Archive for August, 2009

Hard Times Are GOOD Times For Bargain Hunters!

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

In the classic Western, The Magnificent 7, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen – as Chris and Vin – approach gunfighter Bernardo Reilly about joining their team. Reilly, played by Charles Bronson, is chopping wood for his supper. But he speaks with pride about the $600 he was paid for one job and the $800 he received for another. He’s obviously a man who – in the past – was paid a lot of money. Chris tells him, “The job pays $20.” Bernardo first scoffs at the low pay, but then he puts down his ax and says, “Right now – $20 is a lot of money.”

These days, party professionals in general and music providers in particular can identify with Bronson’s comment. They too are accomplished veterans, highly regarded within their industry, and have earned big bucks for their efforts in the past.

But that was then. Today is another story.

Right now, if you are willing to work with them regarding the date of your event, you should be pleasingly surprised how far your entertainment dollar will go. Saturday nights in the very near future, or less than prime times months from now, are selling at discounted rates for the simple reason that event specialists would rather work for less than to not work at all.

One caveat: don’t expect much of a deal on the first and second weekends in December, or on New Year’s Eve. But that open Saturday three weeks from now could be yours for a steal.

Hard times impact the party business more than the neighborhood grocery store or gas station. You’ve got to eat, and your car has to have gas, but you can scale down a party (or even cancel it altogether.) So event professionals are among the first to feel the effects of any economic downturn.

Go ahead, then. Ask a music provider or caterer what they can do for you in your budget range. Chances are very good that they will be thrilled to work with you. Because Charles Bronson was correct: “Right now – $20 is a lot of money.”

The WORST Songs Ever!

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Earlier today, my music-loving pastor asked me – as a guy who plays tunes for a living, as opposed to for my own enjoyment – which songs I’d be happy to never play again. After reflecting on that question for a few hours, I’ve decided that my “List of the Least” would have to fall into 3 categories:

1. Ubiquitous melodies. Joy To The World (“Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”), Tie A Yellow Ribbon, and Feelings (“Woah-oh-oh…”) were so overplayed for so long that – whatever their merits – I just got sick to death of playing them. Even truly beautiful songs like Unchained Melody (the Righteous Brothers hit featured in Ghost) can and have been worn out, simply from excessive use.

2. Over-dramatic tunes. Lushly produced, hyper-emotional songs (pretty much anything by Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, and Barry Manilow) get really old, really fast. And so did New York, New York (about 30 years ago, and ever since.) The fact is, all these hits are much more showcases for the vocal chops and technique of their singers than they are great songs. I think it’s instructive that the 2 best known purveyors of New York, New York (Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra) are both Academy Award-winning actors. Given one of these talents, a 36-piece orchestra, and enough reverb, even Itsy Bitsy Spider could be a show-stopper.

3. Just plain lame songs. “In the desert, you can’t remember your name, ’cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.” (Aah – where should I even begin with this one?) This excerpt from the ’70s hit Horse With No Name tortures its syntax, uses double negatives, and displays a total logic lobotomy – all to set up a rhyme that doesn’t rhyme!

But my vote for the Worst Lyrics Ever is this verse from another ’70s classic, Put Your Hand In The Hand Of The Man. “Every time I look into the Holy Book, I wanna tremble / When I read about the part where the Carpenter cleared the temple / ‘Cause the buyers and the sellers were no different fellers than what I profess to be / And it causes me pain to know I’m not the man that I should be.”

This song was a huge hit. And we who made its composers rich deserved more than them (not) rhyming “tremble” with “temple.” Secondly, last I heard, Joseph was the carpenter, Jesus was a rabbi (teacher.) Next, the buyers and the sellers were only “no different fellers” if you like the idea of attending worship services where the Eucharist is brought to you by Pepsi-Cola. And finally, the composers set up the verse to end with a rhyme for the word “be.” They had an alphabet full of options to work with, including “me,” “see,” and every adverb ending in -ly. So which of the dozens of possibilities did they choose to rhyme with “be?” Why – be, of course! (At least it actually did rhyme, though I suspect Cole Porter rolled over in his grave a few times.)

