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How to nail an audition every time

Here’s a word that surely strikes fear into the heart of every musician – audition!

I hate auditioning. I know musicians who refuse to audition – I was almost one of them. Although I’m really glad I didn’t adopt that mindset, I totally get why some people would just not want to put themselves through the most unnatural musical environment imaginable. If you’re anything like me, during an audition you’ll experience every emotion from, “I’m awesome on my instrument, totally got this” through to, “I shouldn’t even be allowed to touch a bass”.

I have auditioned around 10 times over the past 5 or 6 years, and I’ve only ever got 1…and that was the last one I did! Although a 10% success rate isn’t great, I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy and I like to think of it as 9 auditions where I learnt how to become better. So this post is my way of sharing those things I learnt from my ‘failures’ in a hope that it will help people prepare better for auditioning.

It’s not about playing all your licks

I struggled with this one for ages. I like a good lick (lol), I love being expressive when I play and being responsive to vibe and atmosphere. I love music to sound “live” and for a band to be energetic, and I LOVE a good arrangement! On top of that, you want to go into and audition and stand out, right? So if you whip out some badass licks, or some crazy chords or chops, then you will be remembered and will get hired.

Not true. At least not for the auditions I’ve done. One of my first auditions I thought to myself, “I’m going to go in a shred all over this”. The artist was auditioning for a whole band, so we were placed in bands at random and told to play the track. I remember the guys in my band that day, they were sick! It was an amazing group of musicians, but things got out of hand! The drummer did a chop, I felt like I had to match it so I did a chop, the guitarist turned up, the keys player started putting in passing chords. To me, it sounded amazing and was incredibly fun (a rare feeling in an audition), I remember coming away from that audition thinking to myself, “If we don’t all get that gig I don’t know who will”. Plot twist (or not), none of us got the gig! So why not? Aside from being incredibly arrogant, the reason I didn’t get the gig was because, in that room, I thought that the audition was all about me and my superb ability.

Auditioning is not about you – it’s about the artist and their music! Here’s a fact for you, there will always be someone better than you. Cold, right! But seriously, if you want the best bassist in the world, why not get in Anthony Jackson, or Victor Wooten or *insert famous musician name here*. Obviously, I’m talking in extremes to make a point, but the thing is, an audition isn’t a competition to show that you are the best technical musician in the room, it’s about getting the artist excited about hearing their song, and their arrangements and their finely crafted sounds, that they have spent weeks and months and thousands of pounds recording, live. If you want to show off your licks, film it in your bedroom and stick it on youtube – don’t bring them into an audition.

Prepare musically

I’m sure this one goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. If you are not fully prepared musically for your audition, then you may as well not show up. Just so we’re clear, when I go into and audition (or rehearsals, or gigs, or studio sessions, or whatever), I know the tracks inside out and backwards, I know when the drum pattern changes or when the guitar part comes in, I know my part on bass and on synth, I could play with a plectrum on a 4 string or 5 string. I know where I could fill if I was asked to open up a bit in the song – I’ll even have arrangement ideas, in case I’m asked. Don’t just learn your part, learn the song!

Make sure your gear is right for the gig too. If the song calls for a 4 string p-bass, don’t rock up with your 6-string ken smith. Get you patches and sounds right, and if you’re going to be using a keyboard that has been brought in, make sure you know your way around it (I go down to a music shop and have a play down there if it’s a board I’ve never used before).

really think it goes without saying, but you can’t over prepare for an audition, and I don’t understand why anyone would just rock up and wing it – it shows that you don’t really care, and it’s cool to care…right!?

Prepare physically

An audition isn’t just about your ability. An artist (and moreover, a label and management) wants to see how you look on stage, how you fit in with the look of a band and how you perform. So think about your appearance. What are you going to wear? Get yourself a haircut. Practice standing up and performing the song. I really like the saying, “dress for the job you want”, it stops me getting into the habit of thinking that my ability alone is what will carry me – it’s the way you present yourself both physically and socially that also carries you.

Prepare mentally

I feel like this point is massively overlooked on so many levels. When you go to an audition, do you know what it’s actually going to be like? If you’ve done a lot, then probably yes – although saying that, almost all of my auditions have been very different.

