Lessons about performing, #43: Dealing with Hecklers!

Holy balls! It’s Sunday night and I’m writing Monday’s article – early! I really am getting past my pissy fit and seem to have mostly mended my creativity bone. I didn’t even go see a doctor!

What I did do was make myself keep writing, even on days when I really didn’t want to. I didn’t even use my “holy shit” article. That one is still in the queue.

It seems to have worked and I know it’s worked for me when I didn’t want to practice playing guitar. Either way, I seem to be a bit more excited to write again.

If you don’t know what I’m doing, I’m really not sure what to tell you. You should be paying better attention! Sheesh! I’ve told you this – like 42 times already.

In the upper right, there’s a link. Click it. It’ll take you to most of the rest of this series and you can see what rules I’ve already put out there. I’m not even gonna link it. You can spot it on your own.

It’s also a few articles behind. My creativity bone isn’t completely mended and I’d have to click the ‘back’ page like twice in order to get the various URLs – and I’m still being pretty lazy and only doing the work that I want to do. You’ll adjust and I’ll update it, eventually.

Basically, nobody takes the time to tell musicians how to actually make a living with their musicianship. I’m making an effort to write down all the rules I can think of. They will not make you a rock star. They might make it so you can eat and pay your rent.

If you’re expecting these rules to make you a rock star, you’re in for a bad time. If you’re expecting it to be easy, you’re sorely mistaken. At best, you can hope to make enough money so that you’re able to reach the upper parts of middle class. You’re far more likely to be impoverished.

That’s just statistics. Following these rules will give you an edge. I know, ’cause I’ve done this for decades. I’ve been involved in the industry for longer than you’ve probably been alive.

Notably, only a (small) portion of my income has been from music. However, it has been my sole source of income. For a while, and more than once, it has been a very necessary income.

It is possible to live on money generated entirely from your musical skills. You can even feed your children and spouse with this income. It’s just a fuckton of work.

If that’s the path you want to take, this series is meant for you. However, you should know this already – ’cause I’ve told you this quite a few times now! Seriously, these intros are a bad idea! Someone should fire the editor.

Alright… On to today’s lesson…

Rule #43: Consider carefully the source!

You’re gonna get heckled. It is going to happen.

You’re going to receive negative criticism. It’s going to happen.

I’m putting both of those topics together.

The idea of this article actually comes from a conversation I had on one of the sites. It was then that I realized that maybe people didn’t know how to deal with this and that I should tell ’em. Alas, I’ve long since forgotten who they were, but it was in the guitar sub. Sorry that I’ve forgotten your name. In my defense, I smoke a lot of pot and talk to a lot of people.

Heckling is, quite frequently, a form of criticism. There’s some chance that they’re just an asshole, but they’re probably being an asshole because they’re shitfaced – or because they don’t actually like you.

And, well… Sometimes it’s valid…

I once saw a guy get up, stomp his ass directly onto the stage, and berate the lead guitarist. He then grabbed the microphone and declared that this band sucked. He got kicked out – but he was right. The band did suck.

If you get one heckler, it’s just a jackass. If you get heckled at every show, and it’s not the same jackass every time, then you probably suck. There’s no nice way to say it. You might just actually be a shitty musician and you need to fix that.

There’s also the chance that you’re not actually a shitty musician but you’re playing to the wrong crowd. My band does covers of some music that’d be woefully ignorant to try to play in a country bar. I’m not going to pull out some Pink Floyd at a show that’s full of metal fans. The people from my generation don’t want to hear Ke$ha.

But, you might just suck. If you suck, fix it and stop sucking.

It’s far more likely that they’re just an asshole. It could be that you’re simply needing to change your stage persona. Your musical ability could be fantastic, and you just suck at playing the crowd. (By now, you know what I mean by that! Well, you do if you’ve read the series!)

If you’ve made it to the point where you’re comfortable playing to audiences AND people are paying you to do so, you probably don’t actually suck. I’m sure there’s still things you can do to improve.

But, you have to consider the source…

If it’s someone who works at the venue and they pull you aside to say that you really blew it that night, they’re probably right. If it’s from a fellow musician who caught your show, and they’re actually good at their job, they’re probably right.

A heckler is just a critic without manners. They’re also possibly not qualified to offer an opinion.

The odds are heavily in your favor, assuming you’re actually good at what you do and you’ve followed some pretty simple rules. The odds are that you don’t actually suck.

So, take criticism about the same way you take praise. Consider the source. I get told that I did a “perfect show” – all the time. I’ve heard that even after some of my shittiest performances. It’s bullshit and it is wrong. There’s no such thing as a perfect show. Their compliment, while nice, is as useful as a drunk dude yelling about how much you suck so much that you could suck-start a motorcycle.

If you get objective criticism, from a valid source, listen to it and work on improving. If the critique is positive, play to your strong points and also see if you can get them to tell you what they’d like to see you improve.

