Stage Presence – 5 Tips I’ve Given To My Youth Band by Megan Burke (Youth Band Leader for The Junction project at Base Studios)

  • by nicbriggs

    Tuesday, 12 December, 2017 - 14:48

As musicians, we all know the feeling of watching our favourite bands (the ones we are a little too obsessed with…) and thinking “Wow, look at them go! How do they have the ENERGY to run around like that?! That is so cool!”. When we watch a band live, we feel good just by watching them feel good. That’s what makes music so addictive and wonderful. Seeing someone have the time of their life makes us want to dance, sing and have just as much of a brilliant time! Of course, this will depend on the genre of the music… Shoegaze bands will perform totally different to perhaps Metal or Punk bands, but each are natural and fitting to the music. Music is as much physical as it is aural, and the right performance can boost a live show into a different realm and leave your audience blown away.

We all want to play as good as we feel when we see our favourite band and ultimately pass that addictive feeling back on to our audiences, but if your youth band is struggling with confidence, here are a few tips that you can pass on to shake off the initial fear.

1.Look for inspiration

When I was a teenager, I was absolutely obsessed with My Chemical Romance. I was literally obsessed – you could not see my walls for posters of them, stuck together end-to-end with drawing pins and old blu-tac. I didn’t care that my walls were now ruined, I just knew they made me feel great. Although some of the posters were of pristine, white-backdrop photoshoots, a great deal of those pictures were live shots, particularly of guitarist Frank Iero. I couldn’t count the amount of pictures I had of this man, throwing himself across the stage in a sweaty, out-of-breath frenzy – it astounded me how someone could perform so passionately. I wanted to perform like that. I wanted the ugly photos where my face was contorted like I was possessed by the guitar, and I’ll never forget the amount of times I threw myself across my own bedroom in an attempt to learn what he was doing.

Although this is just my experience, it’s an incredibly valuable lesson for young musicians. We all had those musicians who we wanted to emulate. Ask your youth band members who their ‘Frank Iero’ is, or who their ‘Lady Gaga’ is, who their ‘David Bowie’ is or who their ‘Liam Gallagher’ is. They have one. It may take some coaxing out, they may not even answer you, but they will THINK about it. They’ll revisit their inspirations and spark that fire before self-consciousness can dull the flame. Ask them who they wanted to be when they were younger, when they first started playing their instrument. Tell them they can be that. What’s stopping them? As well as looking for inspiration in their favourite musicians, they’ll look for that inspiration in you. They’re going to feel silly and embarrassed, but make it clear that they can be whoever they want to be. Be a part of that inspiration. The fear will start to fade.

2.Practice makes perfect

You know how I said I would throw myself across my bedroom to copy my favourite guitarist? Yeah, I wasn’t lying. My bedroom is small and I’m actually very lucky that I didn’t break anything (objects or physical bones). The funny thing is that this WORKED. I used to play guitar in my room like I was already on a festival stage in front of thousands of people. I even had ‘moves’! I knew what looked good, I knew what worked and most importantly, I knew what hurt and what I should never ever try on stage. All jokes aside, this helped my confidence massively as a young guitarist. I would stand in front of my mirror and perform like I was in a music video, and although this felt quite embarrassing and egotistical, I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin. I got to the point where I had to move when I played guitar – standing completely still felt alien. I started to learn how to feel the rhythm, how to express myself physically behind an instrument and how to look up from the guitar neck to observe what I was doing. To me, I was playing pretend, but it helped me develop tenfold.

A lot of young musicians have incredibly low self-esteem, and even playing in front of a mirror can terrify them. It can feel awkward, like hearing your voice back on a recording or seeing old baby photos. They suddenly have to really see themselves and if you have low confidence, this is something you naturally avoid at all costs. Advising your youth band to practise their performance and stage presence in their own time, especially in front of a mirror, shows them that ‘playing pretend’ is nothing to be embarrassed about. They can copy their favourite musicians and learn to have fun with movement – they learn not to take themselves too seriously, and that music is truly about enjoyment. This gives them the freedom to practise the art of being comfortable in their own skin, with their own rhythm, and with their own individual ‘moves’. Another great idea is to advise them to set up a camera and record themselves playing a song standing up at home, and then get them to watch it back and critique themselves. The more they see themselves, the more comfortable they will be with others truly seeing them. Performance is practised, and practise makes perfect.

3.Rehearse it!

When we rehearse, we spend a lot of our time getting our songs right. Are we all playing the same thing? Do we need to speed up? Is your solo in key? Am I singing flat? Do these harmonies work? Whilst this is obviously absolutely essential to becoming a tight, well-rounded band, we should make room to actually rehearse our performance. If your youth band have definite inspirations and have practiced their performance at home, performing in front of others can be a whole other level of anxiety.

