The main factor that separates great musicians from great performers is stage presence. You can have that Brian May solo down to the last string bend, but if you look like a stalk of celery on stage, no one will take you seriously. Let’s dive into what defines great stage presence (since this is a subjective art, after all), and touch on a few dos and don’ts along the way.
First of all, why do people go to concerts? More often than not, it’s because they want an opportunity to connect to live music and the artists playing that music. If they wanted to simply hear music played well, they would listen to a recording at home. So what does that mean for you as a performing musician? It means you need to be more than just a recording they could listen to at home; in other words, you have to connect with your audience.
We, as humans, rely heavily on bodily cues and gestures without consciously realizing it. Think about what it means when you’re talking to somebody, and he or she frowns, shuffles around, looks the other way, etc. Even without a word spoken, so much can be conveyed with facial and bodily expressions.
A performance is a dialogue with your audience through gestures, music, and verbal communication. Social cues are exchanged between audience and performer, just like they are in regular conversation. If you act nervous while conversing with someone, he or she almost always picks up on that, and feels uncomfortable in response. Similarly, if you feel uncomfortable on stage, the audience feels uncomfortable in response.
Now let’s turn that around: if you show passion and emotion for what you’re doing on stage, you can suck your audience right into your performance with you. That’s what stage presence is all about. But just as I can’t write how you should interact during every conversation, I can’t write how you should react to your audience in every situation. I can give you a few helpful tips though:
Do be sincere and passionate about what you’re doing. It’s never perfunctory to perform on stage, so don’t act like it is.
Don’t get so wrapped up in your music that you alienate your audience. Try not to zone out or face away from your audience for extended amounts of time.
Don’t put on the cheese and smile the whole way through. This is a concert, not a beauty pageant, and people can sniff out insincerity like they can sniff out, well, cheese.
Do move around. Depending on what kind of music you’re playing, you should be grooving to your rhythm, walking around stage, stomping a foot, bobbing your head, or something to that effect. It keeps the energy of the place up, and it helps you engage with your music and audience.
Don’t shuffle around or fiddle as your main mode of movement, unless “awkward” is definitively the image you want to project. If it is, that’s cool. Seriously. I’m not here to judge.
Do use banter. By talking to the audience like a normal person, you break down the barrier between artist and spectator, which helps alleviate tension, and foster connection.
Don’t overuse banter. Your audience didn’t go to a stand-up comedy club. They also don’t want to hear how much of a b**** your ex-girlfriend is. Seriously, I went to an open mic, and the artist wouldn’t stop ragging on his ex. If you’re hurt, mention that your song is about being hurt, and then channel it through your music and not through a tirade.
Do practice till near-perfection at home or with your band. The more comfortable you are with your material, the more comfortable you’ll be with your material in front of lots of people.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. I had a friend who would give me horrified expressions every time he’d screw up on stage. I can tell you I never caught the mistakes, but I always caught the awkward expressions. Everyone messes up. Put it into perspective and move on, lest your anxiety about the whole situation make you mess up again.
Do learn from the masters. Find artists at the top of your genre, and practice emulating them by yourself. Select aspects of their acts that you enjoy, and try to discern what makes them so effective.
Don’t copy the masters so much you become an impersonator. You want to cultivate your own image in the shadows of giants. If your musical role-model has some maneuver or mannerism that doesn’t feel natural to you, don’t use it. You’re looking at the greats for guidance, not for a playbook.
Do learn from yourself. Practice in front of a mirror, or—GASP!—a video camera, and try to catch your bad habits before they manifest on stage.
Don’t freak out that you’re not perfect yet. Plenty of successful musical acts fine-tuned their stage presence on stage. Don’t feel paralyzed if you aren’t quite channeling Beyonce just yet.
Long term project: Get better at all-around communication. A big group of people is still made up of people, so if you improve your social awareness in conversation, you’ll improve your ability to connect with an audience on stage. The best way to improve your social cue reading comprehension is to really listen during conversation. It’s amazing what kinds of social cues you can pick up on if you close your mouth, actively tune in, and maintain eye contact. Even though communicating on stage is a little different than communicating in regular conversation, there’s a lot of crossover, and you’ll gradually find yourself more and more comfortable with your audience.