Now, to the important bit…

Again, how do you deal with it?

It’s not hard, actually. You’re the person with a microphone and hundreds of screaming watts of power. You can engage them, but keep it brief, decisive, firm, and funny.

“Guess which one of us is not getting laid tonight?”

“There’s always one in every crowd.”

“Someone put your dog on a leash, before they bite someone.”

Those are good things. However, there’s some distinctly not good things. There are things you should not do.

“Your mother’s a whore.” No… Don’t say that.

“Do you think you can do better?” No… Don’t say that. They may try. Worse, it might be someone able to do better! Either way, it may be seen as an invitation for the angry drunk person to get on the stage. Trust me, that’s a horrible idea.

Don’t say anything that could be seen as whining. Don’t say anything that leaves them room to retort. Don’t say anything that’s engaging them in such a way as it seems like you’re opening up a dialogue.

Those are bad ideas. Don’t do them. It should be painfully obvious why you shouldn’t do them and why you should seriously consider working out something that’s in the good column on this list – ’cause it’s gonna happen.

You never want to give the heckler the opportunity to keep engaging you. You never want them to be anything more than the butt of the next joke you say. But, you have to do it while still being funny.

It’s best to not give them any attention, but you’re not going to listen to me when I say that. It will get under your skin at first. It will bother you. It will make you want to act irrationally. Don’t do that. Keep your cool, make them the butt of a joke that everyone else enjoys, and immediately continue playing.

They’ll bounce ’em, if they’re a problem. The good news is that larger venues don’t really have as much of a problem with this. You’ll get it more in bars. If you’re playing a concert in the park for Family Fun Day, they’re probably not going to heckle you. The same is true if you’re playing a bigger venue.

Come up with some lines, rehearse them in a mirror, practice them, practice them with a friend, and just learn to deliver those lines like they’re muscle memory. Then, just go into the next song.

Never, under any circumstances, disrupt your playing. Most heckling will occur when you’re in a lull, between songs, etc… Well, I think so? I dunno… It’s kinda hard to hear the audience when you’re in the middle of a song. So, don’t stop playing to interrupt a heckler. Deal with it quickly, or ignore it. Then, immediately start playing again.

And, if you did fuck up, you can work out that as well. “So, I guess you can see who did not practice this week!” Then, don’t dwell, just move on.

I often say, and this is a good place to repeat it, “I’m a professional because I play through my mistakes.” I don’t say many significant things, but that’s an important one. Every fiber of my body wants to stop when I make a mistake. Training myself to play through it was one of the most difficult things I’ve done with music.

But, again, you probably don’t suck. Their twelve year old daughter can’t actually play it better than you. No, you don’t sound like two alley cats fighting. No, you’re not better off panhandling under the bridge. Seriously… You’ll hear all of those – and worse.

Don’t let it get to you – unless you actually suck. If you suck, fix your shit and stop sucking, otherwise get off the stage.

And, again, with all criticism (both positive and negative), you need to consider the source. You’ll get far more praising comments that you didn’t actually deserve than you will get negative comments that you didn’t deserve. No, you didn’t play a perfect set, they’re just drunk. They’re nice to hear, but they aren’t really all that valuable.

You do need valid sources of feedback but I’m pretty sure I’ve written about that before. I’ve now written so much stuff that I don’t actually remember it all. So, if I haven’t told you how to find valid sources for feedback, let me know and I’ll write about it – possibly for a second time and hopefully without contradicting information! Either way, odds are that the drunk guy at the bar is not actually valid feedback.

As I’ve already explained, there’s more to it than just being able to play your instrument. You’ll also be playing the audience. You need to be good at both. If you’ve been doing it for a while, chances are that you’re good at both. Keep that in mind and have some confidence in your ability.

You somehow have to walk the line between knowing that you’re not perfect and knowing that you’re good enough to do the job. It’s not going to be easy. Criticism will hurt, even when it’s invalid. We’re humans, after all.

This might be one of the most difficult things you deal with. This might be the breaking point. I’ve seen otherwise excellent musicians stop performing because they couldn’t cope with the criticism, however slight it may have seemed to other people. I’ve seen musicians that should have quit performing and they never listened to criticism because they were too confident in their ability.

It’s a fine line and it’s not easy. It’s very tempting to suck that praise up and to ignore any negative feedback. The cheering audience has a really strong pull and will lull you into complacency and make you prone to having more ego than you deserve.

I wish I had a better way to tell you how to deal with it, but my best suggestion is that you stay grounded. If you can find a way to listen to the crowd talk, without them knowing you’re in the band, that can help. But, if they know you’re in the band, they’re probably going to tell you that you did an excellent job and they loved every minute of it.

So, stay grounded and always keep those band meetings up so that you can review your problem areas and improve them. Don’t burn those bridges in your personal life, so that you can have people in your life who can offer constructive feedback. I’ve given you the rules. Put them together. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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