Playing your first show can feel like a really daunting and scary task. I think this is mostly due to the unknown. You can’t really know how people will react to your performance or songs until you play them for an audience. I remember the first time I was booked for a show, it was an amazing feeling but honestly terrifying at the same time. I remember practicing night and day, trying not to leave any stone unturned, but even that didn’t prepare me for everything…
I remember traveling to London’s King’s Cross where I would be playing at a very well-known venue called The Water Rats. After arriving, I was given a time for my sound check and told that I could either hang around or come back 10 minutes before, I decided to hang around and watch the other bands sound check to see how it was done and what would be expected of me. Soon afterwards though, I wished I hadn’t. I was just a guy with a guitar and some original songs. The sound checks before me were awesome 4- and 5-piece bands making a tonne of noise. They also seemed to have a lot more experience and confidence, which knocked me down a peg or two and left me wondering how I could ever compete with these guys.
So, I went outside for a walk to clear my mind and focus in on what I needed to do. I mean, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to play this show with the level of passion and confidence I’d had during every practice session. With my head now clear and my sound check edging closer, I went back into the venue to tune my guitar, warm up and compose myself. They asked me to go on stage and set up. “No problem,” I said, putting on what I thought was a confident albeit nervous smile, and took my guitar and tuning pedal up onto the stage. Once everything was plugged in, we checked the levels of the guitar and then the vocals, followed by playing a few minutes of a song to make sure everything was set up correctly. Okay, not so tricky.
With the sound check over, I was given my rough time slot, and told to be waiting backstage by 9:15, ready to set up my equipment within the allotted 5 minutes changeover time that I had been given to keep things running smoothly. I was sweating buckets and shaking like a leaf, but I managed to get hide it (I think) and get everything was set up in super quick time.
I walked up the narrow steps at the side of the stage and headed towards the microphone, introduced myself and got straight down to business, playing my first ever song to a live audience.
Looking out at the packed venue was tough. You can’t just ignore the crowd, you’re in the spotlight. But making eye-contact with anyone might cause you to slip up and screw up the job you’re there to do in the first place. Like I said, it was really tough, but once that first song was over and I heard the applause and reactions from the audience, the show immediately flipped on its head from fear and dread to this-is-the-most-amazing-feeling-I’ve-ever-experienced. It was an unbelievably special moment for me. Just thinking back on it now makes me smile. It was like jumping over a hurdle that you thought was too big for you, proving to yourself you could do something you never thought in a million years was possible.
After the gig, I knew then and there that music was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to play another show right away. I literally could not get enough. Even after I left the venue and went home I couldn’t sleep or switch off. The buzz was just that amazing. I was hooked. I don’t get to play live as much these days due to writing and being in the studio a lot but the gigs I played in my 20s gave me some of the best memories of my entire life. I really do encourage you as a writer and musician to go out and experience this for yourselves. I promise you it’s a game-changer.
So here’s a few pro tips to help you prepare and play your first show:
1) Keep a written set list and tuning changes (if you have tuning changes, that is).
I used to stick a couple of long pieces of masking tape to the top side of my guitar and write down the set list on that so I could have a quick glance and know what was coming up next without the audience being any the wiser.
2) Keep a hidden sheet of lyrical cues, chords, etc.
I always worried that my nerves would creep up on me during a show and I would go blank on stage, forgetting lyrics and chords, etc. (I worried a lot when I was younger). So, I would tape a piece of paper with lyrics and chords to the back of my guitar. Not whole songs, but things that I knew I may have trouble with. Something to jolt the memory into action and get me back on track (again, the paper is out of the public eye and you still look professional).
If you are a vocalist, you could do this with paper that is taped down on to the stage floor behind some monitors or speakers out of the view of the audience, and leave a glass of water or beer next to it, so if you needed to bend down for a memory jog you could act as though you are just having a quick drink.
3) Take a fresh towel.
Those stage lights can get mighty hot, not to mention the body heat from the audience and your bandmates in what is usually a rather intimate space. Especially so if you put on a rather active performance, you know? Go hard or go home. But bring a towel with you so you can wipe yourself down during the show. It might seem a bit gross or unprofessional, but trust me, you’ll feel better and the audience will actually respect you more for your commitment and forethought. You win in both passion and preparedness.
4) Always take spare strings, guitar picks, leads, etc.
Murphy’s Law is not a friend to musicians, believe me. If your string could break onstage mid-song and you don’t have a spare, it will. Just trust me. Bring spares. Spare strings, spare picks, spare leads, batteries for tuners and pedals, etc, or even a spare tuner in case the one you brought starts to malfunction.
5) If you can, bring a spare instrument.
I even had a habit of taking a spare guitar with me, just in case I was to break a string during a song, I could quickly grab my spare guitar, which would be tuned on a stand at the side of the stage, saving me time and embarrassment.
6) Learn to look around at objects not people.
Over time you will learn to engage with your audience in your own “signature” way, but if you are anything like I was (a little nervous, shy and couldn’t possibly make eye contact for the fear you would be put under a spell and lose the song), then my tip for you is to look at objects at the back or side walls of the room. A picture. A light. The door. The bar. Just keep moving from object to object. That way it still looks like you are looking around and engaging, without actually being thrown off by making eye contact and seeing someone’s reactions. As you mature as a performer, though, you’ll find the more you play the more you will want to engage with your audience directly. It actually becomes a load of fun.