Talk to live musicians about the people they play with, and a few of the same complaints tend to emerge over and over. There are tons of players who are nice people and can get through a song without screwing it up, but there’s a lot more to playing live than that.
Here are seven of the mini-skills that separate the okay from the great onstage. You’ve most likely played with someone who needs to brush up on one or two of them. Could that person be you? Read on.
Being an improv musician doesn’t mean that you always play jazz standards or that you’re a member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit. It merely means that you’re flexible.
Different shows on different nights can call for different decisions onstage. Is Jenny the guitarist really into her solo tonight? Stretch it out and give her some space to play longer. Did Bob the bass player just break a string? You might want to gracefully close this song out a little early.
These types of decisions should be made and executed without speech; a nod, a glance, or a simple hand signal should do it. That way, your audience may never know a change was made. This is a part of the special voodoo that all good bands develop, a sense of one another that borders on telepathy. Without it, your band could seem stilted and too wedded to existing song formats.
For instrumentalists, being able to change keys to suit a vocalist should not be like long division – you shouldn’t need to get out a pen and paper to work it out. When it comes to chords, you should reduce them to numbers rather than letters so that switch can happen instantaneously.
If you’re playing a 12-bar blues, everyone knows what chord to play next, right? This happens regardless of what key you’re in. And any song should be the same. If a singer calls for a change and you know the relationship of the chords is I, IV, and V, just transpose to whatever key you need, and let ‘er rip.
3. Lead work
Playing lead on an instrument doesn't need to be harder than playing rhythm, it’s just different. But at least one player in your band should be able to do it. Unless you’re in a metal or old-school punk band, where sprinting tempos are the order of the day, you don’t need to be fast to play a solo.
Solos actually tend to be better when they have a little space in them. Listen to the great blues-based guitarists: Hendrix, Clapton, David Gilmour, and BB King. It’s rare that any of them play fast, but they always play with good phrasing that recalls sung or spoken words. They're almost literally making the guitar talk. That’s what your instrument should do when you play lead, and all it requires (like almost everything else in music) is a bit of practice.
4. Vocal blending
Have you ever heard musicians blurting out backing vocals as though they’re out of breath? Ever hear the backing vocalist drown out the lead? Vocal harmony is one of the hardest things to do well onstage, and it’s not even particularly easy in the studio. Just a little off key, and it’s no good.
But equally important are volume and balance. Specific decisions need to be made. Should one part stand out over the others, or should all singers be heard equally? To make sure your band blends effectively, practice singing your parts without instruments, so you can hear every nuance.
Make sure all the singers are blending and really listening to one another. If one singer sounds overly explosive or isn’t achieving a great tone, it’s time to look at technique and make sure everyone’s singing from the gut, not the nose, and getting enough air.
5. Comfort onstage
Not everybody can command a room like James Brown, but everybody should be cognizant of the way they present themselves onstage. Some players appear to have a perpetual frown on, when really they’re just focusing on their playing. Some singers are so self-effacing that they forget to project, and listeners struggle to make out the words.
No matter your style, it’s critical to appear as though you’re having fun up there. If you don’t look like you want to be there, fans won’t want to be in the room either. Even the most laid-back, undemonstrative players can at least keep their head up and make a little eye contact with bandmates and the audience.
6. Talking to the crowd
Most bands have a front person, the musician who communicates directly with the crowd most often. Some have several and engage in jokes and banter back and forth during the show. Some are storytellers, with the pacing and energy to tell a long tale between songs and still keep the audience riveted. None of these ways is wrong, but if you plan on remaining silent with your audience, you should have a solid artistic reason for doing so.
The audience wants to get to know you to understand your vision and what you're all about. Don’t be afraid to share. Use your experiences for stage chatter the way you’d use them in your songwriting. If something interesting happened to you on your way to the show, tell your fans about it. If you found it interesting (and you can tell the story without a lot of “word whiskers” like “ummm” and “ahhhh”), then so will others.
7. Making transitions
Almost all live music fans have been frustrated by downtime between songs. It’s very hard to get into a band when they take five minutes for the drummer to adjust, or the guitarist to tune, before starting the next song. Ideally, some of the songs in your set should have no transition; one will run directly into the next. And most should have only a few seconds (unless the singer’s sharing a hilarious anecdote).
Nobody likes to wait, and it’s even worse when you can see bandmates getting frustrated with the slow member onstage. Music fans want an act that’s tight, energetic, and well-rehearsed. And there’s no reason why you can’t deliver that.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.