Sub Standards

This entry is the culmination (thus far!) of a decade of experience working with orchestras and chamber groups alike, both as a full-time member and substitute player. While I do not profess to be an expert, there are many things I have learned along the way and feel worth sharing in this installment. At some point, each one of us has — or will — walk the narrow path that is subbing in an ensemble. It is a skill that demands sensitivity not only as a musician, but also as a person, and is too often overlooked in our formal education.

In gathering my thoughts for this post, I considered the position of both the substitute and the full-time player. They are two unique standpoints that can vary as much as the personalities that occupy these roles, and it is easy to lose sight of the others perspective. Subbing with many top orchestras around the country, and also hosting subs next to me in my own orchestra, has forced me to consider these unique perspectives in order to make the most positive situation possible – both in terms of camaraderie and musical product. Horror stories about the treatment of subs, and likewise, horror stories of substitutes behavior, are great entertainment for the post-concert beer amongst friends, and can be hilarious! However, you never want to be one of the antagonists in that story!

For starters, you want to build relationships and make sure people in the position to hire you know you and your playing. Many people simply send a form email to Personnel Managers, stating they are available and would love to play, then attaching their resumé. Nice idea, right? Not really. The people making the hiring decisions are the sections themselves, and often the Principal player. They are the ones who tell the Personnel Manager whom to call, and if they don’t know you or are unfamiliar with your playing, why would they call you?! There are plenty of impressive resumés out there, but a resumé doesn’t say how you play or if you are an astute, adaptive player and respectful, attentive colleague. Contact the section or individual player and let them know you are interested in subbing. Better yet, ask them how to get on the substitute list. Even better, ask for a lesson. A lesson not only demonstrates your playing, but how flexible and easy to work with you are. Be prepared to pay for the lesson – in fact, ask up front how much their fee is. Never expect anything from anyone for free, and always be prepared to pay in cash. Now and then, someone will cut you break, which often means they like you 😉

So, let’s imagine you’ve been contracted to substitute with an orchestra. It doesn’t matter if it is the Chicago Symphony or a part-time regional group; there are certain rules of professionalism to which one should adhere. This may seem obvious, but make sure the schedule is correct. Communication can easily be obscured, and no one can fault you for double- and triple-checking the dates/times. Even if a miscommunication is someone else’s fault, you will be the one with pie in your face if you get it wrong. Plus, schedules (especially rehearsal schedules) can change last-minute, so be savvy and make sure you have the right information.

Secure music in advance, and if you are using your own, make sure it’s the correct edition! With the proliferation of music on the internet, there is almost zero excuse for unfamiliarity. Most music libraries will happily send you scans if you are geographically unable to pick up the folder. Kindly send them an email, tell them you are subbing, and ask if it’s possible to have music emailed to you. In the event that it is a thick book (ie Pops show), they may be too busy to make all those scans. At minimum, secure the repertoire list and listen to the tunes. Odds are that most of the players in the orchestra will have only scanned through their folder, or even be sight-reading, but guess what? You don’t want to be that person – especially as a sub!

Make sure you have the proper equipment. Find out what kind of mute the section prefers, and do your best to get one. At least ask if there is one to borrow.  Some orchestras are militant about using particular mutes (usually the ones that pay more) so go the extra mile and get the right gear. At least you can use it again, plus it is a tax write-off! Also, depending on the repertoire, you may be asked to scale down to a smaller instrument, or even play an orchestra-owned instrument. If you think this may be a possibility (ie Mozart mass, Beethoven, Schubert, etc), contact the Principal and ask.

Attire: if you are going to be a professional musician, dress like it. Sure, most of us have nasty, yellow pit-stained tux shirts, but you don’t see that from the audience! The audience will, however, see the ratty shoulder stitching on your tails, or if you are wearing black Velcro sneakers rather than proper dress shoes. You don’t have to wear Hugo Boss, but you do need appropriate attire. Also, when it comes to tuxedoes, make sure you double- and triple-check if it’s black tux or tails – and bring the appropriate bow tie. Many orchestras have a different dress code depending on day of the week, type of service, and time of the concert. The Personnel Manager should send you this information, but again, double-checking saves you embarrassment.

Arrive early and be warmed up. This gives you time to double-check music, scope out the venue, and generally get comfortable. Plus, it also assures your temporary colleagues that you appreciate the opportunity and take it seriously. Arriving 5 minutes before a service means you don’t “have it together” and this can make your colleagues stress out. Even if your playing is stellar, being undependable will keep you from coming back!

Feeling comfortable and at ease is great – but, don’t get too comfortable. You will undoubtedly hear comments, jokes, and gossip that may sound inviting for you to jump in and add your thoughts. Unless you have a secure, established history with your colleagues, don’t do it! Remember that these folks have earned their place in the ensemble, and a familial environment – albeit dysfunctional at times – has developed over years. You may hear someone make an off-color remark about another colleague at some point. Leave it be! This is where being a person with common sense and consideration comes into play. Some sections/orchestras are pretty stuffy, and create an “all business” environment. Other places are on par with kindergarten recess. Be sensitive and know your place.

Do no damage. This should actually be Rule #1 in a subbing situation. Do not draw attention to yourself. Don’t hang over on cutoffs, don’t play louder than the guy next to you, and adjust pitch to the ensemble – even if they are playing sharp or flat! A phrase that comes to mind is “When in doubt, leave it out!” and it has kept me from stepping in holes on several occasions. Most folks will appreciate you applying discretion rather than trying to be the hero. The ‘do no damage’ principal also applies to non-playing aspects, such as talking, dropping mutes, creaking chairs, and loudly turning pages.

Be a chameleon. Listen. Adapt. Adjust. If the player next to you is playing longer note lengths, adjust. More front to notes, adjust. Zippier or warmer sound, adjust. Etc etc. I’ve always been amazed at the number of fantastic instrumentalists who don’t use the most important tools we have: EARS! Avoid being so set in your ways that you can’t adapt. This is part of being a musician.

Have a pencil.

If you are in need of feedback, don’t ask, “How am I doing?” but rather, “Can I do anything differently for you?” or “Does that feel comfortable for you?” Avoid inviting criticism, but show you are considerate and flexible. “How am I doing?” makes you sound unprofessional and unsure of yourself, as well as thinking selfishly. The other questions show a team attitude and confidence that you can adapt.

One of the best compliments you can get is from a member of another section. “Your section (or you) sounds great!” is a nice one to get, especially considering that most of our egos are terribly fragile. When someone goes out of their way to compliment you, they usually mean it. Say “thank you”. Of course, the supreme compliment is being invited back.

Added after original publication, courtesy of Ken Wolff:

Spending more of my time teaching young eager students than subbing myself, these additional comments are more for the inexperienced player who may be offered chances to sub early in their career. I would add just a few additional comments if I may for those young players specifically.

Be gracious and appreciative of the opportunity and keep your opinions to yourself. Your suggestions are not welcome unless solicited and still you should be careful here. If you have traveled to play, don’t expect to be entertained by your section mates during off hours. If they invite you to hang out by all means do so but don’t intrude. They have lives to attend to. And finally, personal hygiene is very important. Not only should your attire be clean, so should you.


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