The artist's life

For artists: How to play a workshop stage at Canadian festivals

Allision Russell performs at a workshop at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

Artists outside of Canada may not be familiar with the workshop stage found at most Canadian folk festivals. For the uninitiated, workshops sound like you’ll be expected to teach. However, that is not at all the case!

In my years as a touring musician, I have performed on these stages perhaps a hundred or more times. I’ve played with artists who are absolute masters of this craft who have leveraged workshop performances into further opportunities, and I have witnessed utter disasters!

The purpose of this post is to share my experience and lend some advice.

If you will be performing at a Canadian festival this year, read on to learn not only what to expect, but also how to thrive.

The history of the festival workshop

Workshops originated at the Newport Folk Festival, but it was at Ontario’s Mariposa Folk Festival that the concept took flight.

Estelle Klein, Mariposa’s artistic director from 1964-1980, was a powerful advocate and promoter of folk music and musicians in Canada. Her vision for workshops was to create an intimate platform where audiences could discover new artists and listen to artists who would not normally perform together.

The early days were truly star-studded: imagine watching a show titled “Ballads and Songs Old and New” featuring Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Paxton, Owen McBride, Doc Watson, Carolyn Hester, Enoch Kent, Joni Mitchell, and Mike Seeger all sharing songs together.

What to expect as an artist

Expect to perform with three to five other artists who may also have musicians with them. You will be sharing gear as there often aren’t enough mics, DIs, and amps to accommodate everyone. This is truly a “throw and go” scenario, so bring an agile setup.

Also, it’s not uncommon, especially as an emerging artist, to play four workshops (two per day) at a festival.

The artists you will be sharing the stage with will be different from you. They might be from a different country, speak a different language, or play a very different style. They may be emerging or they may be superstars.

You will likely be sharing the stage with their accompanying musicians too. Artists are encouraged to perform on each other’s songs at workshops. That might be another artist singing harmony on your chorus, but it could also mean being backed up by a full rhythm section.

Themes

There will be a theme. Artistic directors curate workshop stages under the banner of a theme. Sometimes themes are thoughtful and prompt collaboration in really innovative ways; other times, you’ll have to work to create the magic.

Format

There are no rules when it comes to the format, but typically artists take turns performing one song each until the time is up. It’s common to sing or play on each other’s tunes. Workshops often end in a sing-along/play-along that involves all the musicians on stage and even the audience. In my experience, this collaboration is what makes for memorable workshop experiences.

Workshop Etiquette and How to Approach a Workshop Stage as an Artist

Roll with it

Things will go wrong. There will be feedback. Your monitor sound will be horrible. It will be crushingly humid. Your guitar will not stay in tune. You will break a string.

Part of the charm is for audiences to hear you in a bit of a raw state. I have seen mini-tempers on stage, and it is very awkward. Rise above all the challenges and you will create truly memorable experiences.

If everything is going wrong, allow spontaneity to take over. That might mean some self-deprecating humor (which will win everyone over), or using someone else’s gear.

Connect

Workshop stages are an amazing opportunity to connect with other artists who are also performing. Now that I’m producing full-time, I perform at far fewer festivals than I used to. I really miss connecting with artists in this way!

There’s usually a small backstage area to congregate and dump gear. Strike up some conversations or even give a kind hello so everyone who is about to perform feels welcome and comfortable.

Also, and this is huge, keep in touch with the artists you meet. Connection is really what these festivals are about – connecting your music with fans, but also connecting with a community of touring musicians. If you are in a touring band, you may run into these musicians again and again.

Be a good host

Typically, there is a designated workshop host. Being asked to host is an honour, and it’s not something to take lightly.

The host’s job is to welcome the audience, introduce the workshop theme, introduce everyone on stage by name (don’t forget sound crew and volunteers), and take some responsibility for flow and timing.

If you are chosen as the workshop host, that doesn’t mean you are the workshop headliner. It means the AD is trusting your performance and people skills enough to lead the artists and the audience through a magical experience.

Be extremely gracious, thank the AD and festival, make the audience feel welcome, champion the artists on stage with you, and here is a critical piece of etiquette: don’t go first. Hand over the first spot to someone else.

It’s not your show

Singer-songwriter Sarah Jane Scouten has the following to say about stage banter, rambling, and unintentionally generally hogging the spotlight:

“It is important to keep your pre-song story short-ish. Time is precious and it isn’t your show; it’s everybody’s. Strike a balance between audience accessibility and timing.”

Choose the right tunes

The idea of workshops is to put together artists who wouldn’t normally play together and see what happens. Pick songs that are easy that work well for collaboration.

This might mean putting aside your folk rock opera and choosing a song that is easy to learn by ear. Simple songs will make it easier for everyone to shape the dynamics, join in, and create something unexpected.

Also, try to pick songs that have relevance to the theme. Feel free to share a story with the audience.

Finally, be a good bandleader and lead the other musicians through your songs. If there’s a new section or ending coming up, a hand, eye contact, or obvious head gesture will help!

My Experience playing Workshop Stages

I’ve had some truly incredible experiences playing on workshops. I’ve had the opportunity to back up superstars like Brandi Carlile and share the stage with incredibly diverse artists such as Tibetan throat singers, Sacred Steel bands, and traditional Inuit dancers.

Some of the people I’ve met I’ve gone on to form long-standing musical relationships with. For example, I met Birds of Chicago (Allison Russel) at the Mariposa Folk Festival. After playing a gospel Sunday workshop with the band, I went on to tour and record with the group for several years.

I also met Canadian guitarist and singer Joel Fafard at the Bella Coola Folk Festival. We toured much of Canada together and recorded an album of duo guitars.

While that’s my experience as a sideman, as an artist, you never know who you will meet, what great collaborations might happen, and what great opportunities await!

Conclusion

If you are new to Canadian folk festivals, I hope this post helps you navigate your way through the workshop stage. I encourage you to collaborate and connect with your fellow artists and the audiences supporting you.

Have a great summer!

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