This story will haunt me forever. I remember auditioning a couple of years ago for a very well known artist. I got the audition date and couldn’t make it, so I phoned the MD and told him. The MD was adamant that he wanted me to audition so they moved the whole thing so that I could make it. At that point, I felt like a pretty big deal! Cutting a long story short, I got to the audition room and it was utterly vibeless – if there is such a thing as anti-vibe, or some sort of vibe-vacuum, it was present in that room!

The set up was a (really awful) bass amp in the middle of the stage and a laptop. In the room was the MD, management, the artist, some next-guy filming and a seriously awkward silence. I got up on stage, plugged in and the MD hit play on the laptop, at which point I became super aware of how exposed I was and played like my hands had been stuck on backwards. Some people would probably argue that I should be able to play along to a laptop on my own – and that is true, I do it all the time at home. But there was something about standing there, with a whole room watching, trying to catch a vibe with a CD that got in my head and made me totally unable to play.

Something got in my head. My thoughts would sabotage me, I would think that I was no good, or not able to prove my ability or that I would tarnish my reputation that had got me the audition in the first place. Whatever it was, it stayed with me for months afterwards too – I really struggled to believe in my ability and for the longest time I hated playing music. All because I hadn’t mentally considered what the audition scenario could be like.

So what can you do? Well, this is where things might get a bit freaky-deaky for some people, but I believe that for as much as you can prepare musically for something, and prepare physically, you can also prepare mentally. About a week before my last audition I made a list of negative, sabotaging thoughts that have a tendency to creep into my thinking. Things like, “You’re not good enough”, or, “You’re going to ruin your reputation”, or, “You’re going to mess it up” (I actually went into more detail than this when I wrote it down). Then, on the other side of the page I would write down what I know to be true as a counter to these thoughts; “I’ve worked for x, y, z and been playing professionally for x years”, or, “I got called for this because someone had heard about my great reputation”, or, “I have the ability, experience and expertise to demonstrate that I’m a great bassist”. Again, I would write in a bit more detail, but it was based on facts rather than irrational thoughts. Every day I would focus on this positive affirmation so that when I enter a room where I would normally think negative thoughts, I have trained myself to think positively about myself.

Like I say, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in terms of walking into a room and being able to lay it down under pressure – this kind of preparation has become invaluable for me. Try it!

Be you

This is my last point, and for me, this is what means that I will forever nail every audition I do. When I got called for my last audition, I was asked to prepare the tracks on synth, using Ableton to create the sounds. My Ableton knowledge (at the time) was pretty limited, but I started looking through tutorials and working away at building the right sounds. After a couple of days of struggling through, I had an epiphany, if I got the gig I would be forever struggling to figure out how to use Ableton to make the sounds and patches for each song. So I decided to change my approach to be something more true to myself – 2 bass synths, a bass and a big ass amp!

This change in mindset, I think, is the key to auditioning well. I walked into the room and demonstrated what I could bring to the gig. I had programmed up my 2 synths, hired an Ampeg 8×10 and decided to bring in live bass at the end of the track (with a tiny fill) to give it a boost. I’ll be honest, the playing wasn’t perfect, my gear failed a bit and the amp didn’t sound that great…which goes against my other point, but, when I left the room I knew that I had shown them exactly what I do and what I could bring to the gig. I knew that if I didn’t get the gig it was because I wasn’t the right fit, not because I didn’t have the ability.

Coincidentally, this is the only audition I have ever got!

I genuinely think that when it comes to auditioning, it’s important to be level-headed and not hold it tightly – the goal isn’t to get the gig, it’s to do your best and show what you can bring to a gig. If you have this mindset, then whether you get the gig or not, you have nailed the audition.

Hope this was helpful. It’s taken me a lot of trial and error (mainly error) to get to this conclusion, so hopefully, it saves people having to go through the same number of knockbacks! I think there should be more discussion and emphasis on the mental strain musicians (and self-employed people in general) put themselves under, it’s something I’m really passionate about talking about so you’ll probably hear more from me on that over the next few months!

Let me know what you think, give us a share and subscribe if you want to be notified of when I post again,

Here’s a word that surely strikes fear into the heart of every musician – audition! I hate auditioning. I know musicians who refuse to audition – I was almost one of them. Although I’m really glad I didn’t adopt that mindset, I totally get why some people would just not want to […]

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About jam nights and why every session musician should go to them

I’ve been talking a lot recently about my experience of how I got into working as a session musician – I think it’s something that should be talked about more openly and hopefully there is some useful advice in there for people who are considering leaving their well paid jobs to live the dream.