But now that I’ve given you my non-hit parade, I would ask you to please remember that – if you hire me – you can feel free to request any of these songs you wish. (And Ring My Bell. And Torn Between Two Lovers, To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before, and… )

“Follow My Path”

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I “got away from it all” this past weekend at one of the growing number of religious retreats organized and led by the lay members of congregations. For Protestants, “The Walk To Emmaus” is a popular program of this type, while Catholics may attend similar sessions called ACTS (for Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service). What these and other such spiritual getaways have in common are a peer-run opportunity for reflection and renewal. (Lev Shalom, which is Hebrew for “heart peace,” has a related goal, but is led by rabbis).

Over a period of 60+ hours, veterans of previous weekends who were otherwise ordinary husbands and fathers like me (the ladies go to separate gatherings) shared their insights and testimonies with us new guys – who are known as “retreatants” or “pilgrims,” depending on the program. All of the stories touched me, but none more than the farmer who told of the joy he found as a small boy, riding on the tractor with his dad. Ultimately the day came when his father made the first few circuits of a field, then moved to one side and invited his son to sit behind the wheel. The son asked “What should I do?” And the patient father pointed at the rows already sown and replied, “Just follow my path.”

Those four words had an immediate and tangible impact on the crowd, dads and Believers (or at least Seekers), all. Ironically, in the discussion that followed, I got the impression that our presenter may not have realized their profundity. To him, he was just quoting what his own dad had said.

But the truth is, our children, students, and those who work for us do follow our paths, learning by our example. The challenge for us is to be sure that the lessons we teach are good, and are the ones we intended. And for that, we have examples of our own to guide us. The Torah, Bible, Koran, and Tao each offer lessons in following our Father’s path. (in fact – one common translation of “Tao” is: “path.”)

Weekend retreats “out of town” aren’t required for re-dedication. But – sometimes – the best way to find the right path is to get off the beaten one. I am so glad that I did.

Tag-Team Hosting

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

At most parties, the guests drift in through much of the first hour. Consequently, many hosts and hostesses make themselves available to “work the door,” greeting each new arrival.

Similarly, the final hour of a typical event sees a fairly steady stream of guests exiting. Since they naturally want to thank their hosts before leaving, the hosts are once again at the door and away from their other guests.

In between the start and finish of the evening, lots of parties tend to spread out from room to room, or even indoors and out. No matter how easy a great hostess may make it look, seeing to the needs of many guests over a large area is a daunting task.

So I was terribly impressed last Saturday night by the beautifully coordinated “tag-team” approach to hosting that I witnessed at a house party honoring a golden anniversary. Early on, one of the honorees was always at the door to make each of their special friends and family members feel welcome. But they took turns, relieving each other every ten minutes or so. This allowed the hostess to frequently check the status of the canapes – her special province. After floating around the room, she took over door duties for her husband – whose area of concern was the bar.

When the buffet opened in the second hour, about half the crowd took their plates outside to sit at tables around the swimming pool. The rest of the guests were about equally divided between the living and dining rooms inside. Once again, our host and hostess took turns, neither staying in nor out for too long, and thus making sure that every single guest got “face time” with their hosts.

Not long after the ceremonial cutting of the cake, I noticed that our hostess had casually taken up station at a spot convenient to those who were the first to leave. She didn’t actually stand at the door – that might have been interpreted as inviting guests to leave. Rather, she simply picked a location that made her easy to see for those who chose to leave early. And soon – sure enough – her husband took over for her.

I never thought to ask them whether their choreography was something they had planned beforehand, or was merely the result of 50 years of learning how to read each other’s minds. Either way, their subtle-yet-sophisticated choreography ensured that no one ever had to go looking for their hosts in order to say “hello,” “goodbye,” or “congratulations!”

The Room Looks Great – But How Does It SOUND?

