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Featured Question - February 10, 2000

Question Submitted by: SGS Member
Dear Guitar Talk,

I would like to begin playing solo at Nursing Homes, Hospitals etc. I have no expierience playing out solo. I have some expierience playing in a band. I have two questions. How do I go about finding gigs? Also how do I find out what people are being paid, what I should charge, should I play for free? Basically how to get started. Also how to get honest appraisals of a performance.


We thought this question was more appropriately answered by our own SGS members than by our Panel of Experts. Here are the responses we received. Thanks to all who participated!

Response by: Harvey Reid
You are asking for a lot, and for some of what musicians spend years learning. How to earn a living at music is as much of a set of skills as playing the instrument or learning the songs. Woody Guthrie said, when asked a similar question, said "lean your butt against that buliding and start playing. If a crowd gathers and they take up a collection, then you're good." Which means that sometimes the people in your audience will answer all of your questions about how you are doing.

You will need a sound system, answering machine, photo, promotional package with a recording, biography and any reviews of your work and perhaps a list of places you have worked. You may need to play for free and to play at open mikes to put yourself where others can hear you, and to find out if you are at a skill level approximating that of those who are getting paid. Most newcomers try to get opening acts and feature sets at the more organized open mikes, and send a lot of tapes and promo materials hoping a club or coffeehouse might want them. You might try sending out 10 or 20 of them, and seeing what people think, bearing in mind that they might have gotten 5 others that same day, and have a hard time finding time to listen to unsolicited promo material. Your idea of nursing homes is a good one-- they are an excellent place to pay, since those people tend to be very appreciative, and can help a beginner through the bumps of the first gigs. There are a certain number of taverns (and ski lodges that do "Apres Ski") that hire guitar players for $50- $125 per night, and you might go to some of them and see if you want to do what those musucians are doing. A lot of it involves knowing the right songs and having a good attitiude. I have written an essay that is posted on my own web site at called "Advice for Musicians Who Play In Bars" that is designed to try to help people through that.

Getting an honest appraisal of your music is one of the hardest things in the world to find, and I bet a lot of very famous people wish they could get some of it. I have a terrible time with that myself, and if you find it, let me know!
Response by: Jill Antal Washington, DC (and York Harbor, ME)
Hi Guitar Players!
In response to the posted question... I've had a bit of experience playing in nursing homes/hospitals and can say that for me it was a wonderful opportiunity to play (and get performance practice) for folks who really appreciate it. I actually performed with a trio (guitar, bass, and me on vocals) and didn't charge anything because I considered the chance to practice and share the music really valuable in itself. Almost all nursing homes/hospitals have entertainment coordinators and volunteer coordinators who are delighted to hear from volunteers. Often we were reimbursed for parking or travel expenses and given lunch. We found that the songs that worked the best were the happy oldies from the 20's, 30's and 40's because the older generation recognizes them and can sing along. We were less successful with "modern" music or anything experimental! We also had a bag of percussion toys that we'd hand out to those who might like to join in--this keeps things lively. Folks often liked to chat with us after and talk about the instruments. We were surprised to find many musicians in the crowd who had stories to share about their own music-making days. It's a wonderful way to share the music!
Good luck!
Response by: SGS Member
First of all why a nursing home? second, do you play the piano and thirdly, do you know tunes from the 20's through the 50's. the reason i ask about the piano is because i once was a chef at an exclusive nursing home in MA. they loved the piano. easier too sing along with. about the pay..most solo acts like to make $100 per gig if there is any type of travel time involved. even from boston to york beach maine is considered a distance that demands a "c" note. if you have noteriety then get what you feel is fare. notariety being a few cd's under your belt or songs you have written and they have or will be recongnized by the public. --

Response by: SGS Member
If you were looking to make big bucks, or if you were looking to obtain a knowlegable critique of your performance, one might think that nursing homes would be an unlikely audience for you to be targeting. I assume you just want to entertain the old folks, out of the kindness of your heart? You know how to find nursing homes, just look in the phone book. You know that the residents don't have any money. If you got paid at all, it would be a small gratuity from the nursing home operators, so just ask them whether they provide anything.
Response by: NC
My response from my limited knowledge, is that hospitals have public affairs departments which coordinate this type of event. Unfortunately, it is not a paying gig but donated time. The audience within a hospital depends upon it's size and population served as well as the performers forte.
Response by: Tony Scali
Question # 1: "How do I go about finding gigs ?"

