Guide to getting and playing better gigs


   

Improve Your Stage Act

     
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Live performances can be one of the most effective avenues for you to market and promote your band, and is the primary source in terms of building a huge fan base. If you're just starting out, it doesn't matter how many people come out to see your band perform if you don't fully understand this concept.

Successful bands don't just play 4 sets of music each night, pack up their equipment, and then go home. They draw people in, and make them feel like they are a part of the band. They spend time talking to them and getting to know them in between sets.

Each gig offers the opportunity to gain exposure, and network with people who will support and help promote your band....but before you can really focus a large amount of your energy on the promotional opportunities that each gig offers, you're going to want to make sure that the level of your stage presence can be described as "professional".

I've seen too many bands that never seem to get beyond the "basement band" phase, and it's usually a result of not paying attention to certain key elements of their stage performance.


The best way to understand what I'm talking about is to go out and catch some new bands performing in your local clubs. As you sit there, carefully watch, and listen. It won't take you long to notice that even though the musicians on stage may do a decent job during the performance of each song, it's the time between each song where the band really seems to be lacking on-stage experience, organization, and leadership. This is usually displayed in a number of ways. Here's just a few:

Guitarists tuning out loud.

Someone asking, "What should we play next"?

Someone answering, "I don't know, how about the new one"?

Everyone looking at the drummer for the count.

Band members joking around with each other, with no real communication with, or to, the audience.

Various band members always playing a few chords from the next song before they actually start playing it. Unseasoned musicians often do this to check their volume, tuning, or sound -- but just imagine what this must sound like from the audience's perspective.


The most obvious solution, since most of these habits occur in between songs, is to cut down the amount of time your band takes to kick into the next song. Now before you go shooting down your entire band's stage performance, you might want to get an accurate indication from someone outside the band as to how long your band actually takes in between each song.

You should try to do this without the rest of your band finding out what it is you're trying to accomplish. If they're aware of the fact they're being timed in between songs, then they may subconsciously try to speed things up.

You should also try to get this information during a live performance if you want it to be accurate. Trying to accomplish this during a regular rehearsal won't allow you to get a true assessment of such performance criteria as:

1. Set List Management
This is just simply having a prepared list of songs that you're going to perform in order for each set. If you're doing 45 minute sets with 15 minute breaks, then you should try to arrange your sets accordingly. Club owners like to see some kind of consistency when it comes to the length of your sets, especially if he or she has hired a DJ to provide entertainment during your band's breaks.

2. Audience Communication
This one is never simple, unless of course you have a person in your band who's the designated front person/lead singer. Having just one person front your band usually solves this problem if that person knows they're responsible for doing 100% of the talking. This also solves the crosstalk problem if everyone else in the band understands they're to cue off the front person, and only talk when that front person talks specifically to them.

3. Cross-Talk
This is when more than one person on stage is talking at the same time, and it's next to impossible to focus on any one person from the audience's standpoint.

4. No-Volume Tuning
As a guitarist, I know only too well what it's like to go out of tune in the middle of a performance, but there are tuners available that allow you to tune with zero volume. Tuning out loud is not something that the audience needs, or wants to hear you do after every 2 or 3 songs.

5. Fully Prepared Backup Instruments
Again, as a guitarist, I've often had to deal with a broken string in the middle of a song, and this is why every guitarist should have at least one backup guitar ready to go in case such a situation should arise (unless you can change a set of strings whilst still playing, as Hendrix could!).

6. Sound System Management
Running sound from the stage without the help of a sound man is one of the hardest things to do, and for the person whose responsibility it is, there's no real joy in trying to stop microphones from feeding back in the middle of a song. However, if your band has no other option, then make sure the person doing this is your keyboardist if you have one, or your rhythm guitarist. A keyboardist usually has a free hand to make any necessary adjustments, and the rhythm guitarist can, at times, often stop playing for a phrase or two until the sound problem has been corrected.


It's not a bad idea to make a list of these potential problems, and have a friend make as accurate a count as possible of all the times these things occur during an entire set.

During another set you can have your friend record the amount of unproductive time between each song. This would be time spent doing things that offer no real entertainment value -- and believe me, as necessary as your guitarist may think, tuning a guitar out loud is not good entertainment. It's distracting, annoying, and just plain unprofessional.

So if you're able to pull this off without the rest of your band knowing what it is you're doing, then when it finally does come time for you to offer some constructive criticism of your band's stage performance, you'll have some accurate data to support your well intentioned comments.

The remainder of this section will focus on specific techniques that can be used to polish any bands stage performance. Now you may be one of the many musicians who think his or her band is beyond hope, and that you'll never have that professional, polished quality....but before you totally throw in the towel, let me share just a few things that you can do to dramatically improve your band's stage performance in 30 days or less. As a matter of fact, I guarantee you'll see results after your first few rehearsals.


The best way to approach this, is to take it two songs at a time. Now remember what I said earlier....most new club bands that display signs of potential, do a pretty decent job of entertaining a crowd during the actual performance of a song -- it's the time in-between songs that usually requires the polishing.

I've seen too many bands that just didn't know that anything longer than 4 seconds between songs is totally unacceptable. You have to kick into the next song immediately if you don't want to lose everyone on the dance floor.

People tend to feel a little awkward if they're just standing around.

They're also very impatient. Don't give them a reason to get impatient, or feel awkward. If you move from one song right into the next, people won't have the chance to walk off the dance floor.

Now I know what you're thinking. Four seconds isn't enough time to change guitars...OR...four seconds just isn't enough time to change all of the patches on your keyboards...or how about this one; 4 seconds isn't enough time for everyone to look at the set list to see what the next song is. I know that last one is pretty lame, but I wouldn't have mentioned it if I hadn't heard it used before.


