I wrote this article from the perspective of preparing for a solo gig, but it is transferable to shows with a full band as well. This is based on my experience and theories, and is a living document. Please add what has worked for you.
It’s time. You’ve booked a solo show. Just you, your instrument, and a crowd of faces ready to be rocked. Will you give the people what they want and dwell in the house of musical glory forever…or will you be scorned, doomed to pass out your demo CD on the sidewalk for all eternity?
In this article, we’re going to talk about how to throw a show together when you’re on a deadline.
And that deadline is one week.
Part 1: Conquer Your Venue with a Battle Plan
So where exactly are you playing anyway? Is it a dive bar, a swanky cocktail club, a procrastinating friend’s wedding reception? Regardless of where you’re playing, you need to know some basic info about the place to reduce unforeseen headaches and guarantee the most sucessuccessful performance possible.
Far and away the most important factor to consider once you begin crafting your show. Some people advocate that as long as you play from the heart, you should not have to worry about tailoring your concert to the likes and dislikes of the people listening. I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment; it is important to play music that is true to yourself. You will get bored if you don’t and frankly, no one likes a sell out. You can almost smell it when a musician is pandering to an audience. Ever heard a guy strumming his acoustic and singing Sweet Caroline? Smells pretty bad and you actually might end up getting tossed on your head like this poor fellow below.
With that being said, if you are playing a show and getting paid by the venue, you are entering into a contract with that venue, and they are expecting you to play something that will make their guests happy. It might be about the money for you, but it’s about the money for them (with rare and beautiful exceptions). If you start playing to a packed room and two songs in, the room is empty, you will probably not be asked back. But if you play and people at least look like they’re having a swell time, then you’re probably golden.
Choose your priority. If you are looking to make a statement and couldn’t care less how the audience reacts to you, then do whatever you want. If you would like to be asked to play again in the future, at least consider what the audience might want from their champion of the arts.
So you’ve identified your audience. Whether it’s headbangers or nursing home residents, they have one thing in common: They know what they like, and they love anybody who’s gonna play it for them. We need to consider (to a certain extent) what your audience would like to hear. You also need to factor in how much time you have to prepare for the show. In this case, you have one week. Let’s get cracking.
When choosing the music for your show, you should consider three factors which I am hereby labeling as The Three Ds: Difficulty, Diversity, and Do You Already Know It?
You have one week. You don’t have enough time to reinvent the wheel. I don’t care if you’re interested in playing all 27 of Chopin’s Etudes in order to prove your piano prowess, it ain’t happening. Not for Arthur Rubenstein, not for you. You must choose songs that you know you can get up to performance level by the end of the week.
A general rule that I like to use when preparing a show is to split my songs up by difficulty. 80% are easy to medium difficulty, 20% are hard to expert, songs that I call “bangers”. This split is known as the Pareto Principle (or the 80/20 Rule) and it can be applied to subjects as wide as economics and sports. It theorizes that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. In this case, the bangers should garner more attention and positive reaction than the other 80% in your set list. That’s not to say that the less difficult songs are filler or not great songs, they’re just not as technically demanding and thus less attention grabbing. This 80/20 breakdown also helps to reduce listener’s fatigue. If every song is technically easy, the listener will become bored. If every song is a banger, the listener’s ear will become accustomed to the technicality and most likely become bored.
As a general note, difficulty does not translate to better music. In this case, I am mainly using it to describe songs that are more attention grabbing. For example, a song may be simple to play on guitar or piano, but requires a high vocal flourish at some point. Or a song could be easy to sing, but the piano part is impressive. Or the speed of the song is a rush of adrenaline. Or the emotion that you pour into a particular ballad won’t leave a single dry eye in the concert hall.
Vary the difficulty of your songs, focusing mainly on adding songs that you can learn in a day or two with a few bangers thrown in to “wow” the crowd.
If you’re playing at a bar, chances are good that the patrons are a diverse bunch of individuals with different tastes. If you’re playing at a nursing home, you might think that your audience is a little more homogeneous. You may be right, reckoning that most of the listeners prefer old jazz standards. But you can guarantee that there will also be some old folks that prefer country, soul, gospel, bluegrass, and even rock n’ roll. You never know a person’s tastes so it’s a safe bet to diversify your setlist.
Just as an investor shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket because they risk losing it all, you shouldn’t sing songs all in one genre. Analyze your strengths and what you would be able to play, and choose songs from across the wide spectrum of music. Each listener is different, but if they can recognize one out of every three songs you sing, you’re on the right path.
