Time and time again I find that an audience's reaction to a performance doesn't necessarily reflect the musical competence of the players. As a promoter and performing musician I would expect to hear comments based on an aural experience, i.e. "He had a great tone" or "She was so melodic". Whilst comments like this do occasionally arise, it's surprising to me how many times I get comments about the visual aspect, i.e. "They looked like they were having a great time" or "She was so expressive and the way she interacted with the rest of the band members made me smile". No matter how hard you try (thinking of Pink Floyd in their early days, creating silhouettes of themselves with stage lightning or Van Morrison turning his back to the audience), we, as humans, take in experiences through multiple sources and the visual effect of the gig can be more memorable than the aural.
Movement on stage
Bands often encourage people to get up and dance and some groups are specifically designed for that purpose (thinking of the lucrative 'wedding band' industry). So how can you engage with the crowd and get them on the dance floor? To answer this question I will use my own experience but I will also draw on the vastly superior knowledge of London based dance teacher Rachel Sparks. I was lucky enough to perform alongside Rachel at London's oldest music venue, Wilton's Music Hall. Rachel not only had a very laid back approach to verbally explaining the moves but she had an amazing amount of grace and elegance. From every foot fall, to an arm counter balance, to the positioning of her limbs; it looked so correct and natural. It was obvious that there was a huge amount of technique involved in her training but she made every instruction seem simple and had a crowd of drunken amateurs Cha Cha Cha'ing to our bands songs. I was intrigued as to how she managed it so I got off my backside and interviewed her!
What is it about a band that makes you want to get up and dance?
"As a dancer, for me the thing that makes me want to get up and dance is the groove the band is creating... Nice balance of funky bass, kicking beat and soulful melody really does it for me. I love it when a band is moving together and you can see that intuitive connection between each musician"
I think Rachel's answer really resonates with me. Whilst she specifically mentions a groove (and of course, not all music is groove based), the most popular dance styles combine these 3 factors. In fact, pop music in general uses these tricks all the time. The rhythm aspect is probably the most obvious - usually created by the drummer, this is a repetitive and predictable sequence which has strong emphasis on the beat. It is also completely in time. This is what's know as 'tight' or, in the jazz world, 'in the pocket'. Most pop music goes one step further with this and either creates the drum beat using a computer or creates a metronome or 'click track' for the live drummer to play to. This ensures that the listener knows exactly where the next beat will land - a very useful musical attribute for dancers. The next is a low frequency sound which either mimics the rhythm or creates a polyrhythm which synchronises with the beat. This is usually created by the bass, but can be a guitar riff or a ostinato created by any low end instrument. Finally a high frequency instrument, or voice, is used to sit the melody on top. This ensures that your head has something to sing whilst your body reacts to the more primal aspect of the rhythm. Try listening to your favourite pop piece and check for these three prominent features - Beat, Bass, Melody.
What do bands get wrong when expecting people to dance and have a good time?
"If a band isn't moving, as in just standing there and playing the notes, I think they'll struggle to get people dancing. They've got to lift the energy and connect to their music by feeling the groove in their bodies. If they're having a good time it creates the atmosphere and the audience are more likely to join the party."
Most performance techniques are multi-disciplinary. In other words, dancers often use facial expressions to convey the theme, actors use body language to react to text in a script and musicians can smile to let the audience know they are enjoying themselves! Smiling is infectious and creates a 'feel good' high that could encourage people to step onto the dance floor. A lot of musicians spend time on stage concentrating and making sure the music is error free. This mostly translates to being under rehearsed. I am so guilty of this! Everything should be effortless on stage and if its not, then you are not fully prepared.
"Choreography can look great for a band if everyone is totally up for it and they're willing to practice. There's nothing worse than one person half heartedly dancing when everyone else is in the vibe. I'd always go for simplicity and maybe just key moments in a song to lift the energy. I used to choreograph for a choir of 80 people...mostly non dancers and mixed age groups. You can create nice visual effects with simple clear movement in unison, but obviously if the music suffers, then maybe just encourage more relaxed improvised movement"
I used this trick with a school big band very recently. It's not an original idea but it works really well and stems from the swing bands of the 1930's. In the middle of the arrangement the saxes suddenly go into a 'soli' section. I got them to all stand up at the same time and then sit when it had finished. The audience absolutely loved it just because they stood up! The same trick is used in the classic boy bands of the late 90's - stay sat on a stool for the first few verses then stand up in the chorus. You can't help to be 'lifted' by the simple act of vertical movement.
How do you encourage people to move and lose their inhibitions?
"Big question! As a facilitator, my own embodiment is a big part of creating a calm environment for learning and moving. So my top tips for loosening up - I start by feeling the ground against my feet which helps if you're nervous. Imagine you have a bubble around you, if you let that bubble grow and include all the people around you then that can help with feeling like you're part of a group (rather than on your own)"
I love that Rachel hints on 'mindfulness' in this answer. I know I harp on about it a lot, but it's amazing how many professionals use this technique to ground themselves and focus on the task. I also love the bubble analogy as you can choose who to include in your personal space. I will definitely be using this trick as whilst I know how important movement is on stage, I too get hit with nerves and mental obstacles. I would add to this that, although it is a brutal tactic, videoing yourself and watching it back can be very useful. In the early days of my career I thought that I was moving to the music but my minuscule swaying was imperceivable. My mind hugely exaggerated the movement and I had to force myself to realise that I was hardly moving at all. When moving outside of your comfort zone you have to over compensate far more than you would expect. It will, in fact, feel very unnatural or 'uncomfortable'! If this is the case then you are probably on the right track and you can learn to control your body on stage.
Are there any resources (books/videos/classes etc) you would recommend?
"You can read stuff but the only way to physically loosen up is by doing something different in your body and practice... Part of your morning routine could be going through each body part and finding a way of moving it... Maybe in circles or writing your name in the air..."
There's some nice morning ritual advice here. My approach has been to watch performers I admire, see what makes them move and then try to access and encourage my own body gestures. As a sax player, I find that lifting the instrument up and down is not only a great visual cue for the other musicians but also adds to the show. I can sway when I'm in the zone and I don't discourage this although I am aware that some people may find it annoying. Watching it back on video reminds me of the inane swaying and mutterings of Keith Jarrett and I know for a fact that this produces a love/hate relationship with the guy! I also find that when I really go for it, my leg lifts up. I have no idea why but I see it in other players and I don't see a problem with it.
Keith Jarrett Trio - On Green Dolphin Street
I think that body movements can really help with visually engaging audiences. I also believe that it can help with expression and dynamic control. Whilst there's nothing worse than watching someone move uncomfortably on stage, with a few simple tweaks you can learn control, advance your natural stage presence and make shows much more entertaining. I would like to thank Rachel for her responses and please check out her bio below.
Rachel offers group classes, private lessons, wedding dance choreography and events for all. Welcome to all including LGBTQ+ community with gender neutral partnering.
-Weekly London Latin & Ballroom group classes
-Free your body and mind in F**k Yeah Dance! Workshops run regularly
-Drink tea, eat cake and dance! Join us for social tea dances for all ages and abilities.