SONGWRITING & PERFORMANCE CLASS
WELCOME TO ALL MY STUDENTS...
You'll find here some further lists and quotes and suggestions and information from my workshops. Please check back from time to time as I will update this monthly.
You can email me directly at any time at email@example.com to set up a Skype Session. Also, if you’d like a copy of these writings sent to you, just email me and I’ll send you a PDF.
See you on the road. Happy writing...
A LIST OF RECOMMENDED BOOKS/MATERIALS
In no particular order....
1. Bird By Bird, Anne LaMotte. Anne LaMotte is one of my favorite narrative non-fiction writers. She's honest and funny and vulnerable and snarky and imperfectly perfect. She's spiritual but not denominational. This is my favorite book on writing. Period.
2. On Writing, Stephen King. This is my 2nd favorite book on writing. Very practical. Witty. And honest.
3. Letters To A Young Poet, Rilke.
4. Zen In The Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury.
5. If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland. Steve Seskin & Mary Gauthier turned me onto this book, written in the 1930's, so relevant today. Get it.
6. Letters To A Young Artist, Anna Deavere Smith. She's a genius, playwright, actress, director who crafts long-form monologues and character studies. She's also basically a sociologist, anthropologist, feminist, high priestess artist. These are a series of "advice" letters she wrote to an aspiring artist.
7. Writing In Restaurants, David Mamet. A great series of essays by the extraordinary playwright. Deals with way more than theater.
8. The War Of Art, Steven Pressfield and Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work, Steven Pressfield. Easy reads. Inspiring bolts of lightening.
9. Walking On Water, Madeleine L'Engle. A meditation on art and faith.
10. Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson.
11. Rules Of The Dance, Mary Oliver. Geared more to poetry, but translates to lyric too.
12. Writing Down The Bones, Natalie Goldberg. Really, anything by Natalie Goldberg will get you inspired to write.
13. The Artists Way, Julia Cameron. A 12 week program of unsticking your creativity.
14. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard. Poetry and genius from one of my favorite writers.
15. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A Fuck, Sarah Knight.
16. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't, Austin Burroughs. Best description of Confidence I've ever heard. "Not Giving A Shit What Other People Think Of You"
Read poetry. A lot of it. If you hate poetry, start with Mary Oliver. Nobody can hate Mary Oliver. Head to Rilke land. He's all about love and spirit. I'm a big unabashed unapologetic fan of Robert Frost. My grandmother Rosalie turned me onto him when I was way too young to get the darkness. I was attracted to Vermonty imagery. I'm pretty convinced that the two reasons I landed at Amherst College were Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. I just wanted to study at a college where the library was named after the dude who wrote "Birches". Deep and dark and Iambic. Like I like it.
I also love Shakespeare and his sonnets. My grandmother was of the opinion that one should memorize poetry. I've chosen to memorize bits and pieces of Shakespeare. And a few lines of Emily Dickinson.
Stop trolling your journals and learn to listen from the poets.
HANDOUTS FROM CLASSES
RULES OF THE ROAD: THE SUGGESTION BOX FOR PERFORMING ARTISTS
by Amy Speace
I DARE YOU…
I dare you to jump in and just do it. Stop telling me why you haven’t, why you can’t. Stop telling me you’re not good enough, that SHE is better. Stop listening to the people from your past who said “No” to you…
Here’s the thing:
You are an Artist. You know it and now I know it. So, stop listening to the NO, both in your head and out there, and lean into the YES.
It’s only you who are stopping yourself.
The truth? I know you want to and the world really really really needs you to, too.
And Here’s Why:
You are the only you.
It’s really that simple.
There is no one else that can do what you do, say what you say, sing like you sing, write what you write. The world needs YOU. The world also needs Taylor Swift. And Mary Oliver. And Mary J. Blige. And the dude who sings off key at the open mic every Monday. And that girl who won the songwriting contest (who you know in your darkest of hearts totally didn’t deserve to win and clearly you were robbed). The world needs her too. So stop worrying about what everyone else has or doesn’t have and get to work on making sure you are completely the best YOU you can give.
Because we need you. The best You can change the world. The comparing, complaining, making-excuses You? Yeah, we don’t need him/her that much. He or she bores the pants off the world. We want the God or Goddess You. The Highest Form of You. The Buddha You. The Ghandi You. The Mick Jagger You. The Oprah You. The Michelle Obama You.
Make a study of You. Be fascinated by You. That is not to say be self centered. Far from it.
Be SELF-INTERESTED and OTHER centered.
Side Note: This you? The “God You”? Yeah, the world doesn’t give a shit how old you are, how much you weigh, if you wear the latest trends, that you started late or missed your big chance, or this is your first song or your hundredth. As long as you are telling the truth. Then the world is gonna fall madly in love with you. I guarantee it.
So let’s get down to some practical things about performing:
STAGE FRIGHT IS A CON
Stage Fright is Fear. Fear is Darth Vader. Purpose is Luke Skywalker. Fear is not as strong as Purpose, so Purpose will ALWAYS defeat Fear. But the trick is that Fear has better costumes than Purpose so we get a bit sidetracked by her tomfoolery. Fear masks itself as anger, as jealousy, as ennui, as procrastination, as excuses, as exhaustion. But Purpose? Purpose has legs, purpose has intention, purpose knows what to do and when in doubt, purpose just improvs, makes a quick choice and wings it with elan and humor. And Stage Fright disappears when Intention shows up. Here’s the thing. We get scared when we stand on stage or get up in front of anyone to share our art and we worry about OURSELVES. The voice in our head gets louder. “You suck” “You didn’t practice” “Why bother?” “You definitely look fat in those jeans” …
INTENTION SILENCES THE NEGATIVE VOICES IN OUR HEADS
First things first: this job is not ego-centered. It is a service position. We are mere bartenders and bag-fillers at the grocery store here. “How are you doing? Are you having a good night? What can I get you?” Are you really talking to your audience or are you just pretending to care about them? Look at them. Talk TO them. Not over them. Don’t just flit your eyes across the first row nervously, hoping they don’t see how freaked out you are. They will. Always. But they will forgive if you acknowledge the fear as a fellow flawed human being on a shared journey.
Note: By "job" I mean the “job” of sharing our art with someone else, whether that’s your boss, your grandchildren or your audience of people who paid to see your show.
And they will not leave. The audiences crave connection. They want YOUR attention, maybe more than you want theirs. Give them your attention. When you look at ‘the audience’, really LOOK AT THEM. Look at one person at a time. Not for too long, but for enough time that you exchange some kind of moment (if they don’t look at you or they look away, accept that as the ‘moment’ that you shared, and then you move on. Acknowledge the ‘what is’ rather than grieve the ‘what it could have been’ -- by the way, this is really good advice given to me by a good friend about relationships in general). Here’s the thing – you will feed the fear if you DON’T really look at people, but graze your eyes quickly across the audience in general, what I call “Focus Flitting”. That says to them, “I’m terrified and I hope you don’t notice me.” Really looking at them and landing on them says, “I’ve GOT this!” Focus calms them, and then calms you.
