Lessons about performing, lesson 29: Play your audience!

Well, we have made it to 29 and I’m not actually sure how many rules there are. I didn’t do the smart thing and make a list ahead of time. No, that’d require foresight and intent. I didn’t even intend this to last this long, but here we are!

How many rules can there possibly be?!?

Buggered if I know. I guess we’ll find out when the series end. So far, I’m not yet out of ideas – but my well is running a little dry and I’m always open to suggestions from other people. If you have any such suggestions, just leave a comment here or use the contact form. I’ll fluff ’em out and turn them into something readable. (For some standard of readable.)

If you’re curious as to what I’m doing, I’m listing a ton of rules that people should know if they’re wanting to realistically have a career as a performing musician. These are things I wish I’d known before starting out. These are things that I’ve learned over decades of experience.

If you want to increase your chances of success, these are the rules you should consider following. No, following these rules isn’t going to make you a rock star. However, following these rules might enable you to have a successful career as a performing musician. It won’t lead to fame and fortune, but it might lead to being able to support yourself financially and allowing you the chance to play music for people to the exclusion of all other sources of income.

Rule #29: Learn to play your audience!

I’ve mentioned this in passing before, but I realize that it should have an entry all its own. There’s actually a bit to it and it’s going to have some variation depending on your genre, audience, venue, or any number of other criteria.

First, it’s important to remember that you’re there to play music. The music should flow forth from your instruments nearly continuously, but there’s going to be breaks. So, you’re not there to rant about politics or give a comic routine – but you’re not just there to play music.

If it were just about music, they’d just replace us with a CD player!

You need to banter with the crowd. You need to talk with them. You need to communicate with them in non-verbal ways. You need to interact with them.

When I say play the audience, I literally mean that. They’ve given you permission to control their emotions. They’ve given you the chance to make them happy, sad, reminiscent, and more. They’ve said, “Here we are, make us emote.”

You’re not just giving new memories, you’re bring back old memories. You’re replacing bad experiences with good. You’re reminding them of times when they were less happy, or times that they look back on with great fondness.

That’s the great thing about doing covers, by the way. Those memories are already there. You’re giving them the chance to relive them. You’re giving them the chance to think about the days gone by. More than once have I looked out and seen an audience member with tears streaming down their face – but smiling and grateful for the experience.

It’s an awesome power that we hold and we are given their permission to control it. We tell them to laugh, cry, sing along, dance, scream, clap, and even when to leave. It’s an awesome power – and an awesome responsibility.

A good show is just that. It’s when you take that power and use it responsibly. You are, again they consent to it, controlling their emotions. They WANT you to do this.

How do you do it? That’s going to vary – but it’s not dissimilar to having sex. Try something. If they indicate they like it, keep going. If they just sit there, try something else! (See, and everyone thinks it’s hard to be good in bed!)

When I can, I like to catch the eyes of someone in the audience. I then show off and look at them. I let them know that I see them. I let them know that they exist in my eyes. I play just a little bit more with a flourish. I play just a little bit harder. I may throw in something that’s not actually in the script – and I play it while they see their existence is being acknowledged.

For that briefest of moments, altogether too short, they’re aware that you’re playing just for them. For that short moment in time, they and their memories are the only things that exist. For that moment in time, you are in control.

Granted, there’s some serious fucking ethical considerations to be concerned about! You’re literally playing with their emotions. You’re literally telling them what to do, when to do it, how to feel, and sometimes even what to think about.

That’s pretty serious power! They actually give you money to do this!

So, do it and do it well. It’s going to vary depending on many things, but it’s in your best interest to not just give them music but to give them an experience.

It’s not easy – for most of us. Banter with the crowd. Single someone out and let them know that you appreciate their dancing or the amount of energy they’re putting out. Let them know that you love the city and town your in. Let them know that you’re glad they came to see you. Let them know that you know you rely on their existence.

Also, don’t screw that up. No… Don’t say, “I love you Roxbury!” when you’re across the river in Cambridge. Don’t do it… You will get booed! If it’s the wrong bar, you might even get stuff thrown at you! If it’s the right bar, they’ll take it in stride. Still, avoid it.

There’s also things like, “Do we have any Ozzy fans in the house? … I said, do we have any Ozzy fans in the house?” Then, of course, play some Ozzy. If you don’t get a rousing cheer, maybe you’re playing the wrong song to the wrong audience? There’s probably not a lot of Ozzy fans at the bingo hall!

It will require some confidence but you should have plenty of that. You have to be able to speak comfortably and not sound like it’s forced. You have to be fluid and dynamic, always changing. You have to be aware of how the audience is responding and able to capitalize on the things they like and aware of the things they’re not enjoying.

It takes time. It takes experience. It takes experimentation and learning what your specific audience(s) will want to experience. You’re not just playing music – you’re providing a whole slew of services and the interaction with the audience is a very, very big part of it. Otherwise, why bother going to see a live band? Why not just stay home and listen to the radio?

This goes along with the lesson about remembering your fans. However, I feel it’s important enough to add a bit more information to it. There’s more than remembering them – there’s learning to play them and to play them in a good way. To play them in a way they approve of and appreciate. To play them, by giving them an experience, that keeps them coming back to see you again.

Thus, it deserves a lesson and rule of its own. It’s probably one of the more important things and could probably be broken down into even smaller lessons that have more details. Still, I wanted to toss this out there and make sure that you’re aware of it and are capitalizing on their permission to control their emotions. It’s an awesome responsibility, but makes for a great show. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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One thought on “Lessons about performing, lesson 29: Play your audience!”

  1. I went to a show and the vocalist of a local band decided he wanted to stage dive into a group of tiny young women. They all moved out of the way and let him hit the floor. It was funny as hell, but he obviously couldn’t read the crowd.

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