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…
At 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…”
TAKEAWAY: 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?
TAKEAWAY: 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.
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.
Then, 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.
TAKEAWAY: 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.
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.
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.
TAKEAWAY: 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.
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.
About The Blog
Since 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.