NEXT: when you are performing your songs, offer them the songs, the intention of the song itself. What is the song about? Who are you in this song? To whom are singing the song? What do you need for yourself or what does the person you are singing to need? Really OFFER the song to the people in front of you, don’t just stand up onstage mumbling, belting, over-singing or rushing your words. Have respect for the audience, for their time, for the money they have paid to see you or, at the very least, the things they gave up (TV, laundry, a movie, dinner, sitting at the bar talking to the hottie) to sit in this seat while you are up there performing. Have intention. Make connection. Talk to them not at them.
RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE
This is ‘show business’. Even folk music J. If someone is paying money to see you or paying TIME to see you, respect their investment and honor it with gratitude. The job of the performer is sacred and it is a service position [see above reference to bartenders and bag checkers -- I’m not kidding]. We are here to serve the audience not our egos. As much as you think that the big stars are ego-filled narcissists (and yes, some of them are) the BEST ones are the ones who connect and care a whole damn lot about you. Yes they do. Or else you wouldn’t keep buying tickets to their shows. So respect your own audience’s loyalty. Dress the part. Clean up. Don’t wear a baseball hat on stage backwards or flip flops, unless that’s part of your thing (and I’m pretty sure, unless you are Jimmy Buffet or Jack Johnson, it ain’t your thing). Tune your guitar. Know the lyrics to your songs. You don’t have to doll up like a Vegas showgirl but be better than your everyday “I’m just getting the morning paper in my sweatpants“ self. With the show itself- Don’t ‘wing it’. Be prepared.
WRITE A SET LIST
Write a set list at least an hour or so before the show and visualize the arc of the show, banter and songs included. Bring it on stage and have it at your feet or taped to your guitar or on the stool next to you so you can see it (and check to make sure the spotlight hits the setlist – another thing to do during soundcheck is to ask to see the stage lights so you know where the light hits the things you need to see). I hate writing set lists. But I love that I have them when I get derailed. At the very least, know the first 2 songs and the last 2 songs and if you lose your place somewhere in the middle because the sound goes out or the lights flicker or you forget a chord and that critical voice in your head gets loud, I hope you will remember that a set list would have helped you get the train back on the tracks.
If you are on the track to doing this professionally, I suggest keeping a dated file of your setlists. When I return to a venue, I look at the setlist from the previous show to make sure I’m not just repeating the same set again, a year later. (I hear Emmylou keeps notes on her lists as well, like what she wore to the show, so she doesn’t show up a year later in the same outfit so that the photographs don’t betray her. GREAT idea!). The set list will help keep you in control because…
YOU ARE THE CONDUCTOR OF THIS RIDE
Your job is to take the audience on a journey that you’ve mapped out. When you enter the stage walk to the microphone and pick up your guitar, do it with the purpose and intention and deliberation of a craftsman picking up her tools and sharing those tools lovingly with people who you respect and like. Do not grab your guitar haphazardly, slapping on your capo sideways, banging into the microphone stand. Be in a state of gratitude and service throughout the show. No matter what happens. The audience will trust you if you are trustworthy. Keep both hands on the wheel.
Conductors know their equipment and know the route and don’t rush. Everything on ‘stage time’ goes way faster than you think, so to practice, try to do everything at ‘half time’. Slow everything down. How you reach for that capo, how you adjust that mic, the pace with which you speak your intro’s. Half time.
Try to not talk into the microphone during the applause. Let the applause ride it’s natural wave, and as it’s dying down, then begin to speak. Too many performers make this mistake and their intro’s and thank you’s get lost in the applause. If you are thanking someone, say the sound person or the promoter, you want the audience to hear their name. Have patience. They will wait for you. You do not have to rush. This is a very hard thing for newbie performers, who feel like they want to get it done and get out of the way. It’s quite the opposite. If you are holding my attention, I’m in for the ride and I’ll go where you want me to go. So take your time and be the conductor of a train that you control, don’t be the conductor who’s racing after the runaway train.
Try to not apologize for anything. Saying, “I’m sick” “Sorry…I’ve been fighting a cold so my voice might be a bit croaky now” etc., points out your own weaknesses and allows the audience to look FOR them when I guarantee the audience would never have known had you not pointed it out them. If you have to blow your nose during the show, blow your nose and be prepared with a bit of witty banter about it that does NOT include an apology for your cold.
THE PERFORMANCE BEGINS THE MINUTE YOUR FOOT HITS THE STAGE
Your walk across to the microphone is as important as the first note. That interminable time before you sing? The audience is waiting for you. So walk slowly, acknowledge the audience (a little smile or a nod will do), and take your time. Plug your guitar in. Check to make sure everything is working, check to make sure the mic is still at the correct height (if you did not do your soundcheck in your ‘show shoes’ you may be taller now in your heels. Get your mic where you need it). Take a breath. Then start the song. Don’t start your instrumental while you are getting your feet steady as the audience won’t know that you’ve begun and it will feel like you are creeping your way into the song. Imagine an old school film clapper. “Rolling”. Imagine that moment and THEN you can start the song.
And you start the song WITH the audience. Please do not be one of those performers who kill their performance by starting the song with an 8 bar G/C strum and simply look at their hands or the floor. By looking away, you have just lost the audience’s confidence and it will take you twice as much work to get it back. Start the Performance Work of the Song the second that your fingers lay on that guitar. Offer that instrumental to the audience. Have intention behind that intro.
UNLOCK YOUR KNEES AND KEEP YOUR HIPS LOOSE
Slow. It. Down. To. Half. Time. If you think you’re talking/playing/singing/moving slow, slow down more. It feels strange, I know, but believe me, it works. Everything on stage speeds up because our adrenaline has kicked into overdrive. Slow, deliberate speech and gestures ease the audience, give them confidence in your ability to drive this train. They are with you until they lose trust and then it’s almost impossible to regain it, so do yourself a favor and take your time. Remember, you are offering them something. You have to make sure they are receiving it so that they can thank you (applause) and you can acknowledge that with grace (bow).
KNOW YOUR GEAR AND THE ROOM
Practice plugging the cable into your guitar so that you can do it without looking and while talking and you aren’t fishing for it in front of an audience. You’ll lose their confidence. Have your guitar tuned and practice Tuning While Talking. Or, if you can’t (and sometimes I can’t), just smile, step a bit away from the mic, tune your guitar and then step back. Before each show, check your batteries. Do you need to change your strings? Have a set of strings and an extra battery onstage with you just in case. Do your soundcheck in the shoes you’ll wear for the show so that the height of the mic on the stand is set level to where you need it before you walk out onstage and you don’t have to do the mic-squeak-adjustment that is super awkward to try to do with a guitar around your neck. Use the soundcheck to also ‘walk the stage’ so you know the theater or that small corner of the floor of the bar you’ll be hanging out in for a few hours. So you know where the cables are so you don’t trip on your way onstage. If you’re playing in a theater, ask the lighting folks if they can lower the house lights so you know what it is that you’ll see during the show.
BE CLEARHEADED SO THE MUSE CAN COME OUT TO PLAY
Don’t be fooled by drugs and alcohol. You may think it makes things flow easier on stage. And I don’t mean to be a fuddy-duddy. But that stuff gets in the way of the cosmic spiritual flow which makes a great performance a great performance. You don’t want your ability to adapt and improvise to be impaired. If you’re Todd Snider or another artist where a kind of smoky hazey improve trippy performance is your “Thing”, well, be my guest, good luck to you, and it might be great and it might be a train wreck and maybe it’s worth the $50. But my guess is you don’t have the years of work and the audience loyalty of Todd Snider (and the practice practice practice because that dude, stoned or straight, is really good at what he does). So, respect your audience and show up to work on time and straight. I love what Janis Ian writes about this:
Alcohol and drugs don't eliminate stage fright;
they just bury it where you can't be affected until you fall into the hole they've made.
Far better to actually rid yourself of the monkey on your back.
DID I MENTION BREATHING??
When you’re stuck, breathe. When you’re nervous, breathe. When you forget a line, breathe. Unlock your knees, wiggle your hips and breathe. Fear locks us up, physically, psychically and emotionally. Breathing is the antidote to fear. Real breathing. Not just shallow from the neck up breathing, but deep from the depths of your gut and the bottom of your ass as if your feet were old roots from a Sequoia that attached through the soil through the clay and rock to the center of the earth where God lives. Breathe that deeply and you will breathe with God. Who has time for stage fright when you are channeling that kind of energy?
On the set list, write down the name of the sound person, the host, the promoter, your opening act, and anyone who made the show possible. And thank them. By name. You’d be surprised how much that means to them. And to the audience who will have the chance to applaud and thank them for having you. You have no idea how much power a sound person wields. Stay on their good side. Even if they suck.
Side Note On Sound People Who Seem Like They Suck: They are underpaid and love music and most are musicians who play in bands too. And sometimes they are recording engineers and they love to play with your sound during the show and add reverb in the middle of the song “Monster monster monster Truck truck truck…”. If you don’t like that, and I don’t, then know what you want and ask for it during soundcheck and let them know you prefer them not to change things too much once you get going. I walk into the sound check and introduce myself and my players to everyone and then I let the soundperson know exactly what kind of sound I prefer in the house AND in the monitors. I carry my own mic. I spent time with a sound person checking out what frequencies are problematic with that mic and with my particular voice, so that I can speak “soundperson language” and not just say “um, the sound is strange”. I can be more specific. I also have my own DI and EQ on my guitar and I know how I want the guitar to sound. It might not be how the sound engineer wants it to sound, but it’s how I want it to sound and so I let them know what I want for my show in a very professional but polite way. If you like reverb, figure out what kind because “room” sounds different than “slapback” or “theater” and know if you like it coming back at you in the monitors or not. I like a dry guitar sound and a “small room” reverb with a short tail. I know what that means and so does my sound person. I know that in some rooms, if there seems to be a low-mid “Hoof” sound in my voice, I ask the engineer to duck the 3K. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what that technically means, but I was working with a sound guy at a gig and I had that low mid sound and he turned a knob and it went away and I asked him what he did and then I remembered the frequency so that I can ask for it myself. I also know I like a lot of room on my voice in the high’s, but I also use reverb and a pretty high-endy mic, so sometimes I get an “S” sizzle that’s too much and it’s a dance between ducking the high’s and ducking the reverb. You’ll learn by doing and by asking.
And if I’m in the middle of the show and things have gone south, I allow myself one moment of “hey can I have more of …” with my sound person, maybe two, if it’s really bad. More than that and the audience starts to know that something is afoot and then their attention is on the sound and not the show. And you will lose them. Sometimes you gotta just go with the flow. Never berate the sound person from the stage though on microphone. Never. Ever. Ever. And never ever ever ask the audience ‘How does it sound” because that’s an insult to the underpaid, hard working, fellow tribe member sound engineer.
A NOTE ON BAR GIGS, COFFEE SHOPS AND OTHER SMALL VENUES
Bar gigs are hard. I’ve never done them because that’s not what I do. But they are a great way to get your feet wet and make some midweek money. You need 3 sets of material. A crowd who may or may not have paid to see you. So have some covers. You can slip in your originals here and there and you should. And you can repeat that first set again later on in the night, because most likely the crowd will have changed by then. In this show, you are not of service to the audience, your job is simple: Sell More Alcohol. Keep The Bar Patrons Happy. So play uptempo songs. Don’t pull out the 15 verse maudlin train songs.
Coffee shops. You will have to fight the espresso machine so get used to it and have a few pieces of banter about it. You are in partnership with the Barista, so make friends with them. And sell the audience some Lattes and Lemon Squares so the owners and baristas are happy.
For both of these kinds of gigs, YOU NEVER KNOW WHO IS IN THE AUDIENCE. It might seem like nobody is paying attention but you never know who is out there. I got signed to a record deal while playing at a Starbucks in Austin. I’m not kidding. So do the show as if these folks paid $15 to see you.
Take every gig. It’s the only way to get better. Don’t be better than any gig. Be humble and use the opportunity.
It’s a small, small world. Be nice to everyone. Including the guy who is an asshole and yells “Play a train song.” He’s probably drunk, so keep a few “Yeah, I can remember my first beer” kind of quips in your back pocket, but don’t say them to shame that person. And learn a train song. It’ll come in handy in those moments.
If people are talking, there’s a lot of noise, you feel like you’re losing them, don’t get louder, get softer. In fact, get as soft as you can get and then step off the mic and keep singing. Someone will shush them, or they will turn around to find out what’s going on. It’s the kindest way of telling an audience to shut the fuck up. And it works.
Only in the rarest of circumstances can you berate an audience. Or even one rude person. You risk making everyone uncomfortable. Allow the other patrons who are listening to you to help quiet them down. When enough is enough, gracefully ask that person to take their conversation elsewhere so that everyone else can enjoy the show. That goes for any phones that go off. Get used to it. People forget. Keep going. I’ve had people start to carry on a conversation on their cell phone during a ballad. What do I do? I come off mic and put my attention on them until they notice and stop talking. Or I’ll unplug, keep playing, walk to their table and sing straight to them. Or I’ll just stop and make a directed piece of banter that’s sharp but funny, “Hey if it’s for me, tell them I’m busy.” They’ll stop. And if they don’t, someone will stop them. Don’t pull a diva and let that derail you. It’s still your show.
