Thursday, April 18, 2013

Can I Look Into Your Eyes?

Last night I went to the twice-a-month gathering of the San Diego Songwriters MeetUp Group, the first time there for me.  I had such an amazing time and met so many wonderful people.

For the first hour, special guest speaker Katherine Zimmerman spoke about performance fears and anxiety, and taught several techniques for relaxing oneself before a performance. I found this extremely helpful.  Most of her talk centered on relaxing before a performance.  But one during-a-performance issue she discussed was whether or not to make eye contact.  She talked about how there is an old technique for public speaking that gets retold and re-taught quite a bit, that of looking at the back wall, above the audience's head, while speaking.  She stated her own feeling that as a public speaker herself, this did not work for her, as it prevented her from really connecting with her audience.

I was very active in politics many years back, and even held public office once for a year.  Having to speak in front of large groups of people was terrifying for me, but suddenly I had to do it all the time, sometimes multiple times in a single day.  I had heard the look-at-the-back-wall technique somewhere before, and began using it immediately.  I may have made eye contact with someone in the audience every now and then, but for the most part I stuck to my reliable friend, the back wall.

After my days in politics, I was a stage actor for a while.  I was still up in front of people a lot, but for the most part, it was required that I look into the eyes of my fellow actors on stage, not at the audience.

When I began performing as a musician in 2006, I wasn't really sure how to handle where to look, and I never asked anyone about it or discussed it with anyone.  I guess I had seen lots of musicians perform by that point - some of them looked at the audience, some didn't, some seemed to be using the old tried-and-true back wall method, some looked away, and some even kept their eyes closed a lot of the time.  I guess I just figured it wasn't that important.  Over the years, I've mainly used the back wall method, making eye contact occasionally here and there, but only for quick, fleeting moments, and only a few times at most each show.

But a funny thing has been happening at the open mics I've been playing recently here in San Diego.  Most places I play, the venue is fully lit.  Back in my NYC rock band days, quite often the venue would turn out the lights in the audience area and turn on bright stage lights, so I couldn't see the audience if I had wanted to.  But here, most times (the notable exception being Lestat's West, which follows the audience-dark/stage-bright model) I look out and can clearly see everyone watching and listening.  

So I've been feeling strange using the old back wall method, because all these eyes are pointed towards me and my performance.  But I'm looking over them, and I almost feel like I'm shutting them out or intentionally blocking myself off from them.

I was glad to hear Katherine's suggestion of welcoming and getting used to audience eye contact.  I performed one song for the group last night, my new one "First Step to Starlight," and my intention was to start practicing making eye contact as much as possible while performing.  I was startled to find how scary it felt at first.  But the more I did it, even over the course of that one song, the better it felt.  

I'm excited to try this out at my future performances.  I think feeling connected to the audience is a big part of the joy of performing, and I've been unintentionally cutting myself off from this for a long time.  

I also met a bunch of great people last night from the group and got to chat with some of them after the formal event was over.  Big thanks to Cliff Keller for organizing the event last night and doing such an amazing job running it.  Thanks also to songwriters Karin Keller, Star St. Claire, Brian Frankel, Roy Schultz, Omar Musisko, and Len Guerzon for chatting with me and being so incredibly welcoming to me afterwards.  Everyone who played one of their new songs last night did great, but I wanted to mention that Star St. Claire's song, which she sang while accompanied by Len Guerzon on guitar, was truly wonderful.

I'm going to play the Kaffee Meister open mic in Santee tonight, the drawing for time slots is at 6:15PM PT and performances begin at 6:45.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog here and reading.  I deeply appreciate it.

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