by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Starting From Square One (Part 6) Surviving Your First Gig

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Starting From Square One (Part 6) Surviving Your First Gig

So let’’s say you’re a first-time band member, and as this series has been unfolding over the past five issues, you’’ve gotten serious, jammed around, auditioned, and formed or joined your first band. Now your very first gig is staring you in the face. How do you get through a set in front of a completely new audience without too many mess-ups? 

Stay cool. That’’s right, just chill. Even if things go really really bad, it’’s just one gig in the grand scheme of things. Your first impulse is to try to make this night a brilliant success. Well, don’’t. Forget about success. 
Instead, think competence. To pretend you’’re some great rock star at this stage is going to be a heck of a lot more embarrassing than to make a few mistakes on stage. Just come down to planet Earth now – the most satisfying music is always played by humans, not mythical heroes. Prove that you belong up on that stage by knowing your material and playing it well. That’’s a lot more impressive than a lot of stage moves and weird grimaces. 

Have simple goals

Number one, get all the way through the gig as best you personally can. Second, stay focused on the team effort of being in a band. And number three, have some fun. If you are like most first-time band members, your first gig is probably not going to be high-stakes. Maybe you’’re playing an all-ages gig, or an after-hours student union jam. In fact, I’’d suggest trying to make your first time on stage a low-key affair. If your band is planning to win a competition, you should try to play a few lower-stress gigs first, to get some stage experience and workshop material live. If the pressure is too high at first, then things are much more likely to go wrong; and as they go wrong, they’’ll start to cascade. And what kind of fun is that?

Be well-rehearsed

Please review my earlier Building Blocks articles on Constructive Rehearsals (June through December 2012). If your band has never played a gig, then it’’s safest to focus on a short set of 3-6 songs. After each song is mastered, then experiment with playing the list of songs in a few different orders, to see which sequence feels best. Once you settle on a fixed set order, then practice in concert mode, as if you were on stage: no talking, no noodling, no stopping, just one song after another with as much energy you’ve got.

If you’re a new member of a more experienced band, then this is the time to really listen to your bandmates’’ feedback.

Their sound and presence is going to pull you through the gig, so figure out how best to work inside the established approach. The first gig is not the best time for you to try to change everything to suit yourself, especially if you’re the newbie. Even within a very controlled sound, there’s almost always a sweet spot where each individual player can shine, even if they’ve never been on stage before.

Work out the logistics

This is the common-sense advice that they never tell you about in rockumentaries. How are you and your gear are getting to the gig? Will the band rent or borrow a van? Who helps roadie, and can you trust them? When and how are you getting back? When is soundcheck? What stage position works best for the band? What’’s the eye contact like? Are you bringing your own mics? An experienced musician will usually have all this worked out so well that they don’’t give it a second thought, but for a beginner, these issues can bring the whole gig to a dead stop if they’’re not sorted. So watch out.

Have your emergency kit packed  

Something you’’ll witness as a breakout musician is just how unprepared players are for emergency situations. And yet most of the time, things are easily fixable. Be prepared for the most obvious problems. Have fresh batteries and always carry a backup instrument cable – and not some old, dodgy cable that’’s falling apart. Make sure both your regular cable and backup cable work before you pack for the gig. Also, you should have an extra set of strings and a decent handful of picks. You may also want to bring along your own multi-box, which should also be tested.

If you’’re a drummer, you should have several pairs of sticks – new ones, not bashed-up kindling. You should have a sturdy hardcase for guitars, keyboards, and bass, and bags for the drums – even if you’’re just starting out. You may find it hard to meet that expense, but it’’s much more expensive to fix a broken peghead or a cracked shell. Even if you don’’t have any emergencies, at least you’’ve got confidence that most of your bases are covered and you don’’t need to use part of your brain worrying about what might go wrong. 
Last but not least, be sure to pack a tuner if you need one – but please don’’t sit around wasting everyone’’s time tuning your guitar over and over on stage. Tune up before the gig, and make minor adjustments as you go. Don’’t gig with a guitar that is always going out of tune. 


I’’ll be doing an article in this column soon about soundcheck. Until then, just some basics. The first thing to remember as a beginning band is that if you’’re the first to play (which is most likely), then you’ll be the last to soundcheck. Your gear will probably go in front of everyone else’s, and you’ll be expected to tear it down very quickly right after your set. If you’’re sharing gear with another band to save time, remember to really respect that amp or drum kit, and treat it as good or better than your own.
The next thing is to get to know the sound tech, and work with them respectfully. If you can’t hear yourself, let them know, but don’’t be a jerk about it. Sometimes different elements all have to come together before the stage sound works, and that can take a while to sort. Usually the drum sound is checked first, after which the direct instruments of bass and keyboards are usually sorted. Guitars next, and then vocal mics last. Appreciate this very logical order, and listen carefully to your own place in the sound. When the band is ready to play, do not get carried away by the thrill of the high-energy sound. Play a representative excerpt of one of your songs, not the whole song or set. Listen to the mix critically (but fairly), and make sure you can hear all the necessary elements.

Dealing with nerves

Once you’’ve rehearsed sufficiently, got yourself and your gear to the gig, and soundchecked, there’’s nothing left to worry about, is there? Of course there isn’’t! So why are you getting nervous? 
Dealing with concert nerves is something that differs widely from player to player. Some never feel them – some have to work on them their whole lives. Most players get them a bit and get over them.

Turn your jitters into the kind of raw energy you’’ll need to really rock out. That’’s the usual strategy. Or distract yourself by reading a magazine, chatting with your mates, watching the other bands, or having a quick bite to eat. If nothing else helps, then what you need is a philosophical slap in the face – what the hell is so important about you that people would be going out of their way to be overly critical? You’’re just a first-time band member. Who really gives a damn whether you blow it tonight? Stop thinking so much about your precious little self, and start thinking about your band and the hard work you’’ve all put in for this moment. 
You owe it to them, and to yourself, to get out there and give it everything you’’ve got. Now strap on that guitar, and march onto that stage!
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz superstar Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra