Stagecraft involves everything you do in front of an audience besides playing the music. It makes a large impact on the audience and contributes greatly to their musical experience. It does not, however, receive much attention from performers and is seldom practiced. Small changes and refinements can make a big difference to your performance so why not spend a little time working on your stage craft to elevate your musical performance?
Compared to the countless hours you have put into your playing, this is low hanging fruit that can make a big impact.
Think about the experience of the audience, what do they see first? Well, if we were to get really granular it would be the announcement of the performance, the performance space, the program and all of the other precursors to appearing on stage. These all influence the experience of the listener and should be taken into account but they might be a little out of the scope of this discussion. So, what does the audience see first on the stage? They see you as you walk on stage.
Walking on stage
It seems so simple that we would never consider working on this first step but you know what they say about first impressions! The moment you walk on stage you are conveying a message. What is your message?
Disorganized – Did you forget your music offstage and have to duck off only to re-enter with a bemused look? Or perhaps you are fumbling with all the materials you are carrying, a stand, guitar, and a footstool to boot!
Isolated – Do you walk on the stage without acknowledging the audience?
Casual – Does your gait and attire send the message that you are relaxed, perhaps too relaxed for this setting?
Your walk from the side of the stage, or arising from the audience and getting your guitar out of its case (as might be the case at an open mic or guitar society meeting) is your first opportunity to perform the music. Sure, you haven’t played a note yet. Far from it. But your audience is already feeling different because of the messages you are sending.
Imagine this: Your music, footstool and stand are set up waiting for you on stage. You enter with appropriate attire for the setting, confidently walk across the stage with guitar comfortably in hand and acknowledge the audience either with a bow, a smile, or a greeting.
Suddenly, this often neglected first step has set you off on a virtuous path that engenders confidence not only in the audience but in you as well.
What’s next? Ah yes, sitting down.
Sitting Down and Getting Settled
Another simple process, so why not improve it.
You have a guitar, a footstool or support, music or iPad, bluetooth page turner, chair, tuner and perhaps glasses to see better. What you need is a system.
Do you put your footstool down before sitting and awkwardly juggle the guitar ? This can sometimes lead to an audible “thonk” on the music stand followed by a distressed check of the soundboard.
Do you have your sheet music taped together or is it in single sheets that need to be organized before you get started?
Perhaps you set up the footstool, stand, music, and other bits and pieces before you even walked on stage, this would be a great option but not always feasible. So, in a more casual setting, how about two trips? One to set up station and then one to formally walk on with your guitar.
The solution will not be an earth shattering revelation, the solution will be a simple system that choreographs your movements. A system that is decided upon away from the stage and even practiced, yes practiced, so that you have one less thing to think about.
The lute related quip “lute players spend half their life tuning and the other half playing out of tune” still hits a little close to home for classical guitarists a few centuries later.
As I will always say to my beginner students: you might play the most expressive, virtuosic, and thoughtful rendition of a piece, but if the guitar is out of tune it is all for naught.
First and foremost, you need a quick and accurate method for tuning. Don’t make it up each time. Here is a guide on how to tune your guitar.
You will have to tune your guitar at some point, but where and when and in what fashion?
Before walking out – If the performance space is the same temperature as your waiting area, you should be able to get your instrument in tune before walking on stage. This removes a much maligned moment of tuning on stage before performance. Trust your tuning, and resist the urge to fiddle around with tuning once you sit down.
As soon as you sit down – If you put your tuning first in the queue of things to do it will give your instrument time to settle as you talk to the audience or set up your music. The benefit of this is it allows a quick tuning check (like a chord strum or octaves) before starting.
Turning away from the audience – A process that was instilled into my approach from Ben Verdery is to turn away from the audience as I tune. A simple 90 degree(ish) turn to the left signals that I am not in fact performing and as I turn back to performance position once more, the audience is given the signal that I am about to perform. These signals are subtle but powerful and we will encounter a few more before leaving the stage.
Tuning quietly – How loudly do you need to play the notes to hear them clearly? Decide on this, and play no louder. There is no need to bang out notes on the stage and involve the audience in your process.
Announcing that you have new strings (or other forms of self deprecation) – Is this necessary? Does it add to the musical experience? If not, then resist the urge to announce your tuning challenges.
Make sure the tuning is accurate – Yes, we would all prefer that your tuning be accurate and quick but if we have to make a choice between the two go for accuracy. You can work on your tuning method in the practice room but feel free to take as much time as you need to get it right.
Talking to the audience can be a wonderful addition to your performance but it can also detract from it too. Additionally, you can throw yourself off by stumbling with your words and getting nervous (more than you might be already!).
What are you going to say and why are you going to say it?
Sometimes you might launch into talking but you hadn’t planned on it or prepared anything. Does this add or detract to your performance? If you are a gifted speaker, entertaining, knowledgeable or all of the above perhaps you are in the excellent position of being able to improvise each time and enhance the experience for the audience.
If, however, you are a mere mortal like the rest of us it will be very beneficial to map out what you are going to say beforehand and maybe even rehearse it. After all, we spend weeks, months, and years working on the musical performance, wouldn’t it make sense to spend a small amount of time thinking about what we say immediately before the performance?
Standing vs. Sitting
One approach that I have become increasingly fond of is standing while talking. In a way I see this as a signal like turning away during the tuning process. It signals that this is me talking, and when I sit that is me performing. It is clear for me, it is clear for the audience. In addition to these clear signals it will help you project with your voice.
