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Stage Presence

How to sell your show
This article will hopefully give the reader some basic pointers that might help improve how a performer looks and presents him or herself on stage. I've also included some pointers on how to build a music set. It is mostly intended for acoustic players who also sing since playing or singing alone is a little easier to do. Other guitarists might also benefit from the pointers, but if you've been on stage for a while, you probably already know them.

The closer you are to the edge of the stage, the closer and more personal you are to your audience. This is where you want to be.

If you are in a group of players, stepping forward will bring you closer to the audience and "upstage" the others in the band. You want to do this if you are soloing or the lead singer. Of course, if the guitarist is soloing he should step forward and the singer should step back.

Eye Contact
To make an audience feel that you are looking at them while you are playing, look just over the tops of their heads. For me, I divide the audience into 'Left', 'Right', and 'Center', and move the direction of my gaze every so often. Eye contact is not a bad thing, but it can get distracting. The "over the head gaze" should be the default with the occasional eye contact. Do it while you practice, not just on stage.

This also means you won't be able to look at your guitar much. That is usually OK for chord strumming, but will take some work if you are playing a difficult piece and singing with it, too. For me, when I am practicing a difficult piece, I try to find out if looking at my hand placement while I'm not singing is adequate or if I have to keep an eye on things. If the former, I start practicing looking at the right times. If the latter, I move the microphone so that I can see my fretboard out of the corners or bottoms of my eyes. It isn't perfect, but it helps. Obviously the best way is to practice not looking at all, but this isn't a perfect world and practice time is limited.

Facial Expressions
The single hardest thing I had to relearn was scrunching my eyebrows when I was concentrating. To avoid looking like I was scowling all the time, I cultivated the habit of raising my eyebrows a bit during difficult (well, ok, difficult for me) passages.

Get a mirror. Start paying attention to what you are doing while you play. And smile. Look like you are having fun. The audience will forgive a multitude of mistakes if they see you having a good time. I cannot tell you how many times a piece has gone badly and people still seem to enjoy it because I enjoyed it...which brings me to my next point:

Pretend like they didn't happen. Flub through it and keep going, and also know that once in a while you are gonna crash and burn so bad that you can't pretend. Don't scowl or get frustrated. If at all possible laugh it off, make a joke of it and keep going. In fact, you might even have a good one liner or two to cover the really bad ones: "Bad hands! Bad, bad hands!" or something like that.

Selling the Music Set
Things I learned as a disc jockey:
  1. Sell 3 songs in the set in the reverse order that you will play them. In fact, that last song you talk about should be the next song, or the song after that, that you play. Give them too many songs and they might decide to leave because they don't like 2 or 3 of them.

  2. Never "back sell". In otherwords, introduce your song before you play it, never after you are done.

  3. Never apologize. If you hose something up, keep on going. If you are unsure whether you can pull a song off, don't apologize before you play it ("Here's a new one I'm still learning", "Here goes nothin'", etc.) or just drop the song.

  4. Keep your talk times short. Work on how you talk, too. Odds are they don't care what you have to say, but what you do or don't say and how you say it can hurt you. The rule of thumb being: KISS (keep it simple, stupid). You might even script it out and get a second opinion if you have to.

  5. I didn't learn this as a DJ, but by watching other performers: Do not tell personal stories about yourself or your music. Save the personal stuff for the between-sets mingling.
Building the Set
More things I learned as a disc jockey: if the songs you are playing are your own, or are material the audience won't know, it helps to have a well-known song on either side of the unknown material. It keeps the audience more comfortable with being introduced to new things.

As far as tempo, if you have 2 slow songs in a row, make that 3rd a little more upbeat. Vice versa, too.

Dealing with Requests
Have a sheet of paper and pen sitting out front. When someone asks for something you don't know, tell 'em to put it on the paper and you will put it on your list of "songs to learn". Tell them tips that fold will increase the odds of it getting learned, too. :-)

Lastly, there is always a time and a place to "break the rules".

I hope these pointers help.

Bill Dunlap is an ex-DJ who plays guitar and sings in coffee shops in the Kansas City area in his spare time.