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May 30

STAGE CRAFT 101

STAGE CRAFT 101

I was a music student in the mid 80s (I did the South African equivalent of the Berklee jazz course) At that time there were no subjects or studies that related to the business side of music, other than a very brief introduction into copyright law in the composition class.
I hope that this has changed now in the academic institutions, as with very few exceptions we as working musicians are self employed. Without basic business skills, we have no hope of surviving.
The other area in my studies that didn’t exist at the time was STAGE CRAFT. There was a big emphasis on technical music performance, and academics. We had no input about basic stage craft, presentation and audience interaction. Unless we are concert pianist, or very high caliber jazz musicians where the music is the most important thing, we are all entertainers before we are musicians. So therefore basic stage craft is a crucial skill we all need to learn.

Over the last 25 years working as a professional musician I have learned a lot about stage craft by making mistakes, observing experienced musicians /entertainers and from good mentors.

If you read my blogs regularly you will have noticed I have been thinking and writing a lot about my mentors. All my good mentors have one thing in common. I can hear their voice in my head as I am working. (If you haven’t read it yet have a look at IF YOU CAN PLAY IT SLOW YOU CAN PLAY IT FAST)
The mentor who taught me the most about stage STAGE CRAFT was South African magician Jimmie Ritchie. I studied magic with Jimmie in the mid 90s. Until about 2 years ago I used to do a musical magical act. I have dropped the magic now to concentrate on my first love , music. That is another story, but the stage craft lessons I learned from Jimmie,and performing magic have been invaluable.
Whenever I did a show I would try to have it videoed. My next lesson with Jimmie, we would watch the video together, and Jimmie would critique me. One day we were watching a video of one of my shows., and I turned my back on the audience in the video. Jimmies reaction was quite harsh, but has stuck in my mind forever. He bellowed at the top of his voice. DON’T TURN YOUR BACK ON YOUR AUDIENCE. WE DON’T WANT TO SEE YOUR BIG FAT BACKSIDE.
This one of the most basic stage craft rules in stage presence and presentation. I see so many hardened pros forget this one. It has been so drummed into me by Jimmie, that even when I’m setting up my stage, and there are people in the room, I can’t turn my back on them.
HOT TIP. If you are doing your own sound from stage, set the mixer up at your side, not the back of the stage. If the mixer is at the back of the stage, with every adjustment you turn your back on your audience.
Jimmie would often talk about appropriate dress. In particular shoes. “Make sure you give your shoes a polish before every show”
When I’m rushing out the door to a gig, and my shoes are not looking great, I always feel guilty because I can hear Jimmies voice in my head.

The most important skill I learned from doing the magic was a total relaxed and confident way of talking to an audience. In the magic we would call this PATTER.
A magician is a story teller. The magic tricks are just props that illustrate his story.
I think the best way of learning Patter is watching other experienced musicians/entertainers/comedians . Take note of their little one liners and links between songs. The GOLDEN RULE is: Never use their material on their turf. If I’m in South Africa visiting family, and listening to a musician, and they come out with a really funny line, I make a mental note of the line. If the gag suits my personality I will use the gag in Spain.
Most entertainers have their trade mark sort of lines.
I will often say to the audience in introducing a song by a certain artist…:
“Give me a wave and a cheer if you like Elvis.”…”Give me a wave and a cheer if you don’t like Elvis.”……..’Ear plugs at the bar for the next song.”
If I’m working in an Hotel whose guests are on an all inclusive deal, I often ask quiz questions about certain songs. When somebody gets the correct answer I say to them
” Claim your free shot at the all inclusive bar”
Feel free to use these gags, just not in Southern Spain.

Neatness on a stage is crucial. If you have spent hours rehearsing great music. If you have taken the effort to dress well, then don’t let the side down with a messy stage.
I was working with a duo on a cruise ship. The stage was a mess. In all fairness the stage was used for bingo and quizes and general entertainment activities. There were bits of crumpled paper, and general mess on the stage. But it was our stage. We were just about to start the afternoon set when the staff Captain walk through. He didn’t have the decency to take us aside, but just gave as a very loud telling off in front of the passengers….Embarrassing, but lesson well learned.
When you have finished setting up make sure cables are rolled and not looking like spaghetti. Get the guitar cases of the stage. Neatly piled at the back of the stage is not good enough.
My absolute pet hate is other musicians leaving kit on the stage as a store room. Irish musicians in Irish bars are the worst. It’s just so rude, disrespectful and lazy. How many times have I arrived to find the kit of 3 different bands stored on the stage. The moment you finish your gig, it is not your stage until your slot next Thursday night.

I’m a big guy. This helps a lot with stage presence, but I’ve seen some tiny people who have a massive stage presence. Stage presence is a skill that can be learned.It helps to stand during your performance (unless you are a piano player), and where possible have the music memorised, as a music stand is a big barrier between you and your audience.

A good entertainer is often more useful to a venue than a brilliant musician, and often more appreciated by the audience. A few basic STAGE CRAFT lessons learned and applied can make the world of difference
If we spend a lifetime on honing our musical skills, we should also spend a lifetime honing our presentation skills.
We are never too old or experienced to improve and learn new things.

STAGE CRAFT 101 is still in progress.

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