Is Bass Face Okay on the Gig? A Discussion on Stage Presence

Bass Face

Photo by Dave Pearce

Q: Is “bass face” acceptable or not on a gig? I know a band where the leader was telling the bassist not to have their (un)usual bass face on; they should smile or relax their face. I just performed at a gig where my head is in the jazz charts in front of me (I had not memorized 4 sets of charts) and I found myself having bass face at times. Do I focus on changing this behavior?

A: This one made me giggle a little bit. Much of that is unconscious behavior. “Bass face” is a fact of life for some of us. I would suppose that there may be specific gigs where the presentation and aesthetic of the show is given precedence over the actual music happening, but that isn’t my experience (for the most part). If someone hires me, I assume it’s for the way I play, and aside from dressing appropriately for the gig and trying not to look like a schlub, I put all of my energy into the music and don’t really think about what I look like doing it.

That said, when we know the music and look casual on stage, looking at other musicians, smiling, having fun – and aren’t 100% buried in the charts – it does translate to the audience’s impression of the band as a whole. (I’m as guilty as anyone here!)

If the gig is one of aesthetic and presentation, then I suppose that the key would be to have the music down so well that you can put all of your energy into the ‘show’. I recently watched a documentary called, “Hired Gun”, which talks to the freelance musicians of the pop, rock and metal worlds. It’s an entertaining and, at times enlightening perspective on the world of the hired side-musicians in the band. One thing I noticed about halfway through is that every player was:

  1. Pretty badass
  2. Put on one helluva show. LOTS of energy and flashy tricks, etc…

I quickly thanked the gods above that I somehow wound up in more of the jazz world because I just can’t even pretend to rock the stage like that. To me, it feels artificial and… strange. It’s always a blast to watch, tho and I get it. I just can’t do it.

When I first started touring with Gino Vannelli, he mentioned that I should try and move around the stage more. He told me that, when you’re on a bigger stage, everything has to be bigger than life in order to translate to the audience. Now, it wasn’t my first time playing large stages and festivals, but I took his point.

I started loosening up a bit more.. walking around the stage, grooving when in place, etc… Someone sent me some live clips that had been posted and to my dismay, apparently, I was only moving on the inside… outside, I was doing what I normally did (okay, maybe I did walk around the stage a bit more). It is really hard for me to express outwardly when I play, with any vehicle other than the music.

Reason being: I’ve spent all of my time working on the music, not the show.

So, if you want to work on your “show” chops, you need to practice. It sounds goofy and we don’t like to think of Zakk Wylde practicing looking badass but, at one time, I bet he did (and I hope he never reads this).

It all really depends on what kind of gigs you want and how you want to present yourself on stage. If you want those big show gigs or that’s what your band is shooting for, it would be worth exploring. Play through the set in front of the mirror or, better yet, shoot a video of yourself playing a set. Look back and evaluate your aesthetic. If you want the “full package”, for most genres, that includes looking rad on stage. It’s worth exploring.

Personally, I’m happy playing music that puts the music first and allows me to look however I look, as long as the playing is on point. That’s not a judgment call, btw… more of an acclimation to my reality as an introvert.

There are a LOT of players who have the full package and can play in most genres. Those players tend to work quite a bit, too. The more you have going for you, the more employable you are. It’s worth exploring and seeing if being more conscious of your stage presence and going for something specific in your visual presentation resonates with you.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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