By Lis Lewis
You’ve seen good shows and bad. What makes one work when another doesn’t? Assuming that the songs and the musicianship are up to snuff, there are some other elements that can invigorate your stage show. What makes a good set? What should the order of the songs be? What is the purpose of talking between songs and do you really have to do it?
The point of your live show is to take the audience on an emotional journey. Every word, action and sound should move the show forward drawing the audience into your life. When you play live, you can talk, you can move, you can interact with them. Your personal reaction to the songs, to the musicians and to the things that happen during your set, allow the audience to get to know you. The less spontaneous you are on stage, the less likely your audience will be to connect to you. They could have stayed home and listened to the CD.
Talking Between Songs
Imagine this: you’re at a club and a band you haven’t seen before comes onstage. They play through their entire set without saying a word. Or here’s another possibility: the singer starts talking as soon as they hit the stage; “Don’t forget to tip your waitress” or “How you all doing out there?” or “This next song is called…” Neither of these two approaches gives the audience insight into the personality of the singer. The latter might work for a Top-40 band whose job is to sell drinks, but if you’re an artist with original material, this kind of talking is generic and meaningless. You don’t need to pander to the audience; you aren’t one of them. After all, you’re onstage in the light while they’re out there in the dark watching. Don’t hide behind empty chatter. Speak when you have something to say that will reveal your character to them.
Here’s a rough outline for when and what to say between songs. Don’t talk until the third song. Just rip through the first two songs without stopping. For the third song pick one that you feel a special connection to and tell a story about it. It can be about why you like the song, why you wrote it, or a story that sets the mood for the song. Give yourself an outline of what points need to be said in what order. For instance, let’s say you are going to talk before a song that you wrote about a high school romance. There was a girl who you had a crush on for the whole of your junior year. Tell how you watched her in the hall, your friends teased you about her and you finally got up the nerve to ask her out. When she said yes you were so elated that you wrote this song. Try to organize your thoughts so you tell the story in the right order but don’t memorize the exact words. Be specific and give details that everyone can relate to it.
A set is like a play with a beginning, middle and an end. It should have highs and lows, sweetness and sadness. It should develop and evolve. Usually you start on a high note – up-tempo – with a song that is the epitome of your band; right away we get an idea of what we’re going to be hearing and the style of the material. Also the song should be accessible – the chorus should have a good strong hook and a melody the listener could walk away singing. Your audience doesn’t know you yet and you want to give them an easy way into your concept so they can appreciate and relate to the band. Then you can get a little more complex, maybe a darker mood or more complicated melody. Once the audience starts to know who you are you can take them down to a ballad. You should only have one or two ballads in a 45-minute set. After a deep ballad (meaning very slow or lyrically dark) work your way back out gradually to something a little lighter; you might do a medium tempo song or something with a laid back groove. Then you can go more up-tempo again with something driving. Don’t put one song after another that is in the same key or has the same tempo because your songs will sound the same. The set should have variety and flow, as you lead your audience through all the emotions the songs depict.
Mean What You Sing
The most important element of a great show is the charisma of the lead singer. You could stand stock-still and if you convey the strength of your conviction and the intensity of the meaning of the song, your audience will respond. By adding movement, inspired interaction and a well-planned set list you will only enhance the show.
There’s no one way to create the perfect set. The rules are to be broken when your artistic sense says you must, but they are a good starting point. They can help you approach your set knowing that every moment on stage has to be part of your artistic picture. When your music, your charisma, your maintained intensity and fidelity to your artistic vision are paced properly, you will know it. Your audience will know it. And there’s no better feeling in the universe.
Lis Lewis is a voice teacher and performance coach in Los Angeles, CA. She has been training recording artists for over 30 years. Learn more about her private voice lessons. She has also coached celebrities including: Miguel, Rihanna, Iggy Azalea, Bryson Tiller, Demi Lovato, and more. Lis is also the author of the books, “The Singers First Aid Kit” and “The Pop Singers Warm-Up Kit” both published by Hal Leonard.