Archive for April, 2008

For A GREAT Dance: Play The Hits!

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

For decades, Local Living Legend Ron Chapman had the top-rated show on the top-rated radio station in my town. Years ago – in a fit of chutzpah (or hubris) – I asked him to please give my latest recording some much needed air play. I knew that a push from him might make it a hit. That’s when he – very gently – told me one secret of his ratings success: “David,” he said, “I don’t make they hits – I play them.” In a very competitive media market, a key ingredient to his astounding longevity was making sure that every song he played was already somebody’s favorite.

At about that same time, I worked for the alliteratively-named Mickey Bickers, a nightclub owner who had not just one or even two, but three successful venues operating simultaneously. Wanting to kiss up to the boss by playing his favorite song, I asked Mickey what he wanted to hear. His response? “Whatever makes the cash register ring.”

The combined one-two punch of receiving – essentially – the same advice from two very different, but very successful, sources finally permeated my thick cranium. Since that time, I have followed their lead (and I’m so glad I did). For your next party, you might consider doing the same. If you are hoping for a full dance floor all night long, tell your music provider that you want all the hits, all the time.

It seems to me that too many bands spend way too much time playing what they want to hear, rather than what is right for the crowd at any particular moment. Whether this fact stems from rampant narcissism (Look at me!), an inability to read their crowd, or an extremely limited set list – the result is the same. Dancers tend to sit down when they don’t know the tunes.

Conversely, some deejays and bands can’t seem to make it through a single night without hauling out hoary old chestnuts like YMCA, New York New York, and The Macarena. While granting that there will always be a market – somewhere – for such tunes, these particular songs (along with Stairway To Heaven, Freebird, and anything from Mamma Mia!) run a very high risk of turning off a big chunk of your dancers. For that reason alone, they should be played sparingly (every February 29th, for example.) Alternate tunes – with a much lower “cheese” factor – exist which inspire many fewer cases of violence against music providers.

Even big-name performers can occasionally benefit from this same advice. I once sat through an entire Carlos Santana set without hearing a single tune I recognized (and I know a bunch). Now, you can add me to the list of former Santana fans.

But last night, the lovely Gina Tanner and I attended a concert performance by Gladys Knight. In a 90-minute set, Gladys perfectly balanced new songs and borrowed tunes (made famous by others) with all of her greatest hits. No matter how many times she has sung them, she knows that they are what makes the cash register ring.

I wonder if she ever worked for Mickey Bickers?

To Trump “Conventional Wisdom,” Play Follow The Leader!

Monday, April 28th, 2008

I played for a 50th wedding anniversary yesterday. The honorees hoped their guests would dance up a storm. But the Conventional Wisdom said that probably wouldn’t happen. Why?

1. The party took place during daylight hours. The CW says that folks don’t dance ’til dark.
2. The party took place on a Sunday. The CW says that Saturday is the “dancing” night.
3. The average age of the guests was about 70. The CW says septuagenarians don’t “par-tay.”
4. There wasn’t a band or a DJ – just yours truly at the keyboard. The CW says, “You’re kidding!”

But I’m not kidding, and – typically – the Conventional Wisdom would have been right: this would have been a pleasant, non-dancing event. But there was one factor that trumped the CW: all parties follow the leader (ie. the guests of honor or hosts – which in this case were one and the same.) When the honorees – be they brides or birthday boys – dance early and often, the guests tend to follow suit.

And boy, did they! Once the hosts and a few key couples started the disco ball rolling, there was no stopping the crowd. It was almost as if they had simply been waiting all these decades for permission to whoop it up in broad daylight on a Sunday to the accompaniment of a single musician. It shouldn’t have happened – but it did.

Hopefully, your next event won’t have 4 strikes on it before you even start. Hopefully – if your goal is a packed dance floor – you will start a couple of hours later, pick a “party” night, and provide something more than a 1-man band. But – even if you do all the things that the Conventional Wisdom suggests for a “par-tay” – you would do well to remember the example of my hosts this weekend.

Simply put, if you don’t dance at your party – neither will anyone else. If you don’t have fun at your own party, neither will anyone else. So – for the sake of this event on which you’ve worked so hard – show your guests by your own example how you wish them to celebrate.

We may outgrow Pin The Tail On The Donkey and other kid-party games, but we will almost always Follow The Leader.

