I’m going to be frank: One of the keys to succeeding as a stage musician is being able to work your show regularly in front of an audience, especially when it’s new. You have to keep your musical chops up, obviously, but you also have to maintain a show that’s tight and engaging. That’s why touring, as opposed to the occasional one or two-nighter, is so beneficial.
Here’s a related truth: Despite your best intentions to develop performing skills and present an excellent show, there may be hurdles that slow you down. Some of these have to do with life circumstances: where you live, obligations to family, having to work at another job, etc. But some impediments to your improving as a performer or tightening your show have to do with variables you may not be able to control, like:
Finding a band: You may have lots of talent, but no matter where you live it can be tricky to find three or four others who want to commit to your rehearsals and shows, especially if you’re too demanding about rehearsing a lot.
Tiny stages: If most of the places you get to play are bars with puny stages, how do you ever get comfortable introducing more movement into your shows?
Lack of shows by other performers: One of the best ways to learn about performing is to analyze live shows, both great ones and not-so-great ones. If you seldom get the chance, or make the effort, to see professional big name artists perform, you’re missing out on an important education. Videos of concerts are okay, but the film editor has had a hand in how the show looks and feels. It’s just not the same as a live experience.
Getting media attention: You’ll need this if you expect to get people out to see you. For beginning or emerging artists, buying ads is usually out of the question. Facebook and an e-list can be helpful. But if you want new people to see you, you need the media onside, and if your show is happening during, say, an election, there’s a good chance all the reporters are focused on that. Or if your paper doesn’t have an adequate arts staff, you may fall through the cracks.
Lack of opportunity: If you live in LaRonge or Iqaluit, there may not be enough venues in the area to allow for an extensive tour. Even here in Saskatoon there are only so many places to play for, say, a folk musician or a rap artist, and only so many people who are interested in seeing your full concert more than once or twice a year. Without committing to a great deal of travel, it’s simply not practical for every musician to rehearse a show the way we’d all like to. (As an aside, I caught an Arcade Fire interview in their early years. They were about to embark on their “rehearsal tour” which was three weeks long and took them to a single venue in each of Montreal, Vancouver and New York. They worked out parts of the show during the day, then tried them on audiences at night. Then they started the real international tour. This is exactly like professional theatre where plays are rehearsed for a minimum of three weeks before preview nights.)
So, am I suggesting that if you can’t do fifteen shows in a row, or you can’t get media attention, or you’ve only got access to puny stages, you might as well forget being a performing musician? No.
What I am saying is recognize the context in which you’re trying to develop and don’t beat yourself up for things that really aren’t in your control. Or about which you can only do so much. I’ll use myself as an example: Since becoming a mom it’s unrealistic for me to imagine that I could mount a full-length concert, rehearse it full-time for three weeks and then tour it for five. I know I could do a bang up job with that kind of time investment, and with these imaginary great crowds that would come to see me 35 nights in a row! But it’s not going to happen. Do I still perform? Of course — in venues and for durations that make sense for me. And I know I’m doing the best job I can within the context of my life circumstances.
Further, am I suggesting you can’t put on a great show unless you go through weeks of rehearsal? No. Especially if you’re already an experienced performer. Again, it’s context. A show I might put on for one or two nights here in Saskatoon in an intimate songwriters’ venue might turn out to be pretty great in the context of the space we’re in and the kind of audience I’ve drawn. However, if I try to take that same show and put it on a huge stage for 2000 people, the context changes and chances are it won’t come off as a great show. The other measure of a great show that I like to talk about is “fulfilling intentions.” If I’ve clearly established intentions that include serving the needs and expectations of the audience, and I fulfill my intentions and their expectations especially well, then in my mind, and I hope the audience’s, I’ve given them a great show.
Finally, all of the hurdles I’ve listed can be overcome to some degree with creativity, commitment and planning. Attitude and flexibility also play an important role. It’s up to you to bring these five traits to the hurdles you face as you become a better performer.