1 November 2015


When musicians travel to a performance, what do they take with them? Their musical instrument, obviously; and probably a special costume and a music stand and music; and maybe instrument spares, such as strings in case one breaks.

But what other things   perhaps very unmusical  do they consider essential?

I’ll give you my own Top Thirteen Tips.

1.   Thermal underwear! At most times of the year in England, if you know you will be playing outdoors, wearing thermal underwear is a wise precaution. You would be surprised how cold you get on a bandstand, with no opportunity to keep warm by running around.

2.   Clothes pegs. These are invaluable in securing music or notices, especially on a windy day.

3.   An optician’s tiny screwdriver. Many musical instruments have – somewhere or other – important fiddly screws that tend to work loose at awkward moments.

4.   Elastic bands. These have a hundred uses, especially for repairs. Never be without them.

5.   McDonald’s coffee stirrers. Maybe it’s just a foible of mine; but I find these ideal for poking around – for example, dislodging muck from mouthpieces.

6.   Insect repellent. Having been chewed to pieces by insects when playing near shrubberies at garden parties on warm English summer evenings, I quickly learned to apply insect repellent generously to the ears, neck, wrists and ankles. That usually does the trick.

7.   A biro. Hardly a gig goes by when you don’t have to make a note of something: a person you will need to contact, some music you need to sort out, details of a new booking and so on.

8.    A diary. You need to know exactly when you will be where. Otherwise, how will you be able to deal with anyone who may be interested in booking you?

9.   A bottle opener. This can a be a life-saver.

10. A drink (just in case nothing is offered at the gig).

11. A mini first-aid kit. Sudden damage to a finger, for example, could make playing very difficult.

12. Toiletries ad lib, especially teeth-cleaning equipment, and even more especially a toothpick. If you are a trumpet player and you are given a piece of crumbly cake, it is hopeless trying to play afterwards. Clean your teeth first or the trumpet will soon get blocked and the valves will also begin to stick.

13. Regardless of the weather, an umbrella and/or raincoat. I learned the hard way. I set off in minimal light clothing on a hot summer's day to play at an event in a marquee in the grounds of a stately home. During the gig, thunder, lightning and torrential rain developed. At the end, I was soaked through to the skin as I made my way back to the Car Park.

I know musicians who take much more: cables, torches, urinal bottles, trolleys, spare shirts and ties, hammers and wrenches.

I added recently some small pieces of wood to my own range. These are for placing under the feet of chairs. Why on earth will they be needed? Well, I’ve had enough of being asked to play for a couple of hours outdoors on sloping or unstable grass surfaces. This frequently happens at village fêtes and garden parties. Also they could be useful for holding doors open while colleagues unload drum kits, etc.

We have sometimes been on lawns so pocked with holes that the back legs of our chairs have suddenly sunk into the ground and – in the middle of a tune – you topple over backwards. It happened once to me. Very funny. But it’s also a health and safety issue.

Almost as bad is having a chair on a sloping piece of ground. Throughout the concert, your back and legs become increasingly painful as you brace yourself against slipping in one direction or another. It’s hard to focus on music-making when you are in pain.

Other musicians have told me they take the obvious (spare reeds, spare cables and leads), but also: tiny flashlights with battery, thimbles, a multi-tool, cigarette papers to soak up condensation inside clarinet holes, insulating tape, cable ties, and biscuits. Reader Sam sent me this picture of the smaller of the gig bags that he uses. He also has a larger bag containing more tools, cleaning materials, cables, leads, etc.

Sam also writes: A useful box for keeping your essential items together is a VHS cassette case - I got this idea from a theatre sound engineer. I think these are just the right size for the basic kit you described, and fit easily into a gig bag or even a coat pocket. If you can't find a case at home, I've seen charity shops selling videos for 10p or 20p. Buy one, throw away the contents and the label and you're in business!