Performance: The Ultimate Form of Expression Part II

JamPlay, LLC
Published on 10-21-2016
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The Soloist-continued
As previously stated, channeling emotion into one's playing and performance in order to create powerful and inspiring shows is imperative, but it is equally important for the individual to be prepared to play both from a mental as well as physical perspective. Many musicians have an upbeat and positive attitude as well as awesome stage presence but lack the mechanical skills to be great performers, while other truly phenomenal musicians are cripplingly egotistical, belligerently negative or suffer from extreme stage fright. In any case, an inadequate mix of skills and attitude can impede the individual's progress as a dynamic performer and may foreshorten their career as a musician. Perhaps even more tragically, lack of ample preparation can detract from the ultimate joy that you as a musician can attain and impede you from attaining the lofty heights that you are capable. Preparation is a multi-faceted and lengthy process that often takes many years of dedicated practice as well as education in the realm of attitude adjustment and coping skills.

Skills Preparation
Many people ask "how do I begin to play the guitar?" or "how do I set up an effective practice schedule" These are great questions and are addressed in my article entitled "Taking Half and Whole Steps to Success" which can be found on the site. Playing the guitar is a highly subjective and incredibly personal endeavor that will inevitably have to be discovered by the individual. Personal physical differences including deviations in hand size, arm-length, finger-length, basic manual coordination, eyesight, and hearing can all effect how each person addresses the learning process. Subsequently, how your skills on the guitar develop will be something that unfolds, evolves over time and will likely be very different from another. For example, you may have an anomalous curve in your index finger on your chord hand which may compel you to play certain chords in a different fashion than other players. Or, you may have longer arms than others which might compel you to sling your guitar strap lower around your neck and develop more of a rock-a-billy style of strumming. Certainly, there are some universal facets of the guitar that are intrinsic to the design of the instrument and will consequently dictate certain commonalities amongst guitar players in general but how you develop as a soloist will invariably be the synthesis of many different factors both physical and otherwise.

Song Selection
Obviously, any great performer needs to spend a great deal of time on his or her craft developing, defining, and refining the various elements of their musicianship. And in lieu of the fact that there are almost infinite combinations of the various styles and genres of music available to the aspiring musician, how one develops their own individual style is truly unique. While one musician might be combining different elements of blues with rock, another may be synthesizing different aspects of folk and jazz music. Some may lean heavily upon music theory while others may compose and perform based strictly upon their own experiences and to the beats of their own drummers, so to speak. But regardless of the style or the various synthesis of elements that you have chosen to assimilate into your musicianship, you will need to make choices! Fortunately most of these choices tend to happen automatically and usually don't require any extraneous energy beyond what it takes to select and listen to music that you enjoy. But most performers have one or two central influential genres of music that have molded them into the musicians that they are. From these genres will blossom your own personal style as well as the music that you as a performer will likely choose to play over your musical career. The songs you choose to play can be a reflection of who you are as a player and may well be one of the most important choices you will need to make as a performer.

Choosing the Set-List
Most people tend to perform at least some of the songs that they've played over the years, or songs they've learned to play as they acquired skills on the guitar. Learning songs can be beneficial to preparation as a soloist and will inevitably contribute to your performance skills both in present as well as future performances. Some may think that song-selection is really not that important and their set-lists can be simply thrown together at the last minute, or be compiled of any random and miscellaneous combination of tunes. And although you may be able to get away with this haphazard manner of set-assembly, there truly is an art and a science to compiling an excellent set-list!

Here are some basic things to avoid when assembling your set list:
1) Try to avoid playing songs back-to-back that are in the same key as this can make your set seem monochromatic and tiresome.

2) Try to avoid playing songs back-to-back that have the same tempo for the same reasons as above. Variation in key and tempo can help to keep your sets interesting to you as well as the crowd at hand.

3) Mix up longer with shorter songs. Having a number of shorter songs (I.e. 3-4 minutes) interspersed with a longer song(5-8 minutes) can have a profound effect on the crowd and in effect "builds up" to a climactic point in your set.

