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Your Audience – at Ease or on Edge?

Recently, I was part of a private audience at a magic show in a relative’s home. You know…card tricks, disappearing doves, guy-in-a-tux. Fun, right?  Should have been, but turns out it was basically a front-row seat to a train wreck.

The magician – whom I’ll re-name ‘Hocus’ –  got off to a rough start by showing up late. When he finally hit the stage (dining room actually), he led off with some sleight-of-hand card tricks, which didn’t get a big reaction mainly because we were too far away from him to really see what he was doing, and he wasn’t well lit. 

Next, he selected a 4-yr-old to pick a card out of the deck, but when the kid took too long, Hocus impatiently says “toDAY sometime!” and then told him and to go sit down! He then proceeds to pick his older brother, causing kid #1 to go pout in Grandpa’s lap. A tad uncomfortable, and everyone immediately felt bad for him.

Kid #2 then somehow didn’t make Hocus happy either, so he said something like ‘aw, forGET it!” and threw the entire deck in the air, scattering cards all over the living room. Now we’re all looking around at one another, trying to figure out if that was part of the act. 

Hocus’s assistant (who I’ll call ‘Pocus’) was off-stage (behind a big chair) missing his music cues and was getting glaring looks thrown his way whenever he screwed up….which was pretty much the entire show. At one point Hocus finally gives up the subtle head nods and just yells ”START THE MUSIC!!” Talk about an awkward moment for the audience!

The family was looking around at each other wondering when they were going to be put out of their misery. Me? I gave up pulling for him and became humored by the whole spectacle and was making cracks to my nephew under my breath.

By this time, Hocus was so flustered, he started breathing heavily and sweating and asked for a glass of water. After a drink, he finally pulled himself together a bit and produced some doves, then brought volunteers up for some ring tricks. These worked pretty well but there wasn’t much of a ‘ta-DA’ feel to them.

Most every trick in his show came off as clumsy, and his interaction with his volunteers ranged from confusing to insulting. NOT a pleasant experience for his audience, but we tried to be polite and clap from time to time, simply because we felt sorry for him.

At the end of the show when he called for Pocus to hit ‘play’ on his ipod, he was nowhere to be found. Hocus joked, ‘he probably took an Uber home!’  None of us could blame him.

I want to add that this was an award-winning magician, but obviously having a reaaaaally ‘off’ show. (There was some suspicion that drugs may have been involved, which would explain a lot.) In any case, here are my takeaways for Hocus & Pocus to get more focus, and for YOU to think about when relating to your audiences.

1. Show up early. A no-brainer but bears repeating. More prep time allows you to get set up in plenty of time and de-stress. Hocus was in a rush to get everything set up and seemed to be really stressed, which led him to confusion, which made him edgy and irritable with himself and unfortunately he took it out on the audience.

2. Try to get a good look at the audience and pick out some accomplices that look like they’ll be willing and able to want to jump on stage with you and be featured in your show (if you have a moment that calls for it). If the promoter knows people in the audience, they may be able to give you a heads-up on who to pick. (A 4-year-old may not be the best choice unless you know them and that they won’t freeze up in front of a crowd.)

3. When you bring someone up on stage (or go out to them in the audience) develop a little rapport with them first so they can relax. Be clear about what you want them to do and make sure they understand instructions. (i.e.: ‘what’s your name? Do you like card tricks? I need you to help me out, ok?’  (In his book ‘Live Music Method’, Tom Jackson explains how to do this in more detail on page 307.) The people watching your interaction will relax if they see you being kind to them or joking around with them.  In other words, it makes us LIKE you…and NOT worry that you’re going to insult them.

4. If you make an obvious mistake or something doesn’t go quite right, laugh it off and pull a do-over. If it’s something the audience doesn’t really notice, just forge ahead…most of the time they won’t notice a dropped lyric or pitch mistake. If you react to a mistake with nervousness or frustration, we feel that and will be uncomfortable. And we don’t pay money to sit there in misery!

5. At all costs, do NOT insult your audience! If they’re not reacting the way you want it’s probably your fault. This goes back to our mantra ‘Love Your Audience’.  In order to love them and give them a good experience, you need to be prepared so that you can focus on THEM when you hit the stage.

6. Rehearse with your tech people. It seemed as if Pocus had never rehearsed with Hocus before. Before the show started he was playing his daughter’s songs and showing me her videos – NOT thinking about his music cues. When he DID manage to start a song at the right time, he’d abruptly stop it too soon, killing the moment. I encourage bands to travel with their own sound tech as much as possible. All the work you put into your show can be jeopardized by someone who doesn’t know your music, your transitions, where the solos come, the mix you want, etc. It leaves too much to chance.

