To be a performer and/or a songwriter means that you are putting yourself out there in front of the hungry wolves of critique and assessment. You will all at once be sized up, put down, crowned brilliant, walked out on and bought apple-tini’s by audience members. (Last one is a recent true story-Thank you guy from Winooski VT.) And through all of these pushes and pulls you will need to tap into your inner confidence, take continual pride in your work and serve yourself up extra large servings of ego. But as performers we also need to honestly evaluate our own craft and acknowledge those weak points, those blemishes and blunders that, if we decide to addresses them, can make all the difference in our performances, and of course, the accompanying audience responses.
So I’ll start with my own huge, glaring, down-right embarrassing weakness. Here’s a bit of true history: When it came time for my middle school chorus to perform at some vaguely veiled Christmas celebration for parents, I was politely asked not to sing. I was basically kicked out of a band in New York for not being able to sing sweet girl harmonies. I cried when I recorded vocals for my first solo record. A certain someone in my past told my mother that music was “not my forte”, I assume primarily because of my voice. A good friend once told me, “well we all know that your voice isn’t your strength.” Upon honest self evaluation and reflection, I can understand why all of these things happened. And yet all I wanted to do was sing in my own band…… for almost TWENTY years! So, I recently started taking vocal lessons. I’m still no virtuoso, but I now know what to work on and my teacher has helped me learn various techniques for doing so. I have made vast improvements and no longer want to crawl in a hole and hide when I hear my voice. Instead I look forward to sitting down at the piano and really working on my parts, strengthening my falsetto, or taking time to do some breathing exercises and vocal warm-ups. I hope to continue vocal lessons for as long as I plan on singing.
So what is your weakness?
One of the most exciting aspects of being a musician and a songwriter is the continual opportunity to learn something new, and to tackle a difficult challenge. So even if you think you are an incredible player, songwriter, performer or any combination thereof, we all have places where we can improve. And honestly, if making music didn’t offer these challenges, then our endeavors would become like some kind of factory work, continually placing product A on belt B and cleaning our safety glasses in between shifts. Maybe you have already identified what you want to work on, in which case, feel free to skip down to “How to tackle your weakness.” Which really should be entitled, “How to crush an exciting challenge” since I’m all about being an optimist in my old age. But before we get there, let’s spend a little bit of time on the “how to” of identifying and honestly accepting our weak spots:
- Record yourself, ALL THE TIME. Record practices, performances, scale work, high hat work, vocal exercises, songwriting sessions, jam sessions, you name it, you should record it.
- Videotape (or whatever the correct high tech term is for this process that no longer involves giant VHS tapes and a machine almost as big as a boom box) yourself. This is especially important to do for performances. Adrenaline changes everything. Our perception of what’s happening and video footage often tell a very different story.
- Start taking lessons. A seasoned professional will offer interesting insight into techniques and how to alter old habits that you might not have even been aware of.
- Ask someone for feedback. This is, perhaps, the toughest bit of advice I’ve got. You have to be very careful about this one. After a performance you can ask anyone you want “How was that? What did you think?” And, chances are, you will not get any feedback detailed enough to be helpful and you will not be in any frame of mind to hear constructive criticism. You just played your heart out and there is no way you want to hear about how you should really watch your tempo during the transition to the bridge in the second song. So instead, find someone who’s opinion you trust, and ask them to look for something specific about your performance. If you are concerned about tempo, then ask them to keep an ear out for it. And then, the next day, or whenever you’re ready for your criticism you can ask about how tempos were during your performance. Or you could ask someone to give you three suggestions for improving your performance. Then you know you are going to get three suggestions and you asked for them. You could also send a song to someone and ask them how they would revise the song. This way you can uncover habits and patterns in songwriting that you might wish to break out of.
- Ok, now on to tackling the weakness.
“How to tackle your weakness.” Which really should be entitled, “How to crush an exciting challenge.”
- Practice for a little bit of time frequently rather than for a long period of time occasionally.
- Do not always practice in just the style of your own music.
- Play with people other than your own band.
- Just like athletic training, you have to break out of your routine so that your body can be pushed further. If you don’t alter your movements, you can not grow the new muscles. Do things musically that get you out of your comfort zone.
- Just as with identifying your weaknesses, working on them can definitely benefit from the guidance of a teacher.
- Practice a song piece by piece. Break the song down into smaller sections, break a section into specific measures, break a measure into little phrases. Repeat these segments over and over….
- Get a metronome.
- Watch live footage of other musicians for hints, ideas, techniques and inspiration.
- Play along with live footage and recordings of other musicians.
If you have decided that the thing you really want to work on is song-writing….stay tuned, I’ll be putting together a series on songwriting techniques coming up next month!