Last-minute bandmate

Last-minute bandmate – What to do when your key players can’t play the gig

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Whatever the circumstances, if any one of your regular band mates can’t play the gig, the show must go on! Here’s some advice that can help you make the best of the situation – and even use it as a chance to grow as a musician.

In music (and life), even the best-laid plans can get set on fire with little or no notice. What if, hours before you play the gig of the year, your drummer ends up in the hospital with a stomach flu, or your bass player gets called out of town on a family emergency? Whether the issues are related to health or weather, business or family, life can sometimes interfere to prevent your key band mates from arriving where and when you need them.

Like many bandleaders, I’ve had to deal with situations like these quite a few times. And while it’s always best to have the players who you know and love (and who know your music front to back) on stage with you, losing a key bandmate last minute doesn’t have to be the kiss of death for your show or recording session. Here are a few pieces of advice to help make sure your musical event still shines, even when last minute complications get in the way.

Build your network

Your drummer is stuck an ocean away because of a cancelled trans-Atlantic flight? Finding a great drummer last minute – someone who can learn your material in a second, will deliver the energy and musicality that you need, and is available for your show tomorrow evening – can be a challenge. That’s why planning ahead for last-minute fill-in situations is key.

First and foremost, prepare for the worst by having as many great players in your address book as possible. If you got to a jam session and feel particularly inspired by a certain trumpet player’s approach, say hi and get his or her contact information. Similarly, if you’re out at a club and feel like the bassist on stage is laying it down thick and dirty, introduce yourself after the set and make sure you know how to get in touch.

The same approach applies to your own playing and musical projects. The more involved you get in your local scene and the more bands and projects you work with, the more names of great potential fill-ins you’ll have on tap. When you enter that wonderful acoustic guitarist you played with last week into your address book, be sure to label her by instrument; then, the next time you need some six-string magic last-minute for your session, you know who can be your first call. Be diligent about doing this every time you meet a great new player and you’ll have a deep roster ready for any unexpected fill-in situation.

Get recommendations

If you can’t quickly fill a last-minute slot on your own, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Often, if your guitarist or drummer has to bow out of a show for any reason, he’ll have a list of subs to recommend. Especially for full-time gigging players, having a short list of worthy recommended fill-ins can be a matter of course – so don’t be afraid to inquire.

If you’re asking one of your regular players for a referral to a last-minute sub, make sure to request someone who is comfortable with your style of music and easy to work with. If you have the luxury of time, use it to search potential fill-ins online to try to see or hear them in action before you get on the phone to talk details and confirm the gig.

Have recordings of your entire set accessible

The times I’ve had to call in last-minute substitutes, having all of my material recorded and easy to attach to an email or burn to disc has been a huge help. Even if some of your tracks are only rough demos recorded via iPhone, it can help your fill-in bandmate get up to speed as quickly as possible.

Try to have all of your music both streamable and downloadable – and clearly labeled – so your fill-in bandmate can access the tunes however she sees fit. In the past, I’ve used private SoundCloud playlists and unlisted YouTube links to share rough recordings that I don’t want to be public. For downloads, having a .zip file of all of your tracks pre-loaded into a utility like Dropbox or MediaFire can make it easy to send along a link at a moment’s notice; uploading via transfer sites like WeTransfer has been a good solution as well.

Regardless of how you share your material, make sure it’s organized and consolidated ahead of time into a single folder on your computer. The last thing you want to do, hours before a big gig when you’re scrambling to get your fill-in keyboardist up to speed, is to waste time hunting through your sent emails and web links to find the best versions of your tunes to send out.

Have sheet music or charts ready

When you’re bringing in a substitute bandmate last minute, having a written version of every tune you’re playing, whether it’s a simple Word doc with the chords typed out or fully-transcribed sheet music with every note and articulation spoken for, can be a big help.

Some musicians I’ve called on last minute like checking out charts and lead sheets in as much detail as I can provide; others prefer to use only the recordings and make their own charts for the show. Regardless, it’s best to have as many resources available for learning your music as possible, ready to distribute at the drop of a hat.

To that point, even if you don’t read music yourself, consider asking a notation-capable bandmate for assistance, or hiring a musician or music teacher, to help you draft basic sheets for your music. And as with the above-mentioned audio recordings, make sure your charts are accurately labeled and consolidated on your computer in PDF form so they’re easy to send along, print out, or both.

Be willing to pay

For many musicians, jumping in to a gig last minute, learning a bunch of new material, and getting on stage in just a few hours can be a lot to ask. That’s one reason why, whenever I call in a last-minute sub, I always offer to pay however much I can, given the business realities of the show or session; to me, offering compensation shows proper respect and gratitude, and also defines the gig as a professional endeavor, rather than a favor or casual jam session.

Even if you can only afford $20 bucks in compensation, or to treat your fill-in bandmate to dinner and drinks afterwards, always offer – if, for no other reason than to demonstrate that you’re serious about your music and that you’re equally serious about working with your new collaborator in a professional way.

