Soloperforming:  Art form or Acquirable Skill?
by Don White

   Teaching people about performing is not like teaching them how to sing or play guitar. There are some do's and don'ts that are obvious, on which most people agree. Other things tend to be different for each performer. What works for one is out of the questions for another. As a student you need to gather as much information as you can and see what works for you. I have spent the bulk of my adult life as a student of the audience performer relationship. I am as enchanted with the magnitude and the subtleties of it now as I was when I was a teenager performing for the first time. What I offer my students and what I am offering you is my opinion, my perspective and my passion for this art form.

   Let's begin with the premise that the music industry is a big, hairy, evil monster that eats its young and that the odds against anyone surviving (let alone making a living from) their relationship with it are substantial. Now that we've established a portrait of the industry let's talk numbers.

   I have been in the Boston singer-songwriter scene for eight years. I estimate in that time I have known or known of somewhere between three and four hundred people who have tried or are still trying to make a living at this stuff. Sixty percent of these people are gone. The industry devoured them quickly and with surprisingly little effort.

   Approximately half of the remaining forty percent are still playing open mikes. They are not building any audience or making any real money. A percentage of the people in this group are not trying to make a living at music.. They continue to do it because they love it. Their performances are always fun and fulfilling for them and they are never weighed down by the pressure of the biz. These people are smarter than the rest of us.

   Of the remaining twenty percent roughly half are in a category of musicians who have diversified in order to stay in the business. They may run a recording studio, work in radio, do live sound engineering, be newspaper critics, or freelance writers. They may run a club or coffee house, do CD or cassette duplication, or any combination of these in addition to live performing. This is a pragmatic group who have made decisions that enable them to stay in and around the business and perform at least some of the time.

   The final ten percent can be broken into two groups. Eight percent are the people with a small record deal - some radio airplay - a growing audience and some reasonable prospects for success. These are the road warriors. They live in their automobiles. When you talk to them, they are spacy and distant. They try to focus on your face but all they can see are white lines from the highway. They try to listen to you but your words are muffled by the permanent hum of tires on asphalt burned into their minds. These people play a lot of gigs for amounts of money that can't cover the cost of getting there, with the assumption that eventually it will pay off. For some of them it will.

   The remaining two percent are the ones who are generating enough income to perhaps pay a mortgage on a small house and have a new or at least a decent car. Being able to afford a house and a car is not an outrageous expectation for most working Americans but in the singer/songwriter world this represents a rare and inspirational accomplishment.

   I am not trying to discourage anyone. It is however very important to have a realistic view of what you are up against so you can prioritize, consolidate your resources and apply the appropriate energy.

   What follows here are a few examples of what, in my opinion, are:

Common Problems With Inexperienced Performers.

Problem #1: Lack of Skills

   If you have not yet become reasonably accomplished at your particular specialty (song writing, singing, your musical instrument) you should stop right here and decide in exactly what skill or skills you would like to excel. Performance technique is a tool that you apply to a skill that is already developed.

   If you are an aspiring song wr4iter take lessons with someone who is accomplished in this area. Read as much as possible on the subject and keep writing until you are sure that you are good at it. At this point you should consider learning about performance technique so you can use the knowledge to maximize the impact of your good songs.

   A bad song dressed up in a clever performance is what I like to call a pig in a prom dress, "Nice dress, too bad it's wrapped around a pig." Watching a person with some knowledge about performance technique try to use that knowledge to make something strong out of a weak song is sad. The most valuable skill a person can bring to this endeavor is the ability to prioritize. Develop a tangible skill first. Then enhance it with performance technique. Doing it any other way is classic wagon before the mule behavior and a colossal waste of valuable time and energy.

Problem #2: Lack Of A Fundamental Understanding Of The Job Description

   Ask yourself this question. What am I being paid to do in this club tonight? There are several answers to this question that are partially correct. Keep the patrons here so they will buy more alcohol, coffee, food etc. But the only completely correct answer can be summed up in one word: "Entertainment."

   For some strange reason this word is considered an obscenity in some sectors of the singer songwriter community. I believe it is actually a felony in the traditional folk community. I want you to be brave and say the word out loud a few times. Come on don't be scared. It's a nice word: "Entertainment!"

   Being an entertainer does not mean you have to stop being a thoughtful and conscientious artiste. It does not mean that you have to relinquish depth and content for pies in the face and prat falls. It does mean that you have to utilize all your unique talents to convince as many people as possible to spend their hard earned money on you and your show.

   Contemporary singer songwriters are, in general, painfully oblivious to their entertainment responsibilities. I believe this is due in large part to the way they evolve as writers. Typically, singer songwriters (and I think writers in general) are spawned during the heat of adolescent turmoil. They buy a journal or diary and begin to write in it as an alternative to talking to their parents, who are after all the source of their turmoil. Soon poems, songs, and stories emerge which have been created more out of an alternative to counseling than any sort of consideration of a future audience.

   Eventually these songs are played for friends and sooner or later someone asks the person to sing them at a function. Unfortunately for the audience at this function, the songs that will make up this set will be a journey through the eight or ten darkest moments of this person's life. As an audience member under these circumstances I feel as though I am being beat about the head and shoulders with a very large stick. I experience many feelings but the feeling of being entertained is not one of them.

   Now don't be discouraged. Almost everyone begins this way. At least you're writing and learning your trade. What I would like you to do is begin to think of yourself as an entertainer who has come prepared to take care of the audience. Once you become comfortable thinking of yourself this way you will begin to compose with the audience in mind. This is a major step forward in the creative process. Instead of writing from the darkest point to make yourself feel better, try writing from a point of resolution.

   Forget about writing during the worst time and work on resolving the problem. What a concept! Fix or at least come to terms with the thing that is wrong in your life and then write about it including the resolution. Then when you bring your song to your audience you won't be beating them over the head with it, you'll be bringing them a gift which they may be able to use in their own difficult lives. This is the difference between being a giver and a taker. The people who acquire greatness in this world are the ones who give the most.

   If you need (for your own well being) to write during the dark times of your life go ahead. I only suggest that you consider these writings as journal entries not entertainment.

   This first class is more perspective than specifics. In the weeks to come the lessons will become more detail oriented. Subjects on the line for the next time will be Uncontrolled Fear: it wants you to fail and A lack of respect for the audience: an unforgivable crime.

© copyright 1997 Don White

Don White is a singer songwriter from Lynn, MA.