Keeping warm when playing outside

This weekend we had our first truly chilly gig of the season. In this part of Ontario, fall really starts after the labour day weekend. We may have a few balmy days left, but the leaves are already starting to turn, and the past few nights have fallen into the single digits (Celcius). Saturday definitely felt like fall, cool, dry and breezy. Of course, couples about to be married being the paragons of common sense and logic (hah!), every single one of our September gigs (and one October one!) are scheduled to be outside. And you know brides – it pretty much has to be hailing or flashing with lightning and pouring for them to finally give in and let it be inside.

We thought we had enough layers – thick skirts, long sleeved shirts, sweaters. Yes, sweaters – no matter how fancy the bridal party is, if they expect musicians to perform outside by the lake at this time of year, they get to deal with sweaters. Our trio long ago settled on a classic black-and-white look (after failing miserably to come up with some kind of colourful or interesting theme that would suit all of us and still look professional), so at least our sweaters are all nice, classy knit white sweaters that pretty much match.

Our flutist came prepared, as always, complete with long johns. But the day was deceptive; as we were leaving, the sun was shining, the air was arm, and our flutist was already determining she’d probably have to shed most of her layers. The cello player and I decided to throw caution to the wind and go as we were without backup layers or coats. By the end of the gig, our flutist was cozy and comfortable, and the cello player and I were shivering and chilled right through. Our cellist actually had to go sit in the car for about ten minutes before the second half of the gig started, in order to warm up.

One thing I did have, which I highly recommend, is a pair of Thinsulate gloves. They live in the pocket of my harp case year round, along with the spare tuner and some extra business cards. They’re thin and white, and actually meant to function more like liners inside of regular gloves or mits. The best part is, I can play while wearing them. The trick for being able to play in gloves is something any busker knows very well – you take a nice sharp pair of scissors and cut the fingertips out. Another nice thing about these gloves/liners, is that since they’re white they don’t clash with our gig outfits. Without them, there have been some gigs where I’d have been reduced to playing a clumsy ham-fisted bass line (technically doable in a trio, but disastrous if playing solo.)

Which brings us to gig rule #3 – if it’s after Labour Day, and it’s outside, always bring more layers than you think you need. You can always take stuff off, but you can’t put it on if it ain’t there. Next weekend, it’ll by tights and undershirts and extra sweaters for sure.

Yes, of course you can always refuse to play if the weather conditions are truly terrible. But we have become very stoic over the years, and will try to soldier on if at all possible. We live in a small community, where reputation is key, and we’re really reluctant to put our rep in danger by completely refusing to play (unless it’s actively raining or snowing – then they would be out of luck, end of story.)

Speaking of trolleys and carts…

Both my gigs this past weekend were made about a thousand times easier thanks to my trusty trolley, so I thought I’d give it a little plug here. I don’t normally promote a particular product or company, but I figure there’s no harm in describing the things I use regularly that have served me well. No doubt there are other companies that make similar carts.

The one I use is the “Kart-a-Bag” folk harp cart, which I got through Sylvia Woods. You can find out more about it here. I picked mine up at the Somerset harp conference several years ago, so I didn’t have to pay for shipping to Canada (which would have probably been dreadful, especially when you add in customs). However, even if I had to pay shipping, it’s definitely worth it. It just perfectly fits my 34-string Gerhard Wanney harp in its case; the bungee cords that come attached to it just barely stretch far enough, so if you have a bigger harp you might need extensions. However, although they’re just long enough, due to the shape of the harp there’s still a fair bit of give, so I can slip in a few extra things like a folding chair, a little battery-powered amp, and/or book bag and a water bottle snugged up next to the harp. It can apparently handle up to a 300 lb load, but I’ve never come close to that.

Things I like about it:

It collapses down to a managable shape and size, and even comes with a carry bag (although the wheels on mine are usually so dirty that I tend to leave it out of its case most of the time).

It is really easy to set up (once you’ve practiced a couple of times), and even easier to collapse again. You can do a lot of the functions one-handed if absolutely necessary.

It handles off-road terrain with surprising ease. Most of the time I’ve needed to lug my harp the equivalent of a couple city blocks, it’s been down a dirt road (e.g. at the local pioneer village), through a park complete with mud (this past weekend’s folk festival), or up and down grassy or pebbly slopes (some of the resorts I play at).

