Preparing for a subbing gig

You’re relaxing at home, maybe even doing a little practicing, when the phone rings. The person on the other end needs a sub—and fast. Suddenly your life is turned upside down. The pressure is on, and you need to prepare. How best to spend your precious little woodshedding time?

Having so little time to prepare for a gig is like going into battle. Anything can happen. Typically this scenario presents itself only if a drummer has been injured or is violently ill but the band simply can’t back out of its commitment. I once played with an original punk band on an hour’s notice, because their drummer fell down the stairs and broke his arm on the way to the gig! But we pulled it off—we listened to the songs in the van, talked them down, and hit the stage.

This can actually be a really fun experience. To increase the chances of that being the case, it’s helpful to remind yourself that even if you make a few mistakes, you’ll still be a hero because you’re saving the gig for everyone else. And even if you have next to no time to prepare, focusing on a few simple things can make the difference between sinking and swimming.

First, a word of advice: Even if you’re desperate for a gig, make sure you’re qualified to do the job. If it’s a short-notice jazz gig but you’ve never played jazz in public, you should probably pass. If you perform poorly, it could cause you to lose work in the future. It might be better to wait until you get an opportunity to play in this new style with more notice. Assuming the offer is up your alley musically, though, take the following steps.

Request recordings of the songs you’ll be playing. Listen to them as much as possible. And if the band has a live recording, be sure to study that as well.

Make shorthand charts. These don’t have to be exact transcriptions, but even the simplest of notes can save you on songs that have unusual arrangements.

Write down metronome markings. Do this for each song on the recordings the band has given you. Bring your metronome to the gig so that you can start the songs off at the correct tempo.

Ask for help on stage. On the gig, you might want to ask if the bass player or another of the regular musicians would be willing to stand near the drums to assist in signaling cues, stops, and other arrangement elements. This can be very helpful if you know the basic groove and feel of each song but haven’t had enough time to learn the arrangement.

A WEEK’S NOTICE

Preparing on one week’s notice, while not as demanding as being called the day before, still presents a very intense situation. To be ready for this type of challenge, you should do most of the same things outlined earlier, but with more detail afforded by the extra time.

Spend hours with a live recording of the artist you’ll be working with. Listen to it carefully, and, if possible, play along with the tracks every day until the gig.

Chart it out. With a week’s notice you can make appropriate charts containing arrangements, grooves, fills, and endings. Get on the phone with the bandleader to confirm that you know the appropriate live ending for every song.

A week is far better than a day, but it’s still not really much time to prepare a full set of songs. With this time frame I’ve found that it makes more sense to prepare carefully detailed charts and check them over by listening, and then run through the songs a few times each, as opposed to rushing through the chart-making process and trying to play the songs dozens of times. If you know the basic groove and feel, a detailed chart can really put you at ease on the gig.

Get the tempos. As above, jot down the metronome marking for every song, and be prepared to count off each one at the correct tempo.

Rehearse to whatever extent you can. If your schedule permits, ask if it would be possible to get together with some or all of the musicians in the band for a rehearsal. It’s worthwhile even to meet for an hour at the venue right before the gig.

Make them commit to a set. If the group normally pulls from a huge repertoire of songs, I think it’s fair, when you’re asked to sub on short notice, to ask them to choose a set list ahead of time for this particular gig. This way you can focus on learning a smaller number of songs in detail, and the whole group can turn in a much more polished performance. Not every bandleader or group will agree, but I always ask.

A MONTH’S NOTICE

If you’re called to sub on a gig with a month’s notice, you’ll be expected to deliver a fairly polished performance. And one month should give you enough time to learn a long, detailed set. In one three- or four-week period I had to learn a complete Broadway show and a ninety-minute set with a national touring act. Here are some things to consider if you’ve been afforded the luxury of having several weeks to prepare.

Don’t procrastinate! It may seem that you have a long time to get up to speed, but a month will go by very quickly. Obtain a recording and get to work right away.

See what you’ve gotten yourself into. If possible, check out the band you’ll be subbing with. If you’re learning a Broadway-style production, this will be mandatory, so that you can watch the conductor. Meet the other musicians—and ask questions.

Get further into the nuts and bolts. Go through all the steps outlined previously, but to an even greater extent. Working from a live recording, make detailed charts and run through the songs nearly every day leading up to your gig. With this amount of time, I would suggest learning the grooves and even the fills for the songs you’ll be playing, as closely as possible to the original versions. That will make everyone feel more comfortable with you on the gig.

Tempos…always tempos. Once again, take note of the tempos, and make yourself a clear set list including metronome markings. Program your metronome ahead of time so that you can scroll through the set list with correct tempos.

Arrange for a rehearsal meeting with the conductor or bandleader. While a full-scale rehearsal is preferable, a one-on-one session with the bandleader can also do the job. This is helpful, even if you have to play through the material quietly, just to confirm arrangements and endings. At the very least, talk everything down with the bandleader before you hit the stage.

SHORT NOTICE, LONG NOTICE…SOME THINGS ALWAYS APPLY

Here are a few items to keep in mind at all times, no matter how much notice you’ve been given.

  • Bring the appropriate equipment to the gig. Double-check that you haven’t forgotten anything. You might not bring a music stand, a light, and a metronome to your own band’s shows, but when subbing you will want these items.
  • Get the facts. Make sure you have accurate directions and showtimes and all of the details necessary to be up and ready to go without having to make anyone wait for you. Arrive at the venue early!
  • Keep your eyes and ears wide open on the gig. If you’re a first-time sub and the bandleader asks that you speed up or slow down, you should honor that request. Your objective as a sub is to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible, and this might mean changing the tempo to suit the preference of the bandleader—even if you feel your original tempo was correct. Use eye contact with the other band members to assist with arrangement cues.
  • Be cool. Stay relaxed, don’t complain about anything, and try to be as friendly as possible with all of the other musicians. You want to leave everyone with a good impression of you as a player, a person, and a professional.

Joe Bergamini is the senior drum editor for Hudson Music, the coauthor with Dom Famularo of Pedal Control and It’s Your Move, and the author of Turn It Up & Lay It Down, MD Classic Tracks, and Drum Techniques of Led Zeppelin. He plays in the bands Happy the Man and 4Front and has drummed for numerous Broadway productions. For more, visit joebergamini.com.