Audience engagement

For many musicians, myself included, getting a piece ready for live performance takes months if not years. Many musicians feel that their music should speak for itself. There should not be a need to explain it or distract from the music. When executed properly, music should touch, move, and inspire. But it’s also important to develop a rapport with the audience. How does one engage an audience?

There’s a Chinese saying, “On stage 3 minutes, off (below) stage 10 years.” It could take 10 years of preparation to deliver a 3 minute performance. Tai shang san fen zhong, tai xia shi nian gong.

For many musicians, myself included, getting a piece ready for live performance takes months if not years. It’s taken our piano guitar duo 9 years before we were ready to release our first CD. All time is given to perfecting the piece for performance. Is there any time left for anything else?

Many musicians feel that their music should speak for itself. There should not be a need to explain it or distract from the music. When executed properly, music should touch, move, and inspire. On a CD, perhaps. When you’re famous, perhaps. A virtuoso performance may impress but not necessarily engage the audience.

In a live concert, the audience is also searching for eye contact and something else besides the music. Robert Bekkers’ 7 years at conservatory did not include training to engage the audience. In my own musical education, I witnessed the emphasis placed on musicianship, performance practice, interpretation, and a host of other essential matters but not how to engage the audience.

How does one develop rapport with an audience on stage?

At Rich Wyman‘s concert in Doorn, Netherlands, I experienced not only superior audience engagement but also audience involvement. This was not a talk show. His first instrumental prelude (piano solo introduction) immediately touched me. It was like a magic wand aimed directly at me and nearly made me cry.

Wyman’s piano solo reminded me of stolen moments in my “previous” life. Once upon a time, I improvised on the piano to work out a feeling or mood I was in. I did it for myself out of a need to process a particular agony, pain, or nostalgia.

That prelude opened me to receive what Wyman had to offer. Next he sang a song of his own. He invited the audience to sing along “American Pie,” a request from a member of the support team. That was the beginning of audience involvement. We knew the chorus. We knew most of the lyrics. We couldn’t wait to be asked to sing along. His piano interludes and accompaniment to this popular melody brought the music to life. Those were the days.

Wyman had a tough audience to engage that night in Doorn. It was a free evening concert in a Dutch resort where people stayed in tents or bungalows with their families. The front row seats were taken by squirming and restless kids, some of whom thought they were the evening act. Robert and I sat in the second row trying to filter out the movement and noise. People behind and around us were in a state of constant flux, fidgeting and chatting. They probably thought that the amplification and speakers gave them the license to be loud.

Yet somehow, Wyman was able to command the audience to sit through two sets (concert began at 20:40 and ended before 23:00 with a break), a standing ovation, two encores, and fans to queue for his autograph. People cheered for more. We bought all 6 CDs, DVD, and a T-shirt. We didn’t want to leave. We wanted to hang out and absorb more of that positive energy.

How did Wyman manage to convert an audience from strangers to fans? When I got home, I searched for him on youtube and discovered that Wyman sang and spoke for environmental protection and other issues I believed in. I decided to join him and upload a video I took with my mobile phone below.

Audience engagement is the subject of a series of blogs. Perhaps the first thing to do is to get an audience to like you. How do you do that? Revisit Dale Carnegie’s claim to fame, the book “How to win friends and influence people.”

Anne Ku after the Funen concert in Amsterdam
Anne Ku after the Funen concert in Amsterdam, 25 July 2010

Background

After giving our piano guitar duo concert in Amsterdam, we drove to Doorn to catch the last concert of American singer songwriter Rich Wyman on this 6 week tour of Ireland and the Netherlands. We had only met him two evenings before, enough to motivate us to abandon all plans on a Sunday night to see him live.

When we first met him on Friday evening, it felt like a blind date. He brought his sons on tour in Ireland, and his wife Lisa joined them in Holland. We were introduced via Facebook and that’s how it began.