2010: a year in reflection

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo traveled and performed in three continents: Europe, Asia, and North America in 2010. Among the highlights were house concerts, concerts in churches, collaboration with other artists, and showing others how to produce concerts.


As the last blog post in 2010, we would like to thank all readers for reading, referring, commenting, and supporting this blog. 2010 has been an incredible year for our piano guitar duo. We have never traveled as extensively in any year as this one. We have never collaborated with so many people as this year. We have never had such a variety of gigs.

Monument House in Utrecht, Netherlands
Monument House in Utrecht, Netherlands

We began the year in the Netherlands with our usual concerts.

In February, we made a weekend trip to Belgium to open a new exhibition with a selection of solo, duo, and improvisation in beautiful historic Brugge. It was one of several collaborations with other artists.

In April, we made a whirlwind tour of Taiwan, introducing ourselves to the Taipei Rotary Club and a string quartet in Taipei.

From January to April, we coached new house concert hosts on how to produce concerts from their homes, culminating in our debut of the 30-minute long Grand Potpourri National to open a new concert series and the release of our first CD Summer in the home of an artist.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo CD Summer
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo CD Summer

In May, we organised our biggest house concert yet: a dozen musicians in 4 different concerts in one day! The Glass Vase Concert was free entry with cover art commissioned for auction. The bonus was the chef-catered Egyptian dinner for 50 people, who queued for seconds.

All the insights from our experience of producing house concerts and interviews with others were presented in a paper to economists at an international conference in Copenhagen in June.

Besides performing as a duo, we also worked with other musicians such as French horn player Emile Kaper and American cellist Stephanie Hunt. We found that piano and guitar worked well with other instruments and the audiences love the idea. We programmed one house concert in Amsterdam with our duo, Robert’s solo guitar of Bach Chaconne, piano and cello, and finally piano, guitar, and cello.

In September, we traveled to Zeeland in the southwest coast of the Netherlands to give 5 concerts in 3 days. It was a busy month, made busier by our reluctance to cancel any concerts including those that took us by surprise and decided upon last minute (impromptu).

The highlight of the year was undoubtedly the coast-to-coast America Tour, from Boston to Sacramento in 5.5 weeks. We thank our hosts, guests, and everyone who made this tour happen. We had no idea it would be so empowering and fantastic.

What next? Who knows? We bought ourselves one way tickets to paradise and started a new blog to lure our friends to come visit us. We look forward to seeing our friends from Davis, Houston, Seattle, and Nebraska in the first few months of 2011.

Hope you have enjoyed these blog posts. 2011 promises to be an entirely different year.



Piano and guitar in the Monument House Utrecht, Netherlands
Piano and guitar in the Monument House Utrecht, Netherlands

How to book a concert tour (part 3): constraints and objectives

In part 3 of “how to book a concert tour” Anne Ku advises musicians to set constraints and objectives beforehand. This helps focus the way the tour is put together.

In part 2 of this blog series on “how to book a concert tour for yourself” I discussed the four levels of contacts to approach for help. I realise that it’s somewhat unconventional to do so.

Most musicians would contact the concert producers and venue owners directly by blitzing them with generic, templated e-mails. Any replies would then be followed up. While this may be the fast and efficient way, I prefer to know who I’m writing to. That’s why I advised to look into other indirect approaches to getting a concert. It may take more time, but in the end, it’s more rewarding as relationships get formed and built.

Bouquets after a concert in the Netherlands
Bouquets after a concert in the Netherlands

Now that you have your sizzle and contact list, how do you go about getting concerts?

Let’s take a step back and set the constraints and objectives of your tour.

What are the earliest and latest dates of your tour? In other words, give yourself deadlines. For us, we had to arrive in the USA by 21st October 2010 or else our visas would expire worthless. For that reason, we were happy to get a concert on 21st October 2010. This meant we had to arrive by then. We also fixed a date to arrive in Maui, by Thanksgiving.

