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Stagecraft

dooce

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This is relevant to those of us that play in bands and is taken from the blog of a London muso that I follow, Jay Stapley. It may seem like "stating the bleeding obvious" to the more experienced but I have almost single-handedly had to kick 2 of the bands I have played with into making the transition between songs seamless, rather than the traditional 90 seconds of guitar re-tuning, chatting, nose-picking and general audience alienation that punctuates the sets of many bands. The blog is well worth a read to see what makes up the life of a professional musician - not much about saxes though (and what there is, isn't often very complimentary....)

http://www.jaystapley.co.uk/


OK, as promised…Stagecraft. My two penn’orth.

This subject comes up again and again. I go to gigs and see bands and artists who are really quite good fail to capitalise on their talents and squander their audiences’ good will by ignoring the basic principles of stagecraft. What’s stagecraft? Here are a few ideas from my point of view.

There are two basic premises on which all performances rest:
First; each and every audience spends every second of your performance subconsciously deciding whether or not to watch the next second of your performance. That fact should guide you in everything you do, but time and time again I see bands and artists ignore this simple truth.

Second; audiences give any act they’ve never seen before a head start. Watch the audience next time you go to an open mic or so-called “showcase” night. When a new act takes to the stage the audience want them to be good: you have their full attention for the first 30 seconds of your performance while they try to figure you out and make some snap judgements about you.

Combine the above two facts and you have the key to success. Use that head start and don’t squander it. Be ready, and have your act finely honed and rehearsed so that it flows seamlessly from song to song. Time after time I see acts grab their audience’s attention with their first song and then throw it all away by looking blankly at each other at the end of the song or fiddling about with their equipment, completely ignoring the audience, who take advantage of the opportunity to turn to each other and say “Wow, they’re good, aren’t they? They remind me of someone… fancy nipping outside for a cigarette?” and that’s that: you’ve lost them.

Make the transitions between songs as smooth and rehearsed as the songs themselves: in rehearsal time do a topping-and-tailing exercise. Run the last 8 bars of song 1 and go straight into the first 8 bars of song 2, then the last 8 of song 2 into the first 8 of song 3, and do it in real time as though you were on stage. If it takes the bassist 2 minutes to switch from electric bass to upright, or the guitarist has to retune, now is the time to discover that and figure out how to manage the transition, not when you’re on stage in front of a live audience. Maybe the drummer can start the groove to the next song while the changeover takes place, or the singer can introduce the song: anything but that horrible awkward silence during which you lose the audience and have to climb the hill all over again, but this time it will be harder, because you no longer have the advantage of novelty on your side: they’ve seen you now!

As far as the first point is concerned, the performers’ art consists in large part of the somewhat schizophrenic process of observing yourself as the audience see you at the same time as you are performing and adjusting what you are doing as a result of the observations you make. That sounds like a cumbersome process, but true performers do it without even being aware of it: it’s a natural process.

The other crucial element of stagecraft and the performers’ art is to commit. Utterly. Absolutely, irrevocably and shamelessly. Why do people pay £60 to see Lady Gaga at the O2 arena? Is it because they are admiring the perfect execution of the guitarist’s diminished arpeggios? No: they have no idea what a diminished arpeggio is, and neither should they. Is it because they appreciate the finely-EQ’d reverb on the snare drum? No: they have no idea about that either, and neither should they. They pay to see shows like this because the artist bares his or her soul: the artists allow the audience to express and experience emotions that they (the audience) cannot allow themselves to express any other way. After a hard day at the office, do you really want to sit and analyse the finer points of the drummer’s technique? No: you want to scream your head off and wave your arms in the air, and the performers are the conduit through which the audience can do that.
If you believe, they’ll believe, and if you don’t, they won’t.

