Pleasing the Audience

how to become a singer

The majority of singers start their career because they love to sing and although it would be nice to think that every audience will appreciate your choice of repertoire or style of singing, the reality is that you cannot please everyone all the time! This means that the vocalist pursuing a professional career may have to make compromises in their choice of repertoire to cater to a wider audience and accept that there may be times when no matter how brilliantly they have performed, their efforts may go unappreciated by some (or all!) of the audience.

This may sound somewhat harsh, but learning to accept this is an important part of the learning process, regardless of voice type or musical style. The diversity of individual preference cannot be totally catered for unless the singer has a wide versatile repertoire or the experience to captivate their audience with their personality. Even then there are no guarantees that the performance will be appreciated by all members of the audience, who can vary in age from small children to octogenarians depending on the type of event and venue.

“When it comes to the requirements for pleasing an audience, all the knowledge and instruction and apparatus in the world is worth less than one ounce of soul.”

Ottawa Keyes

The area of entertainment is a factor in the type of material that a singer can perform, for instance, a cabaret artist or pub singer may specialise in a specific genre or style of music but will be expected to have a wide repertoire of songs in varying tempos to retain the interest of an audience, which invariably contains at least one person who requests a song that you don’t have or can’t sing. With the exception of ‘original showcase venues’, the audience will expect the act to perform a variety of popular songs which they recognise and can relate to, theatre and opera lovers pay to see a new or favoured show whilst advocates of ‘original music’ have no idea of what to expect when they see a new act for the first time.

Original acts have a distinct advantage. Audiences in venues dedicated to promoting and supporting unsigned artists, usually consist of relatively open minded people who have no preconceived ideas on what the performer will sing and unlike the ‘cover band‘, specific songs are rarely requested unless a fan or friend of the act are part of the crowd. This type of audience are usually more receptive to newcomers and can be quick to provide opinions, advice and criticism but at least won’t be expecting to hear a cover version of their favourite artist or song!

“Long experience has taught me that the crux of my fortunes is whether I can radiate good will toward my audience. There is only one way to do it and that is to feel it. You can fool the eyes and minds of the audience, but you cannot fool their hearts.”

Howard Thurston

What is a ‘Standard’ Song?

‘Standard’ is the term used for a popular song that is regularly performed by a variety of artists. It would be impossible to provide a full list of typical standards for all styles of music but there are ways to discover which songs are considered ‘standards’ within a preferred musical genre.

  1. Take a trip to venues that you would like to perform in and note down the song titles used in the artists set list. Comparing these notes over a period of several weeks will provide a list of songs that are regularly requested or considered ‘standards’.
  2. Several music publishers have compiled repertoire books and backing tracks of industry recognised ‘standard’ songs. Although this is a real time saver, these are usually produced in ‘easy’ keys and arrangements which may differ from the original artist.
  3. Visit the music section of your local library and browse their range of sheet music books, many compilations contain the most popular songs for the era or style that they list.
  4. Purchase a book listing the top 40+ charts over a period of years, many songs are repeated hits that receive regular airplay, regardless of the artist covering the song, Unchained Melody recorded by ‘The Righteous Brothers’, ‘Robson & Green’ and more recently ‘pop star’ contender Gareth Gates have all achieved chart success with their interpretations of the song.

Do I Have to Sing Standards?

That depends on the type of singer you want to be and which area of the entertainment industry you are aiming to work in. The definition of ‘popular’ depends entirely on the audience you wish to attract, if you want to perform obscure arias, little known or original songs and are prepared to accept that the audiences may be small, the gigs lower paid or harder to get and are prepared to put in the effort required to promote yourself, then it’s worth the effort for the pleasure of singing without compromising your artistic sensibilities. Although this can be a harder route to follow than conforming to popular ideals, some artists and bands have managed to establish themselves and achieved commercial success.

There is less flexibility in the world of clubs, pubs and cabaret where it is possible for the performer to intersperse a set comprising of mainly popular songs with original material and lesser known tracks but generally frowned upon by the management. A commercial artist even when touring to promote a new album will often include a few of their most popular songs in the set list to please the fans and a variety of new and established artists of all styles and genres have recorded and released cover versions of songs in their own style that are considered to be ‘standards’. There is a certain amount of controversy surrounding this which we have covered in more depth in the Covers vs Originals article.

“I don’t know the key to success – but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Bill Cosby

How can I please the audience?

There are several factors that need to be practised and employed in your performance which apply regardless of the style of music or popularity of the song. These include communicating with the audience by making eye contact during the performance and chatting between songs. This doesn’t need to be a dialogue of your life history, a simple introduction to the song and the odd bit of banter will help to break the ice and encourage the audience to pay more attention.

1. Audience participation

Audience participation may not appeal or suit all singers, but inviting the audience to participate along with the chorus of popular songs can make them feel more involved in the performance, although there is no guarantee they will join in with enthusiasm and should only be attempted if the entertainer feels confident and comfortable with this approach.

2. Expression and movement

Whilst most people appreciate technical ability and competence in a performer, it has to be balanced with emotive quality and expression using movement or gestures. The performer should not only be good at and enjoy what they are doing, but also be capable of interpreting the song in a manner that conveys their pleasure or involvement in the lyrics and music to the audience. Without this the performance can appear lifeless, dull and uninteresting, fine for supermarket music – not for live performance!

3. Set List

Organising the repertoire in a manner that highlights your vocal abilities and attracts the audiences attention takes a certain amount of trial and error where specific songs are concerned but a typical set list used in most areas of music, often has a V or W shape to the format. Fast or effective songs starting and ending each set provide the singer or band with the opportunity to grab the audiences attention followed by songs that vary in tempo and style. The final song should be a show stopper that creates an impact, this can be anything that displays the performers talent, encourages the audience to participate, makes them want to get up and dance or reduces them to a hushed silence in admiration, whatever works best for you – always leave the audience wanting more.

Added to all this it is important to pace out the songs in a manner that not only entertains but also preserves the voice. Too many complicated or vocally demanding songs in the first set may cause the voice to become overstressed and unable to cope with the rest of the performance.

Getting the right mix for the type of audience you are aiming to please is a matter of gauging reaction, moving songs into different slots, adding or changing the material. Some artists/bands hit on the right formula for they way they perform, retaining the same repertoire and format for years, others constantly change, expand and juggle their material around to suit the preferances of the venues in which they perform. Both strategies work but it is up to the artists to keep the performance fresh and interesting regardless of how often they’ve sung the songs before.

“Dance from your heart and love your music, and the audience will love you in return”


And Finally…

The most popular singers and entertainers are those who have successfully integrated their natural abilities with a variety of techniques to develop their own unique approach and style. Much can be learnt by observing professional singers who can capture the hearts of the audience with their charisma and make the art of performing appear effortless. This doesn’t happen overnight, even the most talented singers have had to work hard to produce consistently good live performances. So the next time you totally bomb at a gig, don’t get too despondent, learn what you can from the experience and move on. Try not to dwell on disappointing performances for too long or attempt to anticipate how the next audience will react. Each gig has to be approached with enthusiasm, an open mind and a desire to perform with feeling to the best of your ability or it will reflect in your performance, besides which it is not uncommon to encounter a bad reception at one venue and then receive thunderous applause and appreciation from the next – even when the venues are located in the same town!