Archive for May, 2008

Ask Your Vendors The Jimi Hendrix Question: “Are You Experienced?”

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Fact Number 1: Most brides (and many of their moms) have very strong opinions as to what they do and don’t want at their weddings and receptions.
Fact Number 2: Most brides (and many of their moms) have never personally planned any event as big as one of today’s weddings.

It is precisely because the majority of brides and moms are both opinionated and inexperienced (which is a potentially volatile combination) that I posed the question which appears in the title of this entry.

As the two of you sort through venues, musicians, florists, decorators, cake bakers, limo services, calligraphers, photographers, videographers, et al, you will repeatedly be called upon to either (a.) agree with suggestions these wedding and party professionals have made, or (b.) over-rule their ideas.

Either option creates a dilemma for you. If you agree too easily (when – deep down – you don’t really agree), you’ll wind up with a wedding that reflects the pro’s personality more than your own. But – to arbitrarily disagree with a veteran’s suggestions is also risky.

Which is why you should get in the habit of asking everybody about their experience.

Some venues go through employees constantly, while others have the knack of hanging on to their best workers. By asking the chef how long the banquet captains have been at this particular hotel or restaurant, you can quickly get a pretty reliable idea of whether the staff at your event will be made up of “old pros” or “new kids.”

When visiting with a prospective bandleader, inquire how long the various musicians have worked together, how many songs they know, and how many weddings they’ve played as a unit. If your wedding has an ethnic component (like Jewish or Greek, for instance), ask pointed questions to ensure that the combo you choose knows as much of that style of music as you wish to hear.

When interviewing possible vendors, describe in detail your vision of the evening, then solicit their responses to your plans.

In general, I’d say that if a pro can’t give you a specific reason why not to use one of your ideas, then you should feel free to give it a go. But – in general – if your vendor does have a concrete objection (based on previous experience) to one of your preferences, then you should listen to them.

Run your ideas past all the vendors you are considering. Chances are good that you will hear some responses over and over again. If several different party professionals warn against certain ideas you have proposed, that is a very good sign that you might want to re-think your plans.

Surviving your wedding will give you volumes of experience. But for now, your party’s success depends on blending what you think with what your vendors know. Which is all the more reason for you to ask them – up front – what in their work history makes their opinions more valid than your own.

A wise pro always listens to the bride’s ideas. In turn, wise brides heed the experience of their chosen pros.

Touch Base With Your Vendors, One Last Time!

Monday, May 26th, 2008

My first Memorial Day job was a 9:30AM visit to Vickery Towers, a local Senior residence. I’ve played there many times before, and thought I knew my around. I thought wrong.

Since my last visit in December, they’ve done a lot of remodeling. The doorway I always used to use to bring in my equipment no longer exists. So – figuring I had a 50/50 chance of being correct – I rolled my gear to the closest opening east of the old entrance.

Naturally, as Horace Greeley could have told me, I should have gone west, old man. I wound up taking a tour of the facility, which would have been very nice – had I not been rolling a few hundred pounds of keyboard and PA with me.

All of this could have been prevented by a single phone call before I ever left the house. Or – if I’d had the common sense to bring their phone number with me – I could have phoned inside, after seeing the changes to the exterior.

As it was, nobody was hurt but me. The program still started on time, and my employers were not inconvenienced in the slightest. The only person who was put to any extra trouble was yours truly – and I deserved it. It can be reasonably argued that – after surviving almost 4 decades in the music business – I should have known better (which is to say: I should have called ahead to double-check on the details.)

Yes – if you wish to be co-dependent with me – you might argue that my contact at the venue (who was aware of the new load-in) should have called me. And sometimes, when details change, venues and/or employers do phone or e-mail to let me know. But saying that it would have been nice to have received a notification for today’s job does not alter the fact that – as a professional – it was my job to stay on top of the details.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is everybody’s duty – and is in everyone’s direct interest – to keep apprised of the minutiae. I suspect that – if we really made a study of it – we would discover that more job specs change (even if it is only something as minor as a slightly earlier start) than stay the same.

So my New Year’s Resolution – okay, make that New Fiscal Year’s Resolution – is to save myself a world of grief, just by checking in one last time. When a simple phone call can prevent a world of confusion, then that is something I need to do.

And frankly, so do you.

Trust Me – When I Turn Down Work, There’s A Good Reason

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

I used to attend church with a sweet lady who – upon learning that I’m an itinerant musician – said: “Oh, I’d love to be like you, and only work when I want to!”

