When Crickets Attack
Originally Written for Live2Play Magazine
Connecting to your audience is one of the most important things you do onstage. Do you have the chops for it?
There are a lot of things you CAN’T practice in your band’s rehearsal space or in your bedroom. And connecting to an audience is one of them.
A lot of musicians try to ignore this topics as many seem to think that the skills necessary to keep your audience engaged are as simple as throwing your fingers up in the the horn sign and screaming, “ROCK ON!!!” into the mic as loudly as possible. And, if you’ve decided that the only gig you’ll ever see is at garage rock clubs, then that may be absolutely true.
But paying work in the music world runs the gamut, and those of you interested in actually getting paid are going to find that there are a lot more times that you are going to be required to actually captivate an audience to keep their attention. And that requires real skill at working the mic as a person and not just a musician.
The most important thing to remember when you step on a stage is that people WANT to connect to you. That’s ultimately why they are there. Throw up a curtain of cool and mystery, and it is very likely that you will see a bunch of people walk out at some point. There is nothing more annoying from an audience members’ point of view than a bunch of musicians on a stage that won’t give you the time of day.
A large chunk of my early life onstage was in either solo or duo situations. I had no idea at the time, but these situations prepared me really well for the fine art of connection. There is nothing more educational than being entirely naked onstage by yourself. You’ll experience brief moments of it in a band, but you have nowhere near the kind of pressure to engage with people as you do when you are playing solo.
I recently checked out Live2Play contributor Shaun DeGraff at the Palms in Vegas during a showcase for original artists, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that a video of the show just went up. You can check it out here for an in-depth example of how connecting as a soloist is done right. Shaun’s natural ability to engage the audience goes way past the electronic toys he employs in his show. Check out how he talks to them, how he leaves the stage to psych them up, and how he engages them with questions. And how he effectively uses all of the tricks below to put on a rockin’ good time show that left everyone in the place desperate for more.
Make Eye Contact.
Yes - people dig it. They want to look you in the face and know that you see them. Hell - some of them want to be you. And some of them just want you. So use this to your advantage. Distant stares into the back of the room and - even worse - closing your eyes throughout a performance - only insure that people will see you as closed off to them. And why should they listen to someone who doesn’t offer them anything?
Make ‘Em Laugh
There is absolutely no better tool out there for connecting to people than humor. I have argued for years with performers who mistakenly believe that whenever a mistake or technical problem occurs onstage you should ignore it and press on. Doing this eliminates an enormous opportunity to turn your momentary misfortune into a good laugh for everyone - and it will immediately endear you to your audience.
I use way too long moments of silence to do an extraordinarily BAD tap dance. If the guitar player is taking too long to tune, I will make an announcement to the audience that we are taking up a collection to buy him a new guitar and it’s to their benefit to give generously because we are about to embark on the Knock Knock joke marathon. Sometimes I’ll even tell one. But I’ll skip the meat of it and just jump to the punchline. (My favorite one that gets a laugh every time is Knock Knock? (Who’s there?) Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?). Even bad jokes can come off well in a room where people are doing nothing but waiting. Particularly if your band mates are really good at mocking you afterwards.
All of these tools help you to keep your audience in the room, but more importantly, force them into CONNECTING with you. If you’re not particularly good at comedy - try to learn from the masters. Rent some comedic live shows. Or go to your local comedy club. Watch how comedians deal with hecklers and impromtu situations. And try out their greatest trick: go with the moment.
Whatever you do, don’t stand there in silence trying to ignore the fact that the audience is there. Not only may they leave, but most of them will silently think to themselves that you don’t have your shit together.
Use Your Experience
Things that happen to you in your life make great stories onstage. Especially if they were a pain in your ass. Everybody relates. When you’re sitting out in front of people on a stage, they are naturally curious about who you are. So throw them a bone. Tell them something about yourself. Make it brief, but funny, if possible. Get personal. And don’t be afraid to talk about things that have gone wrong or frustrated you that day. As long as you don’t rant, people will love that you shared something about yourself.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Like everything in music, being a great entertainer onstage takes practice. Work up some stories or some go to jokes. And practice them. Playing solo is the best experience you can ever get. Not only will you be forced to fill in the blanks between songs by yourself, you will have no choice but to respond to the numerous times that people will totally out of the blue shout stuff at you from the room. What are you going to say when you can’t play their favorite song? Can you turn it into a moment that they won’t hate you for? Practice in front of your family at gatherings if you need to. And don’t be afraid to just be yourself.
Envision One Person
Public speaking experts used to tell people to envision their audience in their underwear. That never worked for me and frankly as people wear less and less than they used to, it’s not particularly demeaning. Or appealing, for that matter.
I imagine that I am speaking to just one or two people in the audience. And I’m having a conversation with them like no one else is there.
In the musician’s case, part of the conversation is musical, but it is no different. Look at specific people when you talk to them. If they don’t answer right away, ask again. People are trained not to respond when they are in groups. And when someone is on a stage, they are looking to that person as the leader of the room dynamic. Breaking the ice will require you to show them you want them to communicate with you.
Of course, once you do this - be prepared. You may have also opened yourself up to the one drunk asshole in the room who will try to make your life miserable. But even that can be an opportunity as long as you don’t get angry.
Which brings us to the last bit of advice: never EVER berate someone from the stage.
Don’t pick on their clothing choices, yell at them for not listening, or respond with anger to hecklers. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t use the stage as your therapy. Angry rebellious rockstar may be where you want to be in the future, but pull it off early in your career and people will just simply think you’re a prick.
And nobody - especially an audience who has decided they want to have a really good time - wants to listen to a prick.
Andrea Bensmiller is a vocalist, guitarist and bass player currently working in Vegas.