How to Play for 5000 People Who Have No Clue Who You Are - Christine Kane

I’m at the Chautauqua Institution today. Tonight I’m performing in the Amphitheatre with the Chautauqua Ballet. I play. They dance to my songs. I’ve been told there will be 5000 people.

It’s not the biggest audience I’ve ever played to. I opened for The Beach Boys in front of 14,000 people. Of those 14,000 people, approximately 13,978 didn’t even notice I was there. (My friend told me that she sat next to a group of high school girls who yelled, “You suck! Get off the stage!” at me. So apparently they noticed I was there.)

A guy named Jerry picked me up at the Buffalo airport yesterday. He told me about the audience size when he dropped me at my hotel here in Chautauqua, and he said, “Now don’t be nervous.”

I’m not nervous. But I will be. Right before I go on stage, I’ll have enough adrenaline rushing through me to light a city. And I’ll probably hear the, “Oh my God! What if tonight is the night they discover I’m a fraud?!” voice. (My personal favorite.) I will also probably hear the, “Who do you think you are?” voices as well. And then there will be the hysterical woman that keeps reminding me, “If you mess up, there’s no way to recover! They’re dancing to you. You’ll ruin everything! Don’t mess up! The audience will hate you forever!”

Indie Musicians and New Audiences

If you are, say, Jimmy Buffett, then you most likely don’t have to think about stepping out in front of an audience who has no idea who you are. But if you are an Independent Musician (or Indie artist of any kind), you might have a career of back and forths. You will be “famous” in one arena. There, you will experience the ease of an audience cheering and shouting even before you step onto the stage. They will sing along to all your songs, too. And, you will also regularly play in front of people who don’t wear hats with colorful birds on them to show their undying love for you. In fact, they might even be somewhat skeptical or have their hands crossed in front of their chests when you walk out onto the stage. What then?

Well, first you get to have five minutes of saying things like, “Why can’t it be easier for me? When will it be only audiences of adoring fans? How come no one wears colorful bird hats for my shows? Why didn’t I just get my MBA like my dad told me to?”

Go ahead. Have at it. I’ll wait.

Time’s up!

Now, here’s six Performance Tips for when you are about to be in front of an audience that doesn’t have a clue who you are:

Performance Tip #1 – Have an “End-Obsess” Time

If you are nervous, then tell yourself that as of, say, 7pm you no longer get to have that luxury. Then at 7pm, step into confidence and simply say, “Nope” any time the nervousness tries to show up.

Performance Tip #2 – Step boldly into your own skin

Be boldly who you are. If you don’t know what that means, read this post and answer the question posed. Revel in your own voice and authenticity. Even if you mess up, you can recover more quickly when you’re standing boldly into your own skin. No one can be exactly who you are. That’s huge.

Performance Tip #3 – The audience is not your enemy

The audience is not the mean girls who wanted to kick your ass in high school. The audience is not your English prof who hated you. The audience is not rolling their eyes when you walk out on stage. The audience is not thinking, “Prove that you deserve to be on that stage.” The voices in your head are not the audience. The audience really really really wants you to do well. After all, they just want to be entertained and happy.

Performance Tip #4: Remember: If everyone is your audience…

…then no one is your audience. Face it, there will be people who aren’t that into you. But there will also be people who love you. And if you’ve done Step #2, and you are hugely you, then the ones who love you will love you that much more. You will speak to them and connect with them in a big way. Don’t miss that chance by shrinking.

Performance Tip #5: Remind yourself to have fun

This is your dream, right? You want to be doing this, don’t you? When I did my last tour with the ballet company, I made a deal with myself. First, I reminded myself that ten years ago, these shows would have blown me away. Then, I told myself to have fun and take in every minute of it. Before the curtains came up and the crew shuffled around me getting everything set, I took a moment to feel the spotlight and revel in “back stage nervousness.” I smelled that dry backstage smell and noticed the smoky glow under the spotlights. Then I felt the excited curtain-going-up feeling, etc. I even reveled in the occasional voice that showed up and said, “You don’t deserve this!” We can easily let our nervousness take us out of the present moment. And the present moment is all we have. This is it. Take it in. Even if you mess up, at least you made it here! Experience that.

