Subbing: The Hardest Job in the Music Industry

During the course of a music-performing career, one encounters a variety of jobs that vary in their musical orientation and degree of difficulty. The expectation of performing at a high level on any gig is often enough to cause stress in any musician’s life. However, nothing compares to the stress, anxiety, and nervousness that a concerned, sensitive musician experiences when subbing for a colleague on a job. Whether in a musical theater show, orchestral concert, chamber ensemble performance, cover band gig, recording date, rehearsal, or any other type of musical engagement, the position of the sub is unenviable. I consider it the hardest job in the music industry.

Having worked as a professional musician in New York for 45 years, I have played in a very wide range of musical scenarios and have both hired subs and been a substitute player numerous times in these environments. I have observed how to go about hiring and working with subs correctly and how not to, and I have made errors on both ends of that spectrum. Therefore, I have a perspective on this topic that might be helpful and I hope that this article can shed some light on how best to approach the world of the substitute player. I will approach this discussion first from the perspective of the sub and then from that of the person doing the hiring.

When asked to substitute for a colleague, the first thing that an individual must determine is if the musical service they are being asked to perform is within the scope of their abilities. Years ago when there was an abundance of work, one might not do so well on a gig and still be given a second chance. NOT TODAY! Work in the industry has dried up and the competition for whatever work remains is fierce. Not only does one rarely get a second chance when the initial sub doesn’t go well, but word often spreads among other players and future work may be imperiled. Therefore, the potential substitute player needs to make an astute decision regarding what work will showcase their talents the best. I’ve witnessed instances in which players politic for work that they are totally unqualified for. This helps no one, least of all the individual trying to propagate work. It may bring a few more dollars home in the short term but long-term, it works to one’s detriment.

The next aspect that the sub must contend with after accepting a job is mastering the musical material they will be performing. This usually entails many hours of work learning the nuts & bolts—the notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, tempi, etc., what I refer to as Level I. The real difficulty in subbing on any gig, however, is phrasing the music in the rhythmical style with appropriate sounds; fitting in with the other musicians on the bandstand by balancing the volumes correctly; and being sensitive to pitch deviations during the performance—the Level II area. This is the area that many players have difficulty with when embarking on substitute work in the professional arena.

The trick to succeeding is to really master the music AFTER you learn the Level I requirements. It may mandate going back to witness the colleague you’re subbing for perform on the job several times; studying the conductor video that many musical theater jobs now provide; studying any recordings and/or YouTube presence of the group that you’ll be performing with; going to the hall where the performance will take place to check how your reeds will respond in that environment before the day of your performance; or even playing for the colleague that’s hiring you and getting his/her feedback. Anything and everything that you can do to help your chances for a successful sub is worth the effort. One never knows how a successful performance will affect one’s chances for future work so maximizing your effort to have a positive experience is a win/win situation.

Since subbing work is the standard approach to being offered more opportunities to work full-time jobs, how should a new player in town approach this situation? I feel that the best way to meet players of your instrument is to contact them for a lesson in order to let them hear you play. However, it’s essential that you be honest with that player about your intentions. Generally, most working players will be receptive to this type of overture. As far as contractors or personnel managers, the best way to introduce yourself is to write a letter with your resumé detailing work that is most pertinent to the type of work with which that contractor/personnel manager is involved. Calling or emailing them is not always the best way to approach them; some don’t mind being contacted and others do. Asking experienced players the best way to approach any particular contractor/personnel manager is often wisest.

The final thing from the sub’s perspective is to be aware that you will be scrutinized as a sub much more than the regular player. Therefore, it’s imperative that you approach this opportunity with the following in mind:

    1. Show up to the gig in the appropriate dress that is required and say “HELLO” to the regulars. I’m constantly stunned by how many players (young and old) subbing on a gig  are unable to utter a word to their colleagues before, during, and after the entire gig.
    2. Make sure that you are well groomed. You’d be surprised how many musicians have lost work for that reason alone
    3. Be at the gig no later than one hour before the downbeat on your initial subs on a gig; a half-hour before when you’ve established yourself as a reliable sub and feel comfortable with the music.
    4. In doubling situations that require large instruments (tenor and baritone saxes, bass clarinet, bassoon, etc.) many performers tend to use several of the tenured player’s instruments because of the difficulty in transporting them to the gig. This is easily understood from a physical standpoint. However, when subbing on any chair during the initial performances, one should make every effort to play your own instruments. Even if this means paying for Ubers to and from the gig, it is well worth it. There is no way that any performer (even Heifetz!) could know the subtleties of someone else’s instruments with regard to the scales, resistances, bore sizes as they relate to one’s mouthpiece and reed setups, etc. To expect one to play as well as you can during the “trial” subbing period while using someone else’s equipment is ridiculous. It’s not only unfair to yourself, but to the other musicians working with you. Play your own instruments, get approved, and then move on from there.
    5. Do not engage in “prelude-ing” (showboating) when warming up at the job. As a sub, only practice the music at hand–not the Ibert Concerto or Giant Steps–and don’t try performing other player’s parts! That’s a definite way to insure that you won’t be called again for that job.
    6. During the course of the job, refrain from having your cellphone out. It does not look good to the regulars when a sub is concerned about checking and sending messages instead of devoting his/her full attention to the music at hand.
    7. Ask for feedback on your performance after the gig so that you know what aspects need to improve for future performances.
    8. It’s important to present a friendly demeanor but remember what your job is—to fit in as seamlessly as possible and execute the music as close to the way the musicians are used to hearing it. Networking will occur most effectively if you play well, not schmooze well!

