Performing live music is a nerve-racking experience. No amount of singing in
the mirror or head-banging in the garage can quite prepare you for the moment
when the lights come up and you're there. The center of attention. The subject
of scrutiny. "Here we are now, entertain us."
Your body language can convey a confidence in your music that's contagious
to your audience, but can also betray self-doubt that will be perceived just
as acutely. It's your goal to put a room at ease, whether that's them leaping
into a mosh pit with selfless abandon or applauding politely at a seated jazz
club. Here are six notorious "tells" that can subtly indicate that
you’re actually feeling more of a Woody Allen than a Buddy Holly underneath
those bright lights.
1. Avoiding eye contact
Shoegaze music may be undergoing somewhat
of a revival right now, but that's no reason to deny the audience
your attention by staring at your Doc Martens throughout your
entire performance. An understanding of that body language
is innate in all of us. Avoidance of eye contact is an unspoken
signifier across all cultures (and across the whole animal
kingdom) that conveys negative emotions from nervousness and
self-doubt to deception and even lack of respect.
There's nothing that creates a sense of connection – the feeling of a
live experience being shared – like eye contact between artist and audience.
And while it's great to connect with your fellow musicians during the performance,
don't deprive your attention from the most effective place it can go: directly
into the crowd. You know how some bands can make a stadium show feel as intimate
as a club venue? Direct eye contact is how.
2. Excessive energy
Expenditure of energy onstage is part
of all live performances and can vary greatly from performer
to performer. But if the secret to the perfect live show was
simply to leap about the stage, we'd all be playing Madison
Square Garden by now, supporting a troop of musical baboons.
While the mugging and gyrating of Flea on the bass elicits
an undeniable reciprocation in the crowd, the stoic, solid
presence of Liam Gallagher behind a microphone exudes an energy
just as commanding and magnetic.
In lieu of an exciting atmosphere in a venue,
we've all seen guitarists, vocalists, and bass players arrive
onstage and immediately fling themselves around, often without
the involvement of their embarrassed bandmates. You may feel
so vulnerable up there that jumping out of your skin appears
to be the only logical course of action, but rather than encouraging
the same in the crowd, it can have the opposite effect. There's
nothing quite like one person incongruously leaping about
alone onstage to draw attention to the lack of involvement
in the rest of the room.
3. Forcing the banter
Banter. Noun. "The playful and friendly
exchange of teasing remarks." Verb. "To exchange
remarks in a good-humored teasing way."
Well, you can add "the single biggest
dead giveaway of all that an artist is uncomfortable onstage"
to those definitions. From squirm-inducing jokes, to dreadful
double-acts, to ill-advised attempts to chat with friends
in the audience, what's known as "banter" is first
and foremost a minefield of onstage faux pas.
Banter to avoid includes forced exposure of
everyone in the audience to droll private jokes and obscure
references between you and friends on the front row. Berating
fellow band members onstage is another offense. In both cases,
what you imagine comes across as the witty repartee of lovable
real-life personalities is actually two people tuning guitars
while mumbling insults towards each other, because they're
a bit scared. If you're not a natural comedian, it's truly
best to stick with the old adage that if you've got nothing
good to say, don't say it at all.
4. Demanding attention by literally
A repeat offender of onstage patter is
the artist who attempts to scold the crowd for not reacting
to the music. We've all seen support bands with singers who,
in a misguided attempt at oozing bravado, call audiences "lazy"
(or worse), for not dancing or cheering loudly enough. When
everything isn't going so well up there, and people aren’t
reacting how you’d like them to, being confrontational
might make you feel a bit like you're Iggy Pop circa Metallic
K.O., but it's yet another dead giveaway that you're a gibbering
wreck of self-doubt, lashing out at a public that doesn't
Just like leaping onto the stage and thrashing around can make everyone in
the audience feel like pinning themselves to the wall and silently sliding out
of the room, demanding that an audience must dance can have the exact opposite
effect. Your unrealistic expectations of their interaction only serves to underline
how badly the show's going. Don't tell them what to do; rock the crowd as hard
as you can and let them make their own minds up.
5. Scowling at bandmates
Be it because of muddy sound or an unresponsive
audience, during a challenging set your nerves are on edge.
You're in a sensitive state, so picking up on the mistakes
being made by bandmates is natural. It's also the perfect
excuse to release some of that tension! But make no mistake,
what you're actually doing with those dirty looks is acting
like a tired toddler, and it will sink the atmosphere at a
show, even if the crowd can't quite put their finger on what
the problem is.
Ninety-nine percent of mistakes, no matter
how excruciating they feel in the moment, will not be registered
by the audience and certainly won't affect their enjoyment.
This isn't a Carnegie Hall piano recital. No rock gig has
ever been ruined by a few rogue mistakes in a set. So it's
your responsibility to avoid drawing attention to them, curb
that attitude, and save your salty stares for the van ride
6. Repeatedly thanking the band you're
Okay, we get it. You started this band
two years ago, and you really appreciate the opportunity you're
getting, you're massive fans of the headliners, they were
huge inspirations and you got their CD when you were 14, and
you can’t believe you’re supporting them, and
everyone in the crowd has been so lovely, and it's our last
song now so thanks again to the headliners. Seriously, do
you need to tell us after every song?! Once during your set
and once at the end is quite enough.
You've earned the support slot, and you're
worthy of it, so don't make it sound like you've won a competition.
Not only does it come across as fawning, it's a dead giveaway
that you're falling back on glad-handing the crowd to get
a cheap cheeky cheer. How can you live up to your billing
as their peers when you're so nervous about supporting them
that you're filling the air with nonsense about how great
they are after every song?