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Solo Performing and Keeping your Audiences Attention

Hey all!
I've been playing solo for quite some time now and have recently found myself in a bit of a slump performing. I know what I like to see in a performer and I do those thing with my own shows. But I'd like to hear from others what they enjoy in a performance; what holds your attention. Amazing musicianship? Humor? Just shut up and play? All of the above? Also, what are some of your ideas for engaging a non-responsive audience.

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I'd say it depends on the venue.

At most coffeehouses, wine & cheese places, country clubs, museum openings, etc., you're essentially hired to be background music as customers come and go. I don't expect more than occasional applause. If folks stay, which typically means you bring in a bunch of friends to the business, you have an audience. If humor is your forte, go ahead and tell some jokes or just some light banter. Often I will tell the story behind a song I'm about to play, or a story that relates to a song.

The next 'step up' are the above venues, plus bars or restaurants, that hire you because they feature live music, or even specifically feature *you*. Folks will come for a mini-concert and expect to be entertained. If they're familiar with you, they will know what to expect, and it's because of what they've heard in the past that brought them back. In that case, you stick with your schtick.

If you're going in cold, that can be tough. First off, you have to know what the business is expecting from you. Your first time in a new venue is often a try-out for return business. And if you bring in a bunch of friends who help create a nice atmosphere, make sure they also give the business some business. I was out of town once and visited a coffeehouse with a pretty average guy singing and playing guitar. But he had a couple of dozen friends there who were almost buying out the shop - and the place had a calendar showing their featured artists, which showed this guy 2-3 times per month over the next quarter.

But if you're on your own, and the place is expecting you to entertain/engage an audience, it often comes down to chemistry. You may be fine for a vegan sandwich shop, but fall flat in a cowboy bar. (remember Blues Brothers?) The versatility of your acting ability may be tested. "A man's gotta know his limitations." Checking out the place before your day can give you a clue about what works there, both in repertoire and entertainment.

Ideas for engaging folks. One time I was playing at a church group (Knights of Columbus) dinner/meeting. I was to play through dinner, dessert and fill in the 45 minutes as the meal was cleared and the meeting set up. I envisioned being set up in a corner, but instead they put me up on their stage, with everyone facing me. What worked in that venue was playing some church songs along with my usual folk stuff, but what they really enjoyed was a 'name that tune' quiz I did. I played a bunch of tunes, but sang the words to Amazing Grace. Another version of this I did was to play the song instrumentally, have them guess the song, but always say, "no, it's Amazing Grace" and sing those words.

At a wedding reception once, I was set up in a corner, basically playing in the background, but no amplification was allowed. After about 30 minutes, the parents of the bride came over and said people on the other side of the room wanted to hear me. What I ended up doing was putting on my strap and strolling from table to table, giving each a quick 2-3 songs. I got a big tip for that one!

Hope this helps.
Great topic of discussion. In the past most of my gigs have been either a coffee shop type setting, or a festival/guitar store gig where folks were there expressively to see me and the irish band i was playing with.

For the coffee shop stuff i essentially treat it as background music. Most folks are there doing there own thing, studying, talking with friends. I am not going to try to pull their attention away with onstage banter. Some folks obviously like the music, starting paying attention, and may talk to me between tunes, which is great and an added bonus.

For gigs where folks are there to see me or the band its differently. Obviously they are paying attention, i can relax into the show, talk about the tunes being played, tell a funny story or two, etc.

I am grateful for any type of gigging, but i always enjoy it when i can do gig where folks are paying attention. The give and take between myself and audience is nice, and i feel more like i am sharing the music with them. Playing as background music is nice too, but its a different kind of vibe.

Thanks for your responses! I'm glad to see that my experiences are somewhat similar. I don't get to see others play very often so it's difficult to know what other folks are doing. I understand how the venue dictates what you play and say, but I'd love to hear what other players/listeners like to see in a performer. What have you seen/heard/done that gets attantion. I enjoy my jobs as 'background music', (usually early hours, can sometimes get an extra gig in later in the night!), but I have been doing the same things for years out of habit and I want to break these habits. New songs always help, and conversations with folks from the stage is fine. But I find myself drawing a blank getting started in the evenings; or what to say/do between songs. (Thanks again!)
Two basic ways to get started: introduce yourself and play a couple of songs, or play a couple of songs and then introduce yourself.

