Improving my performance performance
February 1, 2018 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How can I make my sets as a singer-songwriter as engaging and captivating as possible?

I've been playing music for about a decade now, mostly with my band(s), but also as a solo girl-with-a-guitar performer. I feel confident when playing with my band--a 4 piece has more volume, more energy, more oomph, plus I'm not alone up there. Also, as a band, we tend to keep our sets to 30 minutes or less. As a solo performer, however, there's no way to hide, and typically longer sets are expected--45 minutes is about the norm, though I have played 3-hour gigs before. With the longer, quieter nature of these shows, it's easier for the audience to grow listless or bored. How can I minimize this response?

Solo, I feel I do well. People compliment me, I get asked back to places to play, have been asked to play a large local festival and have opened for national acts, etc., and I feel very fortunate for it. I believe my songs are strong and while I don't have the best voice, I have a unique voice, on which I've been complimented, and I sing strongly and try my best to emote. But I'm also ridiculously introverted and shy. If I get the impression that the audience is feeling my set, I can engage more by telling stories both personal and humorous, but if the audience seems bored, I rush through and refrain from talking between songs to get us all out of our misery as quickly as possible (it's hard for me to enjoy myself if the audiences is not enjoying themselves).

I'm looking for tips on how to make my performances more consistent and how to be engaging even when audiences seem to be waiting for my set to be over. Or, even if they are enjoying it, how I can make it even more memorable, so that they return next time, or perhaps spread the word to others?

What piques and then holds your attention during solo, acoustic, singer-songwriter shows? What has a performer done to hook you? What could they do? Do you like hearing stories/context for the songs? Does setting a certain ambiance matter?

Who are some solo performers who are great at this? Links to videos of live shows that epitomize captivating performances would be greatly appreciated. I don't want to mirror anyone, but I would like to study them to see what, if anything, I could try to incorporate in my own performances.
posted by dearwassily to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have extremely idiosyncratic tastes in singer-songwriters (and I am one myself), so my advice is somewhat grain-of-saltish.

In terms of my own sets, here are things I do.

Break the set down into mini-sets of three songs. This doesn't have to be a conscious thing you tell the audience, just as a way of breaking up the structure and pacing a bit.

For example, I switch between acoustic and electric every three songs. This varies the tonal palette and switches up the visual information a bit. It can also be an opportunity to flip expectations - you can rock out on the acoustic and go gentle and pallid on the electric.

I might also do three songs from my catalog that are older, and I might set that mini-set up with a story about when I was young and naive and how different my feelings were then and what a simple fool I was or whatever. It gives your story as an artist depth and context.

Related to which, if your songs are about specific things (and not just feels or whatever), sprinkle in a story every few songs. Note: This doesn't mean ramble for five minutes before every song, giving the whole thing away and over-explaining. But developing some structured, rehearsal-tested, hopefully funny and revealing banter can be useful. The best songwriter in the known universe for setting up songs with stories is Robyn Hitchcock. I don't know how or where he channels it all from, but my god, he does it (and by the way, that's me standing in fawning adoration right at his feet). Check I Pray When I'm Drunk and So You Think You're In Love from his recent-ish L.A. shows. (Jonathan Demme made an entire concert movie of Robyn called Storefront Hitchcock, for further study.)

If you have opportunities for audience participation, use them. It helps to have a plant in the audience. I bring someone up to play percussion-egg/shaker on at least one song in the set, both to give the sound a bit more texture and to make it entertaining for that person and their friends to watch them nail it / fall apart gloriously / show off / etc.

And I'm from Southern California, so forgive me, but this is kinda the most important thing. If you're up there and thinking about the audience "waiting for [your] set to be over," I guarantee they can read it on your face. Maybe find a meditation practice or a grounding practice or some kind of routine to get you into the heart space of your music. You don't have to tap dance or do standup or be more X/Y/Z that doesn't feel natural to you, but having a centered and focused mind/body will make them take notice and give you the space to perform. That's why they call it 'stage presence.'
posted by mykescipark at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

If I get the impression that the audience is feeling my set, I can engage more by telling stories both personal and humorous, but if the audience seems bored, I rush through and refrain from talking between songs to get us all out of our misery as quickly as possible (it's hard for me to enjoy myself if the audiences is not enjoying themselves).

I think you may be shooting yourself in the foot here. There's a long tradition of singer-songwriting/folk that includes storytelling, and I've found that telling a story can get even a reluctant audience more into your songs.

About a month ago, I caught Nathan Moore, who I'd never heard of, but he was an absolutely amazing performer. Here's a video. He tells stories between every song. He's a consummate performer. Here's another video. (Just a note that there's apparently an English singer by the same name.)

So, I'd say, tell stories, be funny, be self-deprecating can even help.
posted by General Malaise at 9:42 AM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Conversational storytelling leading into songs. Ask questions of the audience (don't expect or wait for an answer) and lead them into your music.
posted by erst at 11:51 AM on February 1, 2018

I saw Jake Bugg do a solo show recently, and I was amazed at how much sound he got out of just his voice and an acoustic guitar. There was real depth to the guitar sound. I assume there was some magic done with mics/filters/pedal effects/reverb, etc.

(I've generally avoided solo shows for some of the reasons you mention -- not as much volume or energy, just a lesser experience in a lot of ways. This show completely changed my mind about all that. He chatted up the audience some, and was clearly playing to a room full of fans, but it was the quality of the sound that got me.)

So, I have no idea what would be involved, but my two cents is to work on getting the best sound you can out of what you have to work with. Be extra nice to the sound guy. Don't be afraid of whatever sound production tricks that might give you a bigger sound. Work with someone you trust to design your sound.

Jake Bugg - Wiichita Lineman [cover]

(This looks to be most of the show I saw: Jake Bugg 2017 Metro in Chicago, part 2)
posted by Bron at 1:51 PM on February 1, 2018

I think it's just a fact of performance that some people are not going to pay direct attention to a performer. It's not you, it's them. But there are people in the audience who are engaged, so give them all the eye contact and energy you can muster. Or maybe there aren't any people, but then you can play for yourself, which is fun in its own way. Variety is definitely important, as is the progression of songs. Personally, it's easier for me to get invested in an uptempo song at the very beginning, it gets my toes tapping. But you can't go full throttle the whole concert, so you need to give people a break with slower tempos, different base lines, etc.
posted by wnissen at 5:21 PM on February 1, 2018

The first time I taught I was pretty insecure about my teaching. I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. Students would talk while I was lecturing and I'd think: well, of course, why should anyone pay attention to me? So I wouldn't ask them to stop, and the problem would fester. The talking fed my insecurity which fed more talking.

There was some sort of student feedback process midway through which helped snap me out of that. It turns out, the students on the whole thought I was fine. What they really hated was the few students who were talking. So, I started expecting them all to pay attention (it barely even required asking), and things got better.

I don't know if that anecdote's useful or relevant. But is it possible your reading of the audience is wrong? Could you be over generalizing from a couple bored-looking people? Is there some way to get more immediate feedback to show you people *are* into the show, or to focus on the people that obviously are?
posted by floppyroofing at 7:32 PM on February 1, 2018

Performers and celebrities tend towards narcissism because self love is charming in small doses. You gotta kinda think you're a little bit awesome and then bleed over that infectious charm on stage. Whatever gets you feeling yourself is a good start. Invent a "Sasha Fierce" persona. Don't wait for the audience to give it to you. You're the shit!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:53 AM on February 2, 2018

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