Life/Work Lesson: Connection

SDC12066Last year, I gave a workshop in New York City on confidence and connecting with an audience. During that workshop, a discussion erupted about putting a spell on an audience. How does that work? I offered that I had no clue and then I remembered a pivotal moment along the way where I confronted that same question.

Back in 2000, a promoter that I’d worked with before called me up to do a German festival. He told me I couldn’t bring a whole band but an just an accompanist.   The promoter liked music that attracted audiences to partying and anything too cerebral he would take issue with for these festivals he booked. I really wanted to make a good impression because the guy paid well and hooked you up: 4-star hotel, 1st class train fare and all the meals were on him. Besides he booked about 10 of these yearly, not to mention other gigs that came up. I thought if this works out he’d book me on more festivals with more opportunities to develop that side of my singing. So I asked pianist Curtis Clark to come along…one of the most delicate pianists around!

At the festival we were given a small stage off to the side of the main stages. Despite the leakage from the bigger groups close by, it was a cool spot for a duo with tons of space. We talked through what the first set would be, did our sound check during which I instructed Curtis how I wanted to “drive the music home to the people…” He didn’t say anything. I was determined to do well and make those people like me and make that agent LOVE me.

We went out and did our first set. We had a big crowd and I went into overdrive to keep them there. Reaching and pushing out to the audience, looking at them in their eyes with yearning. Sometimes I heard Curtis but most times I was focused on getting them to like us.  I really wanted them to like us. The crowd stayed but the audience reaction was pretty lukewarm. The kiss of death as far as I’m concerned.  No-one hung around to even say “Danke”. Scheisse.

When the set ended, Curtis and I headed backstage to eat and relax before we played again. As soon as we sat down he turned to me and said:

“What are you doing?”

“What do I mean ‘what am I doing’?” I said.

“Why are you pushing the music so hard? Why are you fighting me?” he said.

I was stunned and speechless – not easy for me. After an awkward silence I asked him what he meant by that. He replied,

“You seem to be worried about keeping a big crowd and we’re not together musically. It’s not happening. If we get together and communicate with each other, the music will be stronger. If we do this you may lose some audience, sure, but the audience that stays will stay because they want to HEAR us.”

I knew that first set didn’t work but I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I pulled out every “performer” cliche I knew of. I worked HARD to get and keep the audience’s attention.

So this was a revelation. I gave myself such a hard time for not being a strong performer in the sit-in-their-lap vein of entertainer. I saw it as a weakness for a longtime that I wouldn’t, for example, jump into a mosh-pit from stage. I don’t like to say too much and I want the music to speak for itself. I’d seen performers go to great lengths to pull the audience toward them: be funny, dress sexy, sing seductively, all these “extra” activities that looked like overcompensation to me. That was just what I did during first set and probably many times before, just not as amplified. Here he’s saying I can own that aspect of myself, my essence is good enough.

Curtis went on to suggest that for the next set we simply focus on getting together with the music. Communicate and respond with each other and see what happens. I nervously agreed to give it a try. It couldn’t be worse than what went before and for all the hard work in the first set, it was clear that I was no favorite of the promoter and he didn’t think the set was was “rollicking” enough. So I had nothing to lose.

That second set had a weird pause when we started out but it eased and we began to make…music. The audience changed; quite a few walked away once we moved in unison more. That was hard at first. Yet those who stayed had sweet smiles and enjoyed the music. They looked me in the eyes. It’s the first time I recognized that I allowed me to be me – even if just for a moment – in all my vulnerability on stage and it felt GOOD. A profound moment.

I’ve taken that moment on that stage in Germany to heart. I now continually strive and struggle for a more organic connection with an audience.  Learning more and more how to be the genuine me, how to extract the truth of myself into the songs I sing and the music I write. It’s a fundamental part of my journey. Digging deeper as my psyche will allow. How lucky I feel. I owe Curtis because his honesty with me that day caused a tectonic shift in my outlook as a vocalist. It went on to inform the ensemble band-leading sound and approach I’ve been working on.  Thank you, Curtis.

If you love jazz and/or piano, check him out he has a number of recordings and he’s a very special player and composer. Here’s his myspace link:

-Originally posted on the Visible Voice in July 2008