I had a gig last night and I was ready, so I thought.
I had my parts down, I knew the songs inside and out, had new strings on my guitar and had a copy of the set list printed out. But then I hit the stage and it all went to shit.
I couldn’t hear the bassist or my backing vocals, my solo boost pedal made my volume go up to 23 , my feet were frozen to the ground yet I knew I had to start moving around. My first solo came and I started shredding but noone was even paying attention. I started making weird faces and people looked frightened. And, that was just the first song.
Playing on a stage in front of people is something that many musicians don’t spend a lot of time preparing for. I sure don’t. I’ve played probably 500 or more shows in my life, so I assume I know what I’m doing. But, I don’t.
We might imagine being on stage and convince ourselves that it will all come naturally. But, for most of us, it doesn’t. And, we don’t often think about gear problems, what to say between songs and when, and other things that make up a live performance. For some, things do come naturally but for the many others, practice is essential.
Practicing songs, riffs and solos is a no-brainer. But, what about practicing your stage presence? Or, what about working on your pedal stomping skills or setting the right levels between pedals (if you’re a pedal person)? When are you going to mention the website, mailing list, your next show? And, don’t forget about keeping your audience engaged, which means you have to be kicking ass technically and visually.
Every genre of music has its stage presence guidelines. Metal requires lots of head-whipping. Indie rock might demand a touch of awkwardness. Punk is anti-establishment so some form of destruction is encouraged. Country fans expect swagger and coolness.
We have all seen our favorite bands performing live or on video. We have their moves ingrained in our minds so when we hit the stage, we try to emulate them as best as we can. But, we’re all different and whatever mental image our brain creates can get lost in translation when our muscles try to recreate those moves. Add to that the pressure of a live performance and some people’s inclination to freeze up in front of people, and you might be doing things that are so opposite of cool.
The bottom line is, your playing, singing or songs are usually not enough unless you somehow naturally ooze an aura of badass-ness. And, stage presence does not have to involve lots of movement. Look at clips of Layne Staley from Alice in Chains or Jim Morrison. They had massive presence just by standing still.
So, as silly as it might feel, practice your songs at home in front of a mirror. Or, better yet, record yourself on video. Look at yourself. Are you doing anything that looks awkward. Do you make weird, freakish faces when you bend notes? Do you look sleepy or borderline crazy? If something looks off, make adjustments. Ask your friends what they think. You might have to do things that feel unnatural and uncomfortable to you just to get to “normal” or “cool”.
Put on the clothes you will perform in and practice for the duration of your set. Are the clothes interfering with your ability to move around? Do you start sweating in 2 minutes and produce large wet spots on your shirt? Are there buttons on your shirt or jewelry that are hitting your guitar?
Practicing stage presence should be done all the time. Things only become natural and routine when time is spent going through the motions. If you don’t have natural presence or swagger, you have to work on it.
Things can always go wrong with gear and they often do during a performance. Sometimes, levels go up or down depending on the order or stacking of guitar pedals. And of course, patch cables stop working, noise gets introduced in different settings, etc.
The best way to avoid technical malfunctions is to practice with your gear. If you use pedals, practice stomping on them. If you can, try practicing at almost performance volumes to see if anything unpleasant happens when the volume is up. If you use presets on a multi-pedal system, practice switching between them just as you will be doing live. The more you go through the motions, the less you’ll have to think and worry about it live.
Soundcheck is key. Don’t be shy. Ask for more of whatever you need in the monitor but be cool about it. Don’t ever be a dick to the sound guy. Thank him or her and show your appreciation, and you will get rewarded with more attention. Give him/her a cd as soon as you arrive at soundcheck. Not only will that start things off positively, but they might play your cd on the sound system at other gigs at the club. Good exposure.
Sometimes your own equipment goes haywire. Your amp blows a tube, you break a string, a pedal starts buzzing, etc. If possible, have backups or at least a back up plan.
Practice often with your gear as you will be using it on stage. But, for sure, the day before or day of, make sure you test all cables, power, etc.
What to Say and When
Most musicians are uncomfortable promoting themselves but know they have to. There are also many that skip it completely. But, if people like your band and music, they will want to know more. But, blurting it out randomly doesn’t work. It has to be done at the right moments and sound natural. You never want to come of as a sleazy car salesman.
When rehearsing for your show, practice what you’re going to say and say it. Don’t just assume that it will come naturally cause for some of us it doesn’t. In your setlist, write-in “mailing list mention”, “CD release party mention”, or “next show is…” and rehearse it. Maybe the other band members will suggest a better way to say something.
Some ways to be a little more endearing and not-so sales pitchy …
1. Use humor.
“Please visit our merch table if you can. There’s some great stuff that we know you’ll enjoy, plus it will allow us to eat something other than top ramen tonight”.
“We’ve got a special on CDs tonight. One for $10, two for only $20”.
“Don’t forget to sign up on our mailing list so that we can notify you how we’re doing taking over the world”.
“Does our singer always forget at least one lyric? Do we always wear the same clothes on stage? Well, come to our next show on <date> at <location> and find out”.
2. Intice them.
“If you’ve enjoyed our music tonight, you’ll enjoy it even more in your car or at home. We invite you dive into our songs a little deeper. Check out our CDs.”
“We invite you to check out our lyrics online. I know someone there will be at least one song that speaks to you personally”
3. Show the value they will receive.
(if your music is upbeat and energetic). “Please check out our CDs. It’s the perfect driving or exercise music”
(if your music is more mellow). “Our CD will be the perfect background soundtrack to your Sunday morning when you wake up, make a pot of coffee and sit back and relax.”
And of course, you can replace the word “CD” with downloads or if you’re really hipster-cool, “Records”.
The bottom line is, you have to practice everything. The more you do, the more natural everything becomes.
Michael Phelps has a routine that he follows religiously at practice and in Olympic races. It’s the same no matter the setting. When he’s about to swim in an Olympics championship race, he doesn’t think about much. He just follows his routine that he’s perfected in practice over the God-knows-how-many hours in the pool.