Guitarists, are you ready to hit the stage at a local open mic? Polish your performance with these tips from guitar teacher Samuel B.…
Performing (like songwriting) is a craft at which any dedicated musician can excel. It requires no prerequisites – only the desire to share your talent and creations.
My high school music teacher once said Thomas Edison misappropriated the original purpose of music by inventing machinery to record it – that nothing can replace your experience of seeing it live. Your interplay with the audience is actually the most important component of your performance. Here are three tips for open mic performances that will help you connect with your audience.
Make Eye Contact
Most of us are familiar with the term “stage fright.” Even Frank Sinatra admitted to regularly trembling during his walk up to the microphone. You might even have been advised to “pretend that the audience isn’t there.” However, as a performer your job is to create a bond with the audience – not ignore them. In fact, for each song you play, you should be making eye contact with at least three different people in your audience.
The audience needs to understand your music on an emotional level. In other words, they’ve come to have an experience and are trusting you to provide them one. Consider what kind of experience you want to give them. Do you want them to feel welcome and appreciated? Do you want to make them laugh? Do you want to involve them in the music in any way? If so, how?
Be aware that they don’t have to know that you’ve just forgotten a word and had to make up a new one on the spot. They don’t even have to know that you just played a wrong chord. Music is a fluid form of art that (in my experience) has more to do with conveying thoughts and emotions than it does with flawless recitation. You want to reach people on thinking and feeling levels, not show them how perfectly you can hold a piece together.
If you’re new to the guitar and are playing a piece that requires you to keep on eye on your left hand while on stage, practice alternating eye contact between your hands and your audience. Find one person who’s looking at you and look back for a few seconds. See if you can feel a connection being made. A nod or smile helps. After a few more chord changes, find someone else and do the same. A little acknowledgment here and there goes a long way!
Read the Room
Hearing applause is an obvious indication of the audience’s engagement with you. So is whether or not they have their heads turned towards you and are perhaps even smiling. The closer the audience can physically get to you, the deeper their connection to you as a performer generally is. Keep an eye out for signs of this connection and use it to your advantage – particularly if you’re new to performing.
Unless you’re a seasoned veteran of the instrument, I don’t recommend attempting to play complicated arrangements during your set. I’ve been a guitarist for over twenty-five years, and I sometimes play two-chord songs live. Playing material that feels comfortable for you allows you to focus out on your audience and read their reactions to your performance. Choose songs for open mics that give you opportunities to connect.
Go With the Flow
If your audience is clearly focused you and your music, you may decide that it’s time for a ballad or an original song that’s especially important to you. If their focus seems to be drifting, you may decide to switch gears to a fast, high-energy type of number to draw them back in.
Some performers prepare set lists but adhere to them only loosely. Bruce Springsteen’s three or four-hour concert marathons have been known to begin with a pre-planned list of songs and then continue way past them. My favorite example here is Richie Havens who chose his opening number before hitting the stage and then let the rest of the act unfold on its own. I’ve copied this model in my own act and highly recommend it!
As a performer, don’t concern yourself with showing an audience how well you play, sing, and plan. That’s what your daily guitar practice time is for. Once you are on stage, focus on making connections with your audience and having fun!
If you want even more tips about performing and playing the guitar, working with a private guitar teacher is the the best way to expand your skills. Search for your guitar teacher now!
Samuel B. teaches beginner guitar lessons in Austin, TX. He teaches lessons face-to-face without sheet music, which is his adaptation of Japanese instruction (involving a call-and-response method). Learn more about Samuel here!
Photo by Gordon Dionne