This list is a decade in the making. I think every musician will relate. Experienced musicians add your Do’s and Don’ts in comments, newer musicians, Sweet Sultan of Swing I hope this saves you some trouble.
If this is your first rehearsal piece with me, I’m a professional musician. I lead the indie-folk group American Dreamer, I play under my own name, and I’m a sideman for other artists. (And as any full-time musician will attest, I do like 17 other things to get by.) I’ve been to countless first rehearsals. There are all types of first rehearsals. Maybe you got hired to sub on keys for a one-off gig. Maybe you found some guys on Craigslist looking to start a Kinks cover band. Maybe you’re starting your own band. Maybe a solo act is picking up a backing band for an outdoor show. Whatever the case, a first rehearsal is like a first date. We all want it to go well. We all want to connect musically and socially and at some point, get laid—aka play a great show.
I’ve been building this mental list for years. Felt like a good time to write it down, share some ideas, and hopefully gather others.
(I am not even going to include “play well.” Trusting/praying that is self-evident. If not, probably a good time to dust up the LinkedIn profile.*)
(*Probably do that anyway.)
1.) Be on time
Yes, musicians are always late, so this is probably not a deal-breaker. But it’s just a great tone-setter. The bandleader will think, “Woah a prompt sideman. What a keeper.” And more critically, “okay cool, I can count on her to be on time for the gig”—BIG deal.
2.) Bring/make charts
Right, so this is a larger topic. Could be its own piece. In a perfect world, when you get hired to play a gig, the bandleader sends accurate and neat charts for each song. Of course, this is not a perfect world and in fact, that is more an aberration than a rule—though I do it! More likely, the bandleader will send you recordings. If you care about this gig and you want to foster this relationship, do your goddamn homework! Listen to the songs and make charts. Notate the forms, learn the chords, shed the riffs. Great preparation boosts confidence. You’ll play better, you’ll be more relaxed, you’ll look professional, and the bandleader will be impressed.
3.) Compliment someone’s ax
Every musician knows playing music is as much about the hang as it is about the music. If you’re vibing offstage, you’re much more likely to vibe on it. One appropriate way to start establishing rapport is complimenting another player’s instrument. “Dude I love the sunburst finish on your bass.” Or, “My friend just got a Taylor just like that and loves it, sounds great.” How about, “So cool you brought a real B3. That’s badass.” The right instrumental compliment can go a long way.
5.) Play the part
If the song has an instrumental melody—PLAY IT. Don’t play your tricked out, re-harmonized version of it. Don’t play it in a different octave, don’t play it with your tube-screaming, flanger-bending, Jedi-mind-trick-chorus pedal. Just play the part. The band wrote the part for a reason and that’s how they want to hear it. At the 5th rehearsal you can propose playing it a different way, for today, just fit in. It shows professionalism, it shows preparation, it shows respect for the song.
6.) Let the music speak for itself
After the song, you don’t need to jump up from the drum throne and scream, “guys that was fuckin’ awesome! We’re the best band since Radiohead!” Music is like basketball, when you win the game, nothing needs to be said. Dap up the team and hit the water fountain. If you run through a song and it goes well, that speaks louder than anything you can say verbally. Let your playing be your voice.
7.) Suggest one arranging idea
This one is a bit of a balancing act. I would NOT tell the bandleader to cut the double chorus at the end of the song or change a lyric, that’s way too presumptive. But I do think a tasteful arranging contribution can go a long way. As a bandleader, you want to feel like the people you hire are invested and care. So as a side person, offering an idea like, “in the bridge if we all did a staccato 8th note pulse thing it could be cool.” That’s the kind of comment where the bandleader will think, this person is into this and wants to make it the best it can be.
8.) Bond over a cool influence
I repeat: the hang. Can’t emphasize it enough. I think a great way to ingratiate yourself is through bonding over great music. If you’re at a funk rehearsal bring up D’angelo’s Black Messiah. “Man, I was listening to Black Messiah the other day. That album’s stupid good.” I bet everyone in the room will light up.
9.) Be appreciative
I’m sure you’re not getting paid enough. I wouldn’t be shocked if you’re playing at a petting zoo; you deserve appreciation. Thank you. Being a bandleader is hard too. Getting gigs, organizing rehearsals, trying to keep your bandmates and the club owner happy at the same time. Gratitude is awesome—also just generally the move. I can’t express how far a “thanks so much for bringing me in on this,” can go.
10.) Help the drummer!
If you’re the guitar player, if you’re the fiddle player, and you see the drummer making 6 trips to the car to bring their kit into the rehearsal room: GET OFF YOUR ASS AND HELP! Sweet King of Pop, do the right thing and help.
1.) Don’t overplay
You’re not Eddie Van Halen, and even if you were, this isn’t Van Halen. This is your first god damn rehearsal. Play tastefully. Pick your head up and look at the other musicians. Open your ears. Here’s a crazy idea: put more energy into listening than playing? Try it and let me know.
2.) Don’t bring more than you need
You’re not going on an arena tour. This is a rehearsal. Drummers, why did you bring 4 toms, 2 china cymbals, and a double kick? Guitarists, your pedalboard looks like P.J. Tucker’s shoe collection. It’s a first rehearsal, don’t seem too equipment dependent. Bring what you need, set up quickly, show your focus is on the songs and not the 5-string bass you brought for the one song that “needs” that low C.
3.) Don’t talk about your other bands
No one wants to hear it. Just trust me. I think maybe it’s cool to talk about another gig you have that week. That shows you’re in demand. But this is a first date, would you bring up your ex on a first date?
4.) Don’t be under the influence
Good lord, I learned this the hard way. Save yourself years and a ton of stressful, bad rehearsals. Getting high before the rehearsal will not “get you more into the music.” It’s cool to bring the beers, it’s not cool to drink all of them. Let the band of Facebook employees that rehearses on Wednesdays’ in the manager’s garage get wasted. You’re a professional. Act like it.
5.) Don’t let tech be your downfall
Don’t let a rehearsal go awry because your Ableton rig that “always works,” suddenly isn’t loading. Either simplify or make your rig as much of a lock as a James Brown drummer having pocket.
6.) Don’t text
Everyone does it now. Be someone who doesn’t. It’s a two-hour rehearsal, your fantasy trade can wait, your tinder flirt can wait. Be present.
7.) Don’t ask when you’re getting paid
Lord, I hope this goes without saying. At the end of the rehearsal, please don’t be the guy who says, “Yo when do we get paid?” You’re going to get paid after the gig. Be chill.
8.) Don’t close down if you mess up
Yes, it sucks to bomb something at your first rehearsal. It zaps your confidence, it puts everyone on edge. I’ve had the problem of just looking down and trying to hide when this happens. Own it! It shows resilience, it sucks the tension out of the room. I know it’s hard, but trust me, if you fucked up in a song, as soon as it ends, put your hand on your chest and just calmly, clearly say, “Guys that one was on me. My B. Let’s hit it again.” And then you nail it, you’ll be good.
9.) Don’t be a smart ass
If the bandleader plays a G chord with the capo on 4 and tells you it’s a G, don’t be a smart ass and say “actually it’s a concert B.” Just play a B.
10.) Don’t noodle
No one cares that you know the new Joe Dart lick. (Actually, I take that back, I do care.) Don’t excessively noodle while you’re setting up to prove your value. It turns the rehearsal into a staring contest. Playing the songs well will garner you more respect than any chromatic, re-harmed ii-V lick you learned on YouTube. That said, if another player starts playing a lick you know or can pick up, jump in! It will establish camaraderie and connection.