4 Steps Toward a Better Outside Gig

By Sarah Freiberg

Last summer was rather unusual in that I had a variety of different opportunities to perform outside: a string-quartet performance in a courtyard (with a resonant backdrop of stone) at the Boston Public Library, an amplified performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for an audience of thousands, a greenhouse in Maine, and a seaside wedding complete with heat, humidity, and wind.

While few disasters ensued (one violin got dropped in an attempt to turn flyaway pages of the Beethoven), it got me thinking about how to prepare for unknown outdoor challenges. So, I asked a few of my colleagues. More than one answered, “Just say no.”

Most, however, had some helpful hints. Armed with the following tips, you will be better equipped to have a wonderful outdoor-performance experience.

1. Be Specific with your Clients
Violist Emily Rideout suggested opening the lines of communication right from the start. “It’s important for employers (wedding organizers or otherwise) to recognize that performing outdoors is a challenge,” she says. “[Employers] often don’t think about this at all. My experiences got so much better once I had a contract (mainly for outdoor weddings) that specified the needs of musicians playing outdoors. It gave the person hiring some guidelines, and more importantly, increased his or her awareness that there are challenges for string players.”

Examples of a few specifics Rideout includes in her contract are acceptable temperature for outdoor performances, which she notes remains pretty generous—anywhere from 55 to 85 degrees—and protection from the elements: wind, direct sun, rain.

“That was always enough to start the conversation with the person hiring,” she says. “And then he or she would be much more sensitive to anything that came up.”

2. Watch the Wind
Wind whipping your pages around is a challenge for many string players. “Take lots and lots of clothespins—you can never have too many,” cellist Barbara Zuchowicz says.

Cellist Jonathan Davis agrees, but he uses a clothespin technique that requires advanced preparation—though much less handling of the sheet music while performing. “Clip each page with a new clothespin, and just barely enough grip to hold the sheet,” he says. “Then a page can be pulled from the pin and turned, while the rest of pages remain clipped. Much less manipulation is required for each turn; less chance of mishap.”

Perhaps the most ingenious approach to page turns comes from Handel+Haydn Society personnel and production manager Jesse Levine. It consists of two clothespins, three feet of eight-pound test fishing line, and a one ounce sinker. It works like this:

  • Tie one end of the fishing line to one clothespin, and tie the other end to the sinker.
    Clip that clothespin halfway up the left side of the stand, and put the other clothespin at the same level on the right side of the stand.
  • Drape the fishing line from the clothespin on the left side over the clothespin on the right side, so that the sinker will be hanging down.
  • Put the music under the line—and that’s it. You should be able to turn the page easily, but it’ll still be held down when you’re reading it. (Be careful to roll the fishing line around one of the clothespins when not in use, so it won’t be a tangled mess when you need it most.)

It’s not just sheet music that can be gone with the wind. Violist Melinda Ballou often considers what type of music stand she brings to a performance.

“Make sure to have music stands that don’t blow over, and be prepared to hold them down with your feet.” You don’t want a heavy stand blowing over and damaging your instrument. “And, a word to the wise,” says Ballou, “if your instrument is in the case, make sure it is lying down.”

I had the neck of a cello shear off once while in its upright case when a gust of wind blew it over while I was busy disassembling my music stand. It might have been a “gig” instrument, but it was still an expense to restore it.

3. Be Ready for the (Mixed) Joys of Nature
Sun and humidity can be a danger to your instruments, and many players suggest having a “beater”—a second instrument to spare wear and tear on your regular one.

“Having a second instrument is better in the longterm than repairing your nicer instrument or having it go out of adjustment due to humidity,” cellist Oliver Weston says. “You can’t appreciate the qualities of your nicer instrument without an acoustic environment to project into anyway, so why not have a beater? Geared pegs also have been a life saver.” Cellists point out that you may be playing in soft ground, so have a rock stop at the ready. And if you are performing in the evening, have some battery-operated stand lights—and fresh batteries, of course. University of Central Oklahoma cello professor Tess Remy-Schumacher remembers, “I had an outdoor wedding gig at night in Australia and it was almost totally dark. The first violinist brought four mining lights to strap around our heads. They worked great.”

Also remember that temperature can drop to an uncomfortable level—and not just in the evening. It’s smart to have a sweater or jacket, and some fingerless gloves on hand. I couldn’t believe how cold a foggy summer day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park could be while waiting to play for many outdoor weddings. You may be able to brave the sun and wind, but not the rain. Know the options in case of rain, and be ready to run to a protected space quickly, but safely, with your instrument. Ballou remembers “a time in the Heilbron Garden in Salzburg playing the ‘Summer’ movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and having the thunder start rumbling on cue with the music and pelting rain. We had to move to indoors for the last movement of ‘Summer,’ ‘Fall,’ and ‘Winter.’”

Critters are another outdoor hazard, and bug spray is a great idea. Cellist Joan Harrison was attacked by fire ants during an outdoor chamber-music performance. “I couldn’t stop playing but by the time we reached the end of the piece one foot was swollen and I was in pain,” she says. “I still fear those little devils.”

4. Fight to Be Heard
Since you will be out in the elements, most likely without much reverberation, you may want to look into sound amplification. Cellist John Lutterman, who teaches at the University of Alaska, in Anchorage, admits to “not playing outside much anymore, but when I do, I make sure that my instrument is safe from the elements (including the sun), and do my best to tweak the acoustic environment.”

Lutterman suggests an enclosed courtyard to test your acoustic environment. “Otherwise, I’ll use a high-quality hypercardioid condenser mic with a Fishman Loudbox Mini—not for the amplification, per se, but because it enables me to use digital reverb to simulate a more appropriate acoustic environment,” he says. If amplification isn’t an option, violinist Jesse Irons suggests something quite simple: Play louder. “There is no acoustic outside and nobody can hear you,” he says.

Hopefully these suggestions will have you prepared for any outdoor performance. And remember, as Irons puts it, “Have fun—sometimes it’s actually nice outside.”

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