Stage Fright? Tap Into The Power Of “The Force”

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I had a rare experience last night – total stage fright.

When I say “rare,” I mean that I’ve been a shameless ham for as long as I can remember. So that “deer in the headlights” stare, fish-gasping mouth action, and sense of utter panic is unusual for me. And when I say “total stage fright,” I mean that my vocal cords were so tightly constricted that my speaking voice was closer to Olive Oyl than Popeye.

The occasion was an old home-town (Gainesville, TX), old home church (1st Baptist) appearance before 200 moms and daughters, most of whom I have known – and who have known me – all my life. I froze up for the simple reason that I really cared about this crowd. I was in Youth Choir with some of them, 40 years ago. My high school best friend’s mom was front and center. Heck, I was once even married to one of them’s sister! Simply put, they and I share a common history. I didn’t want to let them down, but – as my time to entertain approached – I could hardly breathe!

If this has never happened to you, trust me – it will. Stage Fright (technically known as “Performance Anxiety”) affects Olympic athletes, A-students facing exams, and even veteran blowhards like me. It need not really involve a stage in the literal sense at all, although – for most folks – a single moment at the podium or on stage does seem like a lifetime. All that is required for Performance Anxiety to kick in is an overwhelming desire to not foul up (often accompanied by an equally overwhelming desire to barf.)

Deep breaths, and picturing your audience naked except for black socks, are 2 of the most commonly recommended counter-measures. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, prior to his 1865 inaugural address, tried liquor to calm his nerves. It didn’t work (as it never does.) The booze only made him a drunk with stage fright. 1920s stage star Al Jolson eased his opening night jitters by convincing himself that every single person in the audience was an old and dear friend. (Obviously, that wouldn’t work for me – old friends in the audience were the reason for my jitters!)

Ultimately, what worked for me was this: focusing on just one smiling face. In my case, that face belonged to Jayne Austin (my former choir director, and widow of my dad’s long-time closest musical associate.) I’ve known her all my life. She’s always been amazingly supportive of my efforts onstage. Her smile was so serene, her confidence in me so complete, that her assurance buoyed me up long enough that I could get out of neutral and into a forward gear. Later, I picked out other such smiling faces. And soon, my jitters were – pretty much – gone.

Obi Wan Kenobi believed in the power of The Force. He must have been an entertainer. Smiles and reassuring nods (saying “You can do it!”) do indeed have a cumulative strength that every performer has felt at one time or another. When pointed directly at us, they give us a peace, a resolve, and a power like nothing else of this earth.

So – the next time stage fright hits you – may The Force be with you!

The BEST Party Of The Year (So Far)

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I spent my Sunday afternoon in the presence of some of the best ballroom dancers I have ever seen. What an inspiration – what a party!

The occasion was a fundraiser for a children’s charity. For those who simply like to watch great dancing, it was a bonanza. For any who enjoy venturing onto the dance floor themselves, it was hour after hour of an almost endless variety of dancing styles.

And for those who may have never personally tried ballroom, every hour brought a different instructor, ready and superbly able to teach the fundamentals of the Fox Trot, Cha Cha, and Hustle (yes, disco divas, it’s baack!!)

It was great exercise for those who participated, a fabulous floor show for those who watched, and a wonderful way to raise a bunch of money for a good cause.

If you are planning a fundraiser, now would be a very good time to consider something similar. Not since John Travolta infected us with “Saturday Night Fever” in the 70s has dancing (and dance instruction) been so popular. Entire families of our acquaintance are participating. And the beauty of it is that each and every person who walks in the door has the opportunity to participate (or not) at their own level. Today’s event had seniors, boomers, Gen-Xers, and a few from Gen Y (which in “earth language” means that we had everything from 70-somethings to 20-somethings.) We had competitive ballroom dancers (like the pros on Dancing With The Stars) and rank amateurs. But ALL had fun.

How long this fascination with the terpsichorean arts will last is unknown and un-knowable. But – for now – I recommend that anybody with a good cause and a need for funds look into planning an event which combines dance exhibition and dance instruction with loads of good dance music.

And when you do, be sure I find out about it. I’ll put my dancing shoes on!

Reading The Room

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Wedding receptions tend to be musical time capsules.

