THE SIGHT VS. SOUND PERFORMANCE THEORY – WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT NECESSARILY WHAT YOU GET

“Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

In the course of the last 40 years or so, I’ve attended perhaps 5,000 musical performances of every genre and circumstance imaginable; from audiences of six to those of 60,000; from solo performers to large orchestras. In almost every one of them, I’ve been somewhat appalled by the reactions and impressions taken away by many of the audience members as to the relative value of the performances. Far too many times, I’ve found, the general public has little to no idea as to the quality of the songs or musicianship, but are way more impressed by their visual acumen. I’m not talking about staging or lights or smoke machines, but rather how the confidence exuded by the performers, their appearance and stage presence, trumped even the most obvious less-than-stellar renditions of the artists’ material.

My consternation led me to formulate my Sight/Sound Performance Ratio to which I’ve assigned a somewhat arbitrary 90%/10% (if only for the shock value of the statement), which means I believe that an audience rates a performance based on 90% of what they see vs. 10% of what they hear, whether they realize it or not. This is not meant as an assault on the intelligence of the concert-going public. It is a well-documented natural tendency of humans to evaluate (and believe) what they see long before surmising what they hear, as evidenced by the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong lyric above.

Until recently, I have not seriously avowed my audio/visual theory, as I’ve had no real backup for my statistic; it’s based on nothing but my own experience. But then I came upon two published studies which supported it, if only obliquely. The first is from Malcolm Gladwell’s widely read 2005 book Blink, and the second from a Harvard doctoral thesis on classical piano competitions, neither of which is nearly as boring as it sounds. Read on; you’ll be glad you did. Continue reading…

RADIO STATION LOUNGES & THE ART OF LIVE AND ACOUSTIC

“If you can’t deliver your song with just an acoustic guitar and one mic under one white light bulb dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, then you’re not a performer and it’s not a song.” – David Lee Roth

As an erstwhile bar band musician and singer in my younger days, I am always impressed when artists strip away the electronics and superfluous support system and perform their songs in the simplest form, in much the same way as Diamond Dave describes above. It lays bare the basics of the composition and the artist’s talents. I believe that it is only under these circumstances that songs and performers can be evaluated for craftsmanship and aesthetics. This is where it all comes down to the song (melody, lyrics and chords) and the performance (talent, craft, experience, artistry, style, dynamics and emotion).

Taking it down even further to its granular form, it all depends on the delivery. Two very able but different artists can deliver the same song under the same performance restrictions and the outcome will usually be decidedly different – not necessarily one good or one bad – but different. Lots of times it’s something that you can’t quite put your finger on; however, I find that the difference is usually in the emotion of the delivery. I’m not talking about histrionics or screaming or any outward visible signs of emotion (although such things can add to the effect); I’m referring to the indescribable but undeniable emotional timbre from within that connects the performer and the song to the audience and makes it all work.

That emotional something can’t be dissected or made into a list of checkpoints, and so, as a result, it can’t be taught. Playing an instrument, singing on key and various effective vocal inflections can be learned in school and mastered by anyone who has the patience and determination to practice, practice, practice. But there is no guidebook to emotional delivery and/or subsequent connection to an audience. The only thing I’ve found among those who have it and those who don’t, is that the former has spent quite a deal of time performing live in front of an audience and the latter hasn’t. Only experience can teach how to perform live and acoustic effectively and successfully.

These days, other than in small singer/songwriter clubs and coffeehouses, it’s difficult to experience those basics-only performances. Those who do play these venues are generally at the beginning point of their careers and haven’t yet mastered the qualities it takes to bring it all home. In fact, the only place I’m finding to weed out the wheat from the chaff is by listening to (and observing, if possible) live, in-studio radio station broadcasts, more popularly called “Lounges”. The beauty of the in-studio radio station broadcasts, or lounges, is that their logistics generally demand a low-tech performance. Small rooms, limited mics and inputs, and the difficulty in obtaining or hauling in massive amounts of gear all lend themselves to the kind of revealing standard that I prefer. Continue reading…