live performances

Changing the pressure during your live performances

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Being intentional with different visual presentations for the variety of moods your songs invoke is part of what Tom Jackson calls “changing the pressure” on your audience during your live performances.

We’ve spoken before, and I was curious to dig into a concept you often mention: changing the pressure on your audience.
I have a saying – in fact, every conference I teach at, I ask the musicians this question: “Do all your songs sound the same?”

Of course, some of the folks in the audience are incredulous, I can see them saying, “What are you talking about? I use a Strat on this one, clean tone on this one. Lyrically this one’s about my girlfriend breaking up with me, this one’s about my parents, this one’s about angst, this one’s about love. Of course not. I’m always changing tones, melodies, rhythms…”

So my next question is, “If your songs don’t sound the same, why do they all look the same?” And every time I ask that, there’s dead silence in the room. Because the artist realizes they pretty much do the same thing over and over in every song.

What this translates to is that after two or three songs in your set, I’ve seen – maybe not heard – but I’ve seen your entire show. And that’s the problem.

Communication is 15% content, the words you’re singing; 30% tone or emotion, how you bring it, the passion you’re delivering; and 55% what the audience sees with their eyes. That’s how we communicate from the stage during our live performances. So after 2-3 songs, the audience thinks they’ve seen the whole show, because the songs all look the same.

So that’s usually what I apply pressure changes to, being creative on stage. And I’m not talking about acting or choreography, I’m talking about thinking, “What should this song look like?”

Let’s take a typical guitar-centric band. They’re doing 13 songs in an hour show – which is too many, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s say the guitarist has nine solos, and he does every single solo from behind his pedal board. He could be changing tones, he could even be changing guitars – from a Strat to a Les Paul, to Tele – and to the audience, they start sounding the same. because they look the same, they’re delivered from the same place on stage.

What you have to look at is, what kind of solo is this? Is this a passionate, soaring solo? Well that should look different than a funky solo. They’re two different things. You wouldn’t think of using the same tone. But it’s delivered from exactly the same place with the same body movement? Then to the audience, it’s the same. You’re not changing pressure on the audience.

One solo needs to be done from literally the other side of the stage, and you’ve got to develop that idea in rehearsal. You’ve got to be intentional. There’s a difference between winging it and being spontaneous.

When you use the word “pressure,” do you mean that when I’m on stage right, I’m putting pressure on the group of audience members closest to that side of the stage to interact with me differently than if I were on the other side of the stage?

That’s exactly it. That’s the physical pressure of it. Think about it. If I’m standing in front stage left, I have to literally turn and look at you running over to stage right instead of standing behind your pedal board on the left side of the stage. So even physically, I move, my body is engaged in the show. It’s almost like an ebb and a flow to the show. If everything is done from the same place on stage, it’s what I call a Chinese Water Torture – the pressure never changes. And this is not good – unless you’re trying to extract information from your audience.

Now here’s the irony, there will be people reading this who will say, “Not us! We jump around the stage all the time during our live performances.” And my response to that is, “That’s the problem.

I just worked with a 30-piece orchestra, a seven-piece band, four singers, an a cappella group, and a popular rock band, and everyone conceptually has this problem. They never do too much, they never do too little. Whether they’re rocking their brains out or trying to keep things mellow, they do the same thing over and over again.

So the point is, you’re the band who is jumping around all the time. Yeah, you’re bringing a lot of energy, but if it’s the same energy level for every song, it doesn’t matter, because it’s boring after three songs.

That’s right. There are action movies. And they start off and everything is blowing up and you’re like, “Alright! This is exciting!” But if that went on for an hour, you’d be like, where’s the dialogue? What else happens in this movie?” So the band that jumps around should learn how to be creative with that energy.

Let’s talk about another group of artists, the singer/songwriters, who will say, “Yeah, but I’m stuck behind the guitar.”

Here’s the beautiful thing about singer/songwriters: subtle changes make a difference. Let’s go back to the movie analogy. A legitimate action movie is the hardest and most expensive thing to pull off. Why? Because to create action, you need special effects, it has to be big, and it has to be believable. It takes a great amount of skill to make action seem real. In a movie that’s mostly dialogue, it takes subtle things to make a difference. A facial expression or the look of an eye, a smile.

Its the same thing with a singer/songwriter. A subtle thing makes a difference,. Most songwriters will play a song and then talk. Song, talk, Song, talk. And they do it all from the same place. Now that songwriter, I don’t care if they’re not a great guitar player, even just stepping out from behind the mic to play a musical intro, with chords, stepping three steps out to the right, and drawing attention to the guitar and what you’re playing, changes the pressure.

