Take a stroll down the Western Road in Brighton and cast your eyes up to the sky. You are not mistaken. The Christmas lights are already up. The C-bomb has dropped and soon we will all be bobbing about on a heaving sea of booze and ill-fitting paper crowns. For freelance musicians this means just one thing: we are about to enter the peculiar world of the seasonal corporate event.
I and my session musician colleagues have played more than our fair share of posh Christmas drinks parties, and we are always very glad of the work, as January is the bleakest month of all, made worse by the coming of the Taxman, who insists we pay him six months in advance on earnings we have not yet earnt, from earnings we have already spent. I'll save that rant for another blog. Yes, I am one of the violinists in the string quartet you are vaguely aware of playing in the background of the hotel conference room as you grab your first glass of free champagne and chug it down nervously, scanning the crowd to avoid getting stuck in conversation with Sinister Bob from Accounts.
As the bubbles flow, you may feel compelled to come closer for a listen. You may even feel fortified enough to break the fourth wall and 'go and have a chat with the musicians'. Now, if you know this could well apply to you, here are some tips to help everyone handle this situation without embarrassment. These observations are based on real life events:
1) It is generally considered bad form to stand directly behind the musician stroking your chin and pretending to read their music as they play, nodding and saying "well done" at various intervals. If you do happen to be a fluent music reader, you can prove it by quietly turning the page for them at the appropriate time. This is not welcomed, but it is just preferable to the former.
2) Try not to insult the musicians by asking them where they are studying or whether this is 'a real job'. These people are professionals. They graduated years ago. Imagine how you would feel if, after delivering a convincing pitch to your client, you were asked whether advertising was your favourite hobby.
3) It is inadvisable to try to hold a conversation with a musician whilst they are playing their instrument. You will note that the violin sits directly under the chin. This makes talking difficult, particularly whilst performing the tricky solos from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons".
4) It is neither witty nor original to repeatedly ask the quartet "Have you got any Zeppelin?" and then laugh. Chances are they know more rock music than you, but they are under the watchful eye of the client who has asked them to perform a certain repertoire for your listening pleasure, and they are not going to break into "Kashmir" no matter how many times you shout it out. (Ditto "The Final Countdown" and "Come on Eileen").
5) It is inadvisable to try to hit on the musicians no matter how radiant they may look in their evening dress. The hard truth is they are unable to walk away until they get a scheduled break, so although they seem to be listening politely, it is more likely that they are plotting how to spear you in the eye with their bow and make it look like an accident.
6) It is an absolute no-no to ask if you can 'have a bash' on one of the instruments. The answer is always no for insurance purposes. They are valuable. Besides, no one is interested in hearing you butcher 'Twinkle Twinkle'.
8) Don't corner a musician during a break to tell them that your daughter/son/niece is taking cello lessons. Frankly, they don't care, and it is awkward trying to pretend.
9) It is better to refrain from conspicuously conducting the performance with your wine glass and tie. Spillage and humiliation always ensue.
10) On a more convivial note, it is considered excellent form to offer the musicians a drink as the trays are passing around. It will not damage their performance any. It may well improve it. They will like you a lot.
So there we are, some simple ground rules which I felt compelled to address before the season gets fully underway. You do your bit as the corporate guest, we'll do our bit as the professional entertainment, and we'll all have a lovely time and catch the last tube home. See you in a hotel conference room soon. Cheers!