Courting The Act:
Random Thoughts on Performing

NOTE: This is a copy of an article first published in the July/August 1999 issue of SCALA NEWS, the bimonthly newsletter of the Songwriters, Composers, And Lyricists Association.

In the last issue of SCALA NEWS (May/June, 1999) I offered some thoughts on the songwriting process in an article called Courting The Muse: Random Thoughts on Songwriting. Here, I thought I would write about the act of performing those songs. I should stress that I don’t for a moment consider myself to be an expert on this topic. As someone who has only been singing on a regular (and amateur) basis for less than two years, I know I still have a lot to learn. 

I have of course, made many mistakes over the past couple of years, and I actively work on correcting those mistakes between performances every time I practice my songs. Hopefully, I can share some of the lessons learnt with you. So here, in descending level of importance, are my Ten Commandments of Public Performance. 

1. Know Your Song Well

This for me, is the most important rule. It was Bob Dylan who wrote in his classic song ‘A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall’, the line: “…I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” 

I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, I have been guilty of ignoring this advice on more than one occasion myself, and despite vowing to never publicly sing songs I didn’t know well, I still do so, and invariably my performance suffers. You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but no, I still try to con my subconscious mind into believing I know a song, when in fact I don’t. My subconscious of course, will have none of it – and promptly calls my bluff, providing me with yet another humiliating moment in live performance! 

Knowing your song well allows you to dispense with one of the most debilitating crutches singers can learn to rely on – a music stand with lyrics attached. Sometimes when I perform a song publicly for the first time I have a copy of the lyrics near by to refer to if my memory fails me. Strictly speaking, this only proves that I am singing the song publicly before I am ready to. Most audiences will forgive this transgression as a trade off for the ‘privilege’ of hearing a brand new song for the very first time. But to continue relying on lyrics, weeks and months after the song has been unveiled is poor form. Learn your song well before you start singing. 

There is no easy way to learn songs. The only thing that works for me is to sing them over and over and over again, until the words lodge in the subconscious mind. It is at this point that I can quite happily forget the words! I don’t mean ‘forget’ them in a literal sense! But once I don’t have to consciously remember my lyrics, I find I can relax and concentrate on my delivery, knowing that the words will flow in the right order as they should. 

I also employ various techniques to speed up the learning process. The best one is to record my songs onto a cassette and then play the recording repeatedly. I sometimes play these cassettes when I am ready to go to sleep by adjusting the volume just loud enough to hear the songs, but not so loud that it will keep me awake. The theory (not mine) is that the subconscious mind will hear the songs and learn them as I sleep. 

Another technique that seems to work for me is that once the initial process of constant practice and repeated listening has been carried out, I then leave the songs alone for a few days, and work on something else. I often find that when I return to the songs after just such a break, they are at best, now safely stored away in my head, or at worst, only require a little more work to make them so.


2. Practice Everything!

Practice Your Performance. Don’t just learn your songs – learn how to perform them. Anyone can learn words to songs, but learning the words to a song is not what the art of performing is all about. How you deliver that song in live performance is what people come to see. With one exception, the following ideas outline ways in which I practice my performances. 

Look At Yourself. I have a large wall mirror in my lounge room in front of which I stand and sing. This allows me to see what I am doing while I sing, and to see what the audience is seeing. Am I animated enough? Am I pulling strange faces as I sing? Is my performance dull and wooden? Should I be smiling more, or should I be more serious? All these questions and more can be asked and answered when I look at the way I perform.  

Record yourself. This is one of the most valuable aids to live performance I use. Listening to myself allows me to concentrate on the way I deliver my songs. If I can convey the feelings and story of each song via a recording only, I can be reasonably confident that the audience is also getting the ‘message’. If I can hear my words clearly as I sing on my recording, I can be confident that my diction will be clear enough in live performance for the audience to hear and understand my songs as well.  

Whenever you perform at SCALA, give a cassette to the sound person and get him to record your performance through the soundboard, you may be surprised at how good (or bad) you sound. Try to get similar soundboard recordings at other venues too.

Practice Introductions. You should also practice your introductions. Every song has a story behind it, and telling this story is your chance to reach your audience on a level other than singing. If you have time during your performance, try and tell the story in an engaging and concise way. Let me stress the word ‘concise’. During the National Folk Festival in Canberra over Easter I witnessed a perfect example of how not to introduce a song.

