Building Professional Connections

May 20, 2011

This post is more for freelance musicians than school teachers, but I think it has applications for many areas of music.

If there’s one thing I wish somebody had sat me down and told me when I was just starting out as a freelance musician, it would be this: Every job you do is an audition for the next one.

With some exceptions, the theatre community consists primarily of pick-up groups. Each set of performances hires what they need for that specific show, and when that show is over, everyone is left to go on to their next job. That puts music directors, directors and producers in a position of hiring a completely new set of people every time they do a job. And people who are not in a position to hire are frequently called upon to give advice on hires. That means that practically everyone in the production you’re working on has a list in their head ranking everyone they’ve worked with in terms of how pleasant the collaboration was, how high the quality of the work was, and the likelihood they’ll ever hire you or recommend you in the future. That’s why when you look at a theatre resume, you want to see if there are multiple jobs at the same venue. Multiple jobs means someone thought you were good enough to hire again. Getting the first job is actually not so hard. Getting the second one requires a very long audition.

I’ve gone over all these areas elsewhere in the blog, but briefly:

1) Bring your A game. Do you like this job? Do it well, as best you can. If it’s not worth bringing your best to the table, you shouldn’t have taken the job in the first place. There is no slumming. (doing a job beneath your ability level) There are only situations where you are extremely well qualified to do your job. And in that situation, it isn’t right for you not to do your best.

2) People don’t want to work with divas. On your first job at a place, don’t go throwing your weight around and insisting on changes in every little thing. It may be that things are horribly dysfunctional, wrongheaded and inefficient at your new position. But do it their way at least once, and don’t give advice that’s difficult to take unless you’re asked. Did they hire you as a consultant? No. You’re a specialist with a job. Do that job, and do it well.

3) It’s encouraging to see when someone has done their homework. Want to make a good impression? Really know what your show is about. I am very good at reading the score, at listening to the cast recording, and at researching the history of shows. I am terrible at reading scripts cold and remembering characters names. When I’m in a meeting, and I refer to the reason why a number ends the way it does, and the mechanics of a musical sequence, people are really glad they hired me. When I forget what the secondary female lead’s name is and show ignorance on a basic plot point because I didn’t read the script carefully enough, people wonder why they hired me in the first place.

4) Especially in your first production with a group, add value: Is there something you can do that other M.D.s can’t? Do that thing, and do it well, particularly the first time you work with a group. In one production, I played accordion in the pit. In another, I transcribed a better version of a song from a revival cast recording and orchestrated it for our pit. I frequently make practice tracks of numbers for the chorus. I transpose numbers on Finale, and give a copy to the director which looks exactly like the one in the score, except it’s in the lower key the singer needs. I find bootleg copies of shows and track them for the choreographer so that she has every measure of music at her fingertips. I transpose at sight when possible and necessary. People want to work with those kind of collaborators again and again.

5) Show up on time. It’s hard for me to get places punctually with my busy schedule and my four kids. But showing up consistently late puts you on the ‘don’t hire’ list quick! And if you show up for a show late, it’s the kiss of death. Plan to arrive early. I have a number in my phone for SM (stage manager) and I replace that number every show with whoever is holding that job. If I can see I’m stuck in traffic, I give quick heads up. And then the next time I try my best to leave earlier.

I should note that I have blown EVERY ONE of the previous five items, and I’m convinced that if I had gotten all of them right, I would be turning down a lot more work, because everyone would be calling. These are an ideal, not an everyday reality. Work to make them a part of your professional bearing.

You’ll probably do this anyway, but you should then keep a mental note of all the people you’re working with for your own future reference:

Loved working with director X, she’s really good at comedy.

That pianist can’t play jazz.

That actor is always on the ball. She was off book early.

That actress brings too many of her personal problems into the rehearsal. It throws off our focus.

Then the next time you’re casting, or are called upon to recommend somebody for a job, you can make informed judgments. And if you have particularly competent friends, recommend them for jobs you are unable to take. Tell the person you’re recommending the colleague to that she should mention your name. It does two things: it acts as a calling card. ‘so-and-so recommended you’ tells the other musician that the person who is calling isn’t a whack job or a stalker. It also subtly reminds the other musician that you exist in the world, and should be thought of for future positions. Most musicians like to return favors like that.

If you’re a freelance musician, you rely on referrals. I haven’t applied for a job in 8 years, they’ve all come from referrals. Each of those referrals comes from somebody who worked with me and enjoyed the experience enough to recommend me. Make sure everyone has that experience when they work with you.


One comment

  1. Hey Peter, nice blog. You’re using this to put into your book right? I had a few ideas, one you subtly hinted at is trading numbers with fellow musicians. You’ll never get a call for a gig if you didn’t trade numbers! (tho facebook does make it easier) And two, maybe word #4 in a way that offers suggestions of things the musician can do for the md, rather than a list of things you do. You’re very talented and it’s slightly overwhelming to read how much great stuff you can do : p

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