Developing a Musical Act 101

Hi, I’m Randy, and I’ve been playing music professionally since I was about sixteen. My fourteen years of experience in different genres and on different instruments, has helped me to assist my students as well as fellow musicians. I’ve also written other blogs to help musicians. Promoting Your Music and Need More Gigs?

Today, I’ll be talking about developing your act. Also known as getting your act together. I have to say from a lot of the bands I’ve run into, they definitely don’t. There are multiple factors that can help you run a show smoother and better.

STAFF

This is a tough one. You want talented people, of course, who can memorize whatever repertoire you pick. Unfortunately you have to pick reliability over talent sometimes. As a pianist, I’ve worked with some amazing rhythm section players, but those same players can sometimes have trouble with showing up. Other times staff may be into a project early on and then decide they aren’t interested in it later. This is why it’s important to have enough of a music network to be able to replace people if you have to. If your only option is to write something on Craig’s List, you’re not planning enough.

Ultimately, the steady staff should be able to memorize the repertoire in your book. As a jazz musician, I like to have staff that knows every song and doesn’t need to look at sheet music. If they do need to look at it, it should only be for one or two songs in your set. The less sheet music you use, the more professional you’ll look. Audiences find it impressive.

SET LIST(S)

One of the biggest things is having large gaps between your selections. If the leader has to riffle through a book to figure out what he wants to play next, that’s a really bad thing. It’s  time consuming and that means that an audience may lose interest in you.  It may also turn off your client as well.

I have multiple set lists, usually themed, for multiple scenarios. When I play solo piano, I already have a memorized repertoire, so in that case, the only point to having a set list is to remind me what to play when. For example, if I’m doing a wedding ceremony I’ll have to play X for the groom entrance, Y for the bride entrance, and Z for the entire party exit.

When I play sax and piano with others I have pre-made lists that are themed. For example I re-harmonize pop tunes to fit a jazz setting. So if I’m playing a wedding for 20-somethings, the “Pop Turned Jazz” playlist is what I’ll use. I also sing, so I have vocal sets, and traditional jazz sets. I even have sets that mix and match a bit of everything.

Here’s a humorous set list I made for a wedding I had to do that day, appropriately named, “It’s Like Rain On Your Wedding Day”, a lyrics from Alanis Morrisette’s song, “Ironic”.

Set lists should also accommodate for time. When I started playing sax again, I had a three hour brunch gig every Sunday. So, I started writing up three one hour shows. Since the audience’s demographics were all over the place, I put a little bit of everything I do on there.

REHEARSING

Personally, I’m not a big fan of over rehearsing. In fact, one of my biggest projects, my reggae band called Green Stripe broke up in part because some felt we weren’t active enough in that arena. My feelings on rehearsing is, do it, but once the band has the songs down pat, don’t spin your wheels just so you can rehearse.

Rehearsal isn’t only about working on the tunes and their arrangements. It’s also about developing the act in general. Here’s the reggae band I mentioned. As you can see, the bassist has a set list we made that he’s calling the tunes from. You’ll also notice we take a couple of Bob Marley’s most famous songs and work it into a finale. This was of course, all worked out in rehearsal, along with the hand gestures I use to tell the band what to do.

In this performance, I left some things up to the band. For example, lead and rhythm guitar were decided by the guitarists themselves, unless I threw them a curve ball and announced their solos.

Once everyone is familiar with the material and has it down cold, rehearsing it to death is not going to help at all. If anything you should rehearse newer material you’re adding to the act in addition to the older tunes. Remember, you’re looking to be a professional band, and rehearsal isn’t an excuse to jam on the same things over and over again. 

In Green Stripe, because we had so many members, we would sometimes just rehearse what are called “sectionals”. This means some days I would work with only the backup singers, and others, only the core rhythm section to the band (excluding lead guitarist). This helped refine problems without having to have everybody in the same room at the same time. That was one of the hardest things about that band.

SONG SELECTIONS 

It goes without saying that if you have a vocalist, you should be sure the songs are in the proper key for them. I’ve seen some awesome bands with awesome musicians, but their vocals could be improved sometimes.

Another band I had a few years ago called, “The Vaporizers”, opened for a well known local Pink Floyd cover band. They had all the vintage gear and really did the music justice, but some tunes were just too high for the vocalist. I’m sure their reasoning was, “Well, Roger Waters wasn’t the best vocalist either,” but it was still noticeable. Keying songs is a must if you plan to have vocals.

In terms of musical difficulty, it’s better to start with easier songs that use I IV V chord progressions and don’t have complicated rhythms or transitions. Until the band is tight, keep it simple, stupid!

Numbers should be selected with potential audiences in mind. With my jazz act, I frequently have mixed audiences at weddings, so I make sure I pick songs that will appeal to everyone there, from pop to jazz standards. Have enough tunes so you can tailor your list to almost any request a client or venue may have. Be sure to talk to the venue or clients about what they want to hear. People are more apt to remember your act if you customize it for them. But don’t go overboard and learn a million songs you’ll never play again. Typically, I try to keep requests to three or four songs.

RECORD YOUR REHEARSALS

Ever since high school, I’ve recorded rehearsals. It’s a wonderful tool. What you think you sound like while on stage or at rehearsal, may not be what you actually sound like. This is because you’re in the moment of playing and concentrating on the micro, when listening to recordings you’re concentrating on the macro. This will also be helpful to the band leader to make sure they are getting what they need to out of the band. If you’re having problems with a tune but can’t nail down why, this will also help.

If your show has visual elements to it, filming rehearsal may also be in order.

These are things I had to learn on my own throughout the years. I hope this helps you bring your act to greater heights! 

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