Hello Troubadourians! This month I’m writing about something non-technical for a change. I spent the weekend of October 19-21 at the FAR-West Conference, performing with my band, Folding Mr. Lincoln. It was an opportunity to observe the “habits” of a couple hundred of my fellow performers, both on and off stage, and gave me a rare inside look at how these folks conduct their business.
I want to begin with the observation that left me with the strongest impression; I can’t believe how cavalier so many people are about the security and safety of their instruments. The staff of FAR-West did a fine job of providing areas where instruments could be secured – far more than at any other conference, festival, or gig I’ve ever been on – but that doesn’t relieve owners of their responsibility to insure that their instruments will be where they left them or that they will still be in one piece. One performer left her very fine Santa Cruz guitar leaning precariously against a chair with the headstock resting on the seat and the body out in the walkway for over half an hour while she was off somewhere else. Even when she returned, it was an additional ten minutes before she went over to the guitar to see if it was okay. And this was after I made an off-hand comment about someone having left a nice Santa Cruz in a dangerous place. She was some 20 feet away messing with a banjo, and I didn’t know it was her guitar until she went over to pick it up. Wow! I saw so many instruments in and out of cases just lying around; it would have been easy to simply walk out with one (or more). I don’t think that anyone lost an instrument to theft this weekend – although I know of a few folks who left “stuff” behind out of carelessness – but really, people, that’s putting way too much faith in the honesty of strangers.
What do you do at sound check? Whether you are a solo artist, a duo or trio, or a full band, it is important that you spend enough time – enough focused time – to ensure that you can hear yourself and everyone else on stage with you, under the most challenging conditions. “Checking, 1-2-3…” and strumming a G-chord does not a sound check make. Just because the microphone is on and you can hear your instrument from “somewhere” doesn’t mean you’re ready to put on a good performance. Choose your most vocally and/or instrumentally challenging song(s) to play for your sound check. It is important that everyone be able to hear what they need to hear when the music on stage is at its densest. You don’t want to find yourself halfway into your showpiece song and realize that you can’t hear your instrument for your big solo.
What you say in between songs is almost as important as your performance of the songs. This is where you are able to interact with your audience on a personal level and lead them where you want them to go. It’s an opportunity to share what the music means to you and allows the audience to “get” you and what you’re about. This is especially important for acoustic performers when your music is more intimate and you’re expecting the audience to be into the performance, not just there for the entertainment. Nothing kills this vibe more than a performer that mumbles through a story or introduction, tells the same story for every song, or band members that talk over each other on the mics. Yes, every one of these happened at FAR-West… more than once.
I am, and will always be, grateful for the beautiful folks who donate their hearts, minds, and backs to the cause. FAR-West was a fine example of that sort of generosity. We, as performers, should remember to treat these folks with respect. They’re there because they love what you do and they want to help you be your best. That said there are some instances where there is a need for professional people and professionalism in general. Foremost is in the setup and operation of the sound system and stage management. During sound checks, performances, and transitions between acts, these areas can be chaotic and there isn’t always time for “please” and “thank you.” You need to check your ego at the door because can’t expect formalities when the monitors are howling. It is very important that every performer knows that the people managing the sound and stage are experienced professionals and that they can be counted upon to do their job well and to anticipate the needs of the performers onstage. You have enough to deal with while you’re onstage and you don’t need to worry about being able to get someone’s attention if there’s a problem during your performance. While waiting on stage for our sound check, I watched while five people “discussed” who was “scheduled” to be where, and who would do what – according to the schedule – with no particular attention paid to whether an individual possessed the experience or skills to do the job. I even heard someone say, “Anybody can run a sound system.” I don’t think they were kidding…
I salute everyone who has the determination to play acoustic music in an increasingly electric world. But, there comes a time when even the staunchest “Acousticist” has to plug-in to be heard. It’s worth your while to educate yourself on the “ins and outs” of sound reinforcement (you can start by reading my past three columns), and by knowing the language and terminology to use to get your point across and so you can sound your best. I think the biggest question in the mind of many of the performers at FAR-West was, “Can I make a living at this?” I hope that those who have the courage to ask will find the answer they seek.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)