Run the most difficult stuff in person

Even if you have only hours before a show to acclimate your newest band member, take every minute you reasonably can to run the trickiest parts of your set in person. Is there one point where your delicate ballad abruptly transitions into a deep R&B groove? Make sure that you loop that transition at least a few times before you do it in front of a crowd. Similarly, if there are moments when your fill-in guitarist will be front and center, rather than supporting from the back, do your best to run those moments before the proverbial curtain goes up.

On some gigs I’ve played with last-minute fill-ins, we’ve had a generous sound check in which we could run nearly the whole set. Other times, we’ve had no more than five minutes on stage, and five minutes backstage, before we had to play. Even if you’re only able to talk through one or two tunes and sing your parts back and forth to each other, remember that every crunchy moment that you work through ahead of time could be one less mistake you make on stage.

Find creative solutions

If your wonderful upright bass player has a family emergency hours before your big show, what do you do if the only available player you can find last minute is a cellist? Or what if the saxophonist who’s supposed to provide soulful solos throughout your set ends up in the hospital, but your old friend who’s studying jazz vocals at a conservatory is in town and up for an adventure?

Short answer – go with it, embrace the chaos, and see what happens. Perhaps your singer buddy can improvise vocal solos where the sax would normally play, and perhaps the vibe of the bowed cello will add the same richness that you would otherwise get from the plucked upright bass.

The less rigid you can be in last-minute fill-in situations, and the more outside-the-box you are able to think when it comes to filling out your band and presenting your music, the easier you may find it to navigate less-than-ideal circumstances.

Look at the situation as an opportunity

Even if your star vocalist is stuck in a blizzard five states away and you go on stage in that many hours, stay calm. This may be an unexpected blessing.

Perhaps the replacement you call in last minute will do an amazing job and interpret your material in a wholly different sort of way, making you rethink your music in a fresh direction. Or, if you can’t find a replacement, perhaps you’ll be the one to step up to the mic and develop confidence delivering an entirely different sort of performance than what you’re used to.

Regardless of how you are required to adapt, approaching the situation as an opportunity for musical growth and experimentation will help you navigate the unexpected and deliver a performance that you’re proud of.

Have you had to deal with a last-minute fill-in situation in your own music-making? Tell us about your experience in the comment section below.

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8 thoughts on “Last-minute bandmate – What to do when your key players can’t play the gig

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  3. We’re currently finishing up a tour of the UK/France. Our tenor sax couldn’t make the tour, so our keyboardist ( who also plays great sax) took his chair. We lined up a sub for the uk tour, but two weeks before the first gig it turned out he couldn’t make the first 7 gigs!

    And, although he has a place in France near where our gigs are, he couldn’t make any of those, either. So we found two different keyboardists (neither could do all 7 gigs) who did a great job. Yes, it cost us, but it was worth it. Now we’re on the way to the first French gig, with yet another keyboardist ( that makes 4, if you’re keeping count). He’s expensive, but we’re glad to have him.
    As stated in the article, we provided charts, mp3s, and set lists. And yes, it’s original music.

    – Russell “Hitman” Alexander & the Hitman Blues Band

  4. I have been called to sub on at least 50 gigs (likely closer to 100 – I’ve lost track – but I’ve been 1st call for a lot of bands over the years) – having been on the receiving end of this so many times – I agree with all of the points. I would also suggest that the leader make it clear at the start of the gig who in the band will guide the drummer regarding tempo, song endings and any starts/stops in song arrangements. When the sub knows he/she can depend on one person – it makes the gig much go much better.

    I’ve worked with leaders who had an array of clear hand signals to indicate speed up, slow down, etc. etc. – which made my job so much easier!

  5. Well i for one completely agree with the sentiment expressed here. In my experience, it is like a total moment of panic – when you have that much-hyped up concert coming quickly, & you know someone in your group won’t be there. For my group Youth@Risk, it was our drummer Justin, he was going to be out for a long while, for that classic musician’s #1 reason for being absent… rehab! [Ha!] No, i don’t mean to knock rehab, he needed it, & his life & heath is far more important than being at every single show we ever do. Fortunately for us, we were close with a suitable stand in, Chris [of a local group called False Flag] – he stepped up to the plate in a big way, & we knew we were prepared for the big gig. We got ready together, & conquered that hurdle. But it was daunting, for sure!

  6. The only band members I can see being replacable in short order are lead musicians, people that put the icing on the cake, as it were. Maybe covers bands might fare better, but amatuer original bands? I can’t see it, unless the stakes are so high that cancelling is a career or repuation meltdown. I was trying to think about who I could get in a pinch for either of my bands, but unless they just happened to know the songs, the structures, the stops, the time changes, it would be a disaster, so I’m guessing it’s really only a realistic proposition for bands who can rehearse all day – I doubt anyone would want to play a gig if it wasn’t going to be reasonably tight.

    Interesting point about having charts though – never properly looked into it before, so thanks!

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