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The Importance of Being Earnest

Some of the best advice I've ever received comes from my graduate school professor, Timothy McAllister.

While studying orchestral saxophone excerpts in Pedagogy and Repertoire Class, he mentioned in passing that the most important part of being invited to perform with an orchestra was to come over-prepared. At the time, I nodded and kept taking notes. But now, here I am, years out of grad school, realizing how crucial that small token of advice was.

Here are 5 ways you can over-prepare for gigs (and why each is essential):

1. Know the score inside and out

Yes, you need to know your part. And yes, you need to listen to reference recordings. But beyond your notes on the page, you have to know what's happening around you. That's where score study comes in.

Without getting too deep into "Chamber Music 101" here: you need to know who has melody, and countermelody. What sections do you have unisons with? What sections do you need to blend with?

You'll also need to identify rhythmic cues and sections within the phrase to breathe without disrupting the musical line.

Sound like a lot of preparation? Good - it should be. Because knowledge of how YOU need to sound within the ensemble you're invited to play with could be the difference between a single gig and being the 1st person called for all future gigs.

2. Listen to the group you're joining to get an idea of their sound

Especially if you're playing in a less-familiar ensemble (like a saxophonist playing with an orchestra), your new playlist should be a wide variety of pieces previously recorded by the group you've been invited to play with.

What is their sound aesthetic? What kind of repertoire do they generally program? Are there key players (e.g. concertmasters and section leaders) whose sound concepts you can mimic?

As temping as it might be to demonstrate your prodigious skill, you're not a soloist. It's not about you. It's about how YOU can fit in with the sound and blend. Save your raucous ffff volumes for another day.

3. Early is the new on-time

There are few things more stressful than being late to your first rehearsal. Not only is it unprofessional, but it sets the tone for a less-than-warm relationship with the people you're playing with.

Remember: first impressions are vital. If you're not giving yourself ample time to find your destination, park, find your seat, warm up, and tune, the likelihood of you getting called again goes down significantly. Save yourself the discomfort of the cold stare of the conductor and leave ample time before the rehearsal begins to get settled.

4. Be adaptable and prepared to adjust on command

Flexibility is part of the job. You may have done all your homework and preparation, but that doesn't mean that you can stay set in your ways if the director wants you to adapt last-minute.

Therefore, be comfortable with multiple ways to articulation the same passage. In the practice room, be playful with changing the peak of the phrase, adding a subtle shift in nuance with each repetition. Practice with playing the same phrase at multiple tempos, so you don't get fixated on "one way to play something."

This builds flexibility in your playing, which allows you to be moldable. And a moldable player is 10,000x more valuable than a player with all the talent in the world, but is too arrogant to change gears when asked.

5. Show genuine gratitude

A simple "thank you so much for having me!" can go a long way toward building a healthy relationship with the director of an ensemble.

Even if you're playing a 4-minute single movement in a concert that's 2 hours worth of music: thanking the conductor for the invitation goes a long way.

Remember: the more memorable your contributions are, the more likely you are to get asked back for future gigs. Showing genuine gratitude for every opportunity you're given will make people enjoy working with you. That, in turn, translates to more gigs, more $$$, and more joy playing music.


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