Stage Craft for the Writer In You

In the world of live performance our opinions as artists do not matter. What our critics, supporters, and mentors think of us also is not important. Only the audience in front of us matters. Are we connecting with them or are we not? Do they want more of what we offer or not? Do they want to buy what we have to sell?

Manet

Manet

Rejection and Recognition

Writers and poets, sculptors and painters have dealt this for centuries. The impressionist painter Manet responded to a critic who said, “Surely he is painting for his own amusement,” by saying, “Of course my painting amuses me, why else would I do it?”

Moby dickWriter Herman Melville died unhailed, a pauper. He published Moby Dick himself, unable to interest any publishing house.  Melville’s fame was largely posthumous. We can only hope that our recognition is not similarly so.

Mary square

Mary Gauthier

Perhaps you know of singer songwriter Mary Gauthier. I saw Mary’s first open mike performance at Club Passim, it is how I met her. Her success is directly attributable to desire, courage, discipline, and talent. In that order. Although few people thought much of her in the beginning, I saw her artist’s soul. Because she allowed it to be seen. It is what makes her a compelling performer. Mary views herself as a writer. She is a performer because she is the vehicle for her material. Initially, it was hard for her to be so exposed and out of control. Later she learned to welcome that feeling as an indicator that she was on the right track.

Writing vs Performing

When we write, what we think is all that matters. When we sing, or speak, we give the song/poem/story away. A song needs a singer and it needs a listener. By singing your song for others you make them collaborators in the communication: It then becomes important what the audience thinks. We may not want this to be the case, but it is nonetheless.

My response to knowing that it is important what the audience thinks of me, is to be afraid that they will think ill. My sensitive soul avoids judgment and rejection, so I erect barriers that protect it. Fear, doubt, and insecurity are the norm for a performing artist.

Successful performers learn to remove barriers while performing. Often, barriers assume their normal place upon exiting the stage. Have you ever met a performer whose off stage persona is different than on stage? I am not recommending this. I recommend you be who you are, perhaps with the volume turned up a bit. But better that you learn to succeed on stage and get paid. Then you can afford professional help to deal with the other 23 hours.

As I say in the opening of my book, “If it was easy anyone could do it.”Soloperformer book square

I recommend you buy a copy of my book www.soloperformer.com and read it. Try to apply the ideas and suggested actions to your own act. When I speak to performers I tell them that when I do everything in my book I succeed. My friend Sam Bayer www.sambayer.com told me, “Rapson, I agree with everything you say to do, I just don’t want to do all that work.”

I Practice What I Preach

Guitar Group 2

Steve Sans Guitar

I opened for Kevin So a few years ago at Club Passim. I wanted to do a good job so I worked harder than I usually do on my 30 minutes. I had another gig in New Hampshire later in the week. I thought I should not squander all my preparation for Kevin’s opener, so I resolved to do everything in my book that I advise others to do. This involved even more intensive preparation, pre-show work when I arrived at the gig, and all the mental and physical work I recommend. If you do read my book, at each juncture you may ask yourself, I wonder if Steve did that?  The answer is yes, I did 100% of what I suggest others do. Sam is right; it is a ton of work.

So how did it go? I killed. It was the end of January in New Hampshire. Outside it was below zero. Inside there were about a hundred people in the room (free concerts sponsored by the town library).  Taking my own advice worked.

I advise artists “find whatever you are most afraid of, and go there.” That it is where the good material is. Do it in your writing and in your performing.

So what am I most afraid of? I am afraid of being on stage without my guitar. I am a solo guitarist. My act is built on my guitar playing.

At the last minute I thought that since I am so afraid of standing in front of a crowd with no guitar to hide behind, that I should do that. So I started my act with a poem I had written, standing naked, sans guitar.

