Hello! I am Audrey Flores. I am a horn player, and I am a career sub.
Although this is just a blog post, that feels really great to say! I used to be ashamed and bitter about the fact that I couldn’t break into that upper echelon of NYC players that are regularly called to have pit work. To be perfectly honest, I am proud of my ability to prep a book thoroughly, to listen, and to blend in seamlessly like a chameleon. I realize now that I have great ears, and it’s one thing to do my own thing well, but to adjust my playing to do someone ELSE’S thing well...to me, that shows a triumph over my ego (which definitely needs to be checked often!), and a flexibility to my playing that I can’t learn any other way. No easy feat, indeed. I’m trying to shed some light on what I consider the upper-middle class of musicians here in NYC.
”What is a Good Sub?”
Well, let me elaborate! It takes a special kind of musicality to blend in as a sub. In my experience, it’s something that only great listeners do well. I personally have a five-step process for learning any new material, and sometimes I repeat this twice when I’m learning a new book. Actually, if I get called to play a book I haven’t seen in a month or longer, I put myself through the process as if it were the first time. In many ways I’m well-suited to be a sub: I work extremely hard and feel invigorated by it, I am good at listening to and following personal rhythm, and years of playing under aggressive conductors has taught me to sit, look forward, and play. I also am a good house guest, or at least I try to be: I have learned to read a room, and have a good sense of when to tell a joke, or when to keep to myself.
Save for one glaring exception where I was cut from a sub list, I am lucky that I’ve worked for some great musicians that treat me well and appreciate me as an important part of what they do. In that exception, there was a pattern of behavior that wore on me, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when I woke up to an email that informed me that I was cut from the rotation.
“TOO BAD, SUBS HAVE NO RIGHTS!”
We’ve all heard this echoed in some form, sometimes by ourselves and sometimes by people who have real power, so it can be hard to take yourself seriously as a career sub. I am finding myself with a temporary show at the moment, so let me take a minute to tell you how I treat my subs:
- Everyone has an accurately cued and marked copy of the book and some type of recording, with a physical copy to hold when they come in to watch. They have their first show date before they watch. The MD and my colleagues get a heads-up, so they’re prepared to support that person, who has presumably done a great job of prepping.
- The MD gives them notes after their first show, and they then have more trial shows before they are approved. I’ve never had a sub do a horrible job and not be approved, because I make myself available to answer questions, and I ask people for help that I know really want to help me, or at least need the work.
- Once I have a list, I make sure to spread the work around, not only to be fair, but to make sure that they all get a chance to play the show, so no one comes in feeling like they haven’t played the show before.
Maybe subs don’t have official rights, but I treat my subs like temporary chairholders, because that’s what they are. Most importantly, this is how the chairholders I work for treat me. When I have to be somewhere else, or when my chops are telling me that I need a day off, I know that the musicians I trust deserve the same respect I get as a chairholder. I think it’s time we give subs reasonable protections by specifying the language that defines their jobs.
”HOW COULD THAT EVEN WORK?”
I have a plan that I want to put into legal terms and formally propose as a change to our bylaws. The idea is that, by giving subs more incentive to do their jobs well at any one show, they would gain many of the same rights that chairholders have: I even think it would be great for subs to maintain a minimum amount of shows over a set period of time to remain on the list. Chairholders in turn would have more security in keeping their colleagues in rotation, and would be honored as leaders that they have become in the Broadway field. Speaking for myself and, hopefully, the musicians I currently sub for, this is a system that is already in place and should be clearly defined. There should also be a system for artistic discipline and an HR system to solve any personal problems that may arise. I believe that this can and should be handled internally, so that all musicians get an honest and transparent idea of what really happens in these pits. While I’m not subbing classically at the moment, a union-based framework would also give freelancing musicians in those pits and on those stages some back-up if things go wrong.
Here in NYC, Broadway has become one of the main revenue streams musicians have. If you’re a sub with no job security, but you get by on union work, you’re considered lucky. How is it still acceptable for subs to take what they can get and expect no more? And, if these subs outnumber chairholders, what hope does a young musician have of being fairly treated, or of even being acknowledged?
I am inspired by the voices of our modern society that are waking up and realizing the abuse they’ve tolerated for years, and are speaking out against it. Every new story I hear, I get a little smarter, a little more passionate, and even a little more pissed off about the inequalities I see in the world around me.
I am a career sub. Maybe I’m not famous and never will be, but I deserve protection and workers’ rights on any job I bust my ass to play well on. If no one is ready to speak for us, I’m ready to get organized and change this myself, for all of us.