What are the must visit places on your tour? You can set your priorities by deciding on people you want to see and places you want to visit. In our case, we chose to begin with New England in the Fall — a top tourist attraction. It was that time of the year that was the prettiest to visit Massachusetts. We spent the first two weeks of our tour in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. As neither of us had been to Phoenix, Denver, Davis, or Sacramento, we looked forward to new experiences. Finally, we plugged in other cities where we had friends and/or concerts booked: Durham, Houston, and San Francisco.

Decide on your objectives of your concert tour.

If you want to cover your expenses, be sure to book enough gigs and sell out your CDs. Try to get as many concerts in one area as possible. We gave 4 concerts in 2 days in Phoenix. There was one day in Houston that we clocked in 2 radio shows, a duo concert, and a guitar solo concert.

We approached our America Tour very differently from tours in the past that were primarily vacation with a concert or concerts that did not cover the expenses (Slagelse 2004, Cape Town 2005, Cortona 2006, Houston 2007, London 2008, Madrid 2009, and Taipei 2010).  We obtained visas for the USA to work not play. We were not on vacation though it felt like we were because of the generous hospitality provided by our hosts. All concerts that we gave were paid for — either by the hosts or the audiences, except those that we volunteered ourselves for, e.g. MD Andersen Cancer Clinic, and radio shows.

Besides covering the expenses, we wanted to broaden our network. We did so by contacting composers, producers, patrons, performers, and just about anyone who loved classical music enough to be involved. We reconnected with old friends, classmates, and colleagues we had not seen in years. They introduced us to people they knew. We made new contacts at concerts. It was very enriching to meet people who so supported the arts — face to face.

Back to the first question I posed in this 3-part series on booking a concert tour for yourself: which comes first — the concert or the tour?

If you get invited to give a concert somewhere, see if you can stay longer and give other concerts.

If you want to go somewhere (for vacation, training, family visit, etc), see if you can book concerts while you’re there. The spin-offs are considerable: leads for concerts in the future, hospitality, reciprocation, and surprises.

Feel free to comment or ask questions about this topic via the LEAVE A REPLY box below.


How to book a concert tour (part 2): content before contact

In part 2 of this series of self-help guide to booking a concert tour for yourself, Anne Ku examines the different kinds of people to contact for gigs. She identifies four groups.

In part 1, I mentioned the need to put together a sizzle. It’s the equivalent of a menu in a restaurant. Your menu consists of your repertoire. You are the chef. Describe what you can do to turn the indecisive to the decisive, convert a stranger to a friend, and turn your audience into fans.

Monument House Concert Series: outdoor concert in garden, May 2010
Monument House Concert Series: outdoor concert in garden, May 2010

Once you are happy with what you have to offer, you are ready to contact the people who can help you. There are several levels of contacts.

1- People who know you and have offered to help you before

These are the people who are committed to getting you a gig. They may not necessarily be the ones who book you for a concert, but they will help make that happen.

We knew our friends in Houston and Phoenix wanted to help us. They told us so in the past. Although we did not know exactly when we would arrive, we tried to keep them updated of our plans. They in turn checked with their contacts — the ones who could actually arrange concerts for us.

2- People who are willing to reciprocate

Barter is an activity older than cash payments for goods and services. Anticipated reciprocation is implicit bartering of getting something you want now for giving something the other party wants in the future. Think about what you have to offer. You have your contacts in your neck of the woods. Can you help others in the future?

If you ask other performing musicians to help you get gigs for your tour, you are implicitly offering to help them in some way in the future. Composers want their works performed. Performers want to perform elsewhere. Concert producers want to be introduced to new musicians they don’t know already. Audiences are eager for new experiences.

Ask yourself if there is something you can bring to the table.

3- People you want to meet and collaborate with

If you are like me, you would have been following and perhaps corresponding with interesting people with interesting ideas. I do this through Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Often one thing leads to another, and I stumble upon somebody I’d like to meet. Use your concert tour to meet these people.

One such person was Chong Kee Tan, who started a new yahoo discussion group for organisers of classical music house concerts. Our online discussions on hosting, audience development, and other issues pertaining to the economics of house concerts led me to ask if he would consider organising a concert for us in San Francisco.

