Jacob Haller (jwgh) wrote,
Jacob Haller

on performing

Yesterday I was asked some questions about why I perform music on stage, what it's like, what the difference is between performing solo and with another person, etc. This essay grew out of that. Obviously I am speaking only for myself; other performers will have different experiences and different motivations. If any other performers reading this have any comments I am interested in reading them, and if anyone has any questions feel free to ask them.
I think that the place to start is with why I performer publicly at all, and why I am in a band.

The most important reason that I'm in band right now is that Chris Monti asked me to if I wanted to be in one with him. I think Chris is a really amazing musician and songwriter, and my own skills aren't even close to being on the same level, and this was definitely even more the case when we started playing together. If Chris hadn't suggested forming a band to me I might play out at open mikes from time to time if someone else I knew was going, and I would play by myself or with groups of friends from time to time, and I would make occasional Interrobang Cartel recordings, but I wouldn't really see the point in trying to go out and get shows for myself.

The fact that he thought I was good enough to be in a band with was quite flattering, and the discovery that I did have something to contribute to it was a good feeling. Passing up an opportunity like that would have been unthinkable.

There have been occasions where I have had to perform solo (when Chris was sick or had another commitment). It's something I can do and it can be fun, but generally I don't find it nearly as enjoyable as when I'm playing with Chris.

Chris and I played music together from time to time before we formed the band. What was the difference between the Killdevils era and the pre-Killdevils era? I think we gained some focus -- we had to work to develop a repertoire, I started practicing a lot more, we'd look out for songs that we thought would be good to perform together, etc. Rather than playing with various relatives and friends on occasion I played with the same person about once a week, so we were able to learn more complex songs, figure out harmony parts, and in general get used to each other's quirks, etc.

So the music and the playing with a musician I respect and who seems to respect me have primacy. The public performances are a consequence of being in a band: I perform in public because I'm in a band; I didn't join the band to play in public.

Playing in public certainly has its own rewards and hazards, though.

One of the things that might be a little puzzling about me playing publicly is that I really don't like crowds. How, then, can I find it enjoyable to play on a stage (or, in some venues, in a corner) with a large number of people in the place looking at me and, presumably, judging me?

This can, in fact, be nervewracking. I remember that in high school I was in jazz band, and the first time that I had a solo at a concert I realized when I sat down afterwards that my hands had gone completely numb. I'm still not sure how I managed to actually play during the solo. (It was a pretty decent solo, though.) I had a similar experience at the first couple of open mikes I played at. If I'm already nervous before I start playing, or if I'm uncertain about the material, or both, then playing before a group of people will certainly exacerbate that.

When we played our show at AS220 (this is the show that christychristy, galliusrex, and spinningbee went to) I was surprised to find that I was very, very nervous. I think this was partly because we were playing a lot of new material (AS220 required us to play all original music) and partly because this was the first show that we played at a venue where people were there specifically to listen to music.

If people started to heckle us, or if we got booed, then I'm sure that would be awful. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet, knock on wood. So usually the only kinds of audience response that I have to deal with are indifference and applause. (Well, actually, now that I think about it there's also a third category which I guess I will call 'miscellaneous'.)

Indifference can be deadly. Part of playing in public is that you want to have some sort of effect on the people who are there. If they don't even appear to be listening it can make the band question what they are doing. Probably the worst example of this that I have experienced personally was at the St. Patrick's Day show in 2003, where Chris and I were playing a bunch of Irish songs that we had only been playing for a week or two to a small group of rich people who were eating dinner at the University Club and they completely ignored us. Then they all left to go to the bar area to watch teevee, where George W. Bush was making a special broadcast to declare war on Iraq. The whole experience was completely horrific, although it was one of our few gigs where we got paid a decent amount.

More usually, though, there will be soemone in the venue who seems to be watching us, or there will be a scattering of applause, and we'll be performing material that we are reasonably confident about. It doesn't take much; the basic joy of playing is generally enough to make the experience enjoyable. Even in shows where there hasn't been much noticable reaction during the show we often have people come up to us afterwards to tell me that they enjoyed our playing, so it seems that people are listening.

I should also note that a little bit of nervousness can make playing more enjoyable; the adrenaline gets pumping, which can (in moderation) make you play better, and if you actually manage to pull it off it's that much sweeter.

If the audience seems to be enjoying the show -- if they applaud, or if I look around the room and people are paying attention, or they're clapping with the beat, or if they hoot and holler, then it really makes me feel good and it will often inspire us to a better performance.

It may be worth mentioning that the relationship between how I think the show is going, how inspired I feel, and how the audience thinks the show is going, seems to be pretty complex; my own impression of how we're doing are doing is often faulty.

In the 'miscellaneous' category ... sometimes people will shout out requests, usually for songs we don't know. I like getting requests, even for songs I don't know, although there are people who request song after song after song; in those cases I wish they would give up. More problematic is people who wander up and try to strike up a conversation in the middle of a set, which I think is usually disrespectful to the rest of the audience. In extreme cases people will try to have a discussion with us in the middle of a song. (This happens far more often than I would have ever guessed.) Depending on my mood these people amuse or annoy me. Finally, there are random people who want to sit in for a song. We do actually let people do this from time to time, and it is usually a mistake, although sometimes it's fine and occasionally it is really good.

What am I thinking about while I'm performing? What am I looking at?

In general when we're playing a show we try to constantly guage what the audience is in the mood for. Things like: Are they in a subdued mood, so we should do some of our slower and quieter music? Conversely, are they in a party mood and we should do some faster songs? Can we pull out some of our really strange tunes, or will we lose the audience if we try that? Does the audience hate country music? Some nights we do a better job than others, but since every show is a little different, this is an ongoing challenge that can make playing out more interesting or exciting.

I try not to look at anything or anyone in particular, usually, because it's distracting. This can really be a problem when we're playing in a venue where there are lots of televisions; after the tenth time I find yourself watching Survivor on the television over the bar in a middle of a song I get a little frustrated with myself. I'm not sure how obvious it is to the audience if I'm distracted -- I think in general it's less than you'd think -- but it certainly isn't optimal in terms of my own enjoyment of the show.

Also, I think it would be a little creepy if I were in the audience and one of the performers kept staring at me, so there's some basic politeness involved.

Along the same lines, while I'm playing I basically have to think about the music. Other stuff that's going on the room will register, but most of my concentration has to be on what I'm doing, or else I won't play as well. That said, in situations where the playing isn't quite as demanding (mostly if I'm not singing or soloing) I may look around the room to see how the audience is enjoying things. Mostly I will be looking at my guitar, my piano, or at Chris to make sure I don't miss any signals about solos that are coming up or whatever.

Between songs I can devote more attention to what the audience is up to, and to decide if we should stick to the set list (if we've prepared one as is usually the case) or if it's not right for the crowd or for how we're feeling and we should try something else.

And here my essay reaches an abrupt end, I think. If I think of anything else to say I will post it, and if you have any questions feel free to ask them.

Tags: performing, self-analysis

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