Back in June, the band Advent Horizon came through my regular gig. They’re in the “mind-blowingly good” category. There’s certainly a lot of excellent musicianship to be had, but there’s something else. Let me tell you about when the display of that “something else” peaked:
Rylee’s guitar was having some tuning issues with a particular string.
Having identified the problem, Rylee stomped on something other than his tuner. The button that got pressed first was actually the one that switched in his looper. Rylee proceeded to play a little something on the strings that were in tune, looped the phrase, kicked on his tuner (in “silent” mode), and then directed the rest of the band to play over the loop.
Which they did.
It was brilliant – so brilliant, in fact, that I was a little disappointed that the tuning fix didn’t take longer.
Obviously, there’s a “how to” here. If you have to tune midstream, using what’s in tune to build a quick coverup soundtrack for the audience is a great idea.
But I think there’s something much more generally applicable to be gotten from the whole thing.
Owning The Stage
When Advent Horizon (or a band like them) is on deck, they truly “own” the stage.
That is to say, it is immediately apparent that they belong on that riser. They are fully in control of what’s going on, and are ready to manage pretty much any crisis that might occur. They have mastery over the show, and can decide to take it in any direction they wish.
The “looped tuning coverup” was an acute example of that reality. Their mastery of what was going on was so high that they could (seemingly without effort) take a musical detour to fix an issue…and not only keep their audience entertained, but use the problem as an occasion to show just how completely they were in command of what was going on.
No matter what happened, the entire band was eminently comfortable with what they were doing.
This kind of confidence is a huge part of what makes good playing into a great show. This kind of confidence can NOT be faked.
I’ve been in the presence of performers who don’t truly own the stage, but try to act like they do. They attempt to deceive the audience and themselves into believing that they’re the master of what’s going on, but something always gives them away.
It can be quite subtle – little body-language and mannerism-driven cues that say “The events of the show are in control of me, instead of me being in control of them.”
On the other hand, the issue can also be brutally obvious. A performer might be so mechanical, and so unable to connect with their audience that even a distracted idiot would see the truth: That the show is fragile enough to crumble at the slightest provocation. The unfortunate musician is not captain of the ship in any sense; they’re completely at the mercy of what’s going on around them.
The latter case belongs most often to the deeply inexperienced.
The former case – the subtle giveaway – can belong to performers who have been doing shows for a short time, or years and years.
…and like other occasions where one pretends to be “in charge,” but aren’t actually, it can breed jerkdom. People who are not actually comfortable with being on stage constantly feel threatened, because they ARE constantly under threat of the show spinning out of control. This can make these folks anywhere from mildly to enormously unpleasant. They will grab at anything for control, refuse to let others do their proper jobs, and jump at the chance to place blame. They most certainly are not the true kings of the stage, and they know it – so, they cook up all kinds of bluster, bravado, and false machismo (this goes for males and females) to cover up their lack of actual command.
The fix for all this can boil down to one overarching concept: Internalization. Internalization creates real confidence, because it reduces the need to think actively about the whole show in real time. The show becomes effortless action, instead of a struggle.
Internalization comes from practice, preparation, and perspective. (Amongst other things.)
You obviously have to practice your instrument, and your show. Practicing to the point of internalization means that you don’t have to think about the mechanics of what you’re doing. You just decide what to execute, and then you execute. Internalization to that degree means that your higher cognition can go into connecting with the audience, responding to them, and making snap judgements about turning a problem into a demonstration of how in-control you are.
Part of practice is just plain-old immersion. To get comfortable with being on stage, you have to be on stage. You have to keep performing in an actual performance environment to become used to that environment. Where regular folks would walk onto the deck and be awed by it all, for you “it’s Tuesday.” (This doesn’t mean losing a sense of wonder. It just means that the wonderful and awesome fuel your enthusiasm instead of your nervousness.)
Another part of practice is having a backup plan, even if the plan isn’t explicit. The best performers I’ve worked with are able to deal with all kinds of problems – even those bordering on catastrophic – because they have internalized the building blocks of their show to a mind-boggling degree. They can strip their show down to nothing but the minimally required elements with zero notice. In the worst case scenario, they could walk out in front of the stage and sing acapella while everything else collapsed into a heap. They don’t just know the show, but they know the show with such intimacy that they can take it apart and put it back together again.
So…what’s the difference between that and preparation? For the purposes of this article, practice is what you do to get yourself ready, and preparation is what you do to get your tools ready. It’s also the knowing of the limitations of those tools. If that amp of yours is getting weird, what’s the workaround? Do you have spares? Is everything in the right case? Is your pedal layout organized so that you can figure out how the signal flows? Have you figured out how to pack everything for transport?
Preparation to the point of internalization means that you don’t have to think about whether or not your tools are going to perform for you. It also means that if something has an issue, you spend minimal mental energy on figuring out the fallback. The fallback is ready to go with as little effort as possible. This is also true in a wider sense. Literally everything having to do with your guitar/ vocal/ bass/ drum/ horn/ kazoo/ whatever rig should be ready to happen without you having to stop and think.
Perspective can encompass a lot more than what I can write in this space. It can be summed up, however, as knowing your place in the show and the show’s place in life. When you realize that you can be completely prepared, yet still somehow be surprised, you don’t have to agonize over the consequences. When you realize that the audience really would prefer to like you, you begin to see them as entirely non-threatening. When you realize that something going very wrong will probably be just a funny story in a week, you can stop worrying. When you understand that the performers and the crew are all full-partners in creating a great experience for your fans, you start to have a real chance at functioning as a team.
When perspective is internalized, you become secure in your own role…and thus, you’re willing to let everyone else have security in their own part of the gig.
Internalization creates comfort and confidence. If you’re naturally comfortable and confident on stage, you will have no problem having ownership of the show and the stage. It’s not a grasping, exclusionary ownership either. Because you’re completely un-threatened, you can be completely gracious. You aren’t in danger of losing anything, because you can’t help but be in command of the ship.
And when you truly have that kind of ownership, even a problem (like a string that’s out of tune) is an opportunity for you to show just how good you are.