Playing Live (6th May 2015)

Tickhill Ukulele Group playing at the Scarecrow FestivalThe Tickhill Ukulele Group had their first live performance last bank holiday weekend. We did a set of about 40 minutes worth of our best songs, outside the Parish Rooms for the Scarecrow Festival. It was enjoyed greatly by all concerned. The only mistakes I heard were my own and more people than usual were up for singing.

The interesting part for me was seeing people respond to the pressures of performing live for the first time in years or even the first time ever. My son Harry and I are both used to playing on a regular basis in front of people and so didn't really give the concert a second thought beforehand. Both of us went in knowing that we are part of a much bigger collective, and as a result the performance quality was to be determined by the group as a whole. Ok, maybe they were just my thoughts and not Harry's, he's 8 for goodness sake but, credit to him, he doesn't flinch when he is a small cog in a big machine. He just does his bit with no frills.

I was surprised to learn that a number of the group had had a real case of the collywobbles before performing and were quite pumped up by the prospect. Especially when some of these people are used to speaking in front of groups of people for a living. 

How do you help overcome this?

The first tip you'll want to smack me for, it's so obvious. Straight forward practise. We stopped learning new stuff a few weeks ago and drew up a short list of songs from our repertoire. Then, we only did those songs for the last three weeks. In fact, I even thinned out one that I didn't feel would work on the day. The more you run through things, the less likely you are to make a hash of it.

The second tip would be to stick to the plan. The minute that you deviate, especially as part of a group, things become ragged around the edges.  Great bands have a knack for making things look improvised but aren't really. Giving over a set length for an instrumental solo or having very definite cues to start and finish one at least give an "off piste" feel to something which is actually well planned. 

The third tip would be to leave out your ego! This can take several forms and I've seen a few car crash performances.

Play within yourself - keep it simple stupid

I've seen countless performances where younger students have chosen pieces that are way too hard. They've gone for glory and looked poor as a result. Younger players who make judicious choices on material are rare. 

Return to the second tip - get over your wonderful self and stick to the plan Stan.

This could be comical if it wasn't so annoying to play alongside. I have been lucky enough to have played with some fine musicians over the years. Some of the best instrumentalists I have played alongside have been the worst team players when it comes to playing in a band. I think all young musicians have been guilty of turning up their amps to eleven while no one is looking, but I still see this trait in musicians who are old enough and experienced enough to know better.  They bust a gut to get noticed, end up over playing and trip up either themselves or someone else. 
For a band leader, the best solution here is to give your superstar musicians singing duties. The more important the line you give them the better.
A guitarist won't turn up their amps if they can't hear their important backing vocal and will be too busy to do their diddle twiddles if they have to sing as well. Secondly, the egomaniac in them won't be able to resist telling off the other musicians if they too decide to over embellish or turn up because the harmonies can't be heard. 
Win win.

The Tickhill group aren't guilty of any of the above- I am the biggest pain in the backside ego there by far. 

The last tip is getting over the fear. What was the title of that self help book ? - " feel the fear and do it anyway" or something. I hinted at this at the start. The more you play live, the more routine it becomes. A few nerves are a good thing. It's not a good idea to have a drink and desensitise. Often, that bit of nervous energy drives you on. 

The hardest part is often breaking the silence at the start of a performance. Keep smiling and just be yourself. I think many audiences smell pretentiousness a mile off and don't really warm to it. A gently self deprecating approach leaves audiences interested, liking you because you are just like them and often inspired to have a go themselves. 

So in short,
Rehearse, stick to known paths, put your ego in a box and play for the team. Finally, go out there and be yourself. I won't say it never fails but it is the least likely route to offer any pitfalls.