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Ten pointers for performers


1.  EYE CONTACT
Looking up is ALWAYS good.  No matter how funky or mysterious a vibe you are trying to create – eyes closed, looking down/away, low brim hats, sunglasses, hoods, hair in your face – all of these things create distance between you and your audience.  Distance that is never positive, and for 999 out of 1000 performers, cannot be overcome with any amount of cool.

I know I sound like your mother on the first day of school, but pay attention anyway.  REMOVE all barriers between you and your audience, not matter if there are 50 people in the room or 50,000 people in the room.  Practice like hell so you don’t have to look at your instrument while you are playing.  Open your eyes.  Stop looking at the back wall.  Even on a jumbotron, the audience likes to think they might see your eyes.

If you are still in the camp that thinks appearing evasive on stage is cool…  Trust me.  When a creepy/eery/mysterious artist looks up at the audience, it’s piercingly the most direct and intense way to portray that vibe you are trying to create.

2.  OVERSHARING IS A BUZZ KILL
While there are artists who have built a following because of their tendency to confess things that are considered taboo, unless you want that to be the very basis of your business/persona, keep your recent experiences on the toilet, picking your various body parts, or discussions in bed with your significant other to yourself.  Really, most audiences will not become more endeared to you and your music if they know it was written on the toilet.  Or worse yet, that it was dropped in the toilet and recovered.

Stick to the stories that can be universally understood and appreciated – those that are entertaining. And those that you know will add to the experience of your music.  We’re not in 2nd grade anymore.  Farts no longer need to be a huge part of our repertoire.

Now, if you decide to make oversharing your connection strategy, then keep in mind…  Artists who succeed at this usually do so because they speak for people who have not otherwise had a voice.  They say and sing about things marginalized groups of people experience but never talk about – usually out of intimidation or fear to do so.

I once heard a label A&R exec say, “People like to hear an artist describe something they have felt or thought but they have never heard it said aloud before.  Or at least not put quite that way…”

Just remember, if you are approaching performance in a way that includes a lot of personal detail commonly considered mundane, there needs to be a sense that what you are sharing is universal within the niche you are addressing.  Something that commonly occurs within that particular community – that outsiders might not understand – but because your fans are on the inside with you, they do.  That’s what makes the story special, and that approach succeed.

3.  DON’T BE BORING
On the other end of the overshare spectrum is stage banter that makes audiences beg to be put out of their misery.  Don’t feel like you have to talk. Similar to what your momma used to say, “if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.”  But for performance, “if you don’t have something interesting to say, just fucking PLAY.”

4.  EXPLAIN WHAT NEEDS EXPLAINING
Don’t feel like you have to explain what the song you are about to sing means.  I’ve heard performing songwriter Susan Werner say in performance workshops that if you have to explain the song in order for the audience to understand it when they hear it, then you better go back and rework the song, cuz it’s not written well enough.  You know, I tend to agree.  As an audience member I don’t really want to hear what you think the song means to you – I want to be able to suspend the disbelief of what it means to me.  And if you’ve already painted four of the colors on my canvas with your introduction of the song, then I don’t really have that liberty anymore, do I?  I might be interested to know what inspired you to write the song – but ONLY if the inspiration is in itself interesting and adds, not detracts, from the song’s integrity.  Remember, many audience members will think about the things you said on stage every time they listen to you in the car.  If your story about the song is going to undermine that experience, well, proceed with caution.

5.  CRAFT THE AUDIENCE JOURNEY
The songs you sing should be presented in context with the overall experience you are trying to craft throughout the night.  And in context with what may be happening in the world or in the lives of the audience that make these songs most timely and meaningful to them in that moment.  Consider that journey as you think thru your possible commentary for the evening.

No need to script things, but do consider the general ebb and flow of the evening.  Too often I have seen artists just think about when to play fast or slow songs.  Or when to play the totally depressing number so they can recover with something chipper.  Or when it’s easiest to tune to that key.  Or when it’s easiest to get the drummer back up on stage.  (Gee, this is sounding like it might make for a whole other blog posting of it’s own…)

Think about the emotional and sonic journey combined with any barriers the location or time of show might present to you achieving that journey.  And craft your commentary to support that entire journey, not just each song by song.

6.  IT’S ALL NEW TO THE AUDIENCE
This is one of the hardest things to remember, especially if you perform 80-150 dates/year, and especially if you are a truly inspired and talented musician.  Because with creativity comes a necessary restlessness.  You will simply need to find a way to channel that drive to create more new now into on stage spontaneity on stage and writing off stage.

Do NOT feel like you have to vary your set list and song order every night to keep things fresh.  Do NOT feel like you’ve failed if you tell the same story one night after the next.  Do NOT feel like you have to play a different guitar solo every night.

Craft and refine your set list over time – only making changes because something didn’t work the night before or because you think something might work better.  If a story you told in San Antonio went over well with the audience, by all means tell it again in Austin.  Like they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it…  If you play an instrumental section long enough to finally get good at it, for god’s sake don’t change it just because you think that makes you some sort of guitar hero.  Famous guitar riffs become that by being repeated night after night after night after night to audience applause.

