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December/January 2015

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part 5 – Stage Etiquette

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Peak Performance Part 5 – Stage Etiquette

If you’’ve been following the advice of this column over the past few issues, then your gear is set up and sound checked, and you’’re waiting for the changeover that signals your turn on stage. You’’ve got a killer list of tunes that are really going to wake the audience up and get them rocking out to your set. One last little detail – do you actually know what to do when you walk up on that stage?

It’’s supposed to belong to you for the length of your set, but do you know how to own the stage? For many breakout bands it takes months, if not years, before they really act like they belong up there.
It doesn’’t have to take that long, if you can just get your priorities straight. The term ‘stage etiquette’ doesn’’t mean ‘how to be polite while performing’. Rather, it describes a very flexible set of behaviours for performers that can be refined into a very powerful personal style. The following basics are used by pretty much any successful band, whether they’’ve defined them or not.

Command your own space

Some musicians can’t even walk onstage without tripping over cables or getting lost between the drum riser and the keyboard rack. Know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Once there, inhabit that space intelligently. Make sure pedalboards are in reach and mic stands are well-positioned. If you’ve got some stage moves, know which direction you’re going to go, and be mindful of your mates to the left and right. Most of all, be confident and comfortable in that area, because the audience is going to be watching you for a while. And speaking of which…

Communicate with your audience

Keep your eyes up and your attention outward as much as possible. Make eye contact with audience members. If you’’re happy, then smile. Keep it real. People didn’’t drive all the way to the venue, hassle with parking and buy pricey drinks just to watch you stare at the floor for an hour. And keep track of things out there. You just might find out that an amp is set wrong, or that a channel is out, if the crowd calls your attention to it. Step in immediately with the privilege of your position on that stage if you see someone in the audience in trouble, or you need to alert the management to a fight or some other calamity.

Work things out in advance

Along with working out a good set order, you should also factor in breaks between songs. The audience like to hear you introduce yourselves, talk about your music and joke around a bit. There are a lot of cool things you can say up there to break the ice. Describe the way you came up with a song idea to set up expectations for the upcoming music and help the audience understand your music better. Welcome a specific audience member who might be having a birthday, give a shout-out to the staff, or try to cheer someone up who’s having a bad day by dedicating a song to them.
Though breaks can be spontaneous in content, the actual time you take should be planned. It’’s nice to hold off the introductions at first; simply walk on stage, plug in, play a single note as a test, and then tear into your first song. Then you can make the introductions before the second song.
On the other hand, some performers like to say a quick hello when they strap on their guitars, especially if the audience is full of familiar faces. However you do it, work out when you’’re going to talk and generally what you’’re going to say, so you don’’t sound like too much of a jerk up there.

Work as a unit

A successful band has to be more than just a group of musicians performing together. They’’ve got to look out for one another on stage, and be aware of what’’s going on both musically and physically as a whole. A deep level of interaction is what makes a band interesting to listen to, and personally rewarding for the members. If everyone is equally engaged in the process, it keeps the focus firmly on the gig.
Rotate break duties around the band, and let different members introduce themselves for different reasons, like authorship of a song, changing vocal duties, or even just an observation worth sharing. That way any small emergency like changing guitars due to a broken string, or patching a new cable, can be smoothed over so that the audience doesn’’t even notice it. Just have one member set up the next song or tell a joke while the drummer tapes his last cracked stick back together, and you’’re sweet.

Act professionally

There’’s a reason why professionals command the stage. It’’s because they’’ve been up there so many times that they know how to get through a set with least amount of time wasted. Also, there’’s a part of their life that sees that place as their home – with bandmates as flatmates and the audience as guests. They’’re going to know that noodling between songs is childish, losing their cool is unwelcoming, and getting ripped is quick way to spoil that great party.
A polished performance is easy to like, but hard to master. Once again, the internet is your friend, with many thousands of performances by different bands and styles and situations. To a motivated musician, these are a goldmine of ideas to dig through.
Be a scholar instead of just a fan next time you watch your favourite band on YouTube. Watch their personal manner, attitude and level of communication with each other and the audience. What kinds of things do they say between songs, and how do those things set up the audience’s expectations? How do they deal with the occasional hassle? Check bands on the level and venue category at which you’re gigging. These can be very revealing and instructive if you pay attention all the little things that help to add up to a compelling performance.
One of the key factors of stage etiquette is so significant that it deserves its own column, so I’’m saving that topic for our final article in this Peak Performance series – Part 6: Last-minute Emergencies. I’’ll see you then.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.