I learned at a relatively young age to play music in front of people; sometimes to the hoots and hollers of family members in our living room and then for the police officers who were just responding to the ‘disturbing the peace calls’ on our garage band. This gave me a slight bit of confidence, I must say.
I also learned to perform in front of peers, band competition judges, High School concerts, bar crowds, and church groups.
There is a particular dynamic at work when you play in front of people who are there to listen to you. Their attention is focused on you; they hear every nuance in whatever you play, sing or recite. By every nuance, I mean every screw up… every mistake.
You may know what I mean, especially if you have already experienced playing for a recital or for an audience of some sort.
You might be nervous, shaky, perhaps a little sweaty. Or it’s your turn to shine and suddenly you forgot what you were supposed to play.
We know that not everybody can do this; not everybody is skilled or gifted in this particular way, so the very idea that you have an opportunity to exhibit a ‘talent’ in front of people is quite a lofty responsibility.
Good News, Bad News
The good news is that people are pretty forgiving along the way. And playing in front of people can be very rewarding. It’s the effort to stick your neck out to try something that most folks will appreciate.
The bad news is that we usually mess up because we are not adequately prepared, in our mechanical execution of the task and/or our attitude towards it.
So I’ll try and explain some ways you can be as well-prepared as possible so that when you pull the trigger, your performance will have the proper and well-intended effect on the listener’s ears.
Here we go…
- The best advice I ever heard was to practice, practice, practice. When I played for my own enjoyment in my bedroom, I had to realize that was a lower personal standard than what the audience should hear. So I had to learn to practice beyond what I considered good enough. I had to learn to practice for the listener outside of myself.
- The purpose of practicing is to minimize mistakes, not to play perfectly. Learn to play the song(s) well in spite of how you feel during the performance. This means you have to put a lot more work into preparation. No one is perfect on this earth.
- If you will be standing up during the performance, do not practice sitting down. I learned a nice improvisational lead part on the guitar to play at a concert with a friend of mine a few years ago. I could play it pretty well when we rehearsed, but we always rehearsed sitting down. At the concert, we stood (he didn’t) and my guitar strap (on the strap button) got in the way during my solo and I messed up my part.
- Do your best, but don’t take yourself too seriously. In other words, don’t live and die by your performance. Work hard to play the best you can, but all is not lost if you break a string or miss a cue. There will always be another opportunity.
- To hone your skills, use a metronome. Don’t play the song up tempo until you can play it at a slower bpm regularly without mistakes. Once you’re live, all this prep will pay off and your mistakes will be few. Think of these phrases; slow = fast – the metronome is my friend. If you can play accurately with a mechanical / electronic, essentially perfect beat, you’ll always be able to play with imperfect humans.
- Get persnickety about tuning your guitar right before you play.
- Make sure your strings are fresh and you have plenty of picks. Make sure all your gear works properly.
- Learn to be honest with yourself (and your band mates if necessary) about whether you really know the piece or not. This takes humility. I’ve learned to do this sooner, before the performance and it’s made big difference.
- Have fun. Go after joy as you play. This loosens you up and helps you to be in the moment more easily. The more relaxed you are, the less mistakes you will make.
Until next time…
Bill Maxwell has over forty years of guitar playing experience and over twenty years of teaching students how to master the fretboard.