My brother wrote me a text today from Germany where he is visiting his wife's family. "Suz, I'm playing a concert with a local band here on Sunday, can you give me some performance tips? How do you think about presence on stage? You all have it so nailed."
Performance tips. Oh man. What have we learned after a dozen years of walking onto stages many many hundreds of times? Here's what I'm thinking about lately.
Listening. I'm trying to listen more. I'm trying to listen to the music instead of the voice in my head. If left to its own devices, that voice, rather than listening quietly, is wondering about my choice of underwear (too dark for this yellow outfit?), how my hair looks (where did my toddler throw my hair clip?), if I have a piece of spinach in my teeth from dinner, if I remembered to get the library books out of the van for the kids or tell the road nannies where the kids' toothpaste is. So I'm trying to listen to the music and figure out ways to be involved in its conversation. Not talking too much or too little. Offering sounds. Participating.
Conversation with the Crowd. I am always in conversation with my audience. Before I go on stage I have thought of a few things I want to tell them about. But if I forget to do this I just look around and notice something from stage. It may be small. It is most likely small. A bag I saw someone carrying that triggered a memory. Something I ate next door and how I felt about it. The smell of a flower on my way here. A realization I had about thinking less that I'm trying to implement. I try to share something with the audience about what I'm thinking about. What's important to me. The small things. It doesn't have to be big. Smaller the better, I think. And maybe someone will relate to it. Or maybe you can relate it to something bigger and more important. Or maybe they will feel like they know you a little better. I think that's a good thing. Listen to how the audience is applauding or woo-wooing, or the particular way that they are silent between songs. This is new every time. It's always new, and I'm trying to notice these things. And talk about them in a relaxed way. The way the lights either make me feel like a rockstar tonight or like I'm in my 8th grade math classroom. The way I love my new outfit from the vintage shop but didn't realize until I got on stage that I can't lift my arms.
Dialogue with Bandmates. If you know your fellow performers you are lucky because you can have conversations with them on stage. Yes, musically, but also between songs. And the best way I've found to do that is to ask them questions and really listen to what they say. Often people say really funny things. You can say, "Did you really mean that?" and put them on the spot a bit and see what they say back. Similarly, it's fun to listen really carefully to what the audience says. They also say really funny things if you listen hard. For us, performance can become rote. It can become routine, like your commute home. We've done it a thousand times. So trying to slow it down and listen to particular phrases. Listen to rhythms.
Eye Contact. David and I have been discussing where to look when on stage. People are going to be looking at you. So you can always look at them back, which is what I do a lot. I like making eye contact, but you can't do that too much or it gets awkward for the audience members. Many performers shut their eyes when they're singing. A little bit is ok, but I really don't like that as a habit. I know it's an easy go-to option, but I can't connect to someone when their eyes are closed. David and I have each other to look at, and our band mates. That's a good choice -- moving your eyes between your instrument and your bandmates eyes. Watching them perform is always a good choice. Then there's the distant future -- or past -- depending on how you look at it. That's when you stare dreamily out above the audience's head. I like this choice ok, but haven't really mastered it.
Movement. I would not say I am a dancer. I wasn't allowed to take dance lessons as a kid and I have had major hang ups about dancing in public my whole life. But music can make you move in all sorts of ways. It can be small. It can be with your head. Or with your feet. But allow yourself to move. By moving to the music, you are giving your audience permission and being an example of the ways music can move us. And that, after all, is why we are here.