Thursday, June 5, 2014

Soloing, part 11: Standing out

Picture this: you’re watching a taiko piece that has half a dozen soloists in it.  Each soloist is loud and dynamic and fancy and exiting.  On the way home, you recall the song but can’t remember what it was about the solos that you enjoyed.  They all seem to bleed together; it’s a blur.  Sound familiar?  And that's just one song - what about after an entire performance?
In the moment, the most important things about a solo are that it’s working with and not against the song, matching the tempo, and the mood – it needs to be *on*.  But what about standing out?  Being memorable?

This is a delicate subject, because more often than not, when I see someone trying to stand out, trying to be unique, it’s either:
  1. More of the same.  If everyone’s loud, they play louder.  If everyone is playing a lot of notes, they play even more notes. 
  2. Painful to watch.  You can sense when someone’s trying too hard to be clever.  It comes off forced and disingenuous.
These come from the act of *trying* too hard.  So how to solo from a genuine place and yet still stand out?

Opposite. If everyone else is playing a lot of notes, you can play fewer ones but really really “sell” them in your body and on your face.  Bring the audience with you on those chosen strikes.  If everyone is wailing on the drum, you can use dynamics; explore quiet notes to make the audience *want* to listen to you instead of *have* to listen to you.  If everyone is staying put when they play, move!  If everyone is moving around, maybe hold a pose for a few seconds and “sell” that. 

Analyze.  Watch your group play a song you’re soloing in. It can be in person, or on a video.  See what everyone is doing – and then take note of what’s not being done. This is more subtle than doing just the opposite, above.  Maybe people are moving their arms a lot, but their lower body stays planted. There you go; you can move your feet!  Maybe people aren’t making a lot of direct eye contact with the audience.  Ooh, perfect opportunity to make that connection with the audience.  Is there a lack of repetition in patterns?  Make it easy on yourself and play repeated things.  What’s not being done that you could try?

Tricks.  Hmm.  I can’t say you shouldn’t do them, but I’ve seen WAY more tricks fail than succeed.  Oh you’ll stand out alright, but not for the reasons you wanted!  And some of the tricks that have succeeded come at a cost, like throwing your bachi high in the air and waiting until it’s caught, making for a lot of nothing being played, for example.

If you’re going to do tricks, practice practice, practice, practice!  In some ways, a trick attempted with skill and failed is better than a trick done but poorly.  Neither is good, though.  But after practicing a trick so many times, you should ask yourself if your time isn’t better spent on technique, form, musicality, or making the entire solo better instead of one moment that could blow up in your face.

Think of it this way.  If you have worked hard to make your solo pretty strong to being with, then a failed trick won’t ruin it.  But if you’re so focused on the trick that it’s the only part that matters, then you’re really hurting yourself.

Finally, it's much harder to figure out how to make your solo stand out by doing these sorts of things without making it a “look at me look at me!” type of endeavor.  When you try to stand out by trying to impress, at best it comes off awkward and at worst, obnoxious.  When you’re doing something that is done to inspire, that feeling is felt – even if what you’re doing doesn’t quite succeed.  The former comes from ego; the latter comes from being genuine. 

You don't NEED to stand out.  You can solo from that genuine place and enjoy yourself and people will enjoy watching you.  And "standing out" shouldn't be your main goal, but it can make your solos better in a lot of ways simply because it makes you think intelligently about what you're doing.  And if in the process you can truly express yourself better, all the um...better!

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