By Jeff Black
From July 2014 Vandala Magazine READ MORE ARTICLES
Read Part 1 of Stagecraft 101: Why Performance Matters HERE
Amongst the discussion and responses for my original article, I stumbled across this comment:
“Thanks for the advice, guy whose played in go-nowhere never
fucking heard of them bands. This “scathing article” from a fucking creatively
bankrupt hare-brained idiot who thinks that covering Ozzy songs “sets him apart”. from being a cheesy moron prancing around with choreographed back street boy bullshit moves. Pathetic. What a tryhard…”
You can’t please everyone.
Fact: you probably don’t know who I am. You’ve probably never heard of me. Does this make my advice worth any less than if it came from, say, Gene Hoglan or Rob Halford or Steve Harris or whomever? Nope. Maybe? Probably. Shut up.
You heard it in that quote above, I’m just a creatively bankrupt tryhard hunched over his computer, drinking Warsteiner at 8:30am on a Thursday with no pants on when I should really be booking studio time. You probably don’t want advice from me. And yet, I feel compelled to give it.
So here’s how I see things: Do what makes sense to you.
My semi-coherent stage-monkey babble will not work for everyone, nor for every band. Your mileage may vary and every band is trying to accomplish something a little different then the rest. Do what makes sense to you. Just do it well.
PRACTICE FOR PERFORMANCE
Have you ever gone out and watched a play? Like a musical production? I’m talking Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Les Miserables, Game of Thrones: the Musical (hopefully that’ll be a thing by the time this article gets published) Footloose, whatever.
How often do you see a professional-level production where the actors screw up the choreography and ruin the song? It happens, sure. Youtube is a treasure trove for that stuff. However, in my experience as a viewer and a performer it’s pretty rare for things to go wrong in a hugely noticeable way. Unless we’re talking about your nephew’s Christmas pageant. That sucked. Do little Jimmie a favor and tell him not to quit his day job, because his rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” was a less of a song, and more of a smear campaign against the holiday spirit.
I have a huge amount of respect for those in the Theater Arts. Those nutty thespians have to memorize and rehearse melodies, harmonies, lyrics, soliloquies, monologues, stage blocking, dance choreography and lighting queues and all kinds of crazy shit. Most of them shell out thousands of dollars for a BFA program to learn these skills.
Bands can learn a thing or three from these people.
Let’s get Hypo… no, not Hypodermic, put your damn belt back on you junkie. I mean Hypothetical:
You play in a five-piece rock band (or black metal, or post-new-age-funk, or Icelandic jacuzzi thrash, whatever moistens your berries). You’ve been jamming for like two months now and you’ve got your first gig tomorrow. You spend twenty minutes drawing up a set list and brainstorming some ideas for things to do onstage. You all leave your jam space with eager hearts and warm smiles, ready to ascend the heavens on a staircase made of fire to the annals of Rock and Roll legendry; to sit alongside Zeus and Odin in their golden hall where winged groupies slather themselves in Jim Bean and/or the blood of your enemies as they welter in fits of orgiastic bliss.
The gig is a mess. And not a hot mess. Your drummer tries a stick-toss that she saw Mike Portnoy do on a DVD once. The stick hits your bassist and knocks him unconscious. Your rhythm guitarist tries to run to the other side of the stage, but trips over your singer as she crouches down to chug a beer. Now your setlist and $2,000 pedal board are drenched in lukewarm Budweiser (because god
damn, stage lights are hot). Also, it turns out that resting your foot on a monitor wedge isn’t as easy as Zakk Wylde makes it look. You lose your balance and tumble into your crowd of (let’s be real here) eleven people. The headstock of your Jackson Warrior stabs some poor jerkoff in the eye. Guess what? You’re being sued! To top it off, the video is uploaded to Youtube, entitled “Worst Band Ever!” and it’s grabbed 12,034,879 views in under four hours.
What went wrong?
I’m not a doctor, but lots of these brutal screw-ups can be prevented by – drumroll please…
PRACTICING. YOUR. SHIT.
This may not apply to everyone. Some people are blessed with an innate talent for using their bodies and strong hand-eye-coordination. These are the same sort of people who excel at dancing and sports with uncanny ease. People like this might spend their band practices sitting in a chair and frowning for two hours, only to become a whirling dervish of rockstar badassery when it comes time to work the room.
