Orchestra Substitute Etiquette

I have been principal trombone of a regional orchestra for the past 15 years. During that time, I’ve seen a lot of substitutes who we wanted to hire again, and unfortunately, a number who we did not want to have back. Sometimes, that’s because of poor technique, but too often, we simply didn’t enjoy working with that individual. This may seem ridiculous to talk about conservatory graduates not being invited back to sub with a part-time group, but there are so many good players out there. Are you someone who we would want to have back?

If you’re trying to make a living as free-lancer, your income depends on people wanting to hire you next time they need a sub. Here are my top 7 tips for substitute etiquette, along with actual events which have occurred. Don’t be that player who makes us say “never again!”.

  1. Be responsible. A few years ago, we had a tuba sub who showed up 20 minutes late to the first rehearsal. At the second rehearsal, he left at the break, not realizing we were not yet done! At the first concert, he forgot his music at home, sending our poor librarian into a panic to locate and print parts. Is this someone you would want to have back? Does it even matter how he played? Be early, and make sure you have a pencil and any mutes or equipment you might need.
  2. Prepare your music in advance. Do not sight read on a gig, you will stick out! At one “movie score” program, the conductor emailed the orchestra in advance encouraging us to look at specific sections of a very difficult score by Dimitri Tiomkin. At the first rehearsal, he must have noticed that the other trombones had not picked up their folders. After the orchestra tuned, he immediately asked the trombone section to play a difficult sixteenth-note passage alone. It did not go well and we spent the first 10 minutes of that rehearsal having a trombone sectional, while the rest of the orchestra sat there and listened. Say what you will about the conductor’s behavior, it was a humiliating moment which may have been lessened or avoided if my colleagues had practiced their music. Sections play together for years. When you are a sub, you need to focus 100% of your attention on fitting into the section, not learning notes. Learn your music before the rehearsal, if you want to be called back to sub again. Myself, the bass trombone and tuba have played together for 15 years. If it is out of tune or not together, it is probably the sub on second.
  3. Don’t be a distraction. Be still when you play. Do not move or fiddle with anything before or during a colleague’s solo. You will probably see members of the orchestra playing with their phones during rests, and think it is okay to do this. I would keep your phone put away. You risk missing an entrance or not hearing what a conductor is saying. Similarly, you may hear others carrying on conversations during rehearsal. Again, as a sub, I would not. It’s not the time to talk about sports, politics, or equipment. You may unknowingly be distracting and irritating those around you who are trying to concentrate on the music. It may seem hypocritical to not also criticize the other musicians for this behavior, but they already have the gig and are respected colleagues. You are a sub and should be on your best behavior. Please do not turn around and look at players behind you.
  4. Be a great second player. In school, most studies are focused on audition excerpts or principal parts. Most calls for subs will be to play second. There is an art to being a great second player, and it is not the same as being a principal player. Blend. Do not play louder than the principal. Follow. Do not lead from the second or third chair. Listen to the principal for dynamics, style, phrasing, note lengths, and releases. Adjust to make the principal sound good. Be flexible, even if you heard it, learned it, or prefer it another way. Do not play too loudly. Do not let notes “hang over”. Be open to feedback and be willing to adjust. Why do I have to write this? Because I hear these problems all the time in groups. If I have to say something to a sub, they’re not listening to my playing.
  5. What not to play. Before the rehearsal or during breaks, please do not practice excerpts, concerti, or passages from other player’s parts. If you are there early, don’t be that player who is practicing on stage while the harp is tuning or the oboes are working on their reeds. If you are a brass player, bring a practice mute and the musicians in front of you will be much happier.
  6. Don’t complain. In many orchestras, there are the resident curmudgeons who are always unhappy. Even if they air their gripes, it is not appropriate for subs to complain about the music, the hall, the conductor, or other conditions. Those complaints may be valid, but sharing those thoughts creates a negative environment. If I say my dog is fat and stupid, that’s okay. If you say my dog is fat and stupid, it is an insult. Subs who complain come across as ungrateful and arrogant. Negativity can feed on itself and become a downward spiral. Have an attitude of appreciation. Or as my mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”
  7. Be positive. Several years ago, we played Bolero on our season opener. I spent all summer staying in shape, knowing that for our first week back, I had a heavy program that ended with one of the best known trombone solos. We had a sub on second, who literally did not say one word to me about the solo all week. It went well, and it would have been appropriate to say “nice job” or something resembling a compliment. I don’t need this for my vanity, it’s simply being a supportive colleague. By the third performance, it just felt awkward that he didn’t say anything. We want to be around people who are positive, who appreciate having the opportunity to make music together, and who support each other. Life’s too short to spend it working with people who are downers. If you want to be asked back as a sub, it doesn’t hurt to be a friendly colleague who people want to be around.

As a sub, you may not realize that it can be very stressful on a section to have a different person playing. We play together for years and develop an unspoken way of blending, tuning, and approaching different styles of music. When a sub comes in, that all goes out the window. It can be very unsettling. Like it or not, people don’t enjoy having subs. You are an unknown, a risk, someone who could make their section look bad in front of their colleagues and conductor. There is not a lot of upside to having a sub play for a week. Think about how you can use these seven tips to put them at ease and lower their anxiety.

As a free-lancer, I have had a chance to sub with a fair number of orchestras over the years. I am very grateful to those who invite me to play again. But sometimes I think I played well, and still never get a call back. I think about subs in my orchestra who have not gotten called back, and the reasons why. I am sure I have probably broken every one of these seven tips at one time or another. Mea culpa. Hopefully, I can continue to grow as a person and improve as a musician!

Remember that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Imagine yourself as a member of the orchestra and ask whether you would want to have yourself back. Be prepared, be professional, be polite, and be positive.