The Old Punter’s Advice…
THE OLD PUNTER’S ADVICE
TO YOUNG MUSICIANS & SINGERS
1.) Ditch the music stands and the lyric crib sheets. Unless you are performing in the context of a recital room, a classical or jazz concert hall rather than a club or a pub, you ought to have some grasp of the tunes you’re playing. As to words, if you have not managed – or bothered – to learn the lyrics of a song you shouldn’t be singing it in public. You can’t possibly give a felt reading of a song if it hasn’t been somehow internalised and made relevant to you personally. To do otherwise is to show disrespect to the song, to the audience and yourself as well. Whatever one might think of Frank Sinatra as a vocalist it was accurately said of him – as it could of most of the great singers – that at his best he made every lyric sound as if he was telling the story directly to you, extemporaneously and out of his own experience. Of course everyone will have occasional what are sometimes called “Oh Bugger!” moments when you forget a lyric. But unless – like Ella Fitzgerald vamping her way out of forgetting a verse of “Mack the Knife” – you can improvise it’s best to have memorised the song. If you must have an aide memoire write it on the palm of your hand.
2.) Plan your sets in advance. Even musicians who improvise a great deal should have a notion of what it is they’re going to improvise from. Also, if you know in advance what you will be singing and playing you will be better able to pace a set. Unless your music is all within a single narrow genre, such as a thrash metal band playing in a large venue mainly for a looning and dancing audience, a good, engaging set should contain changing shades and modulations of mood and rhythm and build a structure to a climax that leaves the people satisfied and/or wanting more. That is not to to suggest that a set should lack flexibility or not be alive to the responses of the audience. And if your repertoire is wide enough you should be able to entertain requests, or if it isn’t that large to gracefully admit that you don’t know that particular number. Sports people will say, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” The better you know and control the framework of what you’re doing the more effectively you’ll be able to play off it. These ideas apply particularly if you are doing your own songs. Don’t rehearse in public, especially if you’re being paid. Do your woodsheding in whatever is your equivalent of a woodshed. A wide awake management and/or a discriminating audience will sus. And, presumably, you hope to be re-booked, and you do want to play to discriminating audiences, right? Again, if you need reminders, use the old folk musicians’ trick of taping a set list to the top of the guitar.
3.) Don’t allow the technology to become a distraction from your communication with the audience or – more importantly – the audience communicating with you. Incessant fiddling with amplifiers, microphones and other kit, especially in smaller venues, may make you think you’re getting a more perfect sound or a particular musical effect but the audience reaction is just as likely to be “Why doesn’t he, she (or they), stop fannying about and get on with it”. Naturally, if you’re working a larger venue and are being paid enough – or if the house has the facilities – you can do the sound check in advance, leaving all that knob-twiddling stuff while you’re performing to the engineer at the sound desk.
In short give the material, the audience and yourself some thought and respect and show as much professionalism as your talent and commitment allow and prescribe.
And finally: if you have a musical gift make sure that the gift is being used in the service of the music and not the other way around.