Category Archives: Techniques, Tips and Advice for Musicians

A place to share tips and tricks of the music industry

When is a bad gig not a bad gig?

As musicians, we all have our share of bad gigs – myself included. It’s worth remembering though, that regardless of how you felt a performance went, the audience doesn’t necessarily share your feelings.

I’ll give you an example: I played at a venue a while back where I really struggled to hear what my percussionist and I were playing due to inadequate sound separation between where we were playing and another room where a rock band had been booked. As an acoustic act, there was no way we were going to win that battle! I came off stage thinking ‘well that one was a write-off’ – despite trying to keep a professional front on things, I felt that my performance really suffered. I hadn’t played as well as I know I can, and I beat myself up for letting the situation get on top of me.

That ‘awful’ gig got a glowing review from one of the audience members, which he kindly shared on my Facebook site.

An even more poignant example is described in the post below from Rennie Sparks on the DIY Musician blog:

DIY Musician – How Good Things Can Come From the Worst Gigs

I’ll leave you with a quote from Rennie’s post, as it’s a nice summing up:

“…every chance you’re given to offer your art to the world is a chance for adding meaning to life (yours and other people’s). You may not know how meaningful your work is for some time. You may never know. Have faith, though, that what you’ve put your heart into will speak to the heart of another… It adds up.

There have been many other “horrible shows” along the path of my musical career, but the amazing thing is this: There have also been just as many times when fans have told me that they first saw us play and fell in love with our music at a show I remember distinctly as being god-awful, ignored, meaningless.”

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Ells’ Helpful Guide To Music Things Part 4: Surviving Your First Open Mic

Ok, this post is a bit of a re-hash of a piece I did for the 4014 Radio show back in the day, but seeing as it’s nearly time for our annual 4014 Project Carnival Open Mic, I thought it would be good to go over again.

So, it’s your first Open Mic – that’s great! I hope you’re excited, but I expect that you’re pretty nervous too. Here’s my tips for making the most of your Open Mic experience:

  • Preparation – Practice, practice and then practice some more. Remember that you will be nervous on the night, and that this might make your performance a little less than perfect. The better you know your songs or pieces the better you’ll feel.

    Open Mics are a great opportunity to improve your stage presence and performance skills – the best way to get more confident on stage is to get on stage. They generally have a supportive and encouraging atmosphere too.

  • DO IT – If it’s your first time performing in front of a crowd, it takes guts to actually get up on the stage. Every musician out there will tell you that it’s worth it though.
  • Make Yourself known – There will probably be a slightly stressed looking somebody around with a list: that’s the person you need. Let them know that you want to play. I would try to get there early(ish – you don’t want to hang around tooo long), so that you’re guaranteed a place.
  • Are we sitting comfortably? – Position yourself so that you can comfortably sing into the mic. If you  need to look at the neck of your guitar or the keys of the piano (or whatever instrument you play), move the mic/mic stand so you can do so without singing ‘off mic’. Moving things about is not a crime – remember, the sound person wants you to sound your best, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

    As a side note, it’s a very good idea to practice with a mic if you can – it’ll help you get a good idea of the best placement for you.
  • Annnd relax….– Before you start your performance, take a deep breath and a second to try to relax. Your adrenaline level will probably be quite high, so it’s easy to rush in and play too fast.
  • Look at the audience… – Looking at the audience will make you seem more confident, regardless of how you’re feeling inside. If that freaks you out or puts you off, try looking over the audience. You don’t have to do it all the time, but if you don’t look up at all, you won’t make as strong a connection with your listeners.
  • Ignore the Chatter – There probably will be some people in the audience who talk. If you can, just try to ignore them. There are people who are listening, and they want you to do well.
  • Don’t worry if you make a mistake – It’s live music – nobody expects it to be perfect. All musicians have messed up on stage. If you can’t keep going, try to pick up from near where you left off. And if you’re bold and make a joke of it, then I bet you’ll get an even bigger cheer at the end of the song.
  • And finally – enjoy!Performing music in front of people is nerve-wracking, yes. But it’s also a great feeling, and once you start it’s hard to stop!

I hope you enjoy your first Open Mic experience – but even if things don’t go quite to plan, remember that it takes time to build your confidence and the more you get up on stage and play, the easier it will become.

The nerves may never leave you completely (I certainly still get nervous, and I’ve been at this for years now), but it’s all part of the experience, and the buzz after a great performance is pretty immense.

Why not share your experiences in the comments? I love hearing from you – and maybe I’ll even see a few of you at an Open Mic near by.

