School of The Rock


Improving Your Performances

Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô


I am frequently astounded by people who work hard at promoting their music, but seem to have no idea what to do or how to do it when they get in front of a crowd. 

Your CDs may be world-class, you may have 400,000 followers online, you may have won every song-writing contest known to humanity, but your live performances are where the “rubber meets the road.”  Chances are one flubbed concert won’t ruin your career.  But every live performance is a unique opportunity to connect with people real-time, and give them a little encouragement, a little fun, a little catharsis, or whatever else they needed that got them off the couch and into your audience.  From a sheer marketing perspective, it’s your best chance to convert “audience members” to fans, and fans to “superfans.” 

How do you get folks from “being in the same room” to “paying attention”?  Once they’re paying attention, how do you get them actively listening and “engaged”?  Once they’re engaged, how do you get them more and more “connected” as the “show goes on”?  And how do you make the whole thing memorable enough to generate sales, follows,  repeat attendance at live shows, and - perhaps most important - positive word-of-mouth reports and recommendations?



Some of the best work on tying this all together comes through Tom Jackson, a “Live Performance” coach I first met in the 1990s in a conference in Nashville.  Tom had been helping Contemporary Christian musicians structure their concerts to get and keep audiences involved and to make each concert more memorable.  I’ll report more on Tom’s resources momentarily, but I wanted to warn you ahead of time that I’ve been heavily influenced by his principles and the results I’ve seen in real-life performances, both of acts that were just starting out and of acts that were at the peak of their game. 

Planning is Crucial

If you’re used to playing informal “background music” or “cover band gigs,” you may be doing what I used to do for such gigs, keeping a “master list” of every song you can credibly perform, and writing each set’s song list on a napkin or something else disposable, because an unusually attentive, or thin, or rowdy crowd will probably cause you to switch things up real-time anyway. 

That approach doesn’t always fly even in informal “background” or “cover band” settings, but it is almost always the wrong approach for any setting where you’re more than “background music.”  Just stringing together a list of your favorite songs - or even your followers’ favorite songs - is a pretty good way to forfeit audience attention by the fourth song in.

As an example, my songs that audiences really “connect with” tend to be slow and “thoughtful.”  But if I start out that way, I’ll never get anyone’s attention.  I also have a few songs that show some technical prowess.  But if I roll those songs out when people are only halfway paying attention, nobody will really notice that I’m doing anything extraordinary. Worse yet, putting my most demanding material near the beginning of the concert, when I’m still getting used to the sound system and adrenaline is working overtime, substantially increases my chances of blowing the song so badly that even the people who are barely paying attention notice.  So I try to start with a song that is upbeat and compelling, but relatively easy to play - a song that people can “get,” even if they’re not already 100% “tuned in” to what I’m doing.  In a way, it’s sort of a shorthand for “This is the sort of thing you can expect to hear for the next X minutes.”  And people seem to appreciate it. 

Obviously if I was in a high-energy rock-band, I’d be opening with something faster and louder than I usually do as a solo singer/songwriter, but I would still save the “really big guns” for later in the show. 

My followup song is different, but still upbeat, compelling, and relatively easy to play.  It shows that my opening song was not a fluke, and helps catch the attention of folks who weren’t tuned in to all of the first song.  After that, the set list should vary in intensity the way a good movie or television show does, with quieter parts that let the audience get to know the characters (that is: you), with some humor, and - toward the end - gradually increasing intensity that builds to the real climax. 

There are other factors besides ebb and flow of energy that go into planning.  Again, Tom Jackson has made a lifelong study of those factors and how to consider them when you’re planning your concerts, but my point here is that a casual approach to how you structure your set list, etc., will never build optimum audience engagement.  

Practice is Crucial

There’s a saying among musicians: “An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”  That saying is as true for your performances as it is for individual songs or parts of songs.  Being able to perform a good song well is not enough.  For one thing, people will remember how you look when you’re performing a song even more than they’ll remember how you sound.  Staging - what theatrical professionals call “blocking” - must be part of your plan, as well. So should how you change positions and what you say - or don’t say - between songs. 

I led an acoustic trio for a while, and 90% of our gigs were “coffeehouse” style, two-hour performances sitting on stools.  Once, though, we got a 25-minute slot on a festival stage.  I wanted to practice the set standing, since that was how we would be performing.  I mistakenly said, “We need to practice standing up,” and our lead singer thought that was hilarious.  We could have “nailed” that gig, but we didn’t, because the other members of the trio thought being able to get through seven or eight songs in a row without anybody needing hospitalization was as good as we needed to be, much less how we stood or moved onstage or what we said or how we transitioned between songs.

Obviously, performing experience counts, and someone who’s been performing in front of an audience for years will still outperform you for a while, as you’re getting the hang of this.  Or if you’re a Grateful Dead tribute band, nobody cares if you’re even able to stand, as long as you can play your part.  But you will gain fans and “buzz” more quickly if you practice performing your sets, and not just your songs.

Preparation is Crucial

So how do you know how to practice, how to structure your sets, how to “block” your concerts, and so on?  I’d like to pretend that I have it all “down,” or that I figured it out for myself.  But I’m not that far along, really. I’ve tried some things that work, and I’ve tried some things that don’t work.  Most of the things that work align very well with Tom Jackson’s principles for audience engagement, as promoted in his books, DVDs, and seminars. 

If you ever have a chance to hear Tom speak live at a conference or some such, do not pass it up.  In the meantime, we’ve been collecting blogs from Tom and his associates and publishing them on the forums page here:  If nothing else, they should give you an idea of how many good, usable ideas, these folks work with every day.

I have come across other “experts” in this field whose “method” was copied word for word from Tom’s materials.  What Tom has that they don’t have is decades of experience with artists of all calibers.  What Tom provides that the copycats don’t is the “why” behind the “what.”  In Tom’s world-view, the whole point of structuring your show a certain way is to create memorable moments that A: connect with audience members while you’re in the room, and B: help them want to stay connected with you after the concert is over (the point of the flowchart at the top of this article).  Based on what I’ve seen other folks carry out successfully and the little I’ve been able to do myself, he’s right.

Persistance is Crucial

Finally, getting in front of people as often as you credibly can gives you a baseline for how you’re doing now, and for how you are improving as you work this stuff out.  I’m not a fan of places that make a lot of money off your music but expect you to play for “exposure.”  If you look carefully, you can get “exposure” at places that aren’t profiteering from you hard work.  (Depending on your style of music, that could include street fairs, county fairs, community events, summer arts festivals, libraries, church picnics, etc.)  But when you’re just starting out you need practice performing in front of different kinds of crowds.  So playing “for exposure” can be a trap but playing for practice performing can be valid while you’re getting started.  As long as you’re learning what you need to from the experience.  Also, if you have some kind of product to sell or to trade for e-mail addresses, etc. that’s good, too.  no_coasting

Shampoo bottles all used to have the same instructions:  Rinse, Lather, Repeat.  I don’t know how may times you were supposed to repeat that during a single shower, but the same sort of instructions apply for learning to connect with your audiences during live performances:  Prepare, Plan, Practice, Perform, Adjust, Repeat.

Yes, it’s a lot of hard work.  But for many musicians, it’s the most rewarding work of all.  And for the people you hope to touch with your music, it’s the most important. 

Discussion Forum:  We have started a thread in our discussion forums about this topic.  At the moment, Paul is contributing the vast majority of comments on these forums, but a lot of people are reading them, so we wish very much that you would sign up and join in on the discussion.  Feedback, corrections, additions, etc. are all welcome. 

  • The forum for “Improving Your Performances” topics is here.
  • The form for signing up so you can contribute is here

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,


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