Broadway from the Ground Up

John Miller, "Meet the Contractors" Part II

Volume CV, No. 2February, 2005

Allegro’s contractor series continues with part two of John Miller’s article, continued from last month.

John Miller is a bass player and contractor with many years’ experience. He contracts for recordings, films, jingles, concerts and Broadway, and has been a member of Local 802 since 1966.

Let’s now assume that somehow or other, you’ve made contact with the regular player who has invited you to come watch the book.

When you go, here’s what you want to do: first and foremost confirm the time. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot — some shows have a 7 p.m. curtain now. Don’t arrive after curtain.

Wear black; tape the show (bring a Walkman): check out the regular’s equipment. You’ll probably be using his upright and your electric. Fast change of instruments? Pedals? Amp settings? Notice how tight the area is. Sometimes these places are unbelievably cramped. See how the bass player maneuvers his upright. Watch how the conductor lays down the beat. Fill out the paperwork for the in house contractor. And most importantly, see how you can get a copy of the book.

Now you have a better idea of your competition. How do you stack up? How’s your sight reading? Could you have sight read that part flawlessly? Remember that on Broadway the regular player doesn’t see the music until the first orchestra rehearsal. You’re expected to sight read the part.

Lines like, “Don’t worry, I’ll eventually get it and it’ll be great” won’t cut it at this level of competition.

Could you have played that treble clef arco part in unison with the cellist as in tune as the regular did? Do you play that well with the pick? Can you follow the conductor as well as the regular? Can you play it that consistently? Are you versatile on all styles?

Ask yourself, can I handle the comments the conductor gives? Am I open enough to really see where my weaknesses are and work on them? What are the regulars doing better than I am?

Enlightened responses for all of us might be, “Let me try to understand why they got the job. Let me learn all I can from them.” This is the tough work we all must do.


Now you go home and learn the book. Cold. Meticulous preparation is the key. Once you’ve got it, call the regular to ask if you can come a second or even a third time to watch the whole show. Most regulars will see this as being extremely conscientious.

When you feel confident that you are ready to play the show, tell the regular. Sometimes it won’t go down that smoothly. Sometimes the regular will unexpectedly call: “I need you to play next Saturday for me.”

Be flexible, and remember — make life easy for the regulars. If possible accept the date they’ve called you for. You never know when or if they’ll call again.

And be realistic. You can have put in hours, days, weeks, months learning a book with absolutely no guarantee that you’ll ever be given a show to play or if you are given one, that you’ll be asked back to play again as an approved sub.


So now you get the call to sub your first show. Double-check the curtain time. Obviously, the better you’ve learned the book, the more comfortable you’ll be, and your odds for success will be greater. Some difficult passages you might even consider memorizing. Be prepared that there might be a different conductor than the one you’d been watching. Get to the pit early. Check that the music is in order. Check that there isn’t a song in a different key than those you practiced in your sub book. It’s risky to bring your own copy; changes might have been made since you were last in. As I said before, you will most likely use your own electric but use the regular’s upright.

Get reacquainted with all the equipment; don’t change the settings. The conductor and the sound department want consistency. Play it like the regular. Don’t make it “yours.” Don’t add “your” style. Don’t try to be better than the regular. The best compliment we can ever receive subbing a show is when the conductor says, “I didn’t even know the regular wasn’t there.”

Remember, the conductor is the Buddha and will be listening closely to a first time sub. It may be reassuring to know that you both want the same result, to play a great show; if you can hold on to that, it might make you a little less nervous.

If the conductor has comments for you during the show, at intermission, or after the show, take them as an opportunity for you to learn what the conductor needs from you. And remember this: correcting your position works. Protecting or defending your position doesn’t: “the reason I did it that way,” or “I was distracted,” or “I slowed the tempo down because I thought the drummer was too fast.” Pick an excuse. This isn’t what the conductor, or frankly ANYONE wants to hear. What they want to hear is: “I got it. I hear what you want, let me try to give it to you.”

I’ve been told by many conductors that given a choice they would prefer to have the good musician who responds well to criticism than a better musician who resists or dodges it.

Bottom line: first show subbing, play it exactly like the regular. Think karaoke.

Surprisingly, the second time subbing the show is usually tougher than the first. It’s like a sophomore jinx. It’s easy to have a false sense of accomplishment and make foolish mistakes. Concentrate and stay focused.

The third time you sub the same show you should feel more confident that the conductor likes your approach and hopefully you can relax a bit and let all your musicality come through.

And by the way, don’t be afraid to ask the conductor how you’re doing. Is there anything different they’d like from you? It seems obvious, but I’m always surprised how few musicians do ask.

Players in the band are usually very supportive of subs, but remember, it’s the conductor who makes the decision whether or not you return, not the players.

What if you find out that you are an unaccepted sub and not asked back? Don’t shoot yourself. You’re in good company. You’d be absolutely flabbergasted, as I’ve been, at the quality and reputation of players who have been deemed unaccepted subs at some shows. And don’t forget an unaccepted sub for one conductor may be a first call for another conductor. You’re not going to be perfect for every show. It’s a very tough pill to swallow. Accept it, see if there’s anything you can learn from it, and move on. Go where you’re loved.


Now that you’re subbing a show, your next goal is to sub another show and another. Try to sub in as many shows as possible. The more conductors and associate conductors that know you, and like your playing, the greater your chances of getting your own show.

Here’s a hypothetical story: I get a call from Will Lee who tells me that he had a dream that he should be playing on Broadway. He asks if I can help have his dream come true. So when I say to a conductor, “I’ve got amazing news; Will Lee would love to play your next show,” that conductor might respond with, “I don’t know who Will Lee is, but I heard a sub at my last show who knocked me out and I want to use him.”