This is like asking a stranger to do something for you — quite unheard of surely! The preparation for a concert allows you to collaborate with the person and get to know him or her better. Indeed by the time we finally met in person, it felt like we already knew each other.

Ask yourself this:

Is there someone you want to meet that you can involve in your concert tour?

4- People who produce concerts or own concert venues

This is the group of people most musicians immediately think of when they contemplate getting themselves booked for concerts. I put this as the last category because everyone else is thinking the same. Your sizzle really must sizzle and dazzle and spark. You are competing with other musicians that want to perform.

I heard that arts organisations and big concert halls require a year’s notice for concert bookings. We did not have a year to plan our tour. We did not even have time to apply for funding. We were self-funded.

The first concert that got booked became the third concert on our tour. It sold out a month before the performance date. The house concert series in rural Connecticut is well-run and well-attended. Our second concert came from a lead from producer of that house concert series. The third concert that got booked became the opening concert of our tour — due to a cancellation in a new concert series in Boston.

Once you have identified who you want to contact, think about the best way to contact them. Some react to phone calls. Some to e-mails. Some prefer to skype. Do not, I repeat, do not send out a generic e-mail and expect a reply. I have received many of these as co-producer of the Monument House Concert Series in the Netherlands. I prefer the personal approach.

Next: how to book a concert tour (part 3) constraints and objectives

How to book a concert tour (part 1): a peace of mind and the sizzle

How do you book a concert tour for yourself? If you are a classical musician who is not internationally famous, how would you get someone to book you for a concert where you have to travel a great distance to? And when you’re there, you don’t want to just give one concert. A concert tour is a journey of more than one concert. Here are the first two steps to the dilemma.

Back in early October 2010, I posed the circularity of booking a concert tour. It’s the chicken or the egg question. Do you book the tour first or the concert?

In other words, do you get the gigs lined up before you book the flights and cancel other commitments? Or do you book the flights before the fares go up and then hope that you can fill your tour with concert bookings?

Continue reading “How to book a concert tour (part 1): a peace of mind and the sizzle”

Wanted: piano in Maui

The pianist laments for her piano left behind. There are pianos to borrow, to rent, and to buy. But she longs for the piano she cannot have, not to perform but to practise with no one listening.

How long can I stand not having a piano to practise on?

There’s an upright piano (a spinet) at the community centre nearby where I can practise in the afternoons. The first time I tried the piano, it was out of tune. After it got tuned for our short concert, I tried it again. Several groups were playing mah jong. They didn’t mind and even applauded after Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the only sheet music I had that was remotely Christmassy. The mah jong players invited me to snack with them during the break and gave me Haiku tangerines. “Come back next week,” they said when I was leaving.

A kind lady offered her Steinway grand in south Kihei. It’s at least a half-hour drive to her beautiful home. My sister told me of another place in Kihei with a grand piano that I’ve yet to visit.

There are many churches nearby. I’m sure there are pianos I could use, but first I need to enquire.

Still, I get tempted when I see a piano for sale. Perhaps I just want a piano in my home and not anywhere else.

On Craigslist I spotted pianos for sale: an upright piano — a medium-brown-coloured spinet left behind when the house got sold. The new owners initially advertised it for $300 two weeks ago. Now they changed it to $250 or better offer. I imagine it sitting in the corner in my living room. I would wake up and play it to my heart’s content.

The piano reminds me of the Yamaha console my father had bought brand new for our family. We all learned to play the piano. My mother told me that she took lessons with us because we were the first and only students of our Japanese piano teacher (at that time.) She stopped when our teacher recruited other students. Sadly my father sold the piano after we had grown up and left home. I guess I’m still pining for that piano.

Yamaha upright in Okinawa, Japan
Yamaha upright in Okinawa, Japan

Buying a piano is not a trivial thing. In my article “Buying a piano: a decision maker’s guide,” I advised buyers to get a professional assessment (by a piano technician) before deciding. I did not add that there are costs of moving, tuning, advertising and selling when one leaves.