Your starting assumption as a performer should be this:
“From the moment I step onto this stage to the moment I leave it, this is MY room! I control it and I say what happens here.”
In return for this demand on your audience’s attention, you have to give them a reason to grant you such control, but understand that they want you to do it! They want to be transported, moulded, pushed and pulled, twisted out of shape and then allowed to snap back, taken up to the heights and dragged down to the depths, thrilled and scared, to experience the
warm thrill of confusion; that space-cadet glow…
(Pink Floyd, The Wall) and then spewed out onto the street having experienced the extremes, been dangled over the abyss of the unknown only to be pulled back into the warm cradle of familiarity just when it seemed that a plunge into the darkness was inevitable.

Will you achieve all this by standing on stage as though you are in the queue at the bank?
No: you will only achieve this by being committed to what you do, by cutting your chest open and spilling your heart out on their behalf because they can’t do it for themselves! and this is the key. That’s why they come to see you. Understand that and you will start to understand how to achieve great performances.
Of course, there are elements to the performers’ talent that can’t be taught or acquired: to some extent you either have it or you don’t, but if you do have it, you need to make sure you use it. (This is a whole other subject: why is it that you can take 5 actors, give them the same lines to deliver on the same stage to the same audience, and 4 of them will elicit the reaction “nice acting” whereas one of them will make you forget that they are acting and simply believe?)

Next time you go to a show, watch the stagecraft. It is a common objection from young artists that they prefer to “just let it happen organically, like.. (insert name of band here.) I don’t want it to be too contrived, you know what I mean?”
Trust me, it doesn’t work like that. The bands who look as though they are just “letting it happen” have rehearsed as much as the slickest Vegas-style cabaret act. They work incredibly hard at making it look effortless. Watch the transistions between songs and observe what is going on. Learn from it and adapt, adopt, embrace and extend.
 

aldevis

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Thank you Bill, I agree with most of the post.
In paurticular jazz musicians tend to be the worst offenders:
"We do our music, we are too sensitive and intellectuals to care about the audience, no I don't want to play that tune, next..."
I blame ourselves for pushing the audience away (I have a jazz gig in three hours, I will behave).

There is only one point I don't agree with, mostly because of your badly chosen example.



Why do people pay £60 to see Lady Gaga at the O2 arena?
(on a screen, in playback!)

Because their brains have been compromised by watching too much telly.
£60 to see a megafantascreen among thousands of people? Go with wife and two children, and you may have a jazz quartet in your living room for the same money.
BBC proms? Ronnie's?

Otherwise a nice post, Bill
 

gladsaxisme

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Sorry I have to disagree totally with your objection to using Lady Gaga as an example in my opinion she is THE PERFECT example.I am not a fan of hers nor am I all the things you say about being indoctrinated by tv,I happened to watch one of her performances on tv after coming home from a 12 hr shift at 4:00in the morning and surfing the channels for something to watch whilst having a butty and cuppa before dragging myself to the pit,I came across her doing a major gigg somewhere and was immediately taken by her consummate stage craft and the total energy and commitment she put into everything she did she held the stage and totally controlled every one that watched her including me,and to do that to someone like me ie very tired,not a fan couldn't care less about her being scantily dressed or not,shows she is a true artist.......sorry again aldevis.......john
 
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aldevis

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Sorry I have to disagree totally with your objection to using Lady Gaga as an example in my opinion she is THE PERFECT example.I am not a fan of hers nor am I all the things you say about being indoctrinated by tv,I happened to watch one of her performances on tv after coming home from a 12 hr shift at 4:00in the morning and surfing the channels for something to watch whilst having a butty and cuppa before dragging myself to the pit,I came across her doing a major gigg somewhere and was immediately taken by her consummate stage craft and the total energy and commitment she put into everything she did she held the stage and totally controlled every one that watched her including me,and to do that to someone like me ie very tired,not a fan couldn't care less about her being scantily dressed or not,shows she is a true artist.......sorry again aldevis.......john
Would you consider £60 a good investment to see her on a bigger screen?
 

gladsaxisme

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Unfortunately it would cost a lot more than £60 to watch her on an even bigger screen than I have already:))):))):)))
 

kevgermany

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Bill, great points.

as for Lady Gaga bring her soul - not sure I agree, more like flesh.
 

