Last year, I performed at 13 Cambridge May Week events with the Olsen Jazz Band (OJB) and HoJO. To provide a helpful reference to others, I wrote a blog post describing the ups and downs ranging from the well-organised colleges to the total organisational disasters. This year, I applied that experience and had a much better week with my new band, Radio Americana! Despite the best of plans a few problems did arise with contracts and sounchecks. Let me tell you about them so that you can be better-prepared for your own Cambridge May Week experience.
Details in the contracts
Every event comes with a contract that clearly states what the performers are entitled to before and during the event. One of the most important aspects is the declaration of what equipment will be available at the stage, such as a PA, microphones, drums, a keyboard, etc. At all but one event, we were not provided all of the equipment that was stated in the contract. For example, one college promised us a Nord2 keyboard, but there was no keyboard at all. The next college that we played that night had a terrible keyboard (not the good one listed in the contract) and no drum kit. When we pointed out the issues to the people running sound, their first instinct was always to take equipment from another stage.
Check out my smile in the photo below. That is the smile of a professional band leader having to re-arrange all of the set plans in his mind while trying to spot if the missing keyboard and five music stands are on their way (they never arrived). We played an excellent show and the audience had a great time, but the unnecessary stress was ridiculous. (The simple fix for the committee is to designate crew members to be part-time stagehands that move equipment to where it needs to be at specific times. For example, “At 9:45pm you need to go to the main stage and move the keyboard to the Garden Stage).
Incidentally, there was a jazz big band waiting to take the stage soon after us (also expecting a digital piano and music stands). The lesson I learned was that many Cambridge May Ball contracts are not dependable when it comes to technical specifications. The amount of organisation required often exceeds what the committees are capable of providing. (One of our escorts referred to the organisation as an “omni-shambles”. I pocked that term for future use!)
Always insist on a sound check. From the audience’s perspective, you will sound better. From the band’s perspective, having a good balance in your monitors from the first note is a necessity not a luxury. It also give you a chance to see if the stage has the equipment promised in the contracts. There is a unique May Week problem that performers should be aware of. Since a limited number of sound companies are stretched all over Cambridge, often covering several stages at the same college simultaneously, a lot of apprentice “sound guys” (sound boys?) get put in charge of running sound at the secondary stages. So the apprentices whose job it was to roll cables are suddenly in charge of huge productions with crates of gear. In general, if your band is playing on “The Main Stage” you can expect a much more efficient experience with the sound company A-team rather than if you are performing at a secondary garden stage operated by the D-team.
At one soundcheck, we were the first band scheduled for that day and we thought we’d be in and out. In reality, the D-team sound guys were running an hour behind and still struggling to figure out which cable goes where. When we returned later to perform that night, it was like they never noted our settings at all.
Notice in the photo below that my saxophones are there (in front of the bass drum) but I am not. That’s because I spent the first ten minutes walking back and forth through the audience with the fake smile on my face trying to convince the sound guy in the back that several of our monitor speakers were not working all and so we could hear each other. “Check it again, there should be sound” is now my trigger-word. (The solution for the committee is to find out exactly when the sound company will be ready to begin soundcheck, since that occurs some time after they are contracted to start setting up their equipment).
So what’s the lesson here? If you are not playing on the main stage with the A-team sound guys, be extra vigilant during the sound check and get to the stage at least 30 minutes before you are supposed to perform. Listen to the sound balance from the audience and the side of the stage so you can gage if the sound is too ____ (fill in the blank) and then tell the sound guy how you would like to come across (e.g. quieter, cleaner, less bass, etc). Remember that most of the May Ball sound engineers are amazing partners to work with, but some stages may instead offer you their overwhelmed understudies. Don’t be afraid to bully the latter into getting what you want.
By the end of May Week
After it was all done, we performed at five May Balls and several extravagant garden parties. While that is a smaller number than I performed at last year with the Olsen Jazz Band, the experience was much better and our shows were a huge success. Instead of playing at every event possible for what ever money was offered, we negotiated for more money by promising and putting on amazing performances that the guests loved.
Instead of accepting whatever performance times were offered to us, we negotiated with the May Ball committees to determine times. That way we were able to play at more-desirable time slots that would allow us to perform at multiple events in the same night without having to run between events or wait around until 4am.
Lastly, I have to give credit to Darwin College for being perfect two years in a row. It is one of the nicest and most intimate May Balls and they have always provided us with stress-free experiences.
Thank you for reading my story. Feel feel free to share your experiences or leave comments at the bottom of the page.