Gigging 101 Part A: For the Hired

For musicians and other artists, gigs are a way of life.  As a freelance musician I gig frequently, in various places and for various people.  I’ve been doing it for years, and in that time have observed many different behaviors from both the hired and the hiring.  What follows are some basic rules (in this post, for the hired, aka other musicians) that I’d like to call


All are from my POV (obviously; I’m the writer!) so feel free to add your own experiences, two cents, or questions.

For those HIRED

1)  There is no gig “too small”

…especially when you’re in school or just starting your professional career.  You never know who you’ll meet at a gig, what impression you’ll make on people at a gig, or what lesson(s) you’ll learn from a gig.  Watch what you say and how you act, for you don’t know who’s watching you, deciding if they’ll hire you back or, in the case of fellow musicians, they’ll hire you at all.  (This is something I’m always working on, personally.  I have a big mouth and don’t always think before I speak.  It’s caused some awkward moments, but the ones that turn out good I add to an ongoing saga I have with one of my friends entitled “Rin Needs to Learn to Keep Her Mouth Shut.”)


There is nothing more infuriating than having to stop a rehearsal, or more embarrassing than having to stop a performance, because somebody did not count their rests or their rhythms properly.  Now, everyone makes mistakes, so that’s not to say that one miscount equates dismissal, but a GOOD musician can get back on track without too much of a disturbance to the rest of the group and will not make the same mistake twice.  The same good musician will take responsibility for their goof and apologize SINCERELY to the rest.  Rhythm is always more important than the notes.  As a friend once pointed out, without rhythm, the opening of “Joy to the World” is just a descending major scale.

3)  Keep a Schedule

No matter how good your memory is, if you’re gigging to survive you will be busy and driving all over the place.  I know they say “the definition of optimism is a violist with a beeper,” but make sure you have as many ways as you need to remember when and where each gig is.  I carry around a student planner (since the orchestral season is nearly identical to the school year) and put EVERYTHING on those pages.  On my wall I have a calendar, dry erase board, and bulletin board.  Each week, I take out the planner and put the upcoming events on the dry erase board.  They’re color coded.  Each time I pass, I see them.  This works for me.  Non-archaic technology works better for others.  Point is, know where you have to be and when, which segues nicely into the next point…

4)  Early is “On Time” and On Time is “LATE

Things happen.  It’s called life.  But you know what?  YOU CAN PLAN FOR IT.  Especially if you’re keeping a schedule.  Always have the contact number of someone at the gig, most likely the person who hired you, in case there is some unforseen emergency or something that will prevent you from getting to the gig on time.  Plan to arrive at the gig earlier than you need to be there.  Learn the traffic patterns around your gig area and the times of day when traffic is bad.  It also doesn’t hurt to look up the location of the gig on online maps so you can get an idea of parking, landmarks you’ll recognize while driving, and see alternate routes in case the one you’re taking is blocked for some reason.  Additionally, if you know your schedule is tight for that gig, let the person hiring you know in advance.  That’s just common courtesy.

5)  Practice Music That Gets Sent to You

Or at least look it over for spots that might be tricky.  If the person hiring you took the time to send you music, it’s just common courtesy to give the music a quick look before going to the rehearsal.  Unless you’re used to sight reading at studio musician level, don’t leave anything to chance.  Remember, THEY know they sent you the music in advance.  It looks bad on you if you can’t play it.  This rule is particularly important when working with new music composers and music arrangers of both the professional and student levels.  It gives you the opportunity to ask questions directly to the source before stepping into the rehearsal (and potentially wasting time on something trivial) or you may find a mistake or inconsistency in the part that would have wasted rehearsal time.

6)  Don’t Back Out of a Gig Unless It’s ABSOLUTELY Necessary

Once you make a commitment to be at a gig, you better be at that gig.  There are legitimate reasons for having to back out or get a sub, like getting seriously ill or dealing with a death, but – and this goes along with the whole “keeping a schedule” thing – as long as you are organized you should not be double booked.  Additionally, there may be times when you get a call for a better paying gig at the same time as a gig you’ve already got.  Instead of backing out of your previous commitment, recommend a friend for the other gig that came up.  If your friend is cool, they’ll hook you up later on.  And if they’re not, well, you don’t have to hire them again!

