Recommendations When Booking Session Musicians

Early in December, we were engaged as a string quintet to record two pieces of music for a client who was producing some samples of pieces for film and television productions. I’d previously assisted with scoring both pieces, one written for a string quartet with solo trumpet and the other for a full string orchestra.

We began by recording the short piece for trumpet and string quartet. The piece lasted under two minutes and didn’t contain any music which posed much of a problem as far as technical difficulty was concerned. But to our dismay, it was immediately obvious that the trumpeter (who had been booked independently of ourselves) was not getting anywhere near the notes. He seemed unable to play below a certain dynamic and kept splitting notes. As he progressed through more and more takes, he started to adapt the trumpet part by simplifying it and missing out quite a lot of the notes, but even then the sound he produced was coarse and unsuitable. For our string quintet sitting in the studio whilst this took place, attempts to record the trumpet part were uncomfortable to watch.

Despite using quite a lot of valuable studio time, the result was still not at all good. Eventually this was resolved by a different player (recommended by our cellist), coming in a few days later and re-recording the trumpet part easily and perfectly on the first take – with which the composer was both relieved and delighted. We also learned that the trumpeter who had struggled so much had charged a far higher fee than the rest of us, yet none of the music he recorded was useable. What people choose to charge for their services is a matter purely between themselves and the client they are dealing with, but it made me aware that booking any musician does require at least a certain amount of trust. After all, it’s not really practical for clients to ‘audition’ musicians in person before hiring them, and most professional session musicians simply wouldn’t have time to do this.

So, how do clients make sure that they are going to book excellent musicians, fluent at sightreading, who are going to be able to turn up at a recording studio and get it right within the first couple of takes whilst taking on board directions from the producer and doing their utmost to record what was intended by the composer? Equally, how can clients avoid a ‘dud’ who may waste studio time and money, often holding up the finished product by several days as parts then need to be re-recorded by a professional?

Firstly, it’s always a good sign if a musician has a website which demonstrates their talents.  A comprehensive, well-designed site will reveal much about the attitude and perfectionism of the musician involved. Ideally it should have an array of recorded samples in different genres, as well as displaying previous work and client testimonials. Also, word of mouth is often very reliable – good studio engineers and other experienced professional musicians will know who is good to work with and often have a mobile phone contact list of high quality session instrumentalists.  Any classically trained musician working in or around one of the big cities will usually have played with leading symphony orchestras or performed on West End shows, so will know plenty of people who they can recommend. Also, an all-round variety of work can be a good sign (so, a busy London-based freelance player will have orchestral work as well as chamber concerts, recitals, film and session work on their c.v.).

One danger is being overly impressed by a single statement on a CV, for example, if a player claims to have played with a well-known rock or pop band or recorded in a famous studio, also look for other work that they’ve done to support this. We have come across situations where a particular musician didn’t do an especially good job for that ‘famous’ client either, but is still using it on their cv anyway to solicit more work!

Quotations from reviews in well regarded classical publications are always a good sign – but if the most recent quotations are 10 years old, it’s worth wondering whether their playing is still as good as the review would lead us to believe.

‘Youtube’ is also an excellent resource, as many musicians nowadays have videos showcasing their playing. A lot of these are also recorded ‘live’ in concert, which is very revealing – clients can gauge their playing really well without any editing being involved.

Although the client on this particular job said that he’d learned a valuable lesson, all the members of our group felt unhappy that he had been faced with this situation, especially considering how many exceptional trumpeters work in and around the capital!