So You Want to Make a Living with the Guitar
Survival Strategies for Classical Guitarists, Part 3
by Daniel Roest
This month I'll get into more detail on what to do and how to do it in performing, including repertoire, gear, clothes, and how to adapt to the many situations you're likely to encounter.
Prepare for Success!
Let's say you're booked for a solo or duo wedding gig: what are the items you need to bring? Here's a list of gear, most of which I keep near the car:
Arriving on Time
- Pickup or mic and its cable
- Mic stand
- Double wide music stand (for duo)
- Guitar stand
- Amp or PA
- Speaker cables and power cord
- PA speaker stands
- Extension cord
- Power strip
- Luggage cart
- Portable CD or digital player and RCA line out, extra batteries
- Para Acoustic DI signal processor
- Reverb unit and cables
- Non-memorized music in three-ring binders - clips to hold music in breeze
- One binder for the ceremony at weddings, with music in order to be played
- Contract, gig details, map/directions
- Business cards, brochures
- Cell phone, wallet, phone list, glasses, water, power bars/quick energy snacks, digital camera, nail care/repair kit
- The guitar (I actually arrived at one gig without it!)
This is very important: Have the car gassed up and completely ready to go. Leave earlier than you think it will take to get there - your clients deserve the peace of mind you promised, not your explanations of why you were late (traffic, had to find gas, batteries, etc.) Do a map search or whatever you need to get clear on how to get there. If you leave enough travel time, not only will you avoid the stress of running late, but you will carry that unstressed vibe into the gig.
Part of your work starts way before the gig - it's getting clothes that suit your professional persona. Pay equal attention to your grooming. For classical players, dressing as well or better than the guests is an advantage. If you go all the way to tuxedo level, please do it right - iron or dry clean the tuxedo shirt, get patent leather shoes, studs and cufflinks, bow tie and cummerbund. I have three levels of dress: nice casual (the picture above was at an art gallery opening), suit (below) with a variety of shirts and ties, and the tux.
On the job with flutist Francesca Anderson. Flute and guitar is a lovely combination.
Don't let the client put you out in the sun - it's not good for you or your instrument. You can specify the need for shade in outdoor locations in the contract. I keep my best concert guitar at home and use my main gigging and teaching guitar on gigs- an early 70's Japanese model with a cedar top, rosewood back and sides and warm tone; its tough polyurethane finish can take the heat and cold on outside jobs. It has an under-saddle piezo pickup, but I use an LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI to tweak the EQ and an outboard reverb unit to fine tune the final signal.
I carry a small PA system (Fender Passport 150), and one of the first tasks at the venue is to secure an outlet and test it. If it's not hot, you need to deal with it immediately. I like the Passport because it's light and powerful enough to cover a large outdoor area and the speakers mount easily on speaker stands. These will help spread your signal evenly over the crowd. The next task is a sound check. Activate a portable CD or digital player through your sound system so you can walk around and check the EQ and volume.
I allow at least a half hour for setup. As an extra service and for a small charge, you can provide your clients with a microphone and amplification for their use; not every wedding couple or officiant will have that detail covered. Be pleasant to everybody you encounter, including other service vendors. They're likely to remember you (especially if you exchange cards), and how you comport yourself is as important as how you play. At weddings, be sure to speak to the officiant prior to the ceremony. Introduce yourself and confirm the cues for the processional and recessional, and if requested, any mid-ceremony selections.
Delivering the Goods
Being in tune is extremely important. Don't change your (nylon) strings the day of the gig! Change your trebles a week earlier, basses three days earlier. Check the major thirds between D and F# (4th and 1st strings), A and C# (5th and 2nd), E and G# (6th and 3rd). Keep the EQ mellow - don't let the high end get too bright. Run the system at a volume that is clearly audible to all, yet allows for conversation.
Play appropriate selections for each part of the event. The end of a wedding ceremony is a joyful, celebratory time, so express that feeling musically. Bring a CD or MP3 player with break music. At the reception and most casuals, go an hour on, then 15 off and 45 on each hour until the end of the gig, covering the break with pre-recorded music on your own system. Pace yourself when playing longer gigs. Fingerstyle, flamenco and classical guitarists should learn selections in other styles for variety. In my experience, one thing that impresses audiences most is versatility. Whether it's a concert, wedding, art gallery reception or other event, learn the music you're performing well and play it with verve and style. This is where the real reward is - knowing that you are contributing your special talent to a great day for others. At weddings, this is especially true.
While the processional and recessional are usually chosen at a meeting with the couple in the weeks leading up to the wedding, during the wedding itself you need to know when to start and when to stop. The wedding coordinator on site may cue you for the processional. When the bride has finished her walk, however, you need to creatively stop playing with a cadence, rather than playing through two more pages of music. The "Pachelbel Canon" is the perfect choice for processionals because of its multiple opportunities for cadences. During the recessional, continue playing upbeat music until the bridal party has left.
If you have yet to be paid (i.e., you didn't get the entire fee in advance), you need to pre-arrange payment on site. In my contracts, I often provide a space for the client to write in the "Person responsible for payment at the event" and that usually makes for a smooth transaction. Many service providers get paid entirely in advance, but I think it gives the client more assurance and peace of mind to know I will be there or I won't get paid. As for how much to charge, let your peers guide your decision about your fees. If you're way out of balance with them, they'll have a problem with you and so may the clients.
Getting that check validates your identity as a professional musician - one who does this for a living. To keep that income flowing, it helps to know other special event professionals. Give your card to the other service providers and ask for theirs. Thank your employer before driving off; besides being polite, it gives your client an opportunity to compliment you. You might even ask for a written recommendation for future clients if you don't have enough already. Especially following weddings, you may receive a written thank-you note. These can be excerpted for your promo material and should be featured prominently on your website. If a photographer at the job site snaps your picture, ask for a copy; then use the best shot in your publicity.
Climb the Artistic Mountain
The artistic high point of your year may be a solo or ensemble concert produced by yourself or someone else. You've trained for these events and now you're making them happen. Having presented dozens of classical guitarists myself, I've seen from the wings what succeeds with audiences and what doesn't. My own occasional concerts affirm those lessons: you need to communicate with the audience with everything you have - if you can enhance their perception of the music in any way, do so.
By adding new repertoire each year you'll have something fresh and adventurous to shoot for. Your concerts give focus to your practice even as you cruise through casuals. And here's an interesting side benefit: When you do casuals - say, prelude and ceremony music at a wedding - you are introducing a number of people to classical guitar and its repertoire for the first time.
Think of all the people who hear you play at casuals over the years and compare that to the number you would reach if you only did concerts - not even close! And yet you can perform at a very high artistic level each and every time you play; it's up to you. One of my biggest lessons was this very point; too many of us are shooting for the moon and ignoring our own communities. Two excellent books on this topic are Making Money Making Music, No Matter Where You Live (paperback) by James W. Dearing, which is full of tips on local income sources and strategies, and Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music (hardcover) by Glenn Kurtz, an amazing biographical account of the pursuit of a classical guitar concert career.
Always the Same, but Different Each Time
Your drive time to and from a performance provides an opportunity to reflect on this profession. Review what's working and what isn't, and resolve to make improvements. Only through real-life experience will you truly learn your strengths and weaknesses. You can take pride in the fact that your musical talent is valuable to a wide variety of people and circumstances. The constant is you - delivering music as well as you can, but always adapting to the needs of the present. If this kind of work is so satisfying that you can see yourself doing it for a very long time, you need to manage your career now and in the future.