When the Weather Outside is Frightful

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Tips for Playing and Feeling Your Best at Winter Gigs

Dufort Icicle Illustration

by Cherie Yurco

Few can forget the images of Yo-Yo Ma at President Obama's inauguration, performing in frigid 30-degree weather along with Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill. The musicians didn't appear to be cold, but you had to wonder how they resisted shivering.

Below freezing is probably a little too cold for most musicians, but still, winter gigs can be fun, even if it's as simple as caroling with friends. Before you commit to any cold weather gig, ask some questions to determine just what the conditions will be like. If you will be on a stage, will it be covered or in some way shielded from the elements? How long will you be expected to play and will there be breaks where you can go inside for a few minutes to warm up?

Your Body

It is common sense to dress in removable layers for the performance. You will likely be colder when you first arrive, than after you've played for a while. It is important not to sweat--moisture robs the body of heat. As an added protection against moisture, consider wearing some type of microfiber shirt as a first layer.

Don't forget to wear a hat. Though scientists have dispelled the myth that 45% of our body heat is lost through the head, they did find that the top part of our head is more sensitive to the cold. So a hat can make a big difference in how comfortable you feel.

Cold hands are another source of discomfort in the cold and this can be a tricky problem for musicians. Before your gig, you may want to experiment with thin or fingerless gloves. There are specially designed gloves for both drummers and guitarists. Another option is to keep disposable hand warmers in your pockets to give your hands a quick warm-up whenever you have a break from playing.

Don't forget to protect your lips, especially if you will be playing a wind instrument. That means preventing chapping by using lip balm or petrolatum-based ointment. Don't just apply it on the day of the gig; moisturize daily throughout the winter and allow your lips to regain moisture while you sleep by applying each night before bed. Also, resist licking your lips as it can cause them to dry out.

It is still possible to get sunburn in the winter, especially when sunlight reflects off snow, so cover any exposed skin with sunscreen and don't forget your shades.

Your Throat

If you will be singing in the cold, be sure to drink plenty of fluids in the days and hours preceding the gig. Bring a water bottle to stay hydrated. You may not feel as thirsty in the cold weather, but winter weather can actually be more drying to your throat. You may even want to set up a humidifier in your home to keep your airway regularly moisturized.

When you arrive, try to keep your throat warm by wearing a scarf and breathing through your nose. If it is very cold out, you may even want to pull the scarf up in front of your mouth and nose and breathe through it when you're not singing. This helps keep your throat warm, plus it traps the water vapor you exhale and recycles it when you inhale. Even after taking these precautions, don't be surprised if the cold affects your vocal range.

Your Instrument

Most instruments will perform adequately in the cold and won't be harmed, as long as the temperature is not too extreme and they are not subjected to repeated temperature fluctuations. Arrive at the gig early enough to let your instrument reach the outdoor temperature before attempting to tune it. You may also have to tune more frequently in the cold.

Following the gig, let your instrument gradually warm up by leaving it in an intermediate-temperature area (such as a garage, entranceway, or your car) before bringing it into a heated room. If you plan on doing frequent cold weather gigs you may want to invest in a separate instrument. Carbon fiber string instruments, though costly, are more cold tolerant. Certain drumheads, such as Remo's WeatherKing, are also designed to be weather-resistant.

When It's Just Too Cold

In the end, even the top-notch musicians at the inauguration knew it was just too cold for their instruments to hold true pitch and a digital recording was broadcast to the crowd in the National Mall, as well as over television.

You should know your limit as well. Everyone's tolerance is different, so do some experimentation to find out how cold is too cold for you. Don't accept a gig when the weather is likely to be outside your comfort zone. After all, if you are spending more energy shivering than playing, you probably won't sound your best.

In support of International Drum Month, Making Music and Roland are working together to give away a free drum kit! Just visit http://www.makingmusicmag.com/contests/digital_drums/ to enter -- no purchase necessary, we just want to promote the benefits of drumming!

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