Because You’re On Stage!

because you're on stage

By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)

There’s nothing more annoying than watching a band on stage performing that has zero stage presence. It’s even worse when the music is really good. You could shut your eyes and enjoy the music, but that’s not why you paid the cover charge. If you only wanted to listen, you could just stay home and listen to the CD. There’s a reason the band is playing on a stage instead of behind a curtain.

People want to see a show. Not just a bunch of dirty looking hippies jamming their hearts out. Sure, it’s fun to jam, but until you’re famous, most people don’t want to pay just to watch you noodling with your pals. If you want to do that, then do it at home or in the rehearsal space. Don’t do it on stage, unless that is your genre. If you went to Prince’s 2004 tour you saw a top professional putting on a terrific show. Even if you didn’t care about his music, you were entertained. That’s the job of any act on any stage: Entertain the audience.

So, how does a new band do this? Some people have a natural charisma. If your act has a front person like that, you’re in luck. The rest of you will just have to learn, and sometimes, even if you’re the guy with charisma, you’ll just have to fake it.

First off, remember that you are there to entertain. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re playing, country, jazz, rock, hip hop, whatever. The goal is still to entertain, to put on a show. There aren’t really any rules, as long as the audience walks away feeling like they had a good time. Here’s a few tips that anyone can handle:

  • Have fun on stage, or at least pretend to. The audience doesn’t know and doesn’t care if you are having a bad day. So your wife ran away with your best friend and they took your dog, car and all your money. Put on a smile and pretend that this is the most fun you’ve had in your entire life. If you can’t do that, it may be better to cancel the gig. Believe me, the audience can tell when you are not enjoying yourself on stage. If you are pissed off and angry, they will sense it and unless, you’re an in-your-face punk act, it won’t go over well. The more you play, the easier this will get, so practice a lot. The best acts in any region can and will play under all sorts of adverse conditions. The difference between you and them is that they know how to fake having a good time. It’s usually well rehearsed between song comments/jokes/banter that gets the crowd participating. Their audience may never know that the lead vocalist is having the worst day of his/her life and neither should yours.
  • Dress for success. Do you wear the same clothes on stage that you wear at rehearsal? Don’t. Always wear something clean and presentable. At the very least have everyone in the act wear blue jeans and the same color T-shirts. There are a few national acts that don’t seem to care about how they look, but they are a very small minority. Even the 70 year old jazz cats playing in the smallest dives in the worst neighborhoods dress up when they play. Something sparkly or eye-catching that you would never be caught dead wearing on the street is perfect for the stage. If you have absolutely no fashion sense, ask a girlfriend, sister or fan. Many women will be thrilled to dress you up. If money is an issue, go to a thrift store, there’s always something funky/cool there. If you notice the trends in music fashion you’ll see that many new fads start out with something a hot new act bought at a second hand store. (Examples: Torn up jeans, The Ragamuffin reggae look that came from Jamaican street urchins, blue jeans were not considered acceptable to wear except at blue collar jobs until Elvis and his contemporaries, started wearing them. Loose fitting pants that are way too big started out as hand me downs from older siblings. Outdated basketball jerseys were a lot cheaper than the ones current teams wear, until they became popular. Big trucker caps are almost free at the thrift store. You can start the next music fashion trend.
  • Move around. Unless you are stuck behind a drumset or keyboard, you need to move around on stage. This catches the audience’s eye and helps keep their attention. If you are a lead vocalist who just stands ramrod straight, you had better blow everyone away, because otherwise they’ll be staring at your bass player instead. If you must keep stationary, then move your head, your arms, your booty. The more the better. If your guitar player is taking a solo, step away from the mic and dance a little. It doesn’t take much and nobody will make fun of you. If your act has a horn section, ask them to all point their horns in the same direction and move them side to side in unison. Just a little choreography will go a long way. Lead vocalists who look at the crowd and hop up and down in time with the music will commonly see the audience doing the same thing. You know you’re on the right track if your audience is on the dance floor. It means they are having fun.
  • Play well. Know your material inside-out and upside-down. You shouldn’t be looking at your hands when you play out. There are already enough distractions at a live gig. Don’t require yourself to focus everything just on getting through the song without messing up. That means lots of practice and rehearsal. Lots and lots. You should be able to play your whole set with your eyes closed. This frees up some of your attention to focus on the audience, pick up on signals from your bandmates, or make your solo even better. It’s tough to smile at the hot chicks flashing you their boobs if you are staring at your fretboard. Eye contact goes a very long way and will make the show a more personal experience for every member of the audience you connect with. I know that some bands in recent years have become famous with guitar players that wear their axe slung low around knee level and then hunch over, almost double the whole time they are playing. Not only does that look amateurish (to this author, at least), but it’s really bad for your back, too. Most professionals prefer watching someone like B.B. King play with his guitar up high on his chest, his face pointed skyward, eyes closed as he hits exactly the right chords bringing emotion out in the song. B.B. knows his instrument well enough that he almost never needs to look at it in order to play well. With enough practice you can, too. Oh, yeah, and just because you saw your favorite band/player do something on MTV, doesn’t mean you should, too. Watch what the old guys do. If they can last for decades, playing hundreds of gigs every year, they must know what they are doing and how to do it in the least painful fashion.