Category: Musician’s Experiences

Liz’s Guide and Bell’s Busking Stunt

If you will remember, Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance was conceived as a response to Pearls of Wisdom?  No., which itself was a response to the Joshua Bell busking stunt article.  (A somewhat complicated lineage, I know.)   Knowing this it is time to use the guidelines to analyze

What Joshua Bell Did Wrong

#0 Define success.
The original article does not mention a clear definition of success from Bell’s perspective.  Other people give opinions on what might have happened, and preparations were in place for massive, wild crowds, but Bell himself is not quoted.  From what I can glean, a successful experiment meant “lots of money”, or maybe “drawing a large crowd”, or even “being recognized”.  The $52.17 he made, few people who stopped to listen, and one woman who recognized him was not, apparently, enough, since everyone seemed disappointed.  Certainly, the performance did not live up to Bell’s picture of an ideal busking performance, but the definition was unclear enough that it is difficult to be certain.

#1 Know your stuff.
Not an issue, musically.  Bell has the skills needed to make a living as a concert violinist.  He played technically challenging pieces and played them well.  Busking is not just about musical skills, though.  It has elements of drawing people in, working the crowd, and eliciting donations.  While his music was top-notch, his busking skills were nonexistent.

#2 Know your audience.
Nope.  Well, probably not.  It does not appear that the planners took into account the kind of people likely to be in the subway at that hour — rushed, worried, thinking about work.  The typical businessman would have neither the time nor the inclination to stop and listen to some random busker on a violin.  That does not even consider the commuters’ musical preferences either.  If Bell knew his audience, he certainly did not change anything to accommodate them.  Keep that point in mind.

#3 Know your venue.
A more experienced busker would have known that area was going to be bad.  A quieter area, with more room and fewer crazy rush-hour people would have been better.  Upon seeing the video later, Bell was surprised at how loud his performance was, a small example of his unfamiliarity with the acoustics and setup of the performance area.  With multiple runs and multiple places, he could have found a great spot.  Of course, with such a stunt being essentially a one-shot deal due to his fame and other factors, multiple runs were impossible.  Still, one might take a few days to scope out a few different subway spots, choosing the best one for a one-time busking stunt.  A little effort would have been worth the results, I think.

#4 Know your instrument.
This is Bell’s strongest category, aside from his musical skills.  He was so attached to his own precious Stradivarius violin that he insisted on using that particular instrument, even knowing that it is valuable, easily damaged, and irreplaceable.  In a pre-stunt interview, he showed off the worn spots in the varnish, showing how it had not been restored and therefore its original sound was intact.  He chose to take a taxi three blocks to better protect his violin in transit.  His love and respect for his instrument shines clearly.  Five stars for Bell.

#5 Know yourself.
I am not sure about this one.  Bell knew that he was willing to give it a go, probably as a fun little diversion, but he was not aware of his limitations.  Even such a seasoned performer had confidence issues in the face of rejection.  Everybody is entitled to that — who wouldn’t feel that way, being used to a much warmer reception?  That said, I think Bell could have prepared more mentally for the situation.  Also, he did not seem to realize the kind of performer he would need to be to draw a crowd.  He assumed that his musical skill would be enough, not knowing that he would need people skills, a good venue, and maybe a different repertoire.  He was unaware of his limits as they applied to busking.  While this ignorance did not hurt his playing ability, it meant Bell was mentally unprepared for the different environment and could not adapt to it, even if he wanted to.  Pearls of Wisdom?  No. suggested that  Bell should stick to the concert halls, where his skill set is better and he is more comfortable.  Though this approach runs the risk of boxing him into the “concert violinist” role, it is not without merit.  Experiment endlessly, but when it comes to money, “Play to your strengths” is some of the best advice I know.

#6 Adjust accordingly.
This is where Bell went wrong. 
 Bell failed to adapt to the new environment, simple as that.  Instead of experimenting to see what would garner him better results, he continued doing the same thing — the same kind of music, similar length, same place, same time.  Again, this experiment is unrepeatable, and I realize that.  However, it is possible to experiment within a performance, to adapt as you go along.  This is the heart of improvisation, of stand-up comedy, of any dynamic live performance: have a plan, then go with the flow.  To be fair, he may just have been entirely clueless, but I think he deserves more credit — and more responsibility — than that.

That is my two cents on the matter, for whatever it is worth.  Any thoughts?

Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part IV

Time for the last two rules of

Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance

These final two points are, in my opinion, the most critical in creating a performance worthy of being called a success.  All the other guidelines hinge upon getting these two right.

Making detailed observations about the lighting is valuable, as is your choice of music, the audience, making sure you actually have skills to show off.  But these things, while relevant, are useless without a plan.  To bring value to your analysis,

#0 Know your goal.
As I stated at the beginning of this series, your definition of a “successful” performance may vary depending upon many things.  Have an idea of what “success” means to you for this show, or you won’t have a target to shoot for.

