Tag Archives: stage presence

Commanding the Stage vs. Demanding Attention

Photo: Jeff McQ.

Musicians, when you’re playing live onstage, your stage presence is key to your success. In my experience, bands and performing artists are generally doing one of two things when they are onstage: they are either commanding the stage, or they are demanding attention. And there seems to be a fine line between the two.

What’s the difference?

I suppose the best way to describe it is to describe the effects of each. Think about recent gigs you’ve seen (not your own, because you can’t be objective about your own performance). Can you recall a moment watching some artist or band perform where they simply captured your attention and held it, almost effortlessly?  Then think about some other time when you noticed that a band or artist acted almost manic on the platform, trying desperately to get the audience to interact with them, only to find the crowd practically talking over them and generally ignoring them. Can you picture those two scenarios in your mind?

In the first scene, the band is commanding the stage; in the second, the band is demanding attention. See the difference?

When you’re performing, can you guess which one you want to be doing? You want to command the stage; you do NOT want to demand attention. Demanding attention might work for short spurts of time, but it generally backfires on you because it ends up annoying your audience. Why is that?

When you do things to demand attention, you come off as desperate, and that’s a turn-off. An audience doesn’t really like it when they feel forced to pay attention to you just because you’re making a scene. They much prefer to feel like you have earned their attention, or at least feel like they are freely giving you their attention. It’s a subtle difference, but one that can make all the difference between a great show and a show that sucks.

By contrast, while demanding attention comes off as desperate, commanding attention comes across as confident. The audience can detect when someone gets onstage with a quiet confidence in their ability, and does something that is worth their attention. Again, it’s subtle, but it’s what you want to shoot for.

So how do you cross the line from demanding attention to commanding the stage? It’s a process requiring time and practice, but here are some important points to aim you in the right direction.

POINT ONE: Grabbing the attention of the audience isn’t necessarily about being big and loud, but more about doing something interesting.

There’s a huge misconception out there that because performance needs to be “bigger than life”, the best way to get an audience’s attention is to be loud, go nuts, be outrageous, or something similar. That’s just not true every time. A perfect example is a show I saw the other night by a major label artist on tour.

The opening act for the show was an unknown solo vocalist with no band behind him. He didn’t come out guns blazing, telling us to clap our hands and get with the program. He simply walked on stage as the lights dimmed, and sang a well-known cover song a capella–before ever giving us his name.

The effect was practically magical. Denver audiences have a propensity for being talkative, especially where alcohol is involved. This guy silenced the room in 10 seconds, not by banging on a drum, but by doing something interesting that made people want to hear him. He commanded the stage, and held the crowd’s attention for a full half hour using nothing but a loop pedal. (And by the way–his vocal abilities were amazing, which definitely helped his cause.)

The point is, being loud and obnoxious for a good reason is okay, but not just to grab the audience’s attention. It’s more important that you get onstage and do something interesting, something that is worth the audience’s attention.

POINT TWO: First impressions matter.

When you first get onstage, especially when you’re in front of a crowd that doesn’t know you, they will generally decide within the first few seconds whether they’re going to stop and pay attention to you, or whether they’re going to continue chatting with their friends. What you do in the first moments of your set is critical, because to hold an audience’s attention you must first capture it. If you start demanding attention, you’re likely just to annoy them; but if you kick off with something strong and solid, performing with confidence, you have a lot better chance of commanding the stage.

POINT THREE: Give your audience something of substance.

Let’s face it: there are people out there with so much charisma that they can captivate an audience by talking about how grass grows.  But charisma can only take you so far, even if you’re one of those kinds of people. If you aren’t presenting something of substance, eventually the crowd will catch on that you’re feeding them bulls**t, and they’ll lose interest.

The point is, once you have the audience’s attention, you have to keep it–and you can’t do that by having one good song and a bunch of other crappy ones, no matter how much confidence you happen to exude. Start by giving them a reason to pay attention, then follow it up with more reasons to keep giving you their attention. Always make sure there is substance behind your style.

Learning to command the stage rather than demand attention is an ongoing process, and it is definitely NOT an exact science. There are simply too many factors at work for there to be one prescribed formula to command the stage, and even people with good natural stage presence tend to have an off night now and then, simply because the crowd dynamic can be so unpredictable sometimes. But keeping these things in mind can definitely help you toward the goal of commanding the stage, and increase the chances that you will do it more often.

