Monday, August 16, 2010

Are the rules of professional etiquette being taught to young musicians?

When I was in my teens and early twenties, several older musicians took me under their wing, and over time, taught me the unwritten rules of professional music etiquette.  They were quick to correct me when I made poor judgments, and when consulted, they were happy to share their insights and opinions.  I will be forever grateful for their guidance.

It occurred to me that perhaps today’s young musicians are not benefiting from such mentorship.  Do they even know what constitutes a breach in professional etiquette? Are their music schools and teachers conveying practical “street smarts” or are they only imparting skills relevant to the development of musicianship?

I recently hired a twenty-two year old trumpeter who broke professional protocol in several ways.  He agreed to do two rehearsals, followed by two gigs for a fixed sum of money. At the first rehearsal, I was greeted by a sub he had sent, who I did not know.  I had received no notification that he was sending a sub.  (The sub played well, so I “let it slide”, even though I knew it would elevate the stress level at our second rehearsal.)

At the second rehearsal, the hired trumpet player neither showed up, nor did he bother to send a sub.  He gave no notice, and his cell phone was turned off when I tried reaching him.  At first, we waited, giving him the benefit of the doubt.  Eventually calls were made and we hired another player.

I sent him a message after the rehearsal, asking if he was OK.  My fear was that he was in a terrible car accident.  His flippant response was:  “I had a gig in New York last night. Have fun on the 2nd.”

For the benefit of young players who might read this article, please take note: In an instance where another, important professional opportunity presents itself, I believe that the proper thing to do would be to contact the leader to whom you have committed yourself, explain the situation, and ask if they would be willing to find a replacement.  In most cases they will agree and thank you for being up front.  Some “old school” musicians, like the ones who mentored me, would even consider this to be an infraction.  They would argue that if you accepted a gig, that’s the gig you take.  No discussion.

Not even the courtesy of a phone call was extended to me.  His negligence caused much unneeded stress.  Valuable rehearsal time was wasted as nine people waited, and as I scrambled to find a suitable replacement.  How he handled this situation not only affected my perception of him, but the perceptions of nine other musicians. Being reliable is just as important as musicianship when developing one's career. 


  1. Hi Earl.....
    Great issue here for us as teachers and people who hire musicians. It's even more challenging for the younger students to understand these elements of the gig scene when the gigs today seem to have much less in common with those of 20+ years ago, when many of us were in similar age and experience levels.
    In addition to the issues you raise, I'm a big fan of musicians who show up considerably early to a gig (30+ minutes is preferred...I even prefer to arrive at gigs 60 minutes early-allowing for any potential traffic snarls and/or inaccurate directions).
    And also issues of attire.....having some sort of understanding for the venue and what would be appropriate.....that's likely another entire topic.

  2. Whoa. In the classical freelance world too, that's a MAJOR screw up. I have witnessed a few people doing this kind of thing, though rare, but eventually even extremely fine players (the only ones I've ever seen forgiven) can wear out the goodwill of a contractor.

    The people who gig forever are the reliable ones. Sorry you had this bad experience. Too bad for this kid that no one ever kicked his ass about it, because now he's going to lose more opportunities.

    Good for you, I mean for your students--people who will always know better, and do better.

  3. Excellent article! When I was coming up, older musicians took the time and trouble to inform me about the rules of the industry. Now, during high school, musicians play with coevals, thus missing out on the mentoring process. Too bad.