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!