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.