MoPToP Practice Theory part 5 – Performative Practice

This is the final article in my series on holistic musical practice, set out in the framework I like to call MoPToP. We looked at mental practice, the in depth process of thinking about the type of musician you want to be, where you are at present, what you need to do next and how to make the most of your creative ideas. Then we looked at physical aspects – getting into and staying in peak playing and singing condition so we will be able to physically perform for as long as necessary. Last time was all about technical practice – the drills, repertoire and exercises that internalised all the stuff we figured out in mental practice and go deep into the finer points of your music. And now, finally, it’s time to put all that together into something you can take on the world with as a creative artist.

Differing Arenas

Traditionally musicians performed in three main arenas, each with their own particular challenges – the rehearsal room, the live stage and the recording studio. In the internet era, there is now a fourth; prerecorded and live webcam performance. It is normal to find one or some of these more comfortable than others – there are many gifted musicians who can work wonders in the rehearsal room but freeze when placed in front of an audience. Others require the feedback of a live crowd to bring out their musicality, while still others are most at home in the studio, partnering with a little red light to create sonic worlds.

So the first thing to do is to be honest with yourself about which of these arenas you are most comfortable in and which you are not, then find ways to build your confidence and experience in the latter.

To give a non-musical example of how different the rehearsal room is to actual performance, I’d like to refer back to my days as a magician. Without giving away any secrets, stage magic routines (especially big illusions) involve detailed scripting and planning which, if you do it right, the audience will be mostly unaware of. You need to have reliably internalised a number of actions and processes to be carried out cleanly and efficiently, if you do any of these wrong or out of order it can have a knock on effect that will wreck the whole routine. Learning all of this in a controlled practice environment is one thing, but as soon as you step on to the live stage, a whole new set of variables come into play – the adrenaline of performing, the feedback from the crowd, disorientation from stage lights – and that’s when mistakes happen.

There is a routine known as “Dangerous Monte” which has become notorious to the point of being banned by the Magic Castle, in which knives or spikes are covered with cups and the magician slams their hand down on what turns out to be the empty one. There are reliable methods to executing this (of course there are – the point of dangerous tricks is to make them >look< dangerous while leaving nothing to chance), but Youtube quickly filled up with footage of the trick going horribly wrong in the hands of performers who under rehearsed and were not prepared for the distractions and stresses of live performance.

While the stakes aren’t quite as high for musicians (you’re not going to lose the use of a body part as a result of fluffing a guitar solo unless it’s a really, really tough crowd), this is a good lesson in the need for performative practice; things we can do to bridge the gap between the controlled practice room and high pressure performance environments.  

Performative Repertoire

Starting in the practice room, the most immediate aspect of performative practice is running through the songs you plan to perform or record. This is not to be confused with technical practice of the same material – when you do a performative run-through it is about internalising the performance as a whole without stopping or giving too much thought to any theoretical aspects. If you find you cannot complete the song satisfactorily (I usually use a three strikes rule to decide when to call a halt due to errors), you can then go back to technical practice to sort out whatever went wrong.

Just as there is technical repertoire you study to develop particular skills, there is also performative repertoire that you can use to put yourself at ease or to practice performance styles you might not get opportunities for from your main material. Mostly this will be cover versions of songs you find a particular connection with, that you may or may not include in your live sets (they do make good encores and audition pieces). It might be in a completely different style to your main genre (a surprising number of extreme metal players are closet smooth jazzers) or even not be music at all – as a singer, I’ve practiced and warmed up by reciting poetry and dramatic monologues alongside song studies.

Finally, get into the habit of recording (or, better still, videoing) your performative practice and playing it back later (I mentioned this in the article on mental practice, which this will feed back to). To many people the very notion of this is terrible, but that’s exactly why you should do it: to break the confidence barrier (if you yourself don’t want to hear your music, how can you expect others to?), to see how close you are to the performance you are trying to achieve and bridge the disconnect between internalised ambition and cold hard reality. Yes it can be a wrench, but if you’re serious about your music it’s something you need to get over at some point.

These rehearsal recordings need never be seen or heard by anyone besides yourself, but the best ones might turn out to be useful as candid “extras” to share with your dedicated fans. You don’t need to lift the lid on everything you do in rehearsal, but people do like to feel like they’re getting some kind of a look behind the curtain. Think of it like a boxer staging a public workout ahead of a big fight.

Kerry Says Relax, again.

