The trick to anonymous performances

I'm headed up to Portland this weekend, and one of the things I'm going to do there is play music for an hour in the lobby of a hotel. It's a paid gig and an excuse to get out of town — I'll almost-but-not-quite break even on the trip.

It's a type of performance I've come to enjoy, playing to an audience that didn't know they were going to a show.

When famous musicians perform, they play through state-of-the-art equipment to adoring crowds who already know and love their music. Most musicians, however, do most of their performing under less ideal circumstances. We play in bars and coffee houses and at parties in someone's backyard.

There always are audience members who didn't come for the music. There are often audience members who thought there was going to be karaoke tonight and are flat-out disappointed to walk through the door and see you on stage. In this information age of digital entertainment and infinite content, performing musicians sometimes seem to be asking more of the audience than the audience asks of them. The bar patrons and party-goers don't necessarily need a band, but the band sure needs an audience.

I may be overstating my case, but you get the idea: Live music is a throwback to an earlier era of entertainment. This brings me to what I love about playing solo and semi-anonymously at craft fairs and Fourth of July block parties and hotel lobby wine-hour events. People didn't come to hear you play, and they aren't required even to notice that you are there.

A solo performer set up in a corner or under an Easy-Up tent is unobtrusive enough to become background music. People may walk past without paying any attention, but you still get to score the scene. Everyone can hear you, even if no one is paying attention.

With the wrong performing mindset, this could turn into an ugly scene. If the performer wants to tell charming stories about how he came to write each song to an adoring audience who just can't get enough of his anecdotes, he may come to feel that the gig is going poorly. In my experience, losing confidence during a show becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Things might not have gone bad yet, but if you think they have they probably will soon.

If, on the other hand, you take it as an opportunity to work at your craft — to try out new songs or new ideas or even just to hone the tunes and techniques that are already the mainstays of your act — this type of show can become very liberating. It's not that there isn't an audience — it's just that the audience isn't a single, continuous unit.

Little bits and pieces of your audience filter past over the course of your set. Individuals and groups stop to listen for a while and then move on. Occasionally, someone will find a perch and settle in to listen for a longer period of time. Some people listen for half a song, drop a dollar in the tip jar, and move on. Others never stop moving, never even look up at you, but still put money in the jar on their way past.

A lot of times you notice that a family has been listening from a distance when they send a little kid up with a dollar bill clenched in a little fist. This is usually adorable. The kid gets close but becomes nervous. There is much looking back over the shoulder toward the parents — who make encouraging hand gestures. Finally, the little kid throws the dollar in the pot, looks up to make sure you noticed, and runs away. Often, they repeat the whole act a few minutes later.

The trick to enjoying the semi-anonymous solo performance is to play to the room (or stretch of sidewalk) rather than to your own idea of yourself as a musician. When I first began to think about these things, I would sometimes go too far the other direction. I would act as though there were no coherent audience at all. I would repeat songs whenever I felt like playing them again, or just noodle around on the guitar without any real attitude of being a performer doing a job.

What saved me from developing into a sullen and oblivious semi-anonymous street performer was a basic awareness of the fact I was surrounded by craft vendors (or restaurant wait staff, etc.) who constituted not just a continuous audience, but a captive continuous audience. I try to keep two thoughts in mind when I play: Trust your material and don't ask any favors of the audience. It ain't high philosophy, but it works for me.

Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at

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