‘How Do I Get a Gig in This Town?’

Volume CX, No. 10October, 2010

Sometimes, it’s all about who you know. The gatekeepers to many of the best gigs in New York City are contractors: musicians who place the other musicians in jobs. Five years ago in Allegro, we heard from seven top contractors. Recently, we put our ear to the ground and heard from eight more. Here are their tips.

The Contractors

If you’re a contractor and want to be a part of this series in the future, e-mail Allegro editor Mikael Elsila at To read our interviews from five years ago with Emile Charlap, Red Press, Michael Keller, Jon Taylor, Jill Dell’Abate, John Miller and Neil Balm, see

In this economy, the number one question that our members have is still, “How can I get a gig?” What’s your best answer to this question?

JACK BERGACS: The most effective way to get gigs is to network with people who play your instrument and start going to open union meetings.

ABBA BOGIN: I don’t know that I have a best answer. It is always very tough to break in, and even more so when the economy is so shaky, if you are not known. I am always interested to know about new people, especially when they come recommended by people I respect and trust. Whatever a newcomer can do to let established musicians know what his or her talents and abilities are, is a start. If you are invited to play chamber music or a reading session, even if it is not a job, try to do it. Let the players around you learn who you are, and let them start to talk about you. Possibly one of them is playing a Broadway show, and will be your contact into his or her orchestra pit as a substitute.

VINCE CARANO: That is not very easy in this economy. Most of the orchestras that I contract have collective bargaining agreements with a list of tenured musicians plus an approved sub list. If the conductor knows the metropolitan area musicians he or she will ask to have names added to the sub list. Some conductors will ask their principal plays to supply a list of names for the sub list. Some will ask for my advice.

MATT DINE: Unfortunately, in our business, sitting by the phone is the best answer. In other words, there is no way other than an audition to “get a gig.” All one can do is hope that the combination of players and personality from previous jobs is enough to stay on the contractor’s radar.

DAVID LAI: Talent that matches the need is always most important. However, reputation as a dependable and collegial musician is very important as well. There are many great musicians out there so the person with the best portfolio of talent, reputation and experience has the best chance.

ANTOINE SILVERMAN: My best answer to “How can I get a gig?” is: a good recommendation. Once on a gig, maintaining a positive and professional attitude always makes a good impression.

KIMBERLEE WERTZ: Be the very best musician you can be. Be a consummate professional and be easy to be around. When a contractor knows that musicians will be spending long hours together, they really appreciate a positive attitude. Be on the scene; take small gigs, sit in where possible, and go to gigs and introduce yourself. Have a Web site, even a simple one, with your picture, resume, and some MP3’s. Have your Web address on your cards and your emails. It all helps.

FRANK ZUBACK: Play well, network, send resumes, sit in with good bands whenever you can. Find a way to let other good musicians hear you play. Their willingness to use you as a sub will carry you a long way.

As a contractor, how do you place musicians in gigs? What are your criteria?

JACK BERGACS: Contractors want musicians with good playing skills, punctuality, consistency, and those who get along with fellow musicians.

ABBA BOGIN: I contract the Queens Symphony, a freelance symphonic orchestra. We have a union contract that has a cadre of tenured players. This contract provides that when we have a concert, I am obligated to call the tenured players, according to an organized hiring list. If I have 24 tenured violinists, and our program calls for me to hire 18, I offer the work according to the list. Most often, especially these days when there is much less work in the field (because of the economic situation), I seldom need to go beyond the tenured list. This situation is the same on every instrument. So it is not often that we have many outside players. When we do, they are often substitutes that have played with us frequently in the past and are preferred by our music director and our section leaders. Ergo, there are not many opportunities for new players. However, if and when the situation arises where I do have to bring in a new face, I consult with the music director, the section leaders, and, now and then, with players who are already on the scene, who may have kind words to offer about a newcomer. I also try to keep notes about people I have heard at other venues.

VINCE CARANO: The system of placing musicians changes from orchestra to orchestra. Some conductors place the musicians, some will go in order of the tenure list beyond the first desk or two and others will ask me to place the musicians.

MATT DINE: My criteria are very simple: one must be a team player, great on their instrument and be able to fit into any particular group personally. Very often great playing is not enough. I have seen too many situations where a very good instrumentalist just cannot deal with his or her colleagues. It can very often spell disaster.

DAVID LAI: One thing I would mention is make sure you have strong references. I usually check to make sure what I hear is consistently agreed upon by many.

ANTOINE SILVERMAN: My criteria are: how well you play in the given stylistic context and how well you get along with others and respect your colleagues. Everything else is a distant third.

KIMBERLEE WERTZ: Every gig is different, and the criteria of each gig and each conductor is different. The bottom line is every conductor wants the best.