This might be my last advicey blog for a while as I want to steer things a little more towards nerdy bass gear talk (at least for the next few posts). But before taking it there, I thought I would talk about a topic I’m sure every working musician has an opinion on – Jam nights!!

Some of the most common advice I was given as a young buck wanting to head out into the glamour of session musician-ing was, “go to Jam nights”. Probably the most vague bit of advice going, so here are my reasons on why I think every musician should go to Jam nights and what you can expect.

  1. Make some mates and play with new musicians
    I briefly mentioned this point in my last blog post about how to promote yourself as a session musician and get gigs. Having friends in this industry is one of the most valuable assets (that is, friends, not just contacts), not only do mates want to work with mates – but actually the importance of having someone to depend on for advice and encouragement has been crucial for me to keep believing in myself and being persistent.I can’t stress this point enough here – don’t go to jam nights thinking that Gary Barlow is going to see you, be totally blown away by your playing and flock to you with his phone number begging you to play for him. When you say it like that it sounds stupid (Ok, I exhaggertaed little), but this was my mentality at first, and I’m sure it’s the mentality of a lot of other people that have been given the advice, “go to jam nights” when asking, “how do I get a gig”. Infact, I would say the opposite, don’t go to jam nights expecting a gig at all – you will be seriously dissapointed. Instead, go to be socialable and enjoy playing with other great musicians. Once you’ve had a play, chat with the people you played with, get numbers, go for some food after (there is a great little Italian takeaway place opposite Ronnies), nerd out over gear – basically, be normal! Your goal isn’t to use people to get gigs, it’s to get to know other, like-minded musicians.
  2. Build your confidence
    I remember the first jam night I went to – it was at the Troy bar and the level of musicianship was so incredible (pretty sure it was Rick Leon James on bass…if you know, you know!) that I decided I never wanted to play bass again! Twenty minutes later, I decided that was a stupid thought and that I had just wasted a great oppurtunity to better myself by being too scared to play.I started going down to jam nights a couple of times a week and, in a similar way in which I imagine Bear Grylls forces down a goats testicle, I would force myself, against every part of me that wanted to just go home and have a qiuet night, to get up and play. Actually, non-surprisingly, there’s not really anything too it – it’s always that first step that takes the most confidence. I used to think of it as “faking confidence”. I think it’s a key skill to have though as a musician, it translates to more than just getting up on a jam night to play to having the confidence to walk into a last minute gig, or having the confidence to sugest an arrangment in rehearsals, or having the confidence to audition under pressure – think of it as a training ground to build up your confidence in your own ability.
  3. Grow your repertoire
    Having a good repertoire is a big weapon to have in your arsenal. It means not only can you jump on any song at a jam night, but you can also hop on function gigs easily with very little preparation, or join in when the whole band decide to soundcheck by playing superstition (*cringe*).Seriously though, repertoire is a big advantage for jam nights and for your musical career in general, so to help out I’ve made a Spotify playlist of songs that quite often pop up at jam nights – but also that I think are just good to know!Disclaimer – I’m sure everyone and their dog will have songs to add to this list – it’s not a definitive list. Feel free to leave comments about what songs you think are good function/jam night standards though.

    https://open.spotify.com/user/skirrow/playlist/5XbQJybmLGJeaQ8ZA42XT1

  4. Show your face
    Again, this was a point I made in a previous post, but showing your face regularly is a great way to stay on people’s mind, and a great way to build relationships with people. The more you go to jam nights, the more you will be recognised and eventually you’ll be asked to come up on stage to play rather than having to ask. So be a regular, on jam night will not land you all the gigs…which leads me on to my final point of why you should go to jam nights.
  5. Get all the gigs
    OK, this is not actually the point at all, infact, I think it’s fair to say that in about 7 years of going to jam nights, i’ve never been given a gig…perhaps that says more about me now I think about it!But here is the thing that has definetly been true for me; good relationships, self confidence, a large repertoire (and a good ear) and regular catch ups with other musicians will eventually lead to getting you gigs – and these are all skills that you can learn and develop whilst at jam nights.

Where are the jam nights?

