Recently, Chicago troubadour Mark Dvorak conducted a performance workshop consisting of a series of online sessions and assignments. It was a very special opportunity to work so closely with a person at Mark’s skill level and with his record of professional achievement. Even more exciting, Mark gave us permission to share on our Off Square Music website some of the guidance he offered so others can benefit from it as well. We look forward to more collaborations with Mark in the future!
Give Your Best Performance at Any Skill or Experience Level
There is no right or wrong way to perform your music. And no single set of instructions could ever prepare anyone for the many circumstances a performer might encounter over a period of time.
Of course, a performer must have a certain desire to be in front of people as well as an active devotion to craft. Beyond that, if what you are doing works for the audience and works for you, it is pretty safe to assume you’re on the right path.
That said, what works for a new performer and open stage listeners is very different from what is required of a polished, professional singer or instrumentalist — and from what a paying audience demands.
Talent, of course, is mostly inherent. Developing one’s talent is an ongoing and long-term endeavor and is what matters most. And that’s where the work comes in. Attending classes and taking lessons can help, but in the end, your private practice and rehearsal get the goods.
The long road of making progress and attaining a level of mastery takes time. In the shorter term, though, there are areas on which a performer can focus to tighten up his or her presentation. And these are the areas on which our exercises and discussion here are based.
Understand Your Performer Resposibilities
In performing and preparing to perform, an individual or ensemble has three responsibilities to consider:
- To the music
- To the audience
- To other cast members and crew
Responsible performers prepare for the show like athletes prepare for the game.
- They keep their skills sharp through practice and rehearsal, and believe it, a little rehearsal goes a long way.
- They keep their instruments in working condition so they can focus on the work before them.
- They make choices that place them where natural authenticity can find its way into the music and flourish. Being yourself on stage is at the core of offering a listening audience what is musically yours alone to give.
Just as important are the people presenting the event, the sound guy, the lighting guy, the emcee, and in our case, the person running the ZOOM call and spotlight. Responsible performers are patient with these folks.
Responsible performers are courteous to and supportive of, others on the program.
Finally, responsible performers move the program forward.
Maximize The Opening Moment
The comedian and banjo player Steve Martin once gave a performance workshop for aspiring standup comedians. There were about six people in the circle, and at one point Steve, with a goofy grin on his face, raised his hand and asked the group, “Hey, how many of you have ever walked out on stage and begun your set by asking, ‘Hey everybody, how you all you doin’ tonight?’’
All six comedians raised their hands. Then Steve said, “I’m sorry. You just BLEW the most potent moment of your show.”
And the opening moment of any show IS the most potent. The lights are dimmed, the emcee gives the introduction. All the work — rehearsing, setting up the equipment, changing clothes, and changing strings — was done to focus the audience on this moment when they are most ready to be engaged. The opening moment is when your energy and opening notes will be met with excitement and anticipation.
It’s the emcee’s job to welcome the audience and ask how they are doing. It’s the performer’s job to make the first musical splash.
“Engage” Your Audience
I like to think “entertaining” is a word that audiences sometimes use when they are glad that they came to the show tonight. “Engaging,” on the other hand, is what responsible performers strive to be.
In the days of Vaudeville, up to ten acts were presented on a given bill, sometimes more. And these revues — comedic skits, jugglers, dancers, singers, and what all else — took place in theaters all over the country.
Typically the opening act was trotted out while people were still finding their seats. And typically the opener or the “dumb” act was inexperienced or horrible on purpose. The tactic gave the audience something to agree on. A guy singing off-key got the house’s attention, and the boos and calls for “the hook” were heard as the crowd settled in.
The comedian Rodney Dangerfield built a career on playing this exact character. “I get no respect,” was one of his signature lines. And “My fan club broke up. The guy died.”
So the job of the opening act is to, in one way or another, unite the audience. Vaudeville used a “dumb” act to accomplish this feat tactically. In more recent years, record companies preferred to use the “opener” slot to showcase their up-and-coming talent. But often the results were similar.
Here’s the thing, though. The very nature of our common body of song respects a very different protocol than the money-making machine of the early twentieth century, the Vaudeville circuit, or the big-time record business.
Our music avoids terms like “dumb” when referring to fellow cast members. We have by and large agreed that inclusion and respect for each other are the basic principles upon which our songs and performances are based. At the same time, these values are universal and personal and resonant in our songs.