Diversity of set list also applies to popular well-known tracks vs. deep cuts, or songs that the average listener might not recognize. It’s OK to throw a song that isn’t that radio friendly in the mix. If a listener hears something that they know and no one else does, it’s like inviting them to partake in an inside joke with you. Instant connection and endearment will follow, and they’ll probably stick around hoping to catch another one that makes them feel unique.
And finally, as a wise man once said: “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” Don’t you dare forget to play music that pleases your precious ears.
Do You Already Know It?
You only have one week silly! Play what you know how to play! In my case, I was lucky enough to have at least half of my set list already in my arsenal. There were also songs that I hadn’t played in a long time, but I found that if I applied myself, I could get them back up to speed in a day. Sit down with pen and paper and scope out how many songs you already know and which ones you may be able salvage from the obscurity of forgetfulness.
You show up to a gig with the greatest songs and musicianship that world has ever seen. Tonight is the night you have prepared for and the audience is ripe with anticipation. You open the door and see an empty stage with a stool. No microphones, no amps, no monitors. The building is roaring and it looks like the kind of place where the people in the front row might not even be able to hear you. Panic grips you and ice pours through your veins. Surely you didn’t assume that the venue would provide all the equipment you would need, did you?
This is a mistake that happens to too many musicians. But don’t worry! The solution is simple and quick.
Communication is key. When you book your gig, make sure to ask whomever booked you about what you will need to bring. True, many venues will provide the necessary micing and amplification so that you can simply bring your guitar and be good to go. But until you ask, you will never know and nothing’s worse than showing up an hour before you go on, only to find out that you’re screwed. Better safe than sorry.
It can be awkward to ask what the gig pays, but you should never feel guilty for doing so. You are providing a service and should be compensated for your efforts. In a world of instant streaming music and stories of starving artists, it’s often overlooked that musicians pour as much (if not more) dedication, passion, and effort into their craft as anyone else. All the time and money spent to make you into the musician that you are today is expensive, and it’s OK to ask to be recognized for that effort.
Don’t delay when asking about pay. I once wrongfully assumed that I would be payed the same for playing solo as I would if I were playing with my band at the same venue. I asked about a week out from the start of the show and learned that I would be making less than half of what I thought! Still worth it, but at that point it was too late to try to bargain for a better deal. If you’re playing, you should be compensated well. Be weary of places that are attempting to get you to play for free.
Also, find out who to talk to at the end of the night to get paid. It’s not always obvious and the bartenders may not be able to help you. It’s also worth asking if food and drinks are included if you are playing at a restaurant or bar. Don’t go home without receiving everything you are owed!
Part Two: The Setlist Formula
You’ve compiled your awe-inspiring amalgamation of amazing anthems and it’s time to stop with the alliterations and put them in an order that will knock everybody’s socks off. Musicians have been toying with the order of their songs on albums and in concert for years, so tons of different theories exist. I’m going to share a system that has worked for me. It is more time-intensive than what I have used in the past, but my most recent show was a testament to its benefit.
Identify How Many Songs You Need
You can gauge how many songs you will need to prepare by knowing how long you are expected to play and dividing it by the average song length in your library of tunes. For example, I knew that I had to fill 2.5 hours (150 minutes) worth of music and each song that I play averages four minutes in length. By that math, I would need to have 37.5 songs prepared.
That may seem like a lot to get ready in a week, but consider this: you would only need those 37.5 songs if you’re planning on cranking out each song the instant that the previous one has ended, you’re also planning on taking no musical liberties, no breaks, and no friendly banter with the crowd. Each of these is a terrible crime in their own right, and so, you can estimate that you will probably need quite a few tunes less than what you were figuring.
First, consider how many breaks you would like to take and are allowed to take. In my case, I asked the gentlemen who booked me how many breaks are typically taken by a performer. He suggested two to three 10 minute breaks placed equally between the set. I took the former number (best to be conservative and have prepared too much than too little) and subtracted from the total set time. 150 – 20 = 130 minutes.
Awesome, now we’re down to 32 songs (130 ÷ 4 = 32.5). I also know that I have some long songs in there and a couple of tunes that I can improvise a lengthy intro or solo over. Taking these into consideration, I calculated that four of my songs could actually be close to 10 minutes in length (40 minutes total). 130 – 40 = 90 minutes of total music time. Well now my setset list actually looking closer to 22 songs (plus the four lengthy tracks). This is almost half of where we began!
