Author: Joe Carr. This is from the January 1999 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. Used with permission. Check out their web site at www.bluegrassmusic.com. Mr. Carr is on staff at South Plains College, which can be accessed at www.spc.cc.tx.us. Learn more about Joe with Alan Munde at Cybergrass Artist Profile section.
My own experience as an emcee started with the band called Roanoke in the 1970's. Without consulting me, the other band members decided that I would be the one to do the "talkin'." When I joined Country Gazette in 1978, Bill Bryson was the emcee, and I thought I would finally be able to just concentrate on the music. Bill, however, left the band later that year, and once again I was the band "mouth." I finally learned to enjoy the emcee role event though I have made my fair share of mistakes.
Shortly after I joined the faculty at South Plains Collete, I developed a course entitled "Music Performance and Promotion." It was designed to teach our students things about the music business that are not covered in ensemble classes or private lessons. Stage presence and emcee skills were two of the topics we covered. Here is the list of dos and don'ts from this class along with some stories to make the point.
1) Project a cheerful, upbeat image (if it fits the gig!). Obviously, this won't work if you are playing a funeral. "Howdy, folks, and welcome. We are really excited to be here, and I'm sure Charlie would have been, too."
2) Speak clearly and slowly if necessary. Many festivals, indoor shows, and clubs have problems with echo. Make sure the audience doesn't hear "Hhooddyyffoollkkss aanndd wweellccoommee." Your best joke will flop if they can't understand your words.
3) Eliminate unnecessary delays in the show that require talking to cover. Arrange several songs together that don't require capo changes or special tunings. This way you can just start the next song. Prepare a solo or duet number and save it for the time when a major retuning is required or when a string breaks.
4) Cover any unavoidable delay in the show with talking. This is the time for special introductions. Since you probably know the names of your fellow band members and the names of the instruments, this shouldn't be a problem. Fill the time until the banjo player has changed the head or the fiddler has reset the soundpost.
5) Have a purpose for each speech. Ideas of what to talk about: a) introduce a bandmember, b) share something special about the next song, c) point out something that might otherwise be missed by the audience (the really high tenor part, the harmony between the guitar and mandolin, the fact that the bass player and lead singer just filed for divorce.)
6) If it's good, tell them. Most audiences are not as musically sophisticated as performers. They don't know your banjo player moved into a chicken coop and lived there for six months just to work out a killer version of "Little Rock Getaway." If you are about to play something really good or really hard--tell the audience to listen for it. Maybe even cue them with a wink when it happens. Chances are, you'll get some applause for a job well done.
7) Be entertaining and funny, if you can pull it off and if it fits the gig (see #1). Nothing is more uncomfortable for an audience than a jokester who isn't funny and doesn't know it. Years ago, I saw a country comedian who wore tennis shoes with springs attached all over them. Once he was on stage he announced, "These are my new spring shoes. How do you like them?" When no one laughed, he continued, "SPRING shoes, get it?" Still no response. I was afraid this guy was going to go into the audience and explain the joke personally to each audience member. Actually, now that I think about it, it is kind of funny. SPRING SHOES, get it?
8) In an introduction, save the performer's name until last. If you say the name and then jump into a long list of their accomplishments, the audience doesn't know when to clap. Say everything you are going to say about the individual and then say, "Please make welcome, Malcolm Velcom!" Notice I told the audience what to do. I said "make welcome." Audiences know this means either cook them a big chicken dinner and invite them to spend the night or...simply clap.
9) Collect clever or humorous lines that fit situations that are likely to occur. Toastmaster's books are filled with this kind of stuff. Look in your local library. Once, I was playing in a small club. We band members could see that the couple at the table just below the stage was preparing to leave. The couple, of course, was not really listening to the band as they collected their coats and purses. Just before they stood, our banjo player, Gerald Jones, announced, "We would now like to ask one couple to leave the audience." The couple, still not listening, got up and began to work their way to the exit. The audience howled as Gerald continued, "Ah, volunteers. It's so nice not to have to grab people at random and throw them out."
10) Know what's going to happen before you walk on stage. This one is self-explanatory. Set lists and rehearsals are your friends.
11) Find out what you can about the place, the next band, the group you are playing to, and make appropriate adds or cuts to your stage patter. For example, you wouldn't want to launch into your "Why I Hate Little Kids In Bluegrass Bands" speech right before the Finkle Family Five hits the stage. Likewise, you may want to drop "Oh Death" from your set list at your next nursing home gig.
1) Don't share problems with the audience. "These are new strings and I can't keep them in tune." "We're a new band and we haven't had much rehearsal." "We drove all night and we are tired." "Bubba's a really bad guitar picker, but we can't find anybody better who will play with us." Sorry to burst your bubble, but audiences just want to have fun. They don't care. Just suck it up and do a great show.
2) Don't apologize for real or imagined shortcomings. "We used to have a fiddler and this song sounded real good. I hope you'll like it." "Darrell's just been playing banjo for three months. He's no Earl, but we love him anyway."
3) Don't repeat requests over the microphone if you don't intend to do them. I've seen it too many times. One audience member yells, "Rocky Top!" The band heard it and some of the people around the guy heard it, but that's all. The band emcee (we'll call him Dufus) thinks this is a bad request and uses his mic to respond, "ROCKY TOP!?" Now the entire audience hears the dreaded name and begins to chant it rhythmically. Don't use a 200,000 watt P.A. system to announce the name of a song you don't want to do. Just play the next song on the list.
4) Don't acknowledge hecklers unless it is really disruptive and obvious to the whole audience or you have a snappy comeback. (This can backfire on you.) Luckily we don't have too many hecklers at festivals, but those of us who have played bars know them well. Generally it is a good idea to let the audience be the police. In most audiences there is at least one former Marine (6'7", 280) who loves bluegrass music. Do a Stanley Brothers tune and let him take care of things.
5) Don't fall into an introduction style. "Mary does a fine job on the banjo, Pepe does a fine job on the bass, Joe does a fine job on the fiddle." If these folks are individual and special enough to play in your band, they at least deserve a special individual introduction. "Jane is the only seven-fingered-style banjo player in the Tri-City Area." Share something unique and your fellow band members will love you. Maybe you will even get introduced. (Good idea, by the way. Don't introduce yourself.)
6) Don't tell tuning jokes. Okay, we have all told them, so let's stop. They aren't funny to musicians and audience members don't get it. "I bought it in tune." "I'm gonna weld 'em in place once I get it there." "You can tuna fish, but you can't tune a banjo," and the worst: "Here's a Chinese song called 'tu-ning.'"
7) Don't use off-color, racist, sexist, hurtful, you-know-what-I'm-talking-about material. You never know who might be in the audience. (Remember the story of Carlene Carter playing a New York club and not knowing Johnny and June were in the audience?) No audience member leaves a music show thinking, "They were pretty good, but the emcee just wasn't nasty enough."
8) Don't show your ignorance. When playing in Canada, for example, never say, "Ontario...I always thought it was just more of the United States!" (This really happened.)
9) Don't tell jokes among the band members. You know, "inside" jokes. You are laughing, but the audience feels left out.
I hope these are helpful suggestions. Good emcee work is really like polite dinner conversation except you have a microphone and they don't. And, oh yeah, there isn't any food. Okay, so it's not like a dinner conversation. It's more like...well, standing on stage and talking to the audience. Be pleasant, entertaining, and never offend...The Audience is Listening.
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