Professionalism 101 or How Not to Be Fired for Professional Musicians

Janis McKay

OCTOBER 24, 2016

The following material comes from a presentation that I developed and delivered over the years, first for my own students and later for the International Double Reed Society and Bocal Majority. I have gotten a lot of requests to share this information publicly, so I thought I would make it my first website blog. This entry focuses on issues that apply to performers, orchestral and others. An upcoming blog will address these same issues for those teaching high school or college music.


New graduates are often confronted with situations for which they have no training, problems that have nothing to do with music. What most professionals know, from hard experience, is that it is the “unwritten rules” that can determine whether a new hire will retain the job they worked so hard to win or whether a free-lance musician will continue to get gigs. Professionalism is arguably equal in importance to performing ability in terms of getting and, in particular, keeping gigs. Here are some rules to live by:

1) Be in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, with the right attitude, ready to concentrate. This was a favorite saying of one of my high school band directors, Mr. Joe David, and I have been eternally grateful to him for emphasizing it so often.

The Right Place
Carefully consult your rehearsal schedule well ahead of time and do not make the mistake of arriving late because you don’t know where you are going. Not only must musicians locate the venue building, they must also leave time to find the actual room within the venue. In Las Vegas, it may take fifteen or twenty minutes to find the performance room within a resort hotel, not counting the time it might take to find a place to park or the time it will take to drive there. Err on the side of too much time. You can always read a book or send texts and emails while you wait.

The Right Time
Professional musicians generally arrive at least thirty minutes before rehearsals and as much as an hour before performances. You will most likely be fined by the musicians union if you are not present at least fifteen minutes before a rehearsal or concert. Even if you are not fined by the union or seen arriving late by the personnel manager, your colleagues will take notice. Being late makes you appear unorganized, too casual, and unprofessional, and can get you fired or keep you from being hired.

Consider weather issues ahead of time. Professionals, especially free-lancers, should bend over backwards to avoid allowing bad weather to keep them from making a gig on time. Las Vegas musicians sometimes book themselves for several gigs on the strip on the same night. If you do this, be very sure that you leave enough time in between.

The Right Equipment
Professional musicians who have equipment problems take care of them immediately or borrow a suitable instrument. No one misses rehearsals or performances because of their instrument; this is not an acceptable excuse for a professional group and might get you fired. And good professionals are never without a pencil, which they use frequently. Professional double reed players should have more than one good reed at all times. They should always carry their reed tools. Instrument stands are also usually a good idea for any gig.

Commercial gigs might require additional instruments, whether you are known to be a doubler or not. It is important to verify the instrumentation of a set well ahead of time, or you may find yourself facing a book that has doubling. A few words of advice: this type of work usually involves a lot of sitting around. Bring a book or something non-obtrusive to do while you wait.

The Right Attitude, Ready to Concentrate
When you arrive at a rehearsal or a performance, really be there. Forget your problems and focus intently on what you are doing. Participate in the rehearsal-enjoy the concert. Do not zone out. When you play in an orchestra, you are part of a team. The performance will only be as good as the team makes it. Do not let your colleagues down. Screwing up the concert can definitely get you fired!

Gigs such as long running shows (Broadway, Vegas, etc.) or numerous performances of “Nutcracker” require a special mindset due to their repetitive nature. Do whatever you have to do to keep things interesting and yourself engaged in the performance. Avoid burnout at all costs.

2) Preparation
Never come to any rehearsal unprepared. You should know your part before the first rehearsal. If you do not know the piece, listen to the recording (if possible) and follow the score. Know which instruments you are playing with at all times. Lack of preparation will get you fired in the professional world.

When in doubt, leave it out. Do not boldly go in performance where you have never gone before in rehearsal! Leave it to those who know the part. If you do not know your part, see rule #2.

For commercial gigs, such as those on the Las Vegas Strip, expect to sight-read. You will almost never have a chance to see the music ahead of time, which makes it especially important to arrive early. Practice sight-reading if this is not a strong point for you and learn the fine art of faking it.

3) Tuners and Metronomes
You must own both and practice with them frequently. However, you should not play with your tuner or metronome on the stand during rehearsals or concerts. Once you are out of the practice room, you get your pitch and tempo from the group with which you are rehearsing. If you are playing a perfect A440 and the rest of the group is not, then you are out-of-tune, no matter what your tuner says. This behavior is annoying to others and could get you fired.

