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Mindi Abair: Defining the ‘It’ Factor

By Published: December 13, 2011
In the book, Abair writes a lot about the role of the audience and how they are a crucial factor in determining a musician's success—and should be treated as such. After all, the audience are the ones who bought tickets to come to the show, they will buy your music and ultimately they will be the decision makers in whether or not you will be a success.

One piece of advice Abair shares in the book is that the performer needs to make himself or herself relatable to the audience. It is something that Abair does when she takes the stage and also something she admires in other performers. "That's something that I always thought was the most amazing talent in artists—when they sent you away from their concerts where you maybe knew them better. Or you felt like they gave a piece of themselves to you. That's what I always strive for onstage and I think that's a huge part of that "It" factor—you have to give of yourself, you have to believe in what you are doing, and you have to be up there and be who you are."

Abair is one who definitely has It, as millions of viewers noticed during her stint as a guest musician with contestant Paul McDonald on last season's American Idol. One of these fans included rocker judge Steven Tyler, who asked host Ryan Seacrest, "Who's that saxophonist?" The answer: Mindi Abair.

"I walked off the stage and one of the backstage production people asked me, 'Did you just hear that?' I said, 'Did Steven Tyler just say something about me?' And she was like, 'Yeah, he asked who you were!' I said, 'Steven Tyler asked who I was? Wow!' That's some rock and roll lore right there! I grew up on rock and roll; I didn't grow up listening to jazz. That's pretty much a trophy in my book."

So what was it like being on American Idol? "Amazing," according to Abair. "I got a call from Don Was, who was one of the producers working on the show. Don is one of my favorite producers in the entire world. In Hi-fi Stereo (Heads Up, 2010), Abair's most recent CD, was actually supposed to be produced by Don, but he was so busy doing the Rolling Stones reissue of Exile on Main Street (Atlantic, 1972), that timing-wise, we just couldn't make it happen. So for him to call me to do something on American Idol was just insane.

"He just called up and said, 'Hey, there aren't many rock saxophonists. Would you do a rock and roll solo on "Old Time Rock and Roll" for one of the contestants [McDonald]?' And I said, 'Hell, yes!' He told me, 'We are recording all day tomorrow, so just come into the studio.' I said, 'I'm playing Phoenix tomorrow in a festival. Can I walk offstage, hop on a plane and can you late night it for me?' He said, 'Yeah.' So that's what I did. I walked offstage; I got in a car, went to the airport, got off the airplane in Los Angeles and just went for it."

In How to Play Madison Square Garden, Abair likens being onstage to being on a first date. Many audience members are seeing you for the first time. And they actually want to like you (which is not always the case on some first dates). Confidence is crucial and as a performer, Abair writes, "Fear is a killer. If you doubt yourself at any turn, they will sense it. You have to commit fully to what you are doing and carry it through with the utmost confidence and belief."

Confidence and fearlessness are two qualities that Abair developed early on. "Looking back at my high school days, I was the only one with the guts to stand up and play a solo when I didn't know anything about what I was doing. I knew there were chord changes marked on the page, I just had no idea what those meant. But I just figured, hey, this will be fun! Maybe that was just sheer guts, and maybe that's what helps lead you to having the It factor."

Abair feels that she developed her own It factor over time. "I think it was just years of learning that created who I am onstage and my ability to engage an audience or make them feel something. I don't think I was born with it. I played saxophone and sang for so many years that it literally became an extension of myself." Being relaxed while on stage is an important part of it. "It helps to feel comfortable with whatever you are up there with, whether it's a microphone or whether it's your saxophone."

But so is getting out there and performing on a variety of stages and venues. "There were many, many years of me playing six or seven nights a week, in different environments, whether it was playing on the street to people two feet away from me or it was playing to sixty thousand people with the Backstreet Boys or playing with Duran Duran to a bunch of screaming women. Whatever I was doing, I learned from it and I bettered myself. After every show, I just thought, 'Well, that worked,' or 'That was just this incredible energy,' and I tapped into it. It was just this amazing experience. I have to experience that every night. I'm in control of that. That's amazing!

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