Success onstage begins with comfort in your own skin and with your own music. Your identity when you perform live onstage has to come across as authentic to the audience.
Excerpted and adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter: A Troubadour’s Guide to Writing, Performing, Recording, and Business (Backbeat Books) by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers. Reprinted with permission.
There are people who are born entertainers, gregarious types who love nothing more than putting on a show. But for most of us, it takes time and experience to feel confident when we perform live – in fact, those attracted to the self-contained creative world of the singer-songwriter tend to be introspective souls who are not at all in their natural element onstage. That’s certainly true of me – I’ve always had to be nudged to perform, even though I’m secretly eager to do it – and many artists over the years have described to me their battles with stage fright. But even the shyest, most reserved singer-songwriters can become effective and even great performers, because they have a secret power: belief in their own songs. If it feels good and natural singing your songs in private, you can learn to tap into that feeling in front of an audience, too.
Success onstage begins with comfort in your own skin and with your own music. When you perform live, you don’t act the same as you do hanging out at home – you are accentuating certain aspects of your personality and suppressing others. But the bottom line is that your identity as a performer is some version of yourself, and it has to come across as authentic to the audience. Even if you are taking a more theatrical approach and essentially inventing a stage persona, as David Bowie or Beck does, the character that you are inhabiting has to be someone you (like a good actor) can relate to and deliver with conviction – just as when you’re writing a song in character, you have to identify with that character for the song to come alive.
“It feels good now. It feels like I’ve come to who I am. I didn’t understand that that’s what an audience really wants. For a long time I thought they wanted something I imagined you had to be or you had to do, and very slowly I came around to the idea that really what the audience wants you to be is yourself – something that comes across as real.” – Louise Taylor describing the realization that helped her overcome her deep discomfort with making music in public.
Nothing teaches you about performing more effectively and quickly than just doing it. You don’t have to learn in front of a highly critical audience, either. There are many informal and supportive settings that can help you find your footing before you play on an actual stage, and even when you do make that step, the indifferent audiences you are likely to encounter at first give you plenty of time and space to grow. So cut yourself some slack and consider each show another assignment for Gigging 101.
As with songwriting, there are no rules about how to perform successfully – you have to find a style of presentation that suits your personality, your music, your audience, and the venue. Here are some suggestions and observations on stage craft to help you along the way.
The best way to prepare for any kind of show is to simulate as closely as possible how you will be playing. That means if you plan to stand onstage, practice that way at home. Set up microphones or an amp or whatever you’re going to be using, so that you are accustomed to working with your gear. And go through your set from start to finish without taking a break for chips and salsa or tuning up for ten minutes. When you make a mistake, pretend that there is an audience waiting for you to get on with it. If you can assemble a small test audience – your friend, partner, sibling, cat – all the better.
You may feel a little silly doing it at home alone, but you can practice the talking as well as the playing. Musicians who are really good at rapping with the audience seem like they are being completely spontaneous, but in reality they are drawing on a repertoire of jokes, stories, and asides that they have developed over a long stretch of gigs.
It’s just like improvising on an instrument; you are spontaneously recombining and extending all the little riffs and moves you’ve memorized over the years.
So think in advance about some things you might say during your set. If you are intimidated by the prospect of talking onstage, think small – don’t expect or try to become a stand-up comedian overnight. Practice these little raps along with your songs at home, and then at the gig take note of what worked and what didn’t, and store that information away for future use. It’s a gradual process, finding a way of speaking that fits with your stage persona and your music. Many top-flight entertainers started out anxious and tongue-tied onstage.
Use your nerves
Most people consider the jitters they feel before going onstage to be an obstacle (I’m so nervous, how am I ever going to pull this off?) or a sign of inexperience (if I really knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t be so nervous). But there’s another way to look at those butterflies in the pit of your stomach: as a source of energy. Nervous energy is what helps you rise above your everyday self and deliver a great show. I have on many occasions chatted with artists both before and after a gig, and I’m amazed at how edgy even the most seasoned and seemingly natural performers are beforehand, and how they are almost like different people when they finally relax afterward. The fact that they still feel that edge before their umpteenth gig is one reason they are so good at what they do.
So think of your preshow nervousness as something that helps you get pumped up to perform live. And remember that the stage is a dynamic environment with a constant energy flow between you and your audience. Your nerves help to generate the musical energy that you send out into the room, and the audience reaction – which is what you are most nervous about – completes the cycle. Even strangers and just-happened-to-be-there listeners want you to succeed, for their own selfish reasons: they want to have a good time. You are in this together.
Your songs may be brooding and dark, but that doesn’t mean you have to be that way during your whole set. A little self-deprecating joke or aside gives your listeners a necessary breather (there’s a reason gallows humor exists) and shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously. And lightening up for a moment may in fact heighten the impact of your next sad song.
Ease into it
Kick off a performance with songs that are familiar and easy to play and help you get into the groove. Even if you have warmed up well beforehand (which you should do, both your voice and your hands), you need to settle in once your show starts, and so does your audience. If someone is mixing your sound, there’s a good chance that he or she will be tweaking the mixing board during your first song, because a room with people in it sounds different from the empty room where you con- ducted your sound check. So save your tricky stuff and new stuff for later in the set.
Prepare to be flexible
A good set list offers well-thought-out variety in mood, tempo, key, and song length, but ideally you should be open to making on-the-spot adjustments. If you keep a few songs in reserve, perhaps jotted down to jog your memory, you’ll be ready if you’re asked to extend your set beyond what you were originally planning to play (if that happens, congratulations!) or – a more likely scenario – if you want to make substitutions based on how the set is going. If the crowd is not attentive, you might want to skip that subtle mood song and substitute something more direct and upbeat. Or people may respond with surprising enthusiasm to the oddball cover you sometimes play, so maybe it would be a good idea to throw in another along the same lines.
It all boils down to being a listener as well as a player onstage, paying attention to what is going on in the room and with your songs, as Jason Mraz once said while reflecting on his coffeehouse days.
Cater your music to the setting
The stage is a very different environment from the studio, and savvy performers exploit those differences.
I see them as quite separate entities and chances to do very different things with your music. There’s a kind of energy you can put into that show that you can’t do on a record – namely visuals. Just jumping up in the air and moving around and that kind of physical, visual energy adds so much to what you’re doing, and you can’t do that on a record.
Not only do you need to adapt your presentation to the live setting, you need to consider which songs are the best choices for your set list. ere are songs (originals and covers) that would seem goofy on a record but are big winners onstage, as well as strong album tracks that somehow don’t translate into performance pieces. Just keep trying things and see what works, and over time you will wind up with a live repertoire that overlaps but doesn’t precisely match your album track lists.
So often I have heard performers apologize to the audience about the cold they have, their lack of finesse on their instrument, the likelihood they are going to make a mistake in the new song they are about to play… From the audience’s perspective, these apologies are simply annoying – you’re telling them in advance that you’re not going to deliver as good a show as you should or could. Who wants to be told that? Just concentrate on doing your best given all the limitations and circumstances of that particular night. If you want to briefly explain that you’re recovering from bronchitis and just getting your voice back, that’s fine, but don’t apologize for the fact that you have been sick. The audience will sympathize and root for you as you give it your best shot.
Use your mistakes
Everybody flubs a line or a chord sometime, and it is not a disaster. It’s not like stumbling on your triple axel in Olympic figure skating competition, where you know that row of scowling judges just knocked your scores way down and you blew your chance for a medal. On the contrary, a mistake onstage can be an opportunity to bond with your audience if you laugh or shrug it off or play with it. The best performers transform mistakes into great moments: I’ve heard Martin Sexton, for instance, stop after a garbled line and do a dead-on imitation of a tape rewinding, completely cracking up the crowd. Your audience does not expect you to be superhuman and technically perfect, which is a pretty meaningless concept when it comes to music anyway.
You can prepare yourself to deal with the inevitable glitches. As you practice your set at home, pretend you are in front of an audience and need to make an entertaining or at least smooth recovery from a mistake. Learn how to keep cruising past a small flub, which an audience will soon forget anyway. If it’s a bigger mistake, like starting a song in the wrong key or singing the wrong first line of a verse, think about ways to acknowledge the mistake in a lighthearted way and then restart. If you mess up somewhere in the middle of a song, keep the rhythm going while you loop around to make the second attempt, so that you do not completely stop the flow.
If you play guitar onstage, be ready to deal with the gremlins of out-of-tune and broken strings. Tuning and string-changing jokes are an entire subgenre of stage humor. I will always remember a fiery festival performance by the late Michael Hedges in which he broke a string and then pulled a spare out of a bag with an exaggerated sweep of his arm, as if he were a knight brandishing his sword for a duel. It was funny and dramatic – who knew grabbing an extra string could be a grandiloquent gesture? – and the crowd loved it.
Take the long view
If there’s a common theme to all this advice, it is to be patient. As much as we all dream about the rocket ride to the stars, most long-term careers in music are built one fan at a time. It takes time to find your groove as a performer and to find the people who respond to what you have to say. No single gig is definitive; each is a step in an ongoing process of developing and learning and sharing.
Remember, too, that there are many varieties of performing musicians. There are those with day jobs who long to devote their lives to music, and those who perform occasionally without any professional aspirations. There are the local heroes who teach and gig only in their hometown, the regional acts who stay within a radius of a hundred miles, and those seemingly full-time pros who tour nationally but actually pay their bills with a flexible job during stints at home. No matter how you make a living, don’t confuse the financial status of your music with its inherent value as art. The moment you get up in front of people to play music, it doesn’t matter if you’ve spent your day doing data entry or teaching fifth graders or polishing your Grammy awards: what counts is the passion and sweat you put into your songs.
And whatever your disappointments and successes in the performing world, remember that when you step onstage and play your songs, you are offering something that no one else can offer: your music and a view of the world from where you (and only you) stand. That is a priceless gift.
Excerpted and adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter: A Troubadour’s Guide to Writing, Performing, Recording, and Business by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, who is a grand-prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and the founding editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine. He has released five solo albums and is the author of Rock Troubadours: Conversations on the Art and Craft of Songwriting, the multimedia guide Songwriting Basics for Guitarists, and the video series Learn Seven Grateful Dead Classics for Acoustic Guitar. He teaches courses on songwriting and creative nonfiction writing at Syracuse University and leads workshops on guitar and songwriting.
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