Start With Simple Technology for Open Mics and Live Stream
For our purposes then, one can be more engaging for a live stream audience or better engage a live stream audience by paying attention to some very simple technology:
- Frame yourself. Your device is your stage. Think about it. Your background setting can be pretty or plain, messy or immaculate, but work to make your setting make sense. It ought to complement what one’s listeners are about to hear. Listeners want to see your entire face and your hands too if possible. If your equipment is limited, just do your best. Listeners understand that live stream has limitations.
- Light yourself. Figure out a way to illuminate your face or faces. Certain directed front lighting makes the performers’ eyes shine. Work at this as best as you are able.
- Look into the camera. While performing, look straight into the camera from time to time if you can. Acknowledging your your listeners in this way is very engaging.
- Consider a USB microphone. A USB microphone gives much better sound than the built-in mic on your laptop, iPad or phone. A USB microphone plugs directly into a laptop or into another device with an adapter. Consider the cost of a USB microphone an investment in your sound, an investment similar to the one a responsible performer asks of listeners that he or she has invited to the show. If the technology is confusing, contact someone you trust that has more experience to walk you through.
- For “balance,” experiment with mic placement. Aside from sound quality, the term “balance” refers to the volume level between ones’ voice and ones’ instrument. Whether broadcasting through the built-in microphone on your device, using a USB microphone, or two microphones (or more) and mixer, take time to experiment with mic placement. A single USB mic ought to placed somewhere in the sweet spot where ones’ voice is heard first and ones’ instrument is still present.
- When it comes to mics, start simple. When you play an introduction or solo or some other instrumental passage that requires more emphasis, you can always inch your instrument closer to the mic for more volume and presence. A built-in mic on your device is more limited in this regard since the mic and the camera are part of the same device. A mixer gives ultimate control over the balance between voice(s) and Instrument(s), but complicates things to another level. Start with keeping it simple! Experiment with the equipment you’ve already got and are comfortable with.
Be Prepared So You Can Focus on Your Audience
- Practice. Some of the differences between practice and rehearsal are these:
- Practice involves improving your skills.
- Practice means doing exercises that strengthen your hands and sharpen your sense of pitch.
- Practice means studying chords, melodies and theory.
- Practice also involves working on your songs, or more specifically creating the arrangements to your songs.
- Rehearse. On the other hand, rehearsing involves getting yourself and your stuff ready to perform. Visualizing is part of that.
- Newer performers visualize themselves behind the microphone at the cafe where they are scheduled to appear. They visualize themselves singing to their device on a live stream performance. They visualize themselves absolutely nailing the passages and arrangements he or she spent time rehearsing.
- More experienced performers visualize too, but perhaps they have a deeper backlog of successes and flops to draw upon. Before a performance large or small, I imagine back to a time when things went pretty well, when I found myself relaxed and in tune and in command of the moment. It reminds me that “pretty well” is still a very real possibility, and I work to prepare myself so that “pretty well” becomes the reality of a given performance.
- Get quiet. When I find myself uptight and nervous while warming up before a show, I will lay the guitar down and try to get quiet. I remind myself to breathe. And this really works. There are other times I have I found myself before an audience in the middle of a song, and things are starting to get wobbly. They are on the brink of hurtling out of control. I begin biting at the words and flailing at the strings. I have lost focus. Rest assured the audience saw this coming way before I did. They are the ones watching and listening. These days I work as hard as I am able beforehand to avoid that sort of predicament.
Applause Is A Frame — But What If You’re Live Streaming?
In a way, applause at a live in-house performance means one moment is now ended and another is about to begin. Applause functions something like the frames around the paintings at the art museum. It supplies a certain definition to the work.
Of course, on a live stream show, there’s little room for actual applause, and often a performer’s beautiful song winds down to an awkward silence. So we need a device to replace the thing that applause supplies to a live performance, the framing.
Here’s something to try. When the performer’s song ends, let that last note ring, and look straight into the camera. Smile or don’t, but look straight into the camera and keep still. Let your stillness settle for a moment, and don’t say anything. When you break your stillness by shuffling in your chair or changing picks or slapping on a capo, the old moment is now ended and a new one has begun.
Here’s are other ways to break your stillness. I saw a guy hold his guitar up to the camera to hide his face for just a moment, and then he pulled it down again — and like magic, his face reappeared. I saw a young performer who stood during his set bend down and take a deep bow. Same thing. So in a way, instead of clapping hands, silence and stillness function as the borderline between our musical moments.