What that dear lady failed to understand is that, every single time the phone rings, I want to work. My wish is that I’ll be available on their date, my hope is that my fee will be within their budget, and – most of all – my fervent prayer is that my talents will be a good fit for their needs.

Alas, it is not always so.

I’m fortunate that usually, when I’m already booked on their date, most clients will accept that fact and allow me to recommend other acts. And – on those occasions when their budget is too low for us to reach an accomodation – the majority of my callers understand if I must decline. Where I run into problems constantly is with the third category – my talents fitting their needs.

It is a wonderful compliment when a potential customer thinks I can do almost anything. Would that it were true. But the sad fact is, no performer is right for every occasion. And – like many of my competitors – I’ve learned (the hard way) exactly how far the outer limits of my ability to please a crowd can be pushed. I know where the boundary line is, and I’m very careful not to cross it. That’s why – if what you are seeking doesn’t sound like me to me – I am going to politely (but firmly) decline your sweet and generous offer.

This is for your sake and mine. You are the immediate beneficiary. When I say no to you, I will try my best to point you toward someone who is as close to perfect for your needs as is within my power to do. So you are a winner in this transaction. But saying “no thanks” to your money is ultimately a good business decision for me, as well. No responsible professional knowingly puts himself into a situation where failure is virtually guaranteed, because it is toxic to future employment.

Unfortunately, even when I am convinced that it is in both the client’s and my best interests to pass up a job offer, the customer frequently fails to agree. I had such a caller today. She was absolutely convinced that I would put on the best of all possible “Oktoberfest” programs. No matter how articulately I pointed out that our town has many fine oom-pah bands (complete with lederhosen and dirndls), she still wanted yours truly. After about 12 negative responses, she did get the message. But I don’t think she ever got the point: if I’d thought I had any chance at all of getting away with being “Herr Dave And His Majik Accordion,” I would have gladly agreed to do the job. I said “no” for the simple reason that I would have been terrible.

So, the next time you call me (or any other entertainer), and the “no” you receive has nothing to do with a prior booking or finances, take it from “Herr Dave:” I’m honored that you called, and I hate like the dickens to have to turn down your beautiful money. I did it to keep me from ruining your party.

Some day – you’ll thank me.

When Your Guests Are Happy, EVERYBODY’S Happy

Monday, May 19th, 2008

It’s great to have a vision of how your party should be – to imagine the event from start to finish, picturing the decor, food, and music. Such visions tend to give a unifying thread to the evening, and often lead directly to the party’s success.

Unless your vision clashes with that of your guests.

Bluntly put, no party ever succeeded (or ever could) when the collective will of the guests was ignored. For instance, many gatherings bring together old friends or relatives who haven’t seen each other in a long time. It’s only natural that these guests should want to visit (at least for the first part of the evening.)

With this in mind, it is almost always a mistake to let musical entertainment, a program/series of speeches, or a video presentation interfere with your guests’ desire to catch up on what has been happening in each others’ lives.

At weddings, anniversaries, and reunions, a video doesn’t need sound, especially during the cocktail or dinner hours. Let it play silently, so that your guests can talk without shouting over the audio track.

Nor does a band or deejay need much volume early in the evening. Most audiences don’t dance until after dessert. Keep the music low until then.

Another way that your guests’ vision can conflict with your own is in the selection of songs.

At a gathering where I entertained this past weekend, my boss asked the guests (who had come to Texas from most – it seemed – of the 50 states) to request their favorite songs. One suggested “New York, New York,” which prompted a barrage of good-natured song titles celebrating other parts of the country (“Chicago,” “California, Here I Come,” and even “On Wisconsin.”) I was willing and able to accomodate them, but my employer nixed the idea. These were not the types of songs the boss had envisioned.

Of course, when the person with my check said “No,” I was obligated to honor those wishes. But it would not have been my choice to solicit requests, then say – in effect – “oh, but not your songs.”

Understandably, the mood of the party changed, and not for the better. It struck me as a classic case of “Vision Wars.” To prevent the same thing from ruining your next party, I suggest leaving a little room for something spontaneous that was not part of your original plan. Time after time in my professional life, it has been just such unexpected moments that have proved most treasured by guests and hosts alike. It’s like the short side trip that makes a whole journey worthwhile.

And if it makes your guests happy, then you should be happy, too. After all – didn’t your envision a PERFECT party?

