BY STEVEN ESPANIOLA | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I’ve been a working professional musician for the better part of 25 years. However, I wasn’t always a “pro.” Like a lot of professionals, I sort of stumbled into the role. Like most musicians, I initially started because I simply enjoyed playing music. We enjoy the camaraderie of exchanging ideas with likeminded individuals, the thrill of improvising something completely new, the new sounds we can create as a collective unit, and the exhilaration of a live performance. Eventually, people started to pay me for the thing I loved doing and it was pretty awesome, although it was a little awkward at first. I actually began to embody the old saying, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Money should never be your primary motivator as a musician because there are way more lucrative ways to earn a living. You should always play for the love of simply playing, and if the money happens to come, consider that an added bonus.
Are You Ready?
There will be tons of opportunities to play in front of an audience down the road, but playing before you are truly ready can do more harm than good. So, before you even set foot on a stage, ask yourself, “Am I ready?” Be completely honest with yourself. A negative experience from performing too soon can prevent you from ever mustering the courage to step foot on a stage again.
Start by asking yourself a few simple questions: “Do I have enough songs?” “What am I trying to accomplish?” “Do I care what people think?” “Will I freeze up in front of a crowd?” “Do I have all the right gear?” Don’t book your first paid gig until you are comfortable answering all of these questions honestly. Once you have enough songs to fill out a set, know what you’re trying to accomplish, and have the right equipment, then you can start looking for opportunities.
Start out performing at local open mics to ease into the idea of playing in front of a crowd. I used to attend a great open-mic session at a blues club in Berkeley, California. It was an amazing experience because I was basically thrown into the fire with complete strangers with the expectation of creating something on the spot. Most nights the results of our improv were unlistenable, but the experience I gained was priceless. There is no substitute for the experience of playing onstage.
Booking a Gig
After you’ve fully committed to the idea of performing in front of an audience, now comes the real work (and fun) of finding a suitable venue to showcase your talent! There are many possible options to consider when looking for a venue: Coffee shops, local bars, music stores, college campuses, restaurants, house concerts, etc. Basically, any place with four walls and an entryway is fair game. Try to think outside of the box and be prepared to put in the work making phone calls and sending emails.
Look for referrals from other musicians who’ve been in the game a while, but don’t be afraid to do your own research and place some cold calls to previously uncharted establishments. I’ve found some of my best venues and gigs just by asking. When looking for your first gig, try to put yourself in the shoes of the person booking you. Give them a reason to hire you to play. In most cases, this simply means putting people in seats. Bring some sort of fan base with you to the show, whether it’s your friends and relatives or diehard fans. Doing this gives you a bit of leverage and makes proprietors happy and eager to book you again. Some venues may already have a set flat rate that they pay artists, while others may be more flexible and charge a cover at the door. In either case, try to be flexible when it comes to payment and don’t be afraid to put out a tip jar! Be sure to promote your gig once you’ve set a date. These days, social media is the go-to platform and how I typically promote most of my gigs, but don’t rule out the tried-and-true practices of plastering fliers, word of mouth, and good old-fashioned grassroots email distribution!
Now that you’ve booked your first gig, you need to make sure you can deliver the goods. Use nervousness to your advantage. I always say that butterflies are a good thing for artists to experience as it gives you a sense of humbleness. If you don’t have some nervousness before you perform, then something is wrong. It means you don’t care enough about the product you’re delivering. Nerves come from having a sense of pride for your work. To cope with them, try not to think about the task at hand, as that’ll just amplify it and make things worse. You’ve already rehearsed the songs tons of times, so no need to worry yourself by obsessing over how you’ll play them.
Several years ago, I opened for one of my biggest Hawaiian music influences, Uncle Willie K. I had already performed hundreds of times at that point in my career, so this should have been just another gig. But it wasn’t, and I was a complete nervous wreck just minutes before our set. I realized that I needed a little diversion to take all of my fears away, so I dropped to the floor and did as many pushups as I could squeeze in before they called us out. It worked! That little distraction helped us deliver an awesome performance that night in front of a sold-out crowd.
Before you strum your first notes onstage, you need to put yourself in the correct mindset and focus, so I always allow myself a few minutes of “me time” before every gig. Of course, a gig at a cafe playing background music requires a different mindset than a quieter concert setting, but the important thing to remember is to allow yourself a few minutes to relax. You will have dozens of things to think about onstage, so take advantage of this focused quiet time; it really does make a difference.
Time to pick your songs! This can sometimes be a daunting task, but it should get easier the more gigs you play. Start with a blank sheet of paper and jot down a list of your strongest songs, as well as the songs you most enjoy playing. (They might be different!) You may only have five total songs in your entire repertoire, but if you arrange them in the perfect order, it will make a huge difference. Depending on the type of gig, I typically start with a “grabber” song that I’m extremely confident with playing. I like to open with a song that catches the audience and showcases my range. I usually follow up with a fairly upbeat song. The rest of my set can be fairly flexible, but I always try to tell a story as my set progresses.