Make Song Choices That Increase Engagement
Keep an “active list” of your arrangements that are ready to go. If you have an active repertoire of fifty to sixty songs, consider yourself ready for anything. If you have thirty titles on your active list, that’s pretty good too. If you have ten good, performance-ready songs, you can go a long way on a live stream. Most live stream appearances are just one, two, or three songs.
However long your active list might be, check to make sure you’ve got some variety in there. Have a waltz, some uptempo songs, something reflective and intimate. Try adding a bluesy number or a spiritual. Country rhythms are fun too. Include some cover songs that you love. Your cover choices say a lot about who you are as a performer to listeners who haven’t heard you before.
In a typical open mic, each individual or ensemble gets to perform two or three songs. A good plan includes choosing an upbeat song and something else with a different rhythm or feel to it. Have a couple of extra songs from your active list in your back pocket too. If the performer before you ends on a slow, reflective ballad, you may wish to follow that with something more up-tempo and familiar. If the performer before you finishes up-tempo, maybe it’s time to try that love song to a waltz tempo. Like that.
Next, consider where you are in the lineup. Each exercise we planned will feature four performance slots with no intermission:
- Opening slot. You’re the lead-off hitter. Your first job is to try to unite the listeners who have come to the program. Your first song choice might be something familiar, something bright and welcoming.
- Second slot. Begin with something different than what the opener finished with.
- Third slot. Again, begin with something different than what the second performer finished with. This third position is a good place to try something funny or something meaty, like a topical song with a political message.
- Closing slot. Again, try to begin with something a little different than what the third performer finished with. Your final number IS the show’s finale! If you have something on your active list that is again unifying and uplifting, you’ve got a solid closer.
How Introductions Contribute To a Good Program
When each of us steps up to give a nice introduction to the next guest, the program runs more smoothly. We all come across as more professional, and each is a stakeholder in the overall outcome of the show. Also, everything becomes much easier overall for the folks working tech.
Your introduction need not be nor should be, very long. It is simply a marker that indicates a coming transition. And it’s the smooth transition that puts a nice clean frame around the work each of us comes to contribute.
Every performer deserves a compliment when being introduced. Before introducing another ask yourself, “How do I know this person?” Then ask, “What have they accomplished?” And “What arts or other activities are they engaged in?” And then ask, “Why do I admire them?”
One of our jobs here is to get to know each other a little and to support one another. Before the day of the show, maybe a week before, drop a note to the person you will introduce. Ask for:
- the correct pronunciation of their name
- if they’ve made any recordings
- how long they have been performing
- what instruments they play
- if they have won any awards
- if they have a web site
Ask about the people from whom they have learned. And about the music or stories or artists they love. Like that.
There is nothing wrong or bad about saying something like, “Heeeerrrre’s Johnny!” But golly, that’s already been done. One of our other jobs is to provide some context for our listeners with regard to what’s coming up next. Graciousness while introducing another, particularly a stranger, resonates with listeners. Graciousness is also good for you. It makes your soul grow.
You could say something like, “I met our next guest at an Old Town School of Folk Music class last summer celebrating Woody Guthrie’s birthday. (He or she) knows lots of cool songs and is a wonderful instrumentalist. Let’s please welcome (first and last name).”
Or you could say something like, “Before today, I had never met our next guest. He/she comes to us from city/state and we’re excited to hear his/her songs/stories/poems. Please join me in welcoming (first and last name).”
It’s good to avoid using the word “amazing” or other superlatives. We are presenting grassroots arts here, which has its own special context and its own special purpose. We gather to celebrate and enjoy each others’ participation and contribution to the evening. In the end, our work helps make space for each guest to do their thing, to let their artistry, however great or small, do its work.
For more from Mark on tuning up your performance, read his post, “The Troubador Experience.”
About Mark Dvorak
Since 1981 Mark Dvorak has given almost ten thousand performances. He has appeared in nearly all of the United States and has made visits to Finland, Canada, and Ireland. To date, he has released twenty albums including 2020’s Let Love Go On and 2022’s Live & Alone.
For thirty-one years, Dvorak was an integral member of the faculty at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. He began teaching as an avocation, but his interest in working with students deepened and evolved into a way of life and a livelihood of “helping people teach themselves.”
Since 1986, thousands of music students have passed through his classes. He has helped many a beginner get through their first chords and strums and has hosted a catalog of masterclasses and workshops on a range of subjects from old-time banjo picking to the legacy of the great Lead Belly, to just about every other topic related to the study of the American folk song.
Stay in touch at www.markdvorak.com.
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