Like many musicians, I played my last live performance in the beginning of March before the shutdown for Covid-19 occurred in Connecticut. It was a glorious chamber concert including the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, and as we finished the program, I had no idea how long it would be before I would be playing in person again! The lockdown began shortly after that concert, and one by one orchestra concerts, choral programs, chamber concerts, educational programs, and various weddings and parties were all canceled or postponed. It was a scary time, as I know it was for so many musicians around the country and around the world, as we saw work disappear, and found ourselves unable to perform for the foreseeable future.

Two months later, as conditions eased, my first live performance began with a last-minute call from a lovely person looking to make her boyfriend’s birthday special. Would I be willing to go to his home the next day, set up my harp and a small amp in his driveway and play Happy Birthday for him? Just that one song! It would be a surprise – his son would be there, and I would call the son and let him know I was ready, and he and his Dad would come out to hear Happy Birthday! And, since his girlfriend was not able to be in the area, could I also get some balloons.

So, I called a local store and ordered balloons for a morning curbside pick-up (and found out it is somewhat distracting to drive with balloons floating around the car!) and I drove to the house. Fortunately, it was a nice day, and the driveway was flat and level, and I set up the harp about 15 feet from the front door, tuned up, tied the balloons to the front railing, and called the son. He and his father came and stood on the front step and listened and recorded me, and then we chatted from the distance. It turns out the Birthday gentleman was a well-known rap and hip-hop artist who is now known for his successful producing work, and he was surprised and delighted to hear the harp music. I played as they went back into the house, packed up and headed for home. As I drove away, I felt immensely happy to have been able to perform again – with my two songs and my audience of two. But I felt I had connected with my listeners and added something special to the day for them, and I know they had given me a gift, too!

Are you thinking of hiring a musician for an upcoming event, but you feel unsure how to evaluate a musician and don’t know what questions to ask them about their music and performance?

Here are some pointers.

How do they sound? You will want to listen to their music – recorded or live. Trust your first impressions! Even if you feel you don’t have a lot of knowledge to evaluate the sound, an untrained ear can tell a lot.

I always enjoy when I am playing and a child comes up to me, and says with a sense of surprise in their voice, “You are so good!” Reviews can be helpful, too. That tells you what people in your situation thought of the musician’s talents and how they performed their job.

Experience? The musician you are hiring should have a lot of experience and great reviews to show for it. Are you thinking of hiring a student? They will be less expensive, but less reliable, too. Finishing their term paper may be more important than showing up for your event.

What is their repertoire? Does the music speak to you? They should have lists of music for you to choose from and a wide range of music to appeal to all your guests.

Are they a full-time musician, or is music a side line? If the person you hire is a full-time musician, your event will be of prime importance to them, and not secondary to their “real” job. It also means they spend more of their time making music – so their skills are sharper, and they can devote the needed time to your event.

Their instrument? You won’t be an expert in the types of instruments available, but you can see if it is a full size, professional instrument, or a smaller model. A smaller instrument will have less sound. Does the musician have amplification? If your event will be outside or will include a large number of people, amplification is essential.

Are the musician’s materials and communication business-like? Do they respond to you in a timely way? If so, then you have a good chance the musician will also act in a businesslike manner at your function: showing up on time, dressing appropriately, interacting positively with the venue and your guests, and performing in a great way.

Do they use a contract? Remember, a contract protects the musician, but it protects you, the client, as well. 

It should include all the event details, so there are no misunderstandings.  

And what about “Contractors” – people who hire the musicians for you?  

Most contractors are not performing musicians. Perhaps they once were, or maybe they are DJs, or just work for an office that does this type of work. I find that their bottom line is rarely to find you the finest musicians; the contractor wants to find the least expensive performers so they can make a large mark up. 

They seldom ask the questions the musicians need to know about, which means you may not get what you really need. 

For instance, they could hire two people to play together who have never met, and they will be given no time to rehearse. Or they don’t ask you the details of your service, or the theme of your party, to be able to tell the musician(s) so they know what music would be best for you.

I love to hire other performers, and with my Juilliard contacts, my years performing in groups, and 20 years of running a diverse concert series, I have fabulous connections. I have organized many ensembles for events, ranging from a group of 22 musicians to perform for a wedding, a 16 piece string orchestra for a 50th Birthday Party, numerous duos and trios, string and brass groups, costumed singers, a lute player, and more.

My goal is to find great performers who are great people, totally reliable and wonderful musicians. They won’t be the least expensive, but they will be excellent! And they will have all the details they need to do a great job.