4) Mix up songs with varying tempos. This can have the same effect as mixing songs with different lengths. Too many slow songs may tire the crowd and too many fast ones can over stimulate them. Many clubs hold fast to the notion that people tend to buy more drinks during slow songs and actually desire a certain amount of ballads or slower songs in a performer's set.

5) Mix the moods of the songs that you are playing. Playing a sad song can be very powerful but if your whole set is comprised of sad songs, you'll probably scare away your patrons.
Obviously, there is a subjective element to set construction and different genres of music dictate different rules. Many blues songs for example, are in the keys of E and A and it can be fairly difficult to get away from that. Nevertheless, these are broad guidelines that can help the performer to make good decisions concerning song selection that can help to dictate both the crowd's mood as well as your own.

Preparing for the Stage
"And now you're trembling on a rocky ledge staring out into a heartless sea..." ( Pert, "Presto",1989).

Everything you've done up to this point including skill development, learning various songs (many at this point, hopefully) and adapting them into a cohesive set list falls under the category of preparing for the stage. In fact, you've been preparing ever since you first set eyes upon that shiny guitar in the local music store and said "oh yes, you will be mine!" But making that giant step from playing by yourself in your bedroom to playing on stage in front of other, judgmental, wide-eyed and staring, seemingly hostile (at times) human beings can be truly terrifying. And truthfully, you will come into contact with people over the duration of your performance career that are seemingly disinterested and have no qualms whatsoever about talking, laughing, or even yelling while you are laying your heart on the line and performing a piece with every ounce of passion and emotion in your heart. So how do you prepare for this monumental and potentially petrifying leap into the unknown? Here are some ways that I've learned to deal with it:
1) Truly BE prepared.
In other words, make sure that you have mastered the songs that you will be performing. Avoid attempting brand new material unless you are comfortable, and I mean "really" comfortable, with it and have practiced it thoroughly. Learn the subtle nuances of each song, the chord changes as well as the shifts in dynamics and how you might be able to use every tool that you've learned during your skills preparation to make this song as powerful and beautiful as possible.

2) Mental preparation
A. This goes hand-in-hand with skills prep as the more confident in the material you are the more confident you will be on stage... hopefully. Unfortunately some performers experience extreme stage fright regardless of how comfortable they are with the songs that they will be performing. But nevertheless, eliminate any doubt you have about the quality of the material by polishing each song as if it were a gem.

B. Keep in mind that what you are telling yourself or your "self talk" can dictate how you will inevitably perform the material. Positive self-talk will likely result in a better performance while negative self talk may, well, you get the picture. Practice self-affirming remarks to yourself like "this is gonna be awesome" or "this is really going to be fun, I'm glad I'm here" or "I'm really playing well lately and this is going to go well". Indeed, it can be helpful to practice these types of remarks to yourself on a day-to-day basis and get in the habit of thinking positively.

C. Breathing-your self talk can definitely affect your breathing as well and this alone can make or break you on stage, especially if you're a singer. Improper breathing while performing can adversely affect your singing voice and longevity as well as cause shakiness while playing the guitar. Shallow and/or overly deep breathing can also cause light headedness and even the symptoms of panic attacks (See Macy Gray). Relax your breathing and practice some self-affirming statements before you get ready to go to your performance.

D. Make the stage your home. If you are able, get up on the stage before you begin your performance (the longer before the better) and find your spot, look around at the room and relax your breathing as you do so. Get as comfortable as possible with the stage and the people around you, especially the crowd if they are there at that point. The more familiar you become with your surroundings, the more relaxed you will likely be when it comes time to perform.
Inevitably, preparing for a performance as a soloist is a life-long process and requires many long hours of preparation both mentally as well as physically. And while skill development is integral to performance, it's also of the utmost importance that you, as a musician, learn to think in a positive and self affirming manner so that performance is fun and rewarding over the life-span of your musical career. Mark Lincoln M.A.
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