Learning the Ropes: Part 2


Learning the ropes of becoming a studio musician is multi-layered. One important facet is getting the job, but the other side of learning the ropes is how to act when you are new.

 I quickly learned that unless I was called to play principal that I would immediately go to the last chair (unless the principal designated me to sit somewhere else). It’s a statement of respect for those who have been there longer than you. It shows that you are non-aggressive, and that you don’t present yourself as a threat to anyone. One of the axioms of the recording industry is “You are only as good as your last job.” So, it’s important that you learn not only how to play with others but also how to interact with others. 

You learn the traditions. You learn how things are done. All questions go through the principal horn. The principal is the spokesperson for the section. The section players don’t raise their hand and ask questions.

There’s a great story which has lasted well beyond the lifespan of the incident, where someone who was new and had a slightly aggressive personality was asking questions from the fifth chair to the conductor/composer. It was brought to that person’s attention that questions go through the principal horn. Finally, after enough of these interruptions during the session had happened, the principal looked down the section after they had just asked yet another question. He stared the troublemaker down and said, “You just missed a great opportunity.”

The fifth chair player asked, “What do you mean, a great opportunity?” 

“You just missed a great opportunity to shut up.” 

That’s learning the ropes! It’s a very important lesson to learn as one starts off in the recording business. If you treat your colleagues and the business with a knowledge of its histories and traditions, that shows that you have respect and that you understand what the unspoken (usually!) rules are. You learn to speak when spoken to, and as time passes, as people get to know you, you will have more of a voice. People will be engaging more with you in conversation, particularly if some of your work is also on principal horn, as mine was, and they will trust your musical judgement because they hear how you play. 

As a new person you learn when to finally speak to the composer. It may not (and probably won’t) be your first job. I had a circumstance one time when I did actually speak to a composer.

Georges Delerue who was an Academy Award-winning composer. I was called to play principal horn on a session with him, so I felt that as principal it would be an acceptable time to do this. I had competed in an international competition in Toulon France where I was a gold-medal winner and the final round consisted of two concerti, one of which was a commissioned concerto for horn and strings by Delerue. I kept my score and I had everyone who was on the committee AND Georges sign it, so I have a score of this concerto that has Alan Civil and Doug Hill’s autographs, among others, and of course Delerue’s.

I went up and introduced myself about half an hour before the session began, but he didn’t remember me. I pulled out the score and all of a sudden it clicked with him, and the next thing I know Georges is gushing in French to his music editor. I don’t speak much French at all, so the only word I caught was “formidable.” A big smile came over his face and he gave me a hug, and from that moment on I was his principal horn! 

I still had to play well, but he remembered me! If I had not been principal, I would not have taken that risk out of respect to my peers. It could have caused my colleagues to assume that I was trying to jump over them on the metaphorical work ladder. In this case, I had an appropriate opportunity and I took it.

Taking advantage of an opportunity comes in many different ways. It’s interpreted differently by different people. It’s part artistry, part professionalism, part business, and part psychology. 

When you realize that everyone in the room is nervous for their jobs (as anyone in the freelance industry would be) you learn how to adapt and become somebody, if it’s not already in your nature, that others want to play with. They’re paying attention to the new people every minute. That’s part of the business of being a studio musician. Learning the ropes takes time, takes maturity, takes patience, and most importantly it takes wisdom. 


Some of these thoughts will be contained in my upcoming autobiography entitled “The Six Stages.”