Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Steve Vai Taught Me About Performing

A number of years ago, while I was in college (mid 90s), I got to witness Steve Vai perform on multiple occasions. The first was on the Sex and Religion tour when his band played at Graffiti's club in Pittsburgh, with Devin Townsend on vocals. The show was simply amazing, and contained everything... heavy hard rock vocal numbers, melodic instrumentals, great audience participation, percussion/drum solo, jazzy numbers, mind boggling extended solos, and an amazing, and inspired energy.

A couple years later, I saw Steve play on the first G3 tour, and this was a much more concise performance, limited to 45 minutes, and his best material, but still inspired. A year or so after that, he toured behind the Fire Garden album, again playing at Graffiti in Pittsburgh. This show, again was jaw dropping, and felt so special, as if we were witnessing magic, on a particularly inspired evening. The crowd interaction, Steve's between-song banter, and the performance was just ...special.

I decided to drive down to Washington DC to catch the next show that weekend. This show was at the  now defunct Bayou in Georgetown. I brought a guitar student and my older brother with me... they had to witness what I saw in Pittsburgh. Much to my surprise, this show was nearly identical to the show in Pittsburgh, just two nights before. The same set of songs, the same between-song banter, the same crowd participation scenario, almost every thing about it was the same. As soon as it occurred to me that Steve and the band were playing the same thing every night (hey, I was young and I assumed they changed it up), I was a little disappointed. That show in Pittsburgh wasn't special, it was like all the other shows...

This disappointment quickly faded, as I witnessed a seemingly just-as-inspired performance in Washington DC. Steve and the band were still giving 100%. Sure, it was a similar performance to the other night, but that didn't stop them from delivering. There were two differences from this show and the previous one and I relished them. First, Steve's amp crapped out in the middle of the song "Brothers", right before his solo would have started. His band played on, with Mike Keneally taking a keyboard solo while the crew scrambled to replace the amp - which they did just in time for Steve to deliver THE solo!  Secondly, towards the end Steve decided to smash his guitar to bits, and throw it into the audience, and then proceed to crowd surf in a very packed Bayou club. OK, now that was cool. (If Steve reads this, maybe he can interject a little about what he was feeling that night that prompted this.)

My take away from this was an important music lesson for me. When you are performing the same set of songs over and over, or if you are performing a song that you may feel is easy or boring, you can't let it be easy or boring. Your mind should be on multiple things:

1. Song Arc: Be mindful of the overall dynamic arc of the song, from intro, to verse, pre chorus, chorus, etc... How are you going to shape the song?
2. Part Arc: Each part of the song (Intro, Verse, Chorus, Bridge) has it's own dynamics, timing, and feel. How are you shaping each part of the song? Is it similar or in contrast to the other parts?
3. Line Arc: Each part of a song is made up of musical lines. Are you paying attention to the phrasing of these melodies and/or chord progressions? There may be a question and answer quality to these lines, are you performing them effectively? How are you shaping these lines?
4. Note Arc: Each melodic line or chord is made up of individual notes. How are you shaping these notes? Are they staccato, legato, loud, quiet? Does the timing occur ahead of the beat, or behind it? What is the envelope of each note and chord?

With all of this to think about, you can guarantee that the performance won't be "phoned in". You should be on your toes through every part of the performance. While much about performing is having the material down so well that it becomes second nature, you should always be mindful of how you shape each part of the song (on the macro and micro level). This will guarantee that you are "in tune" with the song, and can go a long way to delivering inspired performances no matter how many times you've played the set of songs.

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