1. When another writer is playing their song, pay attention to them. Don’t be looking around at the audience for your girlfriend or buddy. Where your attention goes, so will some of the audience.
2. If you are a good guitar player/piano player/harmony singer, do not start in accompanying someone else’s song right away. Listen to the song first before you go in and do it quietly, preferably after the first verse, after you get a sense of the structure and chord changes of the song, until the writer gives you a nod of “yeah, man, keep going.” Some people do not like other’s playing along. It screws them up. So don’t take it personally. And remember: this is their song, not your time to show off, so listen and give space.
3. If you’re in a Bluebird Café style writer’s round, where the performers are seated, don’t be the guy who stands up to perform if everyone else stays seated. You’ll look like you’re not a team player. And a round isn’t the time to try to outshine the other performers, it’s an opportunity to find common ground with them and SHARE.
A FEW LAST WORDS
Sleep is really critical. So is water. So is getting to the venue on time to be a good worker bee and also give yourself some time to chill and get focused. Make sure you don’t wear a belt buckle or a bedazzled shirt or a piece of jewelry like a necklace that click against the back of the guitar during the show. Practice in your stage outfit, your stage shoes. Write out your banter and practice it and then cut it shorter and practice again until you know it and cane improvise it. Even if you only have 2 songs to do. Practice those 2 songs and your ‘hello’ introduction and what you’ll say in between as if those 2 songs are your full show. This is a good practice for those of you who audition or get to showcase at Folk Alliance conferences, or enter contests. Make those 2 songs or that 1 song a Great Performance. Not just an apology for what you could do if you were given 30 minutes. And don’t tell me “I need a few songs to warm into my show”. You don’t have 3 songs to warm into your show. You have the time you walk across the stage to grab your guitar. Bruce Springsteen starts his show as if that first song is his encore and then goes for 3 hours, each song is the encore. It’s exhilarating.
Make each time you perform meaningful to both the audience and you. Enjoy the sound of your own voice, but don’t listen to yourself. Allow. Loosen the grip. And then fly…
I dare you-
‘SING WHAT YOU MEAN, MEAN WHAT YOU SING’
or, how not to get stuck while performing
Performing a song in front of anyone, whether it’s our friends, the local open mic, or to an audience of 300 can be thrilling and terrfiying at the same time. How is it that some people make performing look easy? How do they not seem nervous? How do they look like they belong up there?
Yeah, ok. Some people came out of the womb comfortable onstage. Like, maybe, 25 people. Seriously. Not that many. Most of the people you see who seem like they’ve never known stage fright in their life either have learned how to live with it and work around it or they’ve learned techniques to distract themselves from fear. Fear is like death and taxes – you can’t wish it away. You just make friends with it and make it part of your team. You USE fear.
The thing is, GREAT performers don’t forget they’re onstage; they are fully aware (maybe moreso) of being onstage, which brings a heightened awareness of their intention, their mission. They aren’t just walking onstage in their street clothes, or comfy sweats (with the great exception of the brilliant Cheryl Wheeler) having just brushed their teeth, the stage and performance an afterthought. There is homework on performance. There is thought and research and there are choices to be made. Great performers have enough respect for the stage and for their audience that they prepare so they can adapt so they can fly.
Preparation + Adaptation + Inspiration
We make the mistake in this world of the singer-songwriter that we believe our Great Song will be so perfect and unique that it will move the masses and that we can just sing the words and play the guitar (oh, I forgot to practice an intro, so I’ll just strum 4 bars of G and look at the ground or my hands) and our Great Lyric will pour into the ears of our audience, moving them to tears and changing their lives. We don’t realize that 75% of the time, the audience is bored after the 2nd verse and has opened their twitter feed because they are disconnected from you, the Great Writer, lost in an Average Performance.
If they don’t receive the song you have failed.
Performance is a different art than Writing. You can be a great songwriter. You can be a great performer. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be both? You practice songwriting. How do you practice performance? What would that look like besides just singing the song over and over again to your bedroom mirror in the clothes you’d wear onstage?
I believe being a performing songwriter isn’t that different than being an actor in a play. Can you imagine an actor walking onto a Broadway stage, only knowing her lines, not having done any other work besides just remembering the lines? You can bet that’s going to be a pretty static performance, one where the actor is “phoning it in”. How many times in our own performances with our own songs have we found ourselves lost, disconnected, just singing the lyrics, “phoning it in”?
A well-written song, like a play, has a story. A beginning, middle and end. It has characters: the leading actor—the protagonist. The minor characters. Someone to whom the story is addressed (either real in the text or imagined by the performer). Its got a sense of place, scenery, props. You wrote it, right? So you should know the story. But when it comes to performing the song, sometimes the REAL story of the song isn’t that exciting to you anymore, you wrote it for that boyfriend 7 years ago and you don’t care anymore. Here’s where you, as performer, can impose a new story on top of the same song to reconnect to seemingly dead material. It’s the job of the performer to make choices about the story, from within the song and without. The richer the choices, the richer your performance.
Any song has Aristotilian* elements of drama:
Plot – what happens in the song. What’s going on here?
Theme – What’s the whole song about?
Character – YOU in the song. Even if it’s a 3rd person narrative who is that person who is singing the song?
Diction/language/dialogue – What kind of words are you using and how do they define you as the protagonist (Star of the Show)? Like are you country or urban? Low class? High class? Educated or uneducated?
Music/Rhythm – the groove and melody
Spectacle— what’s on stage with you when you sing?
Ok, so I know this sounds really academic, but I swear, it’s useful. If you’re lucky enough to have written a classic hit song that only needs you to stand up there and deliver it and the audience is rendered powerless by the sheer amazingness of the lyrics and the music and your voice and your guitar playing every single time….well then, bless your damn lucky heart. But for the rest of us mere mortals, sometimes we have to dig a bit deeper to connect for whatever reason (we’re tired; the food the promoter gave us sits heavy in our belly; it was a long drive; it’s a new song; it’s too old of a song; I’m nervous because my college boyfriend is in the audience; my wife just yelled at me on the phone 5 minutes before I went onstage). The thing is: we still have to perform, despite all obstacles.
So when it’s not as easy as just looking into the eyes of our adoring audience and sending them shivers of love and connection, how do we connect?
We ask questions of the song, utlitizing any of the above elements to dig deeper, hopefully leading us inside the Story of the song (or, in some cases A story of the song, “the story that will work tonight” of the song) and to find our way to the who what and why (and where) of the performance.
Why Do We Have To Do This? Isn’t the Song Enough?
Because when you are booked to do a show where people are paying $15 for a seat to be entertained, you don’t have the luxury to just hope for an ON night. You have to deliver that. It is your job. (And even if you’re not getting anything but a % of the door, or it’s an open mic, I challenge you to start performing as if everyone in the audience came specifically to see you and paid a lot of money for this chance)
Here’s the key: It is not about YOU feeling something. It’s about you allowing THEM to feel something.