Told that she had five minutes left of her set, a performer at a blackboard concert proceeded to introduce her last song with an explanation that went on, and on, and on. In fact, her introduction went on for the full five minutes she had left, at the end of which she spent another five minutes performing the song! Not only had she gone well over time, but she lost me after the first minute or so with her long rambling introduction. 

This is not to say that your introductions can’t be long, after all, some performers have made an art form out of their intro’s. Most people know the story of Billy Connolly who started his career as something of a folk singer who had a knack for preceding his songs with hilarious introductions. Eventually, his stories became so famous (and funny) he stopped singing and became a stand-up comedian instead. The lesson here is that if you are going to make extended introductions at least make them interesting, and, if possible, funny.

Practice Performing in Public. Once I have learnt my songs, and learnt how to perform them well in my lounge room, I am ready to practice performing the songs publicly. This is where the value of SCALA One-plugged comes in. For beginners like me, One-Plugged has been a fantastic opportunity to practice my performance skills in front of a relatively small but forgiving audience, using microphones and a small sound system. If you can’t make it to One-plugged, practice in front of friends, sing at parties, or go busking. But do it, you won’t regret it. And finally, you can also try… 

Videotaping yourself. This is the one method I have yet to use. Other performers recommend this technique highly. In fact, I noticed a duo videotaping their performance at one of the Wednesday night SCALA evenings recently. Now you can practice anyway you like – eyes open or closed, sitting down or standing – whatever! And you really do get to see what your audience is looking at.


3. Who’s Singing This Song?

I am not always the person singing my songs. In case you think I am a clever mime artiste or ventriloquists dummy, I’d better explain. I know I am the person out front singing and playing my guitar, but I firmly believe that every song has its own unique voice, and that it is the task of the performer to discover the appropriate voice for each song and use that voice to tell the songs story.

As an example: I have a song called In The Shadow of The Eucalypts, which deals with the issue of suicide amongst male farmers. The voice singing the song is that of a farmers widow who I imagine to be in her 40’s, with two young daughters (who are mentioned in the song). The woman is telling her story 12-18 months after the death (by suicide) of her husband, and sings the song with obvious sadness, but also with some defiance because she refuses to give up the farm without a fight. Knowing this information about the ‘real’ singer of the song, helps me convey the story in a much more sensitive manner than if I had not thought this through.

While I don’t always go to a lot of trouble to discover each songs individual voice, my songs will often take on their own unique persona’s anyway. Sometimes when I am working on a new song, I have to wait for the songs voice to come through before I am able to learn it properly and perform it effectively in public. In fact, I have several songs that remain unperformed long after I wrote them because I am still trying to work out how to sing them effectively.

4. Who’s In Charge Here?

You are, and you should convey this to your audience via everything you do while on stage. If you only know three chords, play them like they are the most powerful chords in the universe; smile and look directly out into the audience; stand straight, and sing clearly. Believe in yourself and your songs and convey that belief to your audience. They may not always like your material, but they should accept your passion and honestly.

Remember, people have left their warm homes, comfortable lounges and TV sets just to see you perform. When you are at a multiple act performance venue like SCALA, people may have come to see other acts rather than yours, but this should not be seen as a problem, it is merely an opportunity to win new ‘fans’ for your work. So go to work – and win them.


5. Control Your Instrument

Don’t be intimidated by your instrument. I have learnt to attack my guitar with a degree of enthusiasm which leaves even me surprised. I sing several songs which demand a hard driving rhythm, and I love to get stuck in to them and the guitar when I sing those songs. Too many performers seem to treat their instruments with kid gloves when the songs they are performing require real power and control. If you are afraid to play your $2000+ guitar with the energy a song demands, buy a second, cheaper instrument, and pound that!

To a certain extent I feel somewhat intimidated by my guitar. This is because I am not a particularly flash guitar player. I don’t use barre chords, I am a very basic finger picker, and I don’t use alternate tunings. After my first gig for SCALA in October, 1998, I had grave doubts about my ability to play with enough variety to sustain audience interest. I immediately made lots of plans to turn myself into a virtuoso guitarist, but I’ve calmed down since then. I feel that I’m beginning to get the better of my guitar, more than it gets the better of me. I have also decided that rather than dwell on my deficiencies, I will use what playing skills I have to the best of my ability, now, and build up additional skills as and when I need them.

6. Control The Microphone

Don’t be intimidated by the microphone. Learning to use a microphone was one of the first hurdles I had to overcome, and I’m still learning this skill. As a general rule, the closer you are to the microphone the better. I have an old microphone stand and a cheap mike set up in my lounge room. Whenever I practice my performances I always sing into this mike, even though it is not actually plugged into anything. 

