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I Wish I Knew That: The Size of the Crowd Doesn’t Matter

Greetings, bass players! Although I’ve enjoyed writing about the blues for the past few months, a new year calls for a new subject, and I’ve decided to shift gears a bit. Thanks to you guys, No Treble readers, and to the nifty technological advancements that allow us to communicate in new ways, I’ve been impressed by the ongoing dialogue that has emerged.

I am constantly reminded that each of us have unique musical influences, different playing styles, experiences that go from the good, the bad, and the ugly, and most importantly, words of wisdom that we’d like to impart on others. So there it is… a great inspiration for a column series, “I Wish I Knew That!”

In this new series, I’ll be sifting through my “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” lists along with things I’ve learned from teachers and musical situations along the way. Oh yes, and I’ll throw in a couple of “you won’t believe what happened at last night’s gig” stories that have taught me valuable lessons as well. All of these lessons fall under the category of “I Wish I Knew That!” and will hopefully allow you to reflect on and share the experiences you’ve had (or will have) out in the gigging world or during your ever day bass playing adventures.

For this first installment, I’d like to discuss something that I try to be aware of at every gig: playing to four people is just as important as playing to 40, or 400, or 4,000.

For those of you who are gigging musicians (or aspire to be), imagine being in a club at 11:30 at night, knowing that you’re supposed to play until 1:00 am, and seeing that there are only four people at the bar. They’re sitting at the opposite end of the room, gazing at the TV screen that is showing scores and stats on ESPN, they’re nearing the end of their drinks, and no one has bothered to clap for a single song. It’s easy to get discouraged, to let your mind wander, or to draw your attention to this week’s important football play recap.

Suddenly you find yourself playing on the wrong fret, forgetting the chords to the bridge and getting the “death stare” from the other players. In addition to losing your focus, you think it’s the perfect time to remind yourself that you spent your Saturday afternoon reviewing the songs, doing technique exercises and skipping lunch with your friends to prepare for the gig. You’re almost ready to throw in the towel and the band decides to take a short break. As you’re on the way to the restroom, one of the guys at the bar stops you and says, “you guys are awesome! When will you be back here?” This scenario is not new to me, and I’m sure that guys like James Jamerson or Victor Wooten have been there and done that at some point in their lives.

I’ve been very lucky to have a partner in crime on gigs like this – a phenomenal guitar player, Don Evans – who has been in the business for years and has played every kind of gig imaginable. On the nights when it seems like no one is listening, he reminds me that no matter how many people you’re playing for, you’re really only playing for one person. Each person sitting in the audience is there to have a good time, and even though they may not appear to be listening doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening. Remember that you can come across all different types of people when you’re playing, and although it’s easy to stereotype and convince yourself that they’d rather be listening to the jukebox, you’re providing a special form of entertainment. Just think… perhaps one guy lives up the street, had a hard day, and smiles when he hears a song that he likes; perhaps one guy works at an office and they’re looking for a band for this year’s Christmas party and he’s silently listening and thinking, “I’ve got to get their card;” or, perhaps one guy is a musician, happens to be looking for a bass player, and likes what he hears. You never know.

If you find yourself in a position where it’s hard to remain focused and you’d be more than happy to hit the road, you can always try a different approach to your playing or your performance. If you’re in the habit of playing a song the same way every time, try to challenge yourself by playing notes in different places (use your open A instead of your fretted A and change your hand position for the rest of the bass line). If you always look at and listen to what the drummer is doing in a particular tune, try to shift your focus to the guitar player or the singer and listen for something that you haven’t noticed before. You can also try to suggest songs that you haven’t played recently, or change the order of the sets. For instance, if the bar is winding down midway through your second set, try substituting songs that you would normally play during the third or fourth set. There’s also the “let us know if you have a request” game, where maybe, just maybe, someone will request a song that the band can play.

This concept of playing to one person can also apply to the nights when you’re playing to 400 or 4,000. If you’re not too keen on playing to large crowds, bring your attention to the band instead of the audience. Remember that you’re there to play music, the rest of the band is there to do the same, and picturing people in their underwear really doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot easier to play to a packed room, to see people dancing and chanting “one more song!” at the end of the night, and to feel as though the hours we spend practicing, the money we spend on gear, and the hour-long post-gig commute is all worth it. On the nights when the audience turnout isn’t what we had hoped, we need to realize that we’re still there to play music, that each gigging situation is different, and that even the worst gigs are over in a few hours. Plus, we learn to appreciate the nights when the ride home doesn’t matter, when the people we invited to the gig actually show up, and when we can’t believe that we actually get paid to have this much fun.

I’ve really enjoyed your feedback in past columns. Please share your stories and insights in the comments!

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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