Tonight I’ll be sharing the stage with Severin Browne (www.severinbrowne.com) and James Coberly Smith (www.jamescoberlysmith.com) at Kulak’s Woodshed (www.kulakswoodshed.com) and it got me to thinking about sharing the spotlight and what that entails. I’ve shared the stage with the great and the near great and always learned something. Even at an amateur song circle around a fire at Kerrville I’ve learned things.
First of all, if you are going to share the stage, then that is the mentality you must bring to the party. You are not there to “cut” the other person; to make yourself look better than the other person or to be discourteous to the other person. Katherine Hepburn said that great artists do not compete, they compliment. So a generous and community atmosphere is a good place to start.
Secondly, when you aren’t performing, don’t wiggle around or do anything to call attention to yourself and away from the person who is actually performing. Allow the audience to be free from any distraction. Let the other person have the spotlight and you will be assured of having your same time in the sun.
As a solo performer, I frequently write complex chord progressions, inversions that I think are necessary to the proper presentation of the song, so I don’t expect people to just jump in and start playing with me. If they do, I would prefer that they first hear what I am doing before they start adding to it. Otherwise they can be playing a resolution to a chord while I’m suspending it.
If you are allowed to perform with or accompany other people, say in a song circle or a shared stage kind of show, then please let them have at least a verse and a chorus of the song by themselves and then after you’ve been listening, add your little touches to the song, all the while recognizing that you are serving their performance and their song. It’s not about you at that point, it’s about them. Listen first, then play.
As a performer, try not to choose your longest songs or ones with a chorus or jam session that goes on forever. Jam sessions are the most wonderful when they are spontaneous and arise out of the truly joyous feeling that is created by the song. Don’t force that. The audience will let you know if they want to sing along, by singing along. That’s an enormous clue. If you have to badger and cajole them into doing it, then you made it happen, no matter how long it took, and while that is wonderful in your show, on a shared stage it just seems like you are taking a lot more time than the other people. And if you must do a jam song, make certain that it is one that other people can actually follow, even if they’ve never heard it before.
I remember one night years ago at a friends home, we were passing around the spotlight. It was Corky Siegel, Michael Smith, Tom Robbins, Me, another well known singer/songwriter whose name escapes me, and an amateur who connected himself to us and we let him. As we were taking turns, when it came time for him to sing, he pulled out a harmonica holder and then proceeded to spend ten minutes retuning the one guitar to his harmonica.
The fact that the song didn’t require the harmonica part notwithstanding, he literally stopped the party for ten minutes while we all indulged him attempting to retune the guitar. Momentum in a song circle is also something to consider. This wasn’t a show I realize, but it was still discourteous to all of us sitting there. We were for the moment, the audience, and we were being asked to put the show on hold.
When you get the spotlight, know what you are going to do and do it. If you need to explain what the song is about, then you haven’t written it well enough. Telling us about the inspiration is always more entertaining than explaining the song with almost the same words as the ones we are about to hear when it is performed. And don’t take too long. This isn’t your concert. This is sharing the stage. Be prepared. Remember what you want to have happen while you are performing and remember that when the other person is performing as well.
Take your place in the spotlight. Be succinct, personable, professional and entertaining. The audience is there for no other reason, regardless of what you think the show is about. Own the stage while you are doing your part. You can make your part in the show informative, political, spiritual or whatever as long as you remember that what they came for. They want to be entertained. They didn’t come to worship. Unless you are playing at church, and even then, they want to be entertained.