Having prepared something to say you will also have to project your voice so that you can be heard. This can be extra difficult in large reverberant venues like a church. Speak slowly and clearly, and project as best you can. This is also something that you might like to practice away from the stage.
Have an exit strategy
I must have seen at least one thousand performances over my years as a student. These performances may have only been one piece but they all involve the same process albeit in a microcosm. By far, the most degrading moment of stage craft occurs at the end of talking. The performer says something and not having planned what was said they don’t really know where or how to end. So they either 1. trail off 2. awkwardly chuckle and say something like “umm so I hope you enjoy it”.
To me this is a missed opportunity to prime the moment for music to be performed and also something that lowers the professionalism of a performance by quite a lot.
Imagine this: You script out what you want to say for certain pieces ahead of time, and decide not to talk for other pieces. Some pieces you announce ahead of time and some pieces you back announce like a radio host. Your choices make sense with the program that is available and the audience you are performing for. As you perform your talking enhances the music and puts your audience at ease because you are confident in your delivery.
Histrionics refers to the movements we make when performing that are not related to the sound we make. It is very personal and needs to come from an authentic place but it can be an opportunity to enhance the music.
Closing your eyes, a smile, moving your body with the rhythm, a graceful hand movement, and dramatic flourish with the arm, all of these can be done to benefit the music and can sometimes detract too.
Can these be rehearsed? Some of them, sure, but there is a fine line between convincing and trite. I believe that performance histrionics will emanate more from an inner confidence and relaxation than anything else. Performance experience, acting classes or dance classes will all work to benefit this skill set.
There are two, however, that I would like to suggest trying out.
The beginning of a piece can often benefit from a moment of silence. Not only an audible silence but a visual one too. What do you do with your body just before playing? Do you take a deep breath? Do you apologize to the audience? Do you start suddenly as soon as you finish tuning?
If you can control the brief moment before you start then you can send a clear signal to your audience and also control one more element of your performance. Experiment with what works for you, but work on this brief moment of stillness and control.
Imagine this: After sitting down and getting settled, after tuning and talking to the audience you take a moment before starting to let your hands relax, close your eyes and hear the music you are about to play. By using audiation you bring your focus away from nerves and towards your musicality, you establish your tempo and remind yourself why you are doing this in the first place. Then you begin.
Just like we need an exit strategy from talking we also need one for each piece we perform. The moments at the end of a piece can be exquisite, they have culminated from the composer, luthier, you and the audience. Let’s make sure we frame that moment with our stagecraft.
Think of a conductor. The conductor will use visual cues to guide the actions of a group of people. The speed, impulse, and intention of her moves communicate what is to come next.
You are the conductor of the audience at the end of a piece.
If you hold your hand hanging in the air after you finish a slow piece, the audience will not clap, they might not even budge. This moment is sacred. It really is. It is a moment in modern life where you are all joining together as one in silence, focused on evaporated notes. Learn how to control this moment and let it enhance your performance.
These conducted endings come in different forms, they can be energetic, they can be somber, they can be exquisite, they can be funny. But, they wont be much of anything if you don’t lead the moment. If you immediately go to check your tuning, if you slap your hand on the strings and stand up, if you move to turn the pages, all of these things will diminish the moment.
Some of you might be approaching this idea of histrionics with some trepidation but have you thought about the ones that happen most of all, especially with amateurs? These histrionics are the faces we make when there are mistakes or things we are unhappy with.
Why do we make these faces? I guess it is an inbuilt self deprecation that displays how hard we are on ourselves. As a guess I would say that this might be more pronounced in classical guitar than in other styles because we are somewhat fixated on perfection.
What do these faces achieve? Well, they achieve something but I don’t think it is positive. They let the audience know that something is wrong. They let the audience know that you are disappointed. Does this enhance or diminish the musical experience?
Making faces of disappointment in performance is habitual behavior and like all habits they can be changed with a concerted effort. Film yourself performing and see if you could benefit from making a change with these performance histrionics.
Applause is in recognition of your efforts on stage, for your courage, your musicianship and your playing. If you don’t acknowledge the audience when they react to your performance, what are you communicating back to them? It may not be intentional if you ignore them, perhaps you are so consumed with nerves and other feelings that you simply forget. Fair enough, but this further qualifies the need to practice your stage craft.
Should you practice a bow, a thank you? Sure, why not? It is a low hanging fruit and once you have it sorted out you don’t need to worry about it again.
To extend this idea, I will also mention that you might consider how you accept compliments following a performance. It can be tempting to negate a compliment with self deprecaton. “oh no that was terrible”. I think that this can take away from the musical experience and I would suggest that if you find taking compliments difficult (I raise my hand on this one) then just say thank you and start there.
Walking off stage
Just as your first impression was important, so is your last. Do you want to try and pack up all your gear before walking off? Do you leave things on stage and come back to pack them up or let someone else pack them up?
It is a reverse choreography to your entrance and it is worth figuring out an approach that leaves your performance on a confident, polished note.
Low hanging fruit and simple systems
Most of these considerations can be greatly improved by a little practice and thought. The impact that can be made with such little effort is considerable and will elevate everything that you do with your music.
All it takes is a systematic approach to each step of your stage craft. Define the systems and you will begin to be in control of an experience that can often feel out of control.
Take the time to work on your stage craft and refine it through performance practice.