Lessons about performing, lesson 22: Be Critical of Yourself!

Good morning and welcome to the next entry in the list of rules that aspiring performing musicians should know. We’ve covered a lot of ground and have done so with remarkable speed.

If you’re new, click here and read the whole list of rules – and there’s a lot. The goal of this series is to tell you everything you need to know to give yourself better odds for success.

There’s a lot to it, a lot of things that people don’t realize or think about. It’s not easy and the chances of grand success are pretty slim. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try – nor does it mean you have to be a grand success in order to continue.

There’s many reasons to perform, and some of them are pretty noble. Some just want to share the music, to make people smile, to give people a reason to dance, or even just do it for the free beer. Whatever your goals are, you still need to feed yourself.

And that’s what this series is about. It’s about telling you how to do this as a professional and, ideally, as a sole source of income. In other words, how to make a career out of being a professional musician.

It takes work, continued study, and an effort to continually improve.
Rule #22: Be Critical Of Yourself!

You know the adage. Everyone hates a critic! Well, as much as we might hate them, the reality is that we need them. The reality is that we should probably weigh what they say carefully. They may say things that will help us.

Depending on your circumstances, you may have a local music column in the newspaper or local magazine that covers your act and writes about your work. Those are often pretty handy and they can be a great source of information as well as a great source for ego boosting. At the same time, they can also be devastating.

If you don’t have that available, and even if you do, there’s still other steps you can take. They’re steps you should probably consider, as the goal is to improve and to continue to give your audience an experience that they want to keep paying for.

I’d recommend that you record audio from every show. You can also have a friend or two record video. You’d be surprised what people will do for you – just so they can appear to be with the band or, even better, because they like your music and are really your fans. If it’s a big show, you’d be surprised what people will do for a backstage pass. People also are happy to do things in exchange for merchandise.

You need to not just listen or watch, you need to do so critically. You need to listen not for what you did right, but for what you did wrong. You need to find the problem spots so that you can work to eliminate them. A good analogy is sanding wooden surfaces. Feel for the rough points and smooth them over.

If you have just audio, then listen to the recording. No, don’t listen to the quality of the recording – but listen to the quality of the show. How was the crowd reacting? Did you sound stiff or did you sound fluid? How was your banter with the crowd? Did you remember to single a few people out? Did you acknowledge the repeat fans, the venue, the bartender, or the crowd?

How did you sound? Did you sound like you knew what you were doing? Was the band keeping good time and in unison? Were there long pauses of dead time, where no music was being made nor anyone talking to the audience? Did you keep the pace up, put the set list together to cause a good reaction, or give them a reason to dance/drink/sing? Did you even invite them to sing along?

If you have video, don’t just watch your performance – but watch the crowd. How’d they react to your antics? How’d they respond to your banter? What did their body language tell you about their experience?

Depending on your venue, did they pay attention mostly to you – or did they pay attention to their surroundings or their dance partner? That’ll depend on the venue, of course. Sometimes, your job is simply to be there and give them the music to dance to. Sometimes, your job is to be the center of attention and all eyes should be on you.

You also want opinions from other people. Don’t ask your friends. They’ll lie to you – and maybe not intentionally, but because they’re biased. They’ll tell you that you did great, even though you bombed. They’ll tell you that you reminded them of the best concert they’ve ever seen – and you were just playing your local watering hole.

They can be a good source for information – but give their critique the weight it deserves. They can be a great source – but finding an unbiased friend isn’t always easy.

Ask the audience after the show. Better still, just listen to what they’re telling you or telling each other. Ask the venue owner, promoter, bartender, bouncers, security, etc… Ask them how they feel you did. If they’re receptive to answering questions, ask them if there’s anything that they’d like to see you do differently. Did they find any instrument’s volume too loud or too soft? Did they clearly hear the vocals well enough to understand them?

It’s sometimes difficult to accept criticism but, remember, the people you’re asking are people who want you to succeed. They’re people who want to see you at your best. They’re people who want to know that you’ll be able to continue to provide them with entertainment.

In other words, they’re motivated to give you constructive criticism.

Put your ego aside, you’re not perfect. Not even I’m perfect! I’ve never done a perfect show. I’ve done damned good shows, but there’s no one show I can point to and say that there’s nothing that could be done to make it better.

Thus, as tempting as it might be, only use those comments like, “It was perfect, don’t change it” for a boost of ego. Don’t believe them, they’re not true. There is always, and I do mean always, something you can do to improve. If someone tells you that your show was perfect, let it boost your confidence (and be grateful) but know that they’re wrong. It wasn’t perfect. It might have been pretty damned good – but it wasn’t perfect.

Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself. Don’t be afraid to change things up. For one thing, people like some changes and people like to see new things. We have a variety of set lists and we never play them in the same order twice in a row. Each one is designed to cause a set of emotions and to take people on a ride of feelings. Each one is designed to work with a different audience and venue. We keep things different and we constantly talk about ways to improve.

After every show, we have a recap. We discuss what we did right and we discuss what we did wrong. We work out ways to eliminate the wrong and improve the right. It’s a continued process of change and improvement, not a set-it-and-forget-it routine.

By doing this, we’re able to have a broader appeal and to be viable to different markets. We’re making ourselves more valuable and justifying the expenses associated with hiring us. We continue to look for ways to improve our production and our performance. We continue to improve our mechanics and our methods. We continue to optimize our flow, interaction, and sound.

This isn’t just a one time thing. This is something you need to do – for the rest of your career. Imagine if Big Box Store hadn’t changed their inventory since their inception in 1963. Do you think they’d be in business? Imagine if they didn’t change their sales or fliers. Imagine if they didn’t improve their sales floor, staff, or property. They’d be out of business or catering to a very diminished market.

And, you can do that. You can cater to a very specific market – but that doesn’t eliminate the need to improve and listen to feedback. It also seriously limits your potential income and lowers your odds of success. The more people you appeal to, the more people you can sell your services to.

To complicate things even further, you need to avoid being everything to everyone. You don’t want to become a bland cardboard box. You still want to keep a unique show and personality. You still want to be an individual. You still want to play some music that you enjoy – instead of just playing what the customer enjoys.

That’s possible, but it requires that you pay continued attention. It requires that you continue to improve. It requires that you take feedback, while putting your ego aside, and strive to give the audience what they have paid for. You can do it. It’s not easy – but it’ll increase your chances of success and make it even more likely that you’ll actually be able to have a career based on your musicianship.

Ah well…

Come to think of it, this should probably have been higher in the list. It’s a really important thing and something that many musicians will never take the time to learn. They’ve various reasons, be it ego or a drive to just play how they want and what they want. Maybe it’s their message? Maybe it’s their personality? Again, they can do that – but their chances of success are much lower and their ability to generate a useful income is reduced. I’m not writing about them (mostly). I’m writing to you, the person who wants to be a professional performing musician.

Hopefully this helps. Hopefully you’re learning something as I go along and explain these things. I wish that there were a better author to express these things, but there isn’t. So, you get me! I, of course, appreciate your readership.

If you’ve any lessons you’d like to share, let me know. You can give me a writing prompt and I’ll write about it – if I’m able to. Just use the contact link or leave a comment here on this site, and I’ll see what I can do.

I’m still a bit surprised that you read these things, but a few of you have taken the time to tell me why you read them and that helps me to better understand. I appreciate it, I really do. And, just like with my performances, I also would love constructive criticism concerning my writing. Feel free to leave comments! I like ’em! I’ve only not approved two (except for spam) and those used language I’m not really allowed to publish. (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that I say ‘fuck’ all the time. So, vulgarity isn’t the issue.)

With that, I shall close like I always do! Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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