“What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”
-Conan the Barbarian

Sometimes it is necessary to take away the machinery, the electronic appendages, the artificial intelligence, to realize the true power within us. We should always remember that we are the wielders of our musical instruments and they merely the tools that help to ultimately express and define us.

A focused performer can be extremely dynamic in a room without sound reinforcement.

There is a wonderful opportunity for self discovery with the realization that we all possess a strong inner core, which has all the necessary essentials to communicate with the world outside. But take away the PA…and we sometimes panic. We have fear of PPR: Projection, Protection and Rejection.

A focused performer, however, can be extremely dynamic in a room without sound reinforcement. Take the arena of senior healthcare; nursing homes, assisted and independent living facilities, Alzheimer and dementia units, rehab hospitals, and strolling venues all provide great opportunities for dynamic acoustic performance, and the basic principles to follow apply to many other types of performance venues encompassing a wide variety of audiences.

The Basic Principles

Make eye contact.

Make it a point to connect visually with every member of your audience. Look at them directly. When it comes right down to it, it’s just you and every other individual in that room. You have a golden opportunity to break whatever preexisting stasis by commanding every person’s attention.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Legendary artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan always knew how to connect with an audience, even when there wasn't a PA to plug into.

You’ve got to win your audience over one person at a time. Command the room visually by treating the audience as a 270 degree—and sometimes 360—organic structure that you have the power to manipulate. Mix up the visuals just as you would mix up your set list: look right, left, center, forward, back. Let each audience member know that you are with them. Don’t let them get away!

Get in their air space.

Without electronic reinforcement, you’ve got to get close enough to have an aural impact to the people you are playing for. Move around the room, or if that’s not possible, move from one end of the stage to the other. It’s your responsibility to be physically active enough to command their visual attention and auditory attention as well. Remember that even one trip across the room can have many meaningful moments with various audience members.

Mix it up.

You’ve got to make up for the lack of amplification by being diverse enough to command consistent attention. Vary your tempos and your keys. Dance while you play some of your tunes. If it’s going to be guitar, then try using it occasionally as a percussion instrument. Try to visualize your performance, however intimate, reaching just a little beyond the furthest person away from you at any given time. If you’re going to flirt with someone up close, make sure every person in the room knows it! Notice the reactions of the people in the back row. Work the room.

Be a psychologist.

There are 3 things in a performance: you, the song you have chosen, and your audience. Consider the person you are in front of and what it’s going to take to sell them that song. They are there because of you and you alone. They’re ready to be on your side and you, in turn, must project likeability, empathy and, most importantly, a positive stance.

Every individual has a melting point after which they too have bought your music. As a performer you must own that song, but make it about them. Since everyone is constantly in a different emotional space, it’s necessary to adjust. You should vary your approach to the song according to who you are in front of.

Mariachi band

Strolling musicians understand better than most how to physically interact with an audience, bringing them into the performance.

Give them your song on their terms. If someone is having a bad day, be empathetic. Let them know that you are aware of how they feel and, 9 times out of 10, their attitude will improve. If someone in the audience is highly interactive —and someone always is—use that energy for the general benefit of everyone else in the audience. If the person wants to dance, well, dance with them!

Use props.

There are always going to be objects in the room that can easily enhance the entertainment value of a song, or bring home its message to the audience. Try to incorporate these things. Sing a patriotic song while looking at an American flag, juggle a tennis ball for laughs, use thematic amateur artwork on the wall as fodder for the songs you choose, present the ladies with the artificial flowers already centered on the table when singing a love song, incorporate the food items people may be eating if you’re doing a strolling meal service. All of these things can work to magnify the positive effects of a song.

Make your intros appealing and delicious like a wonderful appetizer. Make sure your endings are dynamic and well defined.

Beginnings and endings.

Be colorful. And be brief. Announce your selections loudly and clearly. You’ve got to be an actor, but you’ve got to mean it! Make your intros appealing and delicious like a wonderful appetizer. Make sure your endings are dynamic and well defined. Be physical at the end of tunes. Use a stylized flourish. There should be no question that this is the end of the tune and applause should be forthcoming. Accept the applause graciously with a smile.

Let your audience know how you feel.

Court them. They won’t know until you tell them how much the experience of playing for them has meant to you. Express your gratitude and verbally recognize the person or persons responsible for making your appearance possible. Your audience wants to know that you thoroughly enjoyed yourself and that you considered it a privilege to be in front of them.

No bad gigs.

Make up your mind to have zero dead air space; to turn mistakes into something positive; to put forth the best that you can give, regardless of the number of services per day. In short, create a favorable impression everywhere you play.

Turn whatever is happening in the room into part of your show. Make every performance a winner. You cannot control the forces around you; only how you react to them. One successful performance leads to another and that series of successes promotes the confidence from which to proceed. Visualize that outcome and it will be yours.