Posts Tagged ‘performance’

So I have a big gig tomorrow. Not Wembley, though I will play it as though it is. It’s big because it’s an entire evening of just me. I’m not the support, I’m the ONLY.

It’s a little intimidating, if I’m honest. I have a modest opinion of my own ability, and the thought that my random musical musings might entertain a room full of people for nearly three hours is a little too outlandish for me to believe. But someone believes I can, or they would not have asked me. I must believe I can, deep down inside, or I would not have agreed to it!

As I have sweated over set lists during the last few weeks, it led me to ponder about writing them. What makes a set list good, bad, effective, or just downright boring. Some artists don’t bother with them at all. I have seen a number of people wing it based on the mood of the crowd, or their own particular whimsy. I don’t even wing it for an open mic! I approach set lists the way I used to approach compiling mix tapes – with care, consideration and a lot of listening to beginnings and endings of songs to make sure they work in sequence.

I have concluded it’s a dark art, for a variety of reasons:

Every crowd is unique

I still remember, with crawling, cold horror, a gig I played at a local rugby club. The friend who had booked me (and knew full well that at that time, my repertoire was limited to sad, navel-gazey songs about death and breakups) swore blind that I’d be adored. The reality was a Friday night crowd who wanted a living jukebox. My friend and my wife both applauded each song but they were the only ones. The crowning moment for me was the gentleman who approached me at the end and said “You’ve a lovely voice but you made me want to slit my wrists”

Then there have been the crowds who have loudly applauded my originals but sat stonily through covers, even though I thought it would definitely be a “covers” crowd. You can’t always predict. Very experienced artists can adjust the set on the fly (see “winging it”, above) but I have never been one of those…

The length of the gig matters.

Long gigs can be hard on the voice, so it starts to matter where the more vocally challenging material goes in the set. Short gigs give you less time to make an impression, so you need to pull out your showstoppers. Decisions, decisions… My ideal length is probably 40-60 minutes, so I can really go for it without having to worry too much about stamina.

Variety is the spice of gigs…

A set will rapidly become boring if you group songs with similar themes, keys, chord progressions and styles. Because I have a bad habit of writing sad songs, I try to sandwich them between happier songs and mix up the keys and styles to keep the set interesting. I also have an unfortunate habit of writing songs using arpeggios. More of my set writing is about keeping songs apart than putting them together!

Banter – the bane of my life

Some people can play a 30 minute set and only do 5 songs, filling the remaining time with witticisms, wry observations, audience participation and stand up comic action. That is not me. I lack the gift of the gab. I try not to be averse to one liners and small talk, but on me it just tends to look like I’m trying too hard. If I’m very comfortable with the crowd, it might spontaneously happen that I tell a joke, or engage in some light banter (cautiously, and only under appropriate circumstances and wearing suitable safety apparel), but it doesn’t happen often enough for me to depend on it, so I allow a straight 4 minutes per song and do more songs per set than other people seem to. No-one has ever accused me of being boring though, so I’m going to assume it’s all good.

set list planning

Set list planning

So what’s the secret? I try to follow the old rule about writing a story. I have a opening song (usually a really easy one to play and sing that acts as a warm up) followed by a faster, happier one to wake people up. I make sure I know how the set is ending – generally with a vocally powerful, climactic number. Then I fill in the middle with songs, keeping them varied in terms of key/progression/style. Sprinkle a few covers in if appropriate (or vice versa if doing a mainly covers set) Allow an extra song as en encore, just in case. And then I throw it all into an iTunes playlist and check it works.

That’s my method. And although I nearly packed it in and put all my songs into a hat to draw out randomly at tomorrow’s gig, I’m not brave enough for that yet. Maybe next time…

(If you find yourself passing along High Petergate, York, tomorrow evening from 8pm, do call in to the Eagle and Child for an acoustic evening with me and the aforementioned set list! Entry is free and they go a fabulous selection of gins! *hic* )

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Good afternoon! It’s a bit of a smoggy day out there, with lots of dramatic headlines in the papers about pollution in the UK so I hope you are all staying safe out there, especially anyone with asthma or lung disease…

I have a gig this evening – one that in the midst of all the viral goo, I nearly forgot I had! So today is a day of all my normal day to day jobs plus gig prep. There are five things I always do in preparation for a gig, that generally mean I can then relax and enjoy the gig and I thought I’d share them today. In no particular order, they are:


How many times do people arrive at a gig and find out their jack lead doesn’t work? Quite often, from what I’ve seen. I try to do this step before lunchtime, so that if something needs replacing or repairing, I have time to do it. I check my keys are working including the power supply, check the pedal, pack the working jack lead and a second, spare, working jack lead. I usually also bring my own microphone, spare batteries and spare clips. Just in case. I’ve also added in tightening and checking the keyboard stand, because as it’s getting older, it’s getting looser. It may sound anally retentive, but if I’ve double checked everything, I’ve massively reduced the chance of problems, which means I can focus on the performance. And plus, it’s just professional!


 I usually try to start this 24-48 hours before the gig, but sometimes I forget. Nevertheless, on the day of the gig, starting from rising, I drink a lot of water. The more hydrated I am the better it is for my voice and the better the performance will be. I try to avoid too much caffeine, fizzy stuff and dairy, to minimise the dreaded “clag” and if I’m feeling particularly dry I run a humidifier in the studio all day.


Starting with humming, “sirening” and trills first thing, and working up to full songs by the afternoon, I usually run my set list twice, once early with some of it hummed, and once later as a proper rehearsal. I try not to over-rehearse on the day because in my experience that can cause problems for the actual show. I’ll also play through, starting with some basic scales, and up to songs at full speed in the afternoon, to get my hands warm. If it’s cold outside, I’ll generally make sure I’m wearing a scarf and gloves to travel to the venue so I don’t undo all the work of warming up.


I’ll pack a box of CDs, making sure I have a poster or label with the price and my web address clearly marked. I also pack business cards to put out on tables, a sheet for a mailing list, some badges, some postcards and a float so I can give people change. I tend to mention my web address during my set but because my name has an unusual spelling, I find it helps to use cards too as people can take those away with them for later reference.


Sounds counterintuitive with all the things I need to do to prepare but a key part of the day is a period of rest. It can be a nap in the afternoon, or an hour with a good book, or a long soak in the bath, but I make sure I take some time to regroup, gather my thoughts and quietly prepare. I’ve learned from experience that without this step, the day can rapidly become very stressful, and I never perform as well if I’m frazzled with nerves and tension. The rest period doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be there.

So there you have it, my personal tips for ways to prepare. Of course, your mileage may vary. I also swear by Fruit Pastilles to help with dry voice, which I’m fairly sure would make some singing teachers weep… What do you do to prepare for gigs and presentations? Share your hints and tips in the comments. Cheerio until next time!


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