How Big Should Your Dance Floor Be?

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

In the best of all possible worlds, your dance floor should be big enough to accomodate every single guest at the same time.

Indeed – at Jewish weddings – it is customary for virtually everyone present to join in the dancing of the hora, a joyous circular folk dance. At some of the Greek events I’ve attended, even being a Scots-Irish Baptist hasn’t exempted me from being pulled out of my chair and into the “Opa!!”-shouting throng doing their Zorba routines (it’s a movie reference – ask your grandmother).

At such gatherings, unless one is physically unable to join in, failure to do so is a breach of hospitality. Consequently, dance floors at these ethnic conclaves tend to be huge. And for me – huge dance floors are a good thing. Why?

1. They basically tell your guests that you want and expect lots of dancing.

2. When placed in front of the bandstand, they provide a buffer between bands and guests. (Nobody has a PA speaker blasting away 5 feet from their seat.)

Also, Tanner’s Law Number 7 says: the more people who are dancing, the more folks will join them. A lot of shy violets would never be the first or only couple on the dance floor, but love to dance “anonymously” in the middle of the crowd. In this way, a medium crowd of 20 dancers often doubles, then doubles again (as the very “shyest” of violets finally venture into the mosh pit.)

Conversely, a dinky dance floor sends the message that very little terpsichorean activity is anticipated or desired.

Of course, not every venue (or budget) allows for “the best of all possible worlds.” Sometimes, you just have to make do with what dance space is available. Under such circumstances, all I can suggest is that – if you really do want dancers – you should make every effort to save as much room as is practical for them.

They will thank you. And they will make your event into a PARTY!

Why Add WEATHER To Your List Of Potential Party Problems?

Monday, May 12th, 2008

My band is booked for a college reunion next Saturday which will be held at an outdoor venue – the patio of a new upscale hotel/condo complex. The site was donated, and thus will cost the alumni absolutely nothing. My concern is that the grads may get exactly what they paid for.

Anyone familiar with my almost-insanely optimistic world view might ask, what could make “Mr. Pollyanna” so cranky? (I mean – aside from the fact that nobody bothered to mention it was an outdoor reception until after the contracts were signed?)

First of all, it is – as I said – al fresco. This past weekend in Dallas, we had a hot, sticky, and ultimately stormy Saturday, followed by a night where the low dipped to 58 degrees. (Hey – it’s Texas, ya’ll.) Next week, what our weather will be is anybody’s guess. Because their event is outside, our out of town reunion-eers will have to pack party clothes for evening temperatures that could range from the low 60s to the high 80s. Humidity may also be a factor in the Misery Index. If we were indoors, both the temperature and humidity would be predictably comfortable.

Secondly, this particular patio in no way resembles a ballroom. We will be surrounded on all sides by brick, steel, and glass, with no sound-absorbing tiles, carpet, or drapes to muffle the din of 150 conversations (not to mention: the band). Even if my musicians keep a tight rein on the decibels, this promises to be one very loud party.

Finally, there are other practical considerations. Where are the potties, and how roomy are they? If they are anything like the electricity at the site (only a single receptacle at the far end of a long hallway), we will see a lot more folks dancing the “Pit-Stop Polka” than any ballroom moves.

Of course, the whole affair could turn out perfectly. (And I could win the lottery – but I’m not quitting my night job just yet.) In fact, a local meteorologist once told me that Dallas has – on average – 30 perfect evenings a year. But out of 365 days on the calendar, that puts the odds at 12 to 1 that some weather phenomenon – even if it’s just the threat of rain – will adversely affect the evening (or the party planners’ digestion.) How would you like 12 to 1 odds working against the success of your next party?

Let’s face it – even when the vagaries of Texas Weather are eliminated as a source of trepidation, indoor events can still have other worry-inducing issues. That’s why – in my opinion – adding one additional uncontrollable factor to fret over makes the idea of a free outdoor venue worth exactly what was paid for it.

Next time you see me, ask me how I really feel about it.

Party Economics, 101

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Most big decisions at most big parties ultimately come down to money. From how many guests to invite, to where to have your event, and from the decor to the menu itself – few of us are so flush that we can totally escape the cost factor. Sooner or later, we must make hard choices that can take a lot of the fun out of the party – at least for a while.

