In my early days, I focused on technique almost to the exclusion of everything else. Technical perfection was my goal…. not the groups musicality, not showmanship, not the total effect on the audience, but my personal skill. Man, was I wrong….
Granted, being a tech head, lights and pyro were interesting too, and yes I did play around with them quite a bit… but personally, there was this disconnect. I could tell when the groups gelled, and when they didnt, but couldnt identify why. I could tell when we had a real showman as a leader, but failed to jump into the ballgame personally. I could tell when the audience was engaged and part of the total event, but couldnt put 2+2 together to see what the reason was.
As I grew technically, I interacted more and more with other musicians, heard more live shows, both as audience and behind the scenes… and I started to pick up on things, and lots of light bulbs came on. I think Amy Wolter said it best when she stated as concerns the audience, They don’t want to leave and be saying, “Did you see the guitar player stand in one spot all night so he could play every note perfectly?”
And I was the guy… the bass player who stood in one spot all night so he could play every note perfectly. I wish I had read that when I was a youngster! Far too many years passed before the light bulbs came on.
Some bits I learned over the years..
- The total deal is what counts, perfect musicianship does not make up for shortcomings in other areas. (The reverse is true… a good show, with great audience engagement does make up for a ton of technical errors… but only to a point of course)
- Attire does make a difference, and yes, I do remember having Lawrence Welk set of clothes for some jazz gigs, and some other flashy attire depending upon the style of music I was playing. Looking back, its funny… but it was appropriate for the time.
- Stage presence is key, and that entails a ton of things, how one physically reacts with the audience, the other band members, and even gear can be a prop at times.
- Consistency is key…. ie dont be a bump on a log for entire sets, and for only 1 tune jump into the fray, it looks fake.
- Choreography is cool… it provides a base, a set of SOP’s, and with it, more creativity and spontaneity is possible, and it keeps botched attempts at engagement from appearing staged and fake.
- Always plan for the unexpected… jam your hand, or slice your thumb during load in is going to make technical artistry difficult or even impossible. Even being sicker than a dog can mess up the best laid plans. Practice a fallback simple routine and a show can work really well despite adversity. When musicality drops, use other areas to boost the shows appeal.
- Learn from others, as a bass player for hire, I experienced a multitude of approaches musically, but also in the showmanship domain. Cross fertilization plays major dividends.
- Dont limit yourself to expectations… exceed them, and blow a few minds. Its perfectly cool to freak folks out to keep em on their toes. Probably not going as far as Gene Simmon’s, esp in a country or Gospel band… but playing and showmanship to expectations often leads to a pretty dull audience experience. Exceed them, it does work wonders.