FRANK ZUBACK: First comes the job. What does it require musically? Does it call for a jazz/studio orchestra or a symphonic one? Then, who are the finest musicians available to fill those chairs, in that style? Don’t forget contractors need great musicians.

How would a new musician (someone you don’t know) get on your radar screen and get in your pool of musicians who you place for work? Should musicians cold-call you or is that the wrong thing to do?

JACK BERGACS: Good contractors hire musicians whom they can trust at all levels. The best references come from established musicians.

ABBA BOGIN: I do not hang up or speak rudely to people who cold-call me. I understand their situation and wish I could do more for them. I explain our hiring systems, and offer some of the advice I have stated above. If they wish to send me a written resume, I will be glad to receive it, and read it. I try to remember them at a time when I might have something for them. That is as far as I can be helpful at the time they contact me.

VINCE CARANO: The best way is to know who the principal players are and ask them to submit your resume on your behalf to both to the conductor and me at a meeting between the three of us. A list of principal players normally can be obtained via an orchestra’s Web page.

MATT DINE: I absolutely do not mind if people cold-call. (Actually, I prefer cold-emails!) Attach a resume, think of something good to say, and you never know. I also listen closely to the musicians I already know. Players you have worked with for years often have very good “new player” radar. But sometimes you simply have to try someone on the job to really find out what they are made of.

DAVID LAI: The best thing is to sub and develop a good reputation among musicians playing the same instrument and conductors. Things I like to hear are great preparation and intuitive feel for the music and ability to blend.

ANTOINE SILVERMAN: Cold-calling very rarely works, in my experience. In fact, it can have a negative effect. It is best to be recommended by someone who plays your instrument and knows your playing.

KIMBERLEE WERTZ: I don’t mind cold calls, but they’re not very useful. I find out about “new” musicians by hearing them play on a gig somewhere or via other musicians. When a musician I respect raves about another musician, it gets my attention.

FRANK ZUBACK: Great musicians tend to recommend other great musicians, new to town or not. I don’t mind cold calls, though I’ll usually ask for a resume or a CD. A strong, relevant, reference also goes a long way.

How should musicians who are new to town successfully network and meet other musicians? Any tips or tricks? Should musicians play free gigs or take lessons from others (even if they don’t think they need them) in order to network?

ABBA BOGIN: I don’t know if taking lessons really works, unless the new player really needs the lessons anyway, and can afford them.

VINCE CARANO: Lessons from prominent players are a good idea. Asking principal players if they would consider playing duets with you sometimes also works.

MATT DINE: I think one of the best ways to break in is to call people that you want to know your playing and go and play for them. Or have them suggest players to play for. If it turns into a lesson, so be it. A face-to-face encounter can be very valuable in the long run.

DAVID LAI: Networking is very important. In today’s environment with few jobs and many qualified musicians, one needs to get his or her name out there and for people to know what they do. Free gigs, reading through music, sitting in Broadway pits, even playing in subways…I’ve worked with a couple of people I was lucky to hear in the subway.

ANTOINE SILVERMAN: As a musician, I can’t ever recommend playing free gigs. We are highly skilled professionals in the craft of making music and should get paid for our talents. I would suggest playing every gig you can, though, even if the money is low or the venue isn’t your favorite. And while you are on the job, play your best and show your most positive attitude, because the colleagues you meet might be able to offer you more work or suggest you to their friends. But if doors still aren’t opening up for you, you could always contact someone who plays your instrument and offer to play for them. Don’t be overly aggressive, because not everyone is open to this. Perhaps an e-mail would be the least intrusive way to approach a person, and if they don’t get back to you, take the hint and don’t keep following up. That way they have heard your name and know you play their instrument. That is at least a start.

KIMBERLEE WERTZ: In addition to playing wherever you can, be visible. Attend the club gigs and concerts of other players; introduce yourself, have cards and a Web presence. If you can, take the initiative and get your own gig(s) and hire others. Actively cultivate good relationships with all musicians, not just the best known or busiest ones – your peers are more likely to throw you sub work or put you on their gigs.

FRANK ZUBACK: Musicians should never play a free gig! It’s not an investment in your future, rather it says how little you’ll work for. Find rehearsal bands and ask to sit in. If you’re coming to town, hopefully it is with a name or two already in your cell phone given by a reference or referee. New York City is a small town. You never know who you’ll bump into. Always have your resume handy (just like actors). Don’t be shy, talk to other musicians you meet. Be available! Be easy to find and quick to respond! Be on time! Play great and play well with others!

Some newcomers to New York City are startled to learn about the use of contractors instead of auditions. Sometimes we get comments like, “Auditions would be more fair; why can’t there be more auditions?” What’s your best answer to this question?

JACK BERGACS: Auditions cannot possibly indicate how a person will perform in a real performance situation. Most contractors want to know how you play on the job with other musicians.