* Always leave the area in which you are subbing cleaner than when you arrived! Don’t leave any coffee cups, reeds, cigarette papers, music, etc. behind. The regular player should be able to return to their “space” as if no one else had ever been there.

**Lastly, whenever you agree to accept a full-time gig and will no longer be available to sub other jobs, notify the player(s) that you are subbing for IMMEDIATELY. Too  many players believe that notifying the colleagues who have been sending them work about an upcoming new job will negatively impact their immediate subbing work. The long-term effect is anything but that. People always remember when they have been treated with respect or not. Eventually, we will all need to do reassume the role of a substitute musician.

From the perspective of the player who is doing the hiring, the most important thought to keep in mind is that the players that you hire are a reflection of you. Here are a few things that can one can do to help the people who you use as substitute players:

      1. Hire players who you know will absolutely do a good job musically, will treat the gig with respect, and prepare thoroughly. If one has a long-running gig, make sure that the first few players you choose to sub are the best possible players and are experienced in that type of situation in order to gain the trust of the conductor and contractor.
      2. Mark your music for the benefit of the sub. It’s expected that you will know the music well enough to not be totally dependent on it after a few weeks on the job. However, subs need every possible means of help to do a good job so denote sections such as “Solo,” “Soli,” “Unison,” “Vibrato (vib),” “No Vibrato (nv),” “Ritard (rit),” “Accelerando (accel),” etc., and make sure that every dynamic and articulation is clearly visible. At the beginning of a chart, indicate how many beats of preparation are given and mark the rhythmic pattern above the first measure(s) of every meter change with slashes. When there is a moment that requires the player to pay careful attention to the conductor, put an eyeglass symbol above the music. Notate any lines or word cues that would be helpful in knowing when to begin a chart or a phrase after a lengthy pause in the music. Also, indicate on the top left-hand corner of a chart the amount of time that typically exists between numbers—i.e. 2:00, 3:30″, etc. This allows the player time to clean out the instrument, make a reed change, or take some extra time to study the part. Particularly for woodwind doublers, please highlight every instrument change. It’s extremely helpful for a sub to see these changes in highlight fashion when one moves from chart-to-chart or makes a page turn. I use the same color to highlight every instrument change.
      3. At a page turn where the music will be continuing, clearly indicate “Volti Subito.” (V.S.—turn over quickly.) If there are measures of rest that occur immediately after the page turn, write the number of measures of rest on the bottom right side of the preceding page. (4 measures of rest would look: –4–)
      4. Always use instrument stands that are of the best quality and make it easy and safe to succeed at the gig. I have subbed for individuals whose stands were bought in the 1960s and are ready to collapse at any moment. That’s not acceptable!
      5. The ability to take off from one’s job is dependent on your sub(s) doing a good job. There is an unwritten understanding that if a sub does the work to prepare for the job and is successful, the tenured player will reciprocate by using that player on a somewhat regular basis. There are players that I have seen treat substitute players in a less than respectful way: calling them only on major holidays when finding a sub is always difficult; using a sub so infrequently that when that player does finally receive an offer to sub, they have to relearn the music each time; not alerting the sub to changes that may have occurred between subbing appearances; or suddenly deciding not to use a long-time reliable sub in favor of a new player who the regular hopes will give them extra work. This is not how true professionals act!

Finally, every musician must recognize that during one’s career (40+ years), you will be a full-time player and a sub at one time or another. Remember to treat those who are subbing as you would like to be treated when you are a substitute AND regard the opportunity to sub as a demonstration of your professionalism. The hardest job in the industry can be made more accessible when musicians on both ends of the process approach it with the sense that we’re all in this together.


You may enjoy other Articles.