While doing internet research I came across an interesting article written for those who have their own bands. The author is Evan Zwisler, a New York City based musician. He writes for Soundfly, which is a web publication focused on the modern music scene.
The article was written for performers who already have some success. The intent was to help them achieve more success. This premise immediately caught my attention. What do you say to performers who are already doing okay…to help them do even better?
His insights were fascinating and helpful. They parallel things magicians and other kinds of entertainers must do to move their own shows to the next level.
What follows is a combination of Mr. Zwisler’s advice and my thoughts about it.
#1. Keep the pace strong by avoiding long transitions.
The first thing Zwistler dealt with is the need to keep things moving.
“You want your set to have momentum. If you just played a killer uptempo song that got everyone moving, don’t kill the energy in the room by pausing for 15 seconds before the next song. Even if you’re a more mellow artist, you risk taking the audience out of the moment by interrupting the flow of your set. In other words, don’t give people an excuse to go to the bar to chat with their friends.”
The point is: To turn a good show into a great show, poor transitions must be avoided. Better yet, they should be eliminated.
Zwistler believes musicians must understand that, if a wonderful song is followed by wasted time or dead time, an audience may not wait around to hear the next wonderful song. If they do wait around, unnecessary delays and pauses will frustrate them. Eventually, because of the delays, they may judge the show to be hardly worth their time.
This idea of quickly move from one great song to the next can be directly applied to a magic show and probably all kinds of shows. There is a critical need to move from one great experience to another without dull moments in-between.
People may continue to watch a show with poor transitions. They may even think This show is okay or pretty good. However, if transitions are week, they will never think this is a great show!
Great performers know how to make great transitions. They understand it is not enough to rehearse tricks and routines. As well there must be rehearsal of what is done between tricks and routines. Not only must key elements of a show be entertaining, how one moves from part of a show to the next should also be entertaining. There should never be an occasion where the audience feels nothing worthwhile is happening.
- When putting items out of the way and resetting for a new routine, prepare clever and fun things to say. Make sure that, even though there may be a a necessary pause between tricks, actual entertainment never ends.
- Have an organized stage. Practice how you will put one prop down and pick up the next one. Figure out ways to do this efficiently. Do not make the audience wait while you acquire whatever you intend to use next.
- Make sure the this concept is strong in your mind: Transitions matter.
- Keep stage banter to a minimum.
The next thing Mr. Zwisler said was…
“A personal touch is nice, but people came to hear you play your music. Even if the audience agrees with your politics, they probably don’t want to hear a five-minute speech about how gentrification is killing the neighborhood.”
Zwistler’s message is there is a difference between being personal and TMI (too much information.) In a great show, everything said is something worth saying. Those who talk for the sake of talking, or who seem to like to listen to themselves talk, will never put on a great show.
People do not attend a magic show to hear a performer’s personal opinions nor to hear him expound on his or her personal life. They are there to see magical things occur and to have a magically good time. A great performer knows this and works from a crafted script. Long before a show begins, a great performer has already sorted out the things which should be said from the things which should not be said.
- Think through everything you are going to say during the course of a show. Figure out how to eliminate unnecessary words. Find ways to keep explanations short and simple. Do not make rambling comments or meaningless remarks to fill “dead time.” (As well, make sure your show does not have dead time.)
- Analyze the balance between talk and your tricks. (Watch video of your show to assess this.) If there is more talk in your show than there is action and/or laughter you have a problem (Unless you are really trying to be a speaker rather than an entertainer.) Almost all shows would be improved by a performer learning to talk less.
- To state the matter simply: Make sure you are not talking too much!
- Honor the audience’s time.
Another thing Mr. Zwisler said was…
“There are a hundred things every person in the audience could be doing tonight, but they’re here watching you. Be worth every second of their time. Make sure you acknowledge their presence, too.”
A great performer does not forget that the show is not about him (or her), it is about the audience. People are not in the audience for the benefit of the performer, he is on stage for their benefit. A key way in which an audience is shown respect and appreciation is by valuing and wisely managing their time.
- Start your show on time. Do not make people wait on you nor on others. Do not penalize people who are there at the proper time by making them wait for latecomers.