Did you hear me?
The point of performance is not for the performer to be moved, but for the audience to be moved.
Nobody wants to see you cry. They want to cry themselves….(Side note: however, if you DO cry, and it’s an honest moment, the trick is to breathe, let the emotion pass, but continue the work).
This is the homework that you do on the Performance, that will seep into your skin and bones so that you have a technique to reach for when you’re trying to glide along in the glow of a great performance but realize it just ain’t happening that night. A great performance is a wonderful thing: that energy that is exchanged easily between audience and performer and the FLOW of that keeps the performance alive and exciting. But sometimes it’s not there. Sometimes you are playing to a theater full of people and you are blinded by the spotlight and all you can hear is whispering from the balcony and you feel entirely disconnected. You can’t see them, you assume they don’t like you, your internal critic gets louder in your head and you don’t feel that juicy feeling you usually feel when you know you’re hitting it out of the park. Sometimes you’re playing at a festival and you are way above and far away from the audience below, an audience of families throwing a beach ball around, enjoying the sunshine, picnicking, seemingly not paying attention to you. Sometimes you’re playing to a loud bar full of rowdy people who just want to watch the hockey game that the bartender insists must stay on on the big screen tv just to the left of your little stage, while you try like hell to connect to them with your sensitive sea shanties. Here’s the thing: You. Still. Have. A. Show. To. Do. This is when it’s a job. You show up. You have to do your SHOW. And sometimes, you just have a bad night, an off night, you’re in the middle of the song and you lose focus, you think of something in your own life that takes you out of the performance (your recent breakup, your late car payment, the traffic you just got stuck in and missed your soundcheck) and all of a sudden you’re lost. We’ve all been there. How do you get back? By checking back in with one or all of the following:
1. Who are you?
2. Who are you talking to?
3. What are you trying to do to them or get from them?
With #2 and #3 being the most important of these questions.
When you are lost or unfocused, before you start the song, you ask yourself these questions. This will steady your nerves, put you in the song itself, into an active position, into the driver’s seat, and out of your own scattered, nervous mind. And you won’t notice the hockey game on the TV set in the sports bar behind you. You’ll be focused on doing a job – doing a task – and, if successful, you will reach a few people who will be riveted. And they might even lose interest in the last quarter of the game. Change ONE person in that audience and the next time you play, they will bring 5 more to your next show. This isn’t about being a huge star out of the box; it’s by affecting your audience one person at a time.
BREAKING DOWN THE SONG
Here’s the secret of all of the stuff I’m about to write you below: Nobody except you needs to know your choices. You are about to do some role playing to find what works and what doesn’t….
1. Who Are You*
In terms of you being the person performing this song, who is singing this song in the story? Who is the “I”? Or the assumed “I” in the case of a he/she song. If it’s not written into the song, make it up. Are you a man in love? Are you a mother? Are you a teacher?
What do you know about this story? Where has this story rung true for you? If you are the narrator, who are you to the he/she of the song? Are you their friend, brother, mother, lover, preacher, mayor, God? Make a choice. Try it out. See which choices give you tingles and new ideas and new things to do. Above all – play…
* Note – this question is the LEAST important question to be answered. Sometimes it becomes evident just by asking the next 2 questions and sometimes I don’t even care who I am. I care more about who I’m talking to and what I’m trying to do to them than I do about myself. I’m me, always, on stage singing my songs. You will experience yourself through me if I’m doing my job well. So it doesn’t really matter as much.
2. Who are you talking to?
Who are you talking to in the song? If this a first person song (the “I”) song, are you talking to one person? Who is that person? Are you addressing a crowd? What kind of a crowd? Are you talking to yourself? Or praying? For the sake of the Performance Work, here are your choices:
- A person. One person. Very specific. Like from your own life specific. Like your Mom. Your husband. Your boss.
- Yourself. But you at a different age than you are right now. Either older or younger.
- God (whatever that means to you)
So, let’s break this down.
1. One person. Doesn’t have to be the person you wrote the song about. In fact, if that person is now out of your life and does not have “Power” for you anymore, maybe you choose someone else, substitute in your imagination someone who has Power for you, emotionally, NOW in your life. And by power I mean someone who evokes a strong reaction. You might have written the song to a lover who left you, begging him to come back. But maybe you want to explore what it would be like to sing this to your mother who never hugged you when you were a kid. Or your roommate who never pays her share of the rent on time. Or your worst enemy. Or your boss. Truth should never get in the way of good fiction. What works from one day to the next might change. Feel free to explore. This part needs to tie into ‘what are you trying to do to them’. Once you understand that, the choices narrow. For instance, if you are trying to comfort a lover in the song, and you do not have a lover in your present or past that brings you any energy when trying to sing this to them, then ask yourself, who in my life needs comforting? It might be your dog, your mother, your best friend. Then, step away from the truth of the words on the page and use the words of this love song but imagine you are talking to your mother or your best friend and using this song to comfort them. The audience won’t know what you are doing. Be bold.
2. Yourself. If the song is written to yourself, or you choose to address yourself, I encourage you to address a You of a different age. And really spend some time thinking and imagining and then making real that You. Are you 12 and what are you wearing and what just happened to you? Where are you? See that 12 year old in front of you and talk to him. Maybe you want to talk to you in 20 years. How does that change the conversation?
3. God-- and by God, I mean something outside of yourself, any higher power that works for you (it could be your God, it could be the trees, it could be a person who has died). Try making God a real person but someone who is no longer here. I always make God my grandmother, rocking in the black rocking chair in her maroon house coat, frayed at the sleeves, Kleenex sticking out of the sleeves, and the mismatched red and pink slippers, smelling of Baby Powder and lavendar soap. When the choice is ‘God’ the need is a great, universal need. “From A Distance” is a good example of this kind of song. A big universal statement. “God” in this case is the entire world. But how do you actually envision the entire population? You make it specific: humanize ‘God’…my grandmother, a bird, a tree, the wind, etc. You can need something from the wind from the birds from anything.
A word on saying “this song is being sung to a crowd” – addressing a generic group of people, like audience, opens up the possibility of you just standing there BEING something, being IN a vague emotional state. Feeling the song. Which is to say, not really doing anything, just feeling something. Which isn’t the point. And can seem really really amateur.
General and Vague kill performances. General and Vague are our enemies. Be at constant battle with them.