4) Interrupting Rehearsals
Do not ask time-consuming questions about the minutia of your part during rehearsal. Minor questions about the music may be resolved by checking the score during a break in rehearsal. It is not necessary to bring the rehearsal to a grinding halt over small issues. Avoid asking any questions while doing commercial work unless absolutely necessary, and then start by talking to your contractor first. Orchestra rehearsals also have long established protocol to avoid wasting time. If you have a question that must be asked in the rehearsal, and you are not the principal player or section leader, start by asking the principal of your section first. The principal may already have the answer to your question. The principal should ask the conductor if they are unsure.

5) Professional Dress
In the real world, orchestra musicians do not perform concerts in strapless gowns, sleeveless gowns, short sleeves, white socks, tennis shoes, sandals, miniskirts, flip flops, sequins, flashy jewelry, perfume or cologne. Wear this stuff for a professional concert and you will be ruthlessly ridiculed. And then fired. Even in rehearsal, miniskirts are not advised-you would be surprised how much your colleagues can see. Professional conductors would usually prefer that you not wear low cut tops as it distracts them. (While it is true that not all conductors are male or lesbians, it is still disconcerting to see something that you are not expecting!) Be sure to cover all your naughty bits. No one needs to see them during rehearsal.

In towns such as Las Vegas, when you are performing with a big star act, you will be expected to look the part especially if you are onstage with the artist. Leave the scrubby pit black at home and bring out your most formal clothing. Be adaptable.

6) Collegiality

Do not distract or annoy others
During solos or challenging section for nearby colleagues, be still and do not fidget with your instrument or turn pages. Keep noise and movements to a minimum and do not read parts over their shoulder unless you must. Do not stare at any soloist while they are performing. The soloist needs all of their concentration. Distracting or otherwise irritating the soloist and/or principal of your section may get you fired.

Do not talk or chatter when others are trying to concentrate. Be friendly, but low key.

Do not make a reed during a performance. Try to avoid doing any reed work onstage for performances. One oboist in Las Vegas was fired for having his reed in his mouth when not playing and the conductor thought it looked tacky. The point here is that you must be adaptable: if the director says no cases on stage, then make that work for you.

If you are not the principal, do not warm up on the solos in the first part. However, you should be ready to step in, if asked. Support the principal by keeping up with where you both are-do not zone out. Assist with counting for the section and your row. Do not drop the ball if the principal stops playing-keep playing! You will bring heat on the entire section if you also drop out. Take one for the team and forge onward.

Do not gossip or make negative comments about others
Never make negative comments or gossip about your colleagues behind their backs. No matter how careful you are, your comments will always get back to them and will cause resentment and many future problems. One harmful remark may cause years of anxiety and stress between colleagues. In a professional group, you could be sitting next to the same players for fifty years.

A word about social networking: be extremely careful about things you post on facebook, twitter, tumblr, etc. Feel free to publicize concerts or compliment others; this is a nice thing to do as long as you are sincere. Negative posts will live on in infamy.

Gossip will not necessarily get you fired, but it can make your life a living hell.

Fixing musical problems with others
Never assume that the other person is the problem-it is a problem that you have together. Make straight requests when you need to fix problems. Be discreet, but be direct. Ask if you can work on something together during the break or after rehearsal. If you cannot work it out, ask an impartial listener to help you. If you cannot work with people in the orchestra in a collegial way, they will make sure that you get fired.

Show respect for others
Treat everyone with the utmost respect. Accept criticism from the podium and do not take it personally, no matter how you really feel. Look directly at the conductor and answer quickly and succinctly any questions that s/he has for you. Nod your head and mark your part. Do not attempt to explain anything if you are not asked to do so-nobody cares. Try not to be a smart ass if you can avoid it. Being disrespectful towards the conductor is highly unprofessional, not to mention rude, and will very likely get you fired.

Also, be respectful of your colleagues. Take the high road in any conflict and avoid making judgments. Be friendly and supportive to those around you. Be pleasant and agreeable, especially if you are a free-lancer.

Do not call anyone, especially the conductor, “dude”. Calling a conductor “dude” almost got an entire Las Vegas orchestra fired.

Do not whine or complain
No matter how upsetting the rehearsal, do your very best not to gripe about it while you are there. Negative energy has a way of spreading quickly and people will resent you for being the source of it. Do not be a bummer. If things are really going badly, this is the one time you can “zone out.” Be an observer and float above it all in your mind. Check back in when things improve.

Remember that most people do not care about your personal problems while rehearsing a musical performance. Unfortunately, it is not about you. Do not try to turn your closest neighbors into Dr. Laura. First, they will hate you. Then, they will get you fired.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: No matter how talented you are, if you are annoying, irritating, mean, difficult, or unprofessional, you might not get hired and you will lose work. Or, you could be fired.

Janis McKay

Written by

Professor of Music, Bassoonist, Academic Leader, and Author. More information at

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