Benefitting from Open Stages

Let’s start at the beginning: if you think open stages and open mic nights are beneath you, you need to read the previous post.

Yes, open mics can definitely be a mixed bag–a few people who think they can sing/play, occasionally some people who simply like to hear themselves play/sing (whether the audience concurs or not)–and a few occasional moments of absolute genius. And a built-in chance for you to play for a new group of people and get some new fans. (Translation: you get to try for one of those “absolute genius moment” things.)

Open stages aren’t always comfortable, but they can be a great proving ground for you–a great place for you to learn and grow.  Seasoned pros often use open stage nights to test out new material on an unsuspecting audience.  The thing about the open mic is that the people are there because they like music in general, but they didn’t necessarily come to hear you perform. It is one of the best places EVER to get an unbiased reaction to a song, because these people aren’t necessarily your fans. If you can win them over with your performance, it’s a good sign both for you (the artist) and the song you’re singing. Plus, if you impress the venue owners on the open stage, there’s a chance you could use that to negotiate a paid booking with them some other night of the week.

Thus, rather than avoid open stages, it’s a good idea to look for creative ways to utilize them to help further your goals. Here are just a few helpful hints to help you get started.

  1. Study the open stage night beforehand. Find out what kind of music is played there, the overall vibe of the musicians and the audience. If it’s an acoustic type of stage (as many open stages are), your death-metal act is probably not going to be a good fit.
  2. Make it your goal to win the audience. Remember, most of these people (except for some you might have invited) didn’t come to hear you specifically. It’s a great victory for you if you can arrest and hold their attention.
  3. Don’t be self-indulgent. Nothing turns off an audience more than feeling like someone has hijacked the stage for his/her own benefit. Play and sing songs with your audience in mind. Make eye contact if possible, and be gracious–and don’t present yourself like everyone should be as glad to hear you sing as you are. You’ll go a lot farther toward accomplishing the 2nd step above.
  4. Be flexible. Don’t just prepare four songs for your 15-minute slot; have a few songs ready on the side. If your audience just isn’t jiving with your original tune, don’t get offended–just try switching gears by playing a cover song. The more flexible you can be with your song choices, the better equipped you’ll be to connect with the audience.
  5. Be respectful. Don’t try to take more than your allotted time, and don’t demand the audience’s attention.  If they aren’t just giving you their attention, it means you haven’t earned it.  Go home and work harder for next time.
  6. Listen to the other performers. Take note of some of the more talented musicians you hear, and don’t be afraid to network with them.  Some of the best bands have formed from open stages.
  7. Use every open stage as a learning experience. If it is allowed, try having someone shoot video of your performance, and watch it back to see what you can learn about your stage presence. Be aware of the audience response (whether positive, negative or neutral), and take note of what works, and what doesn’t.
  8. Be prepared to connect with new fans. Have business cards, press kits or CDs (if you have them) with you.  Some diva types go overboard with this step and try to power-sell their product at open stages; this is distasteful (remember, this isn’t YOUR gig). However, if people come up to you afterward, it’s foolish to waste that opportunity.  Give them a CD, or a bumper sticker, or offer to put them on your email list.  Do something tangible to connect with your new fans, so they’ll remember you and keep coming out to see you play.

One final point about benefitting from open stages–and this is probably the most important point for you personally, as an artist:  DON’T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY.  Do not allow the open stage to be a referendum on your validity as a musician.  If you get a tepid response from an audience who doesn’t know you, don’t get depressed or rejected; just use that as a learning opportunity to tweak your act for the next time out. The open stage is a testing ground for you, and if you come away feeling like you failed the test, you can always come back and re-take the test.  See the open stage as a personal lab, and work it to your advantage. If you approach it with this attitude in mind, you’ll be amazed at how it can help you improve your performance over time.

Polishing Your Performance: Interacting with Your Audience

Continuing our “Polishing Your Performance” series…this topic ties in with the articles about stage presence, but interacting with your audience deserves some discussion on its own. 

As musicians, we all want our music to be heard and appreciated.  That’s one of the big reasons why we play live.  But one simple mindset in the live setting can make all the difference between a great show and a mediocre one:

When you perform live, it isn’t just about you.  It’s about your audience, too.

You see, the audience is your bread and butter.  They are the ones who are paying (hopefully) to see you play, and they are the ones who are going to buy your music and your merch.  So why in the world would an audience be interested in doing all that for someone who will barely acknowledge their existence?  That’s the simple reason why interacting with your audience is so important–you are including them in the experience.

