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A completely biased guide to live performance

Live performance is coming back. It may not look or sound the same as it did eight months ago, but musicians are heading back to the stage, and audiences are heading back to venues. Given the increased efforts required from all involved to follow the health protocols, weigh the risks of being out and about, and even make less money, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on what, to me, makes a good performance.

As the title of this post suggests, these thoughts are completely biased – they are based on my experiences and my preferences only. But as my wife will tell you, I like to think I’m right about a lot of stuff. And while every performance setting – and every performer, and every audience – is a bit different, I’d argue that regardless of the performance, some of the following will apply. So without any further ado, it’s a list nobody asked for…

Be on time and professional in everything you do
This should go without saying. In advance of the show, all gig-related correspondence should be courteous and helpful. Show up to the show at your call time, ready to go. Facilitate the work that those around you – the venue manager, the sound technician, the stage crew, etc. – might have to do in order to get ready for the show. Start on time.

Be musically prepared
Rehearsing for a show these days is tricky given the restrictions in place. But there is no excuse for sloppy playing on the bandstand. As the leader, make sure you know – and have communicated to the other musicians – how each tune will begin and end. (The default “hold a long note until the drummer does the final fill” gets tired in a hurry, and is kinda lazy.) Make sure the arrangements are tight and well-played. Carefully think through your set list. Is there a nice variety of tempos, styles, tune lengths? Have you planned a good show, or just a series of tunes? Does everyone need to take 11 choruses on each tune?

Engage with and know your audience
Creating an enjoyable environment for audiences is more important now than it’s ever been. Audience members today have made carefully considered decisions about leaving their homes to come hear you play, often paying more for the music in – frankly – less friendly environments (strict circulation restrictions, plexiglass, etc.) than they have in the past. To make audiences feel welcome, I’d suggest, among other things:

  • Talk to the audience! You don’t have to be a great storyteller, or have a great repertoire of jokes (have you seen me in action, for example?). But making sure to announce the titles of the tunes you play, and, where possible, giving a line or two of context behind the music, can go a long way to helping the audience feel engaged.
  • Think about who will be the audience. Will these be established jazz fans, or people newer to the music? Is it more of a party situation, or more of a concert situation? If you’re playing for jazz regulars, you might be able to stretch out a bit. If it’s an audience that might be newer to the music – or an audience that is looking for more of a party than a concert – perhaps it’s not the time to work in all of your favourite pentatonic patterns over tri-tone substitutions.
  • This one’s trickier given current health restrictions, but find ways to connect with your audience after the show. Under more normal circumstances, that would have meant circulating after the gig, saying hello, asking people to sign up for mailing lists, selling merch, etc. With face-to-face contact somewhat discouraged at the moment, these become more challenging; but still be sure to have merch available for sale, and make it easy for people to find you online after the show.

And then, as my high school trumpet teacher would have said, “forget all this and just play!” It’s such a treat to hear live music again, as different as it may be, and at the shows I’ve seen the musicians have been so happy just to be on the same stage as their bandmates. If you’re on stage having fun – and the audience can see that you’re having fun – I think a lot of these items will take care of themselves. But if you spend a few extra minutes before each gig to make sure you’re covering all of the bases – musical or not – I think everyone’s experience will be elevated.

What do you think – anything missing? Anything completely off base?

Josh

P.S. – This post is geared towards musicians; another entire post could be written about how audiences can help make performances memorable for all the right reasons.
P.P.S. – I should also be clear to acknowledge the difficult decisions musicians are making about whether or not they are comfortable performing in public at the moment (not to mention the venue managers, etc.). By the time the band is on stage and the audience is settled, everyone in the room has already done a lot of work – thank you to all for making live music possible again!

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