On Professionalism - Part 1: Being Responsive and Respectful

There are dozens of ways you could potentially get connected with someone who ends up contacting you to play a gig, but chances are that your first job (and subsequent jobs early on in your professional career) will come from other percussionists with whom you’ve had past positive playing experiences — an older colleague from school, for example — either directly or indirectly through a recommendation to a contractor or other musician in charge of hiring.  For the purposes of this series, I will use the word ‘contractor’ to mean anyone who may be hiring you.  When a contractor contacts you to play a gig, ideally his/her initial communication will include all of the following information:

  • The contractor's name/contact information
  • The ensemble with whom you are being asked to play, repertoire, and position you're being asked to play
  • Dates/times/locations of the rehearsals and concerts
  • Fee details
  • Other pertinent information: how to obtain music, who the other section members are, etc.

So what do you do when you get that first phone call or email?

BE RESPONSIVE  If you receive a phone call from a contractor asking you to play a gig and you answer, obviously responsiveness isn’t an issue.  You’re already on the phone with them!  On the other hand, if you receive an email or voicemail, then the first order of business is simply to get back to that person to let them know if you are or are not available to play.  What is a reasonable time frame in which to respond?  In our world of smartphones and constant access to telephone, voicemail, email and text messaging, as soon as possible is ALWAYS best, especially if you have not had experience with the contractor before.  However, don’t rush to respond at the expense of giving your interaction the proper attention it deserves.  A generally accepted maximum amount of time in my experience is 24 hours.  People usually understand that you may need to work out some details with your schedule, deal with possible conflicts or simply may have had a really busy day which prevented you from dealing with their inquiry until very late at night.  As you work more and gain experience with different contractors, you will learn who needs to be contacted more quickly and who is generally more patient.  If I happen to be in the position of contractor and I call someone for a job, I raise an eyebrow if more than a day goes by without a response.  If you are repeatedly unresponsive and gain a reputation as being such, you will cease to get called for work no matter how well you play.

How should you respond?  My general rule is that I will communicate with a contractor via whatever means they used to contact me.  It seems that the most widely utilized means of communication for contractors is still email and telephone, in that order.  Email allows for a ‘paper’ trail in the event of any miscommunication or confusion about details, which is better for everybody.  Some contractors have started hiring via text messaging more and more, but I find that I only get hired via text by contractors with whom I’m close with personally, have a close working relationship or by the regulars for whom I sub on Broadway.  I have been contacted about work a couple of times via Facebook but frankly, I don't think Facebook is a good way to contact someone for work because there's no socially accepted norm as to how or how often one engages with Facebook.  Some people are active users who check messages constantly whereas others, while they may have an account, never engage with it.

99% of the time, a contractor is calling you for a specific job and will await your response before moving on to another player.  There are situations, however, in which the contractor is in a hurry to find somebody due to any number of reasons: a player drops out of a gig at the last minute (not good for that person!), somebody gets sick, an administrative error has been made, etc.  In this case, the contractor may contact multiple people at the same time and give the job to the first person to respond.  Most contractors will make this very clear (as I believe they should), but unfortunately not all do.  In this case, obviously, response time is critical and a more detailed exchange can be had at a later time when more time and attention permit. 

BE RESPECTFUL   The contractor who just got in touch with you for the first time (or any time, for that matter) — Let’s call him Jim Gordon — could have called 10, 20 or maybe even 40 other people for the job you just got called for, but he didn’t.  He called you.  Unless Jim is already your friend, Jim is not yet (or may never be!) your friend, so a certain amount of professional courtesy is in order.  This means that when you respond by either email or phone, you should address him properly, thank him politely but not profusely and respond to all points mentioned in his email or phone call.

Address him properly. - I can’t tell you how many emails from students whom I’ve never met have begun with, “Hi.  I was wondering …” or “Hey.  I got your name from …”  Neither “Hi,” nor “Hey,” are proper professional greetings, especially not for someone you’ve never met.  And who are you?  In the context of a response to an email for a job, your greeting should read simply, “Dear Jim,” and if you’re returning a phone call, “Hi, Jim.  This is Jeff Irving returning your call.”

Thank him politely, but not profusely. - The next sentence of your email might read, “Thank you very much for your email.” Or, “Thank you very much for asking me to play.”  Whatever your style is, but keep it simple and to the point.  Avoid the overly effusive, “Thank you sooooo much for asking me to play!  Carmina Burana is my favorite piece and I’ve never had the chance to play it before.  Your group sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to play with you!”  The repeated “o”s make you sound like a tween and I’m pretty sure that Jim doesn’t care that Carmina Burana is your favorite piece, would probably rather not know that you haven’t played it before, and as for the last sentence (or anything similar) to anyone you don’t know very well? … It’s just way too much, even if you’re not deliberately brown-nosing.  Curb your enthusiasm and let your playing and professionalism speak for itself.

Respond to every point mentioned in his email or phone call. - Are you being asked to play timpani in a series of rehearsals and a concert?  “Yes, I am available to play timpani for these rehearsals and concert.”  Did he instruct you to contact the music librarian via email to find out about getting music?  “I will get in touch with the librarian to get music.”  Is he hiring you as Principal Percussion and did he tell you to divide the parts and communicate assignments to the rest of the section?  “Once I receive the music, I’ll divide up the parts, send the assignments to the rest of the section and copy you on my communication to them.”  Basically, you want to leave no stone unturned and you want Jim to be confident that all of his questions and points have been/will be addressed after he reads your first email back to him.  He will then breathe easy and be a happy contractor.

So now you've got a gig. GREAT!!! But what happens when you only get some of the information you feel you need?  What other things need to be considered beforehand besides showing up to the first rehearsal with the right mallets/instruments and being able to play your parts well?  Stay tuned for On Professionalism - Part 2: Being Proactive