Not every performance will fit your concept of the “Ideal Show”.  The mythical Ideal performance, with perfect setup, choice audience, exquisite timing, etc., is pretty much impossible to achieve.  Save it for your daydreams of stardom.  A more relevant concept for the everyday performer is the much more manageable, adaptable, and actually possible, “Successful”.  Success can mean whatever you want it to mean for this show.  It can be, “I have fun playing my instrument.”  Maybe you define success as, “Our speakers won’t start smoking this time.”  You might make flawless musical execution your aim.  Perhaps you decide that selling three demo albums will be your bullseye.  It might be that getting people to dance, or entertaining a crowd for an hour is your goal.  Or maybe you aim low, and success is only that nothing goes terribly, horribly wrong.  In any case, the very first thing to do, (hence this being rule 0) is to take a moment to define “success”.

Try not to pull some random metric for success out of nowhere.  If no one in your band cares about exactly how many branded key chains you sold, then don’t make that your only goal.  Choose something relevant and meaningful to you.  Quantifiable goals that can be expressed in numbers are excellent for objectively analyzing your performance; either you made at least fifty dollars, had twenty listeners, made zero mistakes, or you did not and missed it by a definite amount.  Intangible goals are harder to measure (“Were my listeners happy, or really happy?”) but can sometimes end up meaning more than the kind of things that are easily reduced to numbers.

Defining and evaluating “success” is not a one-time event.  You will find that you need to modify the definition as you go along and change your goals.  Take note: you will need to adjust this as you go along, for your own sanity.  Not meeting your pre-determined, potentially arbitrary goals does not necessarily mean your show was an utter flop.  This does not mean abandoning your genuine goals, but re-evaluating them as needed.  For example, you might not have drawn the fifty people you hoped for, but the fifteen you had were wildly enthusiastic.  You could fall short of your album sales quota, but your sellout crowd is still an achievement.  All your equipment can blow up in a fiery conflagration of mythic proportions, but because the pyrotechnics so impress that one influential audience member, he gives you a record deal.  Maybe everything you try goes wrong during the show, but you salvage the night later by having beers with a fellow performer and end up making a friend — and showbiz connection —  for life.

Regardless of whether you end up changing your goals or your methods for achieving them, keep in mind what “success” means to you.  Don’t go in blind: define success.

#6 Adjust accordingly.
So you have come up with your own definition of a successful performance, and you have the skills to do it.  You know what kind of audience you’ll have, what your venue is like.  You know your instrument inside and out, as well as your own self.  You compare what you want with what you keep getting and…they are very different.  You have two choices:1) Change something so you can reach your goal, or 2) Do nothing and tolerate what you get.

Maybe you adjust the stage setup, or switch up the setlist.  Choose a different busking location, or practice a little more.  If you want money from busking, play the songs that elicit the most tips.  Modify as you go, or evaluate after each performance so you better know for the next time.  Maybe changing things to meet your current goal is not possible for whatever reason, so you modify your goals instead.  If you cannot or will not change your setup and still refuse to compromise your goals, then prepare to be disappointed.

Changing things to fit your idea of success is not always possible.  Your stage size might be impossible to change without remodeling the club.  Too little time to perform might mean cutting the perfect set list down too much for comfort.  And, of course, you only get one shot at each live performance, so do-overs aren’t an option in that sense.  If, however, you take the time to evaluate things before they might become a problem, you will have the chance to change them.

So what would you add the list of rules for a “Successful Performance”?

Inspiration article: Pearls of Wisdom?  No. (Courtesy of The Busking Project)
Part I: Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part I
Part II: Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part II
Part III: Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part III

Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part III

In case you missed them, here are Part I and Part II.

So far, this guide has three things:
#1 Know your stuff,
#2 Know your audience, and
#3 Know your venue.

Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance

#4 Know your instrument.
My wish for you is that you always have the finest available instruments.  However, reality dictates that you will probably have less-than-stellar instruments or equipment at some point.  At worst, you may even find yourself in the position of trying to make the best of a truly broken instrument.  Whether you are using state-of-the-art equipment or your uncle’s beat-up ukulele, every instrument has quirks and weaknesses that can catch the unwary performer off guard and ruin a performance.

For example, is your instrument sensitive to the weather?  Guitars can warp enough to pull off the bridge if they get too dry, and a flute can split and develop a hole in the mouthpiece if it is left in a car and freezes.  (Why no, those are not first-hand examples of my past unintentional instrument abuse…)  What about other instrumental limitations: are there notes that just don’t resonate as well as others, and therefore do not carry as far?  Notes that tend sharp?  If your instrument is your voice, where is your strongest range?  Can you sing for hours, or is your stamina such that you need a break?  In case you do have a poor-quality or broken-down instrument, does it have notes that are out-of-tune and sound horrible?  Certain buttons with wildly different action from the rest?  Keys that do not sound at all?  Is your instrument old, fragile, or particularly valuable?

