Engaging the Audience

The Competitor's Edge

In this edition, the focus is engaging the audience.

Bring the noise, bring the funk.

A too-oft-ignored reality of live a cappella performance—the audience wants to be engaged. Sure, most audience have their outspoken sources of snark, but in their heart of hearts the vast majority of people come out to shows because they want to be entertained.

Groups that thrive in competition capitalize on that desire. They take the stage with palpable energy, intensity, or verity. They take the audience for a ride. A competition is the absolute worst venue for any group to “phone in” a performance. Groups should leave everything they have on the stage to leave no doubt they made the best effort possible to engage the crowd.

Perform for them, not you.

Competitions have different target demographics. The ICCAs feature college kids, and while there’s a diverse body of judges, in my informal observation, the judges generally seem to reward performances that seem true to the group—youthful, edgy, innovative. Meanwhile, for Harmony Sweepstakes, the demographics tend to skew a bit more mature, and there’s a history of barbershop groups succeeding in the setting, meaning it’s not necessarily the optimal audience for a group to <i>attack</i> with wacky new vocal stylings.

Successful groups know their audience and perform to please their sensibilities. Moreover, they put the audience first. Groups naturally develop inside jokes, but great competitors recognize that those jokes are best left internal—in the rehearsal room, not on the performance stage when they run the risk of confusing or even alienating the crowd.

Interacting with the audience.

One of the purest approaches to engaging an audience is to get them actively participating in the performance. For example, when a group achieves something epic along the lines of a barn-burning closing number, it can be a huge advantage to lead the crowd in a clap-along to get them feeling the music and feeling like a part of the story. (On the flip side, going for a clap-along on the opening number or more than once in a set runs the risk of coming across as presumptuous, pandering, or just plain annoying).

Another way of interacting is to break the fourth wall. Mind you, not every performance space lends itself to it, but if a group can take advantage of the space available and work its way into the crowd (or start in the crowd and work their way onto the stage) it can surprise the audience, stand out, and bolster audience attachment to your act based on pure proximity.

How have you seen groups engage audiences in competition? Let us know in the comments.