How to Engage an Audience at a Concert

When you go see another performer do their thing, do you watch how they handle the performance, and the audience?

I love doing that.

It’s the ultimate laboratory, and since we’re all in the business of engaging our audiences (that is what people hire us to do), there’s always something new to be learned.

I saw something really good a few weeks ago…

advice for musicians - dave ruchAt the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, where some 2,800 musicians, venues, presenters, vendors and music industry people come together for business, networking, panel discussions, mentoring and more, I took in a dozen or more artist showcases over the course of three days.

(Jury-selected artists perform for an audience of venues and talent buyers.)

Most of them were pretty good; almost all were artistically satisfying in one way or another.

But one really stood out head and shoulders above the rest for me.

The applause was deep and long after each song, and the artist (a solo act) achieved something most full bands did not – a standing ovation at the end.

Here are my takeaways…..

How to Engage an Audience at a Concert

1) Know Your Audience

Because this performer was in front of an older, “folky” audience, he knew that being friendly and approachable was a great way to relate, and yet, he was in total command of his show.

In other words, HE was clearly the master entertainer, and THEY were clearly the audience, but at the same time, he was one of them.

TAKEAWAY: Know who you’re performing for – ask ahead of time about the expected makeup of the audience, and confirm that information with your own two eyes before you start your set.

2) Own The Show

Not once did the performer refer to lyrics or notes he’d written to himself. There was no “let’s see, what shall I do next? Oh, I know…”

music concertTAKEAWAY: Go into each performance knowing exactly what you’re going to do so you can focus on the audience and their needs. (And have a few plan B’s in case things aren’t going as you’d hoped.)

3) Scan The Audience Throughout

The performer looked audience members in the eye, walked back and forth across the front of the stage, and generally checked in throughout his set.

For me, I like to have the house lights at least partially up each time I perform so I can see faces and gauge reactions.

Do they look engaged? Bored? Too serious? Time for a fast song?

advice for musiciansTAKEAWAY: Monitor the audience throughout your show and respond accordingly.

4) Get Them Involved

Again, this was a folk music audience, so they jumped right in at the chance to sing along. But the performer also had a question or two for the audience, and a call and response piece.

In my own experience, I haven’t met an audience yet – younger or older, nightclub or library  – that doesn’t like to participate in some way in the show.

TAKEAWAY: Find ways to encourage participation in what you’re doing, whether that’s during some of your pieces, or in between, or both.

5) Self-Deprecate

Just before playing something really special and technically demanding, the performer made fun of his own lack of smarts in the song introduction. It lightened the mood and made him that much more relatable.

how to keep an audience happy at a concertThen, he killed the audience with a serious piece of music that was extremely well played.

TAKEAWAY: This is certainly not for everyone, but consider how you might take yourself a bit less seriously on stage.

6) Rivet Them With Something Exceptional

See the point above.

TAKEAWAY: If you have something technically brilliant that you can pull off – something that most of your audience would not be able to do – it’s one of your aces in the hole and should be placed strategically in your set.

7) Make ‘Em Laugh

There was plenty of that, with a song about “Alternative Facts” and some humorous stories between songs.

keeping audience engaged in your concert - dave ruchTAKEAWAY: Humor is perhaps the greatest ice breaker, and everyone likes to laugh. Find some ways to add humor to your show. Your audience will love it, and it makes them that much more receptive to everything else you do.

8) Speak To (and Expand on) Their Interests

The performer spoke of pioneering folk music figure Woody Guthrie – a musician of interest to lots of people in the room – but took it beyond the garden variety stories to relate Woody’s work to the entire ethos of folk music and the human condition.

It was powerful.

TAKEAWAY: Develop some great, authentic stories around something of interest to your audience – something to take them to the next place in their appreciation of that topic.

9) Change Up The Mood

There was humor, there was serious music, there was singing along, there was activism and community empowerment, there was affirmation, there were slow songs and fast songs played on a variety of instruments.

Think about it – have you ever been wowed by the abilities of a virtuoso musician, only to become completely bored 15 minutes into the concert (and then feel guilty about it)?

Too much of any one thing – however good – is just TOO much.

TAKEAWAY: Variety is the spice of life. Look for ways to mix things up in your set.

10) Have Fun!

The performer was smiling, laughing, and generally enjoying himself on stage. What a difference that makes for the audience.

sam bush smiling

Sam Bush, one of my favorite musicians, seems to always be smiling on stage. It’s infectious.

TAKEAWAY: Learn how to portray a sense of fun, even when you’re struggling to find it yourself. Audiences feed off of it, and they can’t help but enjoy themselves when the performer is having such a good time.

11) Storytelling Skills

Slight pauses. Changing dynamics to the voice. Whispered sections. A feeling that the performer was in total command of his narratives.