This practice has been invaluable in helping break down my fear of microphones, and it has also helped me learn how to use the performance space around the microphone. If you don’t have a microphone and stand, improvise. Before I acquired my microphone stand, I practiced on a homemade model – an upturned broom!

This is not the place to discuss the various types of microphones available, or how to use them. I would just say, that if you are not sure of the type of mike you are singing into, or how to use it, i.e., how close you should be to the equipment – ask. Sound technicians will be more than happy to help out with this information as it makes their work much easier as well. The more feedback you get from them – the less Feedback they get from you!


7. Control The Equipment

I readily admit this is one area where I am sadly lacking in knowledge so I am not going to display my ignorance here by offering advice I’m not qualified to give. At this stage in my performing ‘career’, I have made a conscious decision to leave the issue of sound to the sound technicians. All I can offer under this heading is that you not be intimidated by the equipment you are working with, it is there to help you deliver the best possible performance you can manage, so focus on that performance and let the technicians worry about the sound. 

Having said that, you must at the very least be able to hear your voice and instrument when you play. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to ask the sound crew to turn your instrument or voice up louder, (or quieter, if too loud).

8. Control Your Song

Be in control of your song – don’t let it control you. To understand this Commandment go back and reread Points 1 and 3.

9. Be Prepared!

Be Prepared For Broken Strings. I have yet to suffer the surprise and shock of a broken ‘G’ string while performing live, but one day it may happen! When that day comes I hope I have the presence of mind and professionalism of the English singer-songwriter, Rory McLeod.

I’ve seen him break guitar strings twice during performances, and each time he has calmly set about changing the string while singing his next song unaccompanied. By the time that song was finished (3-4 minutes at most) his new string was on and re-tuned, and he was able to continue his performance as if replacing a broken string was all part of the act – which of course, it was. In fact, he sang the same song on each occasion, which leads me to believe that he may only sing that particular song if he breaks one of his strings. So practice changing broken strings, and practice singing, or telling jokes and stories while you do so.

Who, What, When, Where, How, Why? Surely the topics of whole articles in themselves, (Any offers – Ed) these six questions should all be asked and answered before you take to any stage. Who is the audience – adults, children, your peers? What is the occasion – formal concert, benefit gig, busking, a wedding? When will you perform – day or night, first or last? Where will you sing – house concert, concert stage, festival, etc? How will you perform – plugged or unplugged? Why are you performing – for the money, exposure, to add a prestigious event to your bio?

It is your responsibility to ask as many questions as possible before you take to the stage to avoid confusion and conflict with event or venue organisers. If you don’t get the answers you want but accept the gig anyway, you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.

Prepare a Setlist… and stick to it! It is the rare performer that steps onto a stage without first preparing a list of songs to sing. Choose your songs for a reason, decide on their placement in the set, and practice them in that order. Last year I saw Steve Earle and Bruce Cockburn perform in Adelaide, and managed to get a copy of each performers setlist. Every song each performer sang was including on the setlist, including the encores. If it’s good enough for the experts, it’s good enough for me.

Prepare For The Unexpected. When I last sang for SCALA in April, the last act of the night had to cancel their performance due to the illness of the lead singer. The decision to cancel was made even as I was on stage. Having finished my set as planned, I was asked to go back on stage and sing for another ten minutes or so. This was totally unexpected and I was lucky I had been practicing several other songs during the day. I managed to do three extra songs without any major problems, but I now make sure I have practiced at least three other songs well before a major performance – just in case.


10. Get Up, Stand Up…

…and dance to the music. Free yourself from the constraints of bum numbing chairs and totally acoustic instruments. Your performance becomes much more dynamic when you ‘stand and deliver’ your songs. And it is more dynamic still, if you are plugged in and can move away from the microphone occasionally to play some hot licks or move to the music you are creating.

I have seen rock musicians who sat throughout a performance (Ed Kuepper, Tony Joe White), and I have seen fingerpickers stand and jump about the stage, (Bruce Cockburn, Ani DiFranco). Of course, everyone has their own preferences. However, I still feel that the above principal is a valid one.

Last Chorus…

Well, those are my Ten Commandments of Public Performance. What are yours? There are many other topics that come to mind which could be added to this type of list. I have no doubts that if I was to rewrite this article in two years my priorities will have changed quite a bit from those I am focusing on today. I’d be interested in your comments regarding this article so send them to SCALA NEWS in the form of letters, or send them via email to me at:  

© 1999, Jim Lesses


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