Performance Tip #6: Be of service

Occasionally, I play in nursing homes. Or I play for free to an audience that could care the least who I am. Sometimes they even fall asleep right in front of me. But I don’t care because I’m in service. If I remember that every single show is an opportunity to be of service in the world, then the nervousness goes away instantly. It’s not about me anymore. It’s about the guy in the audience who has had an awful day and is moved by something I wrote. It’s about the woman who lets my music remind her how much she used to love painting and leaves my show and signs up for a class. Whatever. I don’t control that. But I do know that being of service changes every single situation where you find yourself all lost in your own stuff. When it’s not about me, it’s about you. And that’s enough reason to do anything.

  • Vikki Flawith

    Christine – I love your blogs. I found them through Bob Baker, and I SO agree with everything you say – my voices always say, “who are you kidding,” “nobody wants to listen to you, you’re BORING,” and – the heavy weapon – “you’re too OLD”. Thanks so much for sharing your journey & creative insights. I’m signing up for your newsletter, too,


  • Stephen

    Christine, these are all terrific performance tips but I was particularly happy that you included #3 (The audience is not your enemy). In the many years I spent conducting seminars for presenters and public speakers, the single “takeaway” I most hoped my participants would retain was the fact that our audiences truly want us to be wonderful, informative, entertaining and inspiring (which makes them ideal co-conspirators). As usual, you expressed it beautifully. Thanks! And by the way, if there are members of an audience, either for performers or speakers, who arrive with their own hostile agendas, we can overwhelm their toxic influences by addressing the majority who arrived with open hearts and minds.

  • Ron Davison

    It would seem that opening would be so hard. The truth is, no artist is loved by everyone. Someone who sits raptly listening to Joshua Bell might wince at the Roots and lots of people still hate Dylan’s voice, missing his genius for the rasp. It is rare for someone to be universally enjoyed so the odds are pretty good that some chunk of your audience is going to be, at best, indifferent. I guees there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.

  • Mike Wagner

    I really like “be of service” – for me that is the most liberating truth I can focus on as a speaker.

    Thanks for sharing your journey as a performer and the lessons you’ve learned along the way.

    Keep creating…it freaks people out,

  • Chris Owen

    Might try some of these tips before my nest speaking engagement that sends me into a brain-paralysing panic!!!!

  • renita

    “The voices in your head are not the audience.” This is so true — and, fortunately, the audience cannot hear the voices in your head, so they don’t know that what you’re playing/singing/saying/etc may not be exactly what you intended. All they know is whether your performance makes them feel something.

    I like what Pablo Casals, the great cellist, said when asked by the sound engineer during a recording session to redo a section where the intonation had been a little off: โ€œBut thatโ€™s the way I played it!โ€

    Wouldn’t it be great if instead of sticking to some rigid (undefinable?) idea of perfection, we could all just appreciate “the way we played it”?

  • Angie

    What a great post! It really resonated with me, and so did angela’s comment. I am an acupuncturist and Qi Gong instructor, and, although (thank goodness!), I don’t have to perform in front of audiences of 5,000 people, I do get the “stage fright” and performance anxiety, as well as the feelings of being undeserving, not good enough, a fraud. I get these feelings about treating new patients, teaching class, and giving my little speeches in my networking group. Though when I show up, when I am in the moment, when I do my work, it ALWAYS works out great! I find that I DO know what to do, that I am NOT completely clueless or unprofessional, and I get great feedback. The more I do this, the calmer I feel about it. It’s all a matter of trust, I suppose. Faith in ourselves.