Just remember, while it may not be new to you, whatever it is, it IS new to the audience TONIGHT.

Many artists only think about their set, their show, their band.  You be the artist who acknowledges that the audience is new every night.  THEY are to be your source of spontaneity.  Let the newness come from the other people in the room with you – experience what is unique about them in real time and you will really be onto what makes live performance so thrilling.

7.  COUNT YOUR PITCHES
While I do encourage you to repeat things you’ve said or played night to night when they work and the audience responds well…  I will also say if you are going to do this well, there are a few things you should keep in a notebook about each gig to make sure it all remains new to the audience.  (You DO keep notes, right?)

In baseball, pitchers and catchers mentally keep track of what each opposing batter does each time they are at the plate.  That is why with each new at bat it becomes increasingly more difficult for batters to hit well.  The catcher knows before a batter even comes up to bat if they pull the ball, if they are fast enough to bunt for a base hit – essentially what worked on the batter.  And they also consider where the batter is in the lineup (1, 3, 5 or 7) to anticipate how their manager thinks they are best capable of contributing.  But pitchers also know that if they throw the same sucker pitch every at bat, the batter gets wise.  (and bored)

Performing is no different.  For all of the shows you play, mentally, in your iPhone notes or on paper, keep track of…

  • who else was on the bill with you
  • who you brought for accompaniment
  • what your setlist was
  • which major stories you told
  • what press/radio/media attended

That way you can always look back at what you did, how the audience responded to it, etc, to help you avoid any repeat performances.  Groupies who follow you in their car from DC to Philly to NYC won’t mind hearing the same stories in all three shows.  But if they hear them again six months later, they’re gonna start thinking you don’t have enough material to keep the show fresh.

8.  INTRODUCE YOUR BAND
Pretty simple.  Don’t forget to tell people who those talented instrumentalists and backup vocalists are.  And try not to wait until the end of the night to do this.  All of the people on stage with you are an integral part of your presentation.  Especially in small rooms.  If the audience feels connected to the players at your sides and to you, they will have that much more of a meaningful experience.  So you figure out how you want to do it.  Some people play one song with the whole band and introduce them right up front as a sort of – “here’s who’s up here with us tonight…”  This is usually done if the side players also have vocal mics and are likely to talk.  (It’s always awkward when someone talks on stage who has not been introduced yet.)  Some people introduce one at a time after they have a solo on different songs – the jazz way of doing it.  You will find what works best for you and your band.

9.  THANK PEOPLE
Before your last song, if you haven’t done so already, thank the audience, the venue/presenter, any media or press who supported the show, and don’t forget the volunteers, wait staff and engineer/sound person.  This is a business in which many people work very hard for very little pay.  And they do it for music – and for you.  And if you want to come back to the room, and continue to build in that market, these are people you need on your side for years to come.  You’d be surprised – this type of goodwill goes a long way.

10.  OH GOD THE ENCORE
Don’t assume you are going to have an encore.
Don’t play two or three songs in an encore.
And for god’s sake get the hell off the stage and fully out of sight.

Wait for the audience to express a desire for you to play an encore before going back out there.  I don’t care how small the club is or how long it will take you to get off stage and back on again, or if there is no back stage and you have to go outside on the street to make your departure.  If you don’t leave the room, it’s not an encore.  It’s just another song you tacked on because you felt like it.

There’s nothing worse than an artist playing an encore when all you want to do is get on the train or in your car and go home.  I know everybody does it, but don’t be that way, too.  It’s ungrateful, it’s self-absorbed, it looks bad, and it is evidence that you do not care what your audience is thinking, or even know what an encore is.

An encore is when you play an additional number because the audience demands it. Please do not take that lightly.

An encore is one song.  The word encore means “again” not “again and again.”  If your audience calls you back 3 times, I’m fine with that – play three songs.  But make them call you back.  Don’t just get up there and play three more songs.  Nobody asked you to do that.

At the risk of sounding like Col. Tom Parker, who never let Elvis do encores because he wanted the audience to always leave wanting more, I do not think every show should have an encore.  In fact, I think very few shows should have an encore.  Encores should be special things – given as gifts to special audiences – after a particularly special night.  They should only happen when the audience has been so moved that they are either brought to their feet or rendered immobile in their seats and refuse to leave.

I once witnessed Ani Difranco remain off stage for 15 minutes before returning for an encore.  In that time, the audience went wild.  They quite simply did not want the night to be over.  They clapped, they yelled, they banged on the floor and their chairs.  As a member of the audience, you got the sense that Ani came back out so as to stop the people in the far aisles who had started hitting their hands on the newly and expensively renovated walls of the old Somerville Theater for fear it might actually fall to pieces.  But let me tell you, that is an encore I REMEMBER.  And I thought that night, yeah that’s the way it should be done.

Now that said, I know this will change your set list…

Many people save their fans’ favorite song(s) for the encore.  So you have a decision to make.  You are either okay if you don’t get to play it or not.  If you are not, then it means you use something else for your encore.  But another thing to remember is, if you get a reputation for not always doing encores, and you also give audiences an idea of the song you play in your encore and they know they didn’t hear it – it may be another way you can court your audience to engage and become a more vocal, responsive part of the show.