I’ve been lucky enough to be a professional session musician for the last 10 years, and thought I’d share some tips I’ve picked up over the years to help any young musicians who are looking to do the same. Hope they help.
Let me first start with what I consider to be a ‘session musician’ as the definition has changed a bit over the years.
Originally a session musician was defined as purely a recording studio musician such as Carol Kaye, Steve Gadd or James Jamerson. These days it’s defined more in the way of a freelance musician – someone who plays for other artists as part of their backing band. This can include recording, as well as live touring.
So with that in mind… Some tips:
1. Hone Your Craft
Seems pretty basic, but learn your craft! This doesn’t just mean playing for an hour a week and hoping someone’s gonna call you. You have to live and breathe it! Take lessons, learn from books, play to music, watch videos, play with every musician that will have you… anything you can to progress so that when a situation presents itself, you’re ready.
2. Know Your Role
It’s all good and well being able to play an instrument, but really take a minute and assess exactly what your job is in a session musician situation.
The ultimate goal is to support the artist/songs of whoever you’re playing with in your own way. So as a drummer I know that my primary role is to KEEP TIME (it’s so simple but you wouldn’t believe the amount of drummers I see that can’t do that). Also to make the music feel good and get people in the audience moving.
Within the band it is to make all the musicians and especially the artist feel safe. What I mean by that is that no matter what happens, they know that I’m solid, I know exactly where we are within the song, and therefore people are safe to express themselves, without the whole band and song falling over.
So if you’re a bassist, make sure you’re locking in with the drummer and bridging the gap with the melodic instruments. If you’re a backing vocalist, your role is to support, blend and compliment the lead vocalist/s. Guitarists, make those melody lines sing!
One of the best things that was told to me when I was younger is to listen to the other musicians around you. Not necessarily verbally, but DEFINITELY musically! This is the best way to coherently express the artists’ song and all head for the same goal.
The best way you can prepare for this is know the music inside and out… Know it better than the other musicians… Know it better than the ARTIST! – It’s one of my favourite things when I come to start working with an artist and they’re asking me what the structure is – happens more often than you’d think.
4. It’s Not About You
This I think is one of the most important points about working as a session musician which is: It’s not about you!
Put your ego to one side for a second. This is about you playing this artist’s song, it’s about making it sound the best it can, (hopefully) for fans that love those songs and want to recognise them, not a jazz interpretation of them (unless that’s what they are in the first place of course), so give it some respect, and PLAY THE PARTS!
It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and sometimes you might think you know better, and that you can make it sound/feel better, or more exciting… Dont.
These songs have been written by someone who loved them… to me that needs to be respected and adhered to. Granted if the artist says ‘can you add something to this?’ the go for it! But always, at the heart of whatever you choose to play; Respect the song.
If you want to play all over someone else’s song, think about starting your own project!
5. Enjoy It
You may not love all of the music you play as a session musician, but find a way to!
I personally really get into lyrics and try to relate them to things in my life, that way I’m present and connected as we play, and also have been known to burst into tears on stage from it!
Another thing I sometimes do is listen to certain music to evoke an emotion before going on stage and get into the right head space. For instance I used to listen to music that got me really emotional and angry before going on stage with Tricky, and that really helped me enjoy the show even more. I guess in a way it’s like being a method musician, darling!
These are just some of the things I learnt that I think made me better at my job… Of course it’s just my opinion, but hopefully you can take something from all this.
What you think it takes to be a better session musician? Add your own tips below in the comment section.