There are so many jam nights that happen in London, some better than others and sometimes the good ones will have a hen night going on in the same room and end up with a bunch of drunken middle aged women who don’t play instruments getting up and giving it a good go anyway…true story. But here are some that I’ve definetly frequented in the past:

Ronnie Scotts

  • Ruby Sings – every Tuesday, £8 on the door (or email rubysings@ronniescotts.co.uk to get on the guest list for £6 – limited places available)
  • W3 Jam Sessions – this is a great jam night by the way and will be packed out! Every Thursday, £6 – £8 (depending on what time you arrive).

Troy Bar

The Troy bar actually do music most nights, but I think the best ones are:

  • Spirit & Soul – every Tuesday – this is more of an open mic night, so good for vocalists
  • Fusion Jazz Jam – this is my FAVE. If you want to see amazing musicianship, and get up to play and really push yourself, this is the one. Every Friday night

Marmelade Jam

Disclaimer – i’ve never actually been to this one (yet) but my friend Chelsea who is well cool runs it so it must be good!! Plus, it has it’s own website – http://www.musicmarmalade.co.uk/. Every Wednesday night…Chelsea, I’m coming down I swear 😉

Ciros – Music Box Live Jam

My experience of Ciros has been limited but great – the first time I may have had a bit too much to drink, stormed up on stage like a bull in a china shop and i’m pretty sure I played awesome…but that last bit might be open to interpretation (the picture for this post is from that night…photo cred to my mate Loucas Hajiantoni…superb keys player, and not so great photographer). The second time I burst through the door and knocked the bouncer over who then kicked me out…so that night wasn’t great. It’s brilliant musicians though and a great intimate vibe. Every other Monday (I think) – it’s a bit vague, but it’s called the music box jam, so if you search that you will find a post on facebook from someone, somewhere about it!!

For most Jam nights, I would aim to get there for about 11pm…any earlier and you’ll be that nerdy guy who get’s everywhere too early. Just kidding, punctuality is well cool. But they run late, so get yourself a nap in the evening and expect a long (and thoroughly enjoyable) night.

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, my hope with this post is to make jam nights seem less pressured and daunting to people who have been told they should go, but don’t really know why!

I’ve been talking a lot recently about my experience of how I got into working as a session musician – I think it’s something that should be talked about more openly and hopefully there is some useful advice in there for people who are considering leaving their well paid jobs […]

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How to promote yourself and get gigs when you’re a session musician

Following such a positive response to last week’s post – Can be be a UK session musician and not live in London, I thought I would talk about that thing that comes before getting work, something that I feel doesn’t really get taught enough in music colleges or spoken about in general…self promotion!

I should probably mention before we start, this is my limited experience from the last 6 years or so, and in particular I’m talking about promoting yourself for pop gigs.

Definitely the most common question I get asked about my job is “how do you get gigs”. If I’m honest, I don’t really know the answer – there really isn’t any formula for getting gigs, but I know that I didn’t just wake one day and have them. So the question really is, how do you get noticed?

Well, here are a few things a friend of mine called Spam Spirrow found out didn’t work:

  1. Posting a phone with your phone number on it and a post-it note saying “Call Me” to the head of a major label company…nope, doesn’t work.
  2. Stalking up and coming artists in their home town to just so happen to  bump into them and mention you’re a bassist and you’d love to work with them…nope, that’s both creepy and unproductive.
  3. Emailing an MD everyday for 30 days straight for a gig…yeah, also doesn’t work

Plot twist, Spam Spirrow is actually me, Sam Skirrow. Yeah, pretty embarrassing right – I mean, most of these things were nearly 10 years ago now, but I wish I had a blog about promoting yourself to read before I went ahead and did them!

So I think it’s fair to assume most people reading this will have a much more rational head on them and NOT do anything stupid like the above, so if you’re wondering what has actually helped me pick up gigs (and now you know i’ve tried more or less everything!!) then here’s my advice.

  1. Be excellent, all the time
    To be honest, I could stop writing this post now! As this really is what it all hangs on, whatever size gig or crowd, or whoever is in the band, always bring your A-game. Practice for those function gigs just as you would for those arena gigs, and respect the gig while you are on them. Why, because you never know who is watching and you never know who will call you.

