What 6 World-Class Musicians Can Teach Us about Performing

By Connor McCoy, Spire Contributor | October 2, 2018

What 6 World-Class Musicians Can Teach Us about Performing

Few artists are capable of owning the stage and captivating an audience. Most of the ones that fill up arenas with 40,000+ people in attendance are artists that have honed and practiced the art of entertainment. Sure, they have the assistance of a large touring crew, helping to make the show really light up with special effects and off-stage support, but at the very core of the performance is the artist’s ability to enrapture a crowd and leave the audience awe-struck.

In this post we’re rounding up examples of artists that nail the often elusive craft of performing, and practical takeaways that you can learn from them.

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran is one of those artists that understands what a crowd wants out of a performance. His signature “one-man-band” style captures his personality and brand so well, and he glosses through his songs like it takes no effort at all. He’s known for using his loop pedals to build up his songs, and controls his performance by bringing in and taking out instruments and effects at certain sections to create a moving, enthralling performance.

He’s mastered the art of knowing when the listener wants something new and how to introduce it. It’s very easy to get carried away with building up a song, especially with a loop pedal, and you can tell he’s really practiced keeping his performances new and interesting, so you don’t zone out while he’s adding a new sound or instrument.

By doing this, he’s proclaiming that you don’t necessarily need dazzling lights and massive production to make it in the industry—just your voice, your instrument, and amazing songwriting.

Try it out: If looping sounds or playing with production techniques live is something that you involve in your performances, then watch how Ed Sheeran adds and subtracts his loops. He prepares for each upcoming section without disconnecting from his audience.

Performance to watch: Ed Sheeran plays “Shape of You” at the 59th Grammy Awards.

Ed Sheeran (courtesy of Variety)

Coldplay

Coldplay is one of those bands that connects with their audience so well because of the story they’ve written over the course of their career. They’ve gone from playing grungy shows in pubs all over rural U.K to playing the largest, sold out stadiums everywhere. Despite their music being some of the most uplifting and anthemic songs of the modern era, their main appeal is how unbelievably epic their live shows have always been.

Throughout the years, their sound has changed so much that you can hardly connect their old albums with their new ones. But live, they include songs from any era of the band.

Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, makes an effort every time to run out into the crowd. His energy is a force to be reckoned with, and although Coldplay’s shows are notoriously strewn with colorful lights, wristbands, and fireworks, the main focus is always Chris and the band, putting their all into their setlist (and who can argue with Chris’s beautiful solo intros/outros on the piano?)

Try it out: Watch the way Coldplay shapes their music live, and how Chris Martin creates a colorful atmosphere that rivals the massive visuals that support their show. They are masters at handling the ebb and flow of a large crowd, and stringing together their songs in such a way that supports the emotional contour of an audience. If you have a setlist that has upbeat songs, sad songs, production heavy songs and stripped songs, take note as to how Coldplay can effectively utilize their own array of songs to bring an audience to a roar or a chanting din at the drop of a hat.

Performance to watch: Footage from “Paradise” by Coldplay on their legendary 2012 tour.

Chris Martin of Coldplay

Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine)

No band can compete with the pure, bombastic energy that RATM brought to the stage when they were together. Zack de la Rocha’s voice could get any crowd chanting along, and he used that talent to amp up the raw, primal energy that each band member brings.

Zack put his whole body into every harsh break in their songs, and let loose when screaming into the audience. RATM rarely utilized a large production budget, keeping their performances close and tight, allowing Zack to really stare out into the audience and connect with the message of their music, which is often anarchic in nature. (If you want learn how to send a loud, powerful, and energetic message to your audience, watching someone like Zack egg an audience on makes for a righteous study session).


Try it out: Zack has a unique way of choosing very few lyrics in his song, but keeping them fresh every time he reiterates them. By changing his intonation, he solidifies the lyrics and ramps up the energy each time he repeats. This doesn’t necessarily just apply to RATM’s genre, either. Even singers can benefit from this sort of technique—try changing the way you sing each phrase or chorus each time it comes up. Listeners like to hear novelty in each song, and by giving them the chorus they love but changing the contour or intonation, you can add a bit of flavor to your live shows.


