What questions to ask ceremony musicians as you interview them

As you interview different musicians, see if they’re asking the right questions to put you at ease. After all, THEY are supposed to be the professionals, not you! Here’s a quick guide I put together just for you!

Your mindset:
1. You’re the employer, they’re the employee, not the other way around! They’re interviewing for the very important job of providing music for your wedding.
2. Your ceremony musician will be setting the mood an atmosphere for all of your guests. Be clear on what’s important.
3. If you have a vision or request, be up front about it. Feeling guilty about asking will only lead to disappointment down the line.

Questions to ask them:
1. What do you do best?/Why should I hire you?
2. What forms of payment do you accept?
3. What’s the best way for us to communicate?
4. Do you book gigs back to back?
5. Will you take another gig over my wedding if it paid more?
6. What happens if you get sick or have to cancel?
7. Do you offer other services that I should know about?

Things to consider during your interviews:
1. How quickly do they communicate with me?
2. Is this someone I want at my wedding?
3. Will they honor my requests and be honest about their capabilities?
4. Are they focused on my needs?
5. Do I like their music, personality, and offerings?

Top 5 things to discuss with your wedding ceremony musician

It’s not your responsibility to consider all of the needs of your musicians. THEY are the professionals and should be able to advocate for their needs. That said, these are crucial items that can lead to disaster if not addressed. I make it a habit to talk about these with my clients. However, if you’d like to be pro-active, here’s a list of the top 5 things you’ll want to discuss with your ceremony musician to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.

#1. Access to electricity

More than likely, your musician is going to need some sort of amplification. Once you have an idea of where you want your musician to go, you’ll want to have the following discussion with the venue. Feel free to copy & paste the following into an email and see if the musician has anything to add before sending it out to your vendor/planner:

  1. How far are the nearest outlets to where my musician will be?
  2. If extension cables are needed to get power to my musician, are there any safety considerations that might get in the way?
  3. Are the outlets 3-pronged or 2-pronged?
  4. Are the restrictions on how much power can be drawn?
  5. Is there a way to position cables and amplifiers to make sure that they don’t show-up in pictures?

#2. Food & water

Be clear to the musician whether or not you’ll be feeding them. The last thing you want is your musician treating him/herself to your expensive buffet or asking the venue staff about where they can get food (believe me, I’ve seen it happen). However, this will allow him/her to plan ahead of time. If you are going to provide food, ask them when the best time would be to eat based on your schedule of events. At the very least, it’s advisable to provide them with a bottle of water, especially for the hot, summer weddings.

#3. Suitable playing conditions & load-in

Musicians usually have expensive equipment to carry, so make sure that they can setup at a flat, clean, stable surface. Heat and water are the enemy of instruments like guitars, violins, cellos, and electrical equipment and can cause them to go out of tune, malfunction, or even break. Try to avoid having your musician positioned in direct sunlight or anywhere rain, running water (fountains, waterfalls, rivers, etc), or spilling (bar, refreshments, etc) could ruin their gear.

Also ask the venue for the best path for them to take: sometime venues are particular about where vendor foot traffic is allowed. If the musician has to traverse a grassy field or across gravel or up several flights of stairs, their gear on wheels won’t do them any good and could lead to a delayed performance. On that note, try to find out how early the musician can arrive to setup. Ask the musician how long they generally need for setup to make sure that their load-in doesn’t interfere with your or your venue’s plans.

 

#4. Parking

If you’re doing a city wedding or at a location where parking is either scarce or metered, you’ll need to decide whether or not the musician will have an assigned spot or will need to find parking on their own. Be clear if they should bring quarters, expect street parking, need to run outside to pay a meter every hour, go to a parking garage, get valeted, etc. Also consider when they’ll be arriving and leaving and make sure they’re parking in a location where they won’t block or be blocked by other vendors.

 

#5. Schedule of events

This seems like an obvious one, but it’s so easy to overlook! How will your musician know when to begin the ceremony music? Will someone cue them? Will there be a clear sign? A lot of musicians will be reading off of sheet music, closing their eyes, or be looking anywhere but where they need to. So make sure they know what to look for. If you have parts of your ceremony that need music, make sure they know exactly when to expect it. Lastly, be sure they know exactly when to start playing the recessional music!

