Last summer I took a writing challenge for the month of July to produce one essay per day for the entire month. Originally my intent was to not post them, but preserve them as a collection for publication; however, I haven’t gotten around to putting them into book form as of yet, so I’ve decided to start releasing them on my blog site rather than hoarding them. All of them relate to my experience as a musician and are thus pertinent to this blog site. Some are bass related, while others are guitar related, band related or profession related. Here is the first of the series, written July 1st of 2015:
Last weekend I played a gig on bass with my usual blues-rock band that I’ve been providing the low end for almost three years now. I had a very limited stage footprint because quarters were tight for the five of us. When this happens I usually abscond with a chair or stool from one of the nearby tables and use it for at least part of the night. My knees aren’t what they used to be some twenty years ago and if I stand in one spot for hours without moving around they give me notice that they’re unhappy with me. We also play two 90 minute sets per evening, instead of the more usual four sets of 45-50 minutes, which means that you’ve got your instrument dragging on your shoulder for quite awhile before a break. It can wear. Whether I sit or stand has very little impact on the quality of the sound, and frankly it can lead to more precision on my part. It does have a subtle impact on my performance, which the simple tool of videoing a recent performance clearly demonstrated.
When things are going well and I’m on my feet, moving around, I end up having more of an emotional and visceral connection to the music. My bass lines tend to be livelier and to have more punch in terms of getting other folks to get off their feet and move to the music. I know this to be the case and when I have the room to move around I prefer to stand, but if I just have enough room to stand and be stationary it ends up being a pretty uncomfortable night which sends me in search of something to plant my behind on for the evening.
It is important to be comfortable when you are performing, because when you are comfortable you will inevitably focus more on what you’re doing than the distractions provided by discomfort. However, there are conventions that are present with different types of performance venues and different genres of music. When we step outside of these conventions it does have an impact on the experience as a whole, whether we realize it or not. This particularly holds true for live performances because the expectations are that the experience is going to provide visual stimulus as well as aural. It’s a complete package deal for the audience who is there to have a good time, hopefully a great time. For the types of music I most often perform, energy pays a massive dividend in influencing the crowds reception of the performance and musicians who are actively moving around on stage with the music tend to communicate enthusiasm and positive energy, which the crowd feeds upon. So do the musicians for that matter, because when the crowd reflects that positive energy back to the musicians it becomes a highly symbiotic relationship.
I’m somewhat of an introvert by nature and lean toward being taciturn, not given to overt displays and such, which isn’t so bad in a bass player because after all, we tend to be relegated to the background anyway, ceding the spotlight to front people and guitarists. However, there comes a point where one can become a visual energy black hole, and sometimes we need to be reminded of this. The band leader videoed the performance from last weekend and posted us performing “Crossroads Blues,” the old Robert Johnson tune popularized by Eric Clapton and Cream, on Facebook. The musical aspect of what we did was quite good; to use the vernacular it cooked along. Watching it was something else, at least for me. There I was in the back, seated, perfectly still and expressionless; laying it down on my bass, and moving it along but to all appearances inert. The chair didn’t help things visually because it emphasized the inertia my body was communicating. I was seated lower than the keyboard player and the drummer. My fingers on both hands were moving, but that was it. Mentally I was into what I was doing, but you couldn’t tell from a visual perspective. Ironically enough, if I had been seated on a stool it would have somewhat ameliorated the situation because then I would have been tall enough to have more of a presence on the stage, but because I was so rooted in place it really had an effect on the visual impact.
I’ve been a performer for quite a long time and I’ve learned a lot over the years. The biggest thing I have learned is that no matter how long I do this there is always something that I can improve on, no matter what level I’m performing at. Sometimes, it’s simply reinforcing something I already learned by reminding me that it needs my attention again, and other times it’s much more heavy duty musically, and involves significant woodshedding. It’s surprising how something that seems like such a little thing, like the visual and physical difference between a stool and a chair, can yield such a profound difference in the quality of the performance. The details do matter; live recordings don’t lie, and none of us are too old or experienced to learn and improve. Videoing performances may be painful for some folks, but it’s a great way to get a reality check when it comes down to making improvements in your show, when used properly. Make sure that you give yourself props on what you’ve done well when reviewing them, but also ensure that you use them to help make the next performance a better experience for everyone.