CM In Depth

Are You Stage-Ready? Rehearsal Tips, Tricks & Truths from Artists & Touring Pros

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.

By Kevin Young

Practice and rehearsal are about becoming more adept and flexible regardless of what your gig entails, but there are differences between the two.

Practice is often defined as individual preparation, but it can be a collective effort – preparing for a tour, songwriting, or recording. In rehearsal, you’re bringing all that practice to bear on an upcoming performance, ensuring you can meet the demands it will make on the players and crew – individually and collectively

In practice, you’re constructing the building blocks for the structure you’re going to hang your work on. In rehearsal, you’re putting in the finishes, which will vary depending on whether you’re working as a group of co-equals or as hired guns for a principal songwriter/performer, as well as the setting and intent of your performance.

To get some perspective, Canadian Musician assembled a panel of individuals to provide some tips, tricks, and truths with an eye to making your practice, rehearsal, and ultimately your performances more effective.

Stage psychologist and performance coach Luther Mallory has worked with hundreds of artists in his own workshops, with Canada’s Music Incubator, the Allan Slaight JUNO Master Class, and other music industry associations. Mallory often focuses on the mental and emotional barriers that artists face, usually as a result of simply being the centre of attention.

“When we ask for attention, basically we’re saying, ‘I’ve got something to show you,’” Mallory says, which not only invites judgement from others, “but also obsessive judgment of ourselves, because everyone’s looking and we have to do something impressive.”

Practice and rehearsal, he adds, are about getting to a place where you think less and feel more when you’re performing. “Essentially, it’s getting into the moment and staying there,” he asserts.

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On the stage, in the studio, and in songwriting sessions, “It all relates to risk,” he continues. “In life, in art, if you risk nothing, nothing will be your reward. If you’re not willing to lean into risk and make a statement, people aren’t going to decide about you,” meaning they won’t find you or your work interesting enough to invest their time and emotion into.

“Songwriting is the same,” adds Mallory. “Say you want to write a line about a zebra in a song. Your judgment-obsessed mind tells you that’s ridiculous; people will think you’re a hack.” Your job then is to manage that discomfort, identify it as a necessary risk, and take it. “Basically, you’re saying, ‘Would you mind judging this for me?’ knowing you may be rejected.”

Mallory suggests practicing with overcoming fear in mind. “Let’s say you’re a singer. Sing your song five times in a row and don’t stop under any circumstances. When your brain kicks in with, ‘You missed that note. You’re a piece of crap,’ manage it in real time because that’s what performers do.”

Practicing alone with nobody to impress, the impulse is to start over. Don’t, he advises. “When you screw up, you have to find a way back into the moment… like you’ll have to on stage.”

It’s about physical practice but also mental training, and exercise and meditation are means to that end. Exercise is training the body to “overcome the mind,” push your limitations, and manage fatigue and distraction. When your brain says, “That’s all we’ve got,” push on to the point where that’s actually true. “Then you feel like a superhero because you risked something and overcame the mind,” Mallory tacks on.

During performance, if you do lose focus and make an error, “Get some body energy going when your brain kicks in. It’s going to happen – thinking feels like control. Your brain goes, ‘I’ll handle this.’ And you’re like, ‘Maybe the body should handle it’. The moment lives in the body, so if you engage the body vigorously… and get yourself breathing again, that supercharges the body, which has a chance of taking over the mind.”

Mallory says that with meditation, “We train our minds to focus on what we want.” That aids in managing doubt and fear prompted by whatever’s aggravating you. “Meditation is practice in singular focus, in a deliberate way, on what we want instead of letting our mind take us where it wants.”

The more you practice managing risk, the more taking risks will become natural.

That’s iskwē’s perspective on her upcoming tour in support of her latest collection, acākosīk. A 2018 nominee for the JUNO Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year and a reputably fearless performer, the Hamilton, ON-based artist is known for constantly upping her game with each successive record and tour. These new dates will feature dancers, elaborate costumes, visual projections, and soundscapes underpinned by her four-piece band.

“I guess it’s [ambitious], but it doesn’t feel as though we’re starting from scratch,” iskwē says of the undertaking. “I continue to add more layers to [previous shows], so I don’t necessarily hold that same stress about it.”

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But iskwē has always pushed the envelope live, and embraced risk as a means to improve. She started out as a dancer, studying ballet and tap from age five. Although she sang in choirs, learned music from her grandmother, and taught herself to sing by mimicking artists like Whitney Houston and En Vogue, she didn’t consider making music her focus until much later.

When Canadian Idol came to her hometown of Winnipeg, she decided to audition and prepared by taking voice lessons and performing live. When it came to the TV round of auditions: “I got nervous and on a really high note I just cracked my voice… I walked out… because I knew it wasn’t there yet,” she says candidly, but left with a firm desire to make music her life.

Since, iskwē has constantly tried new things. They didn’t always work, she says, “but I never regretted trying something new publicly because I’ll never get better if I play it safe. If you’re not taking risks, you’re not pushing yourself. If we just remain comfortable, how do we improve?”

