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Marc Shulman plays his Avante acoustic baritone at a session with Micah Sheveloff at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut, in the summer of 2013. “Yes, that's a parrot on the front under the clear coat,” Shulman says. “As such, we call this the ‘Parrotone’.”
Hooray, You Got the Gig
Okay, you’re in. How do you keep the job? A good rule is to always be on your best behavior. “Remember it’s not about you,” says Salzman. “You’re there to play the artist’s music to the best of your ability. There are stories about musicians who’ve lost big gigs because they played loudly and endlessly at soundchecks. Keep your eyes on the artist to see what he or she needs. Always be on time or early. Play in tune and in time. Be humble. I’ve had several instances in a room with a legendary sideman, and it became obvious why that person has had a decades-long career. They were interested in music. They didn’t know how good they were. They listened. They were kind, inviting people. It was a groove just to be in a room with them. They met me—someone who meant nothing to them—and were completely welcoming.”
Be yourself, but make an effort to socialize with your touring compadres. You should try to fit in and play well with others, on and off the stage. “Take a good look around and see how the veterans of the tour behave before you open that beer or start telling dirty jokes,” says Kimbrough. “Look decent at all times, until you know it’s okay to be sloppy in your jammies. Be polite and courteous. Don’t be sexist or racist. If you feel like ranting about politics or religion, go off and write it down—don’t bring that mess to other people who are stuck out on the road with you. Focus on the music, the show, and the tunes. Tweak your gear. Exercise and eat well—don't be the last person up drinking at 4 a.m. on the bus. You'll start to look bad and play badly.”
Even if you’ve reached a high level of musicianship, remember there are many other players qualified for the gig. This is where the other “hang” comes in. (The first hang was meeting musicians in clubs). “Chris Botti was a member of Sting’s band for two years,” says Marc Shulman (Chris Botti, Suzanne Vega). “He told me that the ability to hang was the single thing that determined whether a player kept the gig.” This hang is about how people feel around you, and there’s more to it than basic professionalism. “Be upbeat or lay low—keep your darkness to yourself unless you are confiding to a friend in the organization,” Shulman explains. “Being dark and crabby will not endear you to the team.” Projecting negativity or inviting conflict probably won’t work to your advantage. “If something comes up and you start arguing, all that is remembered afterwards is your vibe,” says Zummo.” “Even if it turns out you were right, all anyone remembers is that you got angry.”
Above all, don’t miss your bus, figuratively or literally. “Be on time for lobby call. If you’re late on Sting’s tour, they leave without you, and it’s your responsibility to get to the next city on your own,” says Shulman.
Guitarist Vinnie Zummo plays his vintage Steinberger TransTrem at a recent concert with his trio in NYC.
Is It for You?
I’ve spent my own career alternating between cooperative bands and sideman work. Being in bands allowed my creative energy to flourish. In a good band I could invent my own parts and play whatever I deemed appropriate, while still considering the needs of the group. A working, cooperative band is like a healthy marriage, where each person is allowed to be himself or herself while creating something larger than themselves.
Being a sideman is more like a codependent relationship. One definition of codependency is “a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); it often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.”
That’s an extreme way of expressing it. But while rarely pathological, talented artists often display some degree of narcissism. It can go with the territory, allowing an artist to focus with laser intensity on their art. This can make a certain kind of codependency a healthy thing in a hired gun. As these interviewees attest, placing a lower priority on one’s own needs while serving the artist and their music is essential to being an in-demand sideperson.
But don’t get too deep into psychological analysis. If you find great joy in using your skill and talent to help others create the sound they hear in their head, you were born to be a sideperson. Now go take a shower!