It’s also pretty important to read your audiences as you go. Subtle queues from audience members can affect how my set takes shape. For instance, a Hawaiian aunty in the crowd may want to hear a classic song that takes her back to her youth. There may be ukulele enthusiasts who want to hear a certain instrumental tune. A hula dancer may show up unannounced wanting to dance a particular song. Whatever the case, be prepared to tweak your set at the last minute. That doesn’t mean you’re required to accommodate, just that you’re able to if necessary.
The Right Stuff
Stage prep and choosing the right gear are two of the most important, yet most underrated, components to being a professional musician. It’s the unglamorous side to being a performer, but probably just as important as the performance itself, and the process can actually be a lot of fun, too. Will you be using the provided “house sound” or will you bring your own PA system? For most small gigs, I usually provide my own sound system. I’m familiar with how it works and I know how to quickly dial in levels for both my instruments and vocals. Larger concert venues typically provide a sound system and a hired sound engineer who will get you squared away with the correct levels at sound check.
Since many of us will be using a ukulele with a pickup to amplify our sound, almost all of us will need to use a direct box, or DI. This critical part of your gear arsenal matches your pickup’s output signal to something that is more easily mixable and balanced to the PA system. Most amplified instruments require one of these and they can be very basic to extremely complex with additional tone and level controls. I use one that falls somewhere in the middle, an L.R. Baggs Session Acoustic DI that gives me the ability to fine-tune levels and EQ if needed, but is also capable of being a “set it and forget it” type of pedal. There are other effects pedals you can explore to further customize your sound, like delay, reverb, compression, and loopers, but none of these are absolutely essential, and using one (or several) is totally up to your personal tastes.
Take your time experimenting with different effects until you find the combo that suits you. Some musicians go their entire careers searching for that elusive perfect sound. I’ve been using my current setup, which includes a looper, delay, DI, tuner, and volume boost for about five years. If you do decide to use pedals in your setup, make sure you take the time to really familiarize yourself with the different tweaks and adjustments you can make.
It would be a shame to go through all of this preparation and hard work and have the music be off-key, so always remember to tune up before you begin! I can’t stress this enough. In fact, I always tune my instruments two or three times before my sets and often in-between songs during my performance. There are many types of tuners to choose from. Pros typically use a pedal tuner, which allows you to mute your signal to the PA so that the audience does not hear you tuning. Stage pedal tuners are also bright and easily viewable on stages, which are often pretty dark. If you’re tuning during your set, be sure to keep the audience engaged. You don’t want to break the momentum of your performance with awkward silence.
Dress the Part
Remember that people may be paying their hard-earned money to listen to you perform, so be sure to put a little effort into your fashion choices. That doesn’t mean you have to wear your Sunday best, just that you should put some thought into your selection. My genre is traditional Hawaiian music. I definitely think about my audience when I’m choosing my wardrobe and try to dress accordingly. For casual gigs, I’ll usually throw on a pair of jeans and maybe a cool retro aloha shirt. At weddings, I’ll typically step it up with a pair of dress slacks and dress shoes. In my crazy angst-filled youth, playing alternative rock music in dive bars, my uniform preference was a t-shirt, jeans, and a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors.
You’ve made it! The audience members are in their seats and you’re all dialed in and ready to go. Make sure to engage them as you progress through your set. The best performances occur when the artist is able to keep the audience captivated and even incorporate them into the set; sort of like a conversation. Think of funny anecdotes or topics you can weave into your performance, but try not to let it feel forced and try your best not to ramble on. Remember, much like the art of playing music, the act of public speaking is an art as well and must be treated as such. Try to be organic and make your conversation with the audience feel effortless and spontaneous. This takes a lot of practice and patience, but the only real way to perfect it will be through repetition and trial and error. When thinking of things to talk about during your set, try to incorporate as much info about your songs as possible, such as why you wrote it or chose to cover it, who the original songwriter was, how it inspires you, etc. Storytelling can be an incredibly effective way to add substance to your performance and is especially important in my genre, where the lyrics are in a completely different language. When I perform an original song, I try to bring the audience to the place I was when I wrote it. This can make you very vulnerable at times, but I think it’s an important element to include and it brings your fans that much closer to you as an artist.
Congratulations, you did it! You’ve made it through your first gig so pat yourself on the back for a job well done! This is my attempt to capsulize 25 years of experience into a few pages, so some of it may work for you, and some may not. Take the bits that resonate with you and make them your own. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Immediately following your performance, it can be easy to dwell and obsess over any mistakes you think you may have made during the show, but forget all of that for now and try to enjoy your accomplishment. You put in a lot of work to get to this point, so treat yourself by enjoying the accolades and feedback from your fans. There will be time to review what you need to improve upon later. Use this time to appreciate how far you’ve come. Don’t forget to check in with the club owner or concert promoter so that you can get paid. Now you’re playing a pro!