Now, understandably, a lot of newbies are shy onstage (even afraid). It’s easy to want to sort of “hide” behind the music, get lost in it–to act as though it’s just you and the song.  This is even easier if you’re in a darkened room under stage lights, and you can’t see the audience that well. When someone is very new, it’s also apparent to the crowd, and in those cases they’re usually pretty forgiving. 

But here’s the thing: when a crowd doesn’t know you’re new at it (or if you aren’t new at all, and that’s just how you act onstage), that behavior doesn’t come off as shy.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite; it can come off as standoffish, or arrogant, or even narcissistic.  It doesn’t have to be over the top, but the crowd just wants you to acknowledge their presence in some way, to bring them into the experience with you.  When you don’t, it becomes all about you–and that can create a negative response.

That said, here are some practical things to remember in a live performance, to keep the audience engaged:

  • Thank them for coming at least once during the performance.  That’s just common courtesy, and it’s an easy way to acknowledge that you don’t take the crowd for granted.  There are many other places they could be tonight, and they chose your gig.  Let them know that matters to you.
  • Use your eyes.  The eyes are the windows to the soul, and letting the audience see your eyes helps them connect to the song and to you.  Make brief eye contact with people in the crowd when possible.  Avoid performing long segments with your eyes shut.
  • Talk a little, but not a lot, between songs. Some musical performers never talk to their audience at all during a set; others like to hear themselves talk, and explain every song for five minutes before it’s played.  The happy medium is right in the middle somewhere.  A one-liner joke, an occasional interesting story, a brief introduction–all are acceptable; but in general, less is more. Unless you’re a motivational speaker or stand-up comic, the crowd didn’t come to hear you talk.  They came to hear you sing.  So don’t make talking the main event.
  • Be aware of your audience, and make adjustments.  You can usually tell if a crowd is engaged, or if you’re losing their interest.  You might have spent hours crafting the perfect set list, but if an upbeat tune would draw the crowd back in, and a melencholy ballad is up next, then play the upbeat song and save the ballad for later–or cut it.  Be flexible and aware of what your audience needs.
  • Be respectful of the context, and don’t expect more from a crowd than they are willing to give.  If you’re playing background music in a bar, for example, people are going to be talking over your music; don’t demand that they be quiet and listen to you.  (If you want that kind of attention, earn it by playing dynamite music.) If the crowd paid a ticket to see you headline a show, it’s going to be easier to get and keep their attention.  If you’re losing the crowd and they don’t seem to be coming back, don’t get pushy.  Just try something else the next time it happens.
  • Everyone has an off night.  Sometimes an audience just isn’t going to interact much with you, and it might not be because you’re doing anything wrong at all.  Working a crowd isn’t an exact science, and there will be other shows, so don’t have a crisis if you have an off night.

Learning how to interact with your audience in a live show is key to pulling off a great performance. With practice, you can learn how to bring most crowds into a great musical experience with you.

Understanding and Improving Stage Presence (part 2)

In the previous post in this series, we started to talk about what stage presence is, how it makes a difference in a performance, and some things you can do to improve your own stage presence.  In this followup post, let’s give some down-to-earth, practical do’s and don’ts about handling and owning the stage when you’re performing live.


DON’T…try to hype audience response by constantly coaching them what to do, or demanding a response. 
DO… Encourage audience participation once in awhile.

WRONG:  “I want everyone in this place to go nuts and shout at the top of your lungs NOW!”
RIGHT: “Fists in the air,” (as you demonstrate), or “Sing with me if you know it.”

The point:  if you have to hype a crowd up that much, it’s probably a sign you need to work on substance more than style.  Or, think of it this way–if you have to demand the audience’s participation, you’ve already lost them–and you are also sending a subtle message to them that your music can’t stand on its own merit.  It doesn’t hurt to encourage the crowd sparingly, but going over the top with it makes you look desperate, arrogant, or both. 


DON’T…use excessive and outrageous antics to get the audience’s attention.
DO…be energetic, animated, and geniuinely excited about what you’re doing.

The point: As a legitimate musical artist, you don’t want to be known for the wrong reasons–where people can remember how you almost got naked but can’t remember any of your songs.  There is a fine line between demanding attention and commanding it.  Stage presence commands attention; it doesn’t have to demand what it already owns. 

