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Relating to audiences
by Lisa Martin

No one ever said that relationships are easy. Every day we experience many different types of relationships and interact accordingly, often based on past experiences, good or bad. The psychology is more complex than we even realize and there are few hard and fast rules to follow. One thing is certain: the success of any relationship is determined by how much we are willing to put into it and how much we are expecting to get out of it.

As musicians, our main focus is on creating and playing music, always striving to grow stylistically and to perfect technique. As performers, the focus becomes much broader, requiring a multi-faceted approach in order to "entertain" the audience. The perfect execution of a song is no longer enough. We must engage the audience in ways that make them laugh, cry, reflect, join in and connect with our "humanness." This is easier said than done because, like people, audiences have different personalities, which can make relating a challenge. This article will explore several audience scenarios and offer strategies that can be used to make the most of each situation. There are no failures ­ only learning experiences. That will be our "glass is half full" approach.


One of the most dynamic components of the performer/audience relationship is energy. The energy you convey can affect crowd response, and likewise the energy from the audience can affect your attitude. If you're upset or in a bad mood when you get on stage or look like you'd rather be anywhere but there at that moment, the audience will sense it and may react by being tentative or indifferent until you make them warm up to you. Similarly, if the crowd has low energy and you're pulling teeth just to get them to react to each joke, that will drain your energy and make your work a lot harder and your experience less than satisfying. Maintaining a positive attitude is the one element you can control regardless of crowd response.

This perception of energy is often what a performer will use to gauge the success of his/her performance. This is a dangerous practice because audience response is not a true or consistent reflection of your performance. Response varies depending on the type of crowd you have. If you rely on this external measure, you may have many nights of self-doubt. Instead, try to use internal benchmarks to evaluate your performance.

The ideal scenario is when both the performer and the audience are exerting equal amounts of energy, each feeding the other and creating an exciting, mutually fulfilling experience. You can generally do no wrong in this case and are quickly forgiven if you do. When you have this kind of audience, go with it and enjoy every second of the experience!

The listening room

It is always a pleasant experience to play to a listening room. This group has purposely come out to see a show and is interested in how you sound and what you have to say. This audience can be of high or low energy, but is always attentive to you. The drawback is that they will have higher expectations of you as a performer and are listening with a more critical ear. The importance of conveying a relaxed, confident attitude along with interesting stage banter and good musicianship is crucial with this audience. Work on honing these skills at every opportunity as experience comes with trial, error and time, a.k.a. paying your dues.

The non-listening room

The experience of playing to a non-listening room can be likened to beating one's head against a brick walland is often more painful! These gigs are the most challenging because you are playing to an audience who has not specifically come out to see a show or be entertained. They have other agendas: meeting friends for drinks or coffee, conversation, etc. You provide the ambience for the room, the "background" music. It's difficult to engage this crowd because they are generally noisy and inattentive. Remember the musician who gauged the success of his/her performance based on the audience response? This is the scenario that would make us all quit tomorrow if we relied on this as a measure of success.

So why do these kinds of gigs? For the most part, playing to non-listening rooms pays better, unless you're at a level where you are headlining at medium-sized or larger venues. There's an abundance of these rooms compared to the number of listening rooms available. Also, every second you spend in "performance mode" allows you to hone your skills so that you are ready to play effectively to that listening room when the opportunity comes. Consider it a paid practice session and make peace with it as such.

Even in this environment you are bound to reach a few people. Not everyone is able to totally ignore a musician. Be aware of who is listening and play to them, make eye contact, smile, etc., make them feel included. Banter with them, offer choices for cover tunes or, if you're really brave, allow requests. Even if you don't have the whole room at your feet, touching a small percentage of this audience is a considerable accomplishment. Build your audience one fan at a time.

You get what you give

In relationships there are givers and takers. Audiences can be givers and/or takers, but performers must always be givers. Why? Your job is to please the audience. Pleasing someone is difficult to do if you're not giving anything. Audiences are most captivated when you give a genuine, heartfelt other words, you give of yourself. Talent and skill are important ingredients in any performance, but the power of delivering a song from the soul and making the audience "feel" it is comparable to nothing else. The music and the performance will soar to another level and so will your spirits. The personal satisfaction you get from knowing that you gave it your all is the best measure of success.

[© 2001 Lisa Martin]


Lisa Martin is a singer-songwriter from western Massachusetts. She released her debut CD, Set Me on Fire, in March. Her CD and live performances are catching the attention of audiences and reviewers. Learn more at or e-mail her at

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