3. WHAT are you trying to do to them or get from them in this song? (in other words: what’s your Intention)
Now that you have figured out who you are talking to, what are trying to do? Are you trying to DO something TO that person or are you trying to GET something FROM them? How are you trying to change them? The doing of the thing is called the “action” or the “intention” of the moment/song/scene. This can be inherent in the song or you can make one up that will accomplish the goal of deepening the performance for yourself. You want to choose actions that are physical and strong and have some resonance for you. You might see that the song is all about a person pleading to another for love. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” of course, inherent in the lyric is someone sad about a relationship gone south, but does the singer want the relationship back or do they want to learn how to let it go? And maybe there’s both in there. “I want him to Love me”. That is a bit vague. So deepen that with an Action. “I want him to Hold me tonight for the last time”. “Hold” is more active than “love”—you can do something with “Hold” -- you can physicalize “Hold”. How about, “I want him to wrap his arms around my waist and not let me go”. That’s active! What about “I want to root him to the ground so he’ll stay through the night.” That is more active than “I don’t want him to leave”. So let’s choose “I want him to wrap his arms around my waist” but let’s make that bigger, more dramatic. “I want him to pour his soul into my veins.” Well, that’s really big and very descriptive. How do you do that? How would you do that? And how would you do that WITHOUT MOVING YOUR ARMS? It would come out in your voice, in your inflections, in your eyes. You might choose to seduce. Or to comfort. Or to tickle. Or to beg. Or to demand. There are a thousand ways you could try to get this person to do this. How would you sing the line standing still as if you were Stamping your feet like a little kid and demanding it? How would it feel and sound if you were, without moving away from the microphone whispering in a lover’s ear. Or singing the phrase as if you were wolf, circling your prey, your lover…
The trick is to play. And the thing is with this stuff, it’s metaphorical and it can all seem very wooshy gooshy new agey “be a tree” kind of thing. But maybe, just maybe, try it. Try to imagine your words are slapping ‘him’ across the face (you don’t DO anything physical and you don’t push the voice out to ‘slap’…it’s a small shift and you will not move and your voice will not push it, but the audience will feel riveted)
Choose a line from your song and without doing anything with your body, say the line to either a real partner or an imagined person, and with Intention, try to beg, or demand, or seduce. Each different action you choose produces a different way of speaking the line. Your experience of your own writing might change and the relationship you have to the line will deepen. Now try singing it with that change. Not over acting, not pushing too hard, but just with the truth of the Action.
Sometimes each verse is a different action, you are trying different ways of getting the same result, just as each verse should build on the next, changing the meaning of the chorus, or deepening it from verse to verse. Think of the song as a sailboat and you are the sail, choosing to change tacts with the wind. You might try to comfort in the first verse and then seduce in the second.
The thing is, you are not going to be changing the lyrics of the song, nor are you going to be showing or telling anything to the audience so that they will know what your Intent is, what your action choices are. They will simply experience a riveting performance.
Also, for the most part, I am a big fan of ‘sing it like you’d say it’ in terms of phrasing. I’ll say a phrase from my lyric outloud and really hear the words I emphasize naturally. Then I’ll check in with my melody line and make sure that I’m emphasizing the stress words in that melodic line. You don’t want the top of your phrase in a long strongly held out belted note to be the word “The” or “Of”…(Side Note: Ani DiFranco is an example of a performer who chooses her phrasing and performances more rhythmically. Whether or not she is effective is neither here nor there – she is a successful abberation from my little rule)
Cover Songs: For performing cover songs, sometimes choosing an action that is totally different from the intention of the song can give you a cool twist on a well-worn song.
* * * *
Those are the most important three questions I have for you. I don’t want to complictae the matter for you. It’s not rocket science. But it’s not second nature either so you do have to do a bit of work on the performance so that there’s a journey you’re taking the audience on in your show. You’re in control. That’s the main thing. You are never letting go of the reign and they know it and they feel comfortable with you up there conducting this train. Because if they feel your fear, see your anxiety, they’re just gonna worry about you and then you can’t MOVE them. They won’t hear your song. They’re just nervous FOR you. And if you over perform the song, scooping it out to them like a ham dinner theater actor, jazz handsing your way through each word with over arched eyebrows and sad faces and listless stares off into the Over The Rainbow distance like a lovestruck teenager, then you’re just going to come across like one of those pageant queens, acting each word of the song. If you’re in this world of the singer songwriter, they’ve come to hear truth. Your truth. Their truth. Our truth. BIG TRUTH. Not false tap-dancing sort-of truth. I’d encourage you to be comfortable with looking people in the eye and get really good at sensing when to look away. If you spend the entire song landing each line directly in the eyes of someone, they’ll get really uncomfortable. But if you NEVER look at anyone, they’ll sense you’re freaked out. So try a bit of both. When you have a conversation with a friend, notice how you don’t talk constantly at them, looking into their eyes. You’re looking around, you’re looking up and down, maybe sometimes off to the side, but your attention is still with your friend. Sing your song like that to the audience. Naturally, like it’s a conversation between friends.
Keep your movements and talking slow onstage. Because we naturally speed up when we are up there and it’s 2x faster than what we think. If you’re gesturing, gesture slowly. If you’re telling a story, take your time. Breathe. Keep your mouth 2 fingers away from the mic, or you’ll sound muddy and muffled. If you’re telling a story, know where the mic is in relation to your mouth so you’ll be heard. Be aware of these things. Take your time. Don’t let your nerves unbalance you so much that you speed through your intro’s off microphone, and never take a breath before you start playing your intro.
And, at some point, hopefully, all of this will be second nature to you and will sit in your bones like the technique of scales you practiced all those years while learning to play your instrument, and you will be able to just get up onstage and fly with your songs. Because you have practiced. And when that happens, you’ll be hooked. But even the best of us screw up once in a while, and lose track of ourselves up on that great stage, and that’s when technique can come in handy. And that’s when you now know to ask yourself:
Who am I talking to?
What do I need from them or what do they need from me?
PLEASE DON’T SAY THAT ONSTAGE
What separates the wheat from the chaff, the pro from the amateur? Pro’s exhibit an ease and comfort in their stagecraft, how they move on stage, how they handle their instrument, their voice, their phrasing, the in between song stories and banter. Pro’s let mistakes slide and sometimes use them to their benefit. Amateurs apologize. Pro’s move on.
Here are a few things to avoid saying onstage at all costs. (of course, rules are always made to be broken, so if I give a bit of wiggle room, there will be an asterisk on when and how to successfully break the rule).
1. “This song is about…”
Listen up: if you have to explain what the song is about, you haven’t written a good song. Period. Try to avoid over-explaining what you’re about to sing, because you are setting yourself up for failure. If you tell the audience what they are about to hear, you encourage them to grade you line by line on whether you have successfully written a song that is about what the song is about. Get me? Instead, choose some anecdote from your life, a funny story, a true story, an observation that shines a light on the thing inherent in your song you want them to get. Is it a love song about two people who never match up? Share something about one of your relationships or something about a friends’. Or your parents. Or your grandparents. Ships passing kind of thing. Then NEVER DRAW THE LINE FROM THE BANTER TO THE SONG, ALLOW THE AUDIENCE TO DO THAT. Just go from story into song without the explaining phrase “and so, I wrote this song about that kind of love…”. You’ve killed the cool thing about the story. And that bores an audience. It’s theater. Allow for magic.