Monday, August 17th, 2009

My town has some beautiful venues for special events – the recently restored Union Station, our art museum, and the lovely Art Deco Centennial Hall at Fair Park, to name a few. One offers lovely vistas of the downtown area, the second puts you up close and personal with Monet and Van Gogh, while the third’s architecture takes you to back to the 1930s glamor of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Each is wonderful in its own way, and each lends its own special character to your event.

There’s just one eensy teensy little problem with these – and other, similar – venues: they were never acoustically designed as ballrooms, and they get very loud (as well as very echo-y), very fast.

This poses no problem to the hostess who imports a string quartet for the evening, and schedules no speeches by or for the honorees. Light music (harp or piano are also great) bounces off the stone walls and drifts around the venue, setting an elegant mood.

Unfortunately, loud music is amplified by the hard surfaces, which makes your guests have to shout to hear each other, which then further increases the overall decibel level to the pain threshold and beyond. Speeches become unintelligible jumbles of primary and reflected noise.

So – if you’re planning to have a band and/or speeches at your event – consider a good old-fashioned ballroom for your venue. Most were designed with a comfortable blend of surfaces creating an acoustically neutral environment. Rim shots from the drummer will be heard once, not infinitely. And the spoken word will be understood throughout the room.

What you don’t want is for your guests to say (or shout) to each other, “You know? As a ballroom, this place makes a great train station!”

Making The Cash Register Ring

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

My professional career started out in piano bars. At one such establishment, I was hoping to curry favor with club owner Mickey Bickers by playing his favorite song. So I asked him, “What do you want to hear?” Mickey’s answer struck me as profound: “David,” he said. “I want to hear the cash register ring.”

Through the years, I’ve learned that – not just club owners – but every hostess and party professional wants that same thing. They want an evening that will be so wonderful that all their guests will have their best time ever. However, in order to make that happen, they must do what Mickey did: tailor each event – start to finish – to the invited guests.

Example: This past New Year’s Eve, my band was hired to play at one of my town’s “old money” country clubs. That wasn’t unusual – but the hours were. For the first time ever, we were engaged to play from 7PM until 11:00. Or – to state it another way – we were supposed to quit, one hour before the New Year actually arrived.

I thought it was crazy. As it turned out, it was brilliant. A big screen television hung behind us. At one minute ’til 11:00, the TV was turned on, just in time to see Dick Clark emcee the dropping of the ball in Times Square. (I live in the Central Time Zone, an hour earlier than New York City.) My guests cheered, the band played “Auld Lang Syne,” and – after dancing in “the new year” (well – it was 2009 somewhere) – the happy guests all went home.

The country club – knowing their (older) audience well – had given them all the trappings of a traditional New Year’s Eve celebration, but had done so on the schedule which best suited their crowd.

Other ways to keep almost everybody happy, almost all the time, include moving wedding receptions along according to the guests’ inner clocks, not those of the bride and groom (who are always the last to arrive at the party), and matching the musical volume and repertoire to the age and tastes of the majority.

Party planners want their guests to have a great time. What not all realize, however, is that audience enjoyment depends far less on how much money the host spends, than on how well they match the pace of their event to the needs and likes of those they have invited.

If every host and hostess had a Mickey Bickers to set them on the right path, there would be a lot more “perfect” parties.

Who’s In Charge Here?

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Great parties look effortless, as they seem to float airily from start to finish. The hostess never breaks a sweat, yet – somehow – glasses are miraculously refilled at exactly the right moment, and used dishes disappear from the table (yet don’t stack up in the sink.)

Perhaps the most impressive feat of prestidigitation at parties is the way the various mile markers of the evening always occur at exactly the right moment. Whether it is the arrival of the main course or the toast to the guests of honor, the evening just flows.

Of course the truth is that terrific parties, like all great theatrical productions, must have a strong director at the helm. It may be the hostess herself – or the professional party planner of her choice – but you can be sure that somebody is behind that curtain, ensuring that Mr. Murphy and his Law are kept at bay.

From my vantage point as the hired music provider at these events, the two biggest impediments I see to great parties are (1.) the “too many cooks” phenomenon, and (2.) the “absentee host.”

