Be Yourself, Get on With It

This post is by guest contributor Steve Rapson – Check out more about Steve, and what he thinks about stuff, at

There are four elements to a singer/songwriter’s act: Songwriting, Singing, Playing, & Everything Else. You know what the first three are. Everything Else is what most performers neglect. It’s part of your act that can make up for shortfalls in the other three.

Everything Else is what an audience sees and hears the moment you come in to view or are announced. It is your gait as you walk to the stage, how you carry yourself, where you look, who you look at, the expression on your face. The ease, or lack thereof, with which you strap on your guitar, plug it in, tune it. The first things you say. These initial moments, before you sing or play, establish your rapport with the audience. After your intro, during the show, it is what you say and do between songs that tightens or loosens those rapport bonds.

What To Do
Adopt the body language of ease and command. Command of yourself, not anyone else.

Just before you go on, take three deep breaths through your nose. Each inhale should last 3-5 seconds, as should each exhale. A minimum of thirty seconds is required to do this properly. Your body will immediately relax. Your mind may or may not follow.

As you walk to the stage, do not look at the floor. Keep your head and chin up, shoulders back. If you are afraid of tripping, pre-plan your route and clear it in advance. Look to your left and right and acknowledge others with eye contact and a smile as you approach the stage.

At the mic, allow your gaze to wander the room as if you were a proud parent surveying the playground. Smile. Before speaking, take care of technical stuff like mics and cords. Smile while doing it.

Keep your hands away from the face, and on the guitar or at your sides when not playing. Be “dead from the neck down” when speaking or singing. This is because gestures and body movements are most effective when planned and rehearsed.

Thirty seconds to a minute may have passed from your introduction to your first words. Yet, without a word, you have communicated clearly to the audience the following: “I am happy to be here and am eagerly anticipating my performance for you. I am confident, having done this successfully many times before. I like you all and am sure you like me.”

What To Say

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” Shakespeare.

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” Voltaire

Direct your first words to the audience, not the host adjusting your mic. Private banter with sound people does not draw people in. Say a quiet “thank-you” to whoever introduces you, then talk right to the people. When you talk to the audience you cease being a singer/songwriter and become a public speaker. This is fine. Here the rules for effective public speaking:

Be Prepared. What you will say needs to be written intelligently, edited mercilessly, and rehearsed endlessly. Just like a song. Such things as biographical snippets, social commentary, song intros, anecdotes from the spectacularly interesting life you are leading… these are all valid talk material. Prepare and rehearse.

Be Interesting. This is very hard. One good source is other people’s stage patter. If someone else says something that interests or amuses you, steal it. Use it with attribution. After using it three times you can drop the attribution and it is yours. There are other clues. If you are being funny, they laugh. If you are being informative, they listen raptly. Beware of polite laughter, polite silence, polite applause. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Be Done. If you can’t be interesting at least have the decency to be brief. So said speech guru, John Quick. (This will be my last attribution to John Quick by the way.) So how do you know if you are brief enough? Until they are gasping for air between the laughs or hanging on every word with pin-drop silence while exuding massive body language that screams, “Tell us more!”… well, I would say, as with wealth and weight, you can never be too brief.

Songwriters take heed: Less Is More Ray Mason, a 44 year old Northhampton, Mass rocker was just signed to a record deal. He is famous for writing pithy little pop masterpieces. Most run about two and a half minutes. His musical career exemplifies two truisms in the music business. First, persistence. Second, brevity in writing and presentation. Ray says, “How long can it take to tell you something?” And I might add, in conversation, who would let anyone go on for over five minutes without a break?

There are great long songs. And if you believe your greatness lies in epic exposition, go for it. But you might miss out on the “heads you win, tails you win” benefits of brevity. If your songs are short, only good things can happen.

For example, as you re-write and condense your ideas they become compelling, more thought provoking, dense with meaning in ways that poetry and verse are meant to be. That is part of poetry’s attraction over prose. So, by pursuing brevity as you compose, you boost the communication and entertainment value of your material.

If your song is short and people love it, they’ll call for encores. Can you think of a more flattering outcome to a performance? “Tell us more, oh musical bard! Please wax poetic further as we attend your every word, however brief.” Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the idea.

On the other hand, if your song is short and people hate it. Well, it’s over soon enough. For which they will bless you. And maybe give you another shot. Heads you win, tails you win.

Let me step into the confessional for a minute here and tell you in strict confidence that sometimes I sit through interminable renditions of a singer/songwriter’s deepest feelings thinking something like, “Oh, my God…! Is this ever going to end? Maybe now…? Oh, no! Another chorus! Jeez, will this person get a clue?”

I think there is no downside to brevity in artistic expression. The best way to be brief is to prepare. Prepare everything. From the first hello to the last good-bye. Rehearse everything. Writing a song is one thing. Performing it in front of an audience is another. The best performers are heroes to us. They got that way by slaying dragons. Preparation and practice are the twin dragons you must face alone. Fighting them in front of the audience is certain death.


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