Audience reaction is really just one way to gauge our performances. What I mean by that is accepting the fact that you can play flawlessly and get virtually no reaction at all, or you can make more than a few mistakes and still get a positive response. Don’t take either of those things too seriously. There are just too many variables in the way listeners respond.
Start with the venue. I clearly remember the first times I played in bars when I moved to Cape Cod many years ago after spending a couple years playing in listening rooms in Boston. The audiences on the Cape were neutral at best and often paid no attention whatsoever to what I was playing. This was frustrating and sometimes infuriating but I finally accepted the fact that my function was often no more than background noise to fill in the gaps in conversation. Cynical? Perhaps but it was a valuable lesson. I learned to spot the people who WERE listening and made believe I was playing just for them. I still employ that strategy, to tell you the truth.
Sometimes though it’s possible to bring an otherwise disinterested audience over to your side. On my recent annual trip to the Florida Keys I heard many groups and individual musicians in the many bars in Key West and it was truly the good, the bad and the ugly, music-wise. On the extreme end of “the good” was a group of brothers called The Doerfels, who are regulars at some of the better places in Key West. They are primarily a bluegrass group but also do their own arrangements of a wide range of popular and original music. Superb musicians all, they immediately grab the attention of their audience with tight arrangements and excellent musicianship. There is good reason why they are the Number One group in that town where live music is everywhere.
On the other extreme were some of the many single guitar player/singers that are the most common live music alternatives in the bars and restaurants. Tired repertoire, repetitive arrangements (and I use that term loosely – loudly strumming medium tempo songs in the same keys invites disinterest in an audience pretty quickly) and the single most deadly buzz kill – taking way too long between songs – were their modes of operation. For goodness sake, don’t fiddle around between songs and waste time. If you’ve gotten some good response to your music, keep that interest. No one wants to hear you tune up or talk up the pretty girl at the front table. Timing is EVERYTHING in live performance. It’s good to play in tune of course and a bit of banter between songs can get the audience involved but if you’re spending more time between songs than actually playing you will surely lose the interest of your listeners.
Then there are the times that the venue itself works against you. In a popular bar in my hometown the owner insists the performers use his house P.A. system, which sounds just awful. In another popular place nearby the owner insists on leaving the wide screen TV on while the musicians are playing – and the TV is directly above the heads of the performers! Why the heck does he even have music?! And some rooms are just a disaster, sound-wise. Actually, this is more common than not. So musicians turn up the volume to be heard, which naturally makes the crowd talk/yell louder and chaos ensues.
But then there are those times when everything just seems to come together. You play well, the audience responds, the owner is happy (and you don’t have to chase him into some secret back room to get paid!) and you get asked back again. Just remember that the next gig at the same place may or may not go as well! Let the little stuff roll off, keep on keepin’ on as we used to say back in the day, and you will have some great times. Playing in front of an audience is like nothing else. There can be a connection that you will never forget and that keeps you coming back for more.
Peace & good music,