Keeping an audience enrapt and engaged during a music performance can have more to do with how you connect as a performer than it does with your music and songs
David Darwin plays the bass, but that’s not his main gig. He bills himself as the “One Man Sideshow” and performs an impressive array of circus tricks in a variety of show formats. His skills have landed him a busy itinerary of private, corporate, and festival gigs around the country — and even helped him earn him a spot in the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent.
Watching one of Darwin’s shows, it’s obvious that the man knows how to own an audience, from restless five-year-olds to tired grandparents. He captures the attention of everyone in eyesight and draws a crowd to him; only half-an-hour later, after a juggling and unicycle finale, does he release audience members, leaving them with big smiles and fond memories.
So what does this have to do with indie music artists? While bands may have great songs and finely-honed chops, engaging an audience from the moment you walk on stage until the moment your last note fades is another skill entirely. Here are tips that Darwin offered for indie artists on what to do before, between, and even during songs in order to make your entire performance as powerful as your individual songs might already be.
Embrace space and silence
“As a performer, never be afraid to just stand there and let the audience look at you,” says Darwin. “Sometimes displaying that sort of comfort and confidence on stage can be a really good thing.”
Case in point: often before starting a show, Darwin will take part in a small amount of busy work on stage, in full view of his audience, just prepping his props for action. “It’s part of my performance, it can help capture people’s interest, and sometimes I do it even if I don’t need to,” he says. “Along the same lines, I really enjoy watching Richie Havens tuning his guitar. When I saw him live, it seemed like he was very aware that hundreds of people were watching him do it, and he had a little talking that he would do while he tuned, but for the most part, he was very comfortable with the pause and the silence.”
So what makes Havens’ tuning pit stops — and Darwin’s pre-show adjustments — magnetic and not boring? “Havens was smiling and happy, not at all nervous,” Darwin says. “He was totally comfortable with 300 people staring at him doing what you just have to do.” His level of comfort sets an important tone for the audience and relaxes them, Darwin continues, and that comfort in turn reassures the audience.
“If you can’t be comfortable in the small, necessary, interstitial moments in your show, the audience can’t be comfortable either,” he says. “That’s step number one in any moment of downtime. Stay confident and comfortable.”
Fake it until you make it
What if those down moments between songs inspire so many nerves in you that you want to run off stage and never perform again? Put on your acting hat, Darwin says, and pretend.
“One way to fake having comfort and confidence on stage is to heavily script your interstitial moments,” he advises. An easy way to get started? Print out a sample set list with lots of blank space in between songs and brainstorm interesting things that you could speak to when speaking is called for. Whether it’s a thank you to the venue or booker for hosting you, an announcement about your next release, a shout-out to a particular group of fans, or an opportunity to introduce your band members to the audience, get every idea down for future reference.
One word of caution: If you do script what you’re going to say, avoid diving too deep. Some musicians can go way overboard with scripted speaking, Darwin says, sharing details that the audience really doesn’t care about and losing their attention and goodwill in the process.
If you’re not sure how scripted is too scripted, give your talking points a dry run, in a safe setting, with friends who will give you honest feedback. If they’re bored, chances are your audience will be too — and vice versa if they find themselves hanging on your every word.
“For some people, just having a plan as to what’s going to happen during downtime can really help — I’m going to talk about tour dates, my latest album, and a cool story about when this song was written,” he says.
Even if you’re super nervous, Darwin adds, there’s nothing wrong with you. “Embrace the nerves and try to turn that into energy to help your performance,” he says. “Being nervous means that you care.”
Introduce with care
In every show, Darwin has to answer some simple but vital questions for his audience: Why is he juggling balls on top of a unicycle, spinning plates on the end of a stick, or jumping through a twirling lasso, and why should the audience spend its time watching?
To answer such questions, Darwin talks with his audience before, during, and after each chapter of his show, carefully providing context and preparing the crowd to take in, and enjoy, what he’ll be doing next. And according to Darwin, especially when it comes to introducing their songs, indie music artists would be well served by being equally mindful of their own conversations from the stage.
“Don’t be too specific when you introduce a song,” Darwin advises. “It’s important to tie the song to something universal that your audience can relate to. It can be a fine line between saying that you wrote this song about a girl who broke your heart, which is something lots of people can relate to, and sharing your raw emotional pain in an over-detailed, uncomfortable, and unwelcome way.”
To strike the right balance between sharing interesting context and over-sharing embarrassing baggage, Darwin recommends experimentation. “Listen to your audience and they will tell you over time what the right amount to share might be,” he says. “If something you say is a little too intense and personal, you’ll be able to tell if you pay attention. In fact, that applies to both the way you talk about a song and the song itself.”
Darwin recommends keeping any song introduction to thirty seconds or less — and letting the song itself do most of the talking. “Make sure that whatever you say doesn’t convey information that’s contained in the song itself,” he says. “I’ve seen too many musicians say, ‘This is a song about women in Ireland who were unwed mothers and had their babies taken from them,’ and then the first couple stanzas of the song were, ‘Oh, you washer women of Ireland, where are your babies now?’ or something like that. Let the song reveal itself to the audience. Don’t spoil the surprise beforehand!”
