Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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Even Our Audience

Let me say this as succinctly as I know how.

Don't please the audience. Be the audience.

And the student was enlightened. The rest of us needed help.

It's really pretty simple. If you approach an audience - and I mean any audience, whether concert or filk circle or some person in a conversation - as a thing to be catered to, you will fail. If you approach an audience as people like you, who will enjoy the things you enjoy, and you lose your own ego and need to satisfy in the joy of sharing with that audience, you will succeed.

It really is as simple as that.

My grandfather could meet someone on a train and within five minutes they would be talking to him as if he had known them their entire life. It was because he genuinely cared about their lives and what they thought that they could open up to him. He knew how to listen - not from some sense of manipulation but because he truly wanted to listen.

"But wait," I hear you say. "I'm singing. The audience is listening. Now, you're telling me that I need to listen to them? I'm really confused."

Ahh, grasshopper. Not all listening is done with the ears. It is done with the eyes and the heart and the mind.

"Stow the hocus-pocus, Charlie Brown," you say. "What in the world are you failing to tell me?"

(Hmph. when I were lad, we had to figure out what our elders were saying when they made cryptic remarks and no one was allowed to ask any questions.)

What I'm saying here is that a successful performer pays attention to what makes the audience sit up and take notice. More importantly, the performer pays attention to what causes the audience to drift their attention elsewhere. Most importantly, the performer uses this information above and beyond what the performer thinks would be fun to do at the given moment.

Example: you love rowdy, funny, humorous songs. The sing you are in has gotten extremely ose. You sing your funniest song. Everyone laughs, and then the circle goes back to a theme of death, doom, and destruction.

You should:

a) Sing another funny song - by golly, they'll get upbeat if you have to kill them first!
b) Sing a song that lightens the mood slightly but is still in the same general vein.
c) Give up - this circle just doesn't know what's good.

If you chose a), you are trying to force the audience into your way of thinking, without any consideration for their preferences.

Choice c) would be valid without the arrogance factor (which I placed in the answer to make a point.) Again, just because you like it doesn't mean others like it - to acknowledge this and move to another circle is a perfectly valid response.

Choice b) shows that you were paying attention. You were listening to the preference of the room and using that preference to make your choice of song. Since you tend to be a bit happier than the circle is tending, you chose one of your songs that is (perhaps) light-hearted but not raucous, or slow but not depressing. Instead of trying to crowbar the mood into your favored mode, you tried to steer it gently into a new track.

Based on the audience's response to your selection, you might decide that the circle is ose by choice and change your next song accordingly. Or, you might have steered the next few songs into a slightly lighter mood, which you can then raise further the next time you have a chance.

All of which begs the question, "How can I tell what the audience is thinking?"

Filk is blessed with one of the most accepting audiences in the world. I have never been in a venue which gives its support so strongly no matter how wonderful or how shaky the offering.

What this means is that gauging audience reaction in a filk can't be done solely based on applause or expressions of thanks or even polite listening.

What, then, are some of the things to look for?

  • Eye Contact: Is anyone looking at you? Are they being quiet but concentrating on looking through their songbooks, for example? While this could be a sign that they haven't read my column on listening, it might be that you aren't holding their attention.
  • Room Activity: Does everyone get up for a bathroom break when your turn comes around? You might have been unlucky and simply hit the bladder limit for the room, but if this happens very often then you will want to do some serious analysis of what you are doing. Choosing to leave the room is about as blatant a disapproval you will get from a filk audience - which can make it hard to distinguish from folks just needing to get out. Don't automatically assume it's a comment on what you're doing (especially if you are following someone extremely popular). Don't ignore it, either.
  • Followers: This applies more to non-structured sings like Chaos than it does to very strictly structured sings like Bardic, but it's a good thing to keep an eye/ear on in any case. What this means is to notice whether the songs you are doing fit smoothly into the flow. How your choices affect the mood and/or the selection of later songs by others in the sing is a good indicator of how well you are paying attention.
  • Silence: Silence after an emotional song is A Very Good Sign. Silence after the punch line to your funniest song is Not A Very Good Sign. My point here is that the first few seconds after you finish can be the real key to the audience reaction. This is because those seconds capture the true impact at an emotional level.
  • Body Language: This can be more subtle, but can range from the fairly obvious (fidgeting, toe tapping, swaying) to the obscure (leaning forward in the seat is good, sitting back with crossed arms can indicate discomfort [this may, of course, be what you're after in some songs]). There is a difference between leaning back with eyes closed in rapt attention and leaning back with eyes closed in slumber. Proof is left as an exercise for the student.

There are certainly more elements that you can use to decide how audiences are reacting. Professional performers of any kind spend a lot of time learning how to read an audience. If you know someone who seems to do very well in front of an audience, ask them what they look for.

One very important thing that you need to remember. Use these methods to find the positive reactions to your work as well as the negative ones. Too many of us are brought up to be highly self-critical, which makes it difficult for us to find subtle compliments and to accept open ones. Don't just look for the bad stuff - look for your successes so you can remember and take pride in them.

Understanding how people are reacting is just the first step. Next, you need to figure out why they're reacting that way, both good and bad, so you can use it to improve your own work.

Next column: Analyzing your performance skills

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.