Saturday, February 5, 2011

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

This is probably something that sounds like commonsense to many folks, but something that is often overlooked, especially among newer or inexperienced musicians.  We, as musicians or wannabes, spend a fair amount of time listening to other bands and musicians that we love and would like to emulate.  (And that's a good thing.)  It's so easy in the midst of it all for beginners to feel like they can't or shouldn't play for (or with) others because they aren't as good as everyone else.  They have the tendency to feel like if they can't do it just like their favorite group, or if they can't do something complicated, or in the right key, or a certain speed, or any one of a number of other things, that they just shouldn't play at all.

First of all, we all have to start somewhere!  Have you forgotten that almost every one of us that currently plays "out" used to feel the same way?  (And sometimes still do...)  The ability to play in front of others is not something that magically falls on most of us.  It is something that is practiced and experienced.  I wasn't born smiling and playing on stage, though now it feels very comfortable.  I also was not comfortable being the all!  In fact, I would listen to recordings of myself singing or emceeing and would just cringe at the sound of my own voice.  What kept me going?  Well, for one, there was no one else in the group at the time that could do what I was trying to do.  It was me or no one, and we had gigs to fulfill.  So what did I learn from this?

Stop comparing yourself to others!  Listening to other musicians and groups is really a wonderful thing to do.  It gives you ideas, it gives you something to shoot for, it helps you to become a better musician; however, that group is already "there."  Do we really need another Earl Scruggs or Bill Monroe?  I'm not saying you can't copy what is already there and works, but don't forget that someone had to create it in the first place.  Why not you?  Why not put your best foot forward?  Quit thinking you can't possibly add something to the music because you aren't as good, or experienced, or talented, or whatever!

Figure out what you do well and capitalize on it!  So you have a small group of three people.  You are preparing for a short gig.  All of you sing lead, but only one person can sing harmony.  Is it really hard to figure out that the person who can sing harmony should not sing a lot of lead?  If they do, even if they are the best lead singer, you won't have any harmony! 

Even though you all play different instruments for the band, is there any instrument that all three of you can play?  What about three-part harmony on an instrumental for a change up?  No one has to be an expert if all three can play a different part together!

Maybe one person in your group is more outgoing than the others.  Can that person possibly do the emcee work?  Tell a joke?  Involve the audience in some way?  If there is someone or a group of folks that you know that are coming to listen to you, can you involve them from the stage?  Dedicate a song to someone you know in the audience!

If you can't play super fast, play slower and play WELL.  Are you very nervous?  I used to be so nervous when I first started singing lead that my voice would shake.  I found out that the longer I was on stage, the better it got, though.  I started playing an instrumental as the first song on the set list, and then I would have someone else in the group sing lead on the first song so that I could settle down a little bit before I had to sing lead.  It worked wonders for me!

When I started playing fiddle, I found out it was like starting over again when I played it on stage.  I was surprised because I have played on stage enough that I thought it shouldn't have mattered.  Well, it did!  I found out I had to play easier songs at first.  When I tried to play the harder songs I knew, I kept messing them up and my confidence level sunk.  It was so frustrating!  Then I started playing songs that sounded good, but weren't hard to play.  A good case in point?  About five years ago or so, a friend and fellow musician won the Boy Scouts' Jamboree and had the chance to play in front of the President of the United States.  I asked him what he played.  He looked at me kind of sheepishly and responded "Bile Them Cabbage Down."  Let me tell you -- this is a GREAT fiddle player!  He could have played any one of a number of harder tunes, but he knew how good this song sounds with double stops on the fiddle, he could play umpteen variations of it, and he also knew he could do it in his sleep.  Now that's smart!

Practice with your group at least once a week, even if your "group" is simply a jam session that you attend.  Don't be afraid to rearrange songs to fit you or your experience level!  This doesn't mean you can't change later on.  It's part of putting your best foot forward.