And finally, what about the fee? Perhaps that is the FIRST thing you are considering, but I’m sure you know the old saying, “You get what you pay for.” I have found it to be true in music. If you want someone who has a high level of expertise, lots of experience with high reviews to show for it, a musician who will give time and devotion to your event, and wow you and your guests, why would you expect to pay the lowest price?

Think of what music does, how it creates a mood, a feeling, an atmosphere, and how important that will be for your perfect day. And what do you think your guests will remember years from now, the special shoes you spent so much money on, or the music they all loved?

One of the things you are buying by paying a higher fee is total reliability, experience, and professionalism. Unexpected things happen in the best-planned events, but an experienced musician has dealt with the same thing before and will carry on and make it work in the most extreme circumstances. You will have many things to worry about on the day of the occasion. By paying for a full-time professional musician, music won’t be one of them.  

Do you have an important event coming up?  Perhaps you are planning a small party or an intimate wedding.   Of course, you want to make it as special as possible, even though we are in the midst of a global pandemic and social distancing is a given.

Perhaps you are trying to decide what music to include.

I have the answer!  The harp is the perfect instrument for a social distanced event.

First, it looks fabulous!  I play a concert grand harp, which is 6 feet tall and weighs 85 pounds.  Don’t worry, I have a special cart to wheel it around, and it’s something I am very used to doing.  The harp makes a statement, and it can be seen well from a distance.  The harp has 47 strings and a full range of notes, similar to the piano, so it can be played as a solo instrument with a great variety of music – classical, contemporary songs and covers, standards, Disney and other film music, Broadway tunes, as well as Celtic music, religious selections and more. 

I bring all my own equipment, and I can perform with a mask on, so I can help you to keep everyone safe.

If you wish to have more than one instrument, the harp is wonderful with violin.  Because the range of the violin’s notes are high, it is easy to hear across a big area, and it too is an expressive instrument with a diverse repertoire.  The violinist is also self-contained, and can perform with a mask on, and so it doesn’t present the infection risk of a singer or a wind instrument poses.

If the area for your event is large, we can use amplification. I have a pick up right inside my harp for a good sound, and my fee includes bringing a small amplifier.  I have a larger amplification system for a duo or trio, which can also be used to mike your vows. After all, what your guests really want to hear is your words!  I can also set it up to mike the officiant for the ceremony, or for a speech, so everyone can hear while social distancing.

The harp is also great for your Zoom event, or for a live-streamed celebration. 

I look forward to discussing this further with you!

Not long ago I received a call from a colleague who runs a very fine concert series. They had a Russian string ensemble coming from Moscow to perform in a few weeks, and she had just learned that two of the pieces they would be playing included harp. They would not be bringing a harpist from Russia, and she wondered if the date work for me – there would be one rehearsal just before the concert, and then the performance.

The date was good, and I was given the contact information for the Conductor to work out the details. Fortunately, he had lived in America for several years and spoke fluent English, so it was not hard to talk with him! Both the works I would be playing were recent contemporary works by an American composer, and one would be a US premiere, so there were not recordings available.

He emailed me the parts, and he also emailed me a video of the group rehearsing the two pieces, with the camera trained on the conductor, and with him giving cues for the harp entrances! That was a delightful surprise! I worked hard on the music and worked with that video a great deal. The day of the concert came, and I arrived early at the location – a beautiful new hall. I tuned up, and warmed up, and the time of the rehearsal’s start came and went, with no sign of the group.

They finally arrived about 20 minutes late, and the concertmaster came over and in very heavily accented, broken English, he introduced himself. I asked him what pitch they tuned to and found out it was 442! That meant a quick retuning! And then he asked me, if I could play the pieces without a conductor.

I was puzzled – especially after working so carefully with the video! Gradually I understood that he was explaining to me that the conductor had become ill and was in the hospital and would not make it that day! He told me he would give me some cues, even though one of the pieces was a violin concerto and he was the soloist! We began rehearsing.

The group was amazing – such fantastic intonation and ensemble, it was a joy to play with them, but it was certainly more challenging without the conductor! The concertmaster, and first cellist, did nod to me occasionally. When the group would stop and discuss a section, they would speak entirely in Russian! But fortunately, they did not have any corrections for me. Occasionally they would turn to me and ask, “Is okay?”

We rehearsed quite intently for about 2 hours, and we were about to stop when the composer arrived. He asked if we could play both pieces for him! So, we did! He gave us some comments, which we worked with, and then we stopped, as the concert was to begin soon! We had just a short time to eat something, change, and tune up, and begin the performance. I was very pleased with how it went, as was the audience, and the composer was pleased, too, but it was another example of never really knowing what you can expect, even when you think you have it all figured out!

Originally seen on Harpcolumn.