And, Lo! It worked. I had faith in my material and went where I was afraid to go. I set myself on fire as Don White suggests.  www.donwhite.net

After the show I spent a half hour signing CD’s and chatting with the people. I sold to 30% of the room. The girl selling my CD’s in the back lectured me that I would have sold many more if I had not run out of the popular titles. This does not happen all the time. But it never happens unless I do the work required. And even then sometimes not. But it happens enough for me to do it whenever I perform. I swing for average and take the home runs as occasional blessings.

Prepare To Be Your Best

A performer once wrote me:

   I have a sensibility that forbids me from exploiting affectation to manipulate less sensitive listeners. I hope, paradoxically, that this is one of my strengths as an artist.

Many performers say similar things to me during coaching sessions.

However, being honest and open, being vulnerable and emotionally accessible is not an affectation. Further, our audience is sensitive, and smart. They know when they are getting the good stuff and when they are not. Affected is the last thing you want to be.

Here is the big secret: How do you feel when you are relaxed and comfortable with people you care about and who you know care about you? How do you behave in that environment? Summon that feeling for the stage and let your feelings guide your actions.

It is work to be yourself on stage. When you are comfortable being yourself, the next level is to be yourself at your best: you with the volume turned up. Good material, thoroughly prepared is a given. Once you have the material, you must hone your presentation of it. This includes your feelings and the behaviors, however subtle, they engender.

It is the misperception of the amateur that anything that is not spontaneous and unplanned is phony and exploitive.

This is not easy, and most of the people I have coached have been unable to do it. My coaching strategy is usually reductive, not additive, i.e. stop doing that, move less, say less, or in extreme cases, say nothing.

If I can do it, most can do it. The ability to do it is different from the discipline and the courage to do it.

The singer is the vehicle for the song. If you believe in your song, your story, your poem, then your mission is to be the kind of performer that brings it to a wider audience. When your actions are about the mission and not about you, then you can be free of any restraints you put on yourself.

What Success Looks Like

My friend Bill Fitzpatrick of www.success.org, says to be successful, copy those who are successful. So here are some recommended performers to watch: HBO’s Def Poets; The Vagina Monologues; Rickie Lee Jones Live at the Wiltern Theatre; Stop Making Sense (a movie of the Talking Heads Live show); Say Amen, Somebody;sayamensomebody Richard Pryor Live In Concert (also Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip); Jerry Seinfeld’s movie: Comedian; Margaret Cho Live – Notorious Cho (not for delicate sensibilities); and anything with the Dali Lama speaking to an audience.  And I am sure you have several examples of your own that have inspired you.

Most of these are available at Amazon on DVD. Each performance exemplifies what I am talking about in bringing one’s whole self to the stage: great material, top notch performance, and an emotional accessibility that cannot be faked or affected.

All those things are there because the performers have learned that this is what it takes to succeed, even if they feel uncomfortable being so accessible (as in the case of RLJ, where her discomfort shows in the beginning). Eventually it feels good. I think you will be exhilarated, inspired, and humbled by these examples of performance art at the highest level.

I am a fan of humility, for it is the soil where we grow best.

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Steve Rapson is a song writer, concert guitarist, and author of  The Art of The Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage and Podium.

www.soloperformer.com

Stage Fright — Q&A by Steve Rapson

Dear Steve,

My name is Kristen and I have severe stage fright. I can sing alone just fine, anything actually. But when I’m in front of people, I freeze and turn bright red. Also, no one has ever told me I have an “incredible voice” or anything like that. I do believe that I have a really good voice and I eventually want to go into the music biz. I can’t even sing in front of my best friend of 8 years. I’m afraid she’ll laugh at me or snigger and say that I suck or something. If you could give me some advice, or help me in some way that would be great.

Thanks again, Kristen.

Dear Kristen:

Stage fright is the same as stage excitement. It is that feeling of being “up” and ready to do your best. It is a good thing. Many performers become flushed when they perform at their peak. They may sweat profusely and turn beet red. This happens when blood vessels dilate. It is the brain preparing you to do your best. All this is caused by the release of adrenaline. It is the “fight or flight” response. You want this to happen and then take action. Debilitating stage fright occurs when you neither fight nor flee. You grind in place taking no action while the engine races in high gear. Cars don’t like this; your mind/body doesn’t either.

