In addition to predictable radio playlists, November and December conjure unique holiday gig opportunities, regardless of your instrument or genre
If every other song you hear on the radio is something like “Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie and Bing Crosby, Hall and Oates swinging through “Jingle Bell Rock,” or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra shredding up their reinvention of “Carol of the Bells” — chances are the holiday season has begun. In addition to predictable radio playlists, these months also conjure up a unique, once-a-year oasis of holiday gig opportunities. Regardless of your instrument or genre, there can be great potential to take advantage of the festivities before the moment fades away, come January. Here are some tips from experienced gigging musicians on how to find, land, and prep for choice holiday gigs.
Make sure your repertoire includes standard holiday songs
If you’re going to embark on a holiday gig spree, you’ll need plenty of season-appropriate songs in your repertoire. So the first step is to amass a holiday playlist.
“People generally expect you to include the popular, not overtly religious holiday songs like ‘Silver Bells,’ ‘Sleigh Ride,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ and such,” says pianist and bandleader Glenn Pearson, who serves as president of Pearson Productions Inc. in Washington, DC. “It’s important to play tunes like that, ones that are instantly recognizable.”
Don’t be concerned that these songs may seem too clichéd. Holiday songs are expected at a holiday gig, and Pearson adds that “hearing those tunes makes people feel calm, and people like melodies that are familiar.”
… But play other material, too
Just because you’re playing a year-end gig doesn’t mean that every song has to be holiday-themed. “Primarily, my groups play the American Songbook — Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, mixed in with holiday music,” Pearson describes. “We also do jazz version of tunes that aren’t religious, but have a holiday feel to them, songs like ‘My Favorite Things.’”
“People do like the old standards, but it never hurts to write a new holiday song,” says drummer Dr. Sherrie Maricle, who plays percussion for the New York Pops orchestra and leads the Diva Jazz Orchestra. “It’s very hard to do, but it’s well worth a try.” Pearson echoes the sentiment: “Original material is fine, as long as it’s weaved in with music people already know.”
Both Pearson and Maricle also look outside of standard Christmas-themed music when building holiday repertoires. Maricle pulls out Kwanzaa songs for some gigs, while Pearson often plays a version of “Al Shlosha D’Varim,” which regularly delights Jewish members of his audience.
Make classic songs your own – tastefully
If you’re loathe to do a straightforward interpretation of “Deck The Halls” or “Jingle Bells,” consider this — one of the great things about such ubiquitous melodies is that they can handle a tremendous amount of reinvention and still be effective and recognizable.
For a great example of how a well-traveled Christmas tune can be hip, check out Jimmy Smith’s effortlessly cool “Jingle Bells” off of the album Christmas ’64. Another striking example of reinventing holiday classics is Tori Amos’ Midwinter Graces, an album on which the piano-woman goes deep into the roots of classic holiday songs with anthropological intensity, rebuilding them from the ground up. Maricle also cites a Michael Feinstein rendition of “Dreidel, Dreidel,” as one of the most “amazing, swinging, Sinatra-esque re-imaginings of a holiday song” she has ever heard. [Ed. note: Couldn’t find a streaming version of Feinstein’s “Dreidel” but did find this swinging version by Kenny Ellis.]
To make a holiday classic your own, try playing it in a different time signature, varying up some chord changes, slowing it down or speeding it up, or doing anything else that makes the tune feel more inviting to you as a performer. If you’re working with a band, Maricle recommends re-arranging or re-orchestrating a holiday song to fit your personal taste and style — and regardless of your lineup or genre, singing a well-worn melody in a different language can give it an entirely new feel, she says.
Re-interpreting a holiday classic with a unique genre or style can also be effective. Pearson will often give his holiday tunes either a classical, straight-ahead jazz, R&B, or gospel feel, depending on the vibe he gets from his audience at any given event.
If you’re playing a private party, just make sure that any experimentation you do stays within the borders of what your client wants; no matter how brilliant your death metal version of “O Holy Night” may be, unless the bank CEO who booked you signed off, perhaps that rendition should wait for another gig.
Have a demo package ready
It’s important for potential clients to hear you in action, especially playing live, so be sure to have some recorded music easily accessible. Pearson recommends that you have “a sample CD or a link to a website with a picture and a brief bio. And when you’re pushing for holiday gigs, it helps to have one or two holiday tunes included, but make sure you have other material up there as well.”
