Situational Awareness: Does it Work Onstage?
When I was a small child, my dad used to
make our TV time a little more challenging.
When the show would jump to a commercial, he would ask my brothers and I questions about what we had just watched—
questions like “What time was the clock
on the wall showing behind the actors?”
or “Which hand was he wearing his watch
on?” or “What was the number on the mailbox?” No doubt, they were crazy questions
to ask children, but the game wasn’t just
for fun. My dad was trying to sharpen our
attention skills, and increase what is called
Situational Awareness, or SA, is an interesting concept. In a nutshell, it means being
aware of your surroundings, and the cause
and effect of your actions in the immediate
area. SA is difficult to apply because you
have to identify objects and actions around
you, and you must then have forethought
into how your decisions will affect your goals
and intended results. The concept is taught
in the military, law enforcement and health
professions, but also applies to everyday
life. You use it while driving (or at least you
should), and in workplace decision making.
Now, pretend your workplace is a stage, and
you’re a bass player. Oh wait … you are!
Then read on.
The most obvious ways to apply SA to what
we do are not hard to figure out. In fact,
they are more common sense calls than
anything else. For example, being too loud,
bringing an SVT rig to a jazz brunch gig, losing track of time and being late, etc. These
are all things that, with a little bit of situational awareness, could have been changed.
Now, let’s take a look at your last gig.
Was there something that happened that
could have been avoided if you were more
aware of your surroundings? Maybe if you
paid attention to the edge of the stage,
you wouldn’t have fallen off. Or maybe if
you’d realized you were standing between
the drummer and the singer, someone else
could have seen the cues to end the song.
Or maybe you saw the guitar player placing his beer too close to his amp and chose
to let it go, and now his rig is in the repair
shop. (Okay, he should have known better, but still … you get the picture.) Before
we go any further, don’t feel silly if any of
this sounds familiar. At some point, I’ve
been guilty of all of the above, except for
the SVT example (but I have been severely
underdressed for a gig), so I feel your pain.
It’s all one big learning process.
I’ve found that
being aware of
whether it be
on stage or off,
has had a pro-
found impact on
So let’s go a little deeper into the theory
of SA. Let’s say you’ve been with an artist a
long time and you know his timing (or lack
thereof). If you’re paying attention then you
can start to feel the warning signs when
he or she is getting off, and you can adjust
accordingly. A simple adjustment can make
or break the performance, like noticing the
drummer isn’t ready to kick off the song
and holding off the singer for a second. Or
maybe you see the lighting truss shaking a
little too much and bring it to someone’s
attention. You won’t get a raise or a medal
for any of this, but “saving the day” is its
own reward. I’d like to think that for as many
train wrecks as I’ve witnessed, there have
been just as many that I’ve averted, too.
You’ve heard the expression, “Walking
around with blinders on,” right? Some
shows, we are doing just that. You get
bored, antsy or you may be more worried about getting home than playing. It’s
understandable, but no excuse to shut
down all of your senses. It’s almost (but
not nearly) as serious as combat fatigue.
You lose your edge. Not being on top of
your game leads to lackluster performances, and it shows—not only to your band
mates, but also to the audience.
Aside from all of the physical aspects of a
live show, there is awareness in the music.
I don’t want to limit my theory to one
genre, but I think jazz players are some
of the most aware players out there. You
have several players taking solos during
the course of the song, and as the bass
player we need to compliment each one.
Dynamics, note choice and feel all dictate
where the song is going to go, and we
need to be aware of all of these while
playing—in any style of music.
Steve has performed and recorded with a diverse range
of artists, from Edwin McCain to Randy Brecker to Course
of Nature. Steve is also an alumnus of Woodstock ‘ 99,
performing with his band King Konga. His current projects
include extensive touring and video production with Bucky
Covington (Lyric Street) and writing a popular weekly tour
journal on his website: shinybass.com.
If no one taught you SA when you were little, that’s okay. The beauty is that it’s never
too late to learn. Start trying to notice little
things in everyday life. Then take it to the
stage. Notice how people are reacting to
certain songs in your show. I am asked time
and time again how to be successful in this
business. Though I don’t have one definitive
answer, I’ve found that being aware of surroundings, whether it be on stage or off, has
had a profound impact on the decisions I’ve
made. Being a little more astute has pushed
my brain into places that it wouldn’t have
normally gone, so for that I thank hours of
TV, and of course, my dad.