Often, the first hour or more is devoted the favorite songs and dance styles of the oldest guests. This is quite practical, for three reasons: First, the 65-and-over crowd are (after the bride and groom) the first to take advantage of the dance floor. Secondly, their music generally doesn’t interfere with conversation or dining. And finally, they are also – as a group – the first to go home.

If they are hearing songs they know and enjoy, Baby Boomers are the next to hit the dance floor in large numbers. And – while they tend to sit back down when current Rock is played – they will help get the party going, as long as the up-tempo tunes are Classics (ie. from “their” era.)

For a combination of reasons (the desire to visit first, a need of “social lubrication”), the bride and groom’s closest friends often don’t even begin dancing until after some of the oldest guests have departed for home. Actually, this is a good thing, because – if they haven’t already gone – both the volume and repertoire of current music will send most Seniors scurrying for the door.

My suggestion for brides is to allow your professional music provider some leeway in “reading the room.” If you instruct them to play wall-to-wall loud and fast music, they will be obligated to do so. But giving them a measure of discretion on the timing and volume of tunes can really benefit your party.

All your guests should enjoy your wedding and reception. That means they should all get to hear “their” favorites. The good news is: the Time Capsule (oldest to newest tunes over the course of a few hours) approach is frequently the best guarantee of a positive response to the question, “Is everybody happy?”

Musician’s Rules “The Boss” Forgot – Or Never Learned

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Many years ago, I wrote a song dedicated to my father, who taught me most of what I know about the meaning of the words “professional musician.” (Ed Bernet being the person who taught me all the rest.)

Anyway, regarding my dad, I said – in part:

“He 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 some day…”

I mention this because Gina and I went to see “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen, this weekend at our local arena. 20,000 other folks – give or take – joined us for the 7:30 concert. Unfortunately, Bruce didn’t. Not at 7:30, anyway. Or 8:00, or 8:15 or :20. No announcements over the PA informed us of technical problems, transportation issues, or any other reason for the delay. Apparently, the Boss didn’t think we were owed an explanation. My dad – and I – would beg to differ.

When – about 55 minutes late – Bruce and his E Street Band did come on stage, they were talented, tight, and put on a pretty good show. What kept it from being a very good show were a couple of needless, pointless, and – in my mind, at least – clueless political comments. Speaking only for myself, my enjoyment of Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, and Elton John (among others) is based on their music, not their voting preferences. I guess I’m philosophically in tune with the guy who yelled “Shut up and sing!” to Barbra Streisand after one of her on-stage diatribes. I just come to hear the music.

I’m not inferring that celebrities don’t have a right to voice their opinions, because they do. And a rally in support of a particular candidate or issue – where the majority of the audience probably shares their world view – is a perfect place for them to do so. But – in these politically polarized times – almost any general audience is likely to have a wide spectrum of opinions. Unless that audience came to hear what ___ thinks (as opposed to what they sing), I think that when entertainers accept my money, they owe me a performance, not polemics.

It’s too bad that today’s celebs never knew my dad – he would have taught them better.

There – I’ve Said It Again! (My Most Important Advice)

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

In Basic Training, army recruits hear the same information (at least) 3 times. The rule among instructors is: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; then, tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” As boring as this may seem, long experience has shown that most folks need to have important facts repeated in order for them to sink in.

Occasionally, I do the same thing in these entries. Why? Because clients who tell me how many benefits they’ve gained from the suggestions found here still miss opportunities they later wish they had considered.

Here then, troops, are a few items that deserve to be stressed again (and again):

1. Never leave control of the biggest party of your life – your wedding and reception – to the mercy of the weather. Either have your event indoors, or have a back-up plan ready for immediate implementation. (For more on this, see my entry from March 12th, 2007 – “The Inconvenient Truth About Outdoor Events.”)

2. If you want a “perfect” party, always adjust the timing of reception events (cake cutting, bouquet, etc.) to your guests’ schedule – not your own. And remember – they probably got to the reception as much as an hour before you did. (Read more about this in my April 23rd, 2007 column: “Cinderella, Your Clock Is Ticking.”)

3. Have your getaway car (or boat, or helicopter) ready and waiting early! Even if the party is going great, you may run out of steam. Need more convincing? Go to my June 11th, 2007 essay, “The Reception Is Dying (And So Are You) – Where’s That *%#* Limo?”

Other past columns discuss what to say – and what not to say – when making toasts (April 2nd), what songs you may want to avoid during your ceremony (and why you should) (May 28th), and even how the bride’s vote trumps everybody (February 26th, 2007).