Experienced performers have learned that this elevated feeling is natural and something good to be used in their act. They have learned to control and use it. Beginners call it stage fright. It often gets out of control and prevents them from doing what they have prepared to do.

So what needs to change is not your physical responses when you are about to perform, but your thoughts about them. Just as your body can be trained to go through certain motions automatically through repetition of the same action–called practice–you can train your mind to think the right things when these changes happen.

The cure for stage fright is practice. Mozart said, “Slow practice makes for fast playing.” Slow practice is meditation for the body. To help your mind you might try meditation.

Here are some thoughts to meditate on. Meditation is to the mind what physical practice is to the body.

1. If you are afraid of what people might think of you, be assured they are not thinking of you. They are thinking of themselves.

2. If you are afraid you will make a mistake, be assured no one will notice you made a mistake unless you tell them or show them through body language that says you are not happy with your performance. They won’t notice because they are too busy thinking their own thoughts which are about themselves.

3. If you are afraid of the criticism of others, be assured that when you are criticized–rarely will this happen–the information you receive is about the speaker and not about you. As the saying goes, “What people say about others reveals more of themselves than about others.” This goes for critics as well.

4. If you receive praise from others, be assured that it is as meaningless as criticism. It is not good to let either enter that quiet place in your mind where you know the truth of all things.

5. All greatness is built upon humility. A humble soul is the foundation for great acts. So when you are filled with self doubt, when you think your best is not good enough, when you do everything right and it stills looks wrong, you are being given humility. True humility is hard to come by. The proper response for such a great gift is gratitude.

6. All performing is about and for the audience. Even an audience of one. Although our performance seems to say, “See me, hear me, touch me,” all great performers turn this around and send the message, “I see you, I hear you, I touch you.” This is the irony and the catch-22 of show business. The humble soul can do it. The fearful soul cannot. Fear is about you. Love and acceptance is about them. Fear wants to push away. Love and acceptance wants to take in. The love is for them; the acceptance is for yourself.

As you meditate on these things, breathe deeply and slowly. Do this for a half hour every day. Fifteen minutes in the morning and another fifteen at night.

If you are a singer, take lessons and do the exercises that will strengthen your singing muscles.

If you do all these things you will be surprised–and humbled we hope–at the results. But you may not notice your success because you will be thinking of others.

I recommend my book, The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium

Good luck, Kristen.

Steve

PS: To answer your question… You will never really know for sure if you are good enough. After many years of singing you could look back and say, “Well, I guess I was good enough.” But that’s another story.

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Steve Rapson is an author, songwriter and solo guitarist with one book published and several CD’s released.  All available at www.soloperformer.com

 

Who You Gonna Call? by Steve Rapson

 Dear Soloperformer:

 I’ve been reading your site for some time. I own the PA and SR copyrights on my CD’s.  I’ve played for years around the country, networking to cities that are in reach. The one thing no one has ever told me is to whom I might send my music that would give it a serious listen and perhaps promote it.  There are plenty of guides on what to do, but not on whom to ask.

 Thanks for any advice you might have.

 Jim

___________________________________

Dear Jim:

It is a myth or at least a misapprehension among new authors, songwriters, and poets that there are people in the music and publishing business whose job it is to listen to or read their work with an eye to picking the best and packaging it for sale.

There is no one like that. The music business does have systems in place for sourcing new songs and singers and writers. Those systems are constructed to prevent the great unwashed from ever getting in the door. If you want to be heard, if you want a shot at a fair consideration of your work, then you must enter the system and play by its rules. The rules are the same for any business:

 1. Know your product.

 2. Know your customer.

 3. See a lot of people and ask all to buy.

 I do not mean to be glib. I mean to be accurate and brief.