At the same time, don’t get up onstage and be a bump on a log.  If you love what you do, let it show, and if you do something crazy once in awhile, let it be a natural outflow of that excitement.  Antics and hype are artificial and manipulative, and audiences don’t like to be manipulated. Genuine excitement/energy–that kind of thing is real, and it’s also contagious.  The best thing you do can do to engage your audience is to demonstrate some genuine emotion about what you’re doing.


DON’T…get so lost in the music that you leave your audience behind.
DO…bring your audience into the moment with you.

The point: whether out of shyness or just the moment itself, lots of artists make the mistake of acting like they are alone in the room with their band and/or their song.  It might seem like a good idea to get lost in the song, but if you haven’t made a connection with the audience, it can inadvertently make them feel like you’ve left them out of the loop.  Or, to put it simply, if you ignore the audience, they will ignore you right back. Don’t keep your eyes constantly closed; make occasional eye contact with people (if you can see them through the glare of the lights–otherwise, just look in their general direction). Treat the audience as though they are your guests, and play and sing with them in mind.

Now, there are exceptions; sometimes getting lost in the moment can be effective, and even downright magical.  But the audience has to feel connected with you before that moment happens, or it won’t work.  It’s okay to dwell in the moment with that song you love to sing, but just remember you’re not alone in the room; you have guests, and it’s rude to leave them behind. Let your posture be one of inviting the audience to go to that place with you. When it’s done right, it can make the difference between a great performance and a mediocre one.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS…Do you see a theme here?  (Hint:  It’s connection.) Good stage presence is more than confidence, arrogance, or even magnetism.  It’s about making a connection with your audience, and then drawing them into the performance. The best performers on the planet have this in common. Beyond specific techniques, let everything you do be geared toward making that connection, and you’ll be well on your way to improving your stage presence.

Understanding and Improving Stage Presence (part 1)

This topic of stage presence actually qualifies as part of the “Polishing Your Performance” series, but is important enough to be a little 2-part series on its own.

Stage presence is one of those concepts that is difficult to describe or measure.  Kind of like the wind.  You can’t see or touch the wind (unless you’re in LA or Beijing, maybe), but you can certainly see what effect it has on the stuff it blows on.  In fact, we tend to describe wind more by what it does than by what it is. (For example, “That wind done plumb blowed over my whole chicken coop!”)  Or, as a more scientific example, the Fujita Scale measures tornado winds after the fact, by the damage left behind.

That’s kind of what stage presence is like.  It’s this nearly intangible thing that can only be measured by how much effect someone has on an audience.  You could have two different qualified performers sing the exact same song, in the exact same way, to the exact same audience, in the exact same bar, in two parallel universes; in one case, the audience is completely alert and responsive, and in the other, they don’t even look up from their margaritas.  The difference? Stage presence.

Now, for some people, stage presence is sort of a gift, like perfect pitch. You know the type–they can walk into a room and stand there, and instantly they are the center of attention.  But for those of us who don’t have that kind of magnetism, there is still hope.  Just like people without perfect pitch can train their ears with practice, people without the superpower of irresistablity can improve their stage presence with some practice.  It starts with a little self-awareness, and we’ll share some tips about that momentarily.

First of all–at its root, stage presence has a lot to do with making a connection with your audience, and then keeping them engaged once you have their attention.  It’s not a one-time deal; it’s an ongoing process of reading your audience throughout the performance, knowing when you have their attention, perceiving when you’re losing them, and knowing how to draw them back in–all while singing great songs.  Shouldn’t be too hard, huh? :)

Here are some tips to start the ball rolling:

  1. Study performers you like, performers with good stage presence.  Watch them on video, and analyze their every move.  Watch how they interact with their audience. Try to note what you like about what they do, down to the details–those little things you might miss consciously, but that send you a favorable message nonetheless.  If you like something about them, chances are someone else will, too.  You don’t want to copy, but you can learn a lot about how to adapt your own live performance.
  2. Practice in front of a mirror. (Oh, don’t roll your eyes like that. Most of you probably do this, anyhow–you just don’t want to admit it.)  Put on a soundtrack and sing, or lip-sync, and watch your own performance. in the mirror.  Observe what you like when you perform, what you don’t like, and what you might change.
  3. Watch yourself on video. (Wince.)  This can be excruciating, especially the first time.  The camera doesn’t lie, and it will show you your blind spots–without a lot of tact, I might add.  But it’s definitely worth it.  I have yet to observe myself on video where my own stage performance didn’t drastically improve afterward. 

In the next post, I’ll share some do’s and don’ts about live performance that should help improve stage presence.