In terms of practice and rehearsal, she adds: “Practicing, for me, tends to be a lot of thought. How do I think this will go? What goes here and there? It’s less about running songs over and over vocally.” Her focus is on finding new techniques to strengthen her voice. “Strengthening that muscle, that tool, gives me the opportunity to try new things with songs in rehearsals.”

In practice, she stresses breath control and coping with the physical demands of performance. “When I’m preparing for tours, I get on the treadmill and get my heart rate super high. Then I try to sing. It’s about being under duress and what I can do in that state,” she shares.

That includes “sectional” practice and rehearsal – with the band, with the dancers separately, and full-on pre-production with the choreographer, dancers, band, and crew, making adjustments based on timing and live arrangements and preparing for the nuances of the show.

The idea behind the tour is having audiences “come in as individuals” but “walk out as a community,” which becomes the goal of practice and rehearsal for everyone involved in the show. “That camaraderie is what encourages the audience to participate and let
go,” says iskwē.

“Practice is what you do to prepare for rehearsal. That’s probably the simplest way I can phrase it,” says keyboardist Rob Cooper, who has performed in countless live scenarios over time, including with Classic Albums Live. Cooper is also the Director of the Cosmo School of Music in Richmond Hill, ON.

“Rehearsal is when everybody brings their practice together; things we can’t do alone that involve communication, synchronization, and give-and-take. By and large we’re collaborative beings and tend to express ourselves collectively, so the things we do individually ensure that, when we get together, we can focus on those collective skills. Rehearsal is practice in a collective.”

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Individually, he continues: “Some people see practice as a necessary evil; you know, ‘I’ve got to do half an hour of this before I get to anything else because my teacher told me to.’ That’s missing the point completely. Practice is about getting from ‘close enough’ or ‘really good’ to ‘that was perfect.’ So don’t rush. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen students say, ‘I did my scales,’ but they’re not fluid or consistent; the dynamics, phrasing, and timing aren’t there. They’re hitting the right notes but not playing the right way. They say practice makes perfect. No. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Cooper references a Chick Corea video masterclass from the late 1980s. “He’s going over a piece of music, which sounds great, but he’s like, ‘I missed that.’ He goes back over a one-bar section four times, then back three bars to play the four-bar phrase, and then starts from the beginning, plays it through, and goes, ‘That’s it.’ That stuck with me. He’s played with Miles Davis and was decades into his career at that point. Chick Corea is a qualified master of his instrument, and that attention to detail is what makes him a true master.”

Group practice and rehearsal requires similar detail, but which details require the most focus varies from gig to gig. “With Classic Albums Live, the script was clear: you’re doing it like the record. There’s no question of what parts everybody needs to have ready – it’s the practice of playing in time and getting the feel right, versus an original project where you learn your stuff, show up, and go, ‘Let’s change this and this.’”

Basic, individual practice (technique, theory comprehension, developing fluency in musical “languages” like western classical or jazz terminology, for example) informs each additional layer, or higher level, of practice.

“Music is a lifelong pursuit,” Cooper sums up. “You can be content where you are, but the best musicians push themselves, practice new techniques, stretch, and discover new subtleties. They’re constantly peeling the onion to get better and better. I also draw the analogy to a craftsman. If you’re a carpenter but only know how to hammer nails, it’s like only knowing a few chords in root position. The more tools you’ve used, and can use, creatively, the better you are in working with others.”

Ultimately, the more flexible you are, the more prepared and valuable you’ll be in any collaborative effort, including songwriting.

The “muse,” says guitarist and producer/mixer Mark Makoway, may show up for one writing session, but there’s no guarantee of a repeat appearance for the next one. I’ve worked with Makoway in Moist for roughly three decades and consider him to be a highly fluid player and methodical producer – in part a product of his approach to practice.

“Your daily practice routine is about keeping your performance strength going, but in terms of songwriting, it’s about the process of creation, as compared to rehearsal, which would be honing, sharpening, and making things shine,” Makoway says. “With regards to writing, you have to be pragmatically-minded and prepared to go wherever an idea takes you.”

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Even if that’s not ideal, he adds: “That process inevitably informs the next and makes other ideas better just because of that journey, so the creative process, in my experience, can’t be particularly structured.”

For song development and recording sessions, however, some structured preparation is important. “Artists need to have a clear idea of what the different ideas are and have worked through them to have a sense of where they can lead,” he says, “but in a group writing session, the worst thing someone can be is too married to an idea, because invariably it grows to become more than you could have imagined because of somebody else’s input.”

In short, be creatively flexible, which, in part, happens via individual practice. “I subscribe to the idea that, in order to be spontaneous, you have to really know your subject matter and be able to play whatever you’re playing right side up, upside down, backwards, and forwards so that, in performance, you’re not worried about execution. You’re not worried at all. You’re able to be spontaneous, react, and take it to another level.”

