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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Performance techniques for gigging musicians

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Right, I’ll get straight to the point. I’m playing a gig next week which will be fulfilling one of my ambitions of playing Stratford Jazz Club with my own group. I used to visit the club in the late 90’s and I was amazed at the standard of the musicians. I’ve always hoped that I could raise my game to this level and now I’m reasonably sure that I’ve done it. I guess we’ll find out for sure next week!

So firstly, I would love you to come along if you can!

Details can be found here

Now, I realise that not all of you are local to Stratford Upon Avon or even based in the UK for that matter, so I’ve decided to write this week’s blog on skills I have picked up over the last 15 years of playing professionally. These performance techniques are crucial to a good show and I’m writing this to remind myself of the do’s and don’t’s of a live event.

Performance techniques for gigging musicians

Engage with your audience

You can be creative with this. Some artists like to get amongst the audience, shaking hands, drinking other people’s beer, hi fives and crowd surfing. Others like to take a softer approach and adhere to the imaginary boundaries of artist and audience. Musicians like Pink Floyd, Daft Punk, Van Morrison and Miles Davis would often shun the audience on purpose by playing with the lights down, playing in masks or having their backs turned. This can work too but is far riskier. Simple eye contact is good and if you can acknowledge individuals with a gesture mid show it can help.

Don’t apologise

I learnt this from a labour MP who was a hugely talented public speaker; in fact, like it or not, most politicians are! Never apologise for a performance. Particularly before you are about to play. It creates unnecessary discomfort for audience members.

Show emotion

I have seen a lot of shows and although I can recall most of them, the gigs that jump to the front of my memory queue are the ones that provoked my emotions. When the artist shows emotion it is infectious. It’s like crying at a funeral when the person reading the eulogy voice cracks, or smiling when you hear a baby cackle with laughter.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

Interact with the other musicians and allow them freedom to be individual

This is perhaps slightly debatable. Artists like Frank Zappa or James Brown would have cracked the whip (or in James Browns case, dock wages) but allowing the other musicians a chance to take the limelight is not only good for overall morale but it also tends to sound better as musicians work harder and are more focused. The audience also likes to witness band communication and listen to the other instruments. It’s not all about you (unless you’re Kayne West)!

Wear something that is comfortable but looks damn good!

I’m not hugely into the vanity side of things but when I watch gigs with people wearing jogging bottoms and t-shirts with ketchup stains on, I tend to get a bit frustrated. A lot of people would give their right arm to be on stage, so wear something a bit special. You can also go for clothes you wouldn’t normally wear too, so if you look hot in a sequin jumpsuit then go for it!

Tell a story

Again, slightly debatable, but some of the gigs I have enjoyed have included short interludes where the artist tells a story about the song, the music or just a brief insight into their life. There are right moments for this so if you are playing non stop death metal to a room full of black clad life haters, don’t launch into a 10 minute soliloquy about your childhood!

Move around

Static musicians can be boring on the eye. Try to move around a little bit to break up the monotony. If you are in a fixed position then move your body, it will not only help the audience to interpret your emotions (as discussed earlier) but I often find it helps with nerves and improves the feel of the music.

Call to action

This is one of the worse things imaginable to some artists but tell the audience to do something and they will often do it. This could be a simple as clapping hands or standing up, but can often lead to dancing, singing backing vocals or throwing underwear at the guitarist (warning – not all projectiles thrown on stage are nice!) If you have a keen business mind then you could use the call to action to invite the audience to buy your music or sign a mailing list. If you’ve won them over and you ask them to do something that they can do immediately then they will almost always do it. Make it easy for them, don’t ask them to wait until they get home and log on to then fill out the 2 page form with their contact details!

Show humility and gratitude

Nobody likes a selfish show off. You can feel proud of the job you’ve done but also show respect for the others involved. Remember to thank the audience as they are the ones that have paid money to actually come and see you. Be confident with your abilities but humble and gracious. Whilst a hint of self deprecation can be charming (and very British!), don’t overcompensate and risk looking insincere.

Practice the performance

Like any new skill, the first time you do it there is a huge potential for you to be terrible! It’s called ‘beginners luck’ for a reason – it doesn’t happen very often! Perform once, then perform again and again and again! You will get better. Try to use your rehearsals to prepare more than just the material, practice how it will be performed.

Be who you are

Be the ultimate cool version of you. Be genuine and the audience will accept you for who you are and they will give the music a chance. If they don’t like the music then try again somewhere else or play something different. Don’t try to do someone else’s thing….be you!

Have a question or advice of your own? Leave it here

Now I have a scary image of all my readers attending next weeks gig, holding up a copy of this blog saying “Jay, where did you offer a call for action? Why are you apologising so much? Please don’t ever wear that sequin jumpsuit again!” 

Seriously though, it would be great to see you there.

Here are the details again:

Jay Riley Quartet
Stratford Jazz
Stratford ArtsHouse
Stratford upon Avon
£12 (£6) Available at the box office


4 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Dionne
    July 14, 2016

    Thanks for this. I find the broader aspects of performance extremely challenging – I’m no extrovert and find the talking bit and engaging with an audience very difficult. So thanks for the tips. Really gutted to be missing your gig (but I am gigging myself). Any chance you can video the gig? Would love to see it. Break a leg.

    • Jay
      July 17, 2016

      Thanks Dionne. I’m going to record the audio in basic format but probably won’t video. I’m already thinking about performing the set elsewhere though so you
      L be the first to know.

  2. Sophia Dady
    July 15, 2016

    Spot on as always!! Good luck for next week xx

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