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Productiveness and Practice

Image from oddquartet.com – print it out and stick it on things! You know you want to…

Practising: I am well aware that I need to do it, but I have a tendency to either get distracted by other things, or lapse for weeks if I don’t have performance to prepare for.

But, as I mentioned in my post the other week I’ve recently started taking piano lessons again. It’s been going pretty well so far – in four (five?) lessons I have three pieces that are starting to come together and I’m pleasantly surprised how quickly things are coming back to me. I’m pleased that I’m remembering how to read music again (which I haven’t done seriously since I left university… in 2004). But the main thing that starting lessons has given me – something to practise for every week.

My previous experience of piano lessons has been draconian attitudes and pressure to pass exams*, so it’s been a really refreshing experience to go to a teacher who told me on my first lesson ‘yeah, if you can get 15-30 minutes in 4 or 5 time a week, you’ll see some improvement’. And I am.

What I’ve tried to do these past few weeks is to keep track of how long I have practised each day, and record it on a prettily coloured chart to keep myself accountable. I’ve included rows for guitar and vocal practise too… but to be honest, once I’ve worked through my piano practise, picking up the guitar feels like a treat and not a chore.

So, lately I’ve been playing a lot more and this is an excellent thing: time spent playing is never time wasted. However, I am starting to feel like I’ve actually been less productive. I don’t have anything physical to show for my work. Despite spending way more time in the music room, I haven’t progressed further on my never-ending album, nor have I written much new material or worked on the bits hubby asked me to do for the relaunch of the radio show.

I can’t help but think that I could do with a few more hours in the day to fit everything in.

Or maybe I just need to get more organised…

*I had several teachers growing up, but the two that I had most of my lessons with were also the two that I feared the most… The first scarred me emotionally for life and made me hate everything to do with playing (which explains why I quit several times). The second made me work really hard and actually got me through grade 5 with merit. I have a lot to thank her for, even if she did terrify the young me.

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A Virtual Kick Up The Backside (Or Burn Your File of Song Ideas and Start Over (I Dare You))

I owe Nicholas Tozier a thank you for his post Burn Your File of Song Ideas and Start Over (I Dare You).

While I don’t advocate burning old song ideas (and if you read it, you’ll know that what Nicholas is suggesting isn’t as extreme as the title suggests), what this post made me do was actually look through my old song ideas.

And what I found was a scrappy collection of bits and pieces that I’d forgotten about, dumped in folders and notebooks and files on my PC.

Mostly I found lots of terrible lyrics which deserve to be binned, but – and it’s a bit of a big but – one or two were little gems that I had merely mislaid amongst the clutter. Yes, they were unfinished and rough in some cases, but with a little work they could become fully fledged songs.

Do nawt throes me out! I are good idea. (Image from Flickr by Harry R)

So, the moral of the story is this: Do keep your old notes and scraps of ideas, but make sure you actually review them from time to time so that you don’t get bogged down in too many unfinished works.

If the idea is awful and should be cast into the doomed depths of the bin, make the call and do it. If it has merit but needs more work, keep hold of it – but don’t let it linger, forgotten and unloved for months or even years.

I haven’t properly cleared out all my song scraps yet, but I’m planning on having a proper clear out and working on the worthy few this weekend. Hopefully, it will be a cleansing and productive process – and I have to say that I’m really looking forward to it, which is great. I’ve been struggling to get excited about songwriting lately and really struggling to get anything finished, so thank you again, Nicholas, for the virtual kick up the bum. I needed it.

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Singer’s Brain vs Guitarist’s Brain: Are They Different?

I wish I could consider myself an excellent all-round musician, but seeing as I’m more a of a realist (Pessimist? No, definitely realist), I know that I am a singer first and foremost, while my instrument skills are essentially just about ‘good enough’ (if there is such a thing) to accompany my voice. I am always trying to get better at guitar, but there’s a bit of a stumbling block that I come across a lot when learning new songs: guitar tab.

For those of you not in the know; guitar tablature, or tab, is a way of documenting guitar music using lines to represent the strings of the guitar and numbers to represent the which note should be fretted. There are heaps of great tabs online, and they are really very useful for learning new songs.

Guitar Tab Example

Guitar Tab for 'These Wooden Ideas' by Idlewild (from ultimate-guitar.com*; tabbed by Greame)

The thing is, when you learn a song from a singer’s point of view, you learn the melody. You learn the shape of it and how it flows through the structure of the song. You learn the lyrics and how they fit with the chords. Essentially, you learn the song as a whole.

