HomeBlogsdavecharliebrown's blogRecipe for Spicing Up Your Live Show

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Live a cappella concerts are a human-to-human interaction.  They speak to us in ways recordings often can't.  But once you know your songs, you program your set well, you stage it well, now what?  How can you turn this generic meal into a tasty treat?

Follow these simple tips to really make the show fun for your audience.  There are a zillion other ways, but here are some quick and easy spices from the producer's cupboard...

  • Add a unique intro.  How do you enter the stage?  Have you ever thought about it?  The amateur way is to just walk on stage.  The advanced amateurs run on with high energy.  The semi-pro groups come up with something clever like walking on one at a time and building a wall of sound.  The true professionals will have something exciting happen before the group even steps foot on the stage.  If you can create anticipation in your audience, you're acting like a pro, and your audience is much more likely to receive you like a pro.
  • Talk to the audience while a song is vamping.  Songs don't have to run left to right the same way every time -- you should be able to expand or contract them as necessary (the beauty of live performance!).  If you can find a part of your song that can be sung over and over (called vamping), you can take a moment to talk to the audience.  This works especially well in three situations: (1) during the first or second song when you welcome the audience to the show, (2) when you want to have the audience clap along a special way, or you want to teach the audience a sing-along part, and especially (3) during the last song when you want to thank the audience for being so supportive, and you want to remind them about your mailing list, website, and recordings for sale.
  • Have the audience sing too.  I gave this away in the last point, but definitely have your audience sing with you on something.  One of the most beautiful things about a cappella is that it's so accessible; anyone can do it any time.  By having your audience sing along with you, they'll be inspired to realize they have their own instrument and they should take advantage of it.  Remember that most people get more nervous than you when singing, so be sure to create an environment where they feel comfortable doing it.  Make the sing-along parts simple, and if you divide up the audience into multiple sections, don't do more than three, and keep those parts extra simple.  Vocal or body percussion work especially well for audience participation.
  • Add an improv somewhere.  This can be tricky if you don't practice the concept a bit, but try to add in something improvisational somewhere in your set.  Hopefully you have a jazzy song that calls for some natural skat improv, or sometimes instrumental imitation improv (only if you actually sound exactly like the instrument -- no "neer neer").  If you're especially brave, try getting 4-5 people from your group to improv a song suggested by the audience.  I promise you right now: if you do this, your audience will sit on the edge of their seats the entire time, and they'll generally be very forgiving if there are flubs here and there.  This is something they can't get on your recordings, and it will make it very special.  Unless you are Jeff Thacher, don't do a vocal percussion improv.  Please.  Which brings me to the next point...
  • Consider doing a well prepared vocal percussion solo.  Almost every fan of contemporary a cappella loves vocal percussion.  And most vocal percussionists love to do VP solos.  Yet even very advanced performers somehow still tend to ramble on a bit on their solos, figuring the beat will just carry them somewhere.  Seasoned professionals know better; they have their solos well prepared.  That doesn't mean they do it canned, or without heart; it just means they have rehearsed it so they know where they're going.  It's kind of like writing a song -- consider where you want it to start, how you want the energy to move along, and where you're ultimately headed, usually saving the best for last.  If you do it right, people will remember it for years.
  • Have a guest singer.  This is the easiest of them all.  Great live performance is built on surprising the audience.  By bringing in a local favorite, or your student body president, or the mayor, or the company president for the corporate gig, or really anyone, you're creating a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the audience.  If it's someone they love, the song can be horrendous and the audience will still think it's the best song of the night.
  • Tell the audience secrets.  If the audience is composed largely of your core fans (as opposed to a generic showcase or a corporate gig), share pieces of yourself with the audience.  Do it briefly and rarely, but do take a moment in introducing a song to share something funny about yourselves (preferably something that relates to the song you're about to sing).  Make it something everyone can appreciate, and will enjoy.
  • Sing "Happy Birthday" to someone in the audience.  Duh.  Easy.  Can't get that on a CD.  This is also a great fallback in case you're having a technical glitch that needs fixing, or for any other reason you need to fill time.
  • Tell a story to introduce a song.  If a song has a background story, share it.  And by background story, I don't mean "Steve always burps during this song in rehearsal," but I do mean the story behind the hymn "It Is Well" or the m-pact song "Without Your Love" (look both of those up).  Keep it brief, and only give the relevant parts.  This technique of storytelling can work for any song, but often works especially well for slower tunes.  When you're finished telling the story, the song should start immediately.
  • Dedicate a song.  If there's a song in your show that means a lot to someone's wife, or to someone's grandparent that passed away, or someone you lost to AIDS, and it relates directly to that person or situation in a way the audience would understand and appreciate, dedicate it.  It's a special live-only nod that makes the experience 5% better.
  • Throw goodies into the audience.  At an appropriately silly moment, throw your swag into the audience.  Probably not a good idea to throw CDs, but shirts, hats, or other similar items work well.  If you want to giveaway CDs, maybe you can throw out beanbags that they can redeem for a CD at your booth in the lobby after the show. If you do decide to throw stuff into the audience, plan it out well so it's not chaotic and therefore meaningless.
  • Invite an audience member up on stage.  Along the lines of giving stuff away... it can be fun to invite young kids on stage to answer trivia questions about the group (like your total collective weight), and give a prize to the winner.  Inviting young girls on stage to do beatboxing can be cool and surprisingly inspiring.  Have the audience vote on a winner by show of applause and give out free stuff to all of them for playing along.  A more obvious way to invite people on stage is to have your all-male group sing to a young lady in the audience, or something similar.  Even better is to sing a love song to a senior citizen -- ain't nobody who don't like old people.  Do it respectfully and the audience will never forget it.
  • Use a recurring theme.  Finally, if you're really gung-ho, come up with a theme you can weave throughout the show.  It can be anything.  Tell a story with each of your songs.  Work a frog into several of your introductions.  After you sing to the older lady, sneak her name into the lyrics of the next song.  People eat that stuff up, and it's something they couldn't get from your album.  This is the principle at the heart of a live show -- surprising the audience with something they couldn't get if they stayed home.

Almost all of these suggestions are fairly easy to implement.  Just plan them out a little ahead of time, rehearse them a bit, and stir them into your show.  Bake at 70 degrees for 30-90 minutes.  Serves millions.


Excellent suggestions, Dave!

Excellent suggestions, Dave!

Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.


Fantastic advice, Dave! Since practice makes permanent  (not perfect), as much of these things should be incorporated during the dress rehearsal, not just winged at the concert. Even though some humans can fly, most of us can't. Besides, they are tips and tricks you can use to segue and intrigue the audience. If the icing on the cake becomes bad, it sometimes ruins the whole cake. And people who are speaking, please save rehearsal time by practicing any speeches or introductions on your own before the dress rehearsal. :]

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