What an intro should always do, Darwin continues, is put the audience in the right emotional place to receive your song with open ears and an open heart. “It’s a little like a news show,” he says. “If you have one heartwarming story about a cat being saved from a tree, and then a story of ten people dying in a fire, you need to provide some sort of smooth transition between the two. The same goes for songs.”
Your amp catches fire, your microphone breaks mid-song, or a gnarly case of food-poisoning kicks in mid-set — things go wrong on stage, no matter how experienced and professional you may be. The answer? “The moment there is any weakness or hint of failure on stage, you need to reassure the audience,” says Darwin. “Do something to indicate, ‘Okay, something happened, but I’ve got this,’ and then move on.”
In Darwin’s own shows, this might mean maintaining eye contact and making a joke if he drops a ball during a juggling trick, for example. For musicians, Darwin cites singer and songwriter Livingston Taylor as a prime example.
“I saw him teaching at a convention for variety entertainers and he offered a great story,” Darwin recalls. “If you’re a singer, at some point, you’re going to be on tour and lose your voice. Taylor said that he never cancels a show, even if he can barely croak. He goes in, sings one song, and at the end, says something like, ‘As you may have noticed, I have a touch of laryngitis and I’m struggling right now. If you feel like you’re not getting what you paid for, please go to the box office and they’ll refund your money. I’m going to stay here and do my best with what I’ve got.’ And almost nobody has ever taken him up on that offer.”
Sometimes acknowledging and taking control of imperfections in your show can make the overall show even stronger, Darwin continues. “When you do that, you get the audience on your side,” he says. “There should never be an adversarial relationship between performer and audience. It’s all about getting through things together.”
Maintain eye contact
“A lot of young musicians don’t understand the power of eye contact,” Darwin says. “It’s an important part of performance for anybody on stage.”
Darwin again cites Livingston Taylor as an example of overall performance done right. “When I saw him play live, he was way better than I’ve ever been at eye contact,” he says, laughing. “It seemed like he might have even been keeping a count in his mind — look that guy in the eyes for a good five seconds, make eye contact with that woman in the back for five seconds, and keep going. As an audience member, when a performer really looks you in the eye, it feels like it’s just him or her and you.”
What if you’re playing for thousands of people, or if you’re blinded by spotlights and can’t see more than two feet in front of you? “I know where the audience is, so even if I can’t see them, I still look in their direction,” says Darwin. “Far left for a few seconds, far right for a few seconds, as if I’m talking to someone specific. Even if you can’t actually see anybody, you can create the illusion that you’re looking people in the eye and forging that real connection.”
Even when the lights are up and the crowd is close, gazing into a stranger’s eyes while singing a song of heartbreak can be intimidating — so sometimes, it pays to fake that as well. “I often find myself looking right through somebody,” says Darwin. “Staring them in the eye can be too intense or distracting sometimes.”
Many musicians close their eyes when they sing — which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. “I know a lot of young musicians who think it’s soulful,” says Darwin. “That’s okay, but don’t do it for the whole song. Who knows if the audience will all be there when you open your eyes again. Just remember, it’s really hard for an audience member to stand up and walk out of your show when you’re looking him or her directly in the eye.”
Be mindful of kids, but play to adults
Even if you’re not a dedicated children’s music artist, you might still find yourself performing in front of kids in one context or another. Darwin’s advice? Essentially, ignore them.
“Entertain the adults in the room in a way that’s appropriate for the children,” he says. “Otherwise, the adults will sit in the back and talk with each other. And if the adults are in the back of the room talking, the kids in front are very aware of it. It sends the message that this guy on stage isn’t very good.”
“If I keep the adults, the kids will come with them,” he continues. “Of course, make sure that your show doesn’t have any obscenities, or other elements that aren’t appropriate for kids, but remember that, if the adults are rapt, chances are that the kids will be, too.”
Keep your audience
For Darwin’s performances and overall career, the ability to hold an audience is key. “There’s a school of thought in variety performing that says that, if you let one person leave your show midway through without acknowledging it, you’re implicitly giving others permission to leave as well,” he says. “My go-to line, if I see a man stand up and turn his back to head out, is ‘Sir, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ It’s a standard joke and hundreds of people use it. It gives me control of the situation, subtly shames the person, and gives the message ‘The rest of you guys better not move,’” he adds, laughing.
Apply that line with a good deal of caution in your musical performances, Darwin continues, but the idea of not “permitting” your audience to walk away can be an effective one for musicians and sideshow performers alike. Focus on communicating your songs to the audience, as individuals and as a whole, and chances are you’ll have fewer walkouts to deal with along the way.
“Don’t just block the audience out and make your music in a bubble on stage,” Darwin says. “The greater the connection you can create between you and the people watching you, on a personal and emotional level, the more your audience will stick around — and the more successful a show you’ll have.”
Photo © 2009 Michael J Ross Photography courtesy of David Darwin.
Learn more about David Darwin at www.onemansideshow.com.
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.