Over the past 40 years, I’ve walked onto thousands of stages to perform music.
From bars and nightclubs to network TV late-night shows to just about every theater across America (and many others around the world), I worked as a support musician (in the band). I've also have done many shows as a featured performer.
When I started out in the music business, I would go onstage thinking that the whole world was waiting for me to make a mistake or perform poorly. And in my mind, I would usually supply the one note or song that would ding my confidence and dampen the experience. "We'll get 'em next time" or "I need to practice (fill in the blank) more." I'll be the first to point out that my self-critical habit motivated me to work harder. I was determined to show up ‘ready to rock’. Through a whole lot of practice and more years on stage, I slowly became a better musician and live performer.
It takes two sides to do a show (more if you count the promoter, venue, and techs). But let’s talk about the people on stage and the folks sitting out front in the house.
99% of the audience is there to have a good time; they are there to cheer the performers on – they are with you. They are supportive and forgiving. The audience makes the show possible – otherwise, you’d just be practicing at home.
Your show is not going to be 100% technically perfect. If it is, you are probably doing something wrong as a performer. “If you’re thinkin, you’re stinkin”. Your work on stage should be interactive and fun. (I prefer spontaneity and improvisation, but I realize some acts are more rehearsed and limit improvisation). Either way, a musician's job is to give the audience an honest performance. If you do this, you will feel good walking off the stage.
Over the years, I've become an expert at preparing for live shows.
From one-niters to national and international tours, I’ve learned material for countless acts. My success rate was (and hopefully still is) extremely high at delivering my parts on stage. I remember that with a few acts, I should have learned a signature lick or two better than I did, but overall, I nailed most of it. I’ve gotten better at the prep process over the years. I start with writing (or fixing) charts, marking tempos, and focusing on piano intros, fills, or solos. Listen, listen more, and then listen again. Oh, and also be prepared for at the rehearsal or the show - the arrangements could be completely different than what you’ve prepared for. This happens more than you’d think. The piano intro you worked on so diligently is now in another key, tempo, or a new approach altogether. Or maybe now it’s a guitar intro. Be prepared, and be ready to adapt.
I’ve been in bands that have been a little too uptight – focusing on the wrong things at the wrong times. The sound system may be awful, and the setlist may be different than at rehearsal – or a song is called that only half of the band knows. Again, not fun, but out of your control. Play on and do your best. Accept.
When it's show time, it's time to give the audience what you’ve got – and give it to them with confidence and a smile. The time to worry about your muffled instrument tone, an unclear arrangement, or a tricky harmony part has passed – it is now time to entertain. You are performing for the folks out front and also for your fellow performers. If you have a grumpy band member – disregard them. Do not let them tamp down your good attitude. I’ve worked with a drummer (not picking on drummers here) that destroyed ten of the fifteen song endings in one show. Not fun – but smile through it. Another time, I was doing a ‘plug-n-play’ (no time for a proper soundcheck) festival in Canada years ago with a talented singer out of Nashville. The first song of the show started with an organ pad (me) setting up an a cappella vocal chorus. 1-2-3-4… I laid into the organ chord – all of us singers started singing. Guess what? It was the wrong key. The act that was on before us had transposed down the keyboard. Perfect. Anyway, this stuff happens. We jumped to the proper key after the vocal intro. Luckily after the band smoothed things out, the Artist just turned around and smiled at me. Live music – who knew?
As for the friends, fans, and music lovers sitting out front, watching the show – remember that they may have planned the evening for weeks or months. They are excited to be there and to hear you and the rest of the folks on stage. They are on your side, giving you the benefit of the doubt, and they appreciate that you showed up to entertain them. Yes, I have seen people sleeping in the front row – but again, those are the exceptions.
Do your musical homework. Preparation is the key to confidence. And when you walk out on stage to do the show, do so with gratitude and camaraderie with your fellow performers and the audience. Make music with joy in your heart. Enjoy the moment. Everyone will hear that you are happy to be there.