Disaster Avoidance/Prevention: Help Your Students Successfully Enter the Gigging Arena

Mike Lawson • String Section • October 2, 2018

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I would like to thank my longtime friend and talented cellist for collaboration on this article; many of our growing pains happened together and we wish to do what we can to limit the necessity of such stories in the broader community of young professionals learning the trade.

All material in quotations is the work of Tamar Love, musician and educator, Memphis, Tennessee.

Although many aspects of our career are best learned through experience, knowing how to successfully maneuver and manage gigs (specifically “the wedding gig”) is not one you want to go into blind or without some guidance. As musicians become more comfortable in the gigging environment, there is no doubt that experience contributes to an overall healthy level of security and professional comfort. However, the job is complicated; there are many ways in which one is required to communicate and be independently responsible. So many things can go wrong. I often joke that I could write a book filled with all the stories from the years that taught me what NOT to do. In that vein, I (and others) are not so green anymore and would like to help ensure that young professionals are given adequate and useful information before they are thrown into the gigging arena. This is invaluable education sorely needed in general within the training one typically receives in lessons and class. Too often we are led to proficiency on our instrument without accompanying assistance with how to put our skills into use within the existing market.

The Crucial Elements of Awareness and Timing

If I had to choose one skill most necessary to possess in our gigging environment it would be total and confident awareness of what is expected and when it is expected. Adequate control over what is happening and what is to happen next is crucial to the timing of most ceremonies and consequently is the basis of most mistakes ensembles make within them.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot we can do to prepare a student in this respect except to make them aware of the need to carefully and accurately plan, prepare, and communicate with the individual in charge of the event. This is often a wedding or event planner. Sometimes the bride will directly supervise planning. At the actual event, often it will fall to a family member or church representative to manage the musicians. Be flexible and have flexibility built into the pieces planned in order to stop and start well and as required (have optional places in the parts which can serve as endings so the group can transition to the next piece with skill and appropriate timing as each situation will require). Make sure each musician is aware of these spots, has them marked, and knows how to handle them.

Travel Time/Traffic

One thing I struggled with was getting lost. There’s no worse feeling than knowing you are supposed to be playing a job and not being able to find the location. These days I have multiple safeguards and resources in place whenever I need to be somewhere in a professional capacity. Although GPS functions available on most cell phones are awesome tools, I still like to have a written or typed set of directions accessible independent from electronic devices. Additionally, there are features of Google Maps such as the offline maps and directions download feature in case of a lost signal or lapse in Wifi connection. Often it is the backroad areas in which our service falters and when it is most needed.

When working with other musicians, it can be helpful to use the “share progress” function enabling visibility so that each musician can see the location of the others.

It is absolutely essential that one is aware of not only traveling distance and expected time needed, but also the nature of traffic in that area on that day of the week at that time of the day. For exceptionally important gigs in which you are not familiar with the travel route and traffic, it is not unheard of to actually make the journey prior to the event to familiarize yourself with it.

The Music, Gig Binders

In most gig situations, it is assumed that the musicians are responsible for attaining the necessary sheet music for the correct instrumentation and performance needs of the job. Many wedding request lists will contain the expected standard or typical pieces with one or two “special request” items for which they are aware will need either a purchase, or the skills and service of a capable arranger.

For this, an extra fee is generally agreed upon. Otherwise, it is up to the string player in charge of setting up the gig to provide the music. Many string players build large repositories of materials used to teach and play. Even if some time goes by without playing a wedding, the significant time and effort expended in the organization, assembly, and collection has been worth it; I have been well compensated multiple times for the use of my gig music binders by colleagues not in possession of their own.

The Musicians

You should make every effort to know the music before playing in front of others on a paid job. Sometimes the music is on the stand when you get there, and you are reliant upon your knowledge of the popular and/or traditional literature and sight reading and ensemble skills. As one matures and gets experience in the performance career in general, sight reading becomes a skill that is expected and required. When sight reading fails you in performance: use other skills to make the mistake irrelevant. You are respected for the skill of recovering well just as much as for initial accuracy.

