Getting and keeping a regular gig as a sideman is a skill that presents a myriad of challenges. "Learn the music and you'll be fine" only goes so far.
Today I thought I’d address an ever-present concern throughout the musician community: How to get gigs as a side man. This can seem like a difficult world to break into as an outsider, but if you keep these few points in mind it will make your transition into working as a musician much smoother. The language in the following passage is geared toward jazz but is completely applicable to any genre.
People seek the best musicians possible to play with. Nobody looks through their phone and makes their first call to the person that is only adequate. For the record, I’m not necessarily saying that the people with the highest skill levels get called first. I’m saying people that treat the music with the most care tend to make the best impressions on a band leader. This means memorizing the music wherever applicable, printing your own charts, listening to recordings, making your own charts or anything else that you can do to try to be self-sufficient before the gig. With that mentality you’ll end up with a reputation for always going the extra mile for the music.
Jam sessions aren’t just opportunities to meet people, but rather perfect situations for you to demonstrate a wide variety of musical and interpersonal skills. If you go to a jam session and you present yourself as a competent, confident and encouraging musician you’ll stand way out in a crowd. You don’t have to show off or over play at all. All you have to do is make the best music possible in the situation you’re presented with and you’ll end up making yourself memorable when people are finding personnel for gigs.
Hosting sessions (outside of taking lessons) is the best way to find more tunes to learn, discover your shortcomings with keys and tempos, hearing about what other people are working on, and developing your instincts in a variety of playing situations. It also helps solidify your relationships with people that have gigs. It’s important to always keep in touch with as many musicians as possible.
Without being on the scene you’ll never be “seen.”
It does nobody any good to walk away from a playing situation with a negative outlook. There’s always a lesson to be learned or a way that you could have done something differently to improve the outcome. If you approach musical situations like this you’ll notice two positive effects. First, that you’ll learn a lot about yourself and how you handle stressful or uncomfortable situations. Second, that you’ll learn more about how other people handle those same situations than you ever realized.
I really want to remind everyone that reads this once again that these are general principles that will always help when it comes to generating and keeping gig opportunities. There are many other ways to break into a “scene.” Creating your own gig opportunities and finding people that are interested in playing the gig with you is a perfectly viable avenue, however without taking care of the music you will end up finding it hard to keep people you respect as musicians on the gig.