Recently I was asked by Georgia Stitt to host a virtual workshop for Maestra. This article is a synopsis of the material I covered.
So, you wanna sub on Broadway, huh? New York City is one of the few places in the world a musician can make a living subbing on shows. I’ve had the privilege of subbing on over 40 shows in my 20 years as a freelance musician. I’ve also had the privilege of being the chairholder of multiple shows on Broadway, Off Broadway, at Radio City, the Paper Mill Playhouse and the Big Apple Circus.
There are a limited number of shows and chairs, which means there are a limited number of opportunities for people to break into the scene as a sub. I do not intend for that statement to be discouraging! Rather, I hope it brings focus and drive to the people who truly want to thrive. Subbing is not for the faint of heart. It is a stressful, underappreciated and highly competitive endeavor (and those are the positive qualities). In most situations, chairholders are bound by the CBA to only use a certain number of subs. The most often asked question I hear regarding subbing is: “How do I break in?” I certainly don’t hold all the answers but perhaps I can shed some insight.
Getting the gig
I personally take the approach to rarely ask people directly for work. That doesn’t mean I don’t network or drop hints. Some people like to send “cold call” e-mails. If it works for you, great! I will say that I tend to only hire people I know or who are recommended by a colleague I trust. An e-mail to me to introduce yourself isn’t a bad idea but I won’t hire a person just because they say they want to work for me.
In my first year in NYC, I wanted to break into multiple scenes and didn’t understand the multiple types of contractors. My first job working for a club date office was for Peter Duchin. I was hired by one of his bandleaders who identified himself as a contractor. My assumption was that contractors were the people who hired for club dates so I did the logical thing (in my mind) and contacted 802 for a list of contractors. Then I made a little demo of myself (on cassette tape!) playing songs that included “In the Mood,” “Moonglow,” “Hot Stuff” and…wait for it…”Just the Way You Are.” Then I made copies of the tapes (old school!), slapped on labels with my name and phone number, bought and addressed a bunch of padded envelopes,, and sent out my demo waiting for the calls to flood in. Crickets…. crickets. I should point out that the list of contractors, in hindsight, included all of the Broadway music coordinators so… yeah… I hope John Miller noticed I made sure to play the correct line for the second chorus of “I Will Survive.” My mistake in this process was not understanding how the scene actually worked. Asking a more experienced player for advice would have been the smarter route.
The first show I ever subbed on Broadway was for Ken Hitchcock on “Chicago.” How did I get there? Luck, timing and a mutual friend. Our mutual friend suggested I reach out to Ken and just ask to shadow him one day. I very politely reached out and did just that. I made it a point to say immediately “I’m not bugging you for work! I just want to learn.” He was sweet and at intermission of the show he asked what I thought. I answered him honestly about my skills. I said all of the saxophone parts were fine, the clarinet passages were doable with some practice with a metronome, and I had swing experience. I also had to be honest with myself. Could I reasonably learn or perfect this part within a few weeks or was I agreeing to something that was too far of a reach? His response: “Well, four of my subs just got their own shows, so if you want a chance, I’ll give you one show.”
Food for thought: Put yourself in the chairholder’s shoes. They frequently get asked by people to be added to the sub list. In my experience it can put people into uncomfortable situations. The best thing you can do is be visible, be friendly and avoid creating awkwardness. Another colleague once said “I get more gigs running into someone on the street and asking about their family than directly asking for work.” Why? Because most of the time it’s nothing personal, the chairholder just needs a reminder that you’re around. If they need a sub, that’s all it takes. If they don’t need a sub and you directly ask for work, they may feel awkward having to say no.
Preparing for the gig
You did it, you got somebody to take a chance on you! Now what? A colleague once told me, “They never have to know how long it took you to learn it, they just hear the end result.” There is no such thing as being too prepared when subbing. Also understand that every interaction you have with the chairholder is part of your job interview process. Too many talented musicians have lost out on future work because they don’t understand the business side of things:
- Be on time not “just in time.” (This means get there early, especially for your first few shows)
- Be prepared
- Be low maintenance. (If you have questions, try to answer them yourself with a quick Google search or a few extra minutes with the conductor video. Requiring too much handholding will prevent a chairholder from trusting you completely.)