Performance to watch: “Killing in the Name” early on in their career, when they had just reached famedom.

Zack de la Rocha of “Rage Against the Machine”

Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes)

For anyone who thinks “soul” died with in 1960s, I encourage them to spend five minutes listening to Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard. Actually, before I even get to why she’s so great, first listen to Alabama Shakes play “Be Mine” live.

I watch Brittany Howard and think, “Here’s someone who doesn’t have a care in the world about what people think of her”—and that’s where her one-of-a-kind stage presence comes from. She comes on stage uncaged and lets loose, and exudes utter soul. She uses her body language in a way that supports her vocals, dresses her style, and creates ultimate sass. They bring a down-to-earth, aged experience that will remind anyone where the roots of music remain, while bringing a thrashing southern-roots-rock attitude that will energize even the smallest of venues.

If soul, presence, and confidence is something you’re looking for, then look no further than Brittany Howard for a perfect role model.

Performance to watch: Alabama Shakes perform “Be Mine” live.

Brittany Howard of “Alabama Shakes”

Kendrick Lamar

Engaging with the crowd is paramount when it comes to being an artist. Most artists tend to energize the crowd by being physically active and pacing the stage. It’s here where Kendrick Lamar differentiates himself, but let me clear: there’s no lack of energy here. 100% of his reserve goes charging directly into his vocal performance.

Watching Kendrick rap is an intense experience, and putting aside his poignant and expert lyrical choices, his ferocious, yet tame energy will turn anyone’s head. Kendrick works so hard to make each word of his count as much as the last, to leave little to no excuses for not understanding his message.

He keeps the reason for his music very real and obvious—himself, the groove, and the lyrics. While his performances often include small-scale productions, with symbolic visuals and lights (and an absolutely legendary house band), the center of attention is always, without a doubt, Kendrick. His songs will mystify you and probably give you a bit of whiplash, because they seriously move along and you had better keep watching, else he leaves you behind in the dust with his unique lyrical choices and flow. If you want to stay on top of your stage presence game and learn to create crispy, electric energy with your vocals, here’s about where you should look.

His body language really says it all—he helps himself stay in time with the groove by being really active with his gestures. It takes effort to stay in time with a fast-paced groove, and only the very best realize that, as a singer or a rapper, you not only have your voice as an instrument, but your whole body as well. By digging/dancing into the groove with his body, Kendrick charges right along without missing a beat.

Performance to watch: Kendrick Lamar performing “i” live on SNL.

Kendrick Lamar

Paul McCartney

At 76 years old, Paul McCartney is still actively touring—and giving all of us young folks a run for our money at that. Having spent the majority of his life solidifying himself as one the world’s best songwriters as a member of The Beatles, he keeps marching on, showing his undying love for performing.

Watching Paul perform live is an amazing experience, not only because he plays legendary songs from The Beatles, but because he has such an incredible mastery over an audience, it almost feels like it’s second nature to him. Not only is he an incredible multi-instrumentalist, but he’s unparalleled when it comes to singing (especially considering his age). His voice beautifully reaches any note that he needs to, and he’s able to muster up some amazing vocal grit to boot.

Paul’s here to help demonstrate what years of being part of possibly the greatest political and musical force of the past century can create, and what an example it is. Performing comes so easy to Paul, which leaves so much to take note on—no tricks, no effects, no curtains: just good, well-written music, and a man with an incredible story to tell.

Try it out: Often Paul will go above and beyond to get the crowd to play a part in the song—in this specific performance I’ve cited below, he splits the audience in half and gives each half an opportunity to shine, without making it feel too much like a competition. Trying to get a whole crowd chanting all at once is sometimes difficult, especially in smaller venues. By dividing the crowd up (whether it be by age, gender, or even the color of people’s clothing), you make it more accessible for the crowd to jump in, giving them a bit of incentive.

Performance to watch: Take a listen to Paul McCartney (and his crowd), sing “Hey Jude” live at Hyde Park.