[Editors Note: This article was written by Suzanne Paulinksi.]
There are a million things you can do to ensure your live performances don’t suck. Whether it’s filming yourself, (so you can watch and critique the playback), shopping for the right outfit, or just making sure you choose the right songs for your audience, there are always elements you can improve.
However, even for those who choose the best songs, do their vocal warm ups, add dancers (when appropriate), thank their sound person and bartenders, and create an impressive merch display, there are a three things that many musicians still forget to incorporate into their shows that can make all the difference when it comes to engaging an audience.
Once you have the songs down and you’ve taken time to master your before-show ritual to get your energy and focus where it needs to be, fold these three practices into the mix.
1. Stage It
Being “authentic” and “in the moment” doesn’t have to mean that no thought went into planning your stage show. Your audience isn’t just watching you perform songs, they’re watching you in-between the songs, too.
The ‘performance’ includes every song transition, so practice them. When will you tell them about your merch? When will you tell them to follow you on social media? When will you encourage a group photo for them to all find online and tag themselves in? Remember to only give one call to action (CTA) at a time. Don’t overwhelm your crowd (especially in a noisy bar) with more than one thing to do in between each song.
It’s also important to practice these transitions as you practice the music, so when show time comes and there’s an issue with a monitor or microphone, you’ll be prepared enough to wing it and keep the audience entertained or busy. If you get too focused on what’s going on right in front of you on stage, you’ll lose their attention.
In addition to the transitions between songs, determine how you will use the stage.
If you’re the singer, when will you walk over to the left/right side of the stage? When will you grasp the mic stand in a dramatic moment in a song?
If you’re on guitar when will you come forward on stage to get the crowd going? Drummers – when will you stand up and get the crowd clapping along?
If it’s a super small stage where movement is limited, make sure you’re using your body to express what you’re saying in the song (see #2).
Again, while it’s nice to live in the moment, you should have an idea of when you’ll get out of your usual routine in playing the song. Being live on stage is not the time to focus on playing the song. You should practice enough that come show time, the playing is second nature and you’re focused on the crowd.
Having a tight show that flows on stage and makes sense to the audience is the best way to allow them to fall into it and enjoy, rather than studying your awkward stances and haphazard movements on stage. If it looks like you’re performing the song for the first time, the audience might fail to see any real value in what you’re giving them.
Showmanship is an important skill set to have – it gives your fans a reason to want to come out and see you live, when they could otherwise stay home and stream your tunes.
2. Express Your Whole Self
You may be an introvert when it comes to being on stage, but you must train yourself to perform with your eyes open. Even if you fake it and look slightly above people’s heads, always make sure you are opening your eyes and looking out into the crowd.
Much like practicing your transitions, choose lines in your songs to connect with your audience ahead of time. A live performance involves acting. Your job is to convey the message of the song to the audience. Even if you’re not the one singing, if the song is about heartbreak don’t stand there playing with a big smile on your face. Get into the song.
Always remember that things on stage need to be exaggerated in order for them to be felt by the audience. Think: jazz hands! If you’re pointing out into the crowd make sure to extend your arm powerfully and fully, not as if you were casually pointing to something. Make your moves strong and deliberate.
People will be looking to you for physical cues on how they should feel and act. So if you’re allowing the song to be expressed through your body language and facial expressions, those in the audience will, on some level, receive the message on how they should feel.
When your body doesn’t reflect what’s being said it can often cause confusion and dissonance in the overall message you’re trying to communicate.
3. Include The Others
Much like showing the audience how they should feel, the best way to get them to interact with you is to first interact with the other members of your band. If you’re a solo acoustic act, try engaging someone in particular from the audience. People will feel apart of your show when you’ve demonstrated it’s not all about you up on stage.
Always remember the audience is not there to make you feel good; you’re there to help them forget about anything else on their mind and take them on a journey with your music. Do what you can to put them at ease and get lost in your performance.
Demand less from them (i.e. “come closer to the stage!”) and demand more of yourself (and maybe your band members) to set the tone and level of energy needed for them to feel compelled to engage on their own. When people get lost in a performance they worry less about looking awkward or being the first one to come closer to the stage.
If you want concertgoers to tell their friends about your next show or tag you in photos they post online, you’re going to need to make them feel you put a certain amount of effort into making that performance special for them.
Don’t treat shows as individual moments in time. Use each one to improve for the next one. Be so prepared that the music comes so naturally that you’re able to focus on taking in what the audience is telling you. What do they need from you? What will win them over? They’re telling you. Are you listening?
Suzanne Paulinksi is an artist consultant with over 10 years in the music industry and owner of The Rock/Star Advocate