Pacing, timing, whatever you want to call it is a skill, one that deserves just as much thought as the performance of the songs themselves. I think that in many cases younger performers don’t realize this. OK, I’m going to sound like the old guy that I am now, but I still subscribe to the idea that a musician is there “but for the grace of the audience.” What I mean is – holding the interest of your listeners goes way beyond the music.
Back in the 1960s when solo performers were the norm in acoustic music, much more than they are now, the best of them knew how to hold an audience from the beginning to end of a show. Tom Rush was and is a master of this, telling jokes and giving short explanations of the songs he was playing, crediting the writers and knowing just how long to keep up the banter. Jonathan Edwards, who I opened for about 15 years ago, is another who has mastered this skill. In the case of Tom Rush, I once watched him change a broken guitar string and tune back up without taking off his guitar, all the while talking and joking. And this was in the days before digital tuners! A very cool thing to witness and instructive too.
Regarding tuning, this is a very subjective and delicate situation. We of course want our guitars to be in tune but tweaking strings should be done only when things get so bad the out-of-tune guitar is impossible to ignore. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a big deal star and have your own guitar tech right at your side when you finish a song to take the guitar you’ve just played and hand you another, perfectly in tune? Well, I don’t have that luxury and I’m guessing you don’t either. So if you do have to tune, do it quickly and as few times as possible. Remember, tuning up is a total disconnect with your audience plus it sounds annoying. Be absolutely sure your guitar is perfectly in tune before you begin a performance and resist the temptation to change your strings just before you play because they will surely go out of tune frequently until they settle in.
Then there’s the subject of talking to the audience. Some performers are very uncomfortable with this. The late, great Miles Davis used to do entire shows with his back turned to the audience and one of the reasons Joni Mitchell doesn’t perform very often is her overwhelming discomfort being in front of a crowd. Some performers worry that what they say will sound uninteresting (certainly a possibility!) and some just cannot effectively deliver a joke or a story. These things can be mitigated by simply rehearsing what you intend to say. I know that may sound weird and lacking in spontaneity but it will pay off, believe me. Just remember to change up your rap from time to time. If you’re fortunate enough to have regular listeners who come to hear you perform frequently they will get bored with your banter after hearing it a couple times.
So how long should you take between songs? I’m sure I could find some debate about this among professionals but my feeling is – as little as possible. Even a minute can be a long time if you’re playing in front of a restless audience or in an environment where some people are listening and some are not. I’ve seen local rock bands go as long as five minutes between songs – yes, I timed them – and the only way they could get the crowd to begin listening again was with pure volume. Ugh! So – the instant you finish a song and the applause stops be ready to chime in with something, anything, or jump right into your next tune.
The overall timing of a performance is an art unto itself. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett, two of my favorite singer/songwriters are experts at this. They will start their shows with a familiar moderate to fast tune (never, ever start a show with a slow song!!!) and play a few more in that vein, then proceed with a mellower, more intimate middle section of the show, perhaps just them with a single guitar. Then they crank it up again, leading to a climax. While this may not be practical if you’re playing in a bar or somewhere that you don’t at least begin with the full attention of the audience, variety in song selection is vital to building and keeping the crowd’s attention.
So what I’m saying is simply this: a well rehearsed, well paced performance that is thought through before is begins will keep an audience on your side. And the reason is quite simple. It shows that you respect them and appreciate they’re there. In the end, don’t we all want to feel that way in every aspect of our lives?
Peace & good music,