- Answer texts and e-mails professionally and in a timely fashion.
- Dress appropriately (even when shadowing). If the show requires all-black clothing, don’t wear white sneakers, really faded black jeans or a dark blue shirt. You are proving you can follow directions and pay attention to details. This is important to gain the trust of everyone at the show.
How important is all of this? Well, I’ve seen and heard of people being cut from a sub list after the first night they showed up just to shadow a book. This is extreme and rare but it shows what can happen when people don’t fully understand how to act professionally. Example: the person showed up late, wore the wrong thing, looked bored, spent the entire show texting on their phone instead of watching the conductor, and so on.
Treat the book like a transcription. This is not the time to show off your amazing skills. The music director, section mates, actors and even the crew are relying on and expecting the show to sound the same every time. Live with the sound recording of the show. Play along as much as possible. Learn the vocal cues — spoken or sung — that lead to MD cues. It should feel like you’ve played the show for a month by the time you sit in the chair.
Most gigs are now hired through e-mail or texts. On the one hand, I really enjoy the quick access that texting gives me. On the other hand, it can sometimes be too informal for proper professional behavior. Every communication I send to hire someone will include the date of the show (including what day of the week the show takes place, i.e. Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.) and the time of the show. This is extremely important, as it is now a written record of our exchange in case of any misunderstandings. This protects me, and more importantly protects the show. I prefer responses with actual words. Another colleague joked with me recently about how some subs send back emojis in response to offering a gig. Nope! Honestly, I don’t even like the “thumbs up” emoji to a direct question. It doesn’t give me a definitive response. Are you “liking” that I asked you about a gig or “liking” that you can do it? How would I defend this to my supervisor in the event of a no show. (Well, my sub had told me she “liked” my offer of employment, but never showed up? Hmmm…). And the rocket ship emoji is never a good response to offerings of work.
Try to relax. You’ve done your homework and now it’s time to show your capabilities. Warm up and tune responsibly. Don’t play that one hard passage at forte-fortissimo 83 times before the show starts. Warm up enough, and do it respectfully of the others around you. Be a good neighbor and be aware of your impact. Put your cases out of the way, don’t move things around, be mindful of chair placement, and use campsite rules! In other words, leave the area the way you found it. Pick up after yourself.
You will make a few mistakes — everyone does. The trick is to not get bogged down worrying about what you did. Move forward and don’t dwell on things. That can only lead to more mental mistakes. When you do make a mistake, there is no need to apologize. Trust me: unless you’ve done something really egregious, don’t run up to the MD at intermission and lay down a sob story list of everything you did wrong, pleading for forgiveness. A good MD knows the difference between an honest slip and someone being unprepared. They will have no issue with the occasional honest mistake. Also, don’t solicit opinions of the other musicians. It’s not their job to tell you what to do. The only exception I would make to this would be asking about volume. It’s hard to gauge that on a recording. As a chairholder, when a new sub is sitting in a section next to me, my goal is to be friendly and supportive no matter what. My job is to make them feel safe and comfortable. It’s the MD’s job to give them feedback.
After the show, respond to any notes from the MD with a simple smile and “thank you.” No need to give an extended story about why you played an F instead of an F#. Fight the urge to make excuses. It’s not necessary. Take the feedback and apply it to the next show. Send a quick thank-you to the chairholder saying everything went fine.
First of all, you are a guest when you sub on a show. Whenever you post on social media about subbing on a show, you are putting the chairholder’s business out in public. It makes me feel uncomfortable to have someone else talk about my business without my knowledge or permission on social media and I know I am not alone in that feeling. It’s nobody’s business who subs for me, how often and when. I have asked subs to refrain from posting about subbing for me. I would invite you to consider the impact of social media posts about subbing. It’s perfectly natural to want people to know you’re succeeding in this business, but that can backfire rather quickly.
If you’re still reading this and determined to continue down this path, I applaud you! (Sucker!)
- Put yourself in the chairholder’s shoes
- Use professionally worded communication
- Be low maintenance
- Protect the chair
- Be honest about your skills to yourself and others
- Be a good neighbor
- Be sincere
Best of luck! See you in the pits!
Woodwind doubler Kristy Norter has been a member of Local 802 since 1999.