How to Get Called Back for Gigs (12 Tips from My Career as a Freelance Sax Player)

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I just got back from Rotterdam in the Netherlands where I played at the North Sea Jazz Festival with a band called the California Honeydrops. In a recent YouTube video, I shared with you some of the things I was doing to prepare for that gig: learning, memorizing and writing down the horn lines. Today I want to share with you some tips on how to get called for gigs or more specifically how to get called back for gigs.

Over the last 25 years, I have played with countless bands as a sideman and one thing I can say is that my phone has always been ringing with gig offers.

Here’s my list of top tips for how to get called for gigs in the first place but more importantly, what to do on those gigs so that you get called back for future gigs with the same band.

One of my very first professional gigs was given to me by my teacher at the time, Mark Gatz. He called me up one day, 

Me: Hello?

Mark: Hey, it’s Mark. You got a tuxedo?

Me: Yeah…

Mark: I got a gig for you Saturday, you writing this down?

Me: Yeah…

Mark: It’s on Canal and West Broadway. Don’t be late or I’ll kill ya.

Me: Wait, wait what songs do I have to play?

Mark: It’s standard repertoire.

(hangs up)

 …and that was my introduction to New York club dates in the 90s. 

Tip #1: Be On Time  

I had no idea what to do except wear a tuxedo, bring my saxophone, and don’t show up late. But incidentally, those are already some pretty good tips right there. So our first tip and most important: be on time. Nothing makes you stand out more in a negative way than being late to a gig, so if you want to get calls for gigs, show up on time. This goes for rehearsals and pickups as well; nobody wants to wait around for you, so don’t make them.

Tip #2: Dress Appropriately

If you’re supposed to wear all black for the gig, wear all black. Don’t wear mostly black except for like the stripes on your shirt. If you’re supposed to wear a suit for the gig, wear a suit; don’t put on black jeans and a jacket. If you’re a professional musician, you should have a suit, even if you’re a drummer 😉.

Tip #3: Don’t Forget Anything

Tip number three is, of course, bring your instrument. But let’s add to this, make sure you’ve got everything you need. If you’re playing something plugged in, bring an extra cable just in case. If you play an instrument that plugs in, bring a power strip or an extension cord because you can never rely on those things being there at the gig. Be the hero that has an extra cable for the guitar player when he forgot his.

Sax players, do a check before you leave for your gig. Make sure you got your mouthpiece, your reeds, your neck strap, everything you need to play the gig. Leave a comment below if you’ve ever forgotten an essential piece of gear for a gig, we’ve all done it at least once.

Tip #4: Positive Attitude 

The next item on our list is attitude. You may think that how someone plays is the most important factor in getting called for gigs, but that’s still further down the list. I know lots of great players that don’t have any gigs; nobody ever calls them because they’ve got a shitty attitude. If your attitude sucks, nobody’s ever gonna call you; it doesn’t matter how well you play. 

When working, be positive, friendly and likable if you want to get called back for gigs. Don’t be the person who’s complaining about the music, and the drive and the parking and the food and the drinks and the pay. In reality, conditions for musicians are rarely ideal—even under the best circumstances—so don’t make things worse by whining.

Tip #5: Don’t Drink Too Much

Getting drunk on a gig makes a really bad impression.

Tip #6: Say Goodbye 

At the end of the gig, go and say goodbye to all the musicians in the band and try to say something positive. Something like “great playing with you” or “that was a lot of fun.” Don’t just take off home.

Tip #7: Network 

Get contact information from the other musicians. In the old days, we would exchange business cards, but nowadays just connecting on social media is the way to go. When saying goodbye to the leader of the band or the person that got you the gig, make sure you say thank you for the job and let them know that you’d like to be called back if they need you in the future. 

But very important – if you are subbing for somebody, do not try and steal their gig. If you get a reputation as someone who does this, your phone will stop ringing pretty quick. Your goal is to be at the top of the list of potential subs for any given gig. You want to establish a reputation as someone who’s punctual, reliable, professional and most of all likable. Once you do this, your calendar is going to fill up. 

Tip #8: Be Reachable 

This is really important — answer when someone contacts you. Answer your phone, answer your email, answer your texts, and check your voicemail. In the music business, a lot of things get organized at the last minute. So if you’re not quick to respond, the gig will likely just go to somebody else.

