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Getting Started with Live Performance

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Read Time: 6 min

The thrill of performing live is its immediacy. The crowd hear every note as you play it - no second chances. They respond to the emotion of your playing and singing. They move to your groove. You get instant feedback on everything you do. There is a buzz.

This contrasts strongly with playing in a studio where nothing is ever good enough first time, and you may play the same thing fifty times before you - or the producer - are happy with it. Different parts may be played at different times, so band members don’t get the same buzz from playing off one another. Everything is slow and deliberate, and you may not get a reaction to your music for months.

Performing live is never the same twice. It might work one night, and not another. The crowd will respond differently. You’ll inspire one another’s playing differently. And your own feelings about the night give no indication of the enjoyment of the crowd. You may have loved it, and they hated it. You may be disappointed with what you feel was average playing, while the crowd are on a high. It’s a surprise a night.

Here are 8 things to keep in mind when you’re performing live:

1. Project an image

Bands and solo performers project a sense of style in everything they do. Make sure you’re aware of the image you are projecting, and make the most of it.

Your sense of style doesn’t just come from your music - it is reinforced by the way you dress, your set design, the way you move, the things you say, the equipment you use, and even your advertising material, including posters and website.

Successful performers put an enormous amount of thought and work into the way they perform. You are there to present a show, not a random selection of songs. You don’t want to just turn up, stand on stage, and knock off one number after another.

Think through how one song can lead into another. Plan when to reach a climax, and how to come down from the high. Think of how your clothes, set design, and the way you present yourselves reinforce your band’s image. And be consistent.

2. Design your set

Designing a set can be as simple or as complex as you like. But start by being practical. How many people will be on stage? Are they mobile, or tied behind keyboards and drum kits? Who needs to be positioned together? Sketch out where everyone will be on stage, and where they can move.

If most of you are mobile and able to move around on stage, make the most of it. Plan when and where everyone will move. Add some interaction between singers and players. Use humor if appropriate. And work out how you can make the high point of the important songs stand out.

If most of you are chained to an immovable instrument, work out how you can design your set to make the most of it. You might use platforms to make some players more visible. You might set up several keyboards in different places. If the drummer has a huge kit, where can you put him, and how can you make the most of it?

Make your set as visually appealing as possible, but also make it flexible. You may have to set up in all sorts of venues, and on all sizes of stage. What will you use as a backdrop? Do you need to consult a designer to get the color scheme and other design elements right?

And be sensible. If you’re playing in a small venue to a small crowd, and don’t have roadies, you won’t want to spend half the day setting up.

3. Make the most of lighting

Lighting can be extremely important, and extremely expensive! It adds a sense of mood and excitement second only to the music.

To make the most of your lighting, it needs to be carefully choreographed and rehearsed. The lighting guy is a performer in his own right. He has to learn his pieces like any other band member, and projects an atmosphere with the lights the way you do with music.

If you tailor-make the lighting for the music, the result is worthwhile and unique. It sets the mood and greatly influences the way the crowd respond to each song.

4. Get a reasonable sound

If you are used to the rich layered sounds that can be produced in a studio, you will have to modify and simplify the arrangement for a live performance. Unless you’re willing to play along to backing tracks or sequencers, you are limited by the number of musicians in the band, and have to make the most of them.

Pick out the main themes, the important licks, and the song’s groove. Choose sounds that are similar to the recording without necessarily being identical.

The point of a performance isn’t to accurately reproduce the sounds off an album - that’s an impossible job. You’re there to entertain the crowd, who are looking for a good feel, strong vocals, and visual excitement. If you’re doing a cover from an album the audience are familiar with, your sound should be similar without being identical. If you give them a good performance, they won’t care about the difference.

5. Justify the expense

By now you might have your calculator out, adding up the cost of the set, costumes, lighting, instruments, mikes and PA. Then there’s the cost and effort of transporting it from venue to venue. As you do the math, you realise that you’ll have to charge more for entry to your gig than anyone would be willing to pay.

You have to be sensible, and adjust your expectations to what you can afford. Rather than a complicated set that costs a fortune to build and a semi-trailer to carry around, try to come up with some creative ideas that give a similar effect with less. You’d be surprised at how much creative thinking can slash costs. Even famous bands need to simplify their sets when traveling overseas.

6. Don’t predict the audience

Whether you are performing in different countries, different cities, or just on different nights in the same venue, the audiences will respond differently. You can’t predict it, and shouldn’t read too much into your performance (or talent) if you receive an unfavorable reaction one night. You don’t know what tomorrow night will be like. It’s all part of the experience!

And if you worry too much about the audience’s reaction (or seeming unresponsiveness) while on stage, your performance will suffer. If you’re enjoying yourself, the audience will probably enjoy themselves too. There’s nothing worse than a performer feeling sorry for themselves, or a performer trying too hard to please or get attention.

7. Get it on video

Don’t underestimate the value of a good video. In these digital days we don’t just listen to music - we like to watch.

Get someone to capture you on video at some of your concerts, and spend some serious computer time presenting it well. You don’t want to look amateurish. Placing a good video clip on YouTube or your website lets you reach a wider audience, and gives your band great exposure.

8. Some advice for beginners

When you’re new, people won’t know what to expect. You’re likely to get very mixed reactions, expecially if your sound is an “acquired taste”, or appeals to those who enjoy a specific music style. Don’t take an unresponsive audience too much to heart, and remember that it’s difficult to gauge how you are coming over to the audience when you are performing.

Work at your sound. Work at your image. Make sure you are performing, not just playing your instrument. And be positive. Especially when you are on stage!

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