Have you ever had the experience of walking out on stage, and seeing a hall packed with happy excited faces?

And perhaps also the experience of walking out on stage, and seeing only a smattering of live humans engulfed by a sea of empty seats?

Sure, playing to a full house can be a little nerve-wracking, but playing for an empty hall, after all the work you put into preparing for a performance?

Oof. That can be pretty demoralizing.

So how do you get people to come to your next performance?

Building audiences

I attended a music conference this week, where the theme centered around engaging and building audiences.

Many interesting and smart folks working in various segments of the industry shared a range of ideas that they have found to be helpful in developing an engaged and loyal audience.

So what is the secret ingredient?

Is it a strategy for “breaking down barriers” between audience and performer?

Enabling listeners to make a personal connection with the performer?

Programming more new music? More commissions?

Shorter programs?

Free parking? Alcohol?!

And the answer is…

Well, it appears that there is no single correct answer, because some of it depends on who the audience is.

It also seems that there are two qualitatively different questions being asked, requiring somewhat different approaches.

As in, (1) How do we get people to show up for a performance? vs. (2) How do we get those same folks to come back for our next performance?

Both are important questions, but the second, is arguably the more important – in that it has to do with developing and sustaining a career in the long-term.

To that end, forward-looking performers, presenters, and managers have identified a range of strategies that seem to make a difference (at least for their particular audience).

Keynote speaker Eric Booth also shared a number of interesting ideas, but the one that resonated most with the psychologist part of me was…emotion.

The impact of emotions

A wise person once said to me that at the end of the day, the only currency that matters to us is how we feel.

Maya Angelou herself once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Indeed, events that evoke strong emotions tend to be remembered better (and more vividly) than non-emotional events. (It’s a rather interesting literature – here’s an overview if you’re curious).

So if we want to be remembered (and talked about a day, week, or month after the performance), it behooves us to find a way to ensure that we engender in each member of the audience, a strong emotional experience. A “personally relevant connection inside the music” to borrow Booth’s words, that will bring them back – ideally, with a friend or two in tow.

For some, great music and top-notch playing might be enough to evoke a memorable emotional experience, worth seeking out again and again.

But for many, that alone may not be enough to engender the kind of emotional experience we crave. (And what serious artist is ever content with doing “just enough” anyway?)

So is practicing more and playing 2% better the key to enhancing the emotional experience and making a transformative difference? Probably not.

Is educating an audience via program notes or pre-concert lectures, and giving them the ability to recognize sonata form, going to heighten the emotional experience and lead to droves of raving fans? Not likely.

Might there be some emotion-inducing gimmicks or tricks, perhaps? Nope; that kind of thing comes across as inauthentic and is a huge turnoff.

So how do we foster a deeper connection between each listener and our art?

There is more than one way to engender such an emotional connection, and this is part of the art of being a performer. An opportunity to be creative and find ways of creating deeper emotional experiences (and more memorable memories) for one’s listener. To illustrate, Booth shared one simple example of how little things like speaking from the stage and sharing the right story can make a big difference in “priming” an audience to have a more meaningful experience of the same performance.

I have to admit to being a little unsure where he was going as he went through the demonstration, but it all came together at the end and definitely had its intended effect on me.

Check it out: The Red Wheelbarrow

Next steps

I’m curious. What have you tried that seems to draw people in, and provide an emotional experience that they remember and talk about days after the fact?

Or, what have you seen others do, that has engendered a strong emotional response within you?

Maybe this is silly and it’s a sign I’ve gone overboard with my Apple obsession, but despite seeing this commercial only once, I still remember how it made me feel, and how I was compelled to share it with a few folks (heck, I guess I’m doing it again now): Apple ''Misunderstood'' commercial

photo credit: Libertinus via photopin cc

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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