I hope you’ll check out some of these other entries. If they save you even one preventable mistake or give you just one great idea you hadn’t considered, it will have been time well spent.

Woooops!! – NOW What Do We Do?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

I had the honor and joy to play for a 60th wedding anniversary party Saturday night. Imagine that – sixty years. Their marriage is almost eligible for Social Security!

Everything was going great, until the main course was served. I couldn’t see what happened next (but I sure did hear it.) An entire tray filled with 12 entrees of lambchops, mashed potatoes, and asparagus crashed, turning a mess of good food into just a mess.

The banquet captain passed the word to the chef instantly, and – for a few minutes – it looked like all was well. Venues routinely prepare about 5% more than the room guarantee, and – as always – there were a few no-shows. It looked like the un-damaged entrees were going to be just enough. But then, with only a few folks at one table to go, our luck ran out. It would be 15 long minutes after the last of the other guests were served before the final four received their meat ‘n taters.

And it was here that I would have made an alternate choice than did my hostess, a daughter of the honorees. As you can imagine, we had quite a few grand-kids in attendance. I would have conferred with the captain, found out exactly how many plates short we were, then told the staff not to serve the grand-kids until all of the Seniors were served.

Seniors – you see – tend to arrive early at parties, then leave early as well. As such, I think they need to be served first. The grand-kids – like all family members – were obviously going to stay to the very end. A 15 minute delay wouldn’t affect them nearly so much.

Our hostess then made a second choice that further disrupted the schedule. (And before sharing it with you, I should point out two significant facts: First, she was the boss – as such, she had every right to make whatever changes she wanted. And secondly, she may have had valid considerations for doing what she did of which I know nothing.)

Be that as it may – our hostess then elected to postpone the ceremonial cutting of the cake until the last diners were given the opportunity to finish their entrees. Doing so resulted in a number of guests missing the cake-cutting and dessert entirely. They simply said their good-byes and left, dessert-less.

Thus to accomodate the few, the majority were delayed. And the party never recovered.

My point is: “Woopsies” happen. In fact, they happen all the time. When they do, decisions that will affect the entire rest of the event must be made quickly. Knowing this to be true, I strongly recommend brainstorming in advance regarding a few possible “worst-case” scenarios. “If this happens, we’ll do that,” etc.

Lots of parties wind up needing a “Plan B.” It’s ever-so comforting to already have your Plan B (and C, and D) in place – before you ever hear the word “Wooooops!!!”

“Priming The Pump” On The Old Dance Floor

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

You can have a huge dance floor and a terrific band or deejay, but somebody still has to get the (mirror) ball rolling by actually venturing out for a dance. And – at some parties – the evening is half-over before anybody is brave enough to take a spin around the parquet.

How can you get your dance floor hopping sooner, rather than (much) later? Here are the 2 best ways I know.

1. “Prime The Pump.” Since no one ever wants to be the first and only couple dancing, get a group of your closest friends who will – together – start things happening. If you (and your partner), plus 4 key friends (and their partners) are all dancing, that’s 10 bodies – more than enough to allow your shy and retiring guests to feel like they aren’t doing a “spotlight” dance. Pick your most outgoing friends and/or experienced dancers to lead things off. Start with songs that will be known by most of your guests.

If others don’t join you soon, Plan B is to have all 10 dancers go into the crowd and bring 10 more folks onto the dance floor. This kind of “multiplication dance” is a great way to show your guests that you expect them to participate.

2. Play The Hits. At my son’s all-boy Catholic high school, dance partners had to be imported from other schools. It often took hours for any of the girls to feel comfortable enough in these strange environs to be willing to dance. But then we started asking some of the young ladies in advance what the current top songs among their classmates were. (In all honesty, what the girls liked tended to be very different than what my son and his friends enjoyed.) But that didn’t matter, once the girls started dancing to “their” music. Our boys might never have picked these particular songs, but they enjoyed the effect those tunes had on the ladies.

“Priming The Pump” and Playing The Hits will get the dancing started. To keep it going, avoid lengthy and frequent “dead spots.” Make announcements short (and rare.) When your band needs a break, plug a CD player or i-Pod into the PA. If the music never stops, the dancing won’t either.

And isnt’ that why you have a dance floor in the first place?