Orchestra 101: Playing Extra! Part I: Before the Gig

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An important topic not addressed in the original Orchestra 101 series (which starts here) was that of extra horn. As there will be a session related to this Orchestra 101 series at the upcoming IHS Symposium, and extra playing is the starting point for most professional performing careers, this is a great time to address this topic in some depth in Horn Matters.

Basically every professional horn player starts out as an extra. My first experiences were with the Rochester Philharmonic and in my personal case I was back in this past week as an extra with the Phoenix Symphony, subbing as third/associate on a Classical series. While the experience (which I greatly enjoyed) brought topics to mind that are addressed in this brief series, the following is not at all specific to playing with Phoenix, instead being geared toward general mentoring of students and aspiring professional hornists (and orchestral musicians in general).

How do you get called?

This can vary a lot location to location, there may be a formal or informal audition involved, but ultimately this is related to networking in some manner (teachers, colleagues, etc) and building a positive reputation for yourself as a good and reliable player. For some tips on how to build that reputation I have more in this article from 2005, Seven Deadly Sins of Horn Playing. Also be aware in some locations the personnel manager can’t call you unless they know you are a union member. If that is the case where you are and you aspire to play professionally it may be time to join. Scope this out with your mentors.


Don’t get your hopes up; it may not be great, and there is pretty much nothing you can do as an extra to negotiate anything better. It will be better than other jobs you have played. With a hat tip Bruce Hembd I would offer this link to a good and recent discussion of the big picture of this topic in the Polyphonic.org blog.

So you got the call!

Congratulations! This is a great first step, but to be called again you need to be prepared for that first service.

Preparation today is lot different than it was “back in the day,” as many of the full parts for standard works is online in ISMLP and also practically anything that is remotely standard lit is on YouTube. Back when I was starting out I would have to get the physical music early and find a good academic library to find recordings (or buy them).

In either case, somehow you want to have learned your music before the first rehearsal. Students get used to wandering into band and sight reading. Professionals don’t wander into rehearsals and sight read orchestral gigs, and especially so aspiring professionals that just got called to their first professional orchestral service. As it is more than just a gig, it is a line that could be on your performing resume for years and years and a future income stream. Make sure they remember you for the right reasons.

A final pre-rehearsal note to highlight is to figure out how to best approach matching the section as you know it. With a side point being no matter if the section is Geyer or Kruspe or Lawson (or whatever) there are probably people in and outside the horn section that are strongly biased for and against different types of horns, and some probably don’t at all like how the current section sounds. Blend and choice of horns is a minefield, but try to do your best to prepare to fit in with the sounds you believe you will have around you.

When we continue the topic is things to anticipate and do before the first service.

Continue to Part II

University of Horn Matters