Advice for a green musician
July 26, 2012 12:14 PM   Subscribe

How not to suck when performing music live?

I'm a decent musician who is starting to play out with a band, and we are good. We can lay it down. But, as comfortable as I am with my instrument (bass guitar) I am terribly green as a live performer. Our past two gigs I've made some big mistakes, on things that I know cold, and I just haven't felt all that comfortable on stage. I'm not exactly stage-frightened, really, but so far I've been incapable of playing on stage as well as I can play. Or even close.

I don't think my bandmates are going to kick me out of the band or anything, but what can I do to gig well? I guess I am looking for brain-hacking tips (remember to have fun, picture everyone in their underwear, don't lock your knees) as well as nuts and bolts of the mundanity of gigging (bring extra everything, don't get drunk).

Sage advice of any type from road hardened musicians welcome.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You know how the only way to build up the callouses on your fingertips is by playing a lot? Same thing with playing on stage. You just have to do it enough that the audience doesn't throw you anymore. There's no shortcut for experience.
posted by Lokheed at 12:22 PM on July 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

Many years ago, when I was playing in bands, we had a friend who used to sort of act as a roadie for us. This guy was an actor; he showed me a bunch of drama class warmups and exercises once, and they really helped relax me and help me get focused. YMMV.
posted by thelonius at 12:23 PM on July 26, 2012

And something that's (counterintuitively, perhaps?) been useful to me is when to realize that you're just never going to sound as good on stage as you do in your car or your bedroom. In my early twenties I realized I'd been waiting 10 years to get over my stage fright, and playing more gigs wasn't helping. It was when I acknowledged, "OK, this is scary, I'm nervous," that I seemed to be able to let go of it a little -- and played better.

FWIW I don't play in front of people much anymore :]
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:25 PM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

the mistakes aren't that bad. clams are a part of the game. the key is to play through them.

the more you play out, the better it gets.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:29 PM on July 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

Band wife of long standing here. I didn't ask my husband to answer this question, but over the years he has said that the best way to improve your playing rapidly is ... playing live gigs! It's so different from practicing that it really kicks you forward. However, I would also suggest maybe participating in a few open mic nights in your area - not only a great way to network, but a great way to break out a few songs that might not be actually gig-ready yet, but are practiced enough to play in a live but more forgiving and informal setting.

I don't know if you drink or ... indulge otherwise, but my husband absolutely hates to play "dry." It also helps him psychologically to be under lights ... like, if one is playing outdoors as it gets dusk, he says that there's a big difference between playing in daylight and from the time the lights come on. The two things I've mentioned in this paragraph are elements that help you relax and let yourself loosen up and/or routines that can do the same.
posted by Occula at 12:32 PM on July 26, 2012

I have recommended Livingston Taylor's book "Stage Performance" to every performer I know. It helped me redefine my relationship to my audience, and the folks to whom I've given it have found it helpful, too.
posted by Floydd at 12:45 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Embrace the nerves. It's not a pass/fail situation-- if you mess up 10% of the song, you got 90% of it right! If you let fucking up throw you, it's just going to become cumulative.
posted by threeants at 12:47 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I minimized the mistakes I made on stage (bass player as well) by playing the songs a lot while standing up and reading an article or something on the computer at the same time.

Doing rehearsals as actual rehearsals helps a lot too but a lot of bands are terrible at that.
posted by zephyr_words at 12:57 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Breathe. Hell, for a while I used to stretch too.
Don't rush from set up to start. Take a minute.
Don't let a lot of time elapse between shows. Play out often. Make a tour happen. A string of shows in different cities will change things.
Don't even flag the mistake mentally. Just move on. Half the audience or more won't notice what you notice.
Don't overanalyze after the set.
You know your stuff, let go.
posted by safetyfork at 1:00 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A live performance is less about getting the notes right and more about connections -- with your fellow musicians on stage, and with the crowd. Nobody cares if you fuck up a note. They care if you withdraw into a little ball in the corner with your head down while you're playing. Put your head up, look your friends in the eye, bob your head to the beat and dance on stage, look at the crowd and smile at them, and let yourself come out. Once you're comfortable on stage your playing will probably improve.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:00 PM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I guess I am looking for brain-hacking tips (remember to have fun, picture everyone in their underwear, don't lock your knees)

So, I've never been in a band (well, not this kind) but if I can answer as someone who's acted, danced, and sung onstage many times: 1, Practice. 2, Audiences don't usually notice your mistakes most of the time, unless you fall flat on your face or do something really obvious. 3, Remember you're not doing this just for yourself - if you were, you'd be happy with simply playing in your garage. You're performing to give the audience a good show, to make them feel something. Don't think so much about what you're feeling, think of giving them a good experience.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:11 PM on July 26, 2012

My guess is no one but you really noticed the mistakes, especially not anyone in the audience. It's just that you're so focused on what you're doing at the moment.

