Think life's a bed of roses when you're a musician? Think again.
By KELVYN YEANG for LENSA SENI
We often read about a musician’s best shows and experiences. But what about the worst? Having terrible shows are unavoidable. From equipment failure, and bad crowds to bad paymasters, no one is exempt, and it happens to the best of us. One must be strong to accept these happenings as part and parcel of being in the game as a musician. On the other hand, sometimes such experiences can offer invaluable lessons that will help us improve our performances. If you are a musician, you may encounter the following scenarios.
No matter how experienced you are, the equipment can fail from time to time. Or you may play in a venue where the provided equipment is not in the best condition.
Owning your equipment is advisable. Do not depend on what the venue provides. Always bring spares of everything you are planning to use on-stage. Bring adapters, batteries, cables, microphones to spare strings, or even a guitar if you have to. The quicker you recover from a failure, the more professional you will look. Stopping a show is embarrassing, but in some cases, it is unavoidable. Taking for granted that the provided equipment will always be sufficient can lead to disastrous results.
Depending on the Internet for chords and lyrics is a common mistake. The convenience of having any information at one’s fingertips can make one comfortably lazy. However, just because there is broadband and WiFi does not mean it won’t fail.
“I used to think there would always be a good Internet connection everywhere we played,” says singer Joyce Chin of Penang’s Bunga Raya Band. However, that notion quickly changed when bad connectivity at a performance venue took her by surprise.
“During one of our shows, the WiFi stopped functioning, and I was left staring at a blank screen. The band was playing and waiting for me to sing, but my lyrics wouldn’t load. The band leader glared at me, and I got a long lecture after the performance!”
“After that incident, I made it a point to memorise my lyrics. As a result, my performance improved significantly, and in hindsight, I should’ve done this sooner!” shares Chin.
Lesson: Equipment and the Internet can fail. Always have a backup plan.
What’s worse than finding out you are not getting paid after a well-done job? Anyone who has played enough shows would have at least heard such stories or experienced getting “played-out”.
Alvin Chong used to work full-time as a singer. He has performed across Malaysia in various capacities and has at least over a decade’s worth of experience. However, it wasn’t easy for Chong in the beginning. While hungry for gigs and without enough experience, Chong landed in sticky situations because he didn’t know better at the time.
“New to the scene, I was ecstatic when I got myself hired for a string of shows. The verbal agreement was to play a three times a week for three months straight. Unfortunately, after every month, the payment never came. They said the sales weren’t good enough and promised the pay would eventually come. I was naïve and hopeful, so I continued, and needless to say, the wages never came,” laughs Chong.
Today, Chong has since climbed the corporate ladder to become the general manager of an illustrious local club in Penang. However, the bad experience did leave an impression on him, and he has since been cautious in all his dealings.
Deposits are therefore essential. Collecting a 50% deposit upfront is advisable. Verbal agreements are often not recommended and always insist on some form of writing. Email all your terms and conditions and always insist on a reply if there is an agreement. It may be a hassle to draft contracts for nightly shows, but anything with delayed payments needs safeguarding.
Lesson: Be prepared to walk. Pay first, talk later. Do not fall into desperation.
Looking after one’s health
Sometimes we overestimate our capabilities. While playing live music can be fun, the late nights can quickly catch up and affect one’s health. There are limits to what our bodies can tolerate. Knowing when to take a break is just as crucial as hustling for the next gig. After all, falling sick will take you out of the gig scene far longer than having a break from time to time.
“When it was peak period, I had so many shows pouring in. Not giving much thought to myself, I sought to earn as much as possible. I was doing up to six nights a week. I eventually felt Ill from a lack of rest, and when I showed up for a show, I lost my voice completely. I have never taken my health for granted ever since. At that time, nothing scared me more than losing my voice!” quips Chong.
There’s no substitute for good mental and physical health. Burnout occurs when there is no work-life balance. Knowing when to stop is as important as committing to shows.
Lesson: Always prioritise health over work.
There are good crowds and bad crowds. Sometimes there will be people with inappropriate behaviour. Navigating your performance around these people can be challenging and requires tact.
“An elderly man tried to get physical with me once. To avoid unnecessary complications, I excused myself to hide and to regain my composure,” shares Wendy Tan, a singer for the Wild Marigolds band. “The man was dissatisfied and began throwing a fit. The rest of the band stepped in and asked me to take a break until things were better controlled!”
It is better not to let emotions get in the way. Swinging an electric guitar at someone’s face isn’t beneficial for either party. On the other hand, walking out of a gig because of safety concerns is valid. Any client or band that fails to understand this is not worth working with. There is no need to put yourself at risk.
Lesson: Safety first. Live to perform another day.
We have all heard about these stories of musicians getting double and triple booked. Sometimes having too much enthusiasm can compel us to say yes too quickly. With rising pressures from clients requiring a quick response, musicians often say yes to shows without a proper check on availability.
Lau Jay Sern had to learn a hard lesson because of improper planning. Lau, a part-time musician, is having an incredible streak. However, averaging a few nights a week and eagerly accepting shows and events quickly got in the way of his personal life.
“Because I was so busy, I lost track that it was date night with my fiancé, and I received a call asking why I was still not at soundcheck. I was supposed to be at a show, and I am at a movie with my fiancé. I had no choice but to ditch the show and honour the booking, much to my fiancé’s dismay. I had plenty of explaining to do after that. Today, I have an excel sheet so my music will never get in the way of my personal time again,” shares Lau.
Lesson: Having a method of keeping track is imperative to avoid such situations. Try using Excel and calendar apps.
Francesca Ng is one of the younger singers to join the performance circle. Ng is learning the trade as she goes and is learning to take things easy, especially on herself.
“I am a perfectionist. I want to give my best, but sometimes things don’t go my way, and I feel terrible. For example, I remember making a mistake onstage, and I judged myself harshly. As a result, I felt awkward, and my self-confidence began to drop.
“These days, I am better. However, I must remind myself that it is ok to make mistakes sometimes, and we all need to learn to move on,” says Ng with a firm grin.
Even with the thorough preparation, things will sometimes not go to plan. Therefore, it is essential to learn to enjoy the whole process of it. There will be great days when everything seems to fall into place, and then there will be off-days when everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Learning not to dwell on past failures and treating every experience as a lesson will make you wiser.
There will always be another gig, another show and another day.
Kelvyn Yeang is a participant in the CENDANA ARTS WRITING MASTERCLASS & MENTORSHIP PROGRAMME 2021
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