Monday, July 31, 2017

Outdoor gigs: how to cope when audiences aren’t interested

It’s summer, the time when many choirs and singing groups perform outdoors.

Summer Safari 2016 (Clare Buxton) (2)
summer Singing Safari, Holywells Park, Ipswich, July 2016

It’s hard enough to sing in the open air, and compete with music on the other stages at festivals, but for me the most difficult thing is when audience members wander off. How do you cope with the heart-sink?

I’m not a big fan of outdoor singing (see Performing outdoors – tips and tricks) but some people love it (see The joys of outdoor singing by David Burbidge).

Whatever your view, there’s a good chance that you’ll do at least one outdoor performance with your choir over the summer period.

There is one big difference between an audience at an indoor formal sit-down concert and one at an outdoor event. Whether it’s busking at your local street fair or doing a slot at the nearby music festival, your audience is free to walk away at any moment.

It’s not like they’ve paid for a seat and will find it awkward to leave, they can wander off any time they want to.

This can be a real heart-sink moment for the singers. You may have started with a great song that’s gathered an audience, but it can just as easily drift away or people can start talking on their phone or chatting to their mate and stop paying attention.

What can you do to help overcome this? Here are a few ideas.

sing for yourselves

One obvious way to not be affected is to sing just for yourselves and not for an audience. The pleasure comes from singing with each other and being in the fresh air. You’re sharing your singing generously and if people like it all well and good, but it’s not the most important thing.

find a captive audience

Many festivals have stages set up and specific areas for audiences to gather. Some people even bring their own chairs. If there are several acts on the same stage, an audience can really settle down and will stay for some time. They won’t want to lose their picnic spot and once they’ve sat down in the sunshine, they’ll be reluctant to get up. So there’s a good chance they’ll stay put, although they might not necessarily pay any attention to you!

make sure they can hear you and see you

My own choir, The OK Chorale, performed at a local Great Get Together picnic in memory of MP Jo Cox. We had to squeeze into a tight spot and weren’t able to use the available microphone and PA. It was a very hot sunny day and most people had settled down a long way away under the shade of some trees. They could neither hear or see us properly unless they bothered to stand up and come nearer and stand in the blazing sun. Only the keenest audience members did so! We were basically just a background hum for people having their picnics.

use street performers tricks of the trade

If you want to gather (and keep) an attentive audience, it’s no good just finding a spot and singing. You’re competing with loads of other attractions so you need to work at it. Having a good MC/ choir leader/ introducer with a great patter can help draw the audience in. Keep the songs short and allow the MC to explain what’s going on to the audience. Encourage audience participation (teach them a song). Add some choreography or loud accompaniment or bright colours. Make your presentation more theatrical. Do everything you can to really put on a show.

choose your repertoire well

It’s no good choosing long, slow, quiet songs to perform outdoors. Choose songs that are short and upbeat. Offer a varied menu (don’t choose songs of all one type). You might even have to learn a new set of songs specially for outdoor performances. If there’s a theme to your event, pick songs that fit in with the theme.

be flexible

You may have rehearsed standing in a particular way, but when you get to your performing space find that you can’t fit in that way. You might have rehearsed a tight set of specific songs, but find half way through that the audience are getting bored. You might have spent a lot of time on choreography, but find there is not enough space for your dance moves. Be flexible, prepare for the unexpected, have more songs than you need and be prepared to move and stand differently. Doing outdoor gigs can do wonders for singers’ confidence as they are forced to adapt to circumstances.

seed the audience

A neat trick to make sure you get the audience you want is to bring them with you! Rope in singers from other choirs, friends and family and get them to be the initial audience seed. Even if the rest of the audience end up drifting away, you’ll have a core of keen people who’ll stay!

over to you

I’m sure some of you out there have far more experience of performing outdoors than I do. How do you personally deal with that heart-sink feeling when audience members just walk away? Do you have any horror stories of unexpected difficulties at outdoor gigs (and how you overcame them)? We’d love to hear from you.

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Chris Rowbury



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