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Ten Commandments Of Musical Performance
I saw so-called "professional" entertainers sabotaging themselves and their performance by making what I would have thought would be *obvious* mistakes
By John M.
(more articles from this author)
2010-11-01
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It just happened one too many times to me. I went out to a nightclub, or a coffeehouse, or even an arena, and I saw so-called "professional" entertainers sabotaging themselves and their performance by making what I would have thought would be *obvious* mistakes. Mistakes that suck the wind and the power out of a performance, and even out of the music itself.

You will not write a better song or play the guitar any better after reading this article. I assume you already know how to do those things. This is about taking your already finished product, and delivering it to your audience in the best light.

1.- Thou shalt BE PREPARED, or, Know what the hell thou art doing. (i.e.: be rehearsed.)

It seems so basic, so obvious, and yet so many people ignore this one. Know what you're going to do, before you try to do it. The Stage is NOT a place for experimentation! (Note: I'm not talking here about "improvisation!") Improvisation is entirely different, and perfectly acceptable. I'm talking about trying to play a song that you haven't yet fully learned.

2.- Thou shalt not read from charts or sheet music onstage.

There are a few exceptions to this one, most notably in jazz and classical music. In these genres, where music passages can be long, and extremely complex, it is understandable, and has become commonly accepted that the musicians have written music available. In contemporary music, however; i.e.: country, rock, rap, folk, blues, etc. the music and song structures are generally simple enough that this should be unnecessary, and is distracting to the audience, and a sign of unprofessionalism. The worst offense of this type is for a singer to have the lyrics to a song written out, and be reading them while singing the song. If you don't know the words to the song by heart, don't sing it! "If you have to read what the next line is. How can you possibly deliver it with any emotion?

3.- Thou shalt have a "set list."

Or: Thou shalt not stand around on stage muttering to the other band members, "What should we do NOW?" Must you always adhere to the set list without ever changing it? No. If, for example, a piece of equipment necessary for a particular song breaks, you might need to do another song. Or if the audience is requesting a particular song that was not on the set list. But the set list is important as a guide. Dead time while the band is trying to figure out what song to do next makes even the most seasoned professional look like an amateur, or high school garage band

4.- Thou shalt not stop in the middle of a song unless the theater is on fire.

Pete Townshend and the Who once refused to stop, even THEN. Once you've started a song,.. that's it. You're committed. There's no turning back. If you screw up a line, or an instrumental passage, just recover as best you can and press on. The error will bother you MUCH more than it will bother the audience, and the audience will not appreciate how much better the second verse was when you sang it *right* the second time, because they had to endure the first verse, twice! Mistakes in a live performance will be forgotten almost immediately. Needlessly repeated songs, however, will not.

5.- Thou shalt not explain what a song is about before playing it.

A song should be able to speak for itself, and most good songs do. Let the song and the music tell the story. If the song doesn't work without you explaining it first, then it's probably not a very well written song. Some performers feel that telling the story or referring to the personal incident will make the song more "real" for the listener. If the song can't be "real" without that, then it's not a great song.

6.- Thou shalt not share thine personal problems with thine audience.

This is so important! You are there, above all else, to entertain the people. If, along the way, you move them, or you educate them, or you inspire them,.. that's great. But first and foremost, you're there to entertain! What you absolutely, positively don't want to do is *bum them out* by explaining to them that your wife just left you, or your mother just died of cancer, or your pet dog who slept with you for the past 6 years just got hit by a bus. The only thing that telling such stories does, is it makes some members of the audience feel sorry for the performer. That's not why you're there. In my opinion, that's a cheap shot. If you're not emotionally into it, ACT. Paste a smile on your face, Do the schtick. Just do the best you can. Most of the time, most of them will never know the difference. Sad but true.

7.- Thou shalt talk to thine audience. But not too much!