This is especially true when it comes to your entertainment. Last night, I set up my portable piano in the 5th floor lobby of a high-rise office building. The occasion was a gathering of the board of directors of our local annual film festival. To be honest, I was their second choice – and a distant second at that. What they had really wanted was very classy harp music. But 1st-class harpists who can play 2 straight hours of movie themes are a rare commodity in my town, and thus are able to command a steep price. Pianists – on the other hand, and on a Tuesday night – are plentiful. It’s simply a matter of supply and demand.

Besides, let’s face it: a portable keyboard ain’t a Steinway concert grand. I understand perfectly well that my instrument was something less than my hosts had originally had in mind. But, on this occasion, the financial realities worked in my favor. And, once I started interacting with the audience, my bosses seemed happy things had worked out the way they did.

On a related note – once upon a time, good bands were expensive and deejays were (relatively) cheap. Today, neither of those statements are necessarily true. On Saturday nights, a top deejay (with all the lights and sound gear, plus extra bells and whistles) can now cost as much as a good 4-piece variety band. How can this be?

Again – simple economics. Any town’s top deejays are entertainers, not just song spinners. Like the harpists mentioned above, the cream of the crop are a rare – and therefore expensive – breed. Their weekend evenings tend to book a full year in advance. But all major U.S. cities have tons of musicians – especially, older musicians aged 40 and up.

Because of their age (and age alone), these veteran musicians – no matter how accomplished they are – are going to be in less demand for weddings and other parties where younger folks will be in attendance. Most of their Saturdays will not book a year in advance. Some weeks, they won’t book at all. It makes them do two things, both of which benefit you the buyer: 1.) They will work harder than younger bands would (or even could). And 2.) they will work with you on pricing in a way that the town’s top DJ or hot young band won’t even consider.

This is an opportunity for you to have the financial realities in your favor. Those seasoned bands may strike you at first the same way my portable keyboard did to my employers last night. But, when you consider everything they offer you – dollar for dollar, and in terms of a solidly professional performance – you may make the same decision that my employers did. Like them, you could soon be very glad that you chose to get the most for your money (even if it’s not the newest and shiniest.)

Sometimes, The Audience Says “No” To A Program

Monday, May 5th, 2008

I was once introduced by a Program Chairperson/Drill Sergeant, who admonished the crowd with these words: “Turn off your cell phones, turn your chairs around this away, and be quiet! I want to hear what our speaker has to say, and I don’t want any chatter from you interfering with my concentration.”

It was both gratifying and slightly embarassing at the same time. Fortunately, everyone in the crowd knew and adored the lady/Drill Sergeant, so they cheerfully did as she ordered.

At one job this weekend, I would have given anything to have had her introduce me again. The crowd, 300+ lady conventioneers, were having a final brunch together before heading back to their homes. They had already sat quietly for a series of speakers throughout the previous 2 days, and had only just returned from a church service. A significant portion of them (roughly half) were far more interested in chatting with one another, than in listening to yet another speaker. So, chat away is exactly what they did.

Some crowds take a while to settle down. But usually – if I persevere – within a few minutes, they will cease and desist, then listen to the program. On those occasions when one or two die-hard talkers don’t get the message, the other guests will often “shhh” them.

That didn’t happen today. In fact, the general level of noise in the room only grew as I continued. That’s when it dawned on me that a 35 to 45-minute program might not have been the best idea for this particular audience. Nice background music, to which anyone could choose to listen – or not – would probably have been better.

If you find yourself in the position of today’s Event Chairman, planning a dinner and deciding what – if any – entertainment to offer, here are a few suggestions:

1. First, give serious thought to whether this is a situation where your guests will want to sit back and be entertained, or whether they would prefer to engage one another in conversation.

2. If you do decide on a program, be aware that your speaker/entertainer expects and deserves a basic level of courtesy from the audience. Jokes whose punchlines can’t be heard aren’t funny. Song lyrics and meaningful information which are muffled by crowd noise are lost.

3. Finally, it is rude – both to the speaker and to those in the audience who are actually trying to listen – to have ongoing chatter in the room. It is no different than if someone sat down in front of you in a movie theater, then yakked all through the feature.

How do you prevent such occurrences? Well, you might try simply imparting your expectations to the crowd with an introduction like this: “And now it’s time for the moment we’ve been waiting for – our Program. I’ve told our speaker that we have the most attentive and courteous audience he will ever see. I know you won’t let me down.”

If that doesn’t work for you, I can give you the number of a lady Drill Sergeant.