Originally published May 2008.
Depending on your city or town, these can range from the “everybody plays” open mics and picking parties, to the more exclusive invited rounds or featured performance opportunities. More often than not, it is generally one instrument, or very basic accompaniment, with simple vocals. It can be a true test of the song, how it plays in front of an audience without the benefit of studio tricks or music business filters. It is also the best way to immediately develop your confidence and contacts with people that might be your ticket to the big leagues somewhere down the road.
As always, if you’re performing, you always need to perform at your peak, as you never know who might be in attendance, and you simply should always strive to be the best performer you can. Your songs deserve it. Here, then, are ten simple things you can do to “up the level of your game” before, during, and after the performance. Remember that there is only one chance to make a first impression.
1. Be prepared.
Know your songs as best as you can. Even when you might mess up, try to remember to finish big. If you are using lyric sheets, which are sometimes necessary when trying those new songs out, make them as inconspicuous as possible. Tilt your music stand where you can see it but it doesn’t block your face from your audience. Anything can be a distraction, so try to minimize that as much as possible.
2. Practice with mirrors.
There is a reason dancers practice with mirrors, so they can observe their technique. You need to see yourself as your audience sees you. Also you should try to video tape your performances. By the way, observe the first word of this: practice!
Make sure people can understand your lyrics.
4. Play with dynamics.
Most performers are hearing the bass, drums, and all the backing instruments in their head. But it is not there when it’s just you and a guitar, so play a little lighter in your verses and more direct and percussive in your choruses.
5. Avoid too many ballads.
I’m not trying to be controversial, but ballads seem to be about 90% of what are performed on writers nights – which makes them the most forgettable because everyone is doing them. The ballad should be the icing on the cake, not the cake. And since so many of these events are “in the round,” which means three to four people each take turns playing one song, don’t follow a ballad with a ballad. Listening to the other people on stage with you and playing something that sounds different than their songs make for a much more entertaining round. This approach can help you find co-writers as well. How well do you play with others?
6. Use humor.
If you have songs with a humorous bent, use them. It gets attention and separates you from the pack.
7. Use various strumming and palming techniques.
You can place your palm on the bridge of your guitar to mute some of the strings and give a little tighter attack. A guitar teacher can show you this.
8. Use a pick!
I know this will drive all you 60’s finger picking, long nailed guys and girls crazy. You have been told your whole life that you need to quietly stroke the strings with your nails and get that romantic sound. Well, that works great in your living room but ends the second you get into a loud noisy bar where most nights are held. If no one can hear you, they tune you out. You need every tool you can, and picks give a percussive effect and simply make it easier to hear your playing and articulations on the guitar.
9. Play often.
Like everything, you get better the more you do it. Play everything you can, and make sure you bring your friends. A club or restaurant are in business to make money, and the more people you bring in to help them keep the doors open, the more you will be able to have a place to play.
10. Have fun.
If you are not doing that, you are wasting your time. A career is not about those big home runs, playing that one song in front of that perfect person and becoming a star. It is about a lot of small, insignificant things that interconnect and tie together when you might not expect it.
Good luck and happy writing.
Marc-Alan Barnette is a songwriter and performer who has made Nashville, TN his home for the past 20 years. Barnette also has a passion for mentoring and coaching writers through the workshops and seminar programs he has participated in all over the US. His songs have been included on albums by John Berry, David Ball, and Shelby Lynn. Learn more at www.marcalanbarnette.com.