Consider your other equipment as well.  What do you need to make everything work: a 1/4″ cable to interface with a guitar, headphone adapters for a cassette player, a mic specifically for your upright bass?  What about for a power supply: a spare outlet or spare batteries?  Do you have quality equipment, or the budget spread?  My school’s Worship Team (of the cable-wrapping story) had an overused, dying soundboard, cheap microphones, and abused cables.  Whenever we had problems, our teacher/sponsor would pray over the equipment and cast Satan out as her method of fixing things.  More than a few of us students figured that buying some new, quality equipment and treating it well would go much further in keeping Satan from sabotaging our equipment than our weekly emergency prayers.

If you are acting in a theatrical performance, must you make do with substitute props and a hefty dose of  imagination?  Is something likely to break at the wrong moment?  I have been in many a low-budget production where the props and set dressings were either shoddy replacements for what the script specified, or were just written out of the script and absent entirely.

One show, which I attended in support of my friends, was put on by my college’s theater club.  This is an amateur group of performers, all enthusiastic, many quite experienced in high school and college productions, but certainly not professional-quality actors.  Even though we were a sizable club, we were an arts club at an engineering school — we were second-class citizens at best.  The club was allotted a minimal budget, which meant we could only afford to rent a classroom with a “stage” consisting of a tiled area at the front of a classroom instead of being able to afford (and fill) the auditorium with a real stage and stadium seating.  We had less than one day to set out our props, costumes, and sets for the performance.  Sets get often reused, along with costumes, props, and actors (usually wearing the same costumes).  This particular show, 6 Rms Rv Vu, was beset by a number of problems the night I saw it.  The actors had trouble remembering lines, which flustered them, which meant they forgot more lines.  It was generally painful to watch as a fellow performer — I knew how rough it must have been for them up on that stage.  And then, to make things more interesting, there was the set.

A short plot description, for those not familiar with this show (most of you, probably): two people, who have never met before, are both visiting an apartment that is up for rent.  They are looking around in the evening when the door handle falls off the door, trapping them inside. In the heat of the moment, they begin an affair.  The door handle falling off is therefore a key moment in the show, and in fact is the precipitating event for everything that follows.  Let me rephrase: the door handle falling off at the right moment, and only at the right moment, is vitally important.  It should not fall off at any other time except when the plot dictates: the story demands a deliberately “broken,” variable prop.  This is problematic — trying to get something to break, but only when you need to, it is incredibly tricky.

For the characters in the show, that door handle had to be magic.  That was the only explanation for it falling out and being completely unfixable one moment (when the characters needed to be trapped), but falling out and magically working when stuck in the hole later, (when the plot demanded that the door actually work.)  Willing suspension of disbelief starts to suffer a bit when the “rules” within the constructed world change when it’s convenient.

Do your best with what you have.  While a good performer can make poor quality sets, props, instruments, etc. work well enough, things tend to go much more smoothly with better tools.  If quality is not an option, though, be ready for something to break at an inopportune moment.  Better yet, know how to respond when it does.

Your tools can limit or enhance your show: use them well.

#5 Know yourself.
Everybody’s different.  We all have different strengths, musical preferences, skills, and things we enjoy.  A successful performance will be easier to accomplish if you go in prepared with a little self-knowledge.

Know your weaknesses.  If you stink at slow songs, don’t do very many.  Poor polkas?  Don’t play them.  If your only training is in reggae guitar, don’t busk classical violin.  On the other hand, know your strengths.  Figure out which pieces are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.  If you have one amazing, flashy, spectacular act, use it to impress the socks off your audience when you need.  This one overlaps a little with #1, know your stuff, but it is not just about having the skills, but more about knowing where those skills lie.

What you like can be just as important.  Do you love jazz trumpet?  You’ll probably do better to make that your focus than to perform mostly marches.  The styles, pieces, and acts you enjoy will be more fun to practice, and (if you’re anything like me) they will therefore be practiced more.  A performer’s enthusiasm and enjoyment get telegraphed to the audience in every mannerism, if you are being genuine.  The more comfortable and happier you are, the better your audience will perceive you as being.  While your best pieces may not always be your favorites (and vice versa), knowing both gives you flexibility in who you try to please with your shows.

Are you more comfortable in one setting or another?  Would you rather play in a crowded concert hall or in a nursing home?  Is busking NYC your style, or are you more at home in New Orleans?  Would you rather be the house band for a dive bar (complete with drunks), or play shows for the local children’s picnic?  Again, your discomfort will usually show through in your performance to some degree, so knowing what environment you enjoy (and which one you’ll be in, à la #3) goes a long way toward a smooth performance.

Be able to honestly evaluate yourself, your skills, and your preferences.  As it was written in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Know thyself.

Come back next week for the exciting conclusion!

Inspiration: Pearls of Wisdom?  No.
Part I: Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part I
Part II: Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part II