It’s not what you know, but WHO.
I used to shudder when I heard that phrase coined ad nauseum. But I’ll admit, in the freelance world it’s true. The building of relationships really takes precedence over how well you do your thing (even though that does play a role, don’t get me wrong). There is no greater example of this than in the world of musical theatre orchestras. Anyone with basic skills and music reading ability can sit down in a theatre pit and read down the score to a musical; it’s not rocket science. However, during that time you are interacting with everyone, from the stage hands and director to your fellow musicians and music director. How you conduct yourself as an individual and as a musician will come into play.
As an example, five years ago I got an offer to play in the theatre pit of the Barn Theatre (which I got from playing a gig with the musician contractor at a different theatre). Every two weeks was a new show, but also a rotating lineup of musicians (based on the musical needs at the time). One of the keyboard players that I met my first summer was a very reputable music director in town. In the fall, when a bass player for a show of his couldn’t do some gigs, he had me hired as the sub. From there, our working relationship continued until a year later, he hired me as a regular member of a musical. From that point, he has hired me for countless gigs and recommended me to other directors for other gigs as well. How I got to this point I firmly believe came from these tips…
Take this seriously: This needs to be stressed, as I think a lot of musicians don’t take this type of work as seriously as they should. In the one regard I get it, we’re getting paid to do something we love to do. How can you not have fun doing that? Let’s still remember, you are getting PAID to do a job, and need to treat it as professionally as you would a regular 9-5. Those studio guys that work often and regularly understand this.
Show up early: I’m a big believer that you show up 10-15 minutes earlier than needed, in order to set up (if needed), warm up and get everything ready. Showing up right at the time of downbeat is not acceptable; you’re holding up everyone for a rehearsal. Especially for a show, show up early. Things can happen, and having some extra time to navigate through those is vital. If for some reason, you can’t make something on time (prior commitment or even emergency the day of), it is your job to get a message to your music director, whether by calling them directly or getting someone at the theatre to pass on a message.
Keep your equipment in good working order: It is not the director’s problem that you broke a string the night prior and haven’t had the chance to get a set at Guitar Center that day. The fact that they hired a musician that obviously can’t keep their equipment in working condition IS their problem, and there’s an easy way to remedy that. Hire someone else next time.
Take direction: The person you report to is called the MUSIC DIRECTOR for a reason; it’s their job to get the music in order. Take direction easily and gracefully. Take good notes so they don’t have to repeat themselves more than once. Ask questions when not sure of something.
Keep your mouth shut: Those that know me will laugh that I’m mentioning this, but it’s true. There are always going to be some things that you may not agree with; how someone is directing, general vibe of the group, etc.. If you have actual concerns, bring them up in a professional manner with the music director, one on one. If you have a problem with the music director, my advice is to shut your mouth, finish the gig, cash the check and next time if they call you, politely turn the offer down.
Say THANK YOU!: People think it’s silly, but I try to thank every single music director after every show for the opportunity (even my now-close friends), either in person or by sending an email to them shortly after the gig. Just shaking their hand and saying “I really had a lot of fun, thanks! I look forward to doing it again!” will go a long way in establishing a long-term working relationship. I’ve even gone so far as to buy one music director (that I mentioned earlier) a bottle of his favorite wine as a “Thanks for the many years of friendship, gigs and opportunities.” He’s still joking with me, saying that he’s ready for another bottle…!
When it really comes down to it, people would rather hire a modest talent that is very easy to work with than someone that is a phenomenal musician that’s known as difficult (and trust me, in this world people talk…a lot). A lot of this I’m sure may seem like old-hat to many of you, but you’d be surprised how many musicians I see forget a lot of these things and don’t realize they lost future gigs until they don’t get that phone call.