How to make it in the West End

By Colin Skinner  -  07 January 2015

I've lost count how many times I've been asked how to get work as a musician in London's West End and the answer I give is not a short one...

I started my musical education on piano until my secondary school gave me a Bassoon to "master" (as soon as I figured out how to put it together), followed a little later by the present of a saxophone from my parents as a reward for passing my exams. 

At college I started to get to grips with the clarinet and flute and then came to London as a post grad to make my fortune…

Nine years followed gaining experience playing in big bands, first of all in the section, later on as section leader and as a soloist, playing in front of the band from memory. I sang with vocal groups and in cabaret on ships. I played on the odd "jingle" (recording session usually for an advert) and finally I got my first chance to deputise for a regular player on a show aged 28. Another year passed until I was offered my first chair in the musical "Company". From then until now I have been fortunate to have been asked to do many productions, some long running, others...... not so much.

Sorry for my boring history but my point is that the process can be a long one and requires an all round musical experience, good technique on as many instruments as possible (woodwind in my case- in particular clarinet and flute) and an ability to follow a conductor and blend with your fellow players with no previous rehearsal. 

When you are first asked to deputise on a show you will be required to sit in the pit and watch the regular player play, probably twice, at which time you can take away a copy of the music and a recording to play along with at home. When you are confident that you know the music well enough a date will be set for you to play your first show and then, if all goes well, you are off!

In order to be invited to watch the show in the first place you will have had to have been recommended by some professional musicians to the contractor (fixer) and this leads me to my most important  advice........

Love music.

Love the instruments you play.

Be inspired by somebody's sound and seek to emulate it.

Write or arrange for some combination of instruments and get it played even if only at a rehearsal.

Have musical ambitions that have nothing to do with earning a living but are genuine desires to be artistic and creative.

LISTEN!!! 90% of being a good musician is listening to how music is being played by the people around you and blending with them.

Be able to improvise. Learn a favourite jazz solo from memory and be able to play simple lines over basic chord progressions.

LISTEN! Did I already say that?

All of this will lead to your meeting and working with other professionals and develop mutually beneficial friendships. Life is all about contacts.

The West End is of course one of the few avenues left for musicians to enjoy well paid and regular income but it has always been a means to an end for me, paying the bills and allowing me to do the things I wanted to do like jointly forming The Skelton/Skinner All Stars, composing my first serious orchestral work and recording FunKey Rhymes on C.D. and app.

If you practice hard and develop your musical interests and abilities, in time, your reputation for adaptability, reliability and general competence will precede you and so work will surely FIND YOU!

I hope none of this frightens you or puts you off? Quite the opposite in fact. Music still beats working for a living and is a wonderful social and professional life.

But remember, once you have played the same music in exactly the same way one hundred times the challenge becomes a mental one and you will only have completed about three months of an (hopefully) open ended production. What will you be doing outside of the show FOR YOU?

You can hear Colin's performances, arrangements and compositions on itunes here with his own Big Band Skelton Skinner All Stars

About Colin Skinner

Lead saxophone of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, principal musician in London's West End and composer/arranger Colin Skinner is a lead figure in the world of Big Bands and orchestral music

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