When the moment arrives to prepare your first set of music for an audience, it can easily become one of those pointlessly harrowing experiences.
I remember my first opportunity. I was a freshman at Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama, and my mother had scheduled the ORKIN mist-meister to arrive at our house to spray for the evil creepy crawly things that haunt our nightmares. I knew the guy had to spray my room. It was his job. Apparently, my job was to impress the guy with my technical prowess on the gut string guitar before he finished my room.
I do recall my first “real” attempts at set design began during my college years at the University of Alabama at the local coffeehouse, which was inspired and maintained by Bob Padula, a Boston singer songwriter. Soon enough I joined the gang of players crawling out of the woodwork to put their names on the chalkboard for 20 minutes of shame every Tuesday night. And boy did some of us really swarm in trying to impress each other. (Hey, where’s that ORKIN guy when you really need him!) During the week prior to the upcoming weekend “gig”, I made plenty of time available to decide what kind of repertoire I had, various sequence possibilities, and what to say in between tunes. Most of us were so laughably and obliviously arrogant that we even planned our encore tune!
I have to admit that after four years of this experience, I did learn a thing or two. However, it was not until I actually had been recording and touring for many years and sharing the stage with a multitude of dynamic artists that I realized an even greater depth to the art of set design.
I recall, early in my career, when I opened the evening for the comedian Louie Anderson. He was kind enough to spend some moments backstage with me while sharing his philosophy about pacing. I also remember another night when I opened a show for the comedian Richard Lewis, who was also very considerate and took the time to share regarding the content of his material. Most of the solo acts, comedians, or bands, with whom I have had the immense pleasure of appearing with, seem to share a few unmistakable qualities – professionalism, kindness, dedication and a willingness to share one or two of their tricks of the trade with a fellow artist. Here are a few things I have learned.
Recognize your audience. When I open a show for a comedian, it doesn’t hurt to add a little humor in my set to create the mood. That artist will truly appreciate how you warmed the crowd up and they might welcome you back for a future occasion. When appearing with comedians, the trick is not to suddenly become one that night. I am not a comedian. However, there is nothing wrong with being a humorist.
Smile. It’s the least you can do. At least try not to sit up there on stage going pluckyplunk, drooling on your shoelaces, while making a face like a cat in a litter box.
Watch your set time. Do not overextend yourself or shortchange yourself. If you have been offered to do a 20- minute warm up act for someone, don’t play 14 minutes or 35. Give yourself your due. If it’s your solo night, there is a lot to be said for the phrase, “leave them wanting more.” Believe me, if they want more, an audience will be sure to inspire you to come back.
Be kind to your audience. Don’t shove your “wow” down their throat. Be gracious and watch your pacing and momentum.
Without a doubt, there is no “one way” to do this. One approach is to start out with a bang, play three hot numbers in a row before you even speak. Then, let the audience ease down with a ballad or a classical piece to settle into the pocket with you for the ride. Another time, you may want to come right out with a welcome, comment, or joke and begin with a simple, graceful piece if you’re not ready for the ‘big bang’. In other words, don’t force it if it’s not there. Audiences will spot that in a heartbeat and you’ll just have to dig yourself out of the hole you’ve created. Confidence is key and that usually will be transmitted to an audience by your own confidence with your material.
Depending upon the evening, style selections or genres can also be key elements. I have had the pleasure of opening for blues legend John Hammond many times over the past 25 years and knowing that his audience is a “Blues” audience, I make a point of playing a very bluesy set. I recollect one time, when sharing the bill with John, I tried to sneak in a Bach prelude. It just didn’t work. This doesn’t mean it’s set in stone that it would never work in a similar setting, but I felt that staying on blues turf worked more effectively.
While opening shows for America, The Little River Band, and Kenny G, I realized I was given the opportunity on those occasions to reach out to more of a general public, and it seemed appropriate to throw in a few fingerstyle classics that people recognized. I recently did a show with the California Guitar Trio and realized that the audience was much more likely that evening to be open to some of my original compositions or the real “guitary” stuff.
One of my favorite evenings was the time I was invited to be a part of Murial Anderson’s All- Star Guitar Night. The event, which was in honor of Chet Atkins, was held at the legendary Ryman Auditorium during the summer NAMM trade show in Nashville, Tennessee. There were five other players with me on stage and we were seated in a semi-circle. Knowing ahead of time that each of us was to play only one tune, I selected “Wazamataz” out of about a 5-hour repertoire from which I currently seem to pull. An original and rather snappy piece containing some Chet-inspired elements seemed perfect for the environment.
The point I am trying to make is that, in the long run, it’s up to you to add set design to your craft. Given the opportunity, I have always felt that musicians should play the music that inspires them the most. Then it doesn’t seem so much like homework and, in actuality, it is a lot more joyful to play. I have no doubt that audiences pick up on that. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard from audiences members after the show commenting, “Boy, you look like you’re really having a GREAT time when you are up there playing.” For some reason that I still haven’t quite figured out, it seems very important for the audience to know the performer is having a good time
By the way, in case you were wondering what I decided to play for the ORKIN guy, it was actually a record. I chickened out. Instead of myself playing, I picked a cut by one of my guitar heroes for him to hear. It was more important for me to share something I loved rather than try to demonstrate it live. When the tune was over he asked if I could spin another one for him. I guess I knew my audience. I hooked him. The record got an encore. It would have gotten two encores but my mother came in and made him finish spraying my room.