I’ve played a zillion of all kinds of shows. In the beginning I was scared and tried to fake my presentation lest the crowd see the real me, which, of course, they wouldn’t like, right? It took me a while to untangle my fears and doubts from the job and begin to focus on what I could bring. Over the past years of success and sad spectacle, I’ve found that most people love to hear live music, and, perhaps more importantly, they want to feel real emotion.
1. Bring the emotion.
I used to think this was a bunch of hooey and that emotion was just for Broadway. But whether you’re playing punk or or bluegrass or pop, it’s how you made them feel that people remember. They might say “man, that girl plays great guitar!” or “Golly! a 4 octave range!” but it’s how those elements made them feel that gets in amongst them.
I’m a pretty good performer with an average range, but I make sure to allow the emotions of the song to show on my face and in my vocals. I put myself in the position of the narrator and the song becomes more real to me. In the beginning, this felt awkward and fake but over time it’s become completely natural and the audience appreciates it. People might tell me I’m an awesome singer or whatever, but I am sure it’s my emotional availability that makes them listen.
With practice, you will be able to convey the right amount of emotion – not too much, which we all know is annoying, and not too little, which can cost audience interest. Its best to think about the song you are singing and let your face and voice respond accordingly. And if you are nervous about performing, you don’t necessarily have to hide that. Be real. Real emotion sells you – that’s what folks want to see.
2. Show your face.
Show your face and eyes. I know its awkward sometimes to look into the faces of a crowd (what if they’re frowning? what if they’re talking on their phones? ) but it’s an important gift to your audience. Have you noticed how when a singer looks at you and smiles from the stage, a little thrill runs through you? It’s the same for most folks.
In truth, I’m the kind of person that can’t hold eye contact for long, so sometimes I look just over people’s heads. This is an old stage trick, and folks think you are looking at them, but you don’t get squirmy with eye contact. And like most people, I bet when you smile your whole face lights up. This charming aspect of the human face will help to build your connection with your audience. Share it with the people.
3. Let people know you who you are.
People like to hear some of your story. Feel free to share about the song you’re about to sing, why you learned it, or what it means to you. Maybe talk about how much fun it is to play, or why it’s hard and might suck. I will often bring up lyrics I don’t understand and ask if anyone can explain them to me. You are from a strange world most folks don’t know about. They want to know what motivates a musician, what inspires them, what kind of things they have to deal with. It changes you from being an unapproachable musician (did you know some folks are scared of us?) to a live human being.
If you’re in a loud busy room, sharing stories will be less effective, but make sure to mention your song list for their inspection “conveniently located by the tip jar.” And when you speak, speak slowly and enunciate. I am constantly guilty of pointing out my tip jar with zest and authority, and then dwindling down to a mutter when I mention my new cd for sale. Do better than me.
4. Print out a song list.
The song list is a perfect bridge for connecting with your audience. Announce that yours is “right next to the tip jar” and they should just help themselves. Now they can pick out their favorite songs, they have more investment in your performance, and you get a better idea of what folks want to hear that day.
People feel good when you honor their requests, that they matter, that they have an impact. Discussing their requests over the mic can bring the whole place into a general conversation that breaks down all kinds of barriers. I often ask people to pass the song list to the next table, which creates more interaction between everyone. The venue staff can tell when the patrons are enjoying themselves. There is no end to cool pay-offs of having a physical song list for folks to peruse.
5. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
I’ve heard this advice my whole life, and I never could figure out what it meant. (I mean, c’mon! Life is SERIOUS. What are you talking about?!) But I think finally got it.
I’ve always had a tendency to put myself up on a pedestal when performing. “I am performing MUSIC up here which means I must be perfect!” To fall from that height would be a disaster! So I was rigid, uptight, cautious, and probably unbearable. Over the years I’ve dropped this arduous pedestal idea, and put myself plonk! right down amongst ordinary folks. I no longer have to be perfect, I just do my best, and failing that, I laugh. Literally.
These days, when I reach for some vocal height and undershoot it significantly, it strikes me as quite funny and I burst out laughing. This is what it means to not take myself too seriously. An honest laugh says that I am not pretending to some silly pitch of perfection to which I am not entitled, that I can fall on my face with the best of them. And the crowd can relax, and not be on guard for inevitable stumbles with a forced smile and the sympathetic wince. A relaxed crowd is a receptive, happy crowd, and I do what I can to make sure I set the right tone, to wit: I’m reachable, I’m a human, and I love what I do.