Tips For Being An In-Demand Side Musician

I’ve been working as a side player for the past 22 years and have been fortunate enough to work with many talented artists in all genres, as well as navigating a multitude of personalities. Even after 20 years in the business, every new experience offers me so many fantastic learning opportunities.

Here are just a few things I’ve picked up along the way that will hopefully help you on your musical journey.

1. 50% Ability, 50% Personality
I cannot stress this enough; being a great musician is only half the battle, your temperament and how you react in certain situations is SO incredibly important.

There is nothing worse than being on stage with someone who is rude and obnoxious. Not only is it embarrassing, it’s incredibly draining for everyone concerned and creates a negative vibe that hangs in the air for all to see.

Be kind and patient, even when others are losing their cool. Strive to be the person who is relied upon when things aren’t going right, someone who faces problems with a positive attitude and treats obstacles as challenges to overcome. Make sure that everyone on stage feels comfortable and supported, especially the front person.

Think carefully before speaking or re-acting. Choose your words wisely. Always remember that you are not only representing yourself, you’re more importantly representing the person or people who hired you. If you’re rude and obnoxious to staff, stage crew and audience members people will judge them accordingly, not you.

Remember; the one thing that travels faster than a good reputation is a bad one! Be nice! 😉

2. Learn to Communicate Effectively
I think it’s safe to say that communication doesn’t come very naturally to a lot of us sensitive, artistic types. We have, after all, spent large amounts of time alone, diligently honing our skills and have not necessarily given much thought on how to communicate our needs efficiently.

Passive-aggressive behavior is not only stressful for others, it’s a path that will lead you to resentment and more than likely, drawing inaccurate conclusions about the people or situation that lead you to feel that way in the first place. If you are not comfortable or unhappy about something you absolutely have the right to verbalize what’s wrong, but always do it in a calm and collected manner.

If you’re interested in improving your communication skills and have no idea where to start, check out a book called Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves. It begins with a series of tests to help you figure out exactly what you need to work on, followed by great exercises and advice to help you improve. This was one of those life changing reads for me, so I highly recommend getting yourself a copy.

3. Ride the Waves
I grew up next to the ocean and at least once a week I’d head to the beach and surf for an hour or two.

In my mind, dealing with different personality traits is the same as catching waves. The conditions would be different and sometimes challenging, but the goal was always the same; to ride the waves no matter what Mother Nature might throw at you.

In the music business you’ll be faced with an assortment of weird and wonderful personality types. Some you’ll be able to relate to very quickly, while others need a bit more time to understand. Figuring out how people work is such an invaluable skill, especially when dealing directly with the person who hired you. Do they want to you jump in and take control of a situation? Or would they rather you back off and give them space? Would they like to hear more of your opinions or less? Are they introverted or extroverted?

If you take the time to listen and observe someone’s behavior, you’ll very quickly understand them and in turn, know exactly how you can really help them in multiple situations.

4. Dynamics and Tone
Take time out to make sure your approach to playing as well as the tones you are using are appropriate and will really add to the music.

About 7 years ago I was hired to go on a 2-month long US tour playing drums for an acoustic Singer / Songwriter. Our first rehearsal together was in a tiny room and they had rented a drum kit for me to use. It was a very ‘rock’ sounding set which I spent zero time tuning or adjusting and for the rest of the night proceeded to slam the heck out of it, thinking I was doing such a fantastic job. Rather unsurprisingly, the guitarist took me to one side and told me in no uncertain terms that I was far too loud and if I didn’t calm it down, they would for sure send me home and hire someone else.

When I think about my behavior that night, I really cringe. I can’t believe I was so insensitive and played with absolutely no regard for anyone but myself. Yucky yuck yuck.

