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Subbing with Orchestras: The Do's and Don'ts

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

All of the following recommendations are my own thoughts and personal opinions. Some musicians get the opportunity to start their careers very early by winning jobs quickly after graduating, while others may wait for a long time before that day comes. For many musicians, freelancing provides an opportunity to build and maintain a consistent revenue stream. I also believe a lot of these recommendations can benefit someone who has recently won a job and is entering an orchestra for the first time.

How to Get the Opportunity

#1 -Sub auditions/Previous auditions

Some orchestras hold auditions specifically to find musicians for their sub list. Also, if you previously took an audition for an orchestra and made a good impression but didn’t get offered the job, they sometimes will automatically add you to their sub list. Keep your eyes on the group’s website and see if any audition opportunities arise.

#2 -Try getting lessons from a musician in the orchestra

If you would like to form a relationship and build a connection with an orchestra’s percussion section, getting lessons from a member can be very beneficial.

#2a If possible, try to contact the principal and ask for a lesson. I would avoid expressing your interest in playing as a guest right away. Even if you are paying money for a lesson, look at it like an investment. You are receiving useful tips and feedback, and at the same time, if you make a good impression, you might be considered for a concert eventually.

#2b Most orchestras continue to hire the same guests because they trust that player’s musical abilities and know they can consistently perform well. Sometimes, a few lessons with a member of the orchestra can help build that trust.

#3 -Try e-mailing the orchestra’s personnel manager

Send a very simple message with a quick greeting, a short resume, and a short message about your desire to play as a guest with the ensemble. I would recommend this approach for smaller part-time orchestras and especially ones that don't have a principal.

How to Prepare for Rehearsals

#4 -What to do before the first rehearsal

Once you get the call to sub with a group, ask the office or principal how to get the sheet music. Usually, you can get a PDF file or pick it up directly from the librarian. I usually prefer to get the music directly from the library instead of IMSLP. This is because some works have many different editions.

#4a Sometimes you’ll find out your part assignment right away after getting hired. If not, contact the principal or personnel manager and ask about the part assignments.

#5 -Don’t show up unprepared

If there is one thing that you learn and remember from this paper, I hope it is this: Show up prepared to the very first rehearsal. Especially as a guest, you need to make a good first impression. I always like to check my part with the score, listen to multiple recordings, and mark my part with plenty of cues and helpful markings to help me avoid getting lost.

#5a You should learn all of your notes before the 1st rehearsal. Rehearsals are not the time to learn your own part, but instead, it is a time to learn how your part fits in with the rest of the orchestra.

#6 -Communicate with the principal or section beforehand about instruments

Quickly communicate with the section before the first rehearsal and ask if you should bring anything, such as instruments or mallets. Most major orchestras have their own traditions of using very specific instruments for all performances. You will normally always use the orchestra’s personal snare drums, cymbals, triangles, tambourines, etc. If nothing is said, expect to use all of the orchestra’s gear. Regardless, I would still prepare extra sticks and mallets.

#7 -Be sure to check with the office about the concert wear: tux, tails, all black.

Good to know ahead of time if rentals are needed!


#8 -Get there early

A good rule of thumb is to arrive at least one hour before the very first rehearsal to help set up. If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.

#9 -Greetings

Be sure to say hello to all members of the percussion/timpani section before the rehearsal begins. Just a quick hello and asking “How are you?” or “Nice to meet you” is all you need.

#10 -Cell Phones: Turn it off and put it away!

Some orchestras don’t allow any cell phones, while at other groups you will see a lot of cell phones out during rehearsal. As a guest, I would still recommend to not use it all during rehearsals.

#11 -How to fit in quickly

Feel free to ask the section/principal about what the orchestra’s playing tendencies are. Some percussion sections play very on top of the beat, while other groups are the opposite.

#11a Come prepared with a pencil and eraser. Always!

#11b In many classical works, the percussion section usually plays together at the same time after a long tacet. Many percussion sections have traditions of standing up together at the same time before playing an entrance. Pay attention and see if the section does this or not. If so, try to match their habits. Don’t stand up too early, and, likewise, don’t be late.

#11c Some orchestras rehearse in smaller rehearsal rooms before moving to the stage for a concert. If this is case, most groups tend to play slightly softer/lighter in rehearsals. Keep your ears open when rehearsals start and try to fit in.

#11d Likewise, when warming up for rehearsals or concerts, I recommend to not play any louder than mezzo-piano. Most musicians are very sensitive about sudden loud volumes. Brass and woodwind players are usually focusing on fixing intonation and tunings beforehand, so try to warm up on a practice pad and use soft rubber mallets on mallet instruments. If you need to test instruments, such as cymbals at loud dynamics, I always get to the hall very early or stay later so I don’t disrupt or annoy anyone.

#12 -Be open minded to comments and opinions from the section/conductor

Leave your personal preferences and opinions at home. If someone in the section or conductor recommends a different instrument, mallet, or any general comment, be understanding and try to make the change. Don’t be stubborn.

#12a There are many personalities in an orchestra. Some orchestra members might give you many comments while others are the complete opposite. If no comments are given after the first or second rehearsal, take that as a good sign! However, I think it is still fine to ask the section “How are things sounding?” or “Do you have any comments for any of my playing?” This shows your desire to fit in with the section and also your desire for a successful performance.

#13 -Dress nice

You don’t need to wear a suit and tie but use your best judgment to look professional. No shorts or sandals.

#14 -After the Show

If any packing is needed after the show, be sure to lend a hand and help until all instruments are packed or put away.

#14a After the last concert, be sure to thank the section and office for inviting you. Express your gratitude for the opportunity, especially if it’s your first time playing with that group.

#14b Every orchestra has different traditions for post-concert festivities. Some sections all go their separate ways after a concert, while others typically gather for some food and drinks. Whether you’re a social person or not, these can be great opportunities to help build a stronger relationship with the members.

Summary and Final Tips

Being a guest musician who is prepared and professional is very important. However, I would also argue it is equally as important that you bring a good attitude and a warm personality to whatever job you are offered. You will be surprised to find out how far your career can go by just being a well prepared musician who is also nice, considerate, and shows care for others.

January 4, 2023

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