Other banter options will be discussed later, but seriously, leave out the “this song is about” crap. And yes, I know, you’ve heard pro’s do this over and over, but I guarantee the banter would work way better if the pro left that out.
2. “How many songs do I have left?” or “How much time do I have?” (which is usually accompanied by shading eyes with your hand and scanning the audience for the sound person). This breaks the 4th wall* and let’s the audience know you are not in control. IF you are the opener, it really bums out the headliner, too, because you are essentially asking the audience “Can I play another one or two for you” when it’s most likely time for you to be wrapping it up. The audience is always forgiving and will say “play a few more”. If you are the opener, it is not your show. It is the headliners’ stage and you have the privilege of borrowing their audience. Therefore, you owe it to the headliner to stay UNDER YOUR ALLOTTED TIME. If you are asked to do 30 minutes, plan on 25. If you are asked to do 45, plan on 35. Most likely, your timing is off, you will talk a bit more than you’d planned and you’ll be right at the perfect time. I time my songs, so if I have 30 minutes to do, I know that’s 6 songs of with only one story in between 2 of the songs. And if I choose to do a particular song that’s over 4 minutes, that’s 5 songs. I know this and I do my very best to stick to my script so that I do not overstay my welcome. The crowd may love you. The headliner will not. And it’s their show not yours.
Wear a watch. Get the “Big Clock” app on your I Phone. Do whatever you need to do to stay under your time frame.
For headliners, be aware of the club’s curfews. Say your show is advertised to begin at 8, you don’t go on until 8:20 or so, you do 2 sets, your intermission stretches a bit while you say hi to your fans and family and sell CD’s, you go back on to do another 45 minute set, but you stretch it out to 60 minutes and then you get a few encores. If the club is ok with this, you’re golden. But say you’re playing a bar or a restaurant and you notice the folks who work there cleaning up and generally standing around waiting for you to be done…then wrap it up. Because every person working that night from the sound person to the waiters serving the tables to the bartenders to the door people really don’t care about your music. They are watching the clock to see when they can finish up their own night and get back to their boyfriends, girlfriends, kids, Netflix, etc. Just be aware of time and don’t go too much over.
Anyway, it is always better to leave the audience wanting more (they’ll be excited about the next time you come through town!) then risking them feeling awkward about leaving toward the end, not knowing when will be done (they’ll have negative associations with you and will skip your next show).
3. “I tune because I care” or any other comments/jokes while you’re struggling tuning. Just tune and shut up. It will go much much faster. Besides, the world has heard all of the tuning jokes. The best I’ve heard is from Judy Collins, who struggles sometimes with keeping her 12 string guitar in tune – critical for her, as she works with a piano player. When it’s taking her a bit longer, Judy will say “Back in the day I learned a lot working with Ravi Shanker. He made tuning into a religious experience.” Bam. If you can’t be that witty, then just tune and move on.
4. Any kind of apology. “I have this cold. Usually my voice is much better.” Apologizing for your guitar playing. “This is the first time I’ve ever played this song, so I hope I don’t screw it up.” The more you point out your potential flaws the more your audience will look for them. Some flaws are charming. Some are just mistakes and will end the spell you’ve put your listener under during the song. Own your flaws, but don’t tell us about them.
A word on screwing up: this can be a golden moment in a performance. The most riveting performer is doing a high wire dance between practiced grace and perfection and the possibility of the fall. We love to watch them balance, lose their balance momentarily, and then readjust and get it back. It’s the heartstopping moment. So if you forget a line to a song, or you screw up a chord, or you miss a vocal note, learn to allow it, acknowledge it, and readjust. The audience will forgive you and may lean in closer. I remember a Dar Williams show I saw years ago where she forgot the words to a song and kept playing the guitar while talking, “I’ve totally lost the 2nd verse, um, does anyone out there know it?” and some audience member started singing the words to her. Dar basically nodded that person and let them sing the whole verse. The audience applauded wildly. She was gracious, she was truthful, she didn’t pretend it didn’t happen but allowed for the mistake and improvised a perfect rebalancing act. She tripped and got back on the high wire. Allow. Say “yes and”, not “No but” to these moments. If you have them in your town, I highly recommend taking Improv Comedy classes. This will quickly teach you these skills of quick recovery. Of thinking on your feet.
5. “How’s the sound?” Unless you are doing your own sound or there is no sound person never ask the audience “How does it sound out there?” It is a direct insult to the person who’s job it is to make you sound great. Even if you think they are terrible. If you have taken the time (which you should) in a soundcheck to get your own sound right, then to ask the audience is basically to tell the sound person you don’t trust them. I’ll all for tweaking a little bit. Once, maybe twice during the show I’ll ask for an adjustment, and it’s usually a monitor thing. But more than that and the audience is going to be paying attention to the sound more than the song and you’ve lost them.
THE OPENING ACT
The rite of passage for all aspiring singer-songwriters is to be invited to be the opener to a headliner at a club or a house concert. This could be a great opportunity to make new fans, to be heard by the club/house concert so that someday you’ll get the headlining gig yourself, and to be heard by the headliner so that maybe they’ll take you out on the road with them. Most house concerts won’t even book you until you’ve passed through as an opener a few times.
However, the golden rule to remember is THIS IS NOT YOUR GIG. It is the headliner’s gig and your job is to warm up the room for the headliner. You are borrowing their stage and their audience and you must act with grace and a modicum of deference at all times.
Things which make the difference between getting this chance once and never again and making a relationship that may turn into a lucky break:
1. You sound check AFTER the headliner, so never load in your gear onstage until it has been made clear that the headliner is done by either the headliner or the sound person. You may arrive earlier than the headliner. You sit and wait your turn, unless someone gives you the go ahead (like the headliner is running late and it may be more time effective for you to soundcheck first). I’ve seen openers set up their pedals and gear onstage off to the side while the headliner is soundchecking, or worse, sit in the audience noodling on their guitars, tuning, changing strings, basically making noise during soundcheck. Not only will they never get the gig again, they most likely will not get the gig with anyone that headliner (or their agent or their manager) know.
2. If we’re talking about the Folk/Americana world, unless told otherwise, play solo acoustic or at least in a configuration that takes up the least amount of space and means very little stage changeover. If you prefer performing as a duo or trio or full band, always ask whomever it is has booked you and get an ok before you go hiring the full enchilada. When I perform, whether I’m solo or duo or full band, I want a solo artist to open for me. More than one person takes up too much room and time. Also, I don’t want something louder than me to go on before me. I have been invited to open for large bands in huge theaters and I’ve performed with a full band, but only after asking if that’s appropriate. If you are performing with a full band to open for a major act, ask if there will be someone doing your sound or should you bring your own soundperson. Most major bands travel with their own sound/lighting people and won’t be doing your sound. Don’t get stuck. Ask.
