If you are planning a company holiday party, whether to have live music or not can be a difficult — and expensive — decision. Then choosing the right band or performer becomes a top priority. But there’s more to think about, says Steve Kramer, a pianist and band leader who has performed at many such parties. “Music should never be an afterthought; it sets the tone of the entire event.”
Rather than think about music as something that’s added to the event, think of it as an integral part of the party. Ask yourself, how can music help create the mood of the party and make it an enjoyable experience for the guests?
In addition to his current bookings, Kramer has played with many jazz greats and worked with top performance artists. He was the pianist for Artie Shaw’s reconstructed band; assistant music director for the Ice Capades; and musical director for the Trenton chapter of the National Dance Institute program. He has worked as a band leader and rehearsal pianist for several plays, cabarets, and musical reviews. Having played at countless venues, Kramer offers the following suggestions for party planners:
Ask and listen. When considering a band you’re not familiar with, ask for references. Most musicians will give you names of people they’ve played for and will have a social media presence or website with that information. If they perform locally, go hear them. If they have music samples on their website, listen to them.
Decide what you can afford, and what you’re willing to pay. If you’re booking a pianist, expect to pay $50 to $100 per hour; for a band, possibly $300 per hour, which means a band could cost $900 or more for an entire evening, depending on the experience and quality of the performers. Factors that could affect the total price include the number of hours they will perform, travel time, and whether the pianist has to bring his own keyboard. If you’re using an agency to provide the musicians, expect to pay an additional 10 to 20 percent, possibly more.
Share your agenda with the musician. He should know if there will be speakers, toasts, or awards. If so, will music be used to introduce the speakers? If there is a written program, the band leader should have a copy. Will the music be used for dancing, to serve as background, or both?
Put the music in the same room as the food and bar. That’s where most people will congregate and will enjoy the benefits of the music. Avoid having the musicians play in a separate room away from the social interaction.
Tune the piano. If your venue is providing this instrument, be sure it has been tuned recently. There’s nothing more agonizing than having to play an out-of-tune piano for four hours, Kramer says.
Confirm that outlets are available and working. Unless it is a very small party in a small room with acoustic instruments, the band will need electrical outlets for their equipment.
Agree on a dress code. Be clear if the musicians are expected to wear formal attire or clothing to match a party theme.
Plan for weather. If your party will be outside, insure that there is a protective structure for the musicians.
Trust the musician’s instincts. Kramer recalls the time he played at an outdoor wedding ceremony in New Hope. He sensed that it was going to rain and convinced the planner that he needed an indoor spot for himself and the equipment. He set up the keyboard in the reception room and placed the amps in the windows. Halfway through the ceremony, there was a cloudburst, and everyone dashed inside, where the wedding resumed. The party and guests were wet but the pianist dry and unruffled, the equipment unharmed.
When Kramer books a private party, he uses his own mental checklist of items to be addressed. He compares notes with the planner, and they usually work things out fairly quickly, he says. As a rule, he and the planner handle logistics over a phone call.
Today Kramer prefers to play solo piano or to lead a jazz trio at clubs or private parties. His favorite venues include Princeton’s Nassau Inn and the Gables on Long Beach Island, where he plays piano and meets performers through the Catch a Rising Star franchise and Surflight Theater.
Being informed about current events and culture contributes to your success as a performer, Kramer says. It’s rewarding when a well known guest unexpectedly walks into a party or club and you start playing a piece that acknowledges him or his accomplishments. The guest will usually give you a nod and maybe a tip, his way of saying, “Thanks, I got it.” He recalls playing the theme from Mash when Donald Sutherland walked into the Nassau Inn, and the time he played “On the Sunny Side of the Street” when Laurance Rockefeller walked in. On another occasion, he played the theme from “Coming to America” for Washington Post columnist and author Art Buchwald, who had recently won a lawsuit and financial compensation from Paramount Pictures for his contribution to the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy.
While playing music for an audience is rewarding, nothing is more gratifying than sharing his love of music with students, says Kramer, who teaches at the Princeton School District; Mercer County College, and also teaches private lessons in improvisation. Prior to teaching at Princeton, he taught at Hightstown’s Peddie School for 20 years. He also taught at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Westminster Conservatory in Princeton.
“It’s great to see a child who once had no clue about being a musician and then see him develop and eventually go on to high school or college bands or even to professional music careers,” he says. “When I listen to the Princeton High School Band and hear my former students, I feel good. Sharing the gift of music with kids, that’s the best.”
Kramer became interested in music at home growing up in Trenton. Kramer’s mother was a former dancer and his father a finance director for Hamilton Township. “My parents had great records in the house, jazz, Broadway shows, and opera — artists like Ramsey Lewis, Tony Bennett, Caruso, Oscar Peterson, Frank Sinatra. And when I was a young kid, my father took me to see some great players like Dave Brubeck, Gary Burton, Monty Alexander, George Shearing, some of whom I got to meet years later when I was on the road,” he says.
Kramer understands the relationship between teacher and student. “I received a great music foundation from Trenton Central High teachers Tom Passerella and Tom Gryce, as well as my private teacher Dick Braytenbah,” he says. After high school, Kramer studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, earning a bachelor’s degree in music composition, and at the College of New Jersey where he earned teaching credentials.
In his early career days, he worked nights at venues in Chambersburg and at the Lambertville Station, and often worked days at his family’s business, Kramer’s Bakery, which was started by to his great grandfather, around the early 1900s. Today, Kramer lives in Hamilton with his wife, Ellen.
When asked what qualities contribute to a musician’s success, Kramer ranks attitude alongside of musical ability. Be client oriented, he says. Know your audience and the occasion, and your role in making it successful. Sometimes you’re the show, and sometimes you’re the background. And the flip side of that for the party planner: Communicate your needs and your vision.