>From my experience I have found that frequenting a local "Open Mic" night in my neighborhood to be an excellent start ! I have met more local singer/songwriters/performers covering a wide range of musical areas: contemporary, folk, blues, etc. From mingling with my peers and engaging in conversations for action they have revealed where to perform. If you like any of these performers, just sign up on their mailing lists. This will give you the information of places where to play. There are a number of places to perform within my neighborhood and the local area outside my city. Probably yours as well.

Your point about, "having no experience playing out solo. I have some experience playing in a band." My band experience was with Italian, Portuguese and American GB bands (general business) playing all over the city. Upon rediscovering solo guitar, I too wanted to try my hand at performing solo. The first step I took was to call the local veteran's hospital and arrange for a time to play for the disabled veterans. The staff and patients really liked my performance so much that they actually DANCED while I played a newly learned jig - Star Island Jig. All in attendance taught me something very valuable. I gave alot. I received alot. Taking that action was a powerful motivating experience for me. I thought I would need years of instruction and divine intervention before I could perform solo guitar. I was totally prepared in terms of the songs that I had in my repertoire.

Question # 2: "How do I find out what people are being paid, what should I charge, should I play for free ?"

In the beginning, I would play for food and beverage. Since there was no money $$$ involved, I made that point very clear. After all that I (we) go through in order to learn about music/performing, I think that it is important to receive something for my efforts. My next step was to visit with a local very quaint cafe (espresso bar) that could seat maybe 15-20 people comfortably. I offered my services and set a date to perform.

My next course of action was to invite some family members and a few friends. To my surprise ( and the proprietor ) about 45 people comprising of family, friends who arrived alone, friends who brought a date, and the regular patrons of the cafe were in attendance for my OPENING night. The cafe was JAMMED ! My first lesson that I learned was to perform with a stacked deck of cards where I am definitely going to WIN ! This was a business victory for the proprietor, patrons at large and for me as well. Guess what ? I opened the door for other performers all due to good planning and action. Very interesting.

Since those days, I have been able to get my name out in my neighborhood. I have picked up gigs playing for a neighboring city arts council function where I earned $150 as a soloist. I have also booked other self promoted gigs at yet another cafe in a neighboring city ( helps for my name to get around ) and earned $250. I have always discovered that weddings pay better. My GB experience has taught me this. I have done some performances for working bars, taverns and clubs that serve alcohol. It has been my experience that they would rather have me play for free, or tips, $50 straight pay from the establishment or pack the place with family and friends in order to receive an agreed sum of money. (usually $50-$65) I stray away form these gigs. I have found these places to be a tougher audience that are listening for classic or top 40 hits. I play folk and traditional music along with a few originals as well. I know my style and my audience or potential audience.

A musician friend has just started up a Open Mic night and I could introduce you to him. If you don't live very far and would like to go to the various Open Mic's let me know. I take the Winter time off and I am studying in order to strengthen my musical awareness. For the spring I will be holding a weekly residency at a cafe, and fill in my schedule with some busking and other dates. I have just updated my promotional kit (tape, photo, bio). Currently, I am teaming up with other guitarists and will be booking gigs for the spring.

P.S. - I take private guitar lessons from an accomplished teacher/performer. I find that lessons help me measure and grow at a faster rate, learn tunes, and have some fun. Look to our SGS website for in the next couple of weeks I will post a local listing of various Open Mic's.

Never B Sharp, Never B Flat, Just B Natural' SGS Member - Tony Scali
Response by: Cormac McCarthy
dear member playing solo is a whole enchilada in its self try playing out at some open mikes bring your most condescending, cynical friends and ask them for feed back since you have played in bands you ll know good feed back from bad nursing homes and hospitals need a certain repetoire consider the age of the folks there some of the older ones like singalongs she ll be coming round the mountain some pretty corny old standards that will make them happy remember its about them not you. old people are a tough crowd and generally more interested in criticising what they had for lunch than your music call the venues in question and ask who if any one has played there money is a delicate question so just ask what they have paid in the past ask if they have a budget for entertainment play a few for cheap and see if its something you really want to do get references for the other gigs you want to persue remember you are competing with some pretty hot mambo lessons they have every week good luck Cormac McCarthy

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