Stage presence

As Chris and I have been learning to perform music there are myriad things competing for our attention, most of which we can’t afford to focus on at a given time without driving ourselves crazy. So the past six years have been a continual process of deciding what would be the next best thing to work on, focusing on that until we can manage it subconsiously, then moving on to the next best thing.

Among other things it has taught us humility, because for the most part we’ve had to get out and perform even when we were painfully aware of all the areas in which we still fell short. But since there’s no way to address those shortcomings without performing, we go ahead once more, hoping that what we’re capable of at the moment is pleasing overall to the folks watching us, knowing that it will get steadily better if we stick with it.

One thing we have focused on more as we’ve gotten our basic performing skills under control is stage presence, all the elements that go into drawing and keeping an audience’s attention. Our favorite shows are always the ones where we come away liking the performers as much as the music, and so we’d like to learn how to develop a rapport with the audience which encourages them to trust us to guide them through the emotional arc of our setlist.

Some performers leave this to chance, expecting that their personalities will just shine through and engage the audience. But one thing I learned early on was that your natural demeanor will not automatically communicate your mood or emotions, especially on stage; it is quite possible to be enjoying yourself immensely while communicating absolutely none of it, or even sending a different message.

For example, Chris concentrates very hard while we perform, particularly if he is playing a break, and as he concentrates harder he gets ever more motionless and expressionless. This is a common thing among bluegrass players, who are often known to be stone-faced performers. It requires additional, unnatural action—like, say, smiling!—to inform anyone who is watching him that he is actually enjoying himself.

At one of our earliest performances, an open mic program on stage at Natural Tunnel State Park, a fellow stopped by who had some experience performing, and asked to do a few songs. He also asked me and another fellow, a guitar player, to accompany him. When the guitar began playing a break, the new guy watched him with a big smile, nodded his head in time, then turned to me with the same big smile as if to say, “Isn’t that great?” To me, sitting next to him, it felt weird and artificial, easy to mistake for insincerity. But it wasn’t insincere at all; the guy was in fact enjoying the break, and saying to me “Isn’t that great?” It was just that in order to communicate that from the stage to a bunch of people thirty feet away, he had to do some things I wasn’t used to doing or seeing up close.

Recently, i.e. the past year or so, we have paid some attention to how we look on stage. We had seen some pictures taken of us performing, and only then realized that the distance between us that was comfortable actually looked very far apart to an observer, almost like we didn’t know or like one another. We ended up setting up a microphone stand in the family room as a prop, then taking a floor-length mirror and setting it where we could see what we looked like, then adjusting our stance so that we looked like a duo. Let me tell you, it feels way too close when you aren’t used to it. But we determined to keep up with it, and now we naturally stand that close together, and even feel a bit weird when the stage setup doesn’t allow us to stand that way.

We’re still working on it. Here are a couple of videos we shot last night to see how we’re doing. You may note that when we sing harmony we try to have our heads leaning towards one another, and that when we aren’t singing harmony we try to have our heads otherwise so that when the harmony starts we actively lean our heads together; it’s a little easier, and a little more obvious, when we’re at a microphone. Chris deliberately raises his guitar during the break; all in all he’d prefer not to, but it is a common way to draw attention to a break, and I think it looks pretty good. We’ve also recently tried to work on facial expressiveness as we sing; in these videos I think Chris does a pretty good job of not being stonefaced, better than me anyway.

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6 thoughts on “Stage presence

  1. Funny, this is what Randy and the boys are working on right now, too. They sat for quite a while yesterday just discussing who was going to say what where, (like introductions of each other and songs, etc.) and really worked hard on planning out the entire performance and not just the music for last night’s concert. I didn’t get to attend, but I heard it went very smoothly. This is a repeat audience from almost exactly a year ago, and they were told by several people that they had improved greatly, not only musically, but also in stage presence. That was a great encouragement. Wish I could see the videos and upload some to send you. Our computer blocks youtube. Maybe you could e-mail me one sometime if your computer has that ability.

  2. p.s.–we were all very surprised and pleased to receive an e-mail asking the guys to perform at this year’s Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley! We attended last year and saw Doyle Lawson, Blue Highway and a few other terrific groups. This year Dailey and Vincent are the headliners. The guys will be playing on a smaller stage at lunchtime during the break on the main stage for the headliners. Pretty exciting for us. http://www.fathersdayfestival.com.