You might try concentrating on building your groove with the drummer and letting everything else fade away - thinking about what you're doing less makes it easier for what you practiced to come out naturally.

It's also not a bad idea to have friends at practices sometimes- they provide a safe audience, plus it's practice so the pressure to be perfect is less anyway. Not all the time or you'll never get any new songs down!

Overall- relax, don't sweat the little stuff, and have fun!
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:19 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Road hardened musician here.

The best way to get over nerves is generally to play out more. Eventually you'll notice that everyone else makes mistakes, and that at the end of the gig nobody really cares about them. Gigs are the time to care about making music, rehearsals are when you care about the group making mistakes, and practicing is when you care about YOU making mistakes.

A couple things I've found that really help out:

Have a warm up routine. I've been playing the same etude before practicing, rehearsals, and gigs for 6 or 7 years now. At this point it just puts me in the right spot to play music.

Run through the songs mentally and imagine yourself playing your part. Everything from how your fingers move to when you look at the drummer. To do this right you have to really start stepping outside of thinking about doing something and move into doing something. Your muscle memory takes over, and it makes less mistakes than your head memory.

Speaking of muscle memory, the single best way to fix mistakes is by playing through the hard stuff slowly when you practice and then gradually speed up. Your muscles actually translate what they learned moving slowly to what they're doing when you play faster.

I also know a whole lot of monster players who swear by a book called Effortless Mastery for these kinds of issues. It's a little philosophical, but the relaxation and visualization techniques are supposed to be great.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:28 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know whatcha mean: I have been playing (mostly) bass onstage since the late eighties. In dozens or hundreds of gigs I have never once come offstage feeling, "That was perfect!" Remember that you are hearing the songs for the umpteenth time and the audience is hearing them for the first time*, and if you play a Bb where you ought to have played a C, 98% of the crowd will not notice and 1.5% will think, "Huh, he went for the seventh and not the root -- cool choice."

*Not applicable if you are playing in a tribute band, I suppose.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:28 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just happened to see Emmylou Harris and her band perform last night. During one song, when this really excellent guitar player had a solo break, he hit a really obvious clam.

What was fun was to see Harris exchange a few looks with other band members, and they all smiled briefly, like "we are REALLY gonna raz this guy about that," and then just go on with the song.

So my point (and I do have one) is that mistakes are going to happen, but the best bands, and then best performers, in general, keep a sense of "play" in there. You are "playing," in both senses of the word, and if this comes through to the audience, everyone will have a good time.

And a guitar teacher once told me that you can expect to play 70% as well, in front of people, as you play alone. So just accept that and get better so the 70% will still be pretty good.
posted by Danf at 1:29 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It gets easier the more you do it. And the further you push yourself to play out, not only will it become easier, it will become ADDICTIVE.

Learn to have fun with any mistakes... Some of the best moments I've seen on stage have been when someone played something completely wrong, and either turns that mistake to 11, or otherwise laughs about it. Embarrassment over a mistake can be mildly charming to a crowd... but nobody wants to see frustration on stage.

Most importantly, practice, practice, practice.... practice in the dark, practice with loud TV or music in the background so you can learn to ignore the distraction... and practice outside of your dwelling if you really want to get comfortable with playing in front of others.

Record yourself, and play it back - you will hear room for improvement that you wouldn't otherwise. Keep doing this until you don't hear as much difference between the recording, and what you THINK you hear.

And as a fellow bass player, I hate to say this, but many of your mistakes will not be noticed by anyone other than you. This is true for many instruments, but it seems to be more so for a bassist.
posted by MysticMCJ at 1:59 PM on July 26, 2012

In my early twenties I realized I'd been waiting 10 years to get over my stage fright, and playing more gigs wasn't helping. It was when I acknowledged, "OK, this is scary, I'm nervous," that I seemed to be able to let go of it a little -- and played better.

Yup - you can still play well even if you're nervous. Even after 30 years of playing, Tom Araya of Slayer is nervous and sometimes throws up before going on stage even to this day. He kills live, and the band is one of the greatest live bands of all time.
posted by ignignokt at 2:04 PM on July 26, 2012

I once stepped on my cable and accidentally unplugged my guitar mid solo. Nobody noticed, not my friends in the audience, not even my two other band members. So interpret that as you will...
posted by grog at 2:21 PM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

And as a fellow bass player, I hate to say this, but many of your mistakes will not be noticed by anyone other than you. This is true for many instruments, but it seems to be more so for a bassist.

