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Planning 101: Reject The Unexpected

Even with the most meticulous, rigorous, faithful preparation for a live performance, things can and will go wrong. Even if you include long hours of productive rehearsal time, mistakes happen. Of course, the more confident and comfortable you are with your set list, and the better rehearsed you are, the stronger your performance will be.

However, many times there are distractions or unforeseen issues that can have an impact on the quality of your performance. Any sort of disruption or distraction can throw you off as a performer, but it also has the potential to start interfering with the quality of the audience’s reception.

Hidden Opportunities

But any faux pas, misstep, forgotten lyric, tuning or timing issue, as well as an out of control heckler or streaker, brings with it hidden opportunities. You can turn the unexpected into a memorable moment that engages and entertains, drawing your audience closer to you and making them more appreciative of your work.

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In fact, you can rehearse plans for addressing the unexpected, so that you don’t panic should something go wrong. Then, situations can be quickly handled with confidence and even a little humor. You’ll be able to entertain the audience, loosen up the nerves, and lighten the situation.

Get Back On Track

Let’s face it; we all make mistakes at some point. The objective is to get back on track as smoothly as possible. If you mess up part of a song, it’s ok. Apologize or make a funny comment about it. Poke fun at each other on stage. Use whatever works, as long as you make it a natural part of your act and your entertainer persona. Remember, the mistake or situation needs to be funny to you.

Keep Your Cool

If someone in your band, or maybe a techie at the venue, makes a mistake, don’t freak out or swear or fire disapproving glances at the individual. Don’t draw attention to the situation unless it’s clear that the audience has picked up on it. In fact, the reaction onstage is often the thing that grabs the audience’s attention and gets them wondering, what’s going on or what happened. If it’s an original song, just keep on singing and playing like everything is just fine, and your audience won’t miss a beat

Lighten Up

One thing you should never do is show anger, discomfort, or frustration. And do not argue in front of your audience when you’re gigging out. Don’t put each other down. Don’t use foul language, and don’t resort to name calling. Should negative behavior accidentally get indulged or out of hand, you should be the one to reel everybody in, with humor. Should something negative happen, make it part of a running joke, get everybody back on the same page, and book on.

Forgetting Lyrics

Let’s say you know the lyrics to your songs so well you could sing them in your sleep backwards, forwards, and sideways, but when you started your opening number, you mind went completely blank. What should you do? 

First of all, don’t panic. Play off of the situation as best as you can. You can extend the opening a bit to give you extra time to regroup, think of the words, or get a cue from an accompanist or band member.

But if you extend the intro, make it seem intentional like it’s flashier or setting a specific mood – let go, let it flow and play with it naturally. If it’s clear that you’re completely lost, walk over and ask somebody for help, or make a joke of it and ask the audience. Once you get the words back, pick up, and move on. If it happens halfway through the song, make something up, and move on. Have routines rehearsed for situations when lyrics or cues are missed or timing becomes a potential distraction.

Silence Is Foolish

Always rehearse what you’re going to say to the audience during transitions between songs in your set list. You want to avoid any lengthy pauses or long stretches of silence between songs because it naturally implies that something is wrong. It also makes an audience restless and invites them to start talking to each other.

Have points prepared in your act where you introduce band members or accompanists, as well as points where you’ll offer a story for a song or two that you perform. The stories must be entertaining and provide a bit of interesting information that helps give extra significance to the song so the audience can more fully relate to the piece. You can also briefly introduce each song and mention the writers if you wish.

Sing Out, Speak Up

Don’t be afraid to talk to your audience by sharing a funny story or by giving a little history of your band. You can also give contact info about your website or upcoming shows nearby.

Also, make a point of smiling and connecting with a handful of individuals in your audience, seated at various points in the house. This will give you friendly points of reference for delivery. Should things go wrong, one or two of these people could be included in helping to lighten things up as part of the recovery process, as you include them as part of the joke.

Tuning In From Out

Tuning is another potential issue especially during times where humidity and changes in temperature are factors. So you need to take extra special care to see that your instruments are properly tuned before performance.

But for your audience, having to hear a guitarist tune his or her guitar onstage is not only distracting, but it’s often downright annoying. You should always use an electronic tuner, or have pre-tuned guitars and other stringed instruments on hand so you can simply switch off and play on.

Audio issues such as levels being too loud or too soft, or a issues with a connection not working, can literally stop a show. To minimize the possibility of this becoming an issue, you should never skip a pre-show sound check. But, should audio become an issue during performance, make light of the situation, as you let the venue’s crew handle it.

Worst Case Scenario

Should a song turn into a complete disaster with missed cues, dropped lyrics, poor tuning, and bad timing – turn it into a piece of theatre. Poke fun at the situation, apologize to the audience, and dismiss the incident as being either experimental or improvisation. Perhaps you can tie it into some local folklore or urban legend or a local celebrity. Or, if you feel the situation can be remedied by starting the song over from the top, regroup and give it a shot.

It’s also important to have a few well-rehearsed, killer crowd-pleasing songs at your disposal as a back-up should the crowd seem distant for whatever reason, or should a song completely fall apart and totally bomb.

Hands Off Hecklers

The best defense against a heckler is to ignore them, and let someone from the venue take care of the situation. Should you try to take them on, they’ll likely fight for the attention of the audience. Always check with venue personnel before your show concerning their policies and protocol on such issues as hecklers and other safety concerns.

Have some sort of lighthearted statements available that you can pull from to use after a heckler has been removed. But you might want to jump into your loudest rock-out, head-banger piece to drown them out and chase them away. Or, you could use the opposite approach by choosing a lighter, softer, touching piece that would discourage their disruption. But avoid trying to take them on directly.

In Summary

Be prepared for the unexpected by making it part of your rehearsal process. Devote at least one full rehearsal to a series of “what if” situations such as forgetting a lyric, not tuning an guitar, ruining a song, getting back on track after a heckler has been removed, and also rehearse friendly repartee to be shared with the audience in between songs.

Confidence + Comfort

Confidence and comfort are both key to handling contingencies. The best way to be prepared is to learn all you can to strengthen your voice, hone your craft as a songwriter and musician, and to master your live performance skills. A great deal of this comes with experience.

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