Consider Proctor and Gamble, the world’s largest maker of soap. They are always developing new soap brands and they have an R&D department that occasionally finds a new wrinkle in soap. From time to time an outside inventor believes he has a new idea about soap and will contact P&G to ask who he should present his new soap idea to. P&G’s response goes something like this:

Dear Soap Inventor:

My secretary/assistant has informed me that you have sent an idea about a new soap. We appreciate your interest, however I cannot consider or even read your letter. Our R&D department has many products and new formulations that may or may not be similar to yours. Therefore, to avoid patent infringement issues, we must return your letter unread.

Thank you for your interest.

I worked for Gillette/P&G for many years and I wrote several of these letters.

Selling music is not much different than selling soap. The consumer of these products may see a qualitative difference, but the business end does not. The analogy breaks down only in that there are very few people with a burning desire to bring a new soap to market, but there are millions with a new song ready to be heard.

A crowded supply side makes for a system that builds walls around itself just to keep the hordes at bay in order to do day to day business. If you want to sell your songs you must know what you are selling, to whom you are selling it, and why they might find it of value. To get a chance to pitch you need to have contacts, a network, that you have built over time that allows you entrance into the system.

You are right in that how-to books have little to say on who to send material to–there is no one as explained above–however, here are some resources that might help you get your songs heard:

Websites:

www.performingsongwriter.com  www.taxi.com  www.ascap.com   www.bmi.com  www.sesac.com  www.musesmuse.comwww.broadjam.comwww.musicu.comwww.janisian.com

Books:

  The Songwriters Market — which actually does purport to tell you who to send your songs to. 

  Caveat Emptor! 

Here is what one unhappy reviewer said:

…Save your money, buy a ticket to Nashville, make appointments with real people. I will never waste  money and false hopes on this junk again.”


 

 Jason Blume’s, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success

 www.jasonblume.com

 Mr. Blume knows whereof he speaks.

I have met and worked on my songwriting with Jason Blume.

I recommend his book and his website.

  And of course once you get heard, you’ll want to deliver your best performance, so I recommend my book:

  The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium

  www.soloperformer.com

  Here I will quote my friend Sam Bayer about my book, “Rapson, I agree with everything in your book… I just don’t want to do all that work”

If it was easy, even more people would be doing this. I guess we should be thankful it is not too easy.

Because there are so many of us wishing to be heard, legitimate businesses have cropped up that will take our money in exchange for that opportunity. In the old days, these people were called song-sharks. They were not concerned with actually delivering on the promise of making you or your song a star. They charged hundreds or even thousands of dollars with the empty promise of doing that. Their pitch was believable because it did indeed cost a lot of money to get a demo made, and time and connections it to the right people.

But now it is easy and cheap to make a demo. And contact to the world is an email away. So the song-shark business model has become a bit more honorable, if still little better than a lottery ticket. For a few hundred dollars you can join Taxi.com, or Broadjam.com for example, and submit your material for review.  These people act as middlemen to the music, advertising and movie industry who are always looking for artists and songs. It is still a crap shoot. But at least it’s on the up and up. Similarly, song writing and singing contests abound. They are in business to make money from all of us. It’s a game, and it doesn’t cost much to play. But it is not the real music business where artists are found and developed. Even though, now and then, a few are.

For every rule there is an exception, someone who steps outside the system and finds a way in that is contrary to the way business is normally done. These are the stories that are fun to tell and thus are the ones we often hear. A few are; Donna Summer singing in the toilets as a cleaning women and being heard by a producer who makes her a star. Teen-aged Diane Warren getting a job as a clerk in a music company in order to slip her tapes to anyone important who walked in the door. I slipped Johnny Cash’s limo driver a tape during a snow storm in Boston. He ignored me at first until I said, “Look at me, I’m old, I don’t have much more time!” He laughed and rolled down his window and took the tape, assuring me he would hand it to Mr. Cash that night. I followed up with the Cash organization but nothing came of it. The song is still a good one and perhaps I should do more limo stalking.

Good luck in finding your way through the music business maze.

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Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium. He is a songwriter and concert guitarist with several CD’s in release. www.steverapson.com