As you can probably see already, we are gradually increasing the confidence of the participants. They can recognise what good performance and stage presence is, they can practise it in their own time, and now before they even think about stepping on a stage, they must grow comfortable with each other. Good players don’t necessarily make a good band – chemistry, on the other hand, does. As we become more experienced musicians, we can ‘click’ with other band members quite easily, but in the beginning of our journey it’s easy to still feel alone whilst playing with a group of others. To avoid a situation where all the young members are playing whilst focusing on themselves, get them to practise in a circle. Get them to look at each other and take cues – a great example of this is getting the bassist and the drummer to really focus on what each other are playing so they can ‘lock in’ with one another.

The title of this tip is “Rehearse It”, and that is exactly what I suggest. Lay out the band as if they were playing live. I tend to put chairs at the front of them to simulate where the monitors or the audience would be. Set them out in their correct line-up positions and ask them to perform as if they were playing live. My tip to them is to practise doing exactly what you want to do on stage – don’t wait until the evening, practise it as much as possible so you can predict how each other will perform. I advise them to critique themselves. How did they feel? What could they change? By advising them to rehearse and practise their stage presence, they begin to see what they’re capable of and look at how they could become more confident.

4.Plan your moves

“I know, I know… It’s sounds cheesy but it works guys. Trust me!”. I’ve defended myself on this point a fair few times with young people. Choreography in a band does sound cheesy. However, it really does work.

When I studied music in college, I hated the idea of being choreographed. To me, it took away the freedom and expression of playing music… Until I watched it back on video. Now, I’m not saying that everything should be choreographed or that this will work for every band… But let’s say you’re in a drama play and you know you’ve got to say a particular line, and that the other actor is going to be waiting on you to say this line, so they can respond with their own line – you have to do it. It’s part of the script. You haven’t got to improvise, you’ve just got to say the line that you’ve rehearsed over and over again… Somehow, it’s a little easier.

Rather than let the youth band get on stage for the first time and be struck by the fear that they’ve just got to perform well and look energetic, it’s a good tip to get them to plan some ‘moves’ into their set. Maybe there’s a guitarist who’s took a big solo – the other band members could clear the area so the guitarist takes centre stage. Maybe there’s a big breakdown in a song where all the band members clap their hands and encourage the audience to clap along too. By planning these moves in, it allows the members to perform them as a unity and practise them until they feel comfortable. After a while of choreographing performance into the set, it does eventually become second nature. They might find that putting a foot up on the monitor works; that the singer coming over and leaning their shoulder on the guitarist works; that gathering around the drum kit for a big ending works; that maybe hanging off the stage backwards doesn’t work for this particular song, but they do learn what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, especially with musicians who are particularly nervous, the fear of making a fool out of themselves soon fades and the performance becomes natural. Some of the moves will stick, some of them will fade as a funny memory, but moving on stage won’t seem so scary anymore.

5.Fake it ‘til you make it!

I have to say, this was a mantra of mine when I was young and self-conscious on stage. To be honest, it’s still a mantra in certain parts of my life and it’s the biggest tip to my youth bands. Reminding them that we all feel nervous, we all feel scared sometimes and that we all don’t want to embarrass ourselves doing what we love is one of the best things you can say. Telling them that it is a good thing that they are nervous because it shows how passionate they are about the subject and that some of the biggest musicians in the world suffer with stage fright lets them know they aren’t alone. You don’t have to be confident right now… You could just act it. When we ‘fake’ confidence, we do eventually feel genuine confidence – confidence itself is a learned skill that one must practise. This isn’t implying that you should advise them to not be themselves, but to advise them to act like the person or performer they want to be even if they feel like they aren’t quite there yet. By being honest and telling them that, really, no one ever feels like they’re “there” – as musicians, we always see room for improvement and we can be our own worst critiques -  but that they can be the person they want to be right now, even if it means ‘playing pretend’ for a little while. Giving them permission to step out of their insecurities, step away from their fears of judgement and just be the person they want to be even if it’s just for a 20 minute performance can make the world of difference to their confidence. And who knows, they might even end up loving what they see in that mirror!


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Mark Bick's picture

It is great to hear 1st hand experience of dealing with these issues.  I have always felt awkward about the moving bit of being on stage and mostly play folk and jazz sitting down. The young musicians I work with play a range of different styles, are needly all fighting a lot of fear.  This blog has challenged me to be more proactive in helping them with stage prescence. Your approach fits with my experience - you can't expect to peform on stage music  that you have never practiced, particularly if you are nervous, so the same obviously applies to movement.