    Something angela said about her yoga classes struck a chord for me. How it’s about showing up and doing what you’ve got to do. I used to feel bad for not planning out my classes better, but, the times I did, I didn’t really stick to a specific routine anyways. Whoever shows up on any given day, whatever mindspace the group is in, will influence what exercises I do. I don’t need to have it planned out. I just go with the flow, and it always works out great. At times, I feel as if I were outside my body listening to my own voice and thinking, Wow, the words I said were exactly what I, myself, needed to hear! And then my students will tell me at the end of class that they felt as if every word I said had been specifically directed at them. I often feel that way, too, when I attend classes as a student.

    Thanks for your beautiful words and sharing yourself so genuinely. That’s what makes your music so beautiful, too. How genuine you are. How open-hearted. How present and beautifully yourself. And I love that you make it so personal by interacting with your fans in this forum!

    I can’t wait to see you perform in Berkeley in September!

    with love,


  • Danny

    Christine, thanks so much for your eloquent perspective. As a fellow singer, writer, and student of The Law of Attraction, I am grateful that I found my way to your blog. OK, enough gushing!

    Point 4 is something I have to remind myself of more and more. Traditionally, I have tried REALLY hard to be the singer who can do anything and please anyone, and I need to realize that this is unrealistic. You brought that into perspective, though I still embrace a diversity of influences ad styles.

    That said, Point 2 is driven home that much more. My band has undergone a transformation, lately, because as artists, some of us were growing (or not growing) in different directions. Now, remaining members are taking a turn toward being more ourselves. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Point 6… Service… THAT is what art is all about, isn’t it? Even a paid show is a service. You are giving the gift of sharing your music or (insert your chosen art form, here) for others to enjoy. They in turn give you the gift of feeding you, whether that be feeding your personal needs, or nourishment for your soul.

    Again, many thanks for your wisdom.

  • Christine Kane

    mb – i agree. the world DOES need more people like chloe. (though, i really do think jimmy buffett writes great songs and has made an amazing career for himself. truly an accomplishment when you consider he only had ONE song that got any airplay. most artists quietly disappear after that happens.) and as for your performance, that’s brilliant. “make it an offering” sounds like a great way to live life.

  • MB

    1. The world needs more people like Chloe. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    2. Christine, I think you nailed this one. I had a breakthrough moment years ago when I was convinced I was DOOMED for a performance (not my fault but too long a story to tell here), and the experience turned out to be the greatest gift. I realized all I could do was to play for myself, make it an offering, and relinquish all control over the results. Fast forward to the standing ovation I never expected and the lesson learned. Applies to so many ways of connecting!

  • Christine Kane

    hi angela – wow, that’s interesting. i never thought of yoga teachers as having that same “stuff.” and now that you mention it, I’m thinking “lord, if i were a yoga teacher, of COURSE i’d have it! it’s called ego! and i’ve got plenty of that!” it’s good that the panic attacks are gone. (i’m moving myself back towards yoga because of how much it helps with inner peace.) the other thing is: as a teacher, it’s good to experience the whole pie – so then you can be that much more compassionate and whole as that teacher. i love my yoga teacher because she’s been through it all, and she makes spirituality real and grounded. we all need that. thanks for the kind words!

    hi sara – the thing about doing the occasional presentation is that it can be more intense. things like this get easier the more you do them. so i have lots of empathy for your situation. also – read my post on stage fright. it covers some of these same issues. let me know how it goes!

  • Sara

    Greetings from Colorado!
    Your blog posting has come at the perfect time for me. I’m on pins and needles over a presentation that I have to give soon. I’m not one to stand up in front a crowd– even if they are my co-workers/friends. No matter how positive I try to look at the world, the thought of giving this SMALL talk is brings out the worst in me!
    I know I’ll be re-reading this post over and over…

  • angela

    Hi Christine
    Love your post (love all your posts!) – but especially this one. Tip 6 – being of service really resonates with me. I teach yoga for a living now. Never thought I would being doing that – I got into it about 15 years ago when I suffered very badly from