Seconded. It sounds like a cliché but it's true. Just put on your bass face and watch the crowd have fun while you do your thang.
posted by Aquaman at 2:27 PM on July 26, 2012

Beer helps. I'm not even lying or being flip. Being *too* drunk is bad. But one beer before the set begins will calm the nerves.

Realize that, at least at most rock venues, the acoustics are bad and the sound guy is going to fucking CRANK the volume. Most people in the audience won't hear every little nuance of a performance. If you mess up, they won't know. Just keep playing. What they WILL notice is if you stop and look embarrassed.

You can hear your mistakes a lot better than anybody in the audience. They are in front of giant-ass PA speakers. You are behind those speakers with a monitor pointing at you. Just because you hear it doesn't mean they do. I have played shows where I was convinced that my volume was waaaaaaaay too loud because of how it was in the monitor, only to be told by audience folks that they couldn't hear me at all.

Remember to move around a little bit. Flex your knees. Don't be a stiff up there.

Hacking tips? Pack a gig bag. Extra patch cable, extra power adapter, extra batteries, mini maglite, extension cord, and some sort of multi-tool like a Leatherman. Extra strings, since you're playing a stringed instrument. Two sets. I have actually seen somebody break the same string twice in a set.
posted by kaseijin at 2:28 PM on July 26, 2012

Oh yeah, and pull your cable through your shoulder strap when plugging into your bass. Avoid grog's predicament up there.
posted by kaseijin at 2:30 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also seconding everybody: It's a lot easier the more you do it. It becomes an addictive rush, even, if you let it, and it definitely demystifies other musicians. Have fun!
posted by kaseijin at 2:31 PM on July 26, 2012

Practice enough so you know it cold.

Two beers before stage time.

Decide to have fun.

Well, that was my system, and it seemed to work just fine for me!
posted by Decani at 3:16 PM on July 26, 2012

And as a fellow bass player, I hate to say this, but many of your mistakes will not be noticed by anyone other than you. This is true for many instruments, but it seems to be more so for a bassist.

Seconded. It sounds like a cliché but it's true. Just put on your bass face and watch the crowd have fun while you do your thang.

There is that as well. I dated a singer/songwriter/guitar player for years and at one point where solo gigs were a little meagre for her, she picked up a spot playing bass with a local rawk group. I asked once why she never seemed to rehearse with them (the core of the group had played together for years and knew the material pretty well -- she replaced a departed member). She shrugged and said, "I just play low notes and stick to the same tempo as everyone else."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:59 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey anon, honestly, I think you're in great shape. In your case I would just (hide somewhere) and do a couple of jumping jacks and jog in place for a minute before the show. Sometimes, I wave my arms around like an idiot just to loosen up and get in the groove. It works for me because I get a tiny little adrenaline rush, I feel alert and "down for shit" while alleviating some anxiety.

A few folks have mentioned forgetting about mistakes. I totally agree. It's very likely that you only made those mistakes because you were distracted by the environment. You'll get over that and once you do you're going to have a blast!

Good luck and have fun!
posted by snsranch at 5:19 PM on July 26, 2012

I'm a (former) drummer, not a bassist, but here are a few tips that I think apply to both:

a) Practice breathing while playing. People tend to hold their breath when they're concentrating. When you're practicing at home or rehearsing with the band, you can get away with this, but the tendency gets amplified when performing live. If you want to play in steady time, you have to breath in steady time.

b) Always, always practice with a metronome or drum-machine click track. Otherwise you build up the bad habit of slowing down for the tricky parts and speeding back up during the simple parts. As a drummer, whenever I would play with someone for the first time, I could always tell if they practiced with a metronome or not.

c) Additionally, practice recovering from slip-ups; it's a skill that needs to be learned like any other. Play along with a recording all the way through and never press the stop button. Repeat. Learn how to keep listening to the song so you don't get lost or turn the beat around while getting reset.

d) Play to your bandmates, not the crowd. We're the rhythm section -- our job is to lay the foundation for the other instruments, so that's who we should be paying attention to. That means, whether you're rehearsing or gigging, you should spend most of the show looking at the guys you're playing with. Let the frontmen worry about the audience. We're the lunchpail crew; they play, we work.

e) Watch a lot of live music. Watch live performances on line, and go to shows as often as you can. Take note of their body mechanics: their stance, where they face, where they look, their posture, how they move, it all factors into the performance. Try out different bassist's styles until you find one that feels right.
posted by patnasty at 5:41 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also a bassist here. The more you gig, the easier it gets. If you make a mistake - do not act like you made a mistake! No one will notice. When in doubt, rest - it's better to not play a note than play the wrong note. Also, a drink or two before you hit the stage is not a bad idea.
posted by gnutron at 5:53 PM on July 26, 2012

