If you want to add power to your vocal performance (singing or speaking, for that matter), the number one way to add power to your performance or message is to make eye contact with your audience.
As a beginning or intermediate performer, though, it can be the most difficult skill to incorporate. After you learn all the notes, get the rhythm right, and memorize your lyrics, learning how to make eye contact with your audience is the final mile.
There are three ways beginning singers tend to avoid mastering this crucial skill:
- Keeping eyes closed
- Looking at a lyric sheet
- Looking in any direction EXCEPT at the audience
Let’s discuss how to overcome each one.
Open Your Eyes
The best way to shut everyone out is to just close your eyes. I can understand why beginning singers might utilize this tactic, but once you’re all good, I don’t understand why it keeps getting employed. For me, it would be the same as having a conversation with someone, and they closed their eyes every time it was their turn to speak. Wouldn’t that be weird?
I suppose it could come across as “Oh, he’s just focusing on the technical aspects of the song and trying to remember everything,” or “She must really be getting into that song.” In either case, the performer is shutting off any potential for audience engagement. It seems weird to me.
There are times, though, when closing your eyes could add power to the message. During a conversation, say, you might close your eyes while speaking to express a really strong emotion. For example, “I was just getting so FRUSTRATED!” And you might close your eyes when saying that word and scrunch up your face. But apply it sparingly so it adds power and doesn’t become your modus operandi.
It could be that because so many musicians are employing this technique, it has become acceptable, but I just don’t like it. If you are able to keep your eyes open while you’re talking, there’s no reason why you can’t keep them open while you’re singing.
If You Must, Use a Cheat Sheet
Memorizing lyrics is my Achilles heel, so I have a soft spot for people with this same issue. I also have less mercy because there are ways to address it. I believe everyone can memorize lyrics. It’s just that it takes some of us a lot longer than others. (Do the work, people!)
The idea of going on stage without that precious piece of paper can feel terrifying, I know. But go the next step and see if you can’t make a cheat sheet. See my post on “Ten Steps for Memorizing Lyrics” and get through to the part called, “Whack It Back to a Cheat Sheet.” Take your cheat sheet on stage with you, but practice looki
ng up from it. If it’s a true cheat sheet, there’s no reason to look at it the entire time you’re singing. In fact, practice performing in such a way that you can steal glances at it without people even noticing.
Nota bene: never take a cheat sheet on stage with you without testing it ahead of time. I’ve made that mistake!
Look People in the Eye
Some of you have the gift of memorizing lyrics, and you are already singing with your eyes open, but you have a habit of looking in weird places. Looking up at the ceiling can come across as if you are trying really hard to remember the lyrics. Looking down at the floor can come across like you’re not feeling confident or like you don’t want to be there or like you did something wrong and you’re going to get in trouble.
I’ve heard some teachers coach people to look just above the heads of the audience. I don’t like this one either because it is still not giving power to your performance. The audience will feel like something is missing, but they might not know why.
What’s more interesting to look at? A person staring off into space or a person who is looking someone else in the eye?
Compare and contrast these two videos of James Taylor and Carly Simon and tell me which one is more engaging with regard to eye contact.
Something way more interesting happens to your face when you are looking someone else in the eye. The other person’s face responds to you, and, in turn, you respond to them. It’s natural! And the rest of your audience becomes way more interested in what’s going on.
But don’t just pick one person out of the crowd and focus your gaze on them. That will feel uncomfortable for everyone. Continuously look around the room, engaging several people in each sweep for about 2 to three seconds only.
Practice Feeling Weird
For those of you who need to work on making eye contact part of your performance, here’s a heads-up: it’s going to feel really uncomfortable and weird at first. But don’t let that stop you! Press through it. Practice singing while looking someone in the eye A LOT! One way to do this is to practice singing to yourself in the mirror and making eye contact with yourself. Incorporate the vulnerable feeling into your performance. You’re putting your voice out there, now put your soul out there. You’re letting people hear your voice, now let them see your soul. It’ll be okay. They’ll be nice to you.