Tips For Playing Live
(and especially written for the not-gigging-so-much musician).
Every year I have a couple long periods where I have no live shows (just before and after Christmas and often for a portion of the summer). Of course those breaks are often productive and important periods for songwriting and that’s what I use them for. But what seems to always happen is that when I first start back gigging again I run into all kinds of problems that were not there when I played live last. Technical stuff, timing, technique, stress - you name it and it usually rears its ugly head at some point or other in the course of the first few gigs. This past weekend I had my first 3 gigs of the New Year and, once again, I was confronted with these same phenomena. Let’s call it the “unprepared back to gigging musician syndrome”. Anyway, I vowed when I got home I’d try writing some of this stuff down and I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you. Hey, I’m writing it down mostly for me though as I never seem to remember this stuff from year to year.
See, the real problem is that most of us don’t work “live’ enough. And live gigs are like any other kind of work. The more you do it the better you get. Stronger, smoother, faster, more confident and “clear”. The thing about playing music though is that while your getting all of that stuff together your usually (hopefully) standing in front of an audience of people who are there to be entertained. They don’t necessarily appreciate equipment problems or you having to stop the show because you can’t remember how a song is played. It’s a tough situation to be in. We’ve all gone to concerts and seen great bands playing wonderful shows. One of the reasons those shows are so wonderful is that those bands work many, many long and hard nights to get to the point where it really is (or seems) effortless. But that guitar solo that is so smoothly and quickly played got to that level precisely because they’ve done it hundreds if not thousands of times. Most of us other musicians never get the chance to work as much as we want. We do however always aspire to that level of proficiency but it is hard to get there if you don’t get the repetitions.
I think there are some things that we can do that will make the transition from the work-a-day life to the stage a little easier and hopefully make your live show a better one. As we all know, getting asked back to any club or venue depends exactly on how well you play and perform. Fumbling around on stage for whatever reason will only lower your confidence level and confidence is exactly what you want and need to be projecting no matter what level your skills are. Below are some ideas and things you might think about before setting out to play that long awaited show.
1. Know your material - it is the number one rule and the best thing you can do for yourself to insure a successful concert. It’s really not as simple or easy as it sounds either. It’s entirely possible to forget your material when you’re not gigging a lot. For me, during those ‘down’ times I’m usually writing other songs and so the older material is quite naturally put aside. Of course in the back of my head I’m thinking about that approaching gig and being back on stage but the new songs take precedent and for one reason or another I find it difficult really to give them the attention they deserve. It helps if I keep some kind of reminder that a show is on the way. I usually dedicate an empty page in my songbook and start a list of songs I’m thinking about for the next show. Now there is a physical copy of song titles that will help keep those songs in my head.
Another problem is that I’m often too confident and don’t practice the older songs. I take for granted that I’ll be able to play them when needed. Not so. It’s entirely possible to forget the lyrics or that special little lick. In my case I have so many open tunings (35 and counting!) that I even forget the finger and chord positions. Believe me, it is not fun standing in front of room full of paying fans and running into the brick wall of forgotten lyrics and chords. So practice all of those old songs on your list. Conversely, if your bringing new material to the stage be sure you “know” the song. With new songs I’ll often write out the lyrics in bold, black lettering and have them taped on the floor just in case. Make notes of chords and/or lyrics if you have to. No one needs to know and it will smooth things along. Be sure to run through all the songs that you’re thinking of playing. I like to warm up in the morning with some older numbers. It’s a good way to wake up, get your fingers loosened up AND get the song back into your blood. If you’re in a band then perhaps start your rehearsals with some of those old tunes. I know the new stuff is usually the most fun to play but the meat and potatoes are the tried and true numbers. Rehearse everything and from beginning to end!
2. Write A Set List And Practice It - You’ve got your songs all together so, make your list. Especially if you haven’t been working in awhile having a list will really help keep things moving. You also need to practice playing the set exactly like it’s written AND more than just once. Smooth transitions from song to song can only happen when you put them together and practice the transition itself. You practice the song itself right? The spaces between the songs need to be rehearsed as well. Changing guitars, tuning the instrument, changing effects settings, grabbing new sticks, whatever. Certain songs will pull your instrument out of tune and that will happen to different musicians on different songs. You’ll quickly recognize those times when things get slowed way down and you can figure out work arounds. Even if it doesn’t matter, knowing it’s going to happen in the same spot every time won’t fluster you or cause your band mates to cast dirty looks your way. It’s part of the show because you practiced it that way. Cool…
3. Practice the set like your playing live - Stand up or sit down? Use more than one guitar or instrument? Harmonicas? If you’ve got a PA system use it. I know it’s not always possible but it sure helps. It seems obvious to say but there is a big difference between singing into a microphone and singing in your bedroom or in front of the TV. The point is to do the changes. That “smoothness” muscle will only develop if you go through the movements themselves. Don’t take shortcuts. Play the songs beginning to end. It’s hard work standing up there for 45 minutes or an hour (or more!). The stronger you are, the better shape your in, the better you will perform.
4.Check all of your equipment - that means look at everything. For some reason when musical gear is not being used weird shit happens to it. Amplifiers quite working, cables develop strange pops and crackles. Also that screw that you were going to tighten up after the show last time has been forgotten and is still waiting to surprise attack you at the most inopportune time. Take a screwdriver to everything. Look at all your cables and connections and including the backup stuff. Plug the amp in and all of your effects and in the sequence you’ll need. Batteries still in good condition? Funny how they run down even when not it use but it happens. Leave everything hooked up and running for a couple of hours, just like it’s going to be the night of your show. Double check your supply of strings, picks, sticks and whatever miscellaneous gear you think you might need. Try to get everything before the day of the show, as it will be one less thing to worry about when the time comes to load up the car.
5. Give yourself extra time for everything - because you haven’t been working so much, doing stuff will take more time than it normally should. Set up, sound check, break down, load-in, everything. Shit will happen. You’ll need extra time believe me and by cushioning things a bit your stress level will remain within bounds and this in turn will help you concentrate on the most important thing: the music.
6. Nerves and stress - I know from experience that this is the part where I usually get hung up the most. I’m always a bit nervous before every show no matter how big or small. This level of tension is increased exponentially by the amount of time I’ve been off stage and doing other things. Just this past weekend and on the first of the 3 nights I worked, I made my set list like I had in the past. It’s a pretty ambitious first 4 or 5 songs (and with one new song as well!). Difficult to play, long songs with lots of lyrics, complicated open tunings to get to and even changing guitars a couple of times. Great when everything’s working well. But guess what happened? I couldn’t do any of it well and up goes my stress level, there goes my memory and… well, it wasn’t pretty. What I’m trying to get at here is to perhaps start with a couple of songs that are easy to play and that you know very well. You’re going to be nervous enough so why not give yourself the best chance at getting up to speed naturally? This kind of beginning will allow you to sink down into the music and forget about the distractions. The other benefit from this kind of start is that it will give the soundman time to get you “dialed in” and sounding good will also help get you “settled”.
Remember - no matter what level you play at, your audience will respond best to your own confidence and easy manner. Because you are not working so much it’s easy to forget all those little tricks and things that help an evening move along in a nice way. I’ve written this mostly for the working-not-so-much musician. If you gig a lot you can be more ambitious. For the rest of us, by preparing ourselves and for all aspects of the show with the same attention to detail that say an athlete does when preparing for a race, than we do give ourselves the best shot at feeling good about everything when the night is over and the replay starts up during the drive home after the show. I hope this helps you and I promise to read the damn thing before my next show!!
Terry Lee Hale
March 29th, 2005