3. Stay under your allotted time. If you have been given 30 minutes, play 25. Do not, under any circumstances, go to 35 or 40. This is the most egregious error. It really pisses off everyone involved. You will not be invited back.
4. Don’t talk too much. You will exhaust the audience that is there to see the headliner and most likely will be thinking “why won’t this guy shut up and play the song”. If you are opening for a songwriter, play only one cover song, at most, if any. The audience is geared to wanting to hear original songs. Too many covers bores the audience. Plus, you want to sell your CD, right? Time your set with your banter to be sure.
5. If you are sharing the merch table with the headliner, wait until they set up their own display and take up as little room as possible. Again: it’s their show. Set up one (maybe 2) CD, one t shirt and your mailing list. Do not put out your catalogue of 5 CDs, and EP, a poster, 4 T Shirts and your keychains and tote bags and special home-made jewelry and knitted hats. It’s. Their. Show.
6. Thank the headliner from the stage. Even if they are nowhere to be seen. It’s gracious. And should be obvious but I’ve seen the blunders.
7. Never take an encore, UNLESS the headliner gives you permission. Like when the audience is wildly applauding and the headliner is listening from the wings and waves you to take an encore. Then go for it. Otherwise, let the audience stomp on the floor in a rousing standing ovation while you, generously and graciously, bow and leave the stage for the headliner and make it clear that you are done. That is egoless and that is behavior that will be rewarded with another gig. And after such a rousing ovation, you’d better head straight to that merch table and collect your $2,000 in 20 minutes.
8. Assume the headliner isn’t even going to listen to you and do not take it personally when they don’t. They’re touring. You are most likely local. They’ve been sleeping in motels for a month straight, just drove 6 hours and did 2 radio interviews and they are exhausted. That half hour in the green room to meditate or go over their set list or eat dinner while you’re playing is a rare gift for them. But if you do see them after your set or after their own, do not ask “Did you see my set?” just thank them for having you and give them their space. Don’t be a gurm.
9. Learn a few of the Headliners songs. Find out what they usually close the show with or what their encore songs are. Learn their hit. Learn the harmony. Learn the guitar part. They may just invite you up to sing with them. Be prepared if they do. Know the lyrics. I’ve been invited up so many times. I’m glad I learned my lesson only once, but it was a hard lesson to learn because at Town Hall in NYC, at a sold out show of 900 people, Nanci Griffith invited me up to sing “Flyer” with her and I was stupid and didn’t know it. Duh. Opportunity lost.
10. If you are invited to share a dressing room with the headliner, never ever take up much room in the dressing. Never eat the food from their food tray without their permission – that might be their dinner. And never invite your buddies or parents to come hang out and eat from the food tray if it is not your own dressing room. Again: Not. Your. Show.
11. Send thank you notes/emails to anyone involved with the show. The headliner. Their manager and/or agent. The club owner/promoter/booker. Then troll their sites and see if there are any other dates that do not have openers announced and ask the manager/booking person/artist directly if they’d consider you for those dates.
Lastly, a point about money. I’ve had opening slots that paid me $700 and I’ve had opening slots that paid me nothing. I’ve had opening slots that I had to pay for (paying into the Major Artist’s tours’ advertising budget for my name on the poster). The usual for a singer-songwriter is zero dollars to $100 with $50 being the most likely. If you are good and well-matched with the headliner, you will sell CD’s as to the audience you will be a discovery. When I opened for Nanci Griffith, playing to 900 people who’d probably paid almost $50 a ticket. I was offered nothing for the show. I took it. I sold $2,000 worth of merchandise in about 20 minutes. Win. I did an opening tour for Ian Hunter on his UK Acoustic Tour in 2009 for nothing. I lost a lot of money on that tour, as I had to pay my own flight, travel, hotel. I sold CD’s, and I sold a lot. And Ian would invite me up at the end of the night to join the band in “All The Young Dudes” (not bad for a folk singer) and he ended up singing on a record of mine and has become a bit of a mentor for me. But even more than that, every time I go back to the UK to play, a handful of huge Ian Hunter fans come to my shows. So I keep getting dividends from that money-losing tour so many years ago.
So how do you get an opener? Relationships, mostly. Being a fan. I make lists of artists that are up on the food chain a few rungs from me, who are playing larger theaters than I am playing and I ask my manager and agent to submit me as opener for tours. When I was starting out and I was my own manager and booking agent, I’d troll certain artists’ websites to find out where they were playing and I’d figure out my 6 degrees of separation between them or their manager or agent (usually listed on their websites) or the promoter or booker of the club itself. I’d write people, send a very brief email, VERY Brief, like as in 3 sentences. I’d attach a LINK to my music, not an mp3 (clogs up their inbox, super rude), a link to my website. I’d make some reference that would make them want to read the email. Maybe a referral from a mutual acquaintance or artist.
“Dear Martin Sexton, I was just doing a festival with your sister Colleen last week and she mentioned I should get in touch with and ask you about opening for your upcoming show at the Narrows Center for the Performing Arts on May 29th. I’m from the area and have a good draw at [local area club], where I recently sold out a show and would love the opportunity to play the Narrows. Below is a link to 3 of my songs and a link to a Youtube video of my show [if you’re pitching a solo opener don’t send them a video of you and your band].
I’m a huge fan and appreciate your time,
If I got that email, I’d take the time to listen to the music and watch the video. The headliner may get busy and forget to answer. So feel free to follow up a week or two later, really briefly. If they don’t answer after that, don’t take it personally, take it as a no for now and move on. OR, contact the venue directly. Or contact their manager or agent. Be persistent but don’t be a pest. There are great clubs that I play that I know I cannot fill, but the booker there (and by now the manager, the sound people, the staff) are really supportive and know I can do a good opening job, so I troll the website a few months out and pitch myself directly. If the booker says “yes, check with the artist’s management” and I can’t find the management info easily, I’ll ask the club booker for that person’s email and I’ll write directly the same kind of email above. Brief and to the point with backup material, but not too much. And then I’ll follow up with a phone call.
The thing is this: the headliner may not want an opener. It just makes the night longer, so what do you offer them? Are you good for a few tickets? Can you ingratiate yourself honestly into their lives so that you can act as tour manager/driver AND opening act. Can you back them up as a sideperson or harmony singer on some songs AND be an opener? Be of service to an artist you respect and they will want you out there onstage with them. They’ll be thrilled to help you out. Someone helped them. Most artists want to pay it forward. And if they don’t, forgive their narcissism and move on with a smile.
Again, remember the golden rule here:
TAKE NOTHING PERSONALLY. Everyone is more concerned about themselves than they are about you, so take the no with a smile, translate it in your head to ‘no for NOW” and move on.