Notice that we still haven’t mentioned anything about playing. This may come as a surprise, but it’s actually pretty easy to find musicians who can play well. It is, however, really difficult to find people who can consistently do everything on our list so far.

Now I’m not saying that how you play isn’t important—it is and we each need to take care of that on our own. But when it comes to getting gigs, it’s usually more about you as a professional and a person than you as a musician.

When I played that first wedding in Little Italy that I was telling you about before, I knew nothing. I didn’t know any of the songs, and I was completely lost the whole time. Luckily, there were two other horn players on the gig who knew exactly what they were doing. They knew all the tunes from memory or by ear and, you know, just nailed it. This was back in a time when horn sections in bands were commonplace, and everyone was expected to know the horn lines and be able to play them in different keys and make up arrangements on the spot. 

So basically, I was just trying to learn as much as I could through observation. But guess what? A week later, the same band called me back for another gig. Okay, so it’s 1994, and one of the big ballads at the time was “Unforgettable.” You know, the Natalie Cole version, where she sings with her father and you there’s this big sax solo in that song. So knowing that this band had that song in the repertoire, I said: “I’m going to learn that and I’m going to show up on this next gig and impress them with my preparation.”

So I learned the solo, had it down, so when I get to this second gig with the band now there’s a trombone player. He wasn’t on the first gig—it’s a different guy—and I tell him straight away, “Listen man, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m new at this, you know, you got any tips? Anything you can say to help me out?” And he said, “Don’t worry man, we all learn the repertoire on the bandstand anyway. Pretty soon, you’ll know all this stuff.” 

A little later on in the night, it’s time to play “Unforgettable” and I’m like, “Okay great, I got this. I learned that one, let’s go.” It comes time for the sax solo and I dive right in but, unbeknownst to me, this band played “Unforgettable” in a completely different key than the Nat and Natalie Cole version. So what followed was perhaps the worst sax solo in the history of that song. It was a train wreck. It was horrible and I probably ruined that poor couple’s wedding, but it truly was unforgettable ;). 

Somehow, my saxophone career did not end that night and the trombone player’s prediction eventually came true; I did learn the standard repertoire.

Tip #9: Learn the Standard Repertoire 

What constitutes standard repertoire varies depending on the region you live and the time period — it’s always changing with what’s popular. But if you’re a singer, you got to know the words to a bunch of songs and the key you sing them in. If you’re a horn player, you need to know the horn lines to these standard songs, and you need to know the melodies to a bunch of standard songs. Just always be adding to your repertoire, and you’ll be okay. 

As you do gigs, make lists of tunes that get called that you don’t know and go home and learn them. Use the recordings, play along, and write out charts if you need to. But be aware that different bands do songs in different keys all the time, so the ability to play things by ear from memory and in all twelve keys is crucially important. 

On this website, I’ve got some courses that I designed to help people develop these skills. If you haven’t already I suggest you start with the free Play Sax by Ear Crash Course or the Pentatonic Foundation Course

Tip #10: Play the Appropriate Style 

When it comes to taking solos, if you’re an improviser, be sure to play in the appropriate style for the context. Don’t insert Coltrane changes over Despacito, please. You might have fun with this at the time, but it’s not really serving the music. 

For trained jazz musicians, there’s often a certain challenge in improvising effectively over really basic harmony. So instead of always trying to show off your bebop chops, maybe go out on a limb and try to play something stylistically appropriate—even though you may be in unfamiliar territory.

Tip #11: Listen, Don’t Overplay

A good rule of thumb is to always be listening more than you’re playing. Especially when you’re not a hundred percent sure of the music. If you’re sitting in on a gig, be careful not to overplay. Music is a team sport—you may play great on your own, but when you’re a sideman it’s not your band and it’s not all about you.

Tip #12: Play Supporting Role

Try to support the other musicians and make them look good; go for the assist in these situations. I try to do all of these things when I get called for gigs, especially the ones I want to get called back for. Now if you’re starting out, your most valuable asset is going to be experience. So you’re gonna want to get as many gigs as you can. This is where you’re going to make connections and network with other musicians. This is where you’re gonna learn the standard repertoire and, you know, how to do the job.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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