Even when pushing one-handed, it’s relatively easy to control, even at a brisk walking pace. This is very important when trying to wend your way through unruly crowds of festival goers who will completely ignore you and your heavy burden, no matter what you might think about the love-the-earth granola types being kinder and gentler. I suspect they’re just distracted by all the lovely, interesting, colourful things going on around them; being one of that sort myself this is no means meant as a slur against…. oooh, look, shiny! I’ll be right back…

Ahem. Okay, back on topic. If you do a lot of regular gigging, or if you think you might ever be called upon to play somewhere without car access (which happens far, far more often than you might think), get a trolley/cart /dolly – whatever you want to call it. It might just save your life (or at least, your shoulders and your sanity).

Gig Story #1, Part Two – You can never predict the weather

Oops, it really has been a while since the last post, hasn’t it. Well, I can honestly say that I was quite busy, mostly with harping. As of now we’ve hit our busiest 6-week stretch, gig wise. Mostly on weekends, but on weekdays I’m up before the dawn to drive my boo to work, and lots of other things have been clamouring for my attention. But that’s poor excuse! So here we go, part two of my gig woes from last weekend.

Saturday was fun with a golf cart; Sunday turned into fun with weather. To start with, we were breathing a sigh of relief on the drive in, not in spite of, but because it was pouring buckets. You see, one of the worst things for a musician booked to play outdoors is if the weather is iffy. If nature isn’t actively throwing rain or lightning down at you, the couple will always choose to be outdoors anyhow – no matter how dark the sky is, no matter how the wind doth blow. Good conditions are: sunny (as long as there’s some hint of shade), or driving rain (then there’s no doubt about it being inside). That kind of gentle grey day, where the sky looks dim but benign and there’s no scent of rain in the air, can be okay too, since it’s often better than baking in the sun.

This was not an iffy day. Our windshield wipers were on full, tires splashing through puddles. That is, until we got to our destination. Our unease began to curdle in our tummies as we realized, the rain had not got this far yet. The sky was rolling with dark, foreboding clouds, the wind was howling – but no rain yet. When we pulled up to the main building, sure enough, we could see through the trees, a whole bunch of white chairs, set up down in a quaint little valley.


Gig Story #1, Part One: Always bring the trolley

…And be prepared for anything.

This was one of those weekends. I only had two weddings (typical for me for this time of year), but it felt like each one lasted an eternity. They were both in lovely, picturesque locations; well, as lovely as golf courses can be, anyhow. There were lakes and waterfalls and expensive decorations. And each one became its own special little hell for at least some of the time I was there. It wasn’t that the people weren’t nice – in both cases, I’d had nothing but positive communications with the couples up to that point. In one case, I knew the groom-to-be and had even played with him on occasion. They were both just prime examples of all the unexpected things that can happen at weddings, all piling up on top of each other.

The first one seemed like a really neat idea; it was the first time I’d played for a surprise ceremony. The bride-and-groom-to-be had given their entire family the impression they’d eloped to Las Vegas and been married there, and that this was to be a post-wedding reception. They were told to meet in a tent by the lake to see a “wedding movie”. What they got to see instead, was me, and a pretty view of the lake, covered in water lilies. It was the getting there that was the fun part.

To start with, it was one of those elite private golf courses that don’t even have a proper sign out front. I’d actually pulled over to the side of the road, starting to feel that oh crap I’ve missed the turn, but I looked at every single road sign, where the heck is it, kind of feeling. After consulting the map, I decided to go just a bit further before turning around. Of course, there is was, only a few hundred feet away. The turnoff to this very fancy golf-course was marked by a cheap sign on a stick, that seemed to have been printed exclusively for the day. If I’d actually been going highway speed at the time, I probably would have missed it.

But all is well so far. I’m there, I’m still on time. Which reinforces Rule #1 – Always give yourself more time than you need; especially when going to an unfamiliar location. I pull in, park, go in to the reception area, and am told where I’m playing – down a long, windy path that cars are not allowed on. Hmm. This was not covered in any of my conversations with the couple. And of course, having not needed the trolley much at all this summer, it had quite slipped my mind to even think of bringing it. The only alternative was to get driven there by one of the friendly staff – in a golf cart. Now before you think, what fun! Think about how big a golf cart is. Designed to carry, at most, a couple of golf bags, a driver, and a passenger. This one was the kind with a bit of a cargo space in the back, which the harp did not fit in, of course. So I got to sit twisted around, with one arm holding onto the harp case and as many straps as I could reach, all held in a death grip, as we bounced our way down to the tent.