And last but not least…

7. Don’t do drugs.

Amy Wolter

As a trained Live Music Producer for Tom Jackson Productions, Amy Wolter brings her years onstage as a lead singer & keyboardist - along with her experience as a producer, arranger, and songwriter - to singers and bands who won’t settle for ‘good enough’. She’s worked with artists at all levels, and genres ranging from Rock to Celtic, empowering them to have confidence and authority onstage, and put on memorable live shows, a few of whom have been on two of the largest US tours in recent history. Some of her clients include Grammy award winners The Band Perry & Lacrae, CMA and ACM –winning country acts, Gloriana & Thompson Square, 2016 The Voice contestant Mary Sarah, CCMA (Canada) winners High Valley, Jess Moskaluke & Chad Brownlee, and Winter Jam Tour veterans Sidewalk Prophets & Love and The Outcome.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. David Turner says:

    I arrive at my shows at least 30 minutes early. I get set up and sound checked in 10-15 minutes. The rest of the time I use to mentally prepare for the show.

    • You must have an easy set-up David! Nice to not need a long time to mentally prepare, but wonder if that’s the case for many others. I needed much more time than that, but there is such a thing as too long of a wait to go onstage…Tom Jackson for instance, likes to show up to his speaking engagements close to going onstage. Thanks for the feedback!

  2. Great message as usual. I love all you do for us!

  3. A really great post Amy,
    Thanks so much!

  4. I like #7…no brainer albeit some people have none…lol.

  5. Amy, thanks for another set of good notes. On those topics, there are two concerts I remember especially well for the wrong reasons. One was a popular recording artist who headlined the soundtrack of a massively popular movie, had several #1 hits and was Country Artist of the Year once, even though he was really more adult MOR. At a venue with thousands of people in attendance, his wireless microphone was getting so much interference that the sound guy gave him a comparable professional mic with a cord attached. The singer was so discombobulated by having to remember he was tethered to the stage that he sang his hits in an angry strained voice and made it clear what he thought of the sound guy several times in a 1-hour set. Having dealt with my share of weird stuff happening onstage, I know how he felt, but I have always tried not to be a jerk in front of people. (I save that side of my personality for my close friends – just kidding.)

    Another was a popular Christian artist at the peak of his career who was singing with his guitar to a packed (250-300) coffeehouse who couldn’t deal with the guitar being louder in the floor monitors than his voice and interrupted his own songs SEVERAL times to give the sound man “instructions.” Eventually we were all shouting, “It sounds great out here; just sing your songs!”

    Not only did we leave both concerts with a bad taste in our mouth, but my wife has never been able to listen to either man’s music ever again.

    In contrast, we heard an “up-and-coming” Christian artist in summer concert series. Either the sound man hated Christians, or he had dropped acid a half hour before the concert started. It really sounded like he was doing everything he could to make her sound bad, as well as “losing” the CD with her trax on it so the pop-style songs from her current album had to be performed solo piano instead of moving around working the audience like she usually did. She was gracious throughout. Sadly, her career in CCM didn’t last long – for other reasons, but if she came back to town we’d be glad to go see her.

    Sorry for the long diatribe, but I’m just saying your experience was hardly unique or limited to amateurs.

    • Thanks for your stories Paul. Everyone will remember if you’re kind and professional, or if you come across as a jerk onstage. It will be next to impossible to change someone’s mind after hearing you treat your sound tech or anyone else there, badly!

  6. I’m gonna disagree with #7. This sounds like it may have been the perfect time for the audience to do some drugs. Lol. 🙂


  7. I love the information! I have the Live Music Lives from some years back, but I would love to attend a seminar sometime and see things critiqued and work on performance in person.

  8. Linda Baker says:

    LOVED this story Amy…important points delivered with gentle humor ~
    P.S.: Miss you and Tom; glad to hear from you

  9. WOW! MAJOR FAIL! You would think most of the very valid points you mention would be Common Sense but alas, that is not quite so “Common” lol

    • Even the best have their bad gigs now and then but the key is how you handle it. Something else every artist needs to do prior to going on stage is to prepare EMOTIONALLY. If Hocus was rattled because of being late, he may as well have taken a few MORE minutes to sit, be quiet and get his head ‘in the game’ before making an appearance. A simple prayer always grounded me before walking onstage…got me focused and ready. Some people need to blast some music and get fired up, some need to take a nap. Allowing for time to do these things makes a huge difference!

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