Sunday, July 05, 2009

Performing outdoors – tips and tricks

I really, really don’t like performing outdoors (I’ll come to why in a moment)! But sometimes it’s unavoidable, so what can we do to make it work?

Since I haven’t performed outdoors that often, I would love to hear any advice from those of you who do it more often, or who perhaps even like it! Do drop by and leave a comment.

why I don’t like performing outdoors

  • it might rain
    You can never rely on the British weather! There’s a big danger that there will be a downpour in the middle of your performance and the audience will either run away or disappear under a sea of umbrellas. On the other hand, it may be so hot and sunny that you end up with heatstroke!
  • the wind carries the sound in the wrong direction
    Sod’s law is that the wind will be blowing the wrong way and will carry your beautiful sounds away from the audience. Even if it doesn’t manage to do that, you can bet it will suck the sound right out of your neighbour’s mouth so you can’t hear her harmonies.
  • the audience are often too scattered
    No matter what you try to do, there will be audience members who will try to sit as far away from where you’re performing as is physically possible. The rest will scatter themselves about so it is impossible to sing to them in any direct way without constantly rotating on the spot. Then at the end, the audience who were furthest away will complain that they couldn’t see or hear you!
  • people might just wander off
    I hate busking! The audience can just bugger off if they don’t like you. I’d much rather get punters to pay and chain them to their seats. Similarly at a festival, if someone doesn’t like you in the first 5 seconds, they can just wander off leaving your heart to sink into your stomach: “They don’t like me!”
  • the singers can’t hear each other well enough
    There you are, singing your heart out, when you realise that you can’t hear anybody else. There is no acoustic, the wind is blowing hard, and the audience are chatting away. You can’t hear the other harmonies so go out of tune easily, and the timing is rubbish ’cause you can’t hear the other singers.
  • there is a tendency to shout instead of sing
    It’s the big outside world and it needs to be filled with sound, plus the audience are miles away. You can’t hear your fellow singers so figure they can’t hear you either. So you end up singing LOUDLY. Actually, it’s not really singing at all. Since you can’t even hear yourself outdoors, you end up SHOUTING.
  • trying to amplify a group of singers is very hard
    You roll up at the gig and the sound man convinces you he knows what he’s doing. He sticks a couple of mics up, there’s no time for a proper sound check, and off we go. The monitors (if you have any!) are too quiet and pointing in the wrong direction. The mics are all directional and only pick up two singers (who sing the same part). If there does happen to be a mic each, then that’s an awful lot of cable to trip over! It’s a fine art setting up microphones for acappella singing, and there aren’t that many sound people out there who have the experience!
  • using microphones is a new skill to learn
    You’ve spent years honing your acappella skills and work really well as a group. You lean in to hear your fellow singers, you look them in the eye, you stay close, you are aware of their every nuance. Suddenly you are at an outdoor gig and have a microphone shoved up your nose. Your fellow singers seem to be miles away, your voice sounds weird through the monitors (and you can’t hear the others either) and you can’t see anyone over the top of the mic stand.
  • the venue might not be suited to performance
    It seemed a nice idea when the local village fete booked you, but when you turn up there is no obvious place to stand, the field (which is still wet and muddy from last week’s rain) is a strange L-shape and full of trees, there is no fixed place for the audience, and even if there was, the huge marquee in the middle makes it difficult for them to see you wherever you stand.
  • competing with background noise and attention
    It’s outside. There are cows, planes, passing cars, trees rustling, fireworks, audiences talking, overspill from the reggae tent next door, much more interesting things to look at, crying babies, people selling shiny things, tannoy announcements – why would anyone want to listen to you?
  • no control over the situation
    No matter what the organisers say, don’t believe them. They will lay it on thick about what a wonderful venue it is, how the audience always sit along that bank at the back (honest!), that the PA system is state of the art, that there will be lights (it’s just that the truck hasn’t arrived yet) so the audience can see you in the dusk, that the ice cream van won’t be there on the day. They are lying!

what you can do to make the best of a bad situation

  • don’t shout!
    Resist the temptation to try to sing loudly and fill the space. Focus on your breathing and resonance and make sure you listen carefully. You don’t have to be big just because the space and the audience are big. Being small and subtle can draw an audience in.
  • focus on each other
    Forget the audience (well, not totally – you might like to face in their direction at least). Make sure you focus on the other singers. Stay close, listen carefully, look at each other often.
  • do it for yourselves
    Imagine that the gig is just for you, an intimate experience that will be so excellent that it will draw the audience in. This will make the space seem smaller and the occasion not so intimidating.
  • take the songs to the audience
    If you’re not restricted to a stage, you can wander around and really use the space to literally take the songs to the audience. Move the group around and within the spectators. They will feel more involved, the people being focused on will feel special, and the rest will feel that they’re missing out so will pay more attention.
  • it’s a completely different gig to the indoor version
    Don’t try to replicate the experience you had the last time you did the gig indoors. Outdoor gigs are a completely different experience, each one being totally unique. Go into it well-prepared, but try not to have expectations. There is much more scope in an outdoor gig for improvisation and playing it be ear.
  • have a dry run
    If at all possible, have at least one rehearsal in the space. Get used to any acoustics (if there are any!), figure out where the audience will be, try out different groupings, etc.
  • be in control
    Take as much control as you can. If you need PA and/ or lighting, then bring your own if at all possible, or at least have your own sound person. Find the best place to perform and insist upon it. It might be a good idea to have a wall behind you to help with the acoustics. See if there’s any way you can help the audience to gather in a tighter group as near to your performing space as possible (e.g. tape an area off, set chairs out in advance).
  • see what else is on
    Check to see if any other acts are due on at the same time and if they’re going to be loud, see if you can negotiate different timings for your set.
  • don’t take the audience reaction to heart
    They might look bored, they might just walk away, but don’t take it to heart. They may just have a naturally looking miserable face, or they might have to get home to feed the baby and wished they could stay longer. I’ve written on this subject in an earlier post (How audiences affect us)
  • stay close!
    Make sure you are physically close to the other singers. You will probably need to be even closer than usual. And I mean close! If you’re using microphones, try to set these up so you can stand as close together as possible.
  • always have a back-up plan
    However carefully you’ve planned, something will go wrong, that’s guaranteed. So consider all eventualities (weather, lack of audience, tuning going out, PA system breaking down) and think of an alternative to get you out of the fix.
  • don’t do it!
    I’ve saved the best piece of advice for last: if you have the choice, just DON’T EVER PERFORM OUTDOORS!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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