This isn’t usually the case with guitar tabs – they are often broken down into phrases, licks or verse and chorus sections, often without the lyrics as a reference point (or, as in our example here, just the first line). Which is fine – it makes sense when playing guitar to learn in sections, to get one riff down and then move onto the next and string them together according to the structure of the song. This seems to be how a guitarist’s brain works.

So, the problem for me is that my singer’s brain takes over – it wants to know how the song goes as a whole, how the whole thing flows together before I’ve managed to get the first bit sorted. I also find that when I listen to songs to work out guitar parts my ears get distracted and start listening to the vocal parts… but that might just be me!

So there we go:

Singer’s brain – learns words, melody and how the song flows.

Guitarist’s brain – learns sections and puts together for structure

Guitar tabs naturally tend to lean towards the ‘guitarist’s brain’ way of learning. I mean, of course they do – they are designed for guitarists.

So, how does a singer get round this? Well, to be honest I tend to learn new songs from chord sheets and not tabs. This gives you the structure of the song at a glance, and you have the lyrics to reference where the chord changes are. This helps combine my singer’s way of learning with playing the guitar, but does not give you the full picture of a guitar part, just the essentials.

A bit of a cop-out? Perhaps.

So, by trying to understand the differences between how guitarists and singers learn, I am hoping to combine both ways of thinking into my practice sessions. Let’s see how it goes!

*By the way – if you are looking for guitar tabs ultimate-guitar.com is a good place to start.

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Ells’ Helpful Guides to Music Things, Part 3: Tips for Looking After Your Voice During Hayfever Season

Wohoo, yeah! It’s allergy season. *cough cough, sniff sniff*.

If you’re like me and suffer from hay fever but also enjoy singing, how do you avoid letting your allergies get in the way of your vocal prowess?

Now, for most singers hay fever isn’t too much of a problem, except when you need to sing at an outdoor event or if the pollen count is particularly high, but there are a couple of things you can do to look after your voice generally which are even more helpful when hay fever is rife.

By the way, some of these tips have been learnt from The Handbook for Working Singers by Roma Waterman – if you’re serious about singing, I highly recommend giving this a read. It’s full of helpful tips, advice and some really good warm up and breathing exercises.

Anyway, here we go:

  • Drink water – Keeping your throat and body hydrated is a good thing anyway, but is especially important if you’re taking anti-histamines or decongestants as these tend to dry the throat.  I’m not saying don’t take tablets, but if you do it’s a good idea to compensate the drying effect by drinking a little more.
  • Try a soothing tea – Again, keeping hydrated is good and herbal teas help you to do just that. Some teas, such as Throat Comfort Tea also have the added benefit of being soothing to the throat. I like this tea because the liquorice in it makes it naturally sweet – but that might just be me and my sweet tooth! I hear that ginger tea or sage tea are both good too.
  • Avoid chocolate – alright, just before you sing anyway – I can’t see myself giving it up, so I wouldn’t expect anyone else to! But the point is that chocolate increases the production of catarrh, which, if you’re suffering from hay fever you have enough of already (yucky but true!). Not eating chocolate in the run-up to a gig or singing session should help your airways to stay clearer. Dairy products are also said to have to same effect.
  • Honey, honey – honey has been used as a traditional remedy for soothing sore throats for many years, and with good reason. It’s said that eating locally produced honey is helpful to reduce hay fever symptoms –  the small amount of pollen in the honey is supposed to desensitise your immune system. Whether this is the case, I don’t know (I’ve never noticed any effect on my own symptoms, and this article certainly suggests that this isn’t the case), but taking honey in warm water or herb tea will definitely help to coat and soothe a sore or scratchy throat. You can even just swallow a teaspoon of honey for instant relief, if you’re so inclined.
  • Know when to stop – if your throat feels swollen and it hurts to swallow, you definitely shouldn’t sing. My own hay fever symptoms aren’t normally this bad, but I know that some suffers get a stronger reaction than I do. A throat that’s a bit sore is normally ok as long as you don’t push it and make sure you’re singing correctly, but if it hurts when you swallow that means that your throat is swollen and singing will exacerbate the problem, possibly causing long-term damage. On a similar note, be careful about taking pain killers when you have a sore throat and need to sing – you won’t be able to judge whether you’re causing yourself more pain until the drugs wear off – not good!
  • Time your medicine – Try experimenting with finding the best time to take whatever medicine you use. I find that taking my steriod nasal spray around 1/2 an hour before I sing really cuts down on congestion, which is definitely a help. When I take antihistamine tablets, rather than taking the whole dose in the morning I find it’s better to split the tablet by taking half in the morning, and the second half in the afternoon if I need it (note, I’m not overdosing here – it’s a half-dose each time! Be careful not to go overboard!). Personally, I find this helps cut down on drowsiness later in the day, and again, it helps with congestion as I usually sing in the evening. You may find that a different strategy helps you, depending on your most active periods of singing.

