Is playing in a band a cushy job?
I’m sitting in the Midsummer music agency office looking out of the window at the Malvern Hills. It’s a grey, rainy day and cold. I’ve just got in from the cold and dried off. I went up into town, to the top road that runs along the foot of the hills to look at a crane that I can see from the window. It’s one of these absolutely enormous mobile cranes, with an extendable boom and multi-wheeled base with huge stabilising leg sticking out from the bottom of it. They are replacing a television transmitter aerial at the top of a tall mast, getting ready for another change of frequencies this coming up in a couple of years time. You can see a photograph taken from the office window with my mobile phone. It’s not very clear am afraid, but it was raining too hard to photograph it outside when I went up to see it.
Before I started playing in string quartets and ceilidh bands and barn dance bands, I used to be an engineer, firstly in the steel industry where the machines were absolutely enormous, and then in the robotics business when the machines were somewhat smaller but very high-tech. I have always had an admiration for crane designers and manufacturers, because the structures are working on the very edge of physical possibility. This crane makes a fishing rod look like a clumsy device, it is so slender and flexible. You can see the bend in it as it reaches out to position the new aerial.
So earlier on this morning I left my warm comfortable office and went to where the crane was working to chat some of the engineers on site. It was even more impressive close-up. There are also two men working a high on the aerial base structure, hanging on the outside of the latticework and rooftop with safety harnesses, preparing for the installation of the new aerial that was about to be craned in. The rain was lashing, it was freezing cold even down on the ground, so what it must have been like high up on the mast I cannot imagine. That got me wondering whether playing in a jazz band or a string quartet is in fact rather a cushy job.
When you hire a string quartet you’re probably not expecting to put them through a hard time. When you book a barn dance band you’re probably looking for their musical abilities, not wondering whether they can stand rain and cold. But playing in a band is not always so cushy.
When you hire a ceilidh band for your Burns night or birthday party in February, you have also hired the village hall or hotel venue for the event and expected to be comfortable and heated. Perhaps you’re staying at the hotel overnight, so you can get ready in your room and go down to the function room at 8 o’clock to find the band set up and ready to go. At 11 o’clock, when the ceilidh ends you wander off to your room or stay chatting to your friends. But what of the ceilidh band? Well, the person who looks after the PA system would probably have got it out from the cupboard under the stairs at his house and stacked it along the hallway, reversed the car as near to the door as possible and carried out item at a time to pack into the car. It’s probably freezing cold and lashing with rain, or possibly at that time of the year there is snow on the ground and he slips and slides to the car on the 10 journeys from the house that are needed to load up.
At 5 o’clock all the other band members will be getting themselves and their instruments ready, loaded into the car (after scraping the ice off the windscreen), to drive over to the leaders house, where they will park their cars and transfer all their kit to the main band vehicle.
At 6 o’clock they meet up at the bandleader’s house in the lashing rain and transfer themselves and everything else, trying to keep things as dry as possible. They then drive an hour to the venue. This is a time to relax from most of the band, but not the driver who is having to concentrate see through the spray of the other vehicles on the motorway, always having to keep their wits about them as they slither and slide along the country lanes in the snow.
They arrive at the venue and find that the stage door isn’t accessible by car and they have to park around the front of the venue, carriage piece of equipment around the side of the building and up two flights of fire escape to the stage door, of course all in the cold and dark and lashing rain or driving snow.
The ceilidh or barn dance hasn’t even started, they’ve just got the kit onto the stage ready to set up and their exhausted and cold. They’ve only got 45 more minutes of heaving kit around and grovelling on the floor to run cables before they’re ready to do the same test.
10 to 8, all complete and ready to get a behind from the bar. Hurray. The next three hours are very hard work the band, but great fun. Everybody, the guests at the wedding of the birthday party, the band and often the hotel staff, having a really good time. This is what it’s all about. This is what you expect when you hire a barn dance band. But eventually the end of the evening arrives, there is the last dance followed perhaps by the bands finishing off signature tune and the end. Guest has off to their hotel rooms or get in their cars to go home.
But it’s far from the end for the barn dance band. Time to take everything down and pack it away. Not quite such hard physical work as putting it up, and a bit quicker, but is still hard work by the time you’ve converted of the stage, down the fire escape, around the building and packed it back into the vehicle. By this time the rain is even heavier with the snow has got even deeper. By midnight, if it was cold before, then it is very very cold now.
The roads are really quiet now, so there’s little spray from other cars if you’re going on the motorway, but if the snow around it’s really slippery and it can be difficult to see where the road is because there are a few other car tracks. Most of the band doze off knowing that they are going to have to drive later, but the driver knows he’s got another 45 minutes or hours of driving in appalling conditions, knowing that he has to keep himself and the rest of the band safe. It has been a long day already, but he can’t afford to let fatigue affected driving. Is got to stay alert.
1:30 in the morning they get back to their base. The band members, other than the driver, unload their kit into their cars and start scraping the ice of the windscreens, running the engines getting the inside warm enough so that the windows don’t ice up on the insight. They drive off into the cold night knowing that in half an hour they will be home.
It’s too late now to unload the PA from the vehicle, so it is part safely in the garage, and the driver, bandleader and fiddle player takes his Instruments indoors and settles down with a cup of tea in front of the telly for the 2 AM news.
So, in comparison with those guys up the mast (the white candle like and 10 I is on top of the mast and you can see the men bolted into place. The crane has withdrawn its boom and is beginning to shrink the telescopes back in. Extension crane on the telescopic crane still has to be dismantled – using a second crane, but by the fall of darkness they should be finished tonight.), yes, so in comparison to those guys, being a musician is a cushy life. But perhaps not as cushy a life as you may have imagined when you booked the barn dance band, that is if it crossed your mind at all. So give the band a beer, they deserve it!