By Adam Groh.

Perhaps one of the most valuable tools for any professional musician is rarely discussed during the course of their training: professionalism. We spend thousands of hours working on technical skills and learning repertoire, trying to figure out how to win auditions and get gigs, but very little is said about what to do after you get hired. How do you get called back? What makes you a functioning member of a percussion section? As I have received more and more opportunities to play gigs with a variety of ensembles, I see that the following principles are not only desirable, but absolutely necessary to being a successful member of a musical community!

I have to give a great deal of credit to Dr. John Parks at Florida State University for passing on a lot of this information during my Master’s degree. In fact, it is his basic philosophy of “Play great, be cool.” that provided a great deal of the inspiration for this article. Do not think that the following things can only be applied to professional situations! They are skills that should be practiced as early as possible. Students should become familiar with these ideas and implement them at their school. The sooner you act like a pro, the sooner those around you will treat you like one. Without any further delay, here are ten things nobody told you about being a professional…

Corresponding Like a Professional
Before you do any playing you will have to get your gig lined up. This will happen through communicating with those responsible for organizing the performance via email, phone calls, or possibly an in-person meeting. When you are corresponding with potential employers make sure to keep your messages or dialogue professional and free of slang, jargon, or language that may be offensive. Because email has become so common in our society, we often fail to distinguish between business and informal messages. Be careful about what you are sending to people with whom you will be working, as one small email is all it takes to drastically alter someone’s impression of you. In addition to being polite, make sure that you respond to emails and phone calls in a timely manner. We live in a society where practically everyone has email access on their phone. There is simply no excuse for taking a week to reply to an email, especially if it may cost you a gig. Getting gigs is difficult enough as it is, do not make it any harder on yourself by being unprofessional or lackadaisical in your correspondence.

Be Punctual
This is pretty self-explanatory. As a percussionist, you know that you have dedicated your life to moving equipment. You are the first one to show up, and the last one to leave. However, some seem to have missed that message, or are living in a constant state of denial. First of all, make sure that you are allowing plenty of extra time for travelling to a gig. The further away the gig is, the more cushion you should build into your schedule. If you have to drive fifteen minutes, leave twenty minutes before you want to arrive. If you have to drive for two and a half hours, leave three or three and a half hours before you want to arrive. Leave time to accommodate any emergencies that may arise, such as flat tires, heavy traffic, getting lost, etc.

Most of the time you should plan to be at a rehearsal or performance an hour before it starts. This is especially true if it is the first rehearsal in an unfamiliar location, or on instruments that you have not seen before. What happens if you walk in ten minutes before the downbeat and realize that the timpani pedals do not work, no crash cymbals have straps on them, and a xylophone string is broken? These are things that can be addressed if you arrive early, and believe me, they happen. Even if you don’t have an equipment emergency, you will still have given yourself plenty of time to move your gear into the hall at a comfortable pace, get set up, and be ready for any last minute curveballs that may be thrown your way. If you don’t play on the last piece (or if you are in the audience for your colleague’s concert) lend a hand after the rehearsal or concert. Would you like to be stuck cleaning up everyone else’s mess after a rehearsal ends at 10pm? Probably not. These are the things that people remember, and can make or break someone’s opinion of you.

Come Prepared
Most importantly, make sure you have the obvious things. Bring your music, an assortment of sticks and mallets to meet any need that may arise, small instruments, and anything else that is necessary for the gig. Have plenty of black towels for trap tables, drum keys, a timpani key (a small crescent wrench is a good universal timpani key), pencils, and one of those big erasers to remove any previous markings from parts that may no longer apply. Never assume that someone else in the section will have the things you need. If you play bass drum, bring an assortment of mallets so that you have options depending on the music. Same goes for chimes and tam tam. If you play tambourine or triangle, it is always best to bring your own. You can never guarantee that other people or groups have taken the same care with their equipment that you do with yours.

It is also good to bring a small tool kit with you to gigs. Having a few screwdrivers, allen wrenches, pliers, and even a roll of duck tape can be incredibly useful, especially when you walk into one of the aforementioned “equipment emergencies.” Keep extra cymbal felts and sleeves with you, as well as anything else that may be relevant to whatever instruments you may be playing. This will make your instruments sound better, but it can also make you the hero for a band director whose xylophone has been “buzzing and creaking” for months. A little extra padding to your reputation never hurts!

Be Cool
This is a big one! Simply put, be a nice person who is easy to work with. Be friendly towards your section mates, since you will be working with them directly. Be flexible with your setups and be willing to adjust if someone suggests moving a cymbal stand over six inches to accommodate another instrument. Remember that, in most situations, you are NOT the principal. You were hired to come in and play on this one concert, and if things go well, maybe some more in the future. It does not matter where you go or went to school, or who your teacher was or is. It does not matter how long you have been playing, or how many times you have played the piece before. Unless someone asks you for your opinion of their playing, just worry about yourself! This goes for your section, as well as the orchestra. You may have no idea that when you lean over to comment on the horrendous intonation of the oboe soloist, that you are actually talking to her timpani-playing husband. My high school marching band had a rule that in public the only comment we were allowed to make about another group was “Wow! What a great band!” Save your critiques and opinions for later, no matter how difficult it may be to stifle them.

Make sure to thank the principal (if it’s a group with a principal) for the opportunity to play with the section. Tell them that you are enjoying it, and that you would love to play again in the future if they have a need. Also, be sure to thank the personnel manager, or anyone else who may have been instrumental in getting you the gig. Follow up with a brief email thanking them for contacting you. Many people fail to realize that for a lot of groups, it is not the conductor or the principal percussionist who makes the hiring decisions, it is an administrative person. Display your gratitude and you increase your chances of future calls. Additionally, it is not necessary to befriend every member of the orchestra or group with which you are playing. Just be friendly. Smile at other people back stage. Hold the door for a harpist or double bassist. Say thanks to the stage crew who got you all those extra stands for trap tables and let you into the hall early to get your gear ready. Be polite, and it will go a long way to getting you more gigs. Regional groups often share players and the impression you make with one group may land you a gig with another.

End of Part I.

Stay tuned for part II. In the mean time, what were the most important things you learned along the way that taught you how to be a “professional”? Were those skilled learned in or out of the class room? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on October 14, 2010.


The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by Marc Delforge on

Dave Gerhart

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