    I remember being in a rehearsal for a gig a few years back that was paying very little (it was a agreed fee for 5 weeks of work – and it probably worked out at about £30 a day). But I played for my life during those rehearsals, in the middle of it, a guy came in from the studio next door, stopping our rehearsal and asked to get my number. From then on he started calling me for work which I’m still doing to this day!

    Don’t play to the size of the gig, play to the size of your potential <- sick quote I just made up!

  2. Use social media…but don’t spam people
    I probably don’t need to mention how good social media is for promoting yourself, put up videos of you playing, do the whole Facebook live thing and Instagram about what you are doing – it’s a great way to show people who you are and what you can do. I think there is a bit of an unspoken etiquette (at least, I think there is) when it comes to how you present yourself on your socials.

    Here’s what I think the unspoken rules are:
    – Don’t tag the whole world and their dogs in your videos!! Ok, every now and then it’s cool to tag people in your super sick drum video – but don’t do it ALL the time because people will get sick of you. Plus, let’s be honest, there are only so many drum fills or bass chops we can all take right?! Sometimes it’s nice just to have a bit of 2 and 4!
    – Don’t pretend to be on gigs you’re not, or endorsed by people you’re not…no one does that right 😉
    – Don’t troll on other musicians – these are your potential colleagues, if you’re going to gossip or hate on people you are burning bridges….basically don’t hype!

    Put out good quality videos and Instagrams and Facebook live’s and fan art till you’re blue in the face, but do it in moderation – be real and be humble.

  3. Don’t network – make friends
    I’ve always hated the word Network – it feels really cold and non-relational. One thing I’ve learnt in this industry is that you need friends not just a collection of phone numbers. Aside from the fact that people want to work with their mates and so you’re going to get called by people you get on with, it’s far more valuable to have people that you can call up for advise or encouragement when you most need it.So how do you make friends? I started meeting other musicians at jam nights (ahhhhh the dreaded J word!). I want to do another post on jam nights and what to expect at a later date, so for now my advise is this – go to them, lots of them, but don’t go expecting to get gigs. Instead, go to enjoy playing with other great musicians and meet people who are doing, or trying to do what you want to do.

    If you just want to go and show off your latest lick then no-one will care! Talk to people, buy them drinks, enjoy making music with them and keep in touch with them – it’s kind of like dating!

  4. Be friendly
    This point probably doesn’t need to much explanation. But I’ve found that just by being mildly sociable and texting or phoning people regularly you stay in the loop a little better and develop greater friendships.

    I don’t want to be patronising about how to be friendly so I won’t go into any more detail here – treat musicians as friends rather than potential leads to work!

  5. Develop your own musical identity
    This is a point I preach a lot, especially to musicians who are in, or have come up through music college. I feel like the music education system teaches us to try and be good at everything – I think that’s rubbish! I am never going to be really great at playing Latin music because it’s not in my culture or my upbringing, and also I’m just not that into Latin music! So why should I try and get good at it when I have other things that I’m naturally good at and that I enjoy.

    Know your musical identity because that is essentially what you will get hired for. I have always been very focussed on the style of playing I like and practice, even to the extent of turning down some great gigs because it’s not the route I want to go down. I remember a great friend of mine and utterly brilliant bassist called Si Francis passing on this advice to me – he was doing the whole 5-string bass, RnB/soul playing thing but felt like it wasn’t really him, so he sold his bass and embraced what he loved, great bass tone, 4 strings (although I swear I’ve seen him on the occasional 5 😉 ) and incredible skills at making sounds with effects pedals (and also smashing up Ableton and synth sounds too), and that is what got him called for the Ellie Goulding gig. The moral of the story, people will call you for what you bring to a gig – so find your sound and what you enjoy and master it.

Essentially, I’m sad to report, there isn’t a rule for getting work – everyone has a different story behind how they got their first pop gig. But I genuinely believe that hard work and determination don’t go unnoticed. If you work diligently, make friends and keep cool, you will (eventually) get work!

Would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts – how did you get your first gig, or are you feeling like you’ve tried everything and not getting anywhere? Is there anything that has worked well for you or would recommend to other musicians? Leave us a comment below and give us a share on the old book-face.

Lots of love.

Following such a positive response to last week’s post – Can be be a UK session musician and not live in London, I thought I would talk about that thing that comes before getting work, something that I feel doesn’t really get taught enough in music colleges or spoken about in general…self promotion! […]

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