• McConnell's Guitar Lessons Bristol

#3 Stage Habits you Might Want to Break.


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One of the hardest parts about performing on stage is that it’s not what you’ve practiced. To get to the point where you can play on stage for the first time you’ve put in hours on your instrument, and then you’re expected to just know how to behave on stage. With little clue of what to do you end up performing a strange mixture of things you’ve seen your favourite performers do, things you’ve seen your mates do on stage and whatever you feel like doing in the moment. This can create a brilliant performance, but it also tends to leave people with a few bad habits in key areas. Here’s a few of the more common ones we’ve all been guilty of.

1. “We’re experiencing technical difficulties”

It’s happened to every single one of us. You’re halfway through your set and the PA cuts out, or the guitarist’s pedalboard goes haywire, or the bassist takes a little too long to tune up or any one of a number of things that can go wrong does go wrong. It’s mostly nobody’s fault, but somebody has to fix it. If you’re the one on the microphone it’s up to you to control the way the performance moves forward while the issue is remedied. Unfortunately what most people do in this scenario is default to the same lines. “We’re just having some technical difficulties” or “oh here we go again, we’re just waiting for Pete to tune up.”

What you think you’re doing:

Much like a comedian dealing with an awkward heckler or a piece of the set falling apart, you’re trying to reference and release the tension of the moment by making light of it. You feel awkward and the weight of expectation is on you to keep the audience on side, so you try to shift that awkwardness back to its source.

What you’re actually doing:

The difference here is that you’re shifting the focus of the audience, and therefore the tension in the room, on to the person dealing with the problem. There are two possibilities here. 1) The audience hasn’t yet noticed something is wrong. By telling them what’s gone wrong you’re bringing it to their attention and making them feel awkward. 2) The audience has noticed what is happening. They don’t need you to tell them what’s happened, and drawing more attention to it only makes them feel awkward for the poor guy on stage working really hard to locate and remedy the issue.

What you could do:

You have a couple of options here. Firstly you should be prepared for this sort of thing to happen. Hi-hats come unfastened, guitar pedals cut out and strings slip out of tune. So you may as well be ready. Where possible, have different songs that can be played without each of your instrumentalists. If you can give your bandmate a whole song’s-worth of breathing space you’ll find that most problems can be fixed in 3-4 minutes, and your audience remains entertained.

Where that isn’t possible, e.g you’re a three piece and it’s the guitar that’s the problem, you should have some chat saved up for just such an occasion. If you’re an original band you can talk a little about the subject matter of the next song (more on overdoing that later), or for a covers band just some old fashioned jokes will do. Either way, the audience will know what you’re up to, but they’ll see you trying to handle the situation like a professional and will work hard to engage with you while the issues are being fixed.

2. In-Jokes

One of the most awkward experiences I’ve ever been part of as an audience was a best man’s speech I had to sit through at a gig a few years back. To be fair to the guy most people are not professional orators, and you’ve got to expect a few bad jokes from the best man. But this guy had one habit I’ve seen in a lot of musicians before. He kept making in-jokes. Specifically he kept talking about ‘high places.’ “high places eh Jeff? High places?” Nobody knew what he was talking about, save for two or three people on one table who laughed a little. Musicians do this all the time at gigs where they know a few people in the audience.

What you think you’re doing:

In a situation where you’re in charge of the microphone and need to say something to fill a gap, you reference a running joke between you and your 2-3 friends in the audience knowing that you’ll at least get a laugh from them.

What you’re actually doing:

Alienating the vast majority of the audience in exchange for the entertainment of a couple of people. This makes the audience members that don’t know you feel less engaged with what you are doing. These are the people you should be engaging with the most, but now you’ll have to work twice as hard during the next song to win them back.

What you could do:

If the in-joke has an interesting back story you could tell it early on in the gig. If not, make one up. If you can find a way to make it funny then you create an in-joke between you and your audience. Referencing it later should guarantee you some laughs when you need them. Otherwise, avoid it like you would avoid high places.

3. Introducing every song

This one’s pretty self-explanatory and it would be hypocritical of me to write several paragraphs explaining it.

What you think you’re doing:

If you’re an original artist you want to give you audience a deeper understanding of the song you lovingly crafted for them, with explanations as to where the subject matter came to you and how you wrote it. As a cover band musician you want to either prepare people for what’s coming next, or tell them the name of the song in case they haven’t heard it before.

What you’re actually doing:

In both cases you’re ruining the flow of your performance. People mostly didn’t come to your gig to listen to you talk. Especially if you’re playing covers. People may want to know about some of your original songs, but if you’re playing covers they mostly don’t care about what you have to say. Most well known covers can be recognised from the introduction alone. By telling your audience in advance what the song is going to be you deprive them of the chance to enjoy recognising a song they like for themselves.

What you could do:

If you’re an original artist, pick a couple of songs to talk about at length, pick different ones every gig. If your audience has seen you play before, then every gig will give them a little bit of new information about you, and you’ll keep them engaged. If you’re a cover band musician you mostly don’t need to say anything. Your job is to make people dance and/or drink, and the part of the gig where you’re talking is the part where they have time to realise they are tired and want to sit down or go home. In both cases think of other ways to link songs. If you have a couple that are in the same key, or that share a similar groove, see if you can segue from one in to the other. Or if you need time to change settings between songs, have someone on another instrument play an extended intro or a whole song on their own.

These are a few of my personal least favourite things I see from a lot of otherwise talented musicians. All of which I’ve been guilty of in the past at some point too, and stopped doing when I saw other people do them and realised how they affected me as an audience member. If you have any suggestions for the list feel free to add them to the comments below.

#performanceadvice