For his practice regime, Makoway continues: “I like to play for an extended period in sort of a mindless way with a metronome; basically just ‘noodling.’ That process stitches together all these different phrases. Then you think up a new phrase and it gets added to your vocabulary organically over time, much like the way a child learns new words.”

Individually or collectively, practice and rehearsal aren’t just about hitting the right notes; they’re about developing strategies and tactics to become increasingly intuitive, fluent, and able to inhabit the moment instinctively.

THE VIEW FROM OFFSTAGE

We’ve only touched briefly on the role that crewmembers play in practice and rehearsal, but they see and hear your show from a viewpoint you never will in real time, and are consequently a critical resource in prep, execution, and fine-tuning live performances.

Lighting designer Scott McLaughlin has toured extensively worldwide with Diana Krall, Barenaked Ladies, Tom Cochrane, and many others. Communication between performers and crewmembers is key, he says. “For example, artists rehearse and have an idea in their heads, but maybe not the budget to go with it. If they don’t communicate with me, I can’t manipulate what we do have to [realize that idea]. As a lighting director/designer, I’m supposed to explain to you what I think will work best from out front, and also, from your viewpoint, ask ‘What works best for you?’”

Some artists prefer lights to obscure their view of the audience. Some want the audience lit up more often. In short, the more you communicate with your crew, the more comfortable you’ll be on stage.

McLaughlin adds that, from his view of the audience and stage, when a band is just going through the motions, thinking rather than feeling, the audience can tell. “One of the biggest things I’ve noticed over time is that if you’ve rehearsed every flip, jump, and onstage action to death, it looks contrived. I’ve seen artists in an empty arena go through all their moves and, come show time, it’s like a dance routine – 123, step here, put the mic out to the audience and say ‘Let me hear you…’ It looks robotic. I’m standing 100 feet back and watching people turn away because you’re not connecting, because it’s contrived.”

In other words, mix it up. Similar to the flexibility you develop through practice and rehearsal, you should be flexible in terms of staging and crafting singular moments in each show. The whole point of a live show is the energy exchange between performer and audience and a certain degree of spontaneity, even if you’re playing the same set night after night.

Now, there can be a downside to spontaneity: ripping into a blistering solo when your sound engineer is expecting a delicate breakdown or opting to stand somewhere completely random for a big moment when your LD is expecting you to take a predetermined position with, you know, actual lights on you. This is where communication and rehearsing the show with as much production as possible comes in. That provides a musician with the opportunity to say, ‘I may decide to use that keyboard sound that makes animals scream in that section instead of a flute patch,’ or ‘I normally like to do that solo downstage, stage left, but sometimes I prefer to do it centre stage, standing on the drum riser.’”

Then there are unexpected, unwanted, but not unlikely issues that create problems on stage. Enter the stage technician – in this case, Armando “Yogi” Garcia, who has worked for numerous artists and productions, including Heart, Lou Reed, Slayer, and Lyle Lovett.

There are many horrible “what if” scenarios you have to be prepared for, and Yogi stresses the importance of thinking ahead to ensure you can get through your show if something goes south and having backup instruments and spares of everything breakable – from strings to straps to kick pedals – at the ready. Otherwise, those items going down can be showstoppers.

Granted, even when you figure you’ve thought of everything, fate (no doubt giggling maliciously at your expense) may prove you wrong. Yogi references a gig where, although it was clear the backline amps weren’t high quality, the hope was they’d work for the gig. “Then the guitar amp shit the bed. I remember going right out of the pedal board into a DI, just to get signal.” The FOH engineer wasn’t thrilled with the sound, he adds, “But the show went on and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about: getting through it.”

Doing so means not only having a “plan B,” but – particularly if you don’t have a backline tech – being able to implement that plan yourself without running around the stage like your hair is on fire. Minimizing the impact of technical issues can and should be rehearsed. That could mean being ready with an acoustic or piano-based number if another instrument goes down, or creating backup systems you can switch to seamlessly.

“That’s the other thing,” Yogi adds. “When something’s going wrong, never let the audience know what’s going on.” Granted, there are hiccups that the audience can’t help but notice. In those cases, he says: “If you react as a pro, that puts the audience at ease. For example, I saw U2 on the Joshua Tree Tour and Adam Clayton’s bass wireless was messing up and finally stopped working. Bono just went, ‘You good? You need to address this?’ That relaxed the tech and relaxed the performer, so shit got sorted and off they went.”

That said, you may not have a tech, an LD, or FOH/monitor engineer, Makoway puts in, “So what you’d do with full crew on a large tour, that whole process happens in miniature during sound check, where you introduce yourself to the house technicians and quickly develop a relationship, then talk about the generalities and any important specifics they should know in
terms of your show.”

Strictly speaking, troubleshooting isn’t taught in your average music class, but that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from rehearsing, if only in your head, what to do when potentially show-stopping catastrophes crop up.


Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.

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