 

Was this useful? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments section and happy planning!

Hiring a band? You (usually) get what you pay for! A horror story from my freelancing days, and how you can learn from it.

Money, Money, Money, Money! (Money!)

As a musician for hire, I’ve come across lots of different bands some professional, some not so much. I feel like I now have enough distance from a particularly embarrassing event to speak about my experience in hopes of protecting clients from a bad hire.

Price isn’t everything. However, it can be a pretty good indicator as long as things make sense. For example, a band that charges double the rate of other comparable bands might actually be worth the money because they offer much, much more than those comparably-priced bands! However, if they can’t offer you performance samples or don’t even have a website (and I’m not talking a MySpace website … if you even know what that is), RUN! Just the same, someone who’s low on the pricing might be cheap because no one will hire them for more money. Alternatively, you might have an extremely gifted group that’s just getting started. If that’s the case, you’ve got a bargain!

 

The Gig, The Disaster

I was hired as a keyboardist for a band, and it became clear that I shouldn’t have taken the gig. They had a date for me, but not much else. Since I wasn’t booked, I took the gig. I wasn’t told a time, how much I was being paid (I was doing it as a favor for a friend), what it was for … anything really beyond the fact that I’d be performing their “usual” setlist and that “there might be requests.”

I found out a week before the gig that it was a wedding. That’s also when I was given the list of requests despite my repeatedly asking for them for months prior because, you know, it’s important for me to practice. The night before the event … no, wait, wedding! at 11:30pm, I was asked to learn a couple of more songs because they were “important for the clients!”

The gig was disastrous for me. Despite being promised a set list well in advance, one was never made. The band leader was literally asking the musicians what songs they knew so he could decide what the next song would be! At someone’s wedding! The band was also hired to play the processional and first dance. What songs? I certainly wasn’t told, nor was I until the event coordinator nudged the band leader saying that everyone’s waiting for us to start [names song].

The coordinator had to interrupt us in the middle of songs to say that something needed to happen! We’d take long breaks while the DJ would provide most of the background music. The band manager told us to treat ourselves to the wedding buffet, only for us to be told that we weren’t supposed to be fed or given a table to sit between sets.

The music selection was completely inappropriate for the vibe of the wedding, and it showed in the faces of the guests as they attempted to eat to disco/techno/dance music. This made it extremely difficult to connect with them during the dance numbers after dinner.

 

With liberty & embarrassment for all!

Additionally, sound was a complete mess. The monitors (how musicians hear themselves on stage) kept causing massive feedback that interrupted the wedding on several instances, so they eventually had to be shut down. In other words, we weren’t able to hear ourselves whatsoever. Imagine being a drummer and not being able to keep the beat for the singer! Imagine being a singer and not being able to hear whether or not the guitarist is finished with his solo!

Most of all, imagine being a couple who paid thousands of dollars for a band that came unprepared, botched songs, interrupted the flow of the special day you’ve been planning for over a year, and embarrassed you in front of all of your friends and family.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. But I couldn’t, and I didn’t. I put on a smile and played my parts like it was the best day of my life. Needless to say, I wasn’t paid very much in the end (nearly half of my minimum rate). At that point, I was so humiliated that I would’ve paid to leave .. and suppose I did using my professional reputation as tender.

 

The aftermath & thoughts

Fortunately, the vast majority of professional bands who’ve hired me have been just that: professional. I don’t think it’s any mistake that the best bands have been the highest paying ones; and boy do they deliver!

I’m not sharing my experience to imply, “Throw a bunch of money at musicians and all of your wildest, musical dreams will come true!” (Seriously, don’t do it.)

Instead, my advice is this: do your research and hire a band that strikes the right balance between price, value, professionalism, and convenience. Musicians can and oftentimes will say anything to get themselves hired. Be sure you call their bluff and see if they can produce evidence for their claims.

Also, be aware that when you ask a vendor for a discounted rate, you’re giving them license to provide discounted services. It’s always worth trying to bargain, but professionals will know their value and turn down gigs that aren’t worth it for them. I made an exception in this case and suffered from it.

My sincere hopes are that you won’t.

