WHO'S THE AUDIENCE?
Clearly the attendees in the crowd, you might think. While that’s blatantly obvious, I’d make the case that several - if not most - aspiring professional and young professional musicians don’t ask themselves that question. The thought never comes to mind as they perform. At best, the audience is instinctively other musicians that might or might not be in attendance that they’d like to impress or flaunt their superiority over. In most cases, the audience is actually the musician playing the instrument. Wait, what?
Seriously. Most musicians in that demographic are their own audience. They aren’t playing to serve the song, nor are they playing to move or connect with the crowd. They’re playing for themselves. I know first-hand that there is a strange psychology with us musician types when it comes to this topic. It’s easy to think that if you’re playing the most impressive parts, the hottest licks, or the fastest and sometimes quirkiest fills that you’re connecting with the song and crowd by creating interest and diverting attention from the song to yourself. I’m not saying that having a library of impressive chops is useless. I’m also not saying that being an advanced technical player is a bad thing.
What I’m alluding to is that there is a defined pathway to connecting with and moving an audience, and it’s dead simple:
Serve the song first as an instrumentalist (yes, the voice is an instrument).
If an entire ensemble is doing this, you’re creating something digestible, relatable, and sonically pleasing to the listener.
Some songs need fast, moving, technical, and ‘outside’ parts. Some songs do not, and those cool parts in context of the right song are a distraction in others. Discerning the two is what separates the 99% of musicians looking for the gigs or successes from the 1% that have them. Let’s face it: music would be utterly boring if every instrumentalist did the absolute least they could to make a song come together. That’s what I think is the common misconception surrounding the phrase ‘serve the song’. Making music that works and connects with people isn’t about being minimal, though that has its place. It’s about playing and singing parts that work together to create something powerful - think “synergy” for my business-minded folks.
So where do chops, impressive licks, and virtuosity come into play then? Sure, being a bona-fide virtuoso of your craft has proven successful for some seeking success on simply being the most technically impressive. I’d argue that those opportunities are not only appealing to an extremely niche audience, but also have tougher odds for success. I prefer to emulate as well as listen to players who show that technical prowess when the spotlight is on them during a solo section, but don’t hit you with their entire book of licks every time. Tastefully leave people saying “wow” for the short time that you’re in the spotlight, but also leave them wanting more. You’d rather people want more than less. To put it simply: don’t show your entire hand every round - you’ll lose a lot of poker games that way.