Some musicians have no self-awareness. Others are too self-critical. Finding that balance in between can be challenging.
But if you’re taking the time to think about whether you’re talented enough to perform or not, then you probably do have a certain amount of self-awareness that enables you to see yourself – maybe not completely objectively – but objectively enough to where you have a good feel for how good you are.
I will say this at the outset, that ultimately it isn’t about “talent.” If it were, someone like Britney Spears would not have a career. I would never try to compete with her as a dancer (I’m not coordinated enough to dance), but as a singer, it’s hardly a fair contest.
But I know what you’re asking – am I good enough to start getting out there? Let me offer some thoughts.
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Put Up A Mirror
One of the best ways to get a sense of where you are on the spectrum of hopeless to amazing as an artist is to look into the mirror. Here’s what I mean.
If you’re practicing alone, you have no way of knowing what you actually sound like. Sure, you can play a song, and the sound will be picked up by your ears, but the problem is that your ears are attached to the same body your voice is, making you an unfair judge of the sound coming out of you. Have you ever heard people say they hate the sound of their recorded voice? This is partly to blame.
Similarly, if you’re playing guitar, then the sound hole is not aimed at your ears, it’s aimed in front of you (so it can be heard by the audience). This is how most instruments work (thus why it can be good to practice with an amp or monitor).
Here are several ways to get a better perspective of how you’re coming across and being received by others:
- Record yourself. If you’re self-aware, you’ll pick up on flaws in your performance. You may not know what to do about them yet, and that’s okay. But the goal here is to capture your raw performance, what you would sound like if you were playing in a bar or coffeehouse. You’re not trying to get a studio quality recording here, because that won’t give you a fair perspective on how you’re doing either.
- Film yourself. Even if you’re not performing in front of an audience, you can still use your smartphone to capture footage of yourself playing your music. Take the time to watch it, as painful as that might feel.
- Go and see others perform. Specifically, those who are gaining momentum locally. Observe how polished and practiced they are, even if they aren’t playing your favorite style of music.
Play Free Gigs
If you aren’t sure whether you should be performing or not, it means you probably don’t have much experience. I would encourage you to find a coffeehouse or community gathering (such as an open mic) where you can play without any looming expectations of selling tickets or putting butts into seats.
If you’re playing for free, nobody should be complaining about how short your set is, or how bad you’re sounding (unless you sound extremely bad). The only expectations you have to worry about are your own.
In my experience, I haven’t found most people – even talented musicians – to be the best judges of talent. They always have personal biases in terms of who they like, and of course, what style of music they enjoy. And who they like might be decently accomplished, but may not even hold a candle to others they know. So, being liked has its benefits after all.
Talent is relatively subjective. Again, if you aren’t doing anything people like, that might be a cause for concern. Your performance may not be great, or you just aren’t playing any songs in a style people enjoy.
But there simply is no practice like live practice, so if you have a long-term plan for your career and improving over time, you should start playing out immediately.
Pay Attention To What People Are Saying
Do your friends regularly tell you they enjoy hearing you play? Do you find people at your shows tell you they like your music? This is a sure sign you should be performing more.
Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, you can never tell what people are thinking just by their body language. If you set up in a café and start performing, it may appear as though no one is paying attention or even cares that you’re there. They may continue their conversations or keep reading their newspapers. But you might get a handful of compliments after the fact. In some cases, you’ll get negative comments or general apathy too, but the point being that you can’t judge your performance based on what you’re seeing alone.
Second, people in bars are funny creatures. In my experience, when performing in bars, you inevitably get mixed reviews. Some people will tell you that your vocals suck and you’re holding your pick too tightly (what in the world would they know?). And all this could be happening while a bunch of people are getting up and dancing in front of the stage, having the time of their life.
Let me just say it like it is – most people in a bar are at various levels of intoxication. Many bar-dwellers are also notoriously negative because they have hard labor jobs, or they just have nowhere else to hang out, and they’ve been coming to the same place every night for years and maybe even decades.
But you can always take the feedback and work with it, even if you only take it with a grain of salt (which you should in bars and pubs).
Fear can stop you from getting in front of the people you should be. As a new performer, you’re probably not going to go from singer/songwriter in a coffeehouse to a nationally known rock band overnight.
So, start where you are and make improvement your goal. If you keep playing shows, you’ll become better at reading people and tailoring your music to the audience, which is the best skill a live performer can cultivate.