The final consideration, is how much time will be spent between songs. If you have a natural gift for gab and can introduce songs with a spell-binding story of how they came to be or what they mean to you, then use it! A minute or a half of one can help you reduce the amount of total songs you will need to learn, and with only a week, you’re going to need all the advantages you can get. If you’re more on the shy side or like to let the music do the talking, all the better! Just make sure you consider this fact when you are preparing your set list. Trying to hold out between songs as long as possible is only good if you’re entertaining the crowd, not if you’re filling it with dead silence. Remember, the crowd wants to be entertained. Know your strong suits as an entertainer and use them.
OK here we go baby, I love this part. As a quick note, if you put all your best songs up front, the back end of your concert will suck and vice-versa. If you put all your slow songs together and your fast songs together, your audience will get bored. If you play all your songs from the same artist one song after another, your audience may think you’re a cover band. And probably get bored. Get the picture? The key to a great set list order, once again, is DIVERSIFICATION.
For my last show, I tried something new. Instead of going by a song’s tempo, or by volume, I organized my songs by energy level. What kind of energy does the song inspire in the listener? Does it gently caress the eardrum, inspiring soft introspection? Or does it bash its way through and light the psyche on fire? For this highly scientific process, I created a sliding scale from one to ten. On the far end, the higher the number signified the song’s “excitability”. The lower the number signaled a more “introspective” energy. I sat down with my unordered set list and wrote a number that I felt represented the song’s energy level. Don’t take too long with this, go with your gut. For me, the only song that hit the “ten mark” was Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and none of my songs hit a “one.”
After I had each song categorized by energy level, I sat back and inspected my dominion. The average energy level for each song was 5, halfway between excited and introspective. From here, I began ordering the songs.
March Through The Valley
I decided to break my entire gig into three sets, with a ten-minute break in-between each. If you were to create a visual of the energy levels of my songs throughout each set, you would see a valley. Or a sine wave. Or a V. Whatever, just look at the diagram below.
As you can see, as I began my set, I started with a banger. Something that was exciting (close to a ten) and required a decent amount of technical prowess (in this case, Midnight Train to Memphis by Chris Stapleton). This hooks the audience’s attention and proves to them that you are someone that deserves their attention. From there, I played a more well-known song that had a slightly softer dynamic, but an incredibly catchy and singable chorus (Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty). Songs continued to fall in excitability level until we reached the most introspective of songs, what I would call “the bottom of the valley.” Here we had the most introspective song (closest to a one) of the whole set. If you’re playing your crowd the right way, you will have effectively brought them from a state of elation at the beginning, to a state of emotional vulnerability. There is actually a term for this within the field of music therapy called the iso-principle.
Using the same principle, albeit in a different direction, the goal is to gradually bring your audience back up from “the valley” to a state of excitement and high energy at the end of your set. Each song builds on the last until you finish out your set with another banger and leave the audience hanging on for you to start again after your short intermission.
In my case, this “valley” strategy worked extremely well. I was free to explore more improvisatory ground the deeper I descended into the valley since the audience was more in their own introspective minds than necessarily paying attention to what I was doing. And once I hit the finale of my final set, I was greeted with a standing ovation – something I never expected to receive from a solo show.
So when you’re compiling your set list, try out the valley strategy. Start with high numbers and gently descend to lower ones, and then back up again for the finish.
Sing Your Originals
Whether you’re an accomplished artist with an entire catalog of original music or a musician that only likes to sing someone else’s songs, it pays to put yourself out there. People love to see others being vulnerable because it inspires them to take risks and have courage as well. And playing your own music is the very definition of vulnerability. You risk being laughed at, booed, or even thrown out. But as we know, most places will never do this. On the contrary, most audiences will appreciate any effort so long as it’s true to yourself.
For my last show, I threw in one original. This is because I only had one song nearly finished that would work for an acoustic show! I spent two days finalizing the lyrics and finished them about 30 minutes before the show began while I was sitting at the bar (true story). Did anyone know that? No, of course not. And everyone loves to be the first to hear the first performance of a new song. Let the audience into your own little world and you’ll establish a special intimate connection that will endear them to you long after the show is over.
If you have a song idea, don’t be afraid to spend one of your days finishing it. Often times, we procrastinate thinking that the task is insurmountable. But honestly, once you get started, you will probably be surprised at how quickly you will finish.
Part Three: Prepare For Battle
You’ve picked the site for your epic musical crusade and know it inside and out. You’ve created the greatest set list strategy of all time. Now it’s time to take action and physically prepare to do battle.
Practice Your Little Butt Off!