Here’s my point; and this is good news for most of us who aren’t Will. If the conductor thinks you’re a good sub your odds of being hired by them are better than someone, even someone famous, who the conductor doesn’t know.


Now you get called for your own show. I like to say “people remember an entrance and an exit.” What I mean by that is, in the beginning, when you get the call you’ve been waiting for, don’t start by asking things like, “How many more doubles can you get me?” or “Could I be a couple of days late for the rehearsals?” “Could I get out of the lock-in period?” Remember; make life easy for the person hiring you.

Make certain you’re prepared for what I call “Zen and the art of eight a week.” What I mean by that is to be prepared for a show schedule that will now be a part of your daily life and the life of your family.

Remember, we’re in the service business. The upper left-hand corner of the music does not say “John Miller” or your name — it says “bass.” It is to be played the same way every show eight times a week. This is not easy for some people.

In that regard, it’s essential that you have other outlets for your own music. Whether that means playing in bands, orchestras, or composing, it will help you to feel less frustrated playing the same part eight times a week.

If you think that your schedule is so busy that you know you’ll be taking off 50 percent of the time, let the contractor and the conductor know so there are no surprises. Very occasionally, it might be in your best interest not to accept that show and let the conductor and contractor know that you’d love to be a sub. That very well might protect and even strengthen your relationships with them.

Conductors know how many good players are out there who want to commit to the chair and most would rather have that player in their orchestra than someone who knows from the get-go that they’re not going to be there more than half the time. And they especially don’t like surprises.


Now let’s assume you’ve been offered a show and you’ve accepted. It’s now your own show, your chair and your turn to find subs. The goal is to find subs who play as well or better than you. The better your sub is, the better your odds are that the conductor will be comfortable with you taking off.

Don’t make the mistake of hiring subs who don’t play as well as you in the belief that the conductor will be happy when you return. They won’t. Nor will your fellow musicians. Because when your show eventually closes, and they all do, don’t think the conductor won’t remember which musicians had great subs. They will. And so will everyone else.

Here are some suggestions that might help: take the time to prepare your sub. Encourage them to be as diligent as you were. Call them to be sure they show up on time. Because if they don’t and your chair is empty at the top of the show, your own job as the regular could be at stake. And I guarantee you; your fellow musicians will have zero tolerance for it. Neither will anyone else.

I want to speak to another point, a little more subtle, but one that I believe profoundly affects all of us. In the beginning of a show everyone is on a high. Everyone’s on his or her best behavior. But soon the daily routine begins. Make no mistake; pits are intense. Cramped quarters, cheek by jowl with a bunch of artists with no lack of ego. And all this eight times a week. This scene brings out the best and the worst in us.

Eventually shows close. Many conductors have told me after the run, “I’d just rather not use that musician again.” And it usually has nothing to do with ability. It’s most often about a negative attitude that musician brought to the pit. No matter how great these people play, it becomes increasingly dicey placing them.

When I put a pit together, I try to imagine a band on a bus. Busses break down. If the people on the bus enjoy one another, it can be a great adventure. If not, it can turn into a bloody nightmare. I want to be on that bus with musicians who are upbeat, have easy spirits, and a high flowability.

Some time ago I read an article in Fortune magazine. They had interviewed upper management and asked why they fired people. Ninety percent said it was for attitude, not ability. This is a bigger issue than you might think.


So you played great, took conductor’s comments well and were a team player and you’re not called for another show right away. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you did something wrong. Everyone working on Broadway is a terrific player. It could just be that the conductor, arranger, composer and contractor of that new show thought that someone else might be more suitable for the needs of that particular show.

As bass players we all know that we’re mostly side musicians; someone else is the leader. I encourage all of you to be a leader at least once to see what it’s like to have that responsibility.

If you can’t, then try this: imagine what it would be like if you had your own band and were going to play at a prestigious club for your own CD release party for important industry people.

You’re dealing with getting people there, the sound system, rehearsal time, paying the musicians, obtaining music stands, and handling delivery of equipment. And then the day before your great gig, your drummer calls to say he has a family emergency and can’t do it. You freak. This is the last thing you want to be dealing with. The stakes are high.

You call another drummer. “I’m in a panic. Could you fill in for my drummer?” You’d probably want to hear the following response: “I’d love to do it. I’ll take care of everything. I’ll call your regular drummer right away and see if I can get together with him. I’ll practice the parts and what time would you like me at the sound check?”

That’s exactly what you want to hear. That sub made life easy for you as the leader. You won’t forget that musician. Keep that in mind when you’re subbing for someone. Keep it in mind when you’re the regular, because for the conductor and the contractor the stakes are that high for every single show.

I love being a bass player. I’m proud of the fact that bass players are extremely supportive of each other. We share information about new gear, new CD’s to listen to and we love to hang out with one another.

A few years ago a bass player friend of mine told me about an audition he had just done. He said he had suggested to them that they call me to audition as well because he thought they should hear me play. Be that kind of bass player. One of the things we share that makes us unique is our unending love of music and the people who make it.


I hope this has been a little helpful in demystifying the question of how to work on Broadway. Of course, these are just my own personal observations as a bass player and a contractor. And I realize that everyone’s journey is different. I encourage you to ask other bass players, other contractors, conductors and instrumentalists. Get their opinions. See what works for them.

I try to keep in mind the Zen adage that says “Fight your shame and learn all you can from others.”

Just keep on playing at your highest level everywhere you can. Make it comfortable for everyone. I guarantee you that musicians will want to play with you and they’ll recommend you to other musicians. I don’t know anything that beats that.

Next time, we hear from more contractors.