Use verbal, visual, and musical cues to lead your audience

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Last year, I attended the WOMAD Festival and spent an awesome three weeks in Australia experiencing a stunning amount of music in clubs, at my workshops, and at the Fringe Festival.

There were all types of artists performing, from solo performers with one guitar to 12-piece bands, with acts from around the world playing music in styles that included pop, rock, blues, electronica, and a ton of other genres.

While there was a good deal of diversity in styles, when it came to the performances, I was struck by the similarities. Some artists were in front of 30 people and some were in front of 8,000 people, but I noticed they all wanted the audience to respond in certain ways. Trouble was, the artists were sending confusing musical cues and non-verbal signals to their audiences, so they usually didn’t get the response they were hoping for.

There’s a psychology to leading an audience during a show that begins with a plan – including setting up your songs up with cues to lead the audience. Some are verbal cues, some are visual, and some are musical and can involve things like leaving space at the right time in a song to encourage audience participation or extending a musical part leading to a payoff at the end where the audience understands they’re supposed to respond.

Visual cues can tell an audience what you want them to do, but they only work if done correctly and at the right time. When someone wants to get the audience to sing, for example, most artists shout something into the microphone and then hold the mic to the audience expecting them to respond. But if you don’t set it up correctly or you rush through instead of explaining clearly what you want the audience to do, maybe 20% of the audience will respond when you give the visual cue. It’s not that the audience doesn’t want to respond, they just don’t know what you want them to do.

The trash can ending

Let’s take one obvious cue that’s both musical and visual: the trash can ending. This is a moment where the audience knows they’re supposed to respond. Musically, the drummer is beating his drums, the guitar player is powering out on a chord, or doing a run up the neck, or holding one note, building to a crescendo… then there’s a big cut off and the audience knows their role... and the crowd goes wild! (Hopefully.)

More often than not, the visual part of this musical cue is done incorrectly. Most of the time, the band members all turn around to the drummer for the cue to end the song. Instead, the band ought to put pressure on the audience by moving forward. The group should NOT look back at the drummer – the drummer shouldn't end the song – the front man should cut the song off without looking back.

This is something you work on in rehearsal. Even after the cut off, the band members should hold their ground or step forward to accept applause with the front man urging the crowd to continue. The band should not retreat back to their amps – if your lead them, the audience will follow your cue and continue to clap. This technique will create freedom in the room, you’ll get a much bigger response, and if you work the applause cycle, you can lead the audience rather than always responding to their energy.

Don’t wing it!

Another mistake I often see is the front man is asking the crowd to sing while the band members are putting their hands in the air to get the audience to clap. You’re sending a mixed signal. Do you want them to sing or clap?

A good show should have intentional visual, verbal, and musical cues so you can interact with your audience. The audience is not inside your head, they don’t know what you want them to do unless you make it obvious. You need to gauge where they are and how to lead them.

Putting on a great show means you need to educate yourself and understand what it takes be a great performer, especially if you want to make a career out of it. Take a cue from the late great Prince. Not only was he famous for performing tirelessly, but after a show, he’d take the entire band back to the hotel or rehearsal space late night to view the evening’s performance to critique what worked, what didn’t, and where each performer could improve. And this was a man at the top of the profession. To make a living in music, your show is critical to your success. You have to constantly work to improve and better understand what makes a great show.

I’ll bet that of all the groups I saw in Australia, maybe one or two of them will be around in five years. Don’t get me wrong, they were a lot of great musicians with good songs and sets, but most of them didn’t know what they were doing on stage. It breaks my heart. Most of their careers will be a casualty because they were winging it.

This post originally appeared on the Disc Makers Blog. Reposted with permission.

Tom Jackson is a world renowned live music producer, author of the book Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method and the All Roads Lead to the Stage DVD series, and master at transforming an artist’s live show into a magical experience for the audience. Tom has worked with hundreds of artists in every genre, including major artists like Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jars of Clay, and more. He also shares his expertise as a speaker at colleges, conferences, and events worldwide. For more information and more blog posts and videos, go to