Dave Holmes

ICMP degree students - How to get that last 30%!

ICMP degree students - How to get that last 30%!

At the beginning of March, I spent the day at ICMP assessing 3rd year degree guitar and bass students. Their brief was to learn two Alisha Dixon tunes and then perform them as a band (with drummers and singers) as if in a rehearsal. My mate Steve Turner played the part of MD, stopping the performances to instruct the players, get them to refine their sounds, add stops and pushes etc to test how each of them conducted themselves and responded to criticism and suggestions. 

Most of the guitarists and bassists had learned the tunes and performed reasonably well. With a few I had the opportunity, once they'd been assessed, to tell them how their performance would have been improved. What I told them applied to every single player there so this blog is what I would have told everyone if I'd had the chance.

Playing all the right notes, in time, at the right volume, with the right sounds and no mistakes IS NOT ENOUGH!! That would get you maybe 70%. So, what do you have to do to get the remaining 30%?!

15%  would be about HOW you play. This is influenced by your feel, engagement with the music, note production, commitment and concentration, belief in you ability, your desire to lead and influence the other players and your mood at the time.

15% is down to your visual 'performance': your visual image, facial expressions, body language, interaction with the rest of the band, stage presence, engagement with the music (again!).

Ok, I've made up these percentages. These factors are impossible to calculate and I'm certainly not quoting any ICMP marking templates, but you get the idea. Let's look at each in turn.


When players talk about 'feel' they are referring to the placement of notes relative to some time keeping device or instrument eg drummer, drum loop. You can play slightly in front, exactly on it or behind the beat. The anticipation or delay is virtually imperceptible but makes a difference subconsciously to the listener. I'm talking just a few milliseconds! Playing in front adds urgent, driving energy and forward momentum. Playing behind creates power (think ACDC!) and stability. The music feels grounded and secure. The player who can provide this energy and influence is very employable. Personally, I don't think you should try to do this consciously. The differences are so subtle. Just aim to play in time. Once you have TOTAL control WHEN you play you can experiment but I think your feel should be an emotional reaction (not a technical one) to the mood of the music. Ask yourself, "what energy does the music need?" and your feel will develop naturally.

Engage With The Music

What is the mood of the music? What are the lyrics about? What was the writer's motivation? How is the listener affected by the song and the band's performance as a whole? Step outside the technical world of your instrument. Feel the mood of the song and allow it to influence your playing. No need to do anything consciously, just let it happen.

Note Production

I'd never considered this until I realised it was a major factor in me not getting the gig on "We Will Rock You". I had three auditions, all in front of Brian May. The last one was 90 minutes long. Although I could play everything he'd asked for and I'd even learned alternative live versions, he told me he wasn't hearing the sound he wanted. He demonstrated to me that it wasn't the equipment. My ears were opened that day to a quality that I didn't even know was missing from my playing. What a privilege to be shown by one of my heroes!

Although I didn't get the job, Brian asked me to be first dep for both guitarists (Alan Darby and Laurie Wisefield). I learned a great deal about note production from those guys. In the 70s most guitarists turned up their amps to create their distorted sound and turned down the guitar volume to clean up their tone. But it's possible to create a whole range of tones and levels of distortion with your picking alone. At WWRY, the Vox AC30s sounded so saturated with the guitar volume up full. But at 3, I learned that I could get clean tones if I picked lightly, crunch sounds with medium picking and full on distortion if I dug in. This was a revelation. It really is all in the fingers!

During the assessment performances, I wanted to tell everyone to play harder. Dig in! Assert yourself! Play like you mean it! Experiment with different picks, different pick angles, different grips. It all makes a difference.

The fretting hand affects your tone too. Experiment playing just one note. Apply different pressures with your fretting hand, different positions within the fret, different vibratos etc.


This isn't only about 100% concentration, it's also about believing in the validity and value of your part. Play as if your part is holding the whole tune together and the band are relying totally on you!

Believe In Your Ability

How would you play if you truly believed you were the best? How would it affect your performance if you could silence those feelings and voices of self doubt? If you could play without trying to impress anyone, without fear and just completely immerse yourself in the music? You'd be AWESOME right?! Regardless of how you rate yourself, when you are on stage, about to perform, you ARE the best person for the job. Even if you see other guitarists in the audience, you are (probably) the only one who knows the material, so you ARE the best person for the job at that moment.

I still get nervous. The first time depping on a West End show is terrifying! Doing live TV can be terrifying! One of the most powerful techniques I use to calm myself down is to remind myself that I am the best man for the job because there are probably no other guitarists in the room and if there are, they probably don't know the tunes.


I once read a self help book called "The Art Of Possibility" by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. Benjamin Zander is an American classical conductor and he uses the orchestra as a model to illustrate some of his ideas. The most powerful lesson I took from the book was "You can lead from any chair". You may be one of several second viola players, sitting at the back but that doesn't mean you can't play with commitment and influence and energise the players around you. Playing in a band, you may think that your bass part is not that important, but if the other musicians feel secure with your feel and consistency, you are far more employable (and musical).


Self explanatory really. Feeling tired, run down, nervous or insecure will affect your playing negatively. Nerves and insecurity can be controlled with practice and visualisation/hypnosis techniques. Playing an instrument is physical. Look after yourself! Always warm up before playing. Eating healthily, getting plenty of sleep and keeping reasonably fit all helps.

All these factors are worth considering and will help you become a more complete player. But this is still not enough if you want to play live! So, let's look at the last 15%, your visual performance.

Do you look like a member of the band? Is your hairstyle, clothing, general appearance compatible? Do you really want to be looking like a member of The Darkness in your local jazz club where everyone else is wearing black polo necks? (Hmmm....maybe!)

Do your facial expressions and body language match the other band members? You don't want to be grinning away like a Cheshire Cat if you're playing with a bunch of Goth shoe gazers! Adopting a Status Quo-like, legs apart pose, gurning like a 1970s rock god, probably wouldn't  get you the gig with a Shadows tribute band!

How do you interact with the other band members and the audience? Do you smile nicely at them, growl and look menacing, act like you're best mates with some rough and tumble (a la Faces, Rolling Stones) or do you ignore them? Again, try and match what the established band members are doing.

Engage with the music...again! Don't grin at the audience if the song is an emotional ballad! Listen to the music and lyrics and allow these to affect your physical performance.

When people talk about 'stage presence' they mean your confidence and ability to hold the audience's attention. Stage presence is affected by everything mentioned already. But be careful. If you are part of an artist's backing band, NEVER forget that the artist is the star. You may need to tone down your stage presence and be aware not to draw too much attention away from the artist. A drummer friend lost a gig for doing just that. He's an energetic and charismatic performer but this particular artist didn't appreciate the attention he was getting and sacked him saying, "It's not the <drummer's name> show".

I've toured with violinist Vanessa Mae since 1997. For the first few tours, I had licence to roam the stage and I used a cordless guitar system. There were a few tunes where I harmonised with her or played solos. I used to stand next to her for these moments. But I'm taller than her and I quickly became aware that towering over the star (my employer!) was probably not a good look. I tried to make myself smaller when I was close to her, but it didn't work. At one particularly lively gig, I dropped to my knees next to her to play my solo. She loved it and acted the dominatrix, pretending to whip me with her violin bow! Not only had I solved the problem of being taller than her but we'd spontaneously created another exciting, visual aspect of the overall performance. That gets you serious Brownie points with your employer!

Dave Holmes 19/03/2015

back to blog posts

© 2012 Dave Holmes

Dave Holmes