But what's more important? Switching instruments so you can have the perfect guitar sound for each song, or keeping people out on the dance floor all night. I realize it's not an easy decision, but the only time you should be switching guitars in the middle of a set is when you break a string.

And don't think I haven't heard guitarists telling me how quick they can change guitars, because I have. The only thing I can say to that is, people can walk off the dance floor even quicker.

The same thing applies to keyboardists who think they have to change all their patches before each song. If you want my advice, just get your main patch set, and change the rest on the fly. I knew one guy who would flip through his patches while he was playing. It sounded like crap, but no one ever left the dance floor....and as bad as it sounded, no one really ever noticed.

Maybe a few musicians in the audience picked up on it, but we had a saying for musicians who use to come out and criticize our act : "At least we're working"!


So with all that said, let me share a few techniques with you that'll polish your band's entire act in 30 days or less. I've shared these techniques with quite a few bands.

I've never seen any of them not show significant improvement in their overall stage performance, and there's no reason why your band can't experience the same positive results.

Treat Two Songs As One!
One way to reduce the time, and improve the flow between songs is to treat two songs as if they're one. Just find two songs that are the same tempo and style, and perform them back to back without a break.

Your drummer can keep the tempo going at the end of the first song for a bar or two, then a simple drum fill can kick in the second song. It doesn't get any easier than that.

You don't want to over use this technique, but once a set should do the trick. It should take you one night to rehearse the 2 songs from each of your band's sets that you're going to use this technique on.


Now before I move on to the next technique, I should mention a very important point. Once you have a set of 10 to 12 songs, don't change it. It's a lot easier to have a smooth flow from one song to the next if you don't have to take time out to look at a set list all the time.

If your sets don't change, and you practice each set from song one to song twelve, in the same order, then it won't take long before your entire band automatically knows what the next song is, and how to kick into it.

The biggest argument against having sets that don't change is the thought that they'll become boring to play night after night. My response to that is you have to play the songs night after night anyway.

Why not create pre-determined sets that you and each member of your band will know inside and out. The added degree of professionalism that this consistent flow from one song to the next creates, will be well worth it. Besides, who says you have to play the same sets every night. Your band should always be learning and adding new sets to your act. Notice I didn't say "new songs", but "new sets". Successful bands plan each set as if it were a seperate show. They don't start practicing the first song until they know every song that'll be in the entire set, and the exact order in which they'll be performed.


They take everything into account from the tempo and key, right down to the style and artist who originally recorded the song. With planning like that, how can you go wrong?

The Quick Count!
This is similar to treating two songs as one, but instead of your drummer keeping the tempo going for a bar or two at the end of the first song....while your keyboardist changes his patches, and your guitarist gets his effects just right, he immediately gives a 4 beat click right into the second song.

It's a nice effect to let the instruments hold onto the last chord of the first song for about 4 beats, and while they're still holding, give 4 clicks of the drum sticks, and then kick right into the second song on one.

If someone leaves the dance floor in-between songs, it should be because they needed a break or a drink....not because your band gave them the opportunity by taking forever to kick into the next song.

Now if you use the "Treat Two Songs As One" technique to link the first two songs of each set, and the "Quick Count" to link songs 3 & 4 of each set, then the next technique that I want to share with you will be used to link your second song of each set with the third song.


See the example below:

Sets 1 through 4

SONG 1 > (2 as 1 Technique) > SONG 2 > (Talk Over Technique) > SONG 3

As you can see from the example above, the next technique that I want to discuss is called the "Talk Over". Once again, this technique can be worked into your act in just one or two practice sessions.

The "Talk Over" works best within the first 3 or 4 songs....especially in the first set. There are several variations of this technique which I will share with you, but the simplest version is where your bass player and drummer start playing the intro of a song, and continue to repeat it while your front man welcomes everyone to the club, introduces the band, and works the crowd a little.

You can vary it a bit the next set by bringing in the guitar after six phrases or so, and then the keyboardist to really build it up before you kick into the vocals.

I don't see too many bands that are just starting out, use this technique....but your band can come across as super polished, and a whole lot more stage-savvy than you really are, by using this technique at least once per set.

Try to work this one into your act as soon as possible.


The last song of each set is also a good place to use the "Talk Over" technique, but instead of starting the song with it, you can use it to end the song.

After you've played the last chorus of a song, you can have the vocals drop out while still playing the chorus. You can play through the chorus a few times without the vocals, and then your front man can come in with a reminder for everyone to stick around for the next set.

While he's at it, he can introduce a few of the songs that you'll be performing, and even suggest a few things from the bar. Club owners will love you for it....just don't over do it. Of course there's one thing you can't over do, and that's to continually remind people to tip the bar staff!

You can then bring the vocals back in, and end the song, or you can end the song instrumentally. I always liked bringing the vocals back in to end a song, but it can't hurt to mix it up a little.

When you use this technique to end your last song of the night, this gives your front person a chance to thank everyone for coming out and supporting the band, and to let everyone know the next time you'll be appearing at "THAT" club. It's not a good idea to mention another club's name while performing in any club. Our front man learned this lesson the hard way!


Also remind everyone to pick up a copy of your bands calendar of club dates, CD etc; and to have a safe drive home. Remember, these people are your fans, and potential fans -- you want them to get home in one piece, because you want them to come back and see you perform again. If you sincerely care about their well being, they'll come back....again and again and again!!

These techniques are very simple to implement, and can polish your band's stage performance in less than 30 days. It may take a few live shows to work out all the kinks, but that's to be expected.

If you think your first few performances will be a little shaky, then book a small, no-name club under a different band name until everyone is comfortable with each set. Doing this will allow your band to make as many mistakes as needed in order to polish your act to a "professional quality"!

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