ABBA BOGIN: I agree that auditions might be fairer in some ways. But it becomes a waste of time to hold auditions if there is no work to be offered. I can understand holding auditions for a definite vacancy in the tenured list. If we are to have an opening for a principal flute, and we hold auditions, and eventually hire a new player, I would certainly want to keep a list of really fine flute players, not hired, but that might be called, if needed later, for substitutions or openings. Over the years, as I have heard players that I believe to be of that caliber, I certainly try to make notes that might help me in the future.

VINCE CARANO: The conductors, principal players and contractors normally know the ability of the players.

MATT DINE: It is so hard to control the audition process or any process, for that matter, where your playing is being evaluated. More than half of the time it is simply luck that lands you a gig, and possibly that gig turns into five gigs because of nothing more than being in the right place at the right time. My ultimate advice is to have your “A-game” ready at all times!

DAVID LAI: Personally, I would love to be able to audition people. But I do think that word gets around about great players. In NYC, every opportunity to play is an audition, as you never know who is listening.

ANTOINE SILVERMAN: New York has a lot of variety. The orchestral audition philosophy doesn’t necessarily transfer to commercial work. It is best to know someone who plays your instrument and can recommend you or use you as a sub. As an active musician, I have had the good fortune to meet a lot of great players on a regular basis. In my opinion, hearing these players in action is better than an audition. I know how they play, and how well they play with others. Great ensemble playing, in my opinion, is as valuable as great solo playing.

KIMBERLEE WERTZ: Auditions are controversial, but as a contractor I would be open to greater use of them under certain circumstances. That said, auditions can tell you a lot, but they can’t tell you everything a contractor needs to know.

FRANK ZUBACK: Only contracted orchestras have the time for the audition process. Most jobs are on relatively short notice and contractors want to fill those spots with the finest musicians available. Also, a good orchestra isn’t just good musicians, it’s also good musicians who enjoy making music together.

Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself: who are the major producers or orchestras you contract for? How did you become a contractor? How long have you been doing it?

JACK BERGACS: I’ve been playing French horn since I was 14 and contracting for the last 34 years. I contract for venues in New Jersey, including the Edison Symphony and musical theatres.

ABBA BOGIN: It has been over 60 years since I joined Local 802. In those years I have played, conducted, copied, arranged, contracted and composed. I cannot remember when I first did some contracting. It was too many years ago. I have chosen players for symphony, Broadway shows, dance band gigs, recordings, and chamber music concerts. I have worked for other contractors, and hopefully learned both the good and the bad from them, and tried to emulate the positive examples. As long as I continue to work, I hope to do the job decently and correctly.

VINCE CARANO: I started playing double bass and contracting in the early 1950’s. I am a third generation musician in the New York Metropolitan area. I became the contractor of the New Jersey Symphony in 1969. I contracted the Garden State/PNC Bank Arts Center for over 20 years. I presently contract the Westfield, Colonial, St. Cecilia, Teatro Grattacelo and numerous other orchestras.

MATT DINE: I am the orchestra contractor for American Ballet Theatre and have had the job since 2004. I also contract for San Francisco Ballet when they are in town. 

DAVID LAI: I currently contract two Broadway shows – “South Pacific” and “Mary Poppins.” I’ve also done “Riverdance,” “Woman in White” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I also do concerts and recording sessions. I became a contractor as an outgrowth of my work on Broadway and in the record industry.

ANTOINE SILVERMAN: I contract film dates, records, jingles, and Broadway. But first and most importantly, I am a violinist. As far as getting into contracting, I’ve done a lot of solo recording work over the years and that has afforded me direct contact with producers/arrangers, etc. A few of them started to ask me to bring along a string quartet and it developed organically from there.

KIMBERLEE WERTZ: I moved here from Miami, and Elliot Lawrence gave me the opportunity to become his contractor. Both Elliot and the late Eric Kessler at Local 802 were very helpful teaching me the work rules and minutia of the TV/Videotape contract. Over time I began working for other music directors, composers and television producers. I’ve contracted feature films, TV films, records and Broadway, but I’m probably best known for television specials, including my 19 years on the Tony Awards.

FRANK ZUBACK: I came to New York City around 1978 as a bass player/copyist. The copy business went crazy. I started contracting and conducting for my clients (jingles, movies, etc.) in the early 80’s and never looked back. Hung up the bass – why play when I could hire someone like John Beal? Produced records for Columbia (Sony), Concord, and managed some wonderful musicians. My big band provided an incidental way for me to meet and hear great young players coming to town from the road, and I’m working on reviving it. Now, my largest client is Madison Square Garden Entertainment and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra (for the Christmas Spectacular), Ron Delsener (Pavarotti Farewell Tour), concerts and events.