Why buy a piano if you can rent one? In Houston, I rented a Baldwin upright on a monthly basis for 14 months. I did not have to find a mover or a tuner. One phone call and it arrived. Another phone call and it left. What a joy it was to play! What a joy it was to compose!

Rented Baldwin upright piano in Houston, Texas
Rented Baldwin upright piano in Houston, Texas

What I really want is not a piano in my home but access to a piano in a room (nearby) where I can practise without an audience. When I’m aware of the presence of someone else listening, my playing becomes a performance. What I really miss is being able to practise on a good instrument close by, whenever I want, and for as long as I want.

The guitarist has no longing as such. His guitar is always a heart beat away, anywhere he goes.

Holiday greetings: the multi-part e-mail saga

There are four steps in everything: content, method, delivery, recipient. Compare holiday greetings to concertising. Example of multi-part e-mail holiday greeting of a high school friend with five kids.

It is a real treat to receive a holiday greeting that clearly shows the effort put into creating it. From conception of the greeting to delivery, the sender goes through a multi-step process:

  1. what do we want to share? message, photo, music, art, story, video
  2. how do we want to create or package it? online format (PDF, e-mail, jpg, mp3, mp4) or offline (hard copy)
  3. how do we want to send it? e-mail, web page, youtube, post
  4. who do we send it to? mailing list

We go through the same 4-step process in our line of work: arranging concerts.

  1. what do we have to offer?  the programme, the repertoire
  2. in what format do we want to deliver it? concert, lecture recital, master class, workshop, individual lessons
  3. how do we want to publicise it? posters, e-mails, snail mail, website, social media network (Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter)
  4. who do we send it to? mailing list, people who have not received our emails or attended our events before

There are innovative ways to imprint your own ideas in each step.

In the past two days, I received a 6-part e-mail with photo attachments from a classmate I haven’t seen in since high school. Karen is one of the few people I know who has managed to create a satisfying career from family life. Besides being the wife of a medical doctor, she has also home schooled her kids. Home schooling requires that a parent take on an additional role as teacher. I’m guessing that it can be very challenging but also rewarding at the same time.

Karen introduced her five children in her 6-part e-mail in a way that made me want to meet them in person. The good news is — they will be coming to Maui in April.

Her life is a contrast from that of two other friends in Singapore. Both have five kids also but not home schooled. One is a stay-at-home mother. The other is a full-time career woman. I need to catch up with them to see how they are.

I suppose this blog is like a multi-part e-mail. I don’t seem to be running out of things to say. I do want to end the “holiday greetings” posts so that I can start blogging about how to organise a concert tour.

Holiday greetings: by skype

Skype chats or skyping allows a two-way conversation online, for free, and the chance to catch up during the holidays.

The friend, who told me about skype as early as its beta version release, has also given me great advice about other things. Little did I know how essential this “typing in the sky” has become, especially nowadays on the portable iphone.

Skype is one of those must-haves if you’re traveling a lot. It’s a free application that is more versatile and powerful than MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and other online chats (including Facebook chat). It’s also possible to see each other via a Webcam and also talk to each other via microphone and headphones.

Our first concert on this tour was confirmed on skype. The producer of the North Meadow House Concert Series in Connecticut showed me his 18th century farm house on webcam. It was that concert booking of 23 October 2010 confirmed in mid-August 2010 that determined our first destination for the America Tour. We booked our first plane ticket about a month later for Boston.

Skype was also instrumental in finet-uning and concluding our travel arrangements for our trip to Taiwan in April 2010. Once again, we chatted with someone we’ve not yet met but who was to become a very important part of our musical journey.

This morning, as I multi-tasked in eating my daily breakfast of freshly cut tropical fruit and checking e-mails while resisting the urge to jump into the Pacific Ocean (because the view from the balcony is so tempting), I decided to send off holiday greetings to my friends on skype.

Happy Holidays!

I’m starting a new blog called MauiTips to tempt my friends to come visit.