Sometimes playing a new song for an audience is like pushing a baby bird out of the nest, complete with crash landings and broken wings. Let's have a look at some of the finer points of the endeavor.
Looking back on my twenty plus years as a staff songwriter, I wish I had played out more. Since hindsight is supposedly twenty twenty, I can say with clarity that it would have benefitted both my career and my confidence.
Assorted neuroses, however, got in the way, including the fact that I was highly mediocre as a guitar player and nothing to write home about as a singer. One of my publishers even offered to pay for guitar lessons for me, and for some reason I was too busy being an up and coming songwriter to bother with such mundane tasks.
Oh, to have it to do over again! Better instrumental skills would have made me much more likely to get out there in front of an audience on a regular basis. Though I eventually played out quite a bit, it was not nearly as frequent occurrence as it should have been. There are so many benefits.
Every city has a few clubs with a writer's night, and major music cities have many. The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville in one of the most prestigious meccas for songwriters in America. For that reason, it is probably not the best place for the fledgling to test the waters. It goes without saying that you need a certain level of readiness before you play anywhere in public, but start on a stage where you can make a few mistakes.
There are usually quite a few places where being allowed to play consists of little more than showing up. These open mike night venues are ideal for the beginner. You might want to be an audience member around town before you even consider taking this first step. Learn the ropes and procedures a bit as well as any technical expectations.
There are solo performances and in the round performances, where you alternate with several other performers. I think the latter gives you some recovery time between songs and that can be a welcome relief if you are prone to nervousness.
If you find that the response from the audience is more than polite, complete with whistles, cheers, and after-set comments, consider yourself ready to advance to the next rung up the latter. If not, work at both your writing and performance craft. Practice between-song dialogue until it flows easily. If you can make your audience comfortable, they will usually return the favor.
Eventually you will be ready for the venues where the hit writers play. At first, you will be assigned a slot in the early show. The cream of the crop get the coveted late shows and featured writer spots. You may or may not be allowed to assemble your own round.
Performing in a line with a host of strangers is not nearly as enjoyable as sitting amidst mutually respected friends. As you work your way skyward, you will get more say in some of these matters. A foursome of cohorts who compliment one another's style and personalities is a beautiful thing. Many such groupings come to mind from my years in Nashville and they all had good followings.
The first time I was invited to play a round, I declined. I kept asking myself if the hit writers I so enjoyed were much better writers than me, or just better performers. I decided to woodshed for a few more months before I took the plunge.
My maiden venue, unfortunately, was neither small nor in the company of beginners, as it should have been. I sat between big dogs when I was barely paper-trained! Bad metaphor, but you get the idea. My shaky vocals alone were reason to return directly to go, which I did, with my tail between my legs!
I then began to play smaller, less influential clubs where industry movers and shakers were rare. By the time I found myself at the Bluebird a few years later, I was nervous, yes, but not panic-stricken, and I performed fairly well, considering the fact that I did not accept those free guitar lessons!
So, your first performance at a little out of the way bar is on the calendar. I hope it will be in the round. If you do, however, tackle a solo set of four to six songs, be sure to include some variety. Nothing gets an audience yawning like six straight ballads from a banterless, humorless crooner.
If you are not naturally funny, settle for interesting. You might start by telling a little something about yourself that leads into the first, hopefully uptempo, song. If your veins tend to overflow with adrenaline like mine do, an uptempo usually helps to blow off some anxious steam. A shaky voice shows more on a ballad, anyway!
Plan a story song, a ballad or two, a rocker, some humor, and some angst. Don't be a sad sack writer wrapped in musical misery. We've all had friends who speak of nothing but their heartaches, and it gets old fast. It's no different when you complain in the key of G. Also avoid repeating the same grooves, keys, chord progressions, phrasings, and tempos. I once came out or the studio with four songs in the same pocket. Thankfully, I never had to perform them all at once!
If you have a choice in how many songs you perform, less tends to be more. Play your very best tunes and leave the audience wanting for more. I've heard few major acts that I hadn't had enough of after about six songs!
On the more technical side, don't be shy about retuning as needed. If you are not happy with the sound, feel free to speak to the sound engineer right from the stage. A writer's night is different and more intimate that an artist's performance.
Perfection is not necessary and the human element can be very endearing when one is rendering their own musings.
Even in towns and cities that are not music centers in any sense of the word, there are contacts to be made. There are potential co-writers to meet. There are owners of local restaurants and bars out for the evening who may consider you for their establishment. There are friends to be made who can recommend local studios, or simply offer advice and camaraderie.
In a city like Nashville or Los Angeles (my hometown), there are major contacts to glean. Producers, artists, hit writers, publishers, managers, ad infinitum all frequent the best clubs. If you catch the ear of the right person, your dues-paying time can be reduced to a fraction of what it would have been. Just remember to lend a hand behind you as you grab the one ahead of you on the next rung up the ladder!
Finding good co-writers is in my opinion, one of the greatest blessings on the playing field. I married one of my co-writers! You help shape them and vice versa. As you become closer friends, there is a no-bull frankness that is invaluable. A sounding board is ever so much more powerful when that board has his or her name on the composition!
As you acquire a stable of co-writers, again, strive for variety, and continue to add new ones. I always enjoyed writing with a good picker, who might have been weak on verbiage, but was very strong on grooves. A good vocalist is fun to write with to, assuming they can carry their weight.
One major songwriter in Nashville is known as the Song Doctor. He seldom has the idea, the melody, or even the words, but boy, can he spot and mend a song's deficiency. All of these slots have value. Playing out is an outstanding way of hearing a plethora of potential co-writer's and having them hear you.
Just for fun, I have compiled a list of 10 playing out what-not-to-dos.
- Don't over-explain to your audience what your song is about. The song should speak for itself.
- Don't perform songs so indulgently personal that the listener feels like they stumbled upon your diary.
- Don't jump in musically on another writer's performance unless you have been invited to, or are so good that it's a no-fail matter!
- Don't roll your eyes if you don't like the next guy's song. I have witnessed this more times than I care to count.
- Don't try to get by with an out of tune instrument. In Nashville, the saying is: "We tune because we care!"
- Don't be the guy who needs a hook to get him off the stage.
- Please don't precede your song with the phrase, "It goes a little something like this."
- Don't assault a hit writer far beyond your league with a request for a co-write.
- Don't tell the same jokes at every performance. Many repeater listeners are in your audience.
- Don't (my personal pet peeve) swill your beer right into the mike thinking it sounds oh-so-sexy.
There is nothing like that feeling of being on stage in a dimly lit room. Perched on a precarious barstool in a halo or red light, you are transformed for a little while into a would-be or maybe even a will-be star.
I started pretending in my bedroom at the age of 13. I even had the red light bulb and the barstool. My audience however, was my mirror, and that, my friends, is no match for the real thing.
Get out there and do it!