If you’re one of those people, congrats. Get in the van, hit the road and share your wealth.
The rest of you? Stick around.
I had to learn this crap the hard way. Once you’ve worked out some ideas for your performance, you’ve gotta follow up with practice and rehearsal. You think that Robert Wise put all the Jets onto the set of West Side Story, called “Action” and prayed to the gods of finger-snapping and slicked-back hair for a miracle? HELL NAW. Those actors practiced their shit. If they couldn’t pull it off, their asses got fired.
People forget. People make mistakes. Some people have better short term memories than others. Things get unpredictable in the heat of the moment. Without correct preparation, your ideas will be as useful as shoving chili cheese-dogs through your input jack with a spork, which isn’t useful at all so don’t try it, weirdo. Good gigs start with great rehearsals, great rehearsals are best prefaced with home prep.
Let’s talk about practicing at home.
When I was first learning to head-bang while playing keyboards or walk around while strumming a guitar or singing and playing at the same time, I had to spend time, sometimes HOURS at home to get it running even a little bit smoothly, especially during difficult
passages. Even the simple act of tearing my eyes away from the guitar (I still don’t know why I epoxied my eyeballs to my fretboard in the first place) and playing songs while looking elsewhere was a Promethean-level struggle for yours truly. But I worked on it and I got better. That’s what practice is all about.
Ever been to a dance studio? One wall is a giant mirror. I love mirrors. Buy a mirror. Hell, if your bathroom’s big enough then you can try practicing in there. Toilet doubles as a monitor, right?
This will probably feel stupid at first. GET OVER IT.
If you feel stupid by yourself, how are you going to feel doing this in front 10 people? 50? 200? You’ll need to get comfortable in your own skin. That’s what the mirror is for. Cut loose, have fun, act like you’re twelve years old again, discovering Randy Rhoads or Yngwie or Angus Young for the first time.
Don’t force it, though. If you’re doing this stuff because you feel like you “have to” and not because you WANT TO, it’ll look contrived and weak. Some musicians pull off the “rooted” stance quite well. Do what makes sense for you and your music. But whatever you do, you’ve gotta MEAN IT.
Vocalists having trouble with their feet being glued to the floor while they’re singing/growling/eating wombats should practice this. You can use a hairbrush or rhinestone buttplug if you don’t have a mic at home, and chinchillas make excellent wombat substitutes in a pinch. The best thing about being a singer is that you carry your instrument wherever you go. Squandering your practice opportunities should be punishable by fifteen sporkings. I’ll let your imagination run wild with that one.
Watch yourself in the mirror. Better yet, RECORD yourself – What kind of body language are you conveying as you sing? As you wide open, ready to receive the world and it’s pleasures, or are you cowering and cramped?
Hint: There is no right or wrong answer. There is only “What Works Best.” Let the song tell you what to do.
As you go you should work on playing without looking at your instrument. Using eye contact is crucial to establishing a personal connection with your audience which can create those golden moments that turns a simple “gig” into a life-long memory. Sometimes it’s the little things, like a wink or a smirk or an eyebrow wiggle that worms itself into people’s brain-holes. It’s golden moments like these that will put asses in bars time and time again and put those dollars in your pocket.
If you REALLY want to separate the (wo)men from the (girls)boys, Practice with the lights off. Ever had the lights go out onstage in the middle of a song? I have. It sucks, unless you’re prepared for it.
What we are doing here is practicing the way we intend to perform.
If you spend all your time sitting on your ass in some comfy chair with your guitar chafing your nipples as you stare at your fretboard in a well-lit and well-ventilated bedroom, then that’s what you are preparing yourself for.
Next time: How to prevent Hoover-level suckage at the rehearsal space.
Jeff Black is a professional musician and piano teacher based out of Edmonton, Canada. He has toured across the nation with groups such as Scythia, Samandriel, The Ozzy Osbourne Experience and has performed on nine studio releases to date. When he’s not busy in the lesson studio or onstage, he’s probably reading or writing, often enjoying a cold European ale in the process.
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