- End your shows on time. People have plans which go beyond a show. They may have rides waiting for them outside the venue. They may have plans for a special meal, or babysitters to pay, or other things that must be dealt with. For the sake of everyone, keep things on time.
- Learn a lesson from high level shows such as those that take place in Las Vegas or on Broadway. They start when they are supposed to and end when they are supposed to, or they do not stay in business long. Normally, great shows and great performers operate on a precise schedule.
- Use sound and lights to set a great mood.
Mr. Zwistler said,
“Lighting is very important to how the audience perceives you. You can make a stronger emotional impression when the lights match the tone of the music.”
To that thought he added this remark,
“Calling the sound person “your greatest weapon” is only slightly hyperbolic.”
For some performers the key to moving to the next level will be a better sound system and gaining better understanding of how a show should look from the standpoint of lighting.
- Great sound and great shows do go together. If you are serious about having a top quality performance, you will need to invest in a decent sound system, good microphone, and good means of playing your music.
- Much of the time it is not practical to travel with one’s own lighting system. However, it is good to know what kind of lighting is best. Get informed on this matter. There is great value in knowing how to make the most of whatever tools might be available. When you get to venues where good lighting is in place, be prepared to explain your needs.
- Put serious effort into the order of your show.
Mr. Zwistler said,
“Your setlist is your map to stardom, your battle plan.”
He followed that statement with specific instruction to musicians about the need to always start with a great song and end with a great song. It is not enough to just play a lot of good music. The right songs must be played at the right time.
The same truth applies to magic shows and other kinds of shows. It is not enough to just do good tricks. The right tricks must be done in the right places.Considerable thought should go into What kind of trick is a good opener (first trick to do)? What kind of trick is a good closer (last trick to do)? Each trick used should be selected on the basis of how it affects the pace of the show and put in a place where it best helps the pace.
- When planning the order of a show, try to sense the energy of the presentation. A show is not just something people see, it is something they feel. Good pacing results in ongoing fun and excitement. Work hard to ensure the feeling of your performance will truly be what you really want it to be.
- Remember there is a difference between putting on a show and doing a series of tricks. A show has structure and design. The character and nature of the entire show is much more important than any single trick, joke or routine. Individual tricks and routines are pieces that altogether compose the experience the audience will have. The pieces must work together and compliment one-another.
- Stay flexible.
More words from Mr. Zwistler.
”Things will not always go according to plan. It’s good to have a couple of covers in your back pocket in case you feel like you’re losing the audience. If the band before you just played a really high-energy set, you might want to have a few of your more ripping songs ready to go right away. Read the audience and respond accordingly.”
Continuing on the same thought he also said,
"Make sure if you’re going to play a song, it will make the overall experience for the audience better. You can often make a stronger impact playing fewer songs. Make sure the songs you’re playing suit the venue; often, a small shift in song choice can realign you with the space if you feel yourself drifting away from the audience.”
A great performer understands that, even though his show has a plan and script, there are times when adjustments must be made on the fly. Unexpected circumstance calls for adaptation to the circumstance. Do not insist on always doing things exactly as planned. Do not insist on doing things “The same way I always do them.”
- Sometimes, making a show sorter than originally planned will make it better.
- If you sense it would be best to skip a trick you intended to do, skip it!
- There are times when it is better not to use the jokes you usually use. At other times, you might need to tell more jokes than normally used.
- Just as Mr. Zwistler said to the musicians about “Have a couple of covers In your back pocket,” consider having a few extra tricks with you. If you use tricks that you know are best for particular age groups, carry alternatives to these tricks for use if the age group is not there after all.
- Pay attention to your client’s needs. If changing something in your show will help his or her’s event go better, make an effort to cooperate.
Mr. Zwistler’s article was brief, yet powerful. He finished his thoughts with this challenge…
“The only hard-and-fast rules of creating better and better live shows over time are simply to just keep playing, keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep helping others around you.”
It is great advice for all of us. Let’s asks ourselves the question, What can I do to take my show to the next level? Then follow up the question with what Mr. Zwistler said, “Keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep helping others around you.”