7)  Ignore Your Cell Phone While on the Job

This one’s getting particularly bad with current high school and college students, and some adults who love technology.  Unless you are an on-call doctor, you do not need your cell phone during rehearsal.  I remember one rehearsal where a violinist took out her cell phone and started texting people during a tacet (for non-musicians: a whole movement of a piece where you don’t play) and I thought to myself, “You’re a student.  You’re not THAT important yet.  Put your phone away.”  Typically during a tacet you’d clarify things in other movements with your section principals and listen for themes and rhythms that may come up later on, so you know what the conductor expects when they happen (and it will earn you bonus points for knowing and remembering what the conductor expects).  You can check your phone for messages during rehearsal breaks, and make any necessary calls or texts then.  If someone calls you for  a gig, they will understand that you were in rehearsal and could not respond.

Additionally, you do not want to be “that guy” who ruins a recording because their cell phone went off.  People DO get fired and blacklisted for things like that.  If you’re asked to turn off your phone, do so.  Your legions of followers will still be there when your gig is done.

8)  Show Respect, Even If “You Know More”

This should go without saying, but not everyone who works in music formally studied it, and even those who formally studied it will have their strengths and weaknesses.  A songwriter may not realize they wrote notes out of your range (happens frequently on viola), so if you notice unplayable notes, simply ask if the writer would like them up an octave, or ask what else you could play there.  Always be willing to work WITH the person who hired you.  When it comes to classical music, what the conductor says is what you play, whether it’s historically accurate or not.  Orchestras are not a democracy.  If you want to gripe, just remember the part of Rule #1 where you don’t know who is at your gig and who may overhear you.

I think that’s all for now.  Got any stories or things to share?

~ by violarockstar on April 5, 2012.

2 Responses to “Gigging 101 Part A: For the Hired”

  1. I struggle sometimes with the “no gig is too small.” Here is why, though (I don’t think it’ll surprise you):

    Beyond the context of one who is a younger student or just starting out gigging, I talk to some other musicians (brass players, in case there’s some kind of context) who firmly hold onto a standard of pay and encourage the field of freelancers at large to not give in so easily to “whatever-it-pays” type of gigs; the argument is that it would lower the threshold at which employers expect to pay musicians and taking any gigs at low pay would undercut those holding out.

    On the other hand, there is more than just the monetary consideration, as most of us know and you have mentioned, the connections made and future opportunities it could open.

    I bring this up mainly because I’ve been collaborating with instrumentalists who, by nature of their instrument, is in much higher demand. This person definitely sets her own astounding, but fair rate (read as “I wish I could do that”) and certainly has the schedule to decline any gig.

    I honestly do think “no gig is too small,” believe me. I’m all for it, if it fits my schedule and doesn’t take more gas money than it brings in. What do you think? Is there a line in light of this?

    • Yes, it is a tricky subject, and I agree with your reasoning. I do think, though, that it really comes down to each individual and their own life demands, and a bit of awareness of one’s own reality. I’ve encountered students asked to perform for their school (while they are current students) who declined because it was unpaid. To me that is silly, because you are a student at that school and consequently reflect the attitude and quality of the school’s reputation. Especially if you are a music major at that school, and asked to do the performance, it means you are high enough in the ranks to be considered as a representative for the school and should treat the position as such. It’s actually an honor, not a form of cheap labor, in that circumstance. Obviously if scholastic demands would be too much or conflict with the performance, that is reason to decline, but then that is the approach to take, not one of “it doesn’t pay.”

      Then there are the gigs where the people involved know there is no budget and know they are asking a lot of their musicians to play for little to no money. In my experience, if you are willing to do these kinds of gigs and do it well, while being kind and friendly, these same people WILL call later for gigs with a budget and gladly pay “what you’re worth.” Plus, if the same people continually call you for small paying gigs, you’re always free to decline.

      There are those instruments and those players who do get to charge more for their services simply because they’re in demand, but even more popular instruments like ours can earn that respect over time. We just have to pay our dues for picking instruments everyone plays. And when one plays instruments that are not in demand, it’s their personal reputation that will get them hired or blacklisted. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that whatever and wherever we play, a job is a job and needs to be treated with respect whether it’s high end or a student’s recital.

      Personally, I try to only take gigs where they can at least pay for my gas. I’ll make exceptions for friends, or if the gig is within walking distance of my place, or if they’ll feed me. (The logic with food is that’s one meal I don’t have to buy myself, so no extra money spent.) I have some stories I can share with you not over the internet that better show some of the points I made about “no gig too small” next time I see you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: