Archive for December, 2007

Farewell To A Mentor, Cheerleader, And Dad

Monday, December 31st, 2007

My father passed away yesterday at the age of 84.

A veteran of the Big Band era, Bill Tanner was my first musical mentor and role model. World War II and a growing family led him out of the music business and into a “real” job, but he never lost his love of playing or his belief that it was actually possible for someone with a modicum of talent and a good work ethic to thrive in showbiz. Without the experience I gained working with him as a teenager – and without his rock-solid conviction that I possessed both of those necessary ingredients for a pro – I’d have never seriously considered music as a full-time career.

Until my mom’s advancing Alzheimer’s caused him to retire from his last combo, he continued to play “his” music – Big Band Swing – a few nights every month for appreciative audiences of the Greatest Generation. Long after Mom could no longer speak, she would still pat her foot every time he sat down at his keyboard and played “I’m Looking Over A 4-Leaf Clover.” His music allowed the two of them to communicate in a way that nothing else could, and continued the bond they shared through 65 years of marriage.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a song simply titled (in true Southern fashion) “My Daddy.” The chorus went like this:

My Daddy starts on time and plays what they wanna hear
If he ever talks, he keeps it clean and sincere
And he acts like he plans to be invited back someday
He smiles when he’s happy, and he’s happy a lot
And he always gives the people everything that he’s got
And there’s one thing more, I’m proud of my daddy for
He knows when it’s time to go, And when it’s time to stay

Yesterday it was – at last – time for him to go. Thanks, Dad. Thanks for everything.

I’ve Got 2 Words For Today’s Videographers: “R-r-roll ‘Em!”

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

Not so long ago, videographers needed lots of light to capture all the special moments at a wedding and reception. The trouble was – because of the resulting glare – those moments weren’t quite as special as they should have been. Eyes which had grown accustomed to candlelight felt assaulted under the blast of “instant sunlight,” resulting in squints and hands placed over brows to shade aching orbs. There was no such thing as a candid moment in which someone was caught by the camera being completely natural. Indeed, un-natural smiles and forced behaviors were the inevitable result of the spotlight’s beam.

Worse still, camera hogs always knew where to go for their close-ups – they simply had to follow the lights. And many a romantic shot of bride and groom was subsequently ruined by Uncle Herbie moonwalking in the background.

Not any more.

Today’s professional video equipment is so unobtrusive that – unless the videographer wants you to – you may not even realize you are being recorded. Light-amplifying cameras require little more than a single candle to capture all the joy and tears of your wedding. Stereo microphones using CIA-developed technology have an almost uncanny ability to isolate the sounds you do want while eliminating the clutter.

Nor is there any longer a need for ongoing wars between your photographer and videographer. In years gone by, many a shutterbug became frustrated when his perfectly-lit shot was ruined by the sudden presence of a bank of 300-watt bulbs. What had been an arty and tasteful character study suddenly became a mugshot. This never has to happen again.

As you interview prospective videographers and look at samples of their work, let them know your priorities. If you don’t mind them being front and center with spotlights blazing in order to get that perfect shot – tell them. But if you are low-key (and you want your videographer to be the same), you need to tell them that, too.

The great news is, with today’s state-of-the-art digital gear, a creative video artist can be virtually invisible – yet still document all the magical sights and sounds of your wedding in a way that only video can do.

So, if you’ve been turned off by pushy videographers in the past whose light bars and extension cords seemed to be constantly interfering with your enjoyment of an otherwise wonderful evening: there’s hope for you – and your guests. You no longer have to sacrifice your comfort at the reception to have a treasured video of your reception.

Sorry, Uncle Herbie – you’ll have to find another way be annoying.

Don’t Hold Mom And Dad Hostage At THEIR Party!

Monday, December 24th, 2007

Four times in the past year or so, I have entertained at gatherings (a 50th wedding anniversary, plus at 70th, 80th, and 90th birthdays) where the guests of honor’s best-laid plans were sabotaged – by their own children. To me, this makes two facts obvious: first, I’m now getting a lot of calls from Senior Citizens. But more importantly, I’m seeing a trend toward “not thy will but mine” at such parties that disturbs me.

At all 4 events, the honorees’ offspring presented loving but lengthy tributes which played havoc with the schedules their parents had carefully crafted. This was partially because the kids’ sense of time differed greatly from their parents (and their mostly-Senior guests.) It was also because the younger generation decided that they – not Father – knew best.

Last week’s bride-plus-50-years was also her party’s hostess (and therefore my boss.) She scheduled my band from 6 until 9PM, knowing that the majority of her mature invitees won’t stay much later than that. What she didn’t know was that her children had put together a half-hour video-and-live presentation. Because she wasn’t in the loop, Mom wasn’t able to tell her brood that 30 minutes was far too long to ask this gregarious group to sit quietly. It also cut deeply into their visiting and dancing time.

The kiddos’ DVD began with everyone’s rapt attention. By the 10 minute mark, conversations had broken out at most tables. And long before the video was over, the audience’s attention span had maxed out. Identical results happened at the birthday events. In my lead sentence today, I called it “sabotage.” Perhaps “hostage-taking” is more accurate. Without impugning their intentions, I would simply say that when anybody commandeers a material chunk of time at a party for which they are not the host – they’re wrong.

The solution to this problem is to show the following paragraphs to your grown children.

Kids – this party isn’t about you; it is about Mom and/or Dad. The guests aren’t coming to hear you speak or read poems you wrote for the occasion. They also didn’t plan to sit through a movie. So if you truly want to honor your parents, then don’t do things at their party that they haven’t okayed.

If you want to make a video, feel free to do so. But (1.) don’t bring it to the party without parental permission, and (2.) if said permission is granted, play it in the background during cocktails and dinner, so that the guests can gaze at it whenever they wish – not when you wish. Keep the sound low enough that it doesn’t interfere with conversation.

Designate one offspring to speak (briefly) for all, and one grandkid to be the voice of that generation. Any more speeches than that should be reserved for the video, which your parents can enjoy over and over again in the comfort of their home. (You can even make DVD copies for the guests as party favors, if you like. That way, any who watch are volunteers, not hostages.)

Keep your time in the spotlight to the bare minimum – a toast, for instance. The only persons who should speak longer than 2 minutes (total) are the honorees themselves. To the greatest extent possible, stay in the background. Just keep saying to yourself, “It’s their party. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”

You see, kids, the schedule that Mom and Dad created – like the party itself – is theirs. It isn’t yours to tinker with. So say it again: “If they’re happy, I’m happy.”

L-o-n-g Contracts, Fine Print, And Legalese

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

I am inherently suspicious of musical service agreements that are (1.) longer than one page, (2.) written in any type smaller than 12-point, or (3.) contain anything but plain English. And – because I am basically a trusting soul – if I’m suspicious of them, I think that you should be suspicious as well.

Part of the reason I feel this way is that I’ve issued contracts for 30 years that fit easily onto one page. My friend and mentor Ed Bernet has thrived in the music business for 50 years with an even simpler standard agreement than mine. After all, the purpose of a contract is (or should be) just to protect both parties by spelling out who is doing what for whom.

My contracts say that I will provide a certain number of musicians for a certain number of hours at a certain time and place. In return, my clients agree to pay me a certain amount of money. And that’s pretty much it. There are a couple of housekeeping sentences telling how much set-up time, stage area, and electricity I need, as well as a line stating what the band will wear. But you won’t find any demands for Dom Perignon and caviar in our dressing room. (In fact, our dressing room usually says “Men” on the door, and you are under no obligation to feed us anything.)

Why, then, should any contracts need the following?

1. Multiple pages. Long contracts are invariably loaded with clauses favorable only to the issuer. (“You will provide two million dollars of liability coverage” or “Even if you die as a result of our negligence, your mom can’t sue us.”) Thus, what should have been a balanced document protecting both parties, becomes heavily weighted in favor of only one side’s interests.

2. Fine print. To me, the only function of fine print is to make the contract harder to read. Which always leads me to wonder, what does the other party hope I won’t take the time and effort (and magnifying glass) to find?

3. Legalese. There are valid reasons for technical language in some business agreements, but not in the contract you sign with your band or deejay. There is nothing which can’t be said better in plain English. So – if you receive a document filled with unfamiliar or confusing language – send it back with a note requesting one which “eschews obfuscation and espouses elucidation.”

Maybe it’s my “Mayberry” upbringing, but I tend to trust trusting people – like Ed Bernet with his uncomplicated contracts. Those who send me the other kinds of contracts obviously don’t trust me in the same way Ed does. Well, that makes us even – I’m leery of them, too.

De-Stressed Weddings Are Just As Legal

Monday, December 17th, 2007

Romeo Hatfield And Juliet McCoy is a comedic re-telling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, set among the hills of West Virginia and the famously feuding Hatfield-McCoy families. Shortly after her cousin is murdered and her husband of a few minutes banished across the state line, Juliet plaintively asks the preacher who officiated at the ceremony, “Wuz yore weddin’ night like this, Padre?” To which Rev. Laurence sighs, “In some ways, they all are, darlin’.”

Weddings – especially big weddings – are inherently stressful. Heated words between the bride and groom or bride and her family are routine. Hassles with florists, venues, bands or deejays, and even members of your own bridal party, elevate your blood pressure. Most brides survive these irritations with no lasting harm done to either themselves or their relationships. But – at some point – almost every bride asks herself, “Is this ceremony and reception worth all the aggravation it is causing me?”

Let me make two things clear: (1), nobody can answer that question except the bride herself. And (2), I’m not talking about calling off the marriage, just the “big fat” wedding.

My Mom and Dad were married by a minister in his home, with his wife as the witness. Total cost, including the ring, flowers, license, and ceremony: less than $100. Their union lasted 65 years. Gina and I repeated their example. Each of us had been married before, had been through the “big” wedding, and were perfectly happy not to go through it again. We’ve just celebrated our 20th anniversary.

The money you don’t spend on a lavish ceremony can be applied directly to a down payment, can be added to your honeymoon funds, or can be put away for your retirement. I know two dads of brides who offered their girls thousands of dollars, just to elope! They weren’t trying to save money – they just wanted to see it spent on something other than a 4-hour event.

If you have always dreamed of a big traditional wedding, and are willing to cope with the stress it brings, then I am all for you. And let me suggest that a good wedding coordinator is a big-time stress-reliever, especially your stress. But if the idea of weeks and weeks of mounting pressure sound more like a “nightmare” than a “dream,” there is an alternative. You can be just as “hitched,” without all the drama of a Hatfield-McCoy union.

By the way, after our low-key ceremony, Gina and I went out to dinner at a 4-star restaurant. We both got a touch of food poisoning, and spent most of our “romantic” honeymoon night pleading for the other one to relinquish the bathroom. Stress or not, Rev. Laurence was right: in some ways – darlin’ – most all wedding nights are like Juliet’s!

The Fine Art Of “Chilling Out”

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

I would be the first to tell you that I am a fanatic with regards to time. (However, my wife Gina would certainly be the second to tell you.) It’s a bit of a curse, because the rest of the world rarely operates with one eye constantly on the clock. To most folks, “5 minutes” is an indefinite period consisting of a half-hour or less. To me, it is 300 seconds (“a thousand one, a thousand two…”) In fact, the only occasion when anybody ever seems to be as anal-retentive as I am about time is when they are hosting a wedding and reception.

Then time matters. If the cake was due at 4PM, at 4:01 the bakery is going to get a call from a concerned mom. If the band is delayed by a crush of folks needing to use the freight elevator and misses their 6 o’clock set-up call, you can be sure a wedding coordinator – and/or the police – will be looking for them by 6:02.

So it is refreshing every once in a while to encounter a bride, mom, or planner who is not in imminent danger of bursting their aorta just because the salad course was 2 minutes late. Such mellow folk – assuming they’re not simply on Valium – tend to take a “Big Picture” view of the nuptial proceedings, rather than to get stressed out by a series of minor details. They focus more on “is the evening going well,” rather than “is it going according to some pre-ordained schedule?”

And when the key players are less wired and weird, it makes it easier for us entertainers to do our jobs – part of which is to appear cheerful and relaxed (so that the guests will feel the same.) It’s awfully hard for a band or deejay who has just been read the Riot Act by a caffeine-stoked father-of-the-bride, immediately prior to playing, to put on their Happy faces for the in-laws and outlaws.

Pressure brings out the worst in most of us. That’s why it is such a pleasure when working a wedding reception to encounter a hostess who refuses to let minutiae and trivia dampen her joy. Weddings should be joyous. Do you want your guests to remember that worried crease on your brow, or the look of sheer happiness you had for your daughter as she walked down the aisle?

Details are important. But if you’ve hired the right vendors, we will do your worrying for you. The most important thing you can do is to enjoy your own party. If you don’t, no one else will, either. Lead your guests by your example: chill out! (Or as the 80s-era deodorant commercials used to say: “Never let ‘em see you sweat!”)

A Jerry Springer-Style Wedding Reception

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Until this past weekend, I’d never seen a family feud escalate into a full-blown fight at a wedding. During an otherwise blissful reception, a hockey game suddenly broke out on the dance floor! Except the combatants were wearing high heels instead of ice skates. That’s right – they wuz wimmen!

These gals turned what had been an elegant evening into an unusually well-dressed edition of “The Jerry Springer Show,” complete with screaming, slapping, and recriminations galore. You should have seen it!

Or rather, you shouldn’t. None of us should. Such a breach of common courtesy, sense, and decency should never have occurred. One member of the battling duo eventually suggested that they take their “discussion” outside, but they could still be clearly seen through the venue windows. Understandably, the mood of the event was somewhat strained afterwards. The mom-of-the-bride somehow maintained her poise through the duration of the evening, but the proud papa later looked devastated. I don’t blame him. This was his baby’s night – the product of hundreds of hours in planning and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses. Every effort had gone into making it exquisite. Whose relatives would ever sabotage such an evening?

Uh – well, if you think about your own family – maybe yours. Is there someone close to you whose belligerent behavior has disrupted a reunion, wedding, or funeral? Are there 2 people you love dearly – individually – but who, together, are like gasoline and a match? Such folks always have an excuse for their bad behavior; it’s never “their” fault. Lacking any sense of shame, they will not regulate themselves. So it is up to you to guarantee that your special event won’t be ruined by a similar incident. How?

The only sure way is to not invite anybody who has ever – even once – shown such an utter lack of self control at a family event. But, if that isn’t an option for you, you may be able to delegate an authority figure/babysitter to stay close to the loose cannon and head off any major eruptions. From experience I can also tell you that, once families stop making excuses for a relative’s bad behavior, there is often a dramatic improvement in that person’s actions.

Unfortunately, some folks – like our drama queens – simply refuse to conform to societal norms. My only suggestion for them is that they call 1-877-836-3414. Jerry Springer is always looking for new talent.

Preventable Party Disaster Number One: Too Many Guests, Too Little Room

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

I played a Christmas party this week at a hunting lodge-turned-restaurant. The dining room was charmingly rustic, and set for 100. The only problem was, that was 20 guests more than the room would comfortably hold.

Four long rows of tables would have fit just fine. We had five. The result was literally no “elbow room,” as guests sat shoulder to shoulder. There was also so little space between rows that the waitstaff had immense difficulty getting to and from the diners. This was compounded every time a guest got up to go to the restroom. It looked like a scene from an old Marks Brothers movie – except nobody was laughing. Oh – and need I mention – it was LOUD!

The inevitable delays in service resulted in many guests being finished with each course of their dinner before others had even been served. The meal dragged on and on, while holiday smiles turned to grimaces.

It wasn’t a disaster on the scale of the Hindenberg – nobody died or anything – but it wasn’t a success that all future parties will be measured against, either.

And the sad part (to me) is that it was 100% preventable. How?

Solution Number One is to always book a bigger room than you think you will need. It is easy to fill in the extra space by seating fewer people at each table (thus requiring additional tables), or by allowing more room between tables. Then, if you’ve still got too much extra square footage, you can usually lower the lights in the unused area, distracting attention from the empty space.

Solution Number Two is to put a cap on your guest list. Don’t invite even one more person than the room can comfortably hold. To do otherwise punishes everybody, and turns what should have been a joyous event into a study in frustration for your service personnel, for your guests, and for you.

And who wants to be remembered for that kind of party?

How To Shorten Those Long, Boring Awards “Thank-You” Speeches

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

I emceed an awards dinner last night at which two very deserving local citizens were honored. Each honoree had a lengthy list of accomplishments to their credit, which were read by their individual presenters. Each also had a lengthy list of folks to thank for inspiring them such heights, which were read by the honorees themselves. All of those accomplishments and inspiring folks deserved recognition. The trouble was – as it always is – that where length is concerned, more ultimately equals less when the reading of lists go on and on. In a word – it became boring. This is both unfair to the honorees themselves, and astonishing when you consider what fascinating and dynamic individuals last night’s recipients are. If anything can make these two firecrackers seem dull, then there is something very wrong with the presentation.

I propose a simple, 3-step solution to eliminate this problem.

1. List the honoree’s accomplishments in the souvenir program. At most awards dinners, the honorees know weeks or even months in advance that they are to be celebrated. There is plenty of time to compile a list which can be inserted in the event program and placed at every seat. Lists are ever so much more interesting to read than to hear. Such written accolades are also permanent mementoes of the evening. At “Oscar”-type awards events where there are multiple nominees, all of their qualifications can be included in the written program.

This frees the presenter from having to read a “laundry list” of accolades, and enables them to simply – and briefly – tell why the recipient is so deserving of honor.

2. Put the honoree’s thank-you list in the same written program. I’ve attended many awards dinners in my career. The only acceptance speeches I really remember are the ones in which the recipient shared a favorite quote, or a bit of their personal philosophy of life that has led them to be a super-achiever. Any honorees who thanked their agents, lawyers, and managers did so without my attention. I may have been there in body, but my mind and spirit were long gone.

It would be wrong not to thank family members and mentors for their continued inspiration. Listing their names in the program gives them their much-deserved recognition, while keeping the on-stage focus on the honoree. (What you call a “win-win” situation.)

3. Encourage both presenters and recipients to speak “from the heart,” not from notes. My personal favorite secret for eliciting a brief and conversational response from both presenters and honorees is to call them up to the dais, then ask them a direct question: “What special quality makes ____ deserving of this award?” Or “How does it feel to receive this award?” Questions asked in this way tend to evoke outpourings of affection and emotion, not dry dissertations.

And – I don’t know about you – but for me, nothing beats a spontaneous comment, straight from the heart. I’ll take that over one straight from the script – any day.