal your sub will have an easier time sight reading the show.  Take some time to erase your markings before you hand your music back at the end of the show.
  9. Be positive – This is especially important when things aren’t going well on the show.  Believe it or not, non-musician audience members may not realize the band is lost and playing in two different parts.  They will, however, notice if you’re grimacing on stage.  The huge clam someone might have made is quickly forgotten at the end of the night if the overall attitude is positive, but not if you grumbled about it or made fun of someone during the show (which will be remembered).  If someone compliments you after the performance, accept the compliment graciously and don’t bring up any mistakes, particularly any that weren’t your own.
  10. Be prepared to play well – I bring this up last, because it is almost the least important thing to being a good sideman.  When I book musicians for a show I want the best players I can find, but I’d rather work with someone who doesn’t play so well who understands the above than work with the greatest player in the area who is a drag to be around.  That said, you should practice your part, know the tunes that you’re supposed to have memorized, know how to play stylistically, and generally become the best musician you can be.  The players who win auditions are the ones who are always ready to play an audition.

There are, of course, other things that you can do to endear yourself to the band leader and make it more likely you’ll be called back or recommended for another gig, but most are probably variations on the above.  If you’ve thought of something that I’ve forgotten, please add it in the comments.  Later I’ll try to get a similar list of suggestions for the bandleader.

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