Collaborating With an Audience

by Leon Olguin

I have long stressed the value of live performance for songwriters. Get out there and play your songs whenever and wherever you can! Get some feedback from a live audience. I’m not necessarily talking about doing a full-on live show, but rather performing a song or two at an open mic type event, or a songwriters night. By the way, if no such event is held in your area, you may want to look into starting a songwriters night where you are. Of course, if you live in or near Nashville, well, need I say more?

I would also strongly suggest that you play your songs for people who have no idea who you are. Family and friends may not give you the most honest feedback. Oh, they won’t out-and-out lie to you, but they will have a tendency to like everything you do, or they may be afraid of hurting your feelings by saying anything critical.

A friend of ours here in Central Florida who owns a local music store and recording studio has put on a songwriters’ night at various venues over the last few years. Over 200 songwriters from the surrounding area have taken part. The main stipulation: the songs have to be originals, and 99 percent of the time, the songs are performed by the writer.

Consequently, I have heard a wide variety of songs over the past few years! Inevitably I can tell from observing the audience which songs are having an impact. Sometimes everyone will keep talking and moving around while the songwriter gamely plays away. I’ve heard songs that were approximately 5 times longer than they should have been, complete with instrumental interludes featuring a screaming guitar solo that the performing songwriter was hearing in his mind, as we were hearing only strummed chords. (Sometimes the same two or three chords over and over…)

But every once in a while, a new song would catch everyone’s attention. The room would go mostly silent, as the audience tuned into what they were hearing. The song may not have been perfect, but there was something there that made everyone pay attention. Perhaps there was a memorable turn of phrase in the lyric, or an unusual and arresting twist in the melody or the chord progression.

I saw songwriters who performed a new song, and after observing that it did not receive the reaction they were hoping for, went home, re-wrote the song, and came back and performed it again. I’ve heard several songs “evolve” as the songwriter used the feedback from the audience to help determine what would improve the song.

Some songwriters would perform week after week, playing the same songs, (sometimes they had one song that they played every time), receive the same tepid (or non-existent) response, and never change a thing. Perhaps they believed that their songs needed no revision, just a better audience!

If you are a performing songwriter, after a while you will learn how to “read” an audience, even while you are playing your newest song for them. Ask yourself the following questions, even as you are performing:

Is anyone actually listening? – Many songwriters’ nights are held in a bar setting, so there may be folks who are simply there to drink, and not necessarily to hear songs they have never heard before. If no one seems to notice that you are actually playing, your song may be part of the problem. (Another problem is songwriters who are not very good performers, but I will assume for the purposes of this article that you are a competent musician, and capable of presenting your songs in a coherent manner.)

What kind of response did you receive? Did everyone applaud, or just a handful of folks?

Did anyone seek you out after the show? – Did someone whom you did not know, come up and say anything to you about your song(s)? Remember, family and friends don’t really count, although fellow songwriters who might happen to be your friends could be helpful.

A song is only alive when someone is listening to it, either from a recording or from a live performance. When you play your song live, you are in a sense collaborating with the audience, creating an experience of pleasure and discovery, and not, you hope, one of indifference and boredom.

If the latter is the result, then it’s time to keep working on the songs!

Article courtesy of



Powered by Facebook Comments

This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.