Friends of mine that gig regularly do the latter: play a few songs, introduce one of them as a segue into a solo song, then play a few more duets and introduce the other prior to their solo.

Earlier I said I'd tell a story about a song - a couple of times I've turned the night into a musical life journal: telling a short back story when I do one of my own songs, or why I chose to cover a song, etc. People get drawn in because they really enjoy getting to know *the artist* personally that way. Plus it gives the songs extra meaning as people pay really close attention to the words. You might even note that you changed some words to fit your story.

Just remember to keep things anonymous/generic; ie, don't name names or specific places, unless it's crucial to understanding the story. - although I have lightened up a story by using obvious aliases, like Jane Doe or John Q. Public, or make the disclaimer "I'm not saying this happened to me, but a friend of mine, a really close friend of mine who's not me, OK, a guy I knew, er, ah,..."

Hope this helps.
You may be interesed in an article I wrote a year and a half ago Diversity in Your Set List
My 2 cents: Unless you are an amazing musician, "shut up and play" is not the best option. Come to think of it, even incredible music often wears thin on a good portion of the audience. A show is, to me, by definition, a combined effort of the performer and the audience. Pretty much everytime, the audience waits for the performer to engage them in some way. If there were a formula, it would be easy, no? You obviously have the right idea...observe what works and try it out yourself - when something feels right, then you can work on making it your own. Also, there is a big difference in the dynamics of the performer/audience relationship between playing in a a bar, a setting where the audience is glued to your every sound and move, and everything in between. Be attentive to the environment you are in - what worked in one may not work in another.

The best help I ever got in this regard was when I purchased a small book - Art of the Solo Performer ( by Steve Rapson. I recommend it without question, and, no, I have no affiliation with Rapson nor do I profit in any way from the sales of his book.

Good luck. The fact that you are questioning all this is a really good sign.

Thanks for the response. You know, when I started this thread, I wasn't really looking for a "how to" but more of a "what do".. in other words, what do YOU like to see in a performer. I can't think of anyone better to ask than other musicians. (We by nature pay more attention to this sort of thing.) There's a "how do" there as well, which is me wanting to know how do YOU, as a performer, engage a non-attentive audience. I rarely, (very rarely!) get to see other musicians, as I'm usually working myself. I work at this a lot, and over the years, I feel I have missed some of the education/nspiration you get when you go out and see other people play. I hope more people read and respond to this. Thanks for yours! and thanks for the link! There's interesting stuff there!
Hi all. I'm a recent addition to this online community. I look forward to many wonderful questions, answers, insights and plain-old comraderie.
I must confess: I don't go to a lot of solo guitar performances. While there are guitarists who dazzle me with their technique, the ones who get my attention are the ones who, as I often say, "transcend the instrument". I'm just not that interested in guitar acrobatics--give me music, musicality, musicianship over guitarman/guitarwomanship.
We're both lucky and cursed. More than many instrumentalists, including vocalists, we have opportunities to play out solo. This is a blessing. The curse is that it's often a "wallpaper gig"--background music. Great for honing your chops, paying for your practice, etc; unfortunately, it doesn't cultivate being an engaging performer. Though I came up through a conservatory, I eschew that formalism that seems to prohibit engaging on a personal level with your audience. And I embrace the opportunity to connect with them from the concert stage (or any stage). It's why performance is different than recording or practice--the energy is, must be, synergistic. The audience has paid for the privilege of having a higher expectation than a mere recitation of the music; I in turn appreciate the challenge that comes with meeting that expectation each and every time I step onto a stage. Frankly, it raises my playing level as well.
There will always be a need to do those types of background gigs (they pay bills!), but I encourage people to hone their performance chops as well as their playing chops. Host your own salon, or house concert, with a group of friends with whom you're comfortable, and perform, not just play, for them. Put some thought (and practice) into your intros/outros, make it special. It's time and effort well spent.
I certainly understand what you mean. I play guitar simply out of love and fascination of the instrument and also love of a good song. The gigs I do are mainly bars, so I have to entertain to some degree. I watch the room for people watching me. I imagine what they might like to hear and play it. I enjoy letting the audience dictate my play list. It surprises me every time when I have twenty-somethings asking for what would be their parents music. Likewise, folks my age asking for recent music. Music is truly universal. I don't verbally engage too often, so this and some other things are what I'm trying to gain ideas of how to change for myself. I do appreciate your insight! Thanks for replying!
My 22 year old daughter is a fan of the music I listened to as a teenager. Her favorite band, The Who.

