How to Talk in Performance, and Introduce Your Tunes in Style
When we play music for people, we wear two completely different hats…
First, we’re musicians. We play music.
But we’re also entertainers. We’re there to show folks a good time. And how we speak to an audience can make or break the show.
So what do we say between songs in a performance?
Why Talk in Performance at All?
There are number of reasons we use our words in a performance.
A few are:
- To break the ice
- To connect personally with the audience
- To create an atmosphere
- To point out some aspect of a piece on the program
- To acknowledge something or someone
- To entertain
- To give context to the music (historically, socially, musically)
- To weave a thread of connection between pieces
- To suggest a way to listen to the piece
- To cover a transition
- To fill time
- To address something that has just happened unexpectedly
- To thank people
- To promote a future event
- To sell CDs
Help Listeners to “Enter” the Music
A worthy goal of any performances is to help listeners have a positive experience.
We select our music and group our pieces in ways we think our listeners will enjoy them most.
When we speak, we have the opportunity to give our listeners a way to “enter” into the music. We can “set the stage” for the music and increase the chances that people will connect with the music.
This especially true if we’re sharing complex music, or music that our listeners aren’t familiar with.
For example, if we perform a piece full of clashing chords and erratic rhythms, it could be confusing and off-putting. But, if we give a context for the piece (i.e. “a portrait of loss and longing in a time of war”), people will more likely find meaning in the music.
We want listeners to find personal relevance with the music, and we can use our comments to help them find it. We can lead our audience into exploration and discovery.
Know Your Audience
How we introduce a piece of music will change depending on the audience.
We’ll speak to a crowd of conservatory students differently than we will a crowd of elementary school students.
It’s important to know who we’re speaking to (or better, with) , and use words and ideas they’ll understand. Remember, the point is to engage them in the music. Let your words make sense and put them at ease.
Note: As a rule, any music jargon (like “arpeggio” or “binary form”) will alienate most listeners. Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll think about the sandwich they get to eat when they get home.
As humans, we love stories. We’re wired for them.
Short stories that give context or insight into the music can help listeners appreciate the music more.
Possible story subjects could be…
Personal – a story of personal relevance (“After my grandmother died, my grandfather would sit for hours listening to Pavarotti sing Nessun Dorma, over and over again….”)
Context – a story of historical or geographical context (“As the French Revolution was reaching it’s climax, and everyone was angry and scared….”)
Composer – a story about the composer. Not just facts, but an interesting story that gives insight into them as an actual person. (“Beethoven was known as an irritable brute who fired all his maids…”)
Musical Style – a story of how the music was played or used when it was new. (“Before it became court music, this type of medieval music was heard most often in dirt-floored taverns where inebriated patrons reeked of body odor…”)
Educate, a Little
It’s fun to learn something new. But unsolicited lectures? Not so much.
If we can help listeners to discover something new, they’ll enjoy the music more. They’ll feel smart. They’ll find the experience more rewarding.
As mentioned above, we can share contexts about the time period or locale of the music.
The goal here is to help listeners imagine a scene or connect with an emotion.
If listeners are new to classical guitar or guitar in general, they may enjoy learning about the instrument itself.
If the instrument is antique, or has an interesting history, so much the better. Have a nice game of “Show-and-Tell”.
Special techniques and fun facts
If we use a special technique in a piece, audiences may enjoy knowing how it’s done. We can demonstrate a rasgueado or harmonic. We can show how we can tap on different parts of the guitar and get different sounds.
Then when they hear that technique in the music, they’ll perk up and feel like they’ve found the hidden Easter egg.
Further Resources for the Teaching Artist
For more on educating from the stage, see these excellent books:
- The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, by Eric Booth
- Reaching Out – A Musician’s Guide to Interactive Performance, by David Wallace
The “So What?” Test
When planning our introductions, we can use the “So What?” test.
For anything we say, we can ask, “so what?”. If it’s not obvious why something is interesting or fun, we may consider changing it.
Keep it Short and Sweet
Less is often more. And when talking between tunes, it’s often best to keep it short and sweet.
We can give some insight or fun fact, direct listeners to hear some aspect of the music, and get back to playing. ( E.g: Talking about the story behind a famous piece. Canon in D by Pachelbel for example.)
As they say, “Always leave them wanting more.”
Write It Out, Then Forget It
For the best results, write out your introductions beforehand. Take time to choose exactly what you want to say. Wordsmith the lines to get them compact and to the point.
Memorize and rehearse saying them. Video it or record it and listen back critically. Remove any stumbling blocks and perfect the timing.
After you’ve gotten it where you like it, forget it. When you introduce the piece, speak naturally and easily. It’s not important to use the exact wording or grammar.
The act of preparing will give you what you need to speak clearly and comfortably. You’ll sound natural, like you just made it up on the spot, with grace and eloquence.
Review and Revise
If you’re serious about developing your stage presence, video or audio record your performances and critique them. Note areas for improvement and test them in your next performance.
Make Friends and Influence People: Smile!
People want to like us when we play. They want to see that we’re enjoying ourselves, and that we’re comfortable and secure.
They want to know they’re in good hands and can relax and enjoy the music (instead of worrying that we’ll get through it alright).
Nothing communicates this like a smile. It says more than our words.
5 Things to Avoid When Speaking in a Guitar Performance
There are a few common traps that the unprepared fall into when speaking from the stage. These are usually best avoided.
Corny jokes – Puns and corny jokes generally flop. We may get a few polite laughs, but these may undermine the audiences confidence in us. (Unless, of course, you’re a comedian…). This includes jokes about tuning your guitar.
Rambling – When we ramble on, segueing from one subject to another, listeners may become confused and irritated. And worse, we may become confused or self-conscious ourselves which can distract us from our music.
“You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything!”
– David Byrne, in “Psycho Killer”
Jargon – Technical words and phrases turn people off and confuse them. This distracts them from the music, and can make them feel like they’re missing something. Use words any 5-year-old would understand.
Talking between every tune – Any predictable pattern in the program can lead to boredom. Instead of talking between each and every tune, we can group our pieces together and introduce them in advance. Likewise we can briefly discuss a piece after we play it.
Anything they could learn with a Google search – Dry facts are boring. Unless there is a story that makes facts interesting, they’re generally not. For instance, instead of telling the years the composer lived, share something that paints a vivid picture of the time or place.
Preparation and Intention
Like anything, we’ll do best if we prepare and bring a strong intention for our introductions.
Over time, we get more comfortable talking to groups. We learn what works and what doesn’t.
The most important element of speaking from the stage is the firm intention to help and give. If we keep audience comfort and enjoyment front of mind, we’ll choose better words and stay more on topic.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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