It's easy to talk too much, and it's easy to not talk at all. Both are mistakes which can hurt or even kill a performance. Talking to an audience is important because it makes them feel included. I remember a Billy Joel concert in which I left the concert feeling as though Billy and I had become friends. It was fantastic. Because he talked to us, made us laugh, shared himself with us. And he did it all without breaking commandments 5 and 6 above! What about the harm of talking too much? They like it when you talk, if it's entertaining, but they didn't come to hear you talk. They came to hear the music! Don't make them wait too long for it. The chaotic environment of live music performance creates a short attention span for the audience member. Talk a little, to break up the monotony of just music music music and they'll appreciate it. Talk too much make them wait too long for a song. And they'll lose interest. They'll focus their attention on something else, and you might never get it back. Or worse yet, they may loose interest in being there at all, and LEAVE. So talk. But keep it short, and good. Which leads to the next commandment...

8.- If thou art going to TALK, make sure that it's ENTERTAINING.

The art of talking on stage, also known as onstage 'patter,' could be subject material for a whole article all by itself, if not an entire book. The best experts on this are comedians. That's all they do. Study them. Pay attention to their timing. When are they silly? When are they serious? How do they change up the mood and the tempo and the "feel" of a performance? And by the way, it is Okay to talk about a song, and yourself, personally, as long as you don't reveal too much. To reveal something of the "real you" is fine it helps. But there definitely is such a thing as "too much information," and that can kill you. Reveal "up" lighthearted or happy things like "I got married last year, and my wife loves this song." But don't say, "She loves it because it makes her think of the little black haired terrier that she had when she was 12 and living with her foster parents in North Platt, Nebraska."

Or say something funny. "I once played this song without ever even realizing that the person the song is about was standing right behind me the whole time." You can even touch on a serious thing, if you want,.. but again, don't give us too much information, and get out of it quick. "When I was in the hospital a year ago, I met this incredible person who really inspired me in a lot of ways, and this song came out of that."

Don't say, "I was in the hospital a year ago when I got hit by a drunk driver. Both my legs were broken and I couldn't walk for almost a year, but then I met this guy named Sam. Sam told me about the time." You get the idea. The key words are, short,and entertaining.

9.- Thou shalt not apologize to the audience for technical problems or other shortcomings.

For example, don't say, "We're trying out a new PA tonight, and we're not really used to it yet, and we really thought the background vocals would sound better with this system, but apparently they don't. Sorry, we'll try to have it fixed by tomorrow night's show." Just do the best you can, on any given night, and let that be it. If there's feedback, or a string breaks, or a microphone falls over, or if you sneeze in the middle of a line,.. PRESS ON! It happens to all of us. Make light of it. Or make it look like it was intentional.

10.- Thou shalt do it like thou meaneth it.

I'm referring here, not only to the emotional feeling you put into your singing, and your delivery of the lyrics, (hopefully you already know to do that with feeling,) but also onstage theatrics, dancing, prancing, gesturing, ass wiggling, etc. I am not passing judgment here on any particular stage antic. That is a matter of individual choice. Whether it's mosh pit diving, or smashing a guitar, or hanging from the lighting rig, the decision to do it or not do it is yours alone. What I'm saying here is, if you are gonna do it, do it like you mean it. Do it with conviction. I wish I had a dollar for every time I saw some cute female singer trying to act sexy on stage, but obviously embarrassed and inhibited by it. The result was a weak, halfhearted, restrained effort that simply looked silly and fell flat. If you only do it half way, it's almost guaranteed to fail. If the song calls for a scream, SCREAM! Don't do a falsetto imitation of a scream. If you're!

going to throw your fist in the air, do it HARD, so it communicates power and conviction! If you're going to slink around onstage and look sexy then don't hold back. Throw away your inhibitions and get "into" it. If you enjoy whatever theatrical thing you're doing onstage, the audience will too. And likewise, if whatever you're doing onstage makes you uncomfortable, it will make them uncomfortable too. If you can't do it with conviction, don't do it at all.

There are many other "commandments" I could have added here. Thou shalt not insult thine audience. Thou shalt not insult the venue that hired you. Thou shalt remember to "plug" thine records, website, etc. Thou shalt not get drunk during a performance. There are lots of these,.. and perhaps I'll address some of them in a future article.


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