Rehearsing: Know your music

Tamar Love shares: “My first wedding gig was with fellow music students. It may have been a first gig for us all. The bride wanted Disney-themed music from some movie I can’t recall, and we were happy to give her what she wanted. However, we were all confident we could sight-read (because we were familiar with the recorded music). Needless to say, it did not go well. At some point the first violinist stopped playing, and the rest of the music came to a screeching halt. It sounded like the needle of a record player being violently scraped across vinyl. The bride couldn’t contain her laughter, but it wasn’t the good kind of laughter. At the end of it all, she was kind enough to pay us, anyway. I think we all felt bad about taking her money, but we were college students and desperately needed money. We walked back to our vehicles, some of us cursing in anger, some of us laughing at how ridiculously terrible the whole thing was, but we all learned a lesson about preparation.”

At the expense of leaving out other material, I am going to discuss a different intention of the term rehearsal: the “wedding rehearsal” and (sometimes) dinner.

The majority of what is done in a wedding rehearsal will not involve the musicians. At best, we sit around and then play the music through once or twice so the melodies are recognized by those walking the isle as well as for determining tempi and timing, which takes all of 20 or so minutes when done efficiently.

Wedding rehearsals are not known for efficiency; that is not really what it is about for those taking part. Barring the unexpected, for the musicians, they are a colossal waste of time and money. If it is really important to the family, then it should be a paid rehearsal as any professional “service” would be. The expense quite often solves the problem naturally when explained.

Something often done and accepted by most musicians is arrive to the gig early to address any concerns. This is not a financial responsibility and not a paid rehearsal.

Although I have had some very enjoyable experiences (with those who extend an invitation to the more intimate tradition of the wedding rehearsal dinner), it takes a very strong case to decide my participation is necessary and useful beyond performance environments.

Social Hermit or not, I am not alone in this. Here are a few scenarios in which allowances were determined acceptable. You don’t know the nature of other hired musicians` instrument and are inexperienced playing with them (ex. harp/violin or organ/viola).

Sometimes the musical component of the wedding is a mishmash of relatives or friends (or students!) or provide some desired novelty to the experience. Add yourself and (a pianist) another professional who are left to figure out who does what and HOW to create a functioning ensemble and provide suitable arrangements.

Typically, in the more traditional gig setup, there is one musician who serves as the contractor, liaison, provides the music, organizes the timetable and the little things needing doing…The “leader.”

The rest just show up with instrument, skill, and wits. Attending a wedding rehearsal can be more easily facilitated as one musician in a managerial capacity. In many cases this reduces the need for so many communications earlier in the planning stages.


Tamar Love explains: “Know who’s going to pay you and how: I’ve had more than one gig where no one knew who was going to pay us. Make sure the person who hired you has a plan for how you will be paid. If it’s a wedding, and you’re corresponding with the bride, request that she appoints someone to hand you the check. I have found that the bride and groom are so busy with pictures, family and friends, etc, that they forget about the check. It’s an honest mistake, but it happens. If the coordinator is paying by check, should they make out one check to one person and that person pays everyone else, or several checks to all parties, or would you prefer cash? Have this figured out ahead of time.”

She continues: “Know your worth: Be aware of the going rate in your city. Ask around or look it up on the union’s website. Don’t short change yourself just to get a gig, and for goodness sake don’t play gigs for free for the ‘experience.’ Helping out a friend is one thing, but I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of that, either. If you’re playing for cheaper than everyone else, it reduces the accepted value of what we do and lowers the expected rate of pay for other local professionals. It ends up hurting more people than you think.”


We require an obscene number of accessories in the field. I will zero in on a non-negotiable item that every gigging string player must own and use for gigs: the traditional heavy black Manhasset-style metal music stand. There are some popular recent alternatives which some musicians would argue provide both the sturdy reliable qualities of the heavy black stands as well as the convenience and portability of the wire collapsible stands. I am not convinced.

The weight is what will keep your stand from acting like a sail when the wind is apt to do something like sail your little wire stand (complete with all the responsible fastening accessories), music and all… down the embankment at a picturesque outdoor ceremony by the lake…. and taking it for a swim mid-ceremony.

Yup. That one happened to yours truly, so I’m “not convinced” and will always have my trusty clunky metal stand.

Having Fun

“Getting a gig together can be stressful, but there is nothing more fun than playing music with friends or colleagues. You might as well enjoy it. You could be doing far worse.”- Tamar Love

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