What Happens On Stage
I am not a guitar player. I have been playing first-year guitar, off and on, for over 50 years. Not only am I not getting better, I’m losing skills. A bizarre accident a few years ago diminished my ability to use all of the fingers on my left hand. I got a used Taylor guitar and found that the thin fingerboard and low action was easier for me to play. It is not a magic cure-all.
I try to warn my audience that they should not think of my guitar as a musical instrument but as a large, expensive necklace.
I practice. I practice sitting down in my living room. I practice standing up in front of a mirror. I can play my songs just fine. I rehearse until I know the songs forward and backward. (Upon reflection, backward might not be a good choice.) I can play that “one lick,” that walk down on the A string, and a hammer-on or two. I know the words. I'm ready, and it sounds good.
Then, I get on stage.
I consider it a successful night if I can get on and off stage without tripping on anything. If I can put on my guitar without sailing my hat out into the first row, I’m way ahead of the game…until I open my mouth.
It’s usually funny (or the audiences who know me expect me to be funny), so I get laughs. Hey! I’m up there to entertain so laughs are good, right?
I recently was one of ten people who performed in concert for a small audience of family and friends. I rehearsed with the ensemble and practiced my solo songs. I was ready!
I cut the intro to my “funny song” short and still got laughs. I got to the musical suspense before the chorus where I play a 3-chord progression up the neck of my guitar. (I call it “suspense” because the chords are diminished and have that old-time melodrama effect like, “And then…and then…and then!”) Diminished chords are Adult Chords. They require all four fingers.
I did it!!!
Well, I did the first one. Once I have that, I know that it’s just a matter of going up 3 frets to the second chord, and then 3 more frets to the last chord. I have been doing it that way for years, since I wrote the song.
That evening, my fingers went up 4 or 5, maybe 6, frets to the second chord, but it sounded good.
I should’ve left it there. But, NO! I went for the third chord…and missed. So, I tried another fret up…and missed again. I tried 3 more while saying, “It’s around here somewhere!” As the audience laughed, I dove for the chorus.
Sigh. My guitar is a prop.
Now, consider shaking. I shake. Some days are better than others. I can control it to a certain extent by eating the right food at the right time and taking deep, calming breaths. (It works well…at home.)
I get on stage and adrenaline kicks in! I shake. That great walk down the A string becomes a series of low E notes followed by chord changes that make no sense whatsoever.
I once told the audience, “I shake. I’m not afraid of you. I’m afraid of my guitar.”
When I played bass in bar bands, we had one rule: Start and end together. Everything in the middle could be Jazz. My philosophy is to work harder on the intro and ending. Get them right, and the other notes will blend in or be forgotten. That blown walk-down the A string? No big deal in the ending, but not at the very end! I had 3 chords, 2 hammer-ons, a low C, and an arpeggio to salvage the ending.
My biggest problem (other than the obvious lack of talent) is that I watch the audience and key into them.
Am I making eye contact with everyone? Good. Are they laughing when they should be? Good. Are they singing along with the chorus by the end of my song? Great. Are they still there when I finish? Superb!
I can think about only one thing at a time. In between thinking about the audience, I think about the lyrics and melody. Did I sing the right words in the right order? Did I pronounce them correctly? Did I sing the right melody? Was I on pitch? All good. Am still breathing? Faaabulous!
Meanwhile, my fingers have taken a life of their own. They’re off in another Zip Code playing whatever they want to play. I can almost hear them saying, “Rehearsal? Pah! We don’t need no stinkin’ rehearsal. We know precisely where to go and when!”
They do, but it might not be the same song I’m singing, or in the same key, or in the same place in the song.
If I keep the beat steady under those conditions, I’m happy. (In one band, the only complement I ever got from the saxophone player was when I got completely lost and finally found my way back to the key, the song and the right line. He said it was my best playing ever and asked if I would do it again in the next show. I thought, “I hope not.”)
I spent many years playing bass with an old pro. He made a living singing and playing guitar in bands and solo gigs, in national radio ads, and in studio sessions in Los Angeles and Nashville. When the fingers on his left hand took off on their own, he simply slapped them with his right hand, smiled briefly, and kept going.
I didn’t learn the slap from him. (I prefer to reason with my bass.) I did learn to smile and keep going.
And, I’ve learned that the audience will forgive me if I make mistakes. They will NOT forgive me, however, if I'm not happy on stage. So, it’s better to make a joke of my mistakes and find a way to include the audience in the joke so everybody feels good.
I heard Dan Tyminski on stage touring with Union Station when “Man of Constant Sorrow” was a hit. (Don’t know Dan? He was George Clooney’s singing voice in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?). He performed “Man of Constant Sorrow” on stage that night with the backup singers from the movie. And, he forgot the words. On stage. In a sold-out concert hall.
The band vamped. They played the same chord until Dan sang. And we, the audience, waited. Finally, he sang, “And I can’t remember the words.” Then, the backup singers echoed, “He can’t remember the words."
We roared with laughter and applauded.
And the song went on.
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