These days, I am extremely particular about creating the right sound and thinking long and hard about how I will approach the music I’m being asked to play. As an example, for acoustic acts I generally tune the drums low, use quite a bit of dampening and think very carefully about which sticks / mallets / brushes I will use, each one adds a totally different texture and flavor. Cymbals are also very important, again, for acoustic music I mostly use larger cymbals with darker tones that have a long sustain. I apply the same concept to both bass and acoustic guitar, searching for the right tones using different strings, adjusting EQ settings and incorporating other pedals if necessary.

The real artform is taking the sound you have slaved over creating and applying it to dozens of different venues – all of which sound totally different! It’s a real challenge, but a fun one 😊 Some will sound fantastic from the get-go with very little adjustments needed, while others will take longer to get dialled in. Don’t get flustered. Take your time. It’s important that you’re sounding your best and feel comfortable. If the band are on a time crunch with soundcheck let the front person know you need a little more time to get things figured out.

There will be times when you literally won’t have the time get everything dialled in. SXSW for me is always a challenge, as I’m playing many shows all over town, using mostly backline gear and I usually have 5mins (or less!) to get ready. It’s stressful but with time I’ve learnt to be prepared for these situations and adjust my playing accordingly. Go with the flow, you’ll be great 😊

5. Mental Preparation
Over the years I’ve discovered that being in the right head space has helped me in more ways than I thought possible.

I have a routine that includes a mixture of meditation and yoga. I generally do these in the morning, but I also find yoga stretches helpful in between intensive practice sessions. Focusing on the stretches allows me to re-set my brain, process information and puts my mind and body in a good space to work on more.

Visualization exercises are also extremely beneficial. While meditating I will often visualize myself playing through the music I am learning. I’m sure you’ve already heard about the much-referenced basketball study conducted by Australian psychologist Alan Richardson, the results of which were impressive.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. It comes with an audio CD that includes a series of meditation / visualization exercises specifically for musicians.

6. ALWAYS Be Prepared
To many, this may sound like an obvious one – but you might be surprised how many musicians arrive to a rehearsal or gig totally unprepared. Please don’t be that person! Always arrive prepared!

Make sure you know all the material BEFORE meeting up with others for a practice session. Create charts, spend time really getting to know the music, run through the whole set a few times and make notes of any changes or difficult phrases. I love creating charts by hand and then adding them to an app on my iPad called Forscore. It’s a great way to keep all your charts neatly in one place and easily creating set lists. Something I love doing is recording rehearsals and you can do that within Forscore and add that audio to the chart. It also has a metronome for clocking bpm and so much more.

It’s also worth mentioning; there have been multiple occasions at gigs or rehearsals where I quickly discover certain songs are either structured differently or have changed since the artist originally recorded them. Try and get all this information before you meet up – ask them if it would be better to watch live videos than listen to the originals or if anything has changed significantly. With that being said, if you do arrive to the rehearsal and the music is different, don’t make a big deal about it, just go with it. Yes, it’s incredibly annoying, especially if you’ve spent hours learning something – but just know that this does sometimes happen and make sure you are prepared for this and other changes before you go into the situation.

7. Watch and Learn
Try setting up a video camera and recording your show. What do you notice about your playing? Is there anything you can improve upon?

Back in 2017 I bought myself a GoPro camera. It’s been such a wonderful tool – I set it up at every single show. Afterwards I watch the videos and make notes. I usually ask myself a series of questions; Is that part I’m playing working? Is there anything I can do to improve it? How am I coming across to the audience? Am I dressed appropriately? Why on earth am I still pulling that weird face? 😉

I’m always so surprised that the parts I think sound terrible usually sound great and the things I think are working out fine are the ones that need some tweaking and improvement. I would never have realized any of this if I hadn’t taken the time to sit back and observe myself from the audience and my band mates’ perspective.

8. Above All Else:
Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously 😊 Be yourself at all times. Don’t be afraid to mess up. Know that kindness is a strength and being humble will get you so much further than acting like a prima donna. Remember that it’s a privilege to do what we do. Go out there and be the best you can be. I’m rooting for you!

So those are some of my ideas, how about you? Is there anything you’d add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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