  3. Well, I’m glad I finally got a chance to watch these! I do notice your heads nodding towards one another, and I really like the way Chris smiles at the end. And I really do like the music!

    You are certainly right that you have to get over being self-conscious and just get out there and perform, but I think the expression will only improve as you continue.

  4. Laura,

    You are certainly right that you have to get over being self-conscious and just get out there and perform, but I think the expression will only improve as you continue.

    Expressiveness is a funny thing. I think we’ve been taught that it should be natural and uncalculated, a direct window into the soul. But just about everything we do to express ourselves is convention that needs to be learned, and the folks who are most “naturally” expressive are the ones who have thoroughly mastered the techniques of communicating a particular mood, emotion, or thought.

    I’ve watched folks in contemporary church services do what I call “air singing”, analogous to playing air guitar, the kind of singing you do along with the radio or a CD. Perhaps they are just losing themselves in the music, but I think at least some are imagining themselves as the performer they are singing along with, doing all those emotive performance things. Unfortunately, they haven’t mastered those things—in fact, they’ve probably never even thought of them as being anything other than spontaneous, of-the-moment actions—and what they end up communicating is anything other than what they think they’re communicating.

    It has helped us greatly that in the beginning we were very conscious of all the things you could do to undermine your rapport with the audience, from awkward stage patter to uncertain tempo, to less than total confidence during a solo, to grimacing at a mistake folks would otherwise have not noticed, to messing around with your instrument when someone else is talking, to a million other things. Over the last six years we’ve dealt with those issues one by one, finding a way to handle it and then practicing it until it became unconscious. As the simple ones were taken care of, our eyes were opened to other more subtle challenges, but at the same time our attention had been freed up enough to deal with them as well.

    Now much of the easy stuff is done. We know how to start playing at a moment’s notice, how to look relaxed and confident no matter how difficult or distracting the environment, how to put an audience at ease and engage them. Not that we’re experts at any of those things, but we are aware of the difficulties involved and how to go about addressing them. And that has finally brought us to a place where we have both the technical tools and the mental space to think about much more important things—telling a story, evoking a mood, conveying an emotion.

    I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that there must be a very similar progression in learning to paint, i.e. you need to thoroughly master the many technical skills needed to paint expressively before you can even begin to paint expressively. In fact, I don’t know if you can even understand much about expressiveness (as opposed to just recognizing it) unless you have mastered those skills.

    Sometimes I think teachers unnecessarily burden students with some very advanced concepts (e.g. put yourself into the story of the song you’re singing) because the concepts are so simple. Well, there’s a difference between simple and easy to understand, and it has taken me six years of steady work to get to the point where I now have the barest inkling of many of those simple but profound ideas I heard back at the beginning.

  5. Rick, we have a bluegrass festival in the Memphis area every year. We just attended part of it with our family. I’ll offer up my advice from watching the performances, and years of running sound for rock performances of professional bands to garage bands.

    At the festival, I was able to pay attention mostly to two performances (due to having 5 young children with me). The band we wanted to see was a bunch of old timers. They sounded decent, but were by far not fine musicians. They had managed to put together several CDs, but lacked a lot in the musical category. What they did have was stage presence when it counted. I really don’t pay a lot of attention when a group is playing (except the faces made when bad chords/notes are hit as you mention), but everyone pays attention when between songs and setting up the next. I think this is where you can win a crowd over. These fellas were telling stories and jokes, and really entertaining the crowd. We fell in love with them, and it made their music so much better (which was needed on some level). All of these guys really enjoyed what they were doing, and they would be happy if they were the only ones that showed up.

    The other performance was by some guys that were really good musicians, but could not interact with the crowd. They were interacting with each other to some degree, but most folks don’t care for others inside jokes… or chatter about what song their going to do next and am I in the right key for that song.

    I thought about this post the whole time I was at the festival. It took to long to post, but I hope that can help you in your performance. I really believe that story and humor makes a huge difference in your presentation and winning the crowd. If you can marry that to great music, then you are way ahead of the crowd.

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