How to handle students who don’t want to learn

One of the most common problems in any field of education is how to deal with students who simply don’t want to learn what you teach.

Some are easy to convert with a little shift in perspective. Others are intent on simply not enjoying anything you have to offer.

It’s frustrating: I certainly want all of my students to be passionate about music, to leave lessons feeling like they made real progress and have a clear path to becoming better. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

I’ve made the mistake of letting the students take charge of where lessons should go when I should be the one guiding them. However, experience has taught me that 1) a student who wants to learn will quickly learn to ask the right questions and 2) a student who does not want to learn needs to be guided to become better while feeling open to providing feedback when the time is right.

My personality type makes me want to put a ton of effort into students who don’t like lessons, to somehow “save” them from their boredom. I was in their shoes. I hated lessons for many years.

But I have to keep reminding myself that there are students who are passionate, who work hard, who love their interactions with me. Those are the students who I should be investing in. I’ll still work hard with the ones who don’t want to learn in hopes that things will turn around, but I can’t burn myself out chasing unattainable goals.

In my heart, I still believe that there’s a way to reach every kind of student, but there’s only so much that can be done with weekly sessions and the drag of reluctance.

Advice to a hurt vocal student

The other day, I had a voice student who began the lesson with a question: “What do you do when someone says something bad about your singing?”

This is a topic that many performers will confront at some point, and I thought I’d share my thoughts here. The answer is threefold:

 

1. It’s part of the job. It’s part of life.

People will say hurtful things. Sometimes they won’t be justified. Sometimes, people unintentionally hurt you, but the fact that it was an accident doesn’t change that you’re hurt when you’re hurt. For example, if someone accidentally runs over your foot with a Mack truck, the fact that it was an accident doesn’t change the fact that your foot is hurt/pancaked.

However, we as humans have to accept that sometimes, we get hurt. Part of putting yourself out there includes running the risk of being at the receiving end of both due and undue criticism. It doesn’t mean it’s right or that it’s fair, but it’ll happen. By accepting that it happens, we emotionally prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

 

2. Use the pain to fuel you.

When you’re hurt, you’re hurt, but we can choose how the pain affects our lives. If we allow hurtful words to stop us from doing the things we love, we’re the only ones who lose out. I explained that I’m a hypersensitive person and can get pretty upset over things like this. So what I like to do is to remember the person who hurt me and how they made me feel. That person becomes a symbol for why I need to work harder.

Internally, I’ll be thinking, “I’ll show you!” or whatever gets me motivated. Externally, I’ll practice harder and work on my weak spots. The idea is not to ever let the person know that he/she got to you but rather to repurpose the negative feelings into positive fuel to ward off laziness, inefficiency, and bad practice habits. When I don’t feel like practicing, I remind myself of the face, the feeling, and the purpose.

Everyone’s different in how they are motivated, but by finding a way to use negative comments to help you work harder will make sure that hurtful words never set you back more than it needs to.

 

3. Write a song

So many great (and lucrative) songs have been made in response to someone hurting the songwriter. Great songs are tied to strong emotions, and being hurt is something we can all relate to. There’s no better way of “getting back” at someone than to become ultra-successful or to at least make lemonade from bitter lemons. Inspiration is tough to find, so if something truly moves you, use the opportunity to really get your creatives juices flowing.

Ultimately, the message I tried to get across that revenge and discouragement is not the answer. You can never find the relief you want by saying or doing anything to the person who hurt you. However, there’s a lot we can do for ourselves to improve ourselves, our crafts, and our emotional outlook.

Teachers are paid to fail students.

blog-failure

 

It’s been over a month since my last lessons with my students in Pennsylvania. Recently, I received an letter from a parent about the recent success of her daughter who was a multi-talented voice/piano/guitar/songwriting student of mine. The article she linked to commended my student for her passion, originality, and strong audience response.

My immediate response was pride. Pride in Sarah, her work ethic, her passion, and her dedication toward music. However, as much thankful as they might be for my hand in Sarah’s success, it ultimately was Sarah herself to truly earned it. More on that in a moment.