So there we go, some tips for looking after your voice while the pollen is rife!

Of course, the most important thing you can do to support your voice is to make sure that you are singing correctly and using a good technique. If you are worried about your technique or are having problems when you sing, make sure you consult a good singing teacher who should be able to help with your individual issues.

I’d love to hear from you – do you suffer from hay fever? Does it affect your singing, and if so, how do you deal with it? Do you have your own tips for looking after your voice? Let me know in the comments!

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A Round Up of Twitter Advice For Musicians

Twitter Logo from www.wpwizz.comI’ve been getting into Twitter lately – for a long time, I just didn’t get it. And I’m finding that this seems to be a fairly common experience. There’s a lot of advice out there on how best to utilize Twitter if you are a band or musician, so this post is a round up of some of the best that I’ve come across.

So, first up;

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?

This seems like an obvious question – of course you should have a Twitter account, right? Well, yes, it is advisable to use as many means of social media to connect with fans as possible, but – and this is a big but – there’s no point signing up to a Twitter account if you know you’re not going to be able to put some time into it.

If fans search for you on Twitter and find an account where the last Tweet was a year ago or more, they’re going to think that you either a. don’t care enough to keep people up to date, or b. haven’t been up to much for the last year. This is not the impression that you want to give. If you’re not prepared to update regularly, then it’s better not to have an account at all. That way fans searching for you will just think ‘oh they must not tweet’ (it’s ok – tweeps do understand that the whole world isn’t on Twitter – although a lot of them think it should be), and will hopefully look for your other accounts or official website.

So, if after reading that you do decide to Tweet, this brings us to;

Building a Community

Twitter (and other social media) is about connecting with people, it’s not just an opportunity to try and flog your stuff. As a musician, it is really important to remember that people want to get to know you as well as your music. They don’t want to be constantly bombarded with updates that scream BUY MY TRACK, COME TO MY SHOW, CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE – that will put people off and make you sound like a spam bot, not a real human being. So, the general rule of thumb is this: keep people updated, but don’t be pushy about it.

Its good to have some fun with your tweets, to be likeable as a person and to form relationships with your fans. Of course, you do need to plug stuff, but make sure that it is balanced – too much and tweeps will be turned off, too little and they’ll stop associating you with the very thing you’re trying to get out there: your music.

For more info on getting the balance right, see Kristen Lamb’s post here. It’s primarily aimed at writers, but the goal for musicians is the same; to build a platform. Actually, if you’re starting out on Twitter, Kristen’s blog is a really good place to start – and she’s met Dean Koontz (SO jealous)!

You are not a big corporation, you are a person or band with a personality, so you need to approach Twitter differently and use it as an opportunity to get yourself out there, not as free advertising.

The other thing that Kristen recommends is using TweetDeck – and I would agree that this is a great tool that allows you to see what’s going on in the Twittersphere and to more easily join in conversations. It allows you to edit before you re-tweet and you can have columns following your most useful hash-tags. If you have no idea what I meant in that last sentence, then read this getting started guide from Twitter, more info on hashtags and @messages – it’s ok, I’ll wait!

All done?

Good. So hopefully now you should be getting the idea – Twitter is a powerful platform if used in the right way, but, as with some many things in life, it’s all about balance.

I’ll leave you with some final points:

Remember that everything you tweet is public

This is a very good reason to also remember to stay positive. Ranting can be funny, if done in the right way, but too much bile can leave you looking like a lemon – bitter. If you’re not as hilariously angry as Charlie Brooker, keep the negativity to yourself!

You can always direct message people if you must moan to trusted friends on Twitter – goodness knows we all have need to occasionally – but if you clutter up your Twitter feed with negative comments, then it reflects badly on you as a professional, and you never know who is going to be looking at your profile… it could be the A&R man on the brink of getting in touch with your band, in which case, you don’t want to look ‘difficult’ to work with.

Oh, and talking of Charlie Brooker and negativity – check out his piece on Rebecca Black, it’s funny and also makes an important point (take it with you on your journey).

To conclude; there’s a wealth of information out there for musicians building a social media platform and I’d recommend checking out as much as you can, whether you’ve started trying to build your platform or are just in the planning stage. There is some conflicting info, so you have to follow the advice that you think will work for you, but the important thing to remember is that the goal is to connect.

Now it’s over to you! Is there are social media advice that you think is important? Do you have any tips? Let me know in the comments!

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