If you’re standing behind the mic, which singer/songwriters always do, it makes the audience think you’re about to sing. You step away from the mic, they know you’re not going to sing, so they pay attention to something else. You’re directing the audience’s attention to what’s important.

And don’t tell me that you can’t step away because you need to hurry back to sing the verse. Extend the intro. Change the song for the live setting. We capture the audience, we gather them up.

Another thing you can do. If you’re sitting on a stool, stand up once in a while. And if you’re standing, find a stool and use it once in a while. It’s a change. When you’re verbally addressing the audience, sling the guitar behind you, or walk out to different places on stage. How many times have you been somewhere and when you get up, your back is sore because you’ve sat in the same position for a long time. Change the pressure, keep them moving, even if it’s just a shift in the way they’re sitting.

If you’re a band, it might mean rearranging different parts of the song, like the solo. Maybe you have to extend it, or the lead up to it, to give the guitarist a chance to find his way to another part of the stage. How long do you extend it? As long as it’s working. Pat Metheny could take an 80-bar solo, and he’d keep the audience’s attention because he’s doing something different. A novice might hold interest for four or eight bars, so you need to come up with something else musically to keep the audience engaged.

You’ve said you typically mean something physical when you talk about applying pressure, physical rearrangements of where you’ll be performing. Does this also relate to set order and song lists, and making sure you’re building pressure through intensity, song tempo, or volume?

Yes, the set list is crucial. You have to understand the psychology of what the audience wants and when they want it. How do you greet your audience? How do you leave them? Do you want them to stand at the end? Do you want them to cry? You need to be strategic about how you place elements in your set. Again, it’s like a well-written script.

There’s a lot to this. I’m not going to be able to get into this in enough detail here, but I’ll say this. It’s not just “fast, slow, fast, fast, slow.” It has to do with audience engagement, and what the audience is wanting. I look at it like a restaurant.

When you go into a restaurant, you have expectations, just like your audience does at the beginning of your show. There are certain things that come at certain times. Not that there aren’t surprises, but there are some things that need to be in place, things to open a show, close a show, to engage an audience, some “wow” moments, some musical moments, some audience participation. When you go into a restaurant, your expectation is to be greeted by somebody, and if you’re not, you look for a sign that says “please seat yourself” or “please wait.” And once seated, your expectation is that, not long after, someone will come to you and ask if you’d like something to drink.

If that doesn’t happen, you’re thinking “Maybe we should go somewhere else.” You’ve got expectations with portions, type of food… and they’ll be different for different restaurants, right? You don’t expect the same thing from a 5-star restaurant and from the pub down the street. But you need to meet certain expectations.

This goes back to things we’ve discussed in the past: You’ve got to have a plan, understand the concept, to build the show and then execute it. It starts with knowing what the heck you’re trying to do.

It really does. It starts with the vision of what you’re trying to accomplish with your show. Then, what does that look like. It’s not just, “Put a song here, and a song here, and here…”

So when I’m talking about pressure changes, I’m talking about physical, but it goes back to what you said, vision. Rearrangement of the song, and what it should look like. And again, this is not acting, this is not dance, this is not drama or choreography, it’s a guitar player changing tones – why? Because that what the song calls for. It’s a vocalist changing dynamics.

Just as creative as you are musically, you do the same visually. That’s what changing pressure is. It’s the short version of it, but that’s what it is.

Image by ShutterStock.com.

Tom Jackson is a world renowned live music producer, author of the book Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method and the All Roads Lead to the Stage DVD series, and master at transforming an artist’s live show into a magical experience for the audience. Tom has worked with hundreds of artists in every genre, including major artists like Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jars of Clay, and more. He also shares his expertise as a speaker at colleges, conferences, and events worldwide. For more information, go to www.onstagesuccess.com.

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3 thoughts on “Changing the pressure during your live performances

  1. Excellent article, may I add my perspective?

    I have been a concert,club and live events lighting engineer for 25years, and my speciality is busked shows with bands I’ve never heard of before soundcheck!

    My first action on a typical day with 3-4 unsigned acts playing to a pub-small venue stage is to get a set list off them, and to give me a precis of the songs: cheerful, maudlin, fast, slow, any special breaks, solos, acapellas, sudden endings etc.
    It doesn’t matter if you’re speed metal, shoegazer or pop, there is a range in your set, and I want to reflect that in my lighting. I won’t light every song a Goth band plays in purple!

    Recognising how your set lifts and drops the audience is key whether they are seated or moshing.

    I do believe that bands who work symbiotically with their lampy, there costume designer, their set designer, all benefit from this harmony: even when you are first starting out, it is not too early to consider the visual content of your gigs. A great set in jeans and Tshirt will not be as talked about as a passable one with pyro, stilts and a revolving drumkit!

    Thanks for the article, Dan xx

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