A Guide to Being a Studio Musician

by John Yoakum

Minor editing by Ed Joffe

Here you are, after years of toiling in the practice room on scales, long tones, etudes, and anything else that your teacher puts in front of you. You hope to become proficient and move up the ladder to perfection and a career. Endless hours of repetition on the same phrases or intervals and you are finally ready to make a splash on the studio scene! Once you get to a “professional level” in your playing, what’s next?

Well, keep in mind that studio musicians are some of the best players in the world and there is a reason for that. It goes without saying that they are extremely proficient on their instrument(s) as well as being able to interpret almost any style. If you are at a comparable level, here are some things to consider that every studio player knows or should know.

Be on Time!
Producers or composers are paying thousands of dollars to rent a sound stage at a major studio, as well as paying for engineers, orchestrating, music prep, musicians, and whatever else comes up per hour. The last thing they want is someone moseying in one minute late, forcing them to call a ten before the session even starts. Better to be an hour early and know that you are on time and take your job seriously.

They will notice

Leave Your Attitude at the Door
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone complaining about the music that they are playing on the session. I am talking about great musicians. Guess what? There are microphones all around the studio. Whoever is in the booth can hear whatever you say. That means the composer who has hired you as well as the contractor. They are putting their reputations on the line by believing in you and your abilities. Oh, and many times that includes the producer, who has hired the composer and loves the music they have created for their project. If you have a problem with the music being sub-par or is not your cup of tea, complain about it on your own time elsewhere. A lack of attitude equals gratitude!

They will notice

Dress Accordingly
This could be a controversial topic, but you are a professional. Try not to wear sandals and a speedo to work and smell like a sewer or perfume counter at Nordstrom’s. You are representing yourself to your employers and colleagues. Underdressing and overdressing should be on your radar as a no-no!

They will notice

Be Prepared
We are all very fortunate to live in a time where information is available in a moment’s notice. This is the same for a studio musician who has been contracted to show up prepared. In the heyday of studio work, there was no internet, iPhone, email, or whatever else that makes life more convenient these days. Musical parts can now arrive before a session to your inbox as a PDF. In a lot of circumstances, you will be able to look over the music or even work it out on your instrument before you get to the studio. It takes some of the stress off, knowing what to expect and what is needed to do your best. Does that mean there are no surprises for each session? No, many times new music shows up during the session and everyone needs to buckle down and sight read. Sometimes, you will only get one take. Make it your best!

They will notice

Turn Off Your Phone
This should be a no brainer. There is nothing worse to a composer than having a perfect take completely wrecked by a phone going off or a video on YouTube blaring. It is annoying, unprofessional, and could very well get you fired or passed over next time. You are being paid good money to be present and in the moment. Give it a rest.

They will notice

Learn From Your Colleagues
If you are new to the studio business, look around. Every person that is there has been in your shoes. It is new territory for you and can feel overwhelming. But, because of your abilities, you have made the jump and now are on an equal playing field with them. There should be a feeling of mutual respect. You’ve arrived!

It is time to make beautiful music together and enjoy the gifts that God has given us and makes everyone unique! Every session is a great time to listen to others and have a mental lesson with them. Be a student; learning should never stop. Your colleagues are the best of the best! Watch them, listen to them. If there is something that they are doing that grabs your interest—how they turn a phrase, how they are holding their instrument(s), what equipment they are using—talk with them and cultivate relationships. Take an interest in what they are doing and how they approach things musically and personally.

They will notice

Have Fun!

Being among a studio orchestra of 100 players, or even 5 players, can be extremely stressful and can rattle anyone’s nerves…Breathe…Expectations are very high and everyone is listening. Breathe again. We are only human beings asked to perform at a very high level! Relax. Composers, for the most part, know that fact and you are among friends. Everyone is in the same boat. Do your absolute best!

We are being used as a tool for the composer to get his or her music recorded efficiently and to lend beauty and expression to their score. We are not curing illnesses. We should delight in the fact that we are adding something to the music that the composer cannot–emotion. Therefore, there is worth in what we do to enhance their product.

They will notice

This list is not a comprehensive one as there is more to add, especially once you are in the studio “fold.” It is meant as a stepping off point to outline some basics that I feel are important to anyone pursuing a studio career. These fundamentals can be helpful in other musical situations and can prove to be fruitful and rewarding. I have been blessed with lifelong friends that I have had the distinct pleasure to make beautiful music with and I would not trade that experience for any!

They would notice!

Editor’s Notes: John Yoakum is a freelance studio musician, specializing in saxophones and woodwinds. He has recorded hundreds of soundtracks for TV & Film. Credits include Family Guy, Simpsons, Jurassic World, Up, Star Trek, and recordings with Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Julian Lennon, to name a few. He is also a well-regarded mouthpiece facer and technician.


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