 

SAD FACT

I recently taught a band of students who frustrated me. I was simply substituting while their usual teacher was out. The frustration stemmed from several sources. Their behavior was mostly of teen-aged horseplay and acts of defiance. They were clearly trying to get a response out of me and test my patience: intentionally playing and singing poorly, criticizing every critique I had for them, questioning my musical abilities, mocking my “elevated” vocabulary, hinting ethnic slurs, and doing everything except trying to work on music. They clearly weren’t interested in taking any direction from anyone, let alone some guy they were seeing for a day.

So I let them goof off. And they got nothing from me.

Here’s the sobering reality: teachers are paid to have students fail.

Whether a child is learning piano or arithmetic, the teacher will get paid regardless of the student’s success. That said, it’s not a sustainable business model to do nothing and fail all students. In my experience, most teachers want to see their students succeed and thrive. However, our living doesn’t depend on that success necessarily.

 

MY ROLE

As a teacher, I don’t think I can inherently teach anything. My role is to guide students down one of several paths of my expertise. However, if the student’s destination is opposite of mine, I can’t guide them. I can lecture. I can spout facts. I can demonstrate. Yet, if the student is not receptive, nothing is heard. Nothing is learned. Nothing is taught.

That said, it would be completely irresponsible of teachers to do nothing every time they meet resistance from students. Yes, part of our role is to be babysitters. For those poor souls teaching a public school class filled with students unwilling to learn, their role is simply a government-sanctioned babysitting service. The teacher can try to teach in class, but his/her ultimate job is to make money to support his/her family.

But beyond babysitting, parents rely on us, our training, our experience, and our expertise to help think of creative ways to frame the lessons in ways where the student becomes willing and able to learn. After all, a large part of being an adult is doing things that you really don’t want to do. Kids have to learn that lesson some time or risk staying in a state of arrested development. (Or they can become musicians.)

 

THE GAMUT

I’ve had many students like Sarah. I’ve also had many students like the band. Most students fall somewhere in the middle. In my experience, many lean a little closer to Sarah. I’ve had many students go from being apathetic or even hating music to becoming music lovers. I was one such student. All it took me was the right guidance, the right way of framing music, a way that made the lessons relevant to me.

I feel sad and guilty that in the short, single lesson I had with the band, the parents wasted their hard-earned money. I feel sad and guilty that the students didn’t even appreciate what their parents were trying to do for them. Even more sad was  that the students were talented and capable of doing great things with some guidance.

Yes, I’m paid to see my students fail, but I want to see them succeed. They don’t have to become musicians, but I don’t want them to be among the millions of people who say, “I used to take lessons, but I was never any good at it. I wish I stuck with it.”

Students like Sarah make my job easier. They also make it rewarding. They help me grow. Progress can be seen with every small effort made on both the part of teacher and student. The teacher’s experience becomes an open well of wisdom and ideas rather than a dousing hose to get misbehaving students to cool off. Parents are happy because their hard-earned money is going towards guidance that helps make their child’s life more full, rich, and fulfilling. Kids are happy because they realize they have a talent that empowers them to be active parts of their communities.

 

BURNING CALORIES

There’s only so much time in the day, so many calories to burn, so much emotional investment I can give. And as much as it hurts me to say it, I would rather devote that time, attention, and energy toward those who want my guidance than to let lessons with the willing suffer for the sake of those who actively resist my efforts. I would rather.

But a flaw in my personality makes me want to try harder with the difficult students. To try and reach them. I mull over these things (even write blog posts about it to process my thoughts!).

So what happened to those students in the band? The ones who got nothing from me? They ran out of energy. There was only so much fooling around they could do. Once they got it out of their systems, they played. They practiced. They got better. And they didn’t need me. Then they hit a wall and needed some help. And our time ran out.

 

PUNISHMENT

We’re a culture obsessed with punishment. “Bad” behavior is returned with punishment. The original intent is to deter the undesired behavior, but soon, the focus becomes finding the right punishment/avoiding punishment, often on technicality rather than doing the assigned task.

Many religions have this idea of the afterlife where one’s ethics and values throughout life are measured and assigned appropriate judgement balancing punishment and rewards.

It’s a metaphor for how life is. We can be terrible, selfish, cruel people, but it catches up with us. After all, who wants to be around a person like that, let alone help them? Those who choose the path of kindness, love, generosity, mindfulness, gratitude, and diligence find great rewards in life.