8 questions to ask when hiring musicians
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
If you're reading this, you're probably knee deep in the planning of an exceptional event. Live musicians can create a special energy and connection with your guests that a recording never will. This may be the first time you've ever researched hiring a live group for music. How do you know where to start? Do not fear, you have come to the right place! Here are some considerations as you begin your inquiries.
1) How frequently do you perform?
Music for a special event requires versatility, focus, and ability to perform under pressure. Just as a coach would never put an athlete on the field who hasn't been regularly training, it's risky to depend on a musician who isn't in practice and currently versed in the performance setting. A prestigious music degree is great, but if a musician is only picking up their instrument once every few weeks, they may not be your best candidate. Look for musicians who are busy with a lot of "gigs". This means they are in demand, and are skilled at their craft. The musicians with whom I work make a living from performing, and are at the very top of their game.
2) Where do you perform?
Volunteering to play at a coffee shop's casual talent night is very different from being hired to professionally perform at a high profile event. Remember, you are looking for someone who will excel under pressure.
3) What is your experience with my type of event and my venue?
It is crucial that your musicians know how to work within your unique circumstances. For instance, a wedding ceremony requires the ability to adjust music to the exact length of the processions of the wedding party and the bridal march. I remember a wedding party with the tiniest flower girl I'd ever seen. We all laughed as we watched that sweet princess totter down the aisle. It was impossible to predict how much time the procession would take, and the organist did an excellent job improvising.
At a cocktail hour or a dinner party, you are seeking musicians who can read the mood of your guests and respond accordingly, and will adjust their sound level to the intensity of your guests' conversation. If you are having a Catholic Mass or other religious ceremony, there are a number of special cues with which we musicians need to be familiar, as well as knowledge of a very specific kind of repertoire.
Experience with your type of venue is also important. Is it a huge cathedral, a carpeted hotel room, or out of doors? Each space has its own "acoustic", or way of making sound, and you are looking for musicians who know how to make themselves sound the best within your unique space. Having sung in 40+ Saint Louis area venues, and having explored dozens more, I can assist you in discerning which musicians will sound best in your unique venue.
4) Do you have recordings to share, or performances at which I may hear you?
Professional musicians may spend hours a day making music, but surprisingly, this does not always translate to an abundance of recordings to share. Just as a professional photographer would not publish pictures taken on a smartphone, a professional musician is careful about the quality of recordings they release. Spending time and money in the recording studio isn't always a priority for the musician who relies on live performances for income. This is especially true for a church musician. Also, copyright restrictions prohibit many popular pieces of music from being recorded and/or shared with others. (Nota bene: many casual recordings seen on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet, albeit well-intentioned, are posted in violation of established copyrights, and could be subjected to heavy fines.) You may hear some of my own recordings here.
With regard to performances, if you are working with musicians who specialize in private events, the nature of their work may prevent them from inviting you to hear them. Think about it: would you want your musicians to invite one of their prospective leads to your own wedding?
To wrap up this question, while it is good to ask about recordings and performance opportunities, if musicians do not offer much in these areas, it doesn't need to be a dealbreaker.
5) What if you get sick?
As careful as one may be, no musician is immune to illness or unexpected life circumstances. A responsible musician will carefully cultivate a network or "short list" of contacts who are capable of filling in. Ideally we have a few different people we can rely on. You may also want to ask about these backups' qualifications and experience. Depending on your music selections, it is possible your musicians will need to revise your music program if a substitute is needed to fill in last-minute. If you are signing a contract, be sure to pay attention to the "Force Majeure" section, and how your party handles extenuating circumstances.
6) Can you perform (insert specific music selection)?
If you have specific pieces of music you want performed, make sure to mention them in your inquiry. While some musicians are willing and able to play just about anything at no extra charge, others may expect a certain fee to learn a new piece or to acquire the sheet music for it. While most sheet music is available for a small charge online these days, in some instances it may cost a hefty fee or require several weeks to ship. In other instances, a piece may require hours of practice to learn, even for the advanced musician.
