Your Party: Trumpets, Banjos, Violins!

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Music can make an event. I mean, make it.

I’m talking about live music, played in the moment, by actual people.

I think of a party as being made up of ‘colors’ on a three-dimensional, life-size canvas, or layers in space and time — a visual layer, a sensory layer, a taste layer and the social layer.  Several of these elements you’ll likely begin to think of right out of the box: food, decor and guests. But there’s this whole other hue, this whole other layer that can contribute so much: the sounds, the music of a party.

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The invention of recorded music gave us something marvelous: music on demand. You can plug in your iPhone or MP3 player, or fire up your parents old stereo (dare I say ‘hi-fi’?) on a moment’s notice. You can have digitized music in the car, in the elevator, in the office, in the kitchen, on your run — pretty much anywhere — whenever you want. Which is great.

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But it gave us an over-whelming quantity of choices.

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And it took something out of our lives: the intimacy, the human connection of right-in-front-of-your-eyes, watch the breathing, see the fingering, people-powered music.

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I want to argue for bringing LIVE music back to parties and events. There are so many sources for digitally reproduced music, and it’s so easy to access, very few of us experience music being played in real time by real human beings. This is a shame.

There is no thrill, no hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling like the moment a bow touches a fiddle string, or the first note comes peeling out of a trumpet.

Live music is an instant ice-breaker. Everybody arrives at a party or event feeling a tad self-conscious, a bit on guard.  But you can’t stay stressed-out for long when you literally feel the vibrations that come from a really tight band, string quartet or jazz ensemble. It just carries you off and out of yourself…

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And then, of course, there’s dancing. It’s so good for us. Even if it’s excruciating at first and we look like total dopes, we should all dance. If we all did it, no one would notice how Elaine-esque we look. (But I realize the prospect of figuring out how to get your guests to dance might send you over the edge, so unless you are planning a wedding, we’ll leave that conversation for another time.)

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Here’s the thing, musicians give us a gift like no other. When they play, they lay themselves out before us in all their human vulnerability. They put themselves on the line every time. Being a musician requires intense effort, a singular kind of concentration, and endless hours of practice.  There is risk in the moment –a leap of faith on the part of both musician and audience — and I suspect that that’s part of the thrill for both.

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Musicians must cooperate, literally harmonize with their co-workers in a way that would make any Forbes 500 CEO envious.  It’s a thing of beauty and although your guests may not consciously consider any of this, but they will ‘know’ it in their bones.

Rhythm and melody are as much a part of us as our heartbeats and voices.

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In the olden days, it would have been your neighbors, your siblings and parents, YOU, taking up the fiddle or sitting down at the piano.  Playing music together was a part of everyday life and most households had a fair-to-middlin’ musician or two in the family. There wasn’t much else to do in the evenings except maybe read aloud together (another disappearing pleasure) or whittle and sew. Everybody played and danced and sang together.

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These days too few of us have both the opportunity and the motivation to learn an instrument, or even attend a concert now and then. That makes the inclusion of live music at an event even more special, more spine-tingling.

When you’re thinking about music for your party, don’t be afraid to think out-of-the-box and go big. You might expect a string quartet or a solo guitar at a wedding. But would you expect a brass ensemble?  Or a gospel choir?  How cool would that be??

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Here in New England, many villages still have town bands made up of retired professionals and talented amateurs who get together to play just for the heck of it.  Wouldn’t it be fun for everyone to exit the church after your wedding ceremony to the sound of clarinets, flutes, drums and trombones playing When the Saints Go Marching In?

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You don’t need a wedding, by the way, to get your groove on. A cocktail party accompanied by a jazz ensemble, an anniversary dinner with a violinist wrapping sweet notes around your beloved, a birthday sing-along accompanied by accordion — for Kith & Kin, music is as essential to any kind of successful gathering as good food and wonderful company.

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There are, of course, as many different styles of music as there are kinds of people.  You might want your event to reflect your heritage, for example, or a theme, or match the origins of the cuisine you are serving.  Greek folk music, Indian sitar, Zydeco — anything can be adapted, incorporated.

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Want to have a really successful wedding? Everyone there should feel comfortable getting their groove on. There is nothing worse than having half your guests sitting on the sidelines. Want all your guests young and old to drop their inhibitions at the door and feel the exhilaration of doing the two-step? Try a Cajun band.  Or a bluegrass band. Cowboy music! Get those toes a’ tappin’.

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Big Band, Gospel, Classical — whatever your taste, whatever your tempo — spring for live music at your next party or event. Your guests will be surprised and thrilled.

Tips:

  • As always, hire reliable people, get references. (Very important to get references.)
  • Have a contract, be clear about start and end times, cost, etc.
  • Usually bands or other groups will have someone — a member or an agent — who handles bookings, contracts, payment, etc. Use that contact person for all your negotiations.
  • Ask about how many breaks they take and for how long.
  • What are their needs/expectations, if any, for food and drink to be provided by you? Do they need housing? Are travel and other expenses covered in their fee?
  • Before you sign on the dotted line, listen to the group playing music — not just the songs they will cover as played by others, but they themselves performing. Sometimes there will be sound samples on musicians’ websites (again, ask if these samples are recordings of their group rather than those of other people playing their repertoire), or they may have a video you can see. If they are performing publicly, go listen.
  • Talk about dress code. Especially if it’s a formal occasion where photographs will be taken, suggest a specific attire or color scheme. Your musicians are an integral part of the whole visual effect.

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  • Choose the right group for the kind of music you have in mind.  Many pop tunes can be successfully transcribed, but most won’t transfer well across genres. Don’t expect classically trained string quartets to do justice to Taylor Swift or rock bands to play Pachelbel. It won’t turn out as you are imagining it and it will cause the musicians to sweat unnecessarily.
  • Be prepared to pay a deposit to secure the date, and pay the balance either a week before the party or on the spot (before they begin playing). Tipping is not usually expected, but if you are especially happy with their performance, feel free.
  • If for some reason your event has to be cancelled or postponed, let them know right away.  There is a good chance you will still need to pay them as they will probably have refused other opportunities in order to put yours on their calendars. Most will work with you, however, to find an alternate date.
  • All of these specifics will/should be spelled out in the contract
  • Most important: BOOK EARLY and communicate your needs/expectations.  During wedding season in particular, the best quartets get booked months — sometimes a full year — in advance.  Talk with them about what you would like in terms of specific songs/pieces. If “your” song is not already in their repertoire, they will need time to acquire, arrange and learn it. They may charge you extra for this service. Put all of these details in writing and keep the emails. (Assume nothing.)  This will help prevent bad surprises or disappointment.

Need help in tracking down the perfect group? Or managing all these details? Call Kith & Kin. We’ll help you find the best musicians for your event, take care of all of the details, and see that your wedding/party/event is a huge hit!

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About Jane

Jane Ackerman is a writer of poetry and prose, and an event designer extraordinaire. She the creative director and CEO of Kith & Kin

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