TAKEAWAY: What you’re really doing on stage is communicating, so study the discipline of storytelling. Listen to great storytellers and how they pace their narratives. It will pay off in spades.

12) Stagecraft

There was lots of subtle performance craft going on – the kinds of things you probably wouldn’t even notice unless you were looking for them.

A raised picking hand at the end of a song. Hand gestures to encourage singing. A turn of the body to signify a shift in mood.

A well orchestrated bow, with guitar outstretched, at the end of the set.

how to engage an audienceTAKEAWAY: Watch some master performers and even stage actors and look closely for these kinds of techniques. Find the ones that could fit your style and start messing around with them. Physical cues and stagecraft are understated but important aspects of putting on a dynamic performance.

Wrapping Up

I’m guessing that for most of the people who witnessed this performance, they weren’t focused on the principles I’ve outlined above.

In fact, it’s likely that little or none of this dawned on them at all, and instead, they simply thought “that was great,” or “he’s marvelous,” or “I loved that song about …”

And that’s our goal! We don’t do any of these things so people will notice them – we do them in an effort to truly engage and connect with our audiences. To be the best performers we can be.

I hope you’ll be giving a few of these concepts a try, and do let me know what else you would add to the list.

The “Comments” section is just below.

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About The Blog

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.

Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.

The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.

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33 Responses to How to Engage an Audience at a Concert

  1. Tammy Hanks

    Hello I’m a ventriloquist I was working with ALZHEIMER’S RESIDENTS until I STOOD UP FOR MYSELF and called Osha on them. Then everything kept building up to the end my little folks were happy and we sag all kinds of music one lady said her teeth gonna fall out I have decided that I will go on adventu re to other Assisted livings and this will be my first performance they gonna pay me 100.00 for 3 performances 40 minutes long I’m gonna do Christmas song with few stories how many songs do you thing I need to do for the3 groups at 40 minutes a spot my name is Tammy I have puppet,and ventriloquist doll Danny I sent Ellen Degenerous a youtub trying to win 10,000.00 you can check me out I would like your opinion since this is my first time out .I miss my Residents so much they want even allow me to come back to visit .Life goes on but I hear them in my head and heart and think about Ms.P taking her teeth out she reminded men of my granny HOPE you have a great Thanksgiving .Look forward in your response. Tammy. Not sure where you will respond to so I want put Facebook on here or contact 😁

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Tammy – I think it depends entirely on how long the songs are and how much talking you do within and between them. Sometimes for me six or seven songs can easily go 40-45 minutes because I do a lot of interacting with the audience while I’m singing. If you’re just singing straight songs and not talking much between them, you might need as many as 15 songs.

  2. Greg Parke

    I have been told many times that I almost always smile when I am performing. I don’t think it is something I developed on purpose, but now that I am aware of it, I definitely notice that the more I seem to be enjoying myself on stage, the more positive reaction, and more importantly, audience interaction I get. I try to study my audience, and figure out which ones might want some special attention, and which ones would rather just blend in with the rest of the audience. Then I work on the ones that want attention. It might be something as subtle as a quick smile or a nod, a special mention about them, something they are wearing, drinking, eating, etc, all the way up to calling them up on stage if that is appropriate. Things like that can turn a potential heckler into an asset by getting them on your side, giving them what they wanted in the first place (attention) and shows the rest of the audience that you are still in control, yet approachable. Plus it helps draw in the rest of the audience because they want to see what is going to happen next. I have even pulled people into a venue by paying attention to them through an open window or door as they were passing by, resulting in a huge bar and dinner tab for the club, and several new signups to my mailing list!

  3. Debra Cowan

    One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given and have never forgotten:
    “Always leave ’em wanting more”

  4. Dave Ruch

    Very glad to hear that Robert, thanks.

  5. Robert Matsuda

    Thank you, Dave – this is a valuable post about a topic which isn’t discussed enough. Your checklist for engaging an audience acts as a very helpful reference guide. And, of course, it’s always beneficial to be aware of pitfalls that can be avoided.

  6. Rusty Jackson

    Great article. Regarding #6, I once heard this piece of advice that supposedly dates back to the days of vaudeville – “if you want to have a great act, then you have to do something in the first 30 seconds that no one in the audience can do”. I try to do that, but it usually happens farther on than 30 seconds (I guess that those vaudeville audiences were pretty rough).

    • Dave Ruch

      I think you’re right about those vaudeville audiences Rusty. They knew another (potentially better) act was just around the corner if they didn’t like yours.

      The 30 second rule could still apply in certain performance situations, too. Busking comes to mind (where it’s probably more like 4 seconds).

