What Does It Take to Be a Hollywood Session Musician?
Whether you're a professional musician looking to expand your options or you're inspired by the 2008 movie "The Wrecking Crew" streaming for free on Hulu, working as a Hollywood session musician can be an excellent way to earn a living in music while continually expanding your skill set and repertoire and opening new doors to future possibilities.
A Hollywood session musician provides musical backing for the soundtrack or score to a movie. As with any career, it has certain qualifications and requirements, involving a combination of musical skills, education and training, personal traits and business skills.
Higher education or a degree or certificate in music isn't required to be a Hollywood session musician. Rather, if you can show you have skills with your instrument and experience playing it, you can land gigs. As a session musician, you need to be able to pick up new music and make adjustments to it fast.
A trained ear is an essential quality of a session musician. You need to be able to pick up your part, even if you don't have it written down in front of you. And, even if you do, you need to be able to hear how you sound in relation to the other musicians with whom you're playing in order to know whether and how to adjust your playing to sound more cohesive and accurate. You need to stay in tune and be able to hear when you need to tune your instrument.
Often, you'll be given sheet music from which to play. You need to know how to read this music in order to keep up with the pace of the session and avoid holding up the schedule. Not only does sight reading help you to be able to know your part, but it also helps you to be able to read the parts of the other musicians with whom you're playing so you can hear how your part fits into the greater whole.
It seems almost needless to say, but you need to be proficient enough with your instrument to meet the demands of a given session. This includes knowing what your instrument can and can't do and how to make it produce the sounds you want. It also includes possessing and understanding the gear and accessories necessary to produce those sounds to the fullest and with the greatest precision of tone as well as rhythm and pitch.
In order to maintain proficiency with your instrument and build upon it, you need the discipline to practice consistently and work to develop, improve and expand your skills. Your career as a session musician doesn't stop when you're not in session; you need to practice with the same diligence with which you perform. You need to think of practicing, now, as part of your job.
Musical Competency and Versatility
Being able to meet the demands of any studio session also requires having familiarity and competency within a range of genres. Whether a track includes classical, jazz, soul, funk, rock, country or other influences, you want the competency and fluency not just in your instrument and gear but in those genres in order to deliver them with the greatest authenticity. Similarly, you need the versatility to be able to perform differently stylistically even within the same genres.
Certain aspects of character, temperament and attitude are essential for success as a Hollywood studio musician. First and foremost, as a session musician, you are not the star of the show; you are either the backup or part of an ensemble. If you aspire to the spotlight, this may not be the job for you; if, on the other hand, you enjoy playing with other musicians in support of another artist's, songwriter's, bandleader's or director's work, you may have just the right demeanor for a session musician.
For this reason, you also need to be able to get along with others, or at least work well with others. Good communication and interpersonal skills are paramount for making each session successful. As you know, musicians need to have a rapport with one another, listen to one another and read each other's body language to make music sound its best.
You also need to be able to communicate with the other personalities in the studio. Session musicians work with a wide variety of personalities wearing a wide range of hats, including other musicians, recording artists, bandleaders and producers You need to be able to take the instruction, suggestions and criticism from these various people in order to be an effective member of the team.
A session musician who enjoys working with others generally thrives more than a solitary "one-man show" sort of personality. It's helpful when fellow musicians share their musical and technical expertise. This requires the willingness and ability to develop rapport and build relationships with the people you work with.
Other personality traits helpful for a Hollywood session musician include confidence, amiability, patience, a cool head and the ability to avoid becoming star-struck.
You also need to be prepared to live the lifestyle of a studio musician and, ideally, thrive in it. Studio musicians don't generally work standard business hours. You may not be able to gather with friends after work as much as you're used to, because, as they're all getting off work, you'll just be getting started. Since you don't know what hours you'll be working until you land a specific gig, you need to be flexible with your schedule and avoid making commitments that would conflict with your availability for work.
A career as a session musician might also influence where you live. Most session work is centered around big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Atlanta. Not only will you need to live close to these areas to have access to sufficient, suitable work, but you'll need your own reliable transportation to get from one gig to another.
Like any freelancer or self-employed person, your job is your business, and you must treat it as such.
Entrepreneurism and Self-management
As a session musician, you have directors, bandleaders and other managers and supervisors instructing and supervising you during the session, but, at the end of the day, you are your own boss. In between sessions, you only have yourself to report to, and it's only through your actions that you get continued work sufficient to sustain a career in the role.
This fundamentally requires good organizational skills, which include keeping track of contacts, communications, commitments and finances, and effective self-management (including the abilities to motivate yourself, manage time effectively and avoid distraction and procrastination.)
As alluded to previously, performance and recording experience are not just beneficial for the practice it gives you playing live with and for others but for the connections you make with these people and the relationships you form with them. Carrying these relationships forward with you outside of the session environment opens doors for future possibilities, opportunities and further connections that help advance your career.
If this combination of skills and abilities sounds like you, then you just may be cut out to play on the next big Hollywood soundtrack.