There may also be restrictions depending on your venue. Churches usually have specific music guidelines, and secular venues must have a special license in order for most modern works to be performed. Most of the time you won't have any issues, but it's best to be up front with any selections that are important to you, so that there won't be surprises later.
7) What kind of communication can I expect from you?
Do you like poring over long lists of music on your own, or do you prefer some guidance? Some musicians simply provide a large repertoire list and leave you to yourself to plan your music. Others are hands on, spending time getting to know you and working with you every step of the way. Sometimes we will meet with you virtually or in person to walk through your entire event and music plan from start to finish. Don't sell yourself short in this area. While there are a few who like to plan the playlist on their own, most clients get value from musicians who are available to consult with them along the way. In fact, when you invite us to share our ideas and expertise, magical things begin to happen.
You may want to ask what kind of timeline your musicians implement during the music planning process, and who else from your event they will need talk to. I always ask for a point person who is familiar with your venue and is available on the event day for questions. At a wedding ceremony, I make sure to touch bases with your officiant and, if there is one, your wedding coordinator.
The music planning is personally one of my favorite parts of the conversation with my clients. Let's chat!
8) Tell me about your pricing and your packages.
While many of us musicians offer packages, be mindful that unique factors can affect our pricing. Rates will vary among types of musicians and their expertise, what part of the country you are in, length of time for which you want music to cover, driving distance to your venue, and a myriad of other factors.
I'd be happy to assist you in finding answers to your questions. Having developed a network of top flight professional musicians in the Saint Louis area, I can match you with the best candidates for your budget and vision, freeing you up to focus on the rest of your event planning. Just shoot me a message!
Keep reading below for a note about crafting your first message...
We musicians are interviewing you, too.
Hooray! Now that you're armed with some intelligent questions, it's time to start penning a message. During the inquiry phase, you may be surprised to learn that we musicians are also interviewing you. To get the most out of our conversations, it's best to include some additional details about you and your event.
Date, and exact start/end times for music (e.g. preludes starting at X, ceremony starting at Y, ceremony expected to last until Z, etc.). Musicians are busy, sometimes with multiple events in one day, so your exact time slot is crucial to determine availability.
Kind of event (e.g. wedding ceremony, cocktail hour, rehearsal dinner, Catholic Mass, etc.).
Name and location of your venue. If the event will be held in multiple locations or rooms (e.g. ceremony followed by cocktail hour) that is important too. If your event will be outdoors, make sure to specify this.
Your vision for the event: any cultural or family traditions that you wish to honor; any theme, genre, or songs you will include; religious influences, and any other important details about your day. And don't worry, while these details are helpful, it's also okay if you don't know these things yet.
Any specific words (e.g. "elegant, fancy, and glam" or "industrial chic and artsy") to describe your day.
Your event website, if you have one.
Example: "We are getting married at (venue), with our ceremony starting at (time), and music to last (number of hours). We are wanting to do an elegant but cozy forest wedding (it is outdoors) with heavy inspiration from the Lord of the Rings movies and books. I also want to include the playing of some of my favorite hymns, as we will be following a traditional Christian ceremony format. I’d love to have an ensemble of harp, flute, and cello or violin with a possible soloist to provide our favorite themes and hymns throughout the ceremony and cocktail hour. Our website is (here). Are you able to work with us?"
I received a lead like this recently, and before I replied I was already considering which musicians would be the best fit, where we would be sourcing our sheet music, what we would need equipment-wise, the cost break-down for the couple, and (let's be honest) the amazing pictures this bride was going to have from her day. I was already planning her event, and we hadn't even had a conversation yet!
Ready to talk now? Let's chat!
Photos by Natasha McGuire Photography
Event Planning and Design: Coda's Events
Facebook: Angela Marie Rocchio, Soprano