  7. Jonathan Churcher

    It’s beyond annoying when the lyrics of a song are unintelligible. Why would an artist spend hours and hours writing and memorizing lyrics and then throw away their time on stage by not caring if the words are or are not cleanly delivered? I see this so often. Sometimes the blurred words are rendered understandable through fine tuning of the sound system, but the singer has to take 100% responsibility. As for talking between tunes: singing voices are usually louder than speaking voices, so the artist has to SPEAK UP, stay absolutely glued to the mic, and remember that he or she is talking to a crowd where a normal conversational voice is totally inadequate.

  8. Lou Manzi

    Great advice as usually, I look forward to each of your wonderful emails!

  9. Lonnie Shurtleff

    Dave, I appreciate your post. A couple of other things I have noticed (mostly from watching actors) is that what you do with your eyes is incredibly important (and even needful to remember when you are blinded by stage lighting) because of the subtleties of expression they communicate to the audience and how they can direct the attention of the audience. When and how you look away is every bit as important as when and how you look to them (as individuals or as a group) because it is a sbtle way of bringing them all on to the same page–your page.

    A second point–silent space (read “pacing”) is every bit as important as “noisy” space as when you are talking, singing, reciting, breathing heavily (Darth Vadr) or lightly (Michael Jackson?), or humming or rapping during your performance. David Lough is an excellent example of this usage of “silent space”.
    His name brings up another thought. He’s not real good looking for sure, but his use of silence and of his eyes makes him a riveting performer/actor because…it all works together …for him! We each must develop our own style that is uniquely ours. That includes voice timbre and range and pitch, body shape, age, physical activity, etc. and etc. because all of it communicates SOMETHING to the audience. It’s up to us to make it say what we want it to say.

  10. REBECCA HARROLD

    Love this article! It’s very helpful and concise.
    Makes it even sound easy to incorporate some
    well-crafted stage techniques 😉

  11. Glenn Miller

    Thanks again. Always appreciate your kind and experienced advice!

  12. Cindy

    Once again, Dave, you have introduced a great topic to think about. Variety is key in engaging audiences. Participation is certainly enjoyed by everyone whether before, during or after. And being heard is very important otherwise, you might as well stay home.
    My pet peeve is performers who mumble away from the mic or into the mic, or lower the voice at the end of their sentences so the words drop off into oblivion. The key is to lower the tone but not the volumn of your voice…like theatre actors. Especially important are key words that the audience needs to hear…make sure the audience will here them either by pausing, effectively enunciating, slowing down your words, etc… For example, there is a humour story that I tell that has a punchline at the end …”the train is coming”. I’ve learned that if I say this too fast, the audience has difficulty understanding the words so I’ve learned to pause and say them a bit louder and slower…then I get the laugh I want.
    Sorry, may have gone a bit off topic!

    • Dave Ruch

      Yes, Yes, a thousand times YES! This is really important, and not off topic at all. Enunciation and delivery are critical, and careful attention to how your speaking lines are “landing” is key. Thanks Cindy.

  13. Nina

    Great article Dave! Sometimes if a venue doesn’t have a sound person, it helps to ask the audience after the first song, if they can hear everything ok. I’ve sat through what I was expecting to be a great show, only to be disappointed that the vocals were buried under a too-loud guitar. Too bad the performer never thought to ask!

    • Dave Ruch

      This is so important Nina, thanks for adding that. How many times have you played a whole set of music, only to have an audience member come up afterwards and say “hey, we can’t hear the guitar (or whatever)”

  14. Doug Philbrook

    Dave, this article (how to engage an audience) couldn’t have come at a better time. My musical partner and I are headed down to Memphis in January to perform at the International Blues Challenge. Although I’ve been performing for better than 20 years it’s never to late to learn something new or to hear what you might already know to remind you or get you thinking about these aspects of performance.
    Thanks

  15. Alexander

    Thank you!

    Very apriciated!

  16. Jonathan Churcher

    Remember that your singing voice is probably louder than your speaking voice, so when chatting to audience between tunes, get close to the mic and speak up! Very annoying to not properly hear a performer’s stories or whatever……..Nobody wants to hear something like: “When I was in Murphtooshman we sent a brooogh to the first hooshingtamm in the slankting smoooootink”

  17. Roland Vinyard

    Right on!

  18. chuck agonito

    Thank you for your words of wisdom. You might do a piece on Get Your Sound Right Those who do their own sound seldom get the balance or volume right.Groups are notorious for this, but even solo performers need to be reminded that proper mix is important.

    • Dave Ruch

      Thanks for the good suggestion Chuck!

      • Norm Williams

        I, too would like to see something on this… I have been on both ends of the self-managing sound thing and it is frustrating when you can’t get that mix right… I think an article on this could be helpful to many.

        Also, could you talk about how to bring other musicians into the act to “spice” it up and also give interest?

        Thanks for all you bring to us Dave,

  19. Robert Van Horne

    Hi Dave,

    As a musician, entertainer and Toastmaster for many years, I completely agree with your twelve “Takeaways.” They are right-on! Thanks for sharing your secrets for entertaining.

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