The following blogs are an occasional attempt to make sense of it all - the bigger picture with insight from hindsight and experience. And what better time than now?


“Believe half of what your 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 shows.  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 the visual. I’m not talking about staging or lights or smoke machines, but 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 Audio/Visual Performance Ratio to which I’ve assigned a somewhat arbitrary 10%/90% (if only for the shock value of the statement), which means I believe that an audience rates a performance based on 10% of what they hear and 90% of what they see, 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 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 A/V 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. 

The first notion I had that this phenomenon had some legs was from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In the Conclusion section of the book, somewhat as an afterthought or stinger, he recounts a recent movement by American classical music orchestras that have begun to stage their auditions with the musicians identified only by a number and performed from behind a screen. 

The idea behind the anonymity was for the audition panel to listen to the playing and not be swayed by what they might see. For as one unidentified veteran of many auditions told Gladwell (and I quote here without permission): “Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confidant and have good posture. Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have the ‘belabored’ look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you hear and what you see.” (Note: another benefit of these revamped auditions was that there are now more women in the first chairs of this historically male-dominated occupation.) 

The inference here is of great importance to the performing musician in any field of play. 

If you look like you know what you’re doing, if you look belabored or emotionally wrought, you can apparently fool most of the people most of the time. 

But I had put the Gladwell dissertation aside as only tangentially related to my “Audio/Visual” theorem until I read about Juilliard-trained pianist (and former Miss Long Island!) Chia-Jung Tsay.  According to the article in the venerable LA Times, Ms. Tsay, “… often noticed that she was more likely to win (classical piano competitions) when she was on stage and audiences could make a visual connection with her.”  So, for her Harvard doctoral thesis, she ran seven controlled experiments with 1,164 novice listeners and experienced musicians who were asked to watch videos of a classical music piano competition.  Unlike Mr. Gladwell’s tale, there were no numbers or screens. 

The most amazing result of the experiments was that both groups could most accurately identify the eventual winners by watching videos of the performances with the sound off! The opinions of the original actual judges, it would appear then, were tainted by the competitor’s appearance and stage presence over the musical performances. I’m not too sure how to accurately interpret these findings, the silent part and all, but it does go a long way to support my 10%/90% theory, you must admit. But don’t take my word for it, here’s the link: 

All of this brings me around to what the performing musician can take away from these studies. Even if you don’t buy my 10%/90% position, at least you have to rethink the idea that it’s perhaps NOT ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, at least in the live performance arena. Here are some suggestions: 

1) Back off trying to perfect your “sound” and start working on your stage presence and “look” instead.

2) Hire an experienced stage presence consultant (they’re out there) and stylist, at least for some objective opinions.

3) Do not listen to your mother, significant other or superfan.  Or worst of all, yourself. 

4) Practice your stage entry – an audience sizes up a performer in the first ten seconds of stage time, before that first note is played.

5) Lose your current nervous mannerisms and replace your pointless between-song “How’re all doin’?” patter with some entertaining stories.  Rehearse those stories the same way you rehearse your songs – constantly – until they’re second nature and don’t appear to be rehearsed at all. It’s all about stage presence and confidence. 

6) Know the power of You Tube. It’s all about the visual. Once you have your look and body language down pat, record all your songs either live or lip-synched and put them up on the service before they start charging for it. However, if you don’t have your mojo ready yet, only do lyric videos. Don’t do the live thing until you’re ready. 

7) Get some professional help. If you don’t know any, email me: 

The key is to look genuine and be believable on stage. Once you learn how to fake that, you’re in. 

“It’s not whether you win or lose; it's how good you look when it’s done.” – David Lee Roth


There are a lot of things we all know (or think we know) about the in’s and out’s of live performance, since most of us have been dealing with it professionally for years. But do we? Take the Quick Live Performance Quiz and see! We’ll start with some stuff most of us already know. 


…developing a great live show and building a live show fan base are essential to entice the attention of a manager, agent, record company or investor these days. If you don’t have a great live act to back up your music, the odds are decidedly against you. 

…the ability to sing and play your songs at the same time is a craft that can be taught and learned by rote. But to entertain? That is an art, and it can only be realized by taking the learned craft up one level into experimental rehearsal. 

…the first two things a performer needs to do in order to win over an audience are the same two things you need to do when meeting people for the first time. Make eye contact and smile – and do so frequently during the entire time you’re on stage. 

…when a performer is uncomfortable on stage, the audience is uncomfortable as well. 

…most recorded songs should be moved up a key or two for live performances in order to project more emotion. 


…90% of singer/songwriters make 90% of their income from live performances? The rest generally comes from publishing and merch, particularly if you look at music sales as merch. And you should. 

…most members of an audience make up their minds whether they like you or not within the first ten seconds you enter the stage, even before you get to the microphone? 

…your “snazzy” outfit, jewelry, hair style and even showing skin can work against the effectiveness of your performance? 

…most live performers today are blocking out a third of their visual communication with their audiences by bad mic technique? 

…a set list needs to be constructed according to feel, beat and tone, with a pattern to attract, entice, hold and excite an audience? And that a set of four songs may be a wholly different list of songs than a set of eight? 


…there are three ways to entertain an audience musically (melody, lyrics and rhythm) and you should aim for at least two of the three with every song? 

…in addition to planning a set so that everything goes right, a performing artist should have a secondary plan for when everything goes wrong? 

…the logos and wrong colors on your wardrobe, instruments, amplifiers, and backdrop can provide unnecessary distractions to the audience? 

…a note-for-note duplication of the recorded versions of your songs may not be best suited for live performance? 

...a visual representation of your name on stage helps the audience remember you? 


…performing artists need to commit their songs and patter to memory so that they will stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about entertaining the audience? 

…when all of the songs in a set are performed from the same place on a stage, they all seem to sound the same to an audience? 

…what happens between the last note of one song and the first note of the next is as important as the songs themselves? 

…practicing is not the same as rehearsing? 

…how a performer exits the stage is almost as important as the entrance? 


…probably 90% of the audience knows nothing about how music is created, played or performed. Therefore, since the audience doesn’t know a verse from a chorus from a bridge, you as the performing artist have to visually let them know when you’re transitioning from one to another. 

…an effective way to get the attention of an audience is to briefly get very soft or real loud. 

…familiarity should dictate set length. If the audience is completely familiar with you and your songs, you should play for at least an hour; however if they don’t know you or your songs, you should play no more than a half hour TOPS. 

…an audience member will be more likely to buy your music after the show if the song that really moved them during the set is available at the merch table. 

…a performing artist should do things on stage that the audience could never do or would never think of doing anywhere, let alone in front of other people. 

How’d you do? 

15 - 20: Come on. You've done this before. 

10 - 15: A little refresher course might be in order. 

5 - 10: You need a good Live Performance Coach. 

0 - 5:   You need a great Live Performance Coach. 

A Live Performance Coach is aware of all of these things and more. All the more reason for musicians and performing artists to work with one before embarking on a stage career.