Presenting a professional performance

As a Jazz Musician

By Karen Richards, JWA Director & freelance Events Consultant.

Before successful actors walk onto a stage in front of an audience, they will have taken significant directions from the director, the same goes for dancers. Yet often musicians when they walk onto the stage seem to think they are invisible to the audience. Kylie Minogue travels with her own stage director and choreographer. She looks good from the time she walks onto stage. Nothing is left to chance or unrehearsed or unplanned. This is a major reason she is successful.

Kylie Minogue

The direction from the director will relate to pretty much every move they take. To start with, they will be told what to wear. Dress is one of the first things the audience will notice. You present a completely different image depending on your “costume”. The same way that we present ourselves in everyday life. Wearing casual clothes is fine if that’s the environment you are working in. However you would be silly to turn up for a performance in the Concert Hall of the Opera House dressed in t shirt, shorts and thongs. From your hair down to your feet you are creating an image. If you are in doubt about what to wear, always dress up. You can rarely be overdressed. If you’re the best dressed you show others up. You don’t want to be the person who looks the worst. Remember the quote by Oscar Wilde “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”

Many musicians in Australia walk onto the stage totally unprepared and unrehearsed. It’s not cool to walk onto a stage in front of an audience who has paid to be there and laugh among yourselves that you haven’t rehearsed anything so you’ll just have to see how it goes. This is totally disrespectful to the audience. Or to be thinking of the set list as you play. It’s unlikely you’ll get the best order of pieces if you leave this to chance. Like putting a CD together, you need to think about the tempo, style, feel, who has the major solos in each piece etc so that you mix things up for the audience and keep them interested.

When you go and see a well known performer, you may not like everything they play, but there is most likely a moment (often different moments for different people) that will appeal to everyone in the audience. Well known performers have the benefit of large budgets to add other production elements to make their performances memorable. Most jazz performers don’t have this luxury which makes it even more important for them to be aware of their presence and performances on stage. Without lighting, AV, lasers and other special effects the spotlight is firmly on the musician and their performance. The resources that a musician must use is their body language, dress, onstage behaviour and ability to play their instrument and the repertoire chosen.

To work out the above, firstly you need to know your audience. Are they a “jazz” audience, what’s their average age, what sort of jazz will they enjoy? Are they people who don’t know anything about jazz, what’s venue is the gig in? It is worth doing a bit of research before you do the gig to know your venue and your audience.


James Morrison
James Morrison

James Morrison is probably the most successful Australian Jazz Musician. While James is unquestionably a fantastic trumpet player he really has attracted an audience by his stage performance. If you’ve ever paid attention to his performance, you will notice that from the moment he walks onto the stage (and even before) he is playing to his audience. This is often through banter with his band. Although he is talking to his band he is either facing the audience or side on to the audience, thereby including the audience in his banter. This makes the audience feel a little bit like they are part of his band and “in” with his jokes.

He faces his audience and performs his heart out to entertain them. He doesn’t have the attitude of being too cool or too good to appreciate that people have come to see him “perform”. They appreciate his ability on the trumpet, but that’s not enough for most audiences.

If you are playing classical music, the audience are usually more reserved. They expect the musicians to be well dressed (mostly in dinner suits), to enter the stage in a quiet orderly manner and to play well. The audience for most other genres of music often expect more, especially from young up and coming musicians. Possibly once you have a name for yourself and people come along because you are Sony Rollins and just want to see a legend perform, you can get away with just walking on stage and playing. However, until you reach that point in your career you need to develop some stagecraft.

Here is a guide

1.  Dress appropriately – you may think you look cool in those dirty runners, jeans and t shirt with the cap on backwards, but the audience will not. Dress should be neat and appropriate for the gig. This can vary a lot, but should always be carefully thought about before taking to the stage. If you just appear wearing the clothes you have been wearing all day because you couldn’t be bothered getting changed then you are not respecting your audience.

2.  Grooming – messy hair, shirts half tucked in half out, pants caught up in your shoes etc get noticed when you are on the stage and detract from your performance.

3.  When you walk onto the stage, be aware that mostly the audience are already sitting watching you. They begin to form their opinion from the minute you enter the stage. If you are behaving unprofessionally or are sulking, running late, panicking etc, they will notice. So think about what you are doing while you are getting ready and setting up your instruments. Don’t walk on stage until your are ready to “perform”. If you have the opportunity, get set up before the audience arrive so that you can make a smooth entrance. However if you have to set up in front of the audience make this part of the show. Talk to the band director or other people in the band about this so that you can all look like you are working together. Perhaps a bit of banter between band members is good, maybe you just set up quickly and quietly. Whatever you do just don’t pretend that no one is watching.

4.  Body language. When you enter the stage, move and act confidently. If you slouch, bury your head and try to hide you will most likely bring more attention to yourself. Crying is definitely bad! The audience may feel like you are not confident about playing. If you act confidently (without been over the top) the audience will feel reassured that the performance is worth waiting for while you set up. This is particularly important at festivals where you will most likely be setting up just as another band has finished. The audience from the previous band will be there and will be deciding whether to move on to another venue or stay and watch you. If your “set up performance’ is impressive, they will most likely stay

The Strides
The Strides. Using body language and presentation to connect with their audience. They are dressed for the gig – this obviously isn’t a formal occasion.

5.  Once you are ready to play don’t start sideward murmuring to other band members. Sit up and look like you are ready. All the band should get ready as quickly and with as little fuss as possible

6.  When the band starts playing look like you are genuinely interested. Even if you are sick, tired, hung-over, etc etc the audience doesn’t care. You are there to entertain them. You don’t need to be over the top with hooting, clapping etc, just look like you are enjoying the music. Even though you may be part of a group, even if there are 20 of you, you are still on stage. Your face can be seen easily by the audience and if you look tired or bored you can expect the audience to feel the same way. Acknowledge the players in the band. Look like their solos are the best thing you have every heard.

7.  When you are playing try to acknowledge the audience. Try to get some eye contact with the people in the audience. If they applaud, show some recognition of this applause. A smile or nod is enough. It just means you are interacting with them.

8.  When the gig is finished, try to make time to mingle with the audience. Often they will be interested to talk to you and you can get some great feedback

Remember the 5 “Ps”

Preparation– think about the gig, decide on clothing, music to be played, set up and entrance onto stage. Make sure you arrive with everything you need to play. Your instrument/s, spare parts you may need, power boards, extension chords, music, music stand. Don’t rely on other people bringing the things you need.

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington: a superb example of presentation, communication and artistry

Punctuality – always arrive in plenty of time to a gig. Running late puts pressure on yourself and the other members of the band. Allow yourself time to mentally prepare as well as warm up. If you don’t think mental preparation is important you are wrong. You should allow yourself time to think about your performance

Presentation – dress appropriately, present on stage in a confident and planned manner

Presence– When on the stage remember you are being watched by the audience. Even though you may not be the one with the solo you are still on stage and your actions are being noted.

Professionalism– you have the ability to raise the bar for jazz musicians in Australia. Act professionally. Be courteous, not arrogant, be aware that you should always be at your best because you never know who is watching and if one performance may lead to greater things

While this is specifically directed at stage performance, a lot of the above is the same for every day life. Whether you are a professional musician or in another business a lot of the above is still relevant.

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