dooce

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Whether you like Lady Gaga or not is irrelevant - it's about objectively viewing her stage-craft. But I agree with aldevis, she's not a great example as her show is so choreographed and polished, and she has a small army of people making sure it stays that way. My personal favourite for stage presence and keeping an audience enthralled is Bellowhead - they bang out a 60-minute set that just grabs the audience and never lets go. And they have a dancing sax-player - try that at your gig today, aldevis!
 

gladsaxisme

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Whether you like Lady Gaga or not is irrelevant - it's about objectively viewing her stage-craft. But I agree with aldevis, she's not a great example as her show is so choreographed and polished, and she has a small army of people making sure it stays that way. My personal favourite for stage presence and keeping an audience enthralled is Bellowhead - they bang out a 60-minute set that just grabs the audience and never lets go. And they have a dancing sax-player - try that at your gig today, aldevis!
Funny I thought that's what the blogg was all about ie being as polished in everything you do as you possibly can be....John
 

gladsaxisme

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All joking apart if I were to go to one of Lady Gaga's concerts and knowing that she has no need of me to fight her corner, if she put on a show like I watched on the telly I would think it was money well spent and that I had been well entertained.I think the size of the entourage involved is only a matter necessity for the scale of the production....John
 

Jazzaferri

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Interesting thread..... And having reread and removed most of my post as it was irrelevant i will go get my coffee
 
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aldevis

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I didn't dance today, sorry. The gig went well anyway.

About stagecraft, try Sinatra and Basie at the Sands. Perfect balance of art and entertainment. A must have anyway.
 

PaulyT

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Hi Folks - I would add to Mr Stapley's comments and say that whenever I performed on stage as the front-man, I always thanked the audience for their attention and applause - I always introduced the songs which left the band in no doubt as to what we were playing next - provided playlists with keys to every member of the band and had 10 minutes of "Stand-up" ready for those re-tune/guitar change/unexpected interruption moments.
Paul
 

Young Col

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It's an interesting point. I don't disagree with the importance of stagecraft, but there is an issue of presentation and packaging over talent, particularly nowadays. At the other extreme though there have been people like MJQ. Charlie Parker, who insisted that "polite applause will suffice" and simply announced a number with little other audience contact. Miles Davis, eschewing the showbusiness side of music (he specifically cited Dizzy and Louis, despite loving their music) and turning his back on the audience. They thought their art should speak for itself and perhaps for some people like that, the audience agreed. Perhaps it was so many others expecting to do the same that pushed the popular audiences away from jazz and left it for afficianados.


Sinatra at The Sands is indeed a must have. His stories and easy engagement with the audience, plus his singing backed by a great band sounded like a brilliant one-off, but he must have done it every night and I bet it still sounded fresh every time.
YC
 

old git

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There was a female singer, known as "Glad and the cake tin" owing to her chapeau, who used to sing facing away from the audience in what must have been the roughest pub in Dulwich in the 70s. The house band consisted of an electronic keyboard with a snare drum and cymbal drum outfit.

Maybe it was the audience that showed Stagecraft, as they used to threaten us when we kept shouting "More!" at the merciful conclusion of each song. In the end cowardice won.
 

jeremyjuicewah

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Dont reckon stagecraft over being pretty blinking good. Saw Bob Dylan in Prague, think you have to be a big fan these days, didnt speak to the audience or look at us or bother with us once. On the other hand it was wall to wall music. Good show, if you like the bloke. Gaga to me is pretentious bilge, no amount of stagecraft gonna make me remoteley interested in her antics/performance. Cream had stagecraft, sort of. I have never seen a greater quantity of cocaine vanish up one nostril than Ginger Baker hoovered up his at the Albert Hall. Still wondering why he is still alive. Seriously, learned a lot about performing at a pub gig years ago. Young girl with accoustic guitar played half a dozen of her own compositions. Before each one she gave "this song is about blah blah blah. I wrote it during/after/in memory of/to bring attention to - you get the drift. Cripes, I twigged then and there about 98% of what not to do. No one is interested in you, get on with the music, unless you can make people laugh.
Mike
 
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