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Performing A Song

an outline by Joel Mabus


I.        Choosing the right song

A.     What is your purpose?

1.  Are you showcasing your talent? Your voice? Your instrument? Your songwriting?

2.   Are you trying to make a point? Is there a message to be made? Are you looking for a reaction from the listeners?  Laughter, tears, reflection, spirituality, political action?

B.      What should be the mood?

        1.  Are you breaking the ice? Following another act? Composing a set?

        2.  Are you looking for a song to contrast with what preceded or to build upon it?

II.      Arranging the song

A.     Find the right key

        1.   Can you hit all the highs AND lows? 

2. Are you comfortable playing your instrument in this key?

        3.  When you are singing louder can you still hit all the low notes?

B.      Choose the right tempo – try it faster or slower before you decide

C.      Mood -- Is your style appropriate to the mood you wish to create?

III.    Rehearsing the song

A.     Memorize! Try writing out the lyrics in your own hand. Rehearse with the music turned face down.  Memorize the first word of each verse.

B.      Try it out exactly as you will perform it – full volume, start to finish. Standing? On a Stool?  In front of microphones?

C.      Practice in the face of distractions too – your mind will be tempted to wander on stage, be ready for that. Can you remember all the lyrics while the TV is on?

IV.   Preparing to Perform

A.     Before the show, do a sound check if possible.  If not, at least stand on the stage and see how it feels. Can you see all the seats in the room? Will they see you?

B.      Are you tuned? Are you sure? Are you REALLY sure?

C.      Capo? Picks? Strap? Cord? Anything else?

D.      Personal Hygiene?

E.      Be ready to step lively and don’t let the stage or lights throw you for a loop.

F.      Approach the mike(s) and be sure that they are in the proper placement. If you are plugging in do it now. Do all this quickly and with the smallest amount of fuss possible.

G.     POSSESS the performance space.  For this moment in time this is YOUR place. Make it your home.

H.      Don’t leave your wallet backstage!

V.     Introducing the song

A.     Have something good to say – being wry or self-effacing is ok, but don’t denigrate yourself or your song.

B.      Sensitive – humorous – angry?  How do YOU want to be perceived? This is your chance to speak as a real human being – don’t come off as a phoney.

C.      Be creative – you don’t have to say “Here’s a song about…”

D.      Be brief!  A smile and a howdy say a lot.

VI.   Beginning the song

A.     To count or not to count…what’s the point? Is there another way to do the same thing?

B.      Starting with a bang, or sneaking into it – either way be purposeful.


A.     Keep your cool – if you go with the flow, so will everybody else.  Remember YOU are driving the bus now!

B.      Most people are not listening as critically as you are. A wrong word, omitted lyric, or strange chord may only become a major problem if you call attention to it.

C.      Don’t stop and start over.  With very few exceptions, this is the worst thing you can do.  If things go kerflooey, just head for a quick ending and get on with what’s next.

VIII.           Finishing the song

A.     A strong finish is always good.  Strength comes in many ways, however.  Loud is only one path.  Let ‘em know it’s done. Use your body language too. Don’t fall into a “shave-and-a-hair-cut” rut.

IX.   After the song is over

A.     Don’t address the audience while they are clapping. They cannot hear what you say.  They can read your lips as you say “thank you” but they will miss the witty saying or the names of the band members.  Wait for it to subside. On the other hand, during the applause, you can give a quick aside to the band, stage crew, or sound crew in the wings.

B.      If another song is next, be ready for it with either another introduction or a cold start.

C.      If an exit is next, do so quickly and efficiently. Ideally you will leave the stage before the applause dies down. In a small club or coffeehouse this may not be possible. Just try to be graceful and gracious.

D.    Encore? Who wants more? They or you?

© Joel Mabus 2001