Although there are many things to keep in mind in making a gig successful, we can think of it in two simple foundational aspects: logistics and delivery. Logistics is preparation and set-up. Delivery is the actual performance. They are of equal importance.
Naturally, adequate practice is ninety percent of a good performance. If you’re unsure of or not totally confident with a piece, why perform it? Playing it only “pretty well” at home usually translates to playing it poorly on stage. It’s a good idea to practice a piece so well that it feels like it’s on autopilot, in different tempos and in many different places such as outdoors or in front of the TV, before you perform it.
When a gig is coming up, it helps to practice in the mindset of performance by imagining yourself on the stage as you play – with the lighting, audience, sound system and all the accoutrements and atmosphere of performance pictured in your mind.
On the day of a performance, spend the day focused on preparing and practicing. Concert day is all day! Doing something unrelated before a gig can make it hard to shift your focus to the performance. If significant travel is involved, do it the day before if at all possible.
Make sure you have made a contract agreement with the management or sponsor that states your needs clearly, including your arrival time, the temperature of the venue hall, provision of a quiet place to tune that is at the same temperature as the stage, when and how you will be paid, what sound equipment you will need, and so on. There’s a reason contracts are commonly used. Don’t wait until you have an experience that shows you how necessary they are!
If the performance is outdoors, make sure your contract states that in case of rain or too-hot or too-cold weather (you can state specific temperatures), an alternative indoor location is planned, or you have the option of not playing. Why take a chance on ruining your instrument (in rain or heat), or playing badly (when it’s cold) and jeopardizing your reputation? And always be sure to make shade a requirement when the gig is outdoors!
A day or two before the gig, double-check the details of your contract or agreement. Sometimes organizers will have changed certain details on a contract without pointing it out to you, and that can lead to disaster. (I almost didn’t notice one time when a sponsor changed the date!!!) Another time I showed up for a wedding a year too early! Had I done a more careful reading of the contract after it was returned from the signator I would have noticed that.
Arrive at least an hour ahead of performance time. That way you won’t have to feel rushed, and if something unexpected arises, such as a sound check problem, you’ll have time to handle it.
But – tune your instrument right away! You never know what else will come up, and you could run out of time for tuning the instrument later. Also, it’s a good idea to tune the instrument more than once if possible, leaving it to settle for a while in between.
After you’ve tuned, familiarize yourself with the stage and the rest of the facility. Take some time to stand or sit meditatively on the stage before the audience arrives. Decide what moods and feelings you want to create there. Relax a while and get used to the place.
Make sure the sound system is working well and the lighting is right. Most tech people will be helpful and kind. If they’re not, don’t let them intimidate you. Make sure they get it right. Your performance depends on it.
Bring your own seating if possible. The height and angle, the comfort, and what you’re accustomed to, can make a huge difference in the quality of your performance.
Do what you can to create an attractive and pleasant visual atmosphere/mood. Be sure your instrument is dusted, its stand is attractive, your seat is attractive, and you dress nicely. People do like pleasing visuals.
I like to find a spot where I can look at the audience for a while before the concert begins, maybe from the side of the stage or sitting on the stage stairs. If I can watch them for ten minutes or so, they won’t look like strangers when I get on the stage.
Good delivery consists of three elements: playing technically well, playing expressively, and connecting with the audience.
Playing technically well involves using a reliable technique that is relaxing and comfortable, produces optimal tone, and enables you to play accurately.
Playing expressively is an outgrowth of having practiced enough to be confident, so you are relaxed enough to plan in each moment how you want the music to sound. This puts you “at cause of”, instead of “at effect of”, your own music. Expressively can be practiced ahead, but it can also happen in the moment as a response to the mood of the audience. I’ve expressed most of my pieces very differently in various situations.
Which brings up connecting with the audience. This is being aware of how your music is affecting them, and in turn using that information to enhance your playing. It’s a feedback loop that draws them in and also makes you perform maximally well. Also, maintaining a pleasant demeanor, and at least looking relaxed, puts the audience at ease. Let it be fun, even if the music is serious! They are there to enjoy it.
One way to appear engaged (even if you’re actually distracted), is to shift your gaze between several different audience members in various locations around the room, looking just above their heads. This makes it look like you’re looking at people without making anyone uncomfortable.
How successful you consider a gig to be might also involve how much you are paid, how much feedback you get afterward, whether you enjoyed it, and whether it leads to more gigs.
Good pay is a function of a good contract – see that info above.
Feedback is something that requires interpretation on your part. Of course there will be those who will compliment you no matter what. Or there will be the occasional jerk who has to criticize no matter what. Don’t let anyone’s words cast a spell upon your feeling about your abilities. You can often discern when a compliment is sincere if the person gives details on what they liked about your playing. Constructive criticism should only be offered by those who are qualified, who have been asked for feedback, and who have no vested interest in putting you down. Consider the motivation involved.
Your enjoyment of the gig will tell you whether it’s the kind of gig you want to do more of. If not, ask yourself specifically what detail was not ideal for you. Then you can determine what other kinds of gigs might offer more satisfaction.
If you sell CDs at a gig, the number you sell is a direct indication of your success. I used to gauge my success on percentages: if I sold half as many CDs as there were people in the audience, that was a good sign. Sometimes I’d sell 100 percent or more. Sometimes less than 50% – in that case I’d try to analyze what in my performance was not up to par. Your own percentages will not necessarily be the same, but you’ll figure out what your expectations should be.
Of course, most importantly, have fun! There’s no use in performing if you don’t enjoy it. Don’t do it because someone pressured you into it or because you think it’s the only way to justify your music. There are many ways to share your music. If you do perform, be assured that it will be enjoyed by the majority who listen. You should be one of them.