On the Quality of Live Music (And How to Play a Good Gig)

After attending a music university, performing at dozens of gigs in and around London, and paying close attention to the artists on stage, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion about the quality of music at live shows and its relation to the audience’s experience. It’s a theory I’ve been thinking about for the past few months, so it’s still in its inchoate stage, but coherent enough to describe the general idea in an abridged post.

I am currently writing a book in which I go into much more detail about this subject so I would appreciate your genuine feedback on this idea in the comment section.

In his TED-Ed Talk, Victor Wooten correctly points out that we should “approach music the same way we learn a language by embracing mistakes and playing as often as possible.” It doesn’t matter if your performance is covered in mistakes as long as you are able to adjust accordingly to assure, at least at minimum, an incremental improvement in your next performance.

It is of crucial importance that, if you’re blessed/cursed with an aptitude in music, you develop your skills in such a way that you maximize the quality of your musical expression to the best of your ability, because it will allow you to speak fluently and successfully participate in more demanding conversations such as improvisational jam nights.

If you do not put in the time and effort to develop your musical speech, you will not be able to contribute increasingly valuable ideas to the musical conversation across time. Assuming that you dare call yourself a musician (and a musician is not someone who can merely play guitar or sing to an acceptable level so much as a woodworker is not someone who can merely build a table to an acceptable level), you should be capable of participating in and occasionally taking the lead of a challenging performance. Of course, that also depends on the level of competence the conversation requires.

In any case, let’s take a look at what it means for a musician to “speak” properly.

In fact, let’s address the issue directly: Why are some live performances tasteless and boring when the potential for creative expression is virtually inexhaustible?

Well, for the sake of keeping it as short as I can without sacrificing the essence of what I want to say, here’s my attempt at a cursory answer:

The content of the musical discussion, not the technical proficiency of the performers, is my personal basis for discerning if the quality of music is good or bad. You can be a flawless master of your instrument and have nothing to say. You can also be an enthusiastic novice with a riveting story to tell. You might not be able to use the necessary vocabulary to fully instill the excitement you wish to emerge from your audience, but at least you have something to say.

My concern with the music scene in London, and in general, is that many artists have nothing to say yet they assume their positions on a stage, perform for other people who pay to see them, and think of themselves as musicians because they’re playing an instrument or using their voice to sing.

By the way, I’m not discounting the fact that all artists try to find their voice and, in doing so, go through periods of confusion, articulate vague ideas, and imitate popular genres and styles. Imitation is obviously part of the journey of learning how to speak. But that should not be the end product sold by someone who calls themselves a musician, especially if the motivation is to play a certain style of music just because it’s popular with people.

It is important to note that there is an inherent value in knowing what you’re talking about and providing additional personal insights to a crowd who wants to connect with what you’re thinking. By doing so, you extend your creativity outward as a reflection of your personality and you allow your audience to relate to what you’re saying. If the content of what you’re expressing is truthful then that is part of what makes a performance good.

The other part that makes a performance good is when you are completely comfortable in your technical abilities to the extent that you are competent enough to explore your instrument in an improvisational manner. In order to get to that point, however, you need to ascertain what your limits are by practicing meticulously. Otherwise, you have to push your physical and cognitive ability past your comfort zone in an attempt to surpass your limitations to the extent that the risk of failure is almost certain. The odds of that happening consistently at live shows without tearing at the reputation of your musical talent is slight to none. But if your comfort zone is broad enough, due to extensive training, the potential for creative experimentation without the risk of failure is sufficient to instill awe and extract genuine appreciation from the audience.

In essence, if 1. you have something to say and 2. you have the ability to say it within the context of a truthful and meaningful story, your live performance will always result in your audience thinking, “That was a good gig.”

There is so much more to say about all of this but I’m bordering on 1,000 words right now, which is a bit much for a blog post. My book won’t be out for a few years, but it’s currently in the works. Let me know what you think because your feedback will help me move ahead in my exploration of this massive topic. Hopefully, I will be able to conjure up a cohesive argument that will provide some clarity in one way or another for aspiring as well as experienced musicians.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting! As a recipient of musicians, I agree with what your saying about a musician having ‘something to say’ if not why are they there?!
    I’ve always been moved to my core when an artist/musician as something to say and knows their instrument to a point where they can press pass comfort into improvisation which then creates magic! Or takes them and the audience into another realm! For me those kinds of gigs, which are few are priceless!
    I think we’re living in a time where there is a hunger for truth as things get more and more crazy and I believe artist/musicians are gifted with the responsibility to be truthful in their offerings to those coming to listen!
    I think you’ve started a interesting, challenging and needed conversation that may push and encourage a new generation of musicians to
    a new level….

    1. As someone who is not a musician, nor a wood worker, I thoroughly enjoyed your metaphor that compares live music performances to a conversation. My one thought to add is, that sometimes people do have excellent things to say, but they have been heard a million times before and become mundane, which in turn makes them no longer excellent. You seem to be gifted in both the musical and verbal spectrums, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts in your book. Your posts are always a nice read.

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