1- patnasty is right.
2- Don't start drinking before performances if you don't already. If you DO drink or do other things before hand, try easing up. Being drunk or stoned doesn't make you better.
3- Remember that when you are on stage, you are an entertainer. The show must go on. To that end, when you practice, always go through the whole song. Don't stop when you make mistakes. This reinforces the mistake-shit-start-over pattern in your head, which is messing your head up when you are onstage.
posted by gjc at 6:52 PM on July 26, 2012

Pretty much everything said here is great, true, and should be taken to heart.

And as a fellow bass player, I hate to say this, but many of your mistakes will not be noticed by anyone other than you. This is true for many instruments, but it seems to be more so for a bassist.

Also; at least half the audience is not sure which instrument makes which noise. Half of the ones that do are not sure which guy is making that particular noise at that time unless they make a move that emphasizes it. And I think I’m being very generous with those numbers.

In a live situation you are there to entertain, not to show people how well you play. They don’t care about that. They care if you are making them feel something. Playing well only matters as much as it affects them feeling something. No one ever said "I really need to go out tonight and hear someone play something perfectly, with no mistakes". Well, I’m sure someone did, but they were probably not someone you want to be around.
posted by bongo_x at 10:14 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

For bass, it's probably better to play a wrong note than to drop the pulse. People can't tell that you played B natural instead of B flat maybe, but they can tell if the groove stops.
posted by thelonius at 3:28 AM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pretty good advice here already. I used to have just one (okay, two) beers to relax before playing. It definitely helped me, but I wouldn't go past that - as a keyboardist, my coordination would suffer.

Someone else mentioned that people wouldn't hear mistakes - that's mostly true. Like was said earlier - clams are part of the game.

Just relax. I know it's hard to do that, but realize, with a big grin, that you're getting to do something that most of the audience wishes they could do, no matter how nasty the beer hall or bar.
posted by Thistledown at 5:20 AM on July 27, 2012

Lots of good advice here.

Let me start with my best piece of advice first.

The audience wants you to succeed! They want to be entertained - so if you're not really awful, or awfully loud, and you more or less make your point, and you're cheerful, they will have fun.

The audience is on your side. You are their representative. Once you realize that in your heart, you'll have a lot of fun.

Next - practice, practice, practice - but smart practice.

Remember where you made a mistake? Practice just that section - if there are two notes you have trouble going between practice just those two notes, and do them twenty times, fifty times, until it's automatic.

One of the secrets of music is that smoothness is the key to instrumentalist. Practice just your smoothness. Try to practice each lick until every note sounds exactly even - then decide which notes you which to emphasize or move in time.

You'd think playing a scale is dull. Several times I've played for friends of mine who have not seen me play, who I assume (I believe) that I'm a knob-twiddler. When I'm starting up, I love to start with a smooth-as-ice scale lingeringly upwards and then a fast smooth run all the way back down and watch their eyes pop a little.

One way to get smoothness is to practice with a metronome. You're a bassist, you should be doing this every day - it doesn't have to be a metronome, it could be a beat box or a drum loop, but practice playing exactly the same thing.

One of my guitarists told me another secret - mental practice. It's really helpful when you have a down moment during transportation (don't do it while driving). You literally visualize what your fingers will be doing at a given point - and in fact you will microtwitch the corresponding muscles and train them. Bored at work? Work on that hard bass part!

You can do this before your set, too - it's a great way to occupy your mind before you go on so you don't get nervous.

You should practice like you're in some martial arts movie - like your life depends on it. Once you have "gotten somewhere" you can slack off.

Speaking of martial arts movies, as part of your practice you can do things like walking around, walking back and forth, or jumping in place while playing (or squatting or whatever).

It's pretty hard when you first start doing it so you keep doing it. You have to get this detachment where you can walk around and play, even wink at a girl in the audience and never lose that beat, and one way is to do other things while you play.

Here are three tips specific to bassists.

First, to be a good electric rock bassist, you have to be very attentive to your sound. You don't need the array of pedals that a guitarist might have but you need to very carefully adjust your tone controls/EQ, almost certainly use some compression. Special effects like fuzz or overdrive/distortion can be extremely useful to suit your sound to the song.

Professionals have a specific setting of all their devices and tone controls for each song. You should do that too.