Too many cooks (also known as “too many chiefs, and not enough Indians”) have ruined more parties than I care to remember. Competing visions have never resulted in an event which is memorable for good reasons. Where multiple strong personalities are involved (such as in committee-driven soirees), the only hope for salvaging the evening is to put one of those driven souls in charge of a single aspect (ie. the Silent Auction, or the desserts), while focusing another’s attention on something completely separate. Even then, the party will only succeed with one strong – and tactful – hand at the helm.

The Absentee Host is the one who is enjoying their own party so much, that no one is driving. Glasses don’t get refilled, and dirty dishes don’t go away. The hostess who wants a responsibility-free evening (yet also a successful event) should hire a party professional to take charge of the million and one details.

My thesis, then, is this: really great parties don’t just “happen,” and they don’t have two or more chief executives. They have one boss tasked with ultimate responsibility for the event’s success. Any less is too few. And any more is a recipe for disaster.

Have Keyboard – Will Travel

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Nothing will ever replace a well-tuned grand piano for classy music. Not only does it sound great, but it is also a very handsome piece of furniture.

Unfortunately, 8-foot long pianos don’t fit into some playing spaces. And – without enormous (and ugly) casters – they don’t move easily, either.

Today’s electronic keyboards, on the other hand, sound like a concert grand (plus hundreds of other things), and move both quickly and easily. In fact, at a wedding reception this past Saturday, I had less than 5 minutes to move from inside the venue to outside for the Great Escape of the bride and groom. I made it with time to spare, and was in position and playing as the couple departed.

But – let’s be real. I’ve never heard anyone call an electronic keyboard “handsome”. So, what should you do when a keyboard fits your needs and space, but not your vision of the event?

I recommend camouflage. A nice floral arrangement in front of the keyboard hides dings, wires, and the other less-than beautiful trappings of electronic hardware. Also, keyboards are easily transported upstairs to landings and balconies where their music can be heard everywhere, without the keyboard being in the immediate sight-lines of your guests.

Finally, keyboards are never out of tune – another shortcoming of the acoustic piano. All they need is a convenient electrical outlet to make their joyful noise.

So, if you have access to a beautiful grand piano, savor it. But – if your music source needs to travel, to fit into a small space, or if you don’t have a concert grand around the house – a good modern keyboard is a wonderful option.

Introducing The Wedding Party? Get Hooked On Phonics!

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

At many receptions, the entire wedding party is announced by an emcee who has never met those he is introducing. This is one of the few times in the entire evening when everyone is guaranteed to be paying attention, putting pressure on the announcer.

Which brings me to what I call “The Von Zell Effect” (named for Harry Von Zell, who introduced Herbert Hoover to a nationwide radio audience with these words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Hoo-bert Hee-ver.”)

The Von Zell Effect states that – under pressure – any name which can be mispronounced, will be.

Now, if everyone in your bridal party has names like “Mike Smith,” you’re probably okay. But all it takes is one “Shanequia Levine” and you are guaranteed to break out in a cold sweat, just waiting to see if your emcee makes it through.

That is, you’ll be sweating it unless you have learned one very important fact: your emcee couldn’t care less how those names are spelled. He just needs to know how to pronounce them.

A few days before the event, determine which groomsmen and bridesmaids will be paired. Figure out your order of introduction. (Don’t forget the proud parents.)

Then, look at each and every name on the list. Simply put, is there any way to mispronounce some of the names? If so, write them phonetically. Be sure to also capitalize the dominant syllables, ie. shah-NEEK- kwee-yah and luh-VEEN (unless it’s luh-VINE.)

Type – don’t write – the list. Use a large size of type (16 or greater.) Afterwards, Email or fax the list to your emcee. By phone, go over the names – aloud – with him or her in advance of your event.

IMPORTANT: keep a copy of the list for yourself. Be sure that you line up everyone to be introduced in their proper order.

With a little advance preparation on your part, all of your guests will hear the names of your key players pronounced correctly. (Even Hoobert Heever!)