This is probably the most important part of prep-week. The prior two parts of this article can be achieved with a phone call and a few hours of sitting down with pen and paper. Practicing and refining your songs will take up the majority of your hours. Will you waste them or maximize them?
Prioritize. Remember the 80/20 principle? Yeah, here we go again. 20% of your efforts will yield 80% of your results. Let’s prioritize that effort.
First, find the songs you are confident in. They could be songs you have played forever, songs that you wrote yourself, or songs that need a quick touch up. Write them down, and cast them aside for heaven’s sake! You don’t need to waste your time with this stuff!
Next, identify songs that are going to need the most time. These can be those “bangers” we talked about earlier, or songs that you want to learn and have not played ever before, or songs that have a difficult section that you struggle with. Focus on these songs first! This takes self-discipline since it is often more fun to play familiar and easier songs. Bite the bullet and make a stack of these songs. These are your main focus.
Lastly, identify songs that are between these two categories. These are songs that you are familiar with, but still could use a little practice. Make another pile of these and note how much time you think you will need to spend on them. Are these songs that could be up to speed after two or three run-throughs? Or are their specific sections that need worked on, while the rest of the song is good to go?
Remember: Whenever you are practicing music and it’s crunch time, don’t waste valuable seconds playing those songs or parts of songs that you know well. Focus on getting everything else up to the same level of proficiency.
Prepare Thy Body
You know how hilarious it would be if you pulled off this miracle and then got sick the day of the show!? Stop laughing. It can happen. In fact, you’re more at risk the more effort you put in so it is vital that during this pre-show week you take care of yourself. Let’s take a look at a few of the best ways.
Since we’re talking about a solo show, I’m going to assume you’re a singer and an instrumentalist. Your voice is your instrument and you need to take care of those golden pipes! Most professionals advocate vocal warm-ups before singing if you haven’t sung for 30 minutes or more.
I’m not going to go into detail about what vocal warm-ups to use since everyone has their own opinion and style when it comes to warm-ups. But you will be singing every day in preparation for your show and so you should be doing vocal warm-ups that are right for you. At least five minutes and then you’re off. Remember, the worst thing that could happen is losing your voice right before the show.
Drink more water. Simple as that. Not only will water help to hydrate your vocal cords and keep you healthy, good hydration has many other health benefits.
Remember that when you are working out your voice, you should keep water handy. I like to take a sip between each song to keep everything nice and lubed up.
Avoid extremes in temperature. Water that is too hot or too cold will have the opposite effect. Sip not-too-hot teas and not-too-cold water.
Side Note-Too much caffeine is a bad thing, especially right before singing and the day of the show. Stick to your morning cup of Joe and put it away at least two hours before singing.
It’s Getting Steamy In Here!
The best trick for keeping your voice healthy and helping it rebound quickly after you’ve pushed it into overdrive is to inhale steam. Yep, the same method people use to fight off colds in the winter happens to be an excellent antidote for vocal stress.
Some voice coaches advocate for fancy machines that are tailor made for the greatest steam to vocal cord ratio possible. If you use your voice a lot, you may want to look into one like this one from Vicks. They are handy and portable.
If you are cheap like me, then they ole’ head-over-a-pot-of-boiling-water-trick should do just fine! All you need to do is bring a pot of water to boil over the stove, stick your head over it (not too close, don’t burn yourself), and breathe through your mouth. To trap the steam even further, cover your head with a towel or cloth, but make sure it does not fall into the burner and catch fire (yes, I have done this).
Steam helps to deliver hydration directly to the machine that operates your voice. I like to breathe some steam once or twice a day, usually after I’ve finished singing.
Juice Some Pineapple
When I was younger, my mom always advocated for drinking pineapple juice whenever my voice was getting hoarse. I have no idea if this is scientifically correct or another fake home remedy, but I will say that it has felt like it helped.
Pineapple has an enzyme known as Bromelain. Bromelain is an anti-coagulant that helps to keep your vocal cords clear of inflammation. I’ll let this guy do the talking:
It is recommended that you buy a pineapple and juice it yourself to receive the most benefits, but canned pineapple juice can work as well. If you’re feeling up to it, you can check out Bromelain tablets as well. These contain a more concentrated dose of Bromelain than pineapple juice alone. Let me know if this strategy has worked for you!
Part Four: The Battle Begins
This is it. This is the moment you have trained for. The moment you were born for. You have shed your blood, sweat, and tears every day for the last week and it’s time to slay the crowd with your mighty musicianship. Congratulations, preparing a show in one week is no easy feat (and probably not one you are apt to do again). Let’s finish this article off by taking a look at a few things to consider once you’re in the heat of battle.
