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On Performing: Somebody, Somewhere, Is Going To Notice

Ryan Madora

Just when you think no one is watching… someone comes along and compliments you on your technique.

Technique? Really? Of all things…

This past weekend, I played a rock ’n roll gig at a smoke-filled, small-town bar with Coors and Miller lights ablaze. A few older gentlemen approached me during a break and asked: “what did you play before bass?”

At first I was surprised by the fact that they knew I played something else, and after I responded with “drums”, they continued to ask if I had played cello or violin. As it turns out, one of the guys was curious about my hand position and mentioned that it looked as if I had classical training on another stringed instrument. After a few minutes of chatting about hand positions and tips for his nephew he’s teaching to play guitar, I had to run inside for the next set. Long story short, this seemingly small compliment regarding my technique got me thinking… there’s always somebody, somewhere, who is going to notice.

It’s easy to forget that when we’re on a stage, there’s a lot more going on than just a musical performance. Yes, we’ve got sound coming out of our amplifiers and we’re there to play music, but our facial expression, body language, attire, and of course, hand technique, is on display. While we’re thinking about our musical choices, trying to get the chords right, or focusing on the next tune, members of the audience are listening with both their eyes and ears. Whether we realize it or not, our live performance directly reflects our practice habits and musical influences. Of course there are nights when we think no one is watching, when we assume the role of “wallpaper,” but even then, it’s necessary to remind ourselves that someone in the room is paying attention and that they may secretly be trying to pinpoint how we do what we do.

Now I’m sure we all have stories about playing gigs and feeling unappreciated, thinking that our talents and efforts unnoticed, but it’s in exactly those situations where someone is in the back is paying attention. Unfortunately, if we’re feeling disappointed or apathetic about a gig, our faces tend to show it, and the people we think are ignoring us just happen to be watching. It’s impossible to smile all the time, but I can tell you firsthand that people know when you’re having a good time or when things aren’t going well. If listeners see that you aren’t enjoying yourself, they’re less likely to as well… enthusiasm (whether positive or negative) is contagious. Plus, when you are genuinely digging the gig or are engrossed in the music that you’re playing, it’s not uncommon for someone to come up and say, “you look like you’re having a lot of fun.” This is good incentive to always be aware of the audience and to put your best foot forward, because you just never know.

Going back to the technique story, there’s a lot more to the concept of “paying attention” than people simply acknowledging a performance. As I mentioned before, it’s rare to get a specific compliment, especially when it comes to something technical. Having someone exclaim, “you killed it!” or “that was so awesome!” is an excellent form of praise, but it’s quite different from someone commenting on a particular song, solo, lyric, or tone. While it’s great to receive compliments of any kind, we relish in the fact that people perceive and admire the details in our playing and then wish to share their thoughts.

When it comes to complimenting other players, remember the importance of giving thoughtful, observant, and intelligent feedback. If you recognize something worthy of mentioning and you’re in a position to do so, then don’t be afraid to give someone a compliment. You won’t be able to get Paul McCartney’s attention after the arena show, but in a small club atmosphere, most players are approachable and appreciative. Plus, if you mention something thoughtful and unexpected, you may find yourself in a conversation with the player. Suddenly you go from random audience member to perceptive, knowledgeable, and possibly skillful peer… you’re the person that noticed.

Finally, realizing that listeners pick up on musical nuances or technical aspects of your playing can suddenly put your own practice into perspective. While I never work on technique and think, “wow, I hope someone recognizes the arches in my finger tips,” I do realize that people watch how I play. The hours of practice geared toward scales, moving around the neck, and hand position come through when I don’t have to worry about stamina or intricate lines. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge what your playing looks like… whether it seems like you’re struggling to get around the instrument or if you have natural, easy movement. Take a step back and try to be objective… should you move around more and work on stage presence? Does your playing seem either too safe or too busy? Do you suddenly notice that your thumb keeps creeping up over the side of the neck? If you can take the time to recognize the details in your playing, then chances are, someone else will notice them too.

Do you have a story like this? I look forward to hearing it. Please share in the comments.