I mentioned this in the article on Physical Practice and it is particularly relevant for those who suffer from or wish to prevent stagefright. Put simply, the human body has a number of inbuilt defences that trigger in stressful situations (part of the natural fight or flight response), including but not limited to tensing of the muscles, increased heartbeat, faster and shallower breathing and mental panic. Now this is all very well if the hazard at hand is an impending bear attack, but if the stressful situation in question is you preparing to perform in front of a waiting audience, all your physical tools to do so have just been put in their worst possible state. Even worse, if your instinctive response tends more towards flight than fight (no shame in this – running away from a marauding bear is a completely reasonable response) you may find yourself unable to even step on stage at all. The same applies in the recording studio or in front of a camera – when the red light goes on and you are on the spot to instantly perform at your best it is stressful, and that little bulb is not going to give you any feedback or reassurance.

We cannot stop ourselves from feeling nervous or stressed, but we can prepare for and mitigate the consequences. We can anticipate and override the physical symptoms of stress, making the necessary adjustments to channel that energy into a kickass performance (see the Physical Practice article for notes on how to do this). And we can deliberately put ourselves in different kinds of performance situations, so we will be in a place of familiarity and (relative) comfort when it counts. Art is about communication after all, you started making music because you wanted to express yourself, so everything you do should be working towards that moment of realisation.

Guerilla Performance

Guerilla performance is any time you show up to perform unscheduled and/or unadvertised. The most obvious example is open mic nights, which are  fantastic places to cut your teeth and try out new material. These are also good places to observe how crowds react to different kinds of performer and figure out ways to get the attention of a crowd who might not know or care who you are, but who are at least vaguely sympathetic to what you are trying to do – a lot of them will be performers themselves after all. This is also where you can network with people who might help you in other ways, but that’s a topic for another time.

A wilder setting for live guerilla performance is busking on the street (actual music and street performance, not winos with a token harmonica and sad dog). There are players for whom busking is a serious profession, who travel the world playing cities with high yielding footfall and gear their act towards engaging a passing crowd before passing the hat. Then there are musicians who effectively go out to practice in public, doing it not so much to make money (which is never guaranteed) as to put themselves in a performance situation with real time feedback from the passing crowd.

Busking has always been a quasi-legal activity (sweet talking belligerent shopkeepers, other traders and passing cops goes with the territory) but has become more organised in recent years with most cities requiring permits issued by the council, sometimes with auditions. The most coveted cities (the ones that attract tourists with disposable cash) are especially organised, with set locations and assigned timeslots. Check the local government websites of whatever city you are hoping to perform in, be prepared to be moved on even with a permit in many locations (jobsworths will always be with us) and also be aware of who else might be trying to use the location you have in mind. Traders can usually be befriended if you’re not any kind of a threat to their business, but steal another performer’s pitch at your peril.

You can even do guerilla performances from the comfort of your own home thanks to webcam technology and streaming services like Twitch, Youtube, Facebook Live and many others. You can schedule these officially and set up an online tip box via things like paypal.me , but there is also nothing to stop you just flicking on the camera anytime you feel like and playing to whoever stops by. Even when no-one’s watching (though I’ve never once done this without someone showing up), the knowledge that you are live on cam puts you on the spot and in performance mode.

Who Dat?

One of the joys of guerilla performance is you are free to do it incognito, or under any name or guise you wish. Creating a stage persona, whether a refined, exaggerated version of yourself or an entirely made up character, is a useful way to build stage confidence anyway (if the gig goes south it’s the character taking the boos instead of you personally) and the sense of anonymity and irrelevance that comes with starting out as a performer becomes an advantage when you just want to go and try things out without repercussions. If you do happen to get positive attention when performing incognito, there is nothing to stop you from telling them about your “other” or “main” project.

Conclusion

So there you have it, the entire MoPToP framework of Mental, Physical, Technical and Performative practice. How (and whether) you apply this to your own music making is up to you; you could develop an ongoing cycle formalising each aspect in turn, or mix it all up together making sure that all four aspects are being addressed somehow. Maybe you’ve decided this isn’t for you (fair enough, thanks for reading to the end), but do think about why not – there are valid reasons, but any variation of “it looks hard” or “I’m already good enough” is an excuse. Also think about whatever you are doing instead to achieve the same ends and please tell me in the comments what works for you.

Whatever you do,.strive to make everything you do better than the last time you did it, let all your musical adventures guide you to parts unknown and enjoy the ride. Do it right and it really is a blast.

Make a big noise.

Make it a better noise.

Repeat.

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