"...When the room is noisy, smoky, uninterested in your act, and you still get in the zone where you are 100% focused on the music, are thinking of nothing else, and get transported to the place where it all feels right, sounds good... that's the hardest and the best thing you can do. Anonymous.
Gig-tough performers are most likely to connect with a crowd. This is because they have developed the ability to do their best in any situation. Part of that is the vibe they give off apart from the words and music. The audience is smart. They detect how an artist feels from the subtlest clues. There is no place to hide.
Entertainers are there to give. Whether they get back what they want, or expect, or deserve is not under their control. Who would stand in front of a stove and promise it wood as soon at it gives some heat? Being gig-tough is a way of thinking. Attaining this mind-set is simple, but not easy.
My Christmas Guitar Tour revealed the elemental truth in this idea. Nineteen gigs in twenty-one days: an open mike feature, The Tam, Borders Books, Passim, two radio interviews, restaurants, coffee shops, living rooms. I hated the first several gigs. The sound was never right, I thought I played poorly, I thought the audience was indifferent, nobody bought CD's. I thought, "What am I doing here?"
Half-way through, everything improved. I started to enjoy producing the music. People sang along, they bought CD's. Maybe the secret is a good room, a good crowd, planets in alignment... but, this is the same room, and the same kind of people as last week where I had a hellish gig and died a miserable musical death. And I'm wearing the same clothes, playing the same songs on the same guitar. The only variable? My thoughts, and the feelings they engendered. After several gigs in a row, I began to get over it, as they say. I was able to get immersed in the sound of the guitar, executing the parts I had carefully worked out.
One Friday night at Strawberry Fair I came out of the zone after an extended improvisation on Moonlight In Vermont: re-harmonized melody, dissonant chords... exotic scales to stretch the ears. People politely clapping. Where? What...? "Whoa!... forgot where I was," I said to the group grinning on my left. This is where I want to be every time I perform. I have a better time, the audience is more entertained, and it's what the pros do.
Martin Sexton performed two shows at Passim on December 28th. He found the zone several times. Each time he did, the audience went with him. They screamed and clapped. The deeper he got into a song, the more they responded. His face turning red, his eyes squinting and shut tight, writhing in place, belting out the song. The crowd went nuts. (By the way, have you ever seen a performer doing all those things but not connecting? This is the difference between actually being there, and pretending to be there. The audience knows the difference. They are smarter than we.) After the song, they yell approval. This feels good to a performer. It feels good to Marty, so he tells them, "Oh, I do love it when you carry on like that!" He grins widely, authentically, slightly embarrassed. The humble side of him wants look down and shuffle his toe on the floor. The pro knows he must stand there, open and naked to accept the collective approval of the people. His eyes are open. He looks out, taking in everybody.
Singer/songwriter Jon Carmen has said, "Playing to roomful of attentive people is generally good, while playing to an empty room or people who aren't listening generally sucks." Producer/songwriter Crit Harmon observes, "It's better to work a room that features music and has beer, than a room that features beer and has music." All true. Divinely inspired wisdom, even. So we strive to find the good rooms and avoid the bad. We regale each other with gig horror stories. On the way to a new venue we imagine success, achieving the next level.
The one thing to avoid is thinking about, or dwelling in any way on how the gig is going while performing. Because it affects the act. We don't get in the zone, and are too aware of everything going on in the room: Geez, could those two talk any louder over there? Is the sound technician intentionally trying to sabotage me? This stage is too high, I can't connect. This stage is too low, my space is being violated. Oh, no! They are going to smoke right in front of me! A performer either learns to deal and grow past the bad gigs, or they quit playing. What's a singer/songwriter to do? Try this:
* Be humble--Humility comes from outside ourselves. Find a source.
* Be empty of expectations--Expectations come from our own thoughts. Try thinking less.
* Be gig-tough--Do a lot of gigs. Always be ready to work. There are seven days in a week. When there are eight offers a week, then be picky.
The purpose: to develop an ability to personally connect with the audience via the music. Bruce Marks, Director of the Boston Ballet, was interviewed by Gail Harris. She asked him what he looks for in a world-class dancer. He said, "Well, everybody who comes to the Boston Ballet is highly skilled. Technical perfection is a given at this level. I look for that spark of human connection; a dancer who takes in the audience with her eyes. Laura Young (Boston Ballet School principal dancer) can make eye contact with three hundred people at the same time. You can see it going forth from the stage out to the theater, and back from them to her. The great ones all make that personal connection."
Patty Smith was interviewed by Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air. Terry asks, "You started off reading your poetry in bars?" "Yes," said Patty, "Normally they had bands, but on off nights, or as an opening act, I would get to do fifteen or twenty minutes. At first people would ignore me or even try to shout me off the stage. But I stayed up there and wouldn't be driven off; eventually I started to connect. The last few minutes they paid attention."
My intense Christmas tour re-enforced what I have learned about performing. However, I could not execute until I leaped into the fray and did it. I have now learned the only way out of the s--t is through it. Not around, over, or under it.
My act is better. I enjoy gigging more than ever. I seem to learn every time I go out as a watcher or a doer, so I resolve to get out of the house even more. See you there.
Steve Rapson released his first CD, Christmas Guitar, in November 1996 and has followed with many others to date.