I’ve spent my life as a working musician, splitting my time between sideman duties and leading my own bands. I’ve always tried to find gigs as a sideman where I can feel connected and creative in some way or another. Here are five things I’ve learned about being a better sideman and session player that just might help you become a better leader as well.
1. Learn How to Sing
A singer I was accompanying on piano once asked me if I sang, to which I replied that I never gave it much thought. He told me that if I started singing, I would always have more work than if I just played piano. And so began my journey of singing, growling, and yelling into megaphones and effects boxes. I’ve learned over the years that anyone can sing - it’s just a matter of finding material that suits your voice and personality.
2. Always Play With the Baddest Cats Around
As a teenager living in Miami, Florida I was playing piano in a Southern rock band, while simultaneously playing Funk, R&B, and dare I even say Disco with another one. Both bands gave me Hell for playing with each other, but for me it has always been about playing with great musicians, regardless of their style or scene. That’s how you grow as a musician.
3. Be a Multi-Instrumentalist
A nefarious acquaintance once owed me money and all he could offer me in payment was an accordion. It was bright red, beaten-up, and complete with a bullet hole in the front that gave it a certain attitude. I picked it up and started playing it, and I’ve been getting calls to play it ever since! I also did a session a while back where the producer wanted a chromatic harmonica part for a song. I was able to pull it off, and to this day, I still get calls from him to play harmonica. Sometimes you only need enough technique to play what a particular part in a song requires.
4. It’s Never Too Late to Educate
Always add to your musical arsenal by investigating new musical styles. I was recently called to play a Brazilian Forró gig on accordion, researching the music online and through recordings so I could be fluent in its intricacies on the stage.You never know what gig you may be called for next. Be prepared and you will be rewarded.
5. Be Kind or Be Gone
If I have learned anything in my years of making music, it’s simply to be kind. If you are unbearable to be around, there will always be someone ready to take your place at the drop of a hat. Save the talking for your instrument, or you might just talk your way out of a gig!
Brian Mitchell has accompanied a myriad of acclaimed musical artists, including Bob Dylan and famed Band drummer Levon Helm. Mitchell’s latest project Fatboy Kanootch is a funky accordion/tuba trio he leads with trombonist and tuba player Clark Gayton and drummer Tony Leone.