I was in Grade 5 when I first performed in front of a big audience…in the school gymnasium at Christmas for parents, teachers and students. I was picked in an audition to perform half of the Christmas song “Good King Wenceslas“. I’m not sure why the teacher had two of us share the song…I was ready to do the whole thing myself! It was a definite highlight of my childhood…the first time I heard that applause, I was hooked! It wasn’t until I was older that I began to deal with things like performance anxiety (more of that later), or consider the idea of how I was presenting my material. These days, I’m very conscious of the connection I make with an audience, and the way the songs come across.
I have performed at many open mics over the years, and I find them to be the most difficult performances! There is no time to warm up…sometimes a song or two is what you need to get comfortable with where you are, but then it’s over! If it’s an open mic that I haven’t performed at before, that makes it worse! So many things can affect the performance…the people there, the sound system, if there is one, the room itself, and the other performances ahead of you. Over time, I’ve managed to make a mental list for myself of the things I have to remember when I’m playing, and the things I watch for in others:
1. EYE CONTACT – When I watch a performer with his/her head bowed down staring at the guitar or the floor, I feel disconnected from them. Not only that, but their nervous behaviour distracts me, makes me feel sorry for them, and I don’t listen to the song! Some performers say that they can better focus on the song if they keep their eyes closed the whole time…but what about the people you’re playing to? A performance is literally an exchange of energy between the performer and the audience…if you cut the audience off, they have nothing to return to you! If you find it difficult to look at someone, there are two things you can do. You can either look for the person who is most obviously enjoying your performance and feed off of them, or you can make a person up! Just look out there as if you were looking at someone who was smiling at you, and smile back! I do this all the time, especially if I’m in a situation where there isn’t much of an audience, or I’m in a room where no one is really listening.
I’ve sung at two funeral services…just less than 20 years apart. I was 20 years old at the first service. I had trouble looking at the family who was sitting in the front row, so I stared blankly at a window at the back of the church. I felt my performance was disastrous and underwhelming…my nervousness was more prominent than my song! The second one, I made a conscious decision to look straight at the audience, right into their eyes, and connect the song with each one of them. I was given so many smiles, mixed with tears of course, but it was a beautiful, and ultimately uplifting, experience!
2. ENUNCIATION – You may be a “music” person, not as concerned with getting your lyrics across, but you’d be surprised to know just how many people LOVE lyrics! When the mouth is dry and the brain muddy with terror, even the most wonderful lyrics can be reduced to an unintelligible mumble. Before you even GET to that open mic, practice EXAGGERATING your lyrics when you sing them. Hit every consonant hard, open your mouth WIDE. At first, it’ll feel pretty silly, but it will keep you conscious of getting your message across. When you want someone to hear what you’re saying when you are speaking to them, you make your voice a little louder, look straight at them and enunciate. Think of the same thing when you’re singing.
3. DYNAMICS – If you’re a guitar player, you’re likely to pound away at the strings when you’re nervous, completely dominating your vocal. Practice doing this: when you’re playing the parts of the song when you’re not singing, let yourself pound. When you ARE singing, pull the guitar way back, soften it up, make it weave around your lyrics. Not only will it help your lyrics stand out…it will create quite a dramatic effect to your performance! Try it out!
4. EMOTE – If you’re singing a happy song, remember what your kindergarten teacher said the first time you sang in front of your parents at a school event. SMILE!! If the song is more somber, don’t smile! Nothing more confusing than dark lyrics and a grin. They’ll think you’re on a weekend pass… Performing is very much like acting. You certainly need to “be yourself”, but you are also emoting and re-creating the topic of the song to your audience every time you perform it. Listen to the words as you’re singing them, and try to remember where they came from when you wrote that song!
5. ENERGY – I was told once by my music teacher that I moved too much when I sang. She told me it was distracting. Most of it was, of course, nervous energy. If you move around like Joe Cocker, you’re likely to distract from your song (unless you ARE Joe Cocker, in which case you can do whatever you like :-). But, having said that, music is a full body experience! Sitting or standing with your body as stiff as a board translates into negative vibes for your audience. Move around a little and that will help you relax and also release some of that nervous energy. As Gino Vannelli said: You gotta move 🙂
6. BANTER – If there is a little story behind your song, tell it. Practice ahead of time just so you get the story straight! Two don’ts: Don’t tell the whole story, let the song say most of it. And don’t go on and on, umming and ahhing and losing your focus. But a little chatter between songs gives the audience a chance to connect with you on another level. It endears you to them beyond the songs. One of my most successful banters is when I talk about the nature of the bald eagle before I sing my song “Eagles Eyes”. People love to hear some of the facts behind this amazing creature. It relates to, but doesn’t give away the topic of the song. And almost every time I do that, someone will come up to me after and mention it!
7. GRACIOUSNESS – When you receive applause it is the greatest gift, so stay for a moment and soak it in! I remember a telethon I did once, where right after my two songs, I turned to run off stage. The host at the time was a VJ at MuchMusic here in Canada. She got a hold of me and made me hang around a bit…she asked me a few questions on air, and said “They’re applauding you! Enjoy it!” I’m sure it was my own nervousness that inspired the desire to turn and run…but what I was also doing was, in fact, snubbing the audience by not acknowledging their applause. I don’t “milk it” now, but I do allow myself and the audience a chance to enjoy those few moments! What else do we do it for?