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Do’s and Dont’s of Sitting in with the Band

As a full-time, working musician I have witnessed many painful scenes when people in the audience suddenly get the urge to be up there performing with the band.
No, I’m not going to make nasty comments about getting some talent first. There are plenty of musically talented folks out there who don’t play or sing professionally on a regular basis. The problem is those who conduct themselves in such a manner as to not only put off the band they’re trying to sit in with, but also make themselves look like –well, there’s no other word for it–jerks. I don’t think people do this maliciously (most of the time); they simply don’t know any better.

Therefore, I am setting down a few Dos and Don’ts for those who might one day take a notion to join a band onstage and play or sing a song or two with them.

DO: Fit your abilities /knowledge to the band’s style. If the band has been playing classic rock all night, chances are they’re not going to know any jazz tunes. Listen to a few songs first to see if you have anything in common.

DO: Wait to be asked. The way to do this is to introduce yourself to a bandmember on a break ( preferably the one whose instrument you want to play), compliment their playing, chitchat a bit, then casually mention that you, too, play guitar or drums or sing or whatever . If you’ve played out anywhere, this is the time to mention it. Most will take the hint and ask you if you want to sit in; if they don’t, it’s not because they aren’t getting it ( trust me, we all know that hint ) Many club owners/managers frown upon non-bandmembers playing due to the resulting “train wreck” that may occur (unless, of course, it’s their kid sitting in!). If you’re not asked, don’t take it personally. Waiting to be asked also spares you a flat-out and embarrassing “No”. Discretion is the key here!

DO: Have your sh*t together when you are asked up there. Hopefully when you were chitchatting with the band on break you had the foresight to work out what song(s) you all know and can play together. Standing up on stage for 15 minutes of dead air while you go through “Well, do you know this song?” “Nope..how about this song?” etc. etc. is stressful for everyone. **Singers–for Pete’s sake, KNOW YOUR KEY!!! If you’re not versed in music theory, ask the pianist or guitarist to help you find a key you can sing BEFORE you go up there. Jeez, if I had a nickel for every singer that got up there and gave us a blank look when we asked him or her what key they wanted to sing in…

DO: Tip the band afterwards, if they have a tip jar out. Buying them a drink is a nice gesture, but some bands drink for free and some bands don’t drink while they play. Tipping is always appreciated.

DO: Know when to quit. After one song, turn and thank the bandleader. They may ask you to do one more, or they may not. Either way, be gracious and say “Thank you”. That may be the determining factor for you to stay up there for one more!

DON’T: Just jump up on stage while the band is playing. EVER. This is so incredibly rude I can’t believe anyone does it, but many do. Probably because that’s the way it happens in the movies. As mentioned above, there is some pre-planning involved as far as what to play so you don’t have a “train wreck”..not to mention again the fact that it’s VERY RUDE! When this happens with our band, the first thing we do is reach over and turn off the microphone, then end the song. We’re nice about it…I’ve seen other musicians holler “Get the hell off the stage!!” among other choice epithets to stage-jumpers. If you simply must jam along on your harmonica and don’t have time to ask, do it beside the stage while looking up wistfully into the bandleader’s eyes. That might do it. Jumping up uninvited never will.

FINAL( AND BIGGEST) DON’T: Touch someone’s instrument, or let your kids do it, without permission. Picture yourself on an airplane. You’re doing some work on your laptop. The stranger next to you suddenly reaches over and grabs it away from you and starts playing games on it. Or maybe your corporate cell phone is on the table in front of you, and someone you don’t know snatches it up and starts making phone calls with it. The only difference between the above scenarios and grabbing a musician’s instrument is this: the instrument probably cost a lot more than your laptop or cellphone. Like laptops and cellphones, instruments are a musician’s tools that he or she uses to make a living. Running up on stage and and picking up guitars, microphones or horns, or sitting down behind a drum kit or keyboard and banging away while your buddy snaps a photo, is not only boorish and rude but incredibly dangerous. Large, furious musicians and/or club bouncers are the least of your worries. Microphone cords, electrical cords, patchcords, guitar cords, speaker cords and entire scales of major and minor chords are up there waiting to trip you. All kinds of heavy equipment are just waiting for the slightest breeze or vibration from an unknown person’s presence to fall over with an alarming, embarrassing and expensive crash. Let us also not forget just how much electricity is required to amplify all of those instruments, and how unpleasant it would feel coursing through your stagestruck self when you accidentally spill your beer in the wrong place.

It’s not really that complicated. Many working musicians are happy to show you or your kids their instruments, or let you sit in for one–when you ASK. I’ve sat hundreds of little kids down behind my drum kit and showed them a few beats. The main thing to remember here is good manners. Accord respect to others and they will accord the same to you.

Oh, and one last tip: yelling out “Freebird” is neither original nor amusing. Yelling out “Freebird” is pretty much solid proof of one’s dorkmanship. I will not be responsible for what happens to anyone foolish enough to drag out that 20-year-old chestnut. The most polite response to that I’ve heard yet was one guitarist who held up both middle fingers and said “Here ya go, dude–no charge.”

That’s about it; be polite, have your sh*t together, and wait for an invite. Then the band will be on your side.

And don’t yell out “Freebird.”

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