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Too Much, Too Soon – Instrumentally Speaking

Don’t sing? Wondering how to best kick off your show? If you’re a talented player, I know the temptation you have is to come out and really wow the crowd. After all, you’ve got to ‘show ‘em what you can do’ right?

Wrong. Well, if you’re doing a set of 15 minutes or longer, that is. If you’ve got only one song to do in an audition or TV show or something like that, you’ll want to bring it all on that song.

But I’m talking about within the context of an entire show featuring you.

Several years ago we worked with a young violinist who had tons of talent. Problem was he wanted to come right out on the first song playing a really fast, difficult song with astounding scales and impressiveness though the whole song… and this left him nowhere to go.

In Tom’s set list graph, you want to keep that first song a 3 ½, with no real difficult or intricate solos, runs, etc. Do a more straight-ahead song, with maybe a flash of what’s to come… a peek of what they will get as the song goes on. It could be something familiar to them – a song they already know with a familiar melody.

The key is to do a song to draw the audience in and get them on board.

Let’s say you’re a contemporary classical guitar player playing with a percussion player. You might want to start with your version of an older pop tune, say for example, ‘Forever Young’ by Rod Stewart. This has a good tempo/feel for an opener.

You’d start with the percussion player setting the tempo, then maybe you come in playing diamonds, or playing the rhythm before launching into the melody of the verse. Find a spot or two in the song, to throw in a difficult lick or run to then give them a glimpse of what’s to come.

Make sense? I’d like to hear from you instrumentalists. What questions do you have on putting together your show?

Amy Wolter

As a trained Live Music Producer for Tom Jackson Productions, Amy Wolter brings her years onstage as a lead singer & keyboardist - along with her experience as a producer, arranger, and songwriter - to singers and bands who won’t settle for ‘good enough’. She’s worked with artists at all levels, and genres ranging from Rock to Celtic, empowering them to have confidence and authority onstage, and put on memorable live shows, a few of whom have been on two of the largest US tours in recent history. Some of her clients include Grammy award winners The Band Perry & Lacrae, CMA and ACM –winning country acts, Gloriana & Thompson Square, 2016 The Voice contestant Mary Sarah, CCMA (Canada) winners High Valley, Jess Moskaluke & Chad Brownlee, and Winter Jam Tour veterans Sidewalk Prophets & Love and The Outcome.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. Does this go the same for solo vocalists? I’m a country singer/guitarists/songwriter and I have my first fully booked summer of shows, I need help with what to start out on. Fast/ and upbeat? Or Smooth right in with a easy listening song?

    Also, what’s a good way to get off book? I’m a full-time college student at Indiana University and find it hard to memorize all the songs for 3 hour gigs.

    • Yes Danielle. Your ‘opening moment’ – songs 1 and 2, should be medium tempo songs where the lyric is TO people. No big solos or vocal licks…you’ll want to save that for later! Should rate a 3 ½ on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the most intense. You can get more details on this and how to structure your whole set in Tom’s Live Music Method book; http://tinyurl.com/99d9amh

      As far as memorizing 3 hours worth of songs goes, I’d like to have others weigh in on how to do this…how do you train your mind for so many songs? Is there a method to this madness or is retaining this type of catalogue just a gradual accumulation over time? Memorizing is optimal of course, but I’ve seen artists using ipads hooked onto their stands that is at least less obstructive than a big music stand and book. Thoughts??

      • I can hear when someone is reading, even if they’re only glancing at a cheat sheet from time to time.

        I walk to the practice studio and I have a cheat sheet in my pocket until I’ve got the piece down. Learning a slow song means that I walk a little slower too.

        Another thing is that I don’t just look up lyrics. I listen and write down the lyrics as I hear them. Verses, choruses, and bridges take on a more physical shape that way. In the process of memorization I also rewrite the lyrics from memory. On a piece that’s tough for me to remember, I might write it down four or five times.

        The hardest songs for me to memorize are the ones that I write myself, because before they grow a life of their own they’re still changeable.

        Being that I’m in three other bands plus my solo act, I’d say I’ve got more than 400 songs locked in my noodle. Sometimes, if I haven’t done a song in a while, I’ll write the first line of that song on the set list. Once I’m into it, some sort of auto-pilot takes over.

      • @Greg Fox, did you by any chance take piano lessons. Your tips on memorizing lyrics could be taken right out of the “tips for memorizing piano pieces” my music teachers always gave me! Great advice!!

  2. Your Instrumental column offers very solid advice Amy. And as a long time professional instrumentalist (since 1969) I heartily concur: less is more! I, myself, have some interesting challenges up ahead as I prepare for some upcoming live shows.

    My instrument, the Starr Labs Ztar has 8 nested/layered tunings across 16 Midi Channels, and I can perform live tricks that are impossible on conventional musical instruments. In tandem with Ableton Live, this allows me to present variety, surprise and mystery, an ingredient that I, for one, believe is an essential part of any performance. Nice to find this site and hope to contribute more as time goes by….


    • Thanks Les, and welcome to Onstage Success! Your gig sounds very interesting…looking foward to checking out your website. And we’d like to help instrumentalists in more blogs, so bring on any questions you may have!

  3. I used to do all instrumental concerts. Most of my playing is done at churches and found a few tricks that helped; audience participation (especially getting kids on stage), a sing-a-long, and telling stories.

    The guitar synthesizer helped make new sounds. A section of my concert was called Songs Around the World with songs that sounded Irish, Chinese, Caribbean, Classical, and an American Patriotic set.

    I never really felt like I had the complete attention of the audience. Some of it was due to inexperience and some of it was due to not knowing how to perform live.

    Someone in the music industry suggested I start singing. Now my concerts are half singing and half instrumental.

    It helps to look the audience in the eye. It makes a better connection. I tend to look at my guitar or close my eyes during instrumentals and need to learn to look at the audience.

    If I did an all instrumental concert now it would be completely different than before. I am beginning to understand the concepts and what works and doesn’t work.

    • It’s definately a process, isn’t it Keith? So glad to hear you are continually working on you set and stretching yourself. I realize solo artists don’t need to try to become a ‘dog and pony’ show incorporating a zillion different tricks thoughout the set, but variety helps – adding vocals and your guitar synth for more sounds are great supplements to your playing ability.

      One quick comment on eye contact…it’s okay to look at your guitar during instrumentals because that’s where the focus is. However if your whole gig is instrumental, yes, you need to find times to look at and connect with the audience during the song. For example, say your song starts with a rhythm pattern – a great time to look up and out at people. When it switches to a lead line or more difficult thing, look back to guitar. When you go back to the rhythm (maybe it’s has an infectious beat), then look at them, and get them clapping along.

      Thanks for weighing in Keith!

      • Yes Amy, it really is a process! My concerts have a different feel and look to them than before you did the video critique. I am applying things I read on here, from the critique, as well as from Tom’s book. It seems there is a better connection with the audience than before.

        I have two gigs this weekend, one is The Passion Play Guitar Cantata and the other is a more generalized concert.

        Recently I have had to sit for concerts because of hurting my back, but the concerts still seem to be going well. I have found ways to change the pressure on the audience while sitting, but it’s still not quite the same as standing, but at least it is working!

        And I will keep in mind what you said about looking at the guitar during my instrumentals!

  4. I just saw an amazing instrumentalist who had crazy chops and over 20 gimics that were fascinating and funny. Yet I was bored after 3 songs. Why? Because he used almost every gimmick in every song. So what was at first a delightful surprise quickly turned into a letdown because it was a rerun of the last song. What I learned from it was to take stock of my own wow-factor features and assign them to specific songs to keep things new and interesting over my entire show (slap n’ pop in this song, open string runs in that one, chord solo in this one, shred scales in that one; if this song features my vocals best then don’t do an instrumental solo at all or keep it short and melodic). I implemented it at my next show and noticed that I kept my listeners attention better. And I had more fun because it felt just that much more intentional. Tom’s “change the pressure,” idea comes to mind. Of course, I am constantly working to bring something new and powerful to each song, but reality is that I play 60 songs each night and I need to budget the tools that I have.

  5. Funny! I just entered that little promo to get 60 minutes with Tom on the phone. I’m an instrumentalist and my questions constantly confront me during my gigs. How does one not simply become a glorified CD player? how can one connect when the patronage are realistically there primarily to talk and eat and drink? I’ve worked cruise ships and land based restaurants, and it often feels the same – a select few focus on you and encourage and communicate. The vast majority come and go, with no sign of even hearing you.
    I recognise that differing contexts require differing expectations. It isn’t a concert atmosphere. I guess I’m just looking to find out how to shape a show so I can do more concerts and connect, rather than just be the wallflower. Surely certain repertoire is better suited for different parts of a show/concert. I’m just not sure where to start!

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