Ready to gig? Reach out to local organizations
Even if you’ve never played a holiday gig in your life, there can still be plentiful opportunities to get some year-end gigging action. “One of the best ways to begin is to go to the local mall and ask whoever is programming music for the holidays to be on their list of performers,” recommends Pearson. Performing in such a high-visibility environment can also lead to further holiday bookings, he adds.
Pearson also recommends going to wherever you do business yourself — department stores, hotels, banks, restaurants, and beyond — and ask the management if they’re planning events for the holiday season. If the answer is yes, offer to play.
Another solid source of leads? “Go to the local Chamber of Commerce and ask them to recommend businesses that would be having holiday parties,” says Pearson. “Also, try local churches and synagogues and ask if they’re planning any non-religious services during the holidays where music is required.”
Often, communities sponsor alcohol-free “First Night” events, adds recording artist and songwriter Rachael Sage, who runs MPress Records and has played several such shows. “Those have always been great with a very family-oriented atmosphere. I would play one again in a heartbeat.” Many First Night celebrations welcome a variety of local performers, so be sure to do your research ahead of time and find out who to contact about booking opportunities.
Reach out to booking agents
“Many of my holiday gigs are for corporate parties, and it can be hard to solicit them without going through a booking agency,” says Maricle.
But how do you find an agent who will give you a shot? “Google ‘booking agent’ in your area and have a short demo ready — maybe just a minute or two,” Maricle advises. “Let them know that you have this fabulous duo or trio with an amazing holiday-themed show, that you can do up to six hours of music or however long, and what your ideal pricing scenario is.” Persistence is key, as is starting your outreach before the month of December — but even if you’re mostly met with rejections, even a single interested booking agent can get your holiday gigging career off to a promising start.
Mobilize word of mouth
As with any industry, personal recommendations can go a long way towards getting work. Did you play a stunning show at a local club last month — or did you recently lay down some well-received grooves for a friend’s engagement party? Don’t be afraid to touch base with former clients or fans who have enjoyed your work and let them know that you’re available for holiday opportunities. You never know who has a cousin who needs music for her law firm’s holiday party, or a friend who’s having trouble finding a chill Flamenco guitarist for his Christmas open house.
Keep the client in mind
When playing a private holiday event, don’t lose sight of the reason you are there in the first place. “If you get a holiday gig, your only job in this kind of scenario is to please the client,” says Maricle. “If they want to hear ‘Jingle Bells’ five thousand times in a row, that’s what you need to play. You’re not there to express your greatest artistry — you’re there to make people happy for a few hours. And it often pays well,” she adds. “Just play whatever you’re asked to play, and do it to the best of your ability. No client can ask for anything more than that.”
One important aspect of client management is making sure that you and your client agree on what’s expected of you, says Maricle. “Sometimes they’ll say beforehand that they don’t want a singer, but then we get to the gig, and suddenly they do want one,” she continues. “Don’t talk down to anybody, but just make sure that whoever you’re playing for is clear about what they expect.”
Dress the part
Many clients will expect musicians they hire to dress “festively,” says Pearson, so be sure to ask about attire. A holiday-friendly outfit could mean anything from slacks and a brightly-colored sweater to a white shirt and red bowtie, he describes. Sometimes, just wearing all black and a Santa hat will do the trick.
Create your own holiday event
While many holiday gigging opportunities occur at private parties and community-sponsored celebrations, not all do — case in point, Sage’s epic “Tchatchkes & Latkes” holiday show at Joe’s Pub in New York City. The unique event sold out and received write-ups in the New York Daily News, Time Out, and other outlets.
“I wrote special Hanukah-themed material and comedy and worked on the set, shpiel, and even props and costumes,” she says. “I also gave out fresh-cooked latkes and had a few other gimmicks — but overall, it was an eclectic celebration of the holidays in New York City, especially for the non-religious but ‘cultural’ Jew.”
While creating your own holiday event can mean putting in a great amount of work planning, rehearsing, and marketing, it can also give you the most creative freedom — both with the music you share and the aspect of the holiday season you choose to celebrate.
Michael Gallant writes, produces, sings, and plays keyboards for the indie rock band Aurical. He is also the founder of Gallant Music, a custom content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com.