That great American song and dance man, George M. Cohen, once said, “The most important part of any act is the first ten seconds and the last ten seconds…what happens in between isn’t that important.” When the spotlight hits, you’ve got to make the first ten seconds count or you’ve lost your audience.

This is not to say you won’t be able to get them back on your side, but once they’ve turned their attention elsewhere you’ll need to work twice as hard. Can I win over folks like me in only ten seconds? Sometimes it takes less time than that, and sometimes it just never happens (like the time I was booked into a club that was into heavy metal). Although it’s not rational, sometimes people and audiences make a snap judgment about whether they do or don’t like a performer within a few seconds.

“When the spotlight hits, you’ve got to make the first ten seconds count or you’ve lost your audience…Once they’ve turned their attention elsewhere, to get them back on your side you’ll need to work twice as hard.” To truly capture the heart of a listener requires a command of four major elements: pitch, volume, tone and emotion. I know from first hand experience that communicating the lyric can overcome whatever musical shortcomings may arise, within reason.

Hellooo…Hellooo…

How can you tell if the audience is with you? Simple. Watch their body language. Are they tapping and clapping or talking and throwing things? (Don’t laugh-it has happened!) Once two people stop listening to you and start talking, you’ve lost them. Little coughs, clearing throats and squirming people in chairs…they’re gone! I played a club recently and upon arriving to the location found the outline of a body on the pavement, an obvious homicide-what a motivator! Perhaps that was their last vocalist?

If you are going to be a pro or even semi-professional singer, you need to develop a thick skin and be able to keep your eye on your goals. I recently played a casino and performed at some of those little watering holes right on the casino floor. Talk about big time distractions! Some of these folks wouldn’t pay attention if Elvis himself came in and sang! Like the song says, it’s nice work if you can get it, just don’t expect the audience to listen very much. Right from the get-go, the person who hired me made it clear, “Your job is to keep those butts in the chairs long enough for them to order a drink or two and do some gambling. I wanna see toes tapping and smiles, but most of all I wanna hear the unfolding of 10s and 20s!” Gambling casinos aside, there are some things you can do to command attention, thus ensuring that your time on stage starts off on the right foot.

Look for the Applause Button

Police say that before any major theft criminals always “case the joint.” Before your gig, explore the layout to see if there’s anything unique about the location that can lend itself to your act. I recently played a special event at an old courthouse that’s been converted to a museum. After singing the opening verse, I made my entrance by coming down a grand staircase from the balcony of the main rotunda, and although the acoustics were cave-like, I looked really good. I typically try to come from the back of the room after being introduced (you should always try to get someone to introduce you if possible…it lends credibility and authority as you take the stage.)

As inconspicuously as possible before the show, look over the audience and see what your listeners are like. What’s the vibe of the room? Most importantly, know where your friends and other applause-starters are seated. I know of one singer who places a few of her friends at strategic spots in the audience so they are not all bunched together. The idea is that one applause-starter can encourage others around to do so.

It always pays to treat your relatives and friends to free admission or a round of drinks or whatever. The Ice Breaker Getting your act off to a great start is critical. The first time I saw Wayne “Mr. Las Vegas” Newton I was immediately taken by his stage presence. He came on, sang the first few verses, and then yelled: “Stop the music!” He then walked out to the apron of the stage and called out “Folks? Ohhh folks…is anyone out there? Are you ready to have a good time? Loosen your ties, belts, girdles or whatever, ’cause we’re going to have some fun.” For ninety minutes I saw the man cover almost every genre of music and play three different musical instruments well. When he left the stage his ovation lasted three minutes and ten seconds-I timed it.

After that great icebreaker, the folks were “on his side” and ready to be entertained. It’s extremely important to find a good intro, story or clever remark to use right after your first song, so your act will start with a nice burst of laughter and hopefully some applause. You can find great sources of comedy in everyday situations, in the news, in joke books, or at online humor sites.

Cool Communication As you walk on stage, make eye contact with individuals in the audience as if you recognize them. The action will be spontaneous. Some will actually believe you recognize them. Even if you can’t see them because of the lights, look at them with a warm smile. Remember, your goal is to win them over in ten seconds, so go out of your way to reach every section of the room, left, center and right. The expression on your face when you sing is also important. Too many times singers look as if they’re in pain. Nobody likes pain. Play it cool and don’t come across as if you are trying too hard. Make it look easy. You must give the audience the impression that singing comes easy, that you are happy to be there (without being too gushy), and that you’re a pro who’s in control and ready to have a good time with them. Practicing in a full-length mirror is a great way to check out how the audience sees you. If possible, every performance should also be video taped. You can use the footage for analysis, and if it’s good enough, for your promo package.