I’m watching John Mayer putting on his usual excellent performance on the Palladia cable channel right now, and really enjoying it. He has an incredible amount of talent and has put in tens of thousands of hours of hard work perfecting his musical skills. He has more than just a skill and experience advantage over amateur performers like me, however. Pretty quickly I noticed John’s in-ear monitors – I’ve always wanted those. Imagine how much more easily you can keep the beat, keep your place in the song, adjust to changes or mistakes made by any of the other musicians, and balance your sound when you can hear exactly what is coming through the PA to the audience all the time. Singing multi-part harmonies must be a lot easier when you can hear the other singers clearly. I don’t have one of those systems yet, primarily because I can’t justify the cost, unfortunately. It is most useful when you are playing with other musicians, too, and I play solo a lot (though it is less and less a portion of my total number of performances). It really helps when you can’t hear some part of what you are playing and singing, which happens mostly in amplified performances, and I perform straight-up acoustically a lot, too. I like the convenience of taking just the small mandolin case and perhaps a music stand to gigs, as opposed to the heavy amplifier and cases of cables, effects boxes, foot pedals, etc. required for an amplified session or gig. When those opportunities arise, though, I just have to buckle down and do the packing and hauling, and one of these systems would fit easily into one of my effects cases. Listening to bands performing with a wireless monitor system like this is always a pleasure, though, and I dream of having one.
Then, as the cameras moved around the stage and I saw John from behind, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The monitor speakers in front of him were not all speakers! Instead, two of them were video screens slow-rolling the lyrics to the song he was singing up the screen in 120 point type, synchronized with the pace of the music. Now that’s a really slick performance aid I’ve never seen before – a musician’s teleprompter.
The real challenge to the amateur musician like myself, who only plays a few times a month, is memory. Many times I’ve seen musicians with a slip of paper taped to the side of their instrument, the back of a mic stand, or somewhere else in their view, giving them the lyrics to a new song or the first line to each verse in several tunes (it’s a lot easier to remember a line or verse when you can be prompted with the first few words, musical memory being a serial sort of thing). I’ve frequently aided my memory using sheets of lyrics on a music stand, set nearly horizontal and as low as I can set it to minimize its visibility from the audience, or just had my instrument case sitting open at my feet with sheets of lyrics propped up in it (this can be a problem when performing outdoors if there’s a wind). Certainly there have been times in my life when I had more than two hours of performance material perfectly memorized, but not many. I could definitely perform a lot more confidently if I had video prompting, and the more confidently you can play and sing the better the audience will enjoy any performance.
If you perform with an amplified group you run into a whole new problem. There are many times when you can only hear some of the band members, and times when you can hear others but can’t hear yourself. That makes performing REALLY difficult, but you’d be surprised how often it happens. Common monitor speaker systems help a lot, but aren’t always enough, as they can be hard to get properly adjusted. As a result you learn to read the hands, lips, faces, and body language of the other musicians, and even feel the vibrations in the stage under your feet, to stay in touch with where you are in the music.
Then there are the visibility issues that can come up in dimly lit lounges, bars, and clubs. I’ve performed in a few where the lighting was so low you couldn’t see the performer at the other side of the stage. In addition, sometimes the positioning of the musicians on a small or oddly configured stage can make it impossible to see some of the other band members. When you can neither hear nor see half the band, performing becomes ridiculously hard and frustrating, and it can happen. In situations like that I’m sure an in-ear wireless monitor system can make the difference between having a successful performance and a frustrating one.
The bottom line is, when you see a local group performing remember that they may not have any of the advantages of the big name performers, and may be having to struggle mightily to pull off each piece of music you are enjoying. They may have done just as much work as the professionals, if not more, just to do what they do, and may be fighting an up hill battle to entertain you, so give them a break if someone misses a change, hits a wrong chord, goofs up the words, or shows other evidence of struggle. The best of us manage to plow ahead and put each song across in spite of the challenges – the audience often won’t notice if you continue performing with confidence, not realizing you may be improvising, and there’s an old saying that says that if you make a mistake you just need to be sure to make it again the same way and in the same place in the music in the subsequent verse or chorus. In the final analysis, however, the amateur musician usually faces challenges the professionals may not and deserves your respect. Please cut them some slack when they appear to need it and enjoy what they do – they work hard to entertain you.