Going Solo?

In the past couple of weeks I have played a few shows without Fig For A Kiss or any other musicians. This was mainly for practical and financial reasons, and it may be necessary to do it more often. The recent gigs went very well, and in fact CD sales were unusually high, considering the small audiences. I have definitely gained some new fans. Playing solo, however, is a very different experience from playing in a band, and I feel I have a lot to learn. But I am now intrigued with the possibilities it affords, and would like to reflect on these more.

What makes bands great is communication. A shared creative vision is possible with the understanding and respect of each other’s cues and signals. In this way each member can express individuality while still fitting in and supporting the whole, thereby producing art that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is comparable to a loving couple telling the story of how they met. They may interrupt each other or even correct each other, but this only builds the excitement for the listener. The musicians’ conspiratorial foreknowledge of the performance elevates it above reporting or reproducing, allowing it to become playful. When this happens it is a delight for both performers and listeners; everyone witnesses or participates in something beautiful and unique to the moment of its creation, regardless of the age of the repertoire.

A solo performance can be equally great, but must have the same key elements, namely, communication and spontaneity. It can be a challenge to adhere to these ideals though, because the conversation is entirely between one person and the audience. As a performer, I cannot assume that listeners are fluent in the musical language that I choose, or even that they have similar musical tastes. There can be no inside jokes; I cannot expect anyone to laugh empathetically; at every moment I must invite people in.

And yet, when I succeed, the reward is immense! When I am alone on stage, my gift (the performance) may seem smaller, but it is tailored to the audience. I can substitute any repertoire because none of it has to be learned by the band. I can pick up any instrument and let it be featured without fear of doubling someone else’s part. In my case, because of all the instruments I play, this gives my performance a lot of variety. I am also more in control of dynamics and improvised arrangement because no one has to lock in with me. If I exchange banter with someone in the audience, everyone in the room feels like a participant. By tuning in to the audience’s toe-tapping, laughter, eye contact, or the breathless silence before applause, I learn quickly what lures them in. And if the mood is right, I can share a story that really lets people know me. What I offer becomes customized, more intimate, and therefore may be even more valuable and memorable (as evidenced by the extra CD sales).

The danger, or difficulty, is that the audience may not be ready to participate in co-creation at first. They may not always be generous with their attention, and may not easily show their appreciation. Especially in a bar, people’s priorities may be drinking and talking. Consequently I feel awkward; as if I am talking to myself. I forget the lyrics of songs because they sound like random syllables with no real meaning or story. I begin to use my singing voice incorrectly; straining to be heard regardless of the volume of the sound system. In this situation, performing solo feels lonely, and I miss my band mates.

But rather than struggling to be noticed, there is an alternative. It is disarmingly simple and is used in business presentations ubiquitously. To quote the popular wisdom:

Tell ‘em what you're gonna tell ‘em.
Tell ‘em.
Then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

This method is very helpfully explained at BusinessTown.com. I am already learning how well this can be adapted to my performances. I must not underestimate the importance at the outset of introducing myself and telling the audience what it is that I do, and where I come from. Interestingly, by assuming that people want to know, I gain their interest. Not only that, but they are enabled to hear differently; if I provide some context for the songs I choose, they make more sense.

I have been cautious about this in the past because there is an unfortunate tendency for folk musicians to be long-winded. I too have been guilty of this fault. The current norm is for folk musicians to explain their songs more than in other styles of music, and often too much. By relying on habit, two-way communication between audience and performer degrades and is no longer playful.

The key is including people. Rather than explaining a song or a fiddle tune, I must simply prepare people to experience it for themselves; I must make it more personal. I can do this by asking them to participate with clapping, whooping, or signing along, or I can tell them why a particular piece has extra meaning for me. People love to imagine where I have travelled, or how I learned a song from my father, or how I chose the many instruments I play. My job as a performer is to enhance their lives by drawing them in to experience life from my point of view.

At the end of the evening, I need to acknowledge that something has been shared both ways. By thanking the audience I let listeners know that they have been participants. Even just by announcing my last number, I am implying a kind of sanctity of the performance; that a transition is therefore required before a return to mundane life. By saying my name and the name of the event or the venue, I am putting a seal on the gift, giving it a better chance of survival in their memories.

I am fascinated by this exploration. I look forward to the opportunity to hone my solo performances by remaining mindful of the guidelines I am discovering. Perhaps I will accept or even pursue these kinds of engagements more often. I also realize how important it is to listen to feedback from those who have attended my performances. Perhaps even this blog will contribute to this ongoing communication.

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