Find an Ally
When you get to the venue, find your sound guy. This is assuming you’re not running sound for yourself and someone else handles that.
Shake their hand, give them a smile, and thank them for taking the time to be your teammate. Remember, you will only sound as good as your sound engineer wants you to sound, so it’s beneficial to get on their good side.
I like to throw them a tip right off the bat to say thanks. You don’t need to tip a lot, and if you’re not getting paid until after the show, you can say that. Just show your intention to show them a little monetary appreciation. This goes a long way making sure that the person responsible for the quality of your sound likes you and is paying attention to how well the show is going.
Survey the Battlefield
When you enter a venue, it pays to take a look at who is there. Get a read on the demographics of the audience: age, sex, culture, energy level. All these things will help you adapt to how you present yourself on stage and, if you’ve prepared more than enough music, what songs you choose to play and the order in which you play them.
Remember the iso-principle that we used to order our setlist with earlier? The same can be applied for your first song. If your crowd seems pretty subdued, quiet, or reserved, it can pay to play something that’s less energetic to begin with. If the crowd is boisterous and loud, it would probably be smart to start with a song that matches that mood. Gradually, you can manipulate the crowd’s energy level up or down depending on where they are starting from and where you would like to take it.
I like to prepare 2-3 songs that I could potentially start the show with. One that’s softer, one that’s louder, and another right in the middle. Once I peruse the crowd, I usually know which one it’s gonna be.
Stall for Reinforcements
I always set up a stopwatch on my phone when I’m playing, that way I can tell if I’m going to run out of songs or not. Let’s say I determined that my first set needs to last 45 minutes before I can take a break and I have 10 songs to perform. Once I’m finished with Song #5, I am halfway through those songs and my timer should read at least 22 minutes. If it is after 22 minutes, I’m even better off. If I’m before that, well then I know I need to stall.
Stalling isn’t a cheap way to con people out of the money they paid for entertainment. It’s a strategy to keep the show going for a longer period. There are many ways to do this.
Musically, you can hold songs out longer by repeating a chorus a few times or the first verse again at the very end of the song. You can play a solo, you can scat sing, you can dance around the stage awkwardly, but the music is still going while you’re stalling.
Another extra way is by stalling between songs. I like to talk and engage with the crowd, ask them how they’re doing, remind them to tip their bartenders, tell a joke, or ask for requests so I can shoot them down and play something I already know (strange I know, but they love it when I tell them that). Getting a sip of water and making sure your guitar is tuned can be an easy way to stall as well. Don’t take too long. A nice stall can give your audience a breather between songs, but too long of a stall loses their attention. Once again, read the people and adjust accordingly.
Acquire More Allies
Once it’s time for a break, most musicians go off and sit by themselves for a drink. What a wasted opportunity! Once a break hits, grab yourself a drink and start engaging with the people who came to see you. A quick thank you for coming will go a long way and people will be more inclined to stick around.
This is also an awesome time to get opinions on how you sound. You can ask friends in the audience (pick the ones you know will be honest) how it sounds. They can provide you with valuable information about how you should sing into the mic differently or how the bass needs to be turned up. Use this break to take a breather, but also to curry favor with the crowd.
Keep Your Wits About You
Break time! Time to hit the bar! It can be tempting, especially when the venue is providing you with food and drinks, to imbibe a bit too much. I mean it’s free, you might as well use the opportunity right?!
Well too much alcohol will do two nasty things to you: 1.) dry out those vocal chords and 2.) make you a worse musician. You can’t do your best if you’re drunk. I’m not advocating for not having anything to drink, but within limit. As my aunt says, have as much of that as you need and then put it down.
Same goes for food. If you’re going to eat, ideally you should eat after the show or two hours beforehand. Food can gum up the mechanism you’re using to sing people’s faces off. Don’t make a mistake you will regret.
As for alcohol that is best to drink during a show, I heard that Port is one of your best options. To try this out, I got myself a glass at the bar. It sure did warm up the system and didn’t seem to have any undesirable effects like I’ve had other drinks do to me in the past.
Part Five: Conquer the World
The day is done, the battle is won. Congratulations on your victory. I can only assume that by following these steps you’ve had the greatest show imaginable with only one week to prepare for it. Where do you go from here? Well you can start by telling me what has worked for you when you’re prepping for a gig. The more information we compile together, the more likely it is that everyone will have better shows. And with better shows, comes world domination. I wish you the best of luck in your upcoming venture and please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, comments, or advice of your own! Happy music making!