17 October 2016

Post 438: PLAYING REQUESTS

It often happens - especially at less formal gigs - that bands receive requests from the audience to play particular tunes.

Should the band play requests or not?

I have come across bands who have a fixed playlist to which they adhere rigidly, refusing to take any requests. On the whole, I think this is a pity. However, I can appreciate that the musicians in such cases want to sound as competent as possible and want to be heard at their best, especially if they have a well-prepared, well-rehearsed programme.

Sometimes a band receives a request that seems crazy in the circumstances. For example, a trio comprising clarinet, guitar and string bass is asked to play South Rampart Street Parade - a number that requires a big band and, ideally, at least one powerful trombonist. Or you have a request to play Stranger on the Shore (a clarinet feature) at a time when there is no clarinetist in the line-up. The person making the request is thinking of the pleasure he derived from recordings and is unable to grasp the limitations of the instruments in front of him.

Surprisingly, I have seen some musicians attempt to oblige even when 'asked for the impossible' in this way; but the result is more often than not disappointing. So it is better to deflect such requests and explain why they are impractical.

An irritating experience that I'm sure many musicians will recognize is this: someone comes up to you and requests a tune; you agree and start playing it for him. Then you notice that he has wandered off into the distance and is in animated conversation with somebody, neither of them bothering to listen. What is the point of such requests? I have no idea. Maybe such people simply wish to show off to their friends that they actually know the name of at least one tune!

I have been present on occasions when a band has been requested to play a tune that is obviously not in its repertoire. Two or three of the musicians say they vaguely know it and the band agrees to 'give it a go'. The result has usually been messy and it would have been better if the band had simply declined the request. I accept that audiences seem to admire these brave attempts but on the whole I do not think it is good for a band in public performance to be seen struggling.

The tunes most often requested (in my experience) are When The Saints Go Marching In, Sweet Georgia Brown, Stranger on the Shore, Twelfth Street Rag and Tiger Rag. All bands can play these very readily - they have had to do so hundreds of times. Some musicians groan when they are asked to play When The Saints yet again; but it is their job to please the public, so their best tactic is to blot out memories of all previous performances and do their best to play the tune in a fresh and appealing manner.

On the whole, I think bands have to put the customer first and should welcome requests. But they should also be prepared to say a polite 'No' rather than risk making fools of themselves.