How to Be Totally Prepared for a Last-Minute Gig

I got a call at 2pm last Friday from That 80s Band. Their lead singer had just come down with the flu. They had a gig at 9pm that night and needed a vocalist. Was I available?

Although I had to cancel some plans, my answer was YES! I performed with this band a couple years ago, and I knew their gigs were fun and the band members are cool people.

I had about three hours to prepare ten songs. Five were songs I already perform often, but I had never performed the other five before. They were all familiar because they were all popular 80’s tunes, but it’s one thing to sing along to the radio and quite another to perform a song live.

To feel confident that I was going in prepared, I used a lot of the information contained in Lesson 4 of the Zen of the Stage DVDs (which is also available as a standalone download). Specifically, I noted the following for each song:

Song Structure

  • How long is the intro?

How many times does a riff play before vocals start? How many bars do drums play alone before bass and guitar and then vocals come in? I usually note these kinds of things on the lyric sheet, because just “feeling” when it’s time to start singing is not a very reliable way to get it right… At least not with a band you haven’t performed the song with before. It always feels different live.

  • How long between song sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc)?

This is crucially important as well. Does the chord progression go around once or twice between sections? Are there any extra bars? Do the song sections follow each other immediately? I usually note this on my lyric sheets as well.

  • How long are solo (instrumental) sections?

Another thing to note on your lyrics sheet. It’s particularly important to pay attention to songs where the vocals pick up before an even number of instrumental bars, such as after the short guitar solo in “I Love Rock & Roll.” I think the solo is about 6 measures in this song, rather than the more common 4, 8, or 12 which is where it would “feel” like it’s the right time to start singing again.

  • Are all the choruses the same length? How many times do they repeat?

Sometimes the first chorus is half-length. Sometimes the chorus repeats once, twice, or even more times at the end. You want to know how many times, every time.

Vocals Within the Song

With only a little time to prepare – and not wanting to strain your voice – you might be tempted to just run through songs quickly under your breath. But it’s important to run through them at full volume at least once, to find out:

  • Is the song in a key I can sing?

You don’t want to find out while performing that the song is actually too low or too high for you. This is why it’s important to either know your range very well, or to sing the songs at actual volume before deciding whether they’re in your range.

Songs that feel comfortably within your lower range when sung quietly may be too low in a live band setting, because you can’t get a lot of volume out of the last couple notes of your low range. And songs that feel comfortably within your higher range when singing quietly may be too high in a live band setting, if the high notes are power notes.

  • Which lyric lines “wrap” quickly to the next line?

When you’ve just learned a new song, lines that follow each other with no break often cause problems. That’s because you may glance at the lyrics to remind yourself of one line, but forget that the next line comes immediately. I note this on my lyric sheets with an arrow: “–>”

  • Are there any difficult phrasings or rhythms in the lyrics?

Again, saying lyrics under your breath is very different from saying them out loud. More than once I’ve thought I knew a line or two of lyrics… but when I tried to actually sing them out loud, they turned out to be tongue twisters.

These things are often overlooked in favor of simply learning what the lyrics and melody are. But these are the things that make your performance go smoothly and help you feel oriented in each song while on stage.

You can get a full list of these “trip-up spots”, and a fuller description of them, by purchasing Lesson 4 of the Zen of the Stage DVDs. You also get full access to all the downloadable materials that you get when you buy the entire DVD set, even if you only purchase one lesson. More information HERE.


Credit is due to Kevin, That 80’s Band’s guitarist, for staying alert and cueing me when necessary – especially when the band’s arrangement varied from the original recording.

And by the way… I encourage you to check out That 80s Band if you’re in the Denver area. They keep the crowd in a complete frenzy.


(c) 2011 Adrienne Osborn

Adrienne Osborn is a vocalist and performance coach based in Colorado.   For more free articles and tips, visit