Proof that good music regardless of style is truly timeless and worth listening to no matter what.

Just my 2 krupplenicks on the subject, your mileage may of course vary.

Donnie, I know that I always enjoy a performance much more when the performer appears to be having quite a large time! I've also seen that approach draw an audience in, even when the performer isn't supremely talented. If it looks like you love what you're doing, people respond to it.
Hey Donnie, I've been playing solo shows for thirty years.

Here's a few things I do to keep things rolling along. Of course, I might be crap, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

1. Make sure you have enough variety in the styles and feels that you play. I think that is the most important thing if you are playing more than one song, and it holds true if you are playing a showcase of six or seven songs, or a three-set show. You got to have some serious variety in what your hands are doing on each song. Some songs you will strum, sometimes in 4/4 time and sometimes in 3/4 or whatever else. In the 4/4 you got to make sure you mix up what you do with that time signature. Most obviously is tempo. Then comes things like accent. Accent beat 3 in each bar on one song. Accent beat 2 on the next. Accent beat 4 on another. Accent the 2 AND on another (the upstroke).
Then on some songs try muting the strum on beat 4. Or Muting and accenting the strum on beat 3 (a percussive effect)

All these things can be done easily by just leaving your strumming hand keep going.... you just choose when it comes into contact with the strings on the down strums and the up strums.

Also, try some grab-n-slap techniques. Plenty of instructional videos on YouTube. Plus do some finger picking songs. Travis picking patterns, straight pima patterns, whatever takes your fancy, and once you have one finger picking pattern down its real easy to change the accents in your finger picking too.

2. Alternate tunings are WAY cool. You probably already do Drop D (maybe lots of others too). An easy trick is to tune the guitar to Open D (DADF#AD) - that gives you a D major chord just by strumming all six open strings. You get yourself a glass slide, or metal slide for your finger, and play a couple of bluesy songs using the open necked chord (D) and the other two chords (it would be a three-chord song - pretty standard sort of simple blues) would be on fret 5 and fret 7. You just move the slide bar to those two positions. Takes a while to get the feel, the finesse, the accuracy, but once you got it... it opens up a whole new world.

3. A Stomp Box is always cool. not used on every song, but some. Not too loud... just enough so you notice it when it's not there.

4. Tell gags about the town you're in. Or the neighbouring town "If Johnsonville ain't the ass end of the world... it's at least within farting distance...." (Depends on your style and personality, of course)

5. Introduce the invisible members of your band. "... and in the horn section tonight.. the Mucluskey Triplets from Dayton!!"

6. Try key changes for some of your songs. If you normally play a song in G... try it in A, or in F or F# or C or whatever. You will be amazed what a huge difference just that can make.

7. Sing one song acapella. Make it a good'n, though. Maybe click your fingers for accompaniment, or hit on the guitar every bar. Boom two three four Boom two three four...

8. Sing the lyric of one popular song with the melody and chord changes of another popular song. I normally do "Feelin' Groovy" chord progression and melody but then sing lyrics from 'What A Wonderful World", and "Jive Talking", and whatever comes into my head, really. I also do them in voices like Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan and the Bee Gees....
Also I do House of the Rising Sun with the lyric of Amazing Grace. The Blind Boys of Alabama did this first and no one's ever gonna top that... but audiences really respond to that kind of off-the-wall thing.

9. Stand up and play on some songs. And sit down on others. I've laid down a couple of times but I wouldn't recommend it.... you never know what's on the floor of the stage.

10. Get a heavy-duty tambourine and tap on it with the other foot (the foot that's not stomping on the stomp box)
11. Harmonica on a stand around your neck for a couple songs. Easy to play. Suck and blow, blow and suck.
12. Bite the head off a live bat.... oh no wait. That's been doooooone.

That's just a few ideas. Thanks for inspiring me to write these out, and I hope you get something out of it.


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