The second bass tip is the role of the electric bass in the band. You are the connecting point between the rhythm and the melody. You should be coordinating with, not just the drummer, but the kick drum in specific - I played bass lines with a Grammy-award winning drummer (and all around killer player and nice guy) who told me this, and it's absolutely right. You should almost always be playing a note exactly at the same time as the bass drum plays and if you play only the root note of the chord whenever the bass drum sounds, you'll be doing a fine job. So listen for that kick drum and lock into it for dear life!

The third bass tip is that the bass, being primary a monophonic instrument, has a lot in common with the human voice, and thus you should think of each bass line as being like a sentence that you repeat as you go. This is easy to hear and hard to explain but you should play your main lick and imagine it's a sentence in language and hear the internal rhythms until it's like a sentence in your mother tongue. Indian drummers do this with a specific set of drum syllables and that's how they do their tricks.

Now you've done a lot of practice, what should you do to be entertaining?

You're already having fun - that's the first point. Now you need to project.

You already have stopped looking at your instrument while you're playing a lot of the time because of the exercises above, and that's good. Now you need to focus your attention - project your attention somewhere.

But where? And more, what to project?

Each song, if done properly, is some sort of story - it has a narrative linear structure even if it's abstract. You need to decide what you are feeling at each point in the song, what that part means to you, and then project it to the audience. It doesn't have to be the same each time but it has to be clear to you each time.

With practice with your band, you'll evolve a story from your song. The bassist is slick there, but here she is angry. The singer is focused on the audience there, but here he is watching the guitar solo. Here the guitarist is stern, there she's lyrical, here she's aggressive.

As a bassist, it's likely that the lead singer and the guitarist will be doing a lot of the work here. You could do a lot worse than just look at the singer while s/he's singing, and then at the guitarist while s/he's soloing, then at the audience if your part is the most prominent, or in long sections at the drummer to stay locked in.

Be clear with your attention - look at the drummer so everyone sees that you are looking at the drummer, don't wimp out!

This is your chance to be Superman - even when you're sitting there playing even eighth notes to accompany the vocalist, anyone who sees you should see the force of your intention (and have their attention immediately directed to the singer who you're accompanying).

Finally, the question of drugs - which is to say pot or alcohol. (White powders are too dangerous - psychedelics are very informative but make it very hard to play...)

After 40+ years of playing, I prefer to play live high, personally, it keeps me fresh - but I don't recommend it when you start.

At some points during the practice cycle, it's nice to smoke up a bit - it's very good for practicing those repetitive parts and really getting into a groove, but you probably don't want to be smoking when you're learning the parts.

For years, if I were singing I'd have to have exactly one drink or I'd always sing sharp. I later learned what my issue was (my throat was tight) and now I don't have to (but I like to drink so will probably still have one anyway).

One drink - if you generally smoke pot, a couple of hits - sure, take the edge off.

But I suggest you go out cold or almost cold until you get to the point where all the parts are completely second-nature to you - until the point you realize that you went through a song like it was crossing the street.

Then, well, see what works for you. Maybe you'll cut lose and be a superstar - maybe it will just confuse you. Do whatever works.

Have fun!

OB plug: Here's a good performance of mine, captured - I play the synth lines (on the electronic wind instrument) and, most prominently, the vocals.

I was particularly happy with this track because it really manages to cut lose in a really free way (The Megatoids were a jam band). You can hear the opening is static but unsettled, foreboding, and then we lead into the "vocals" which cut lose into a sort of massive insane non-linguistic ramble...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:48 AM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want a rush of adrenaline, do some kind of performance that is even more terrifying. Take it to an open-mic night and sing in a room that's quiet instead of a crowded bar. Sign up under a fake name if necessary. Once you've done somethig that truly makes you hands shake, normal gigs will seem easier by comparison.

My experience: played with a band as fill-in musician off and on for a couple of months, okay but shaky. Became "band member": scary!. Did a show in another city while our main singer was sick and we were staggering through with a fill-in who was relying on me to keep her together: terrifying. Came home, next show was a piece of cake. Conveniently, this "the worst is over" feeling of calm in front of a microphone now carries over to all sorts of semi-performance moment of life: job interviews, making announcements in front of large crowds, etc. These days, no band, so my moments of terror are now quiet room, solo instrument - but again, practice makes it better, and extreme practice makes it better faster.
posted by aimedwander at 11:08 AM on July 27, 2012

I sang in a band for 8 years. Experience is your best friend. The more you play, the more comfortable you will be in front of large crowds. My dad use to open for Jerry Lee Lewis back in "the day" and he played for extremely large crowds. He said you could pretty much only see the first 4 rows of people because the lights on the stage were so bright and the audience was dark, so he pretended they were the only people there. You just have to psyche yourself out.
posted by sybarite09 at 6:07 AM on July 30, 2012

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