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Four Minutes to Shine – 3 Tools to Help You Choose

Sometime, somewhere it will happen…for many of you at least.  You enter a competition or get a chance to play as an opening act or at an event or showcase where you just get to do one song.  Brutal decision.

You think, “How do I choose from ALL my incredible tunes, and decide THIS is the one to do…THIS is the song that will win and blow away the crowd?”  It’s tough, but follow these guidelines for help.

First, find out who your audience will be.  Knowing the age and makeup of the crowd may help you hone in on the right song.  And, are you in front of judges?  A panel?  Regular people?  

Do they know who you are or will this be the first time they are seeing/hearing you?  For example, you probably won’t do your fun ‘get-someone-onstage’ moment in front of a bunch of ‘suits’ only (labels, A&R dudes, etc).

If there are enough ‘regular’ people in the audience, you may be able to try that, but that’s not going to go over if it’s strictly industry folks with their ‘hurry-up-and-impress-me-quick-cuz-I’m-busy’ faces.

Next, find out what type of venue it is.  Are you outside at a fair where people are walking by, or are they seated and hanging on your every word in a small indoor theater?  This would be the difference between choosing a feel-good ‘up’ tune, versus a chance to play your killer goose-bump inducing ‘touching’ moment.

Thirdly, within those parameters, choose the song that showcases best, who you are and your strengths.  AND, a song that you know backwards and forward.  This is not the time to experiment!  Go with what you KNOW.

I recently worked with an artist who was opening a major country music show in an outdoor stadium.  They were the FIRST artist to play; starting the evening off.  No one would know who they were and the promoter wanted them to ‘get the crowd going’.  Uh…no pressure THERE!  The audience would be made up of families – all ages.  They would be seated or standing and watching.

The artist picked a 4-5 rated original ‘hooky’ party tune she was comfortable with that I thought she sounded strong on.  BUT, a couple of days before the gig, the promoter came back and said they HAD to do a cover tune as well…but they only had a TOTAL of four minutes.  What??!! Threw us for a loop but we put our heads together.

I knew it would not be a good move to try and do 2 minute versions of 2 songs.  That doesn’t allow the audience to get into a groove, OR create much of a moment.  You’d short-change yourself on both counts.

Instead, we worked on an intro/chorus of a familiar pop tune that everyone would know, then segued easily into the country rock tune they planned on.  I loosely use the term ‘easily’, since it required a lot of calculating/tempo compromise/key change experimentation, etc. (The rebel in me said, “Here’s your cover…a chorus!” – followed by me sticking my tongue out :-))

We created a fun breakdown moment in the middle, then ended the song with a chorus of the same cover tune they opened with.  It’s a song the audience could be coaxed into singing along with, if the band saw the crowd was energized and ready.

We had to make a big impact in little time and I feel we chose well.  Now, I have to admit, I broke the third point I talked about earlier.  The artist had to learn that pop tune chorus, AND we experimented with her playing a super easy drum part along WITH the drummer.  

I knew we had a whole day to work on this one song, and the singer was excited about trying it.  If it hadn’t been working, we’d have time to go to plan B and still be okay.  


This artist was a quick study and nailed both the new chorus and drum part, and every run-through got stronger.  Once it was mapped out, it was a matter of repetition over several hours, to get her and the band to the point where they didn’t have to ‘think’ about it anymore.

Hope this helps when YOU have to choose well.  Let us know if you have situations coming up and need some help nailing down the right song, or if you’ve had gigs like this…we’d like to hear how you were able to choose and how the audience reacted!

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. Excellent article. why? Because the funny thing is I did this with my band in Montreal in 2005. We played 2 songs (our best and well rehearsed) and in front of a live crowd AND 3 record execs. We were allotted 10min (we did not exceed). We didn’t have a steady fanbase yet, but completely won over the crowd. then we sat with the execs afterwards telling us how great we were, how they loved my voice and the songs were well written, but they were only looking to sign “the next Killers style band”. quote “were looking for the 1968-1974 era/style”. That we were not and not going to conform when that is not what we’re about. Only proved to me pretty much that day that we weren’t going to get signed and had to do things on our terms whether signed or not. Still doing what I love today, but had to find that success on my own terms…not theirs.

    I don’t regret the experience. Even though my truck broke down on the way there, even though I hauled our full on cabs and gear up and down a flight of stairs, even though I paid out of my pocket $300 for the application…I learned a good lesson. Don’t conform, but do put on your best face when performing so you won’t have any regrets.

    • Thanks Ger! Knowing who you are as an artist is huge…conforming to something/someone else ‘to get the deal’ would have led to you being unhappy and unfulfilled. Good for you!

  2. This is excellent advise to keep in mind for doing special music at churches as well. I sometimes get asked to play one or two special music songs in place of the choirs in the summers. I think I’ll apply some of the ideas to my next special music gig.

  3. Just 2 days ago I was given the task of putting together a 15 min showcase from our hour and a half Woodstock tribute show called Peace of Woodstock. I put together the show using principles I learned from your book and DVD series All Roads Lead to The Stage, along with a Young American Showcase vet. Our show ROCKS! The concept I used was similar to the 5 min song situation, distill the essence of what makes the song great and diminish or eliminate the fluff.

    There are 3 principals to feature in the show along with the best staging moments in the show. I went back and found each of our best moments to develop in 3 – 4 min. Every one of these moments gets standing O’s every time because they have been developed and fine tuned. I began by shortening all intros and endings in order to allow time for developing the flow and energy of the moments and allowing the featured performer time to do what they do best.

    I have incorporated many changes of pressure. At one point there will only be one person on stage. Another will be a 3 piece rock band. Another look will be the keyboard player out front leading audience participation, and there is the all hands on deck look of the full band. We have 2 very different musical moments, a you can hear a pin drop moment, the element of surprise, huge visually dynamic moments, changes of pressure… the transitions will be the current transitions that always flow smoothly. Oh man I’m so stoked about this!!!

    I have made an introduction recording with actual announcements from Woodstock that includes a voice over to introduce the show. We have a media presentation if there is a screen available. Though there will be 7 songs in 15 min, it will feel like a natural progression to the audience. This will not be 7 individual songs, someone taught me NOT to think in terms of songs, this will be 5 moments. Obviously the intro and ending, with 3 featured performers moments.

    We will have moments within moments, musical moments visual show moments… we have 6 months to get this right and it’s going to kill! Why? Because I got inspired and can visualize this entire presentation. I know what the outcome will be from each moment, and we are going to stand out (in a positive way) from the other bands in the showcase.

    We live in a region where for the most part, medeocrity is the accepted normal. I feel bad for whoever follows us in this showcase, but the truth is that I have studied your the live music method, I have a clear vision of this presentation, I have a Showcase vet to bounce ideas and concepts off, we have implemented the principals and techniques, we have been performing this show for a few years now and we have a solid team of performers who believe this works. This is going to be Great!

    • That’s great Will! Sounds like a solid show. Having a VISION first for what it can be, is key. Would love to see it when you have everything put together and rehearsed!

  4. Excellent idea! My only question is, when segueing into the original, was there a spoken introduction of the original over music or just a straight shot from cover chorus to original?

    • Jeremy, we did a hit/sustain on the ‘1’ chord, then I had the drummer do an 8 count build-up into the next song intro. We matched up the keys too – changing the cover song key to match, but you wouldn’t necessarily HAVE to do that. Just as long as the change sounds ok to transition to. Good question!

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