You’re about to host your first event with live music. How do you choose the right musicians for your chosen location? I like to think of this as decorating the stage with musicians and decorating the room with sound. The instrumentation needs to work within the chosen musical theme and fit properly at the location.
Can the musicians all fit on the stage? Can they load in, set up, and perform easily? Where will you place them in terms of the main action of the event, be it a wedding ceremony, a corporate function, a fundraiser, or a big, rousing party?
Here is a 10-point litmus test for determining what kinds of vocal and instrumental combinations will work at your chosen venue:
1. Do the size of the venue and the size of the guest list make sense for the instrumentation that interests you and your client?
It might be a tight squeeze to get an eight-member octet into a little chapel that holds only 30 guests, and conversely, a solo guitarist may get lost in a reception hall that can seat 300, unless he is placed on a well-lit stage.
Note the size of the performance area. Make sure it’s on level ground and not on sand, wet grass, or a slope. Also, make sure that it isn’t near a food-service station and that it’s clear of foot traffic. Give the musicians enough space to do their job and be seen. Can you now clearly see where to place them and how many band members will fit the space?
(Rule of thumb: Each musician takes up the space of about three people who are seated and facing each other comfortably.)
2. Can your musicians see the action?
Sure your brass trio will make their presence known if they play up in the choir loft of the church or synagogue. But can they see the bride enter from there? How will they get their cues?
It’s incredibly frustrating for musicians to be placed in an area because “they’ll look pretty there,” but they cannot see the dance floor, cannot see the bride, cannot see the master of ceremonies, and cannot see someone giving them important cues regarding the agenda of the event. The dance band can’t read the crowd, can’t keep the action going, and this sets them up for failure and a dud of a party.
3. Can your musicians see their music?
Consider the lighting in the room. Adding a spotlight for your musicians allows the guests to see them, and it allows the musicians to see what they’re doing. If the event takes place outdoors, place the musicians so they’re not facing the sun. Musicians blinded by the sun may need to turn in another direction or move to another area altogether.
4. Is electricity available?
For a sizeable guest list, your musicians will need to amplify the sound so everyone can hear. Similarly, if there are sound distractions, such as street noise, they’ll need to mic their instruments. Check to determine whether electricity is available, and if so, map out where the outlets are located. Once the musicians are hired, they’ll need this information so they’ll have the proper extension cords or will know ahead of time to rely on battery-operated amplification.
5. Can the musicians easily load in?
If the musicians are forced to double park on a busy street or park three blocks away, then you may be stuck with an extra charge for their set-up time. It might be a good idea to plan to prepay your musicians’ parking lot or valet parking charges. If you don’t, then they may pass along that cost to your client, plus a bit more for their trouble.
6. Can the musicians easily get to the performance area once they have arrived at the site?
A drummer once told me, “You haven’t lived until you’ve had to climb three flights of stairs carrying a drum set.” Check to see if service elevators are available at the venue when the stage isn’t in a first-floor room. Are handicap access ramps available so that equipment can be rolled in? Some musicians will not even agree to perform if they would need to hire a team of Sherpas to carry their equipment on the long hike to the performance area. Others may only agree to do so for an extra fee.
Keep in mind: If the musicians have a difficult time accessing the event site, it’s a sure bet that other service vendors will, too. Their extra fees for setup can multiply and add to the total cost of the event. Therefore, if the client is still searching for a location and they are on a strict budget, you might want to search for event sites that can be easily accessed from the parking lot.
7. Is there shelter for your musicians?
Musicians may charge extra if they need to rent market umbrellas or tents to create shade, or if they need to bring space heaters and the like to keep warm. They may even refuse to perform at all. Most musicians will not perform in adverse weather. They aren’t being wimps when a storm looks like it’s brewing — they just don’t want to risk ruining expensive instruments and electrical equipment.
An absolutely true fact: You’ll have very happy musicians who will bend over backwards for you when you offer them the same creature comforts as your valuable clients and their guests.
8. Will the instruments stay in tune indoors?
It may look lovely to have the string quartet play in front of a blazing fireplace or a sunny window, but the climbing temperatures may throw their tuning off significantly. Air-conditioning and heating vents that blow directly at instruments can also cause tuning issues, so think about placing the band or ensemble in a temperate part of the room.
9. The most important question to consider: What is not allowed?
For a wedding, check with the celebrant or house of worship about what kind of music is not allowed or permitted. Make sure there are no restrictions or regulations about sound levels, too. Venues located within residential zones may have noise ordinances. Therefore, you may be confined to using acoustic instrumentation only (i.e., unplugged instruments).
10. Are there additional restrictions regarding music at the venue?
Ask this final question before making any final decisions on your clients’ behalf.
It’s all about common sense.
Many clients have a mental picture of what they want for their musical entertainment, but they don’t think about what will really work at the venue. What looks good may not sound good.
Expecting to place a harpist on a diving-board platform at a pool party or in a tree house overlooking a backyard wedding ceremony doesn’t make sense (I’m not making this up: these are real examples!) The instruments are as sensitive as the human beings who play them. They don’t want to be relegated to playing in the restroom of a restaurant because there’s no room for them inside the banquet hall. (Yes, this is another real example.)
The adverse conditions I’ve described aren’t always a problem. For instance, a bagpiper can march over hill and dale on a chilly autumn morning. And when a piano is available at the venue, the pianist can simply arrive with sheet music in hand, so loading zones and easy access is immaterial.
It’s all about spending a little extra time to examine the space for the performers. Pretend that you’re the performer for the event, put yourself in their place, and offer them the same comforts you would offer the guests in attendance. Then, you’ll be spot-on to know exactly what instrumentation to recommend to your clients.