I’m pretty sure after 45 years of performing music, I have experienced most stage disasters. I might add, it’s usually what you remember most about concerts looking back. Let me say first that some of the unplanned experiences on stage have been the very thing to bring the audience to attention in a good way. I’m approached quite often by someone with a memory of seeing me in concert. The unplanned moments are what stick in their minds more often than not. I’ve come to expect a less then perfect concert. But how you handle the unexpected will determine what you communicate best to your audience.
Someone pointed out to me years ago that people go to “See” bands or singers. Seldom do you hear someone say “I went to hear them”. Believe it or not, intimacy is deeper than the music. You should plan to know your audience and let them know you from the very beginning.
A False Start: Usually, if the soundcheck goes well, it’s almost a guarantee that it will get messed up before you walk out on stage. You are introduced, you take the stage, your mic is not on, or the power has a glitch, an instrument isn’t working. There are any number of gremlins in the sound system. You can count on this one.
Step one: Smile! The best thing you can demonstrate here is that you are well versed in setbacks. Every one of us has them.
Step two: Redirect the audience while hopefully someone is helping you with the problem. I’ve come to make entertainment out of disasters like these. It’s an opportunity to introduce yourself. Never lose track of your audience, no matter how bad it is. You should always have a quick story in mind of another time. Short stories are captivating. Here’s your chance to personalize your time with new friends. What you say here may endear you to people and have them leaning in just a little more when you deliver your songs.
Instrument Malfunctions: Snapped guitar strings, computer program crashes, and battery fails are the most common. I have a whole set of ‘unplugged’ songs for just such an occasion. Again, this is an opportunity for a side note! Every circus has a side-show. In band situations, someone is on stage ready to play something. You can introduce a particular player and let them do something unique. (Preferably, that they have prepared for behind the scenes). If you are alone on stage and your only instrument goes down, this can still be an entertaining moment. Be creative! I’ve sung songs acapella. But here’s where I’ve created some memorable moments over the years. I can still recall a concert where my sustain pedal was sliding across the floor. I took the microphone with me under my CP70 Grand Piano and continued to sing while I fixed the pedal. People still remind me of that concert specifically. Or the time the PA system went down completely. There was an acoustic piano on rollers off the stage on the theater floor. I pushed it to the center Aisle and played unplugged to a thousand people who were now leaning in to hear. It reminds me of a quote from a war movie I saw. “When you are outnumbered and surrounded, there is always one more thing that you can do.” So plan for it. And again, never lose the audience; redirect their attention.
Or the time the PA system went down completely. There was an acoustic piano on rollers off the stage on the theater floor. I pushed it to the center Aisle and played unplugged to a thousand people who were now leaning in to hear.
Accidents. Some bands have perfected stage diving as part of their events, but more than once I have fallen off the stage, and not on purpose. I’ve fallen backwards over monitors, got tripped up in microphone cables, and knocked guitars over. I recall a concert with Steve Taylor where he ended up breaking his ankle by jumping off the stage. He finished the song bouncing on one foot while he continued to sing. The audience joined him, assuming it was a simple dance move after an embarrassment. Last time I fell off the stage I bounced up quickly, and I was amazed after the concert at how few people actually saw me fall. Of course, it was posted online and put to music later, but there’s your classic marketing strategy! There’s no way to avoid the embarrassment. But in most cases, you can simply recover and not make a big deal out of it. Unless there is some humor to be found in adding a comment to the obvious distraction. Again, an audience can almost feel the embarrassment as if it were their own. Laughing at yourself and moving on is always inspiring to those of us who know too well that accidents happen.
Mistakes. I must say I’ve written many new songs because I got lost in the middle of the old ones! And I’ve played through a few divorces with the band, where they stayed on the Chorus while I was crossing the Bridge. I’ve also introduced one song and then played something else because I misread the setlist. I’ve forgotten words almost regularly, and to songs I’ve sung more times than I can remember, obviously.
And then there’s just ‘clams’ in playing your instrument. My band once referred to a chord nobody got right on the stage as a “demolished 13”. First of all, never stop playing! Know that the audience, for the most part, doesn’t catch a lot of what makes you feel like an idiot, unless you make that face you wear on Halloween. Better to say Hallelujah and get the next part right. Don’t ever look back, and don’t mention it.
Failure to Appear. If you’ve played with a full band, you know this one. The Bass player has a flat tire or he’s stuck in traffic, the drummer’s mother passed away suddenly and he can’t make the show at all. Or, one I remember, the keyboard player had all of his equipment stolen out of his car at the bar he played last night. Unless you are on tour where your musicians are sequestered in a small room for days on end, someone will inevitably turn up missing. A healthy understanding of your songs and their accompaniment is crucial. Scratch songs that highlight a key instrument’s missing part where you can. I’ve also had the bass turned up on my piano notes and held down the bass lines as best I could. You might have to know how to just skip the B section where the guitarist launches into his “In A Gadda Da Vida” solo. I can recover from most missing musicians. But the drummer is really crucial for most of my songs. I have several drummers on call if I have enough time. But in an emergency, this will be a major change in my set list. I’ve been known to have a singer who can play percussion, and we will approach the songs with a more acoustic sound. Of course, we also have backing tracks in some cases that will cover percussion loss. Hard as it might be to adjust your attitude on the night, don’t mention people who aren’t there. Get over your disappointment and look for ways to enjoy the music with those are there. Always present like it was planned. And remember, if you have a good time and get the audience to smile, you are getting the job done. I recall a comment by Maya Angelo that always applies. “People may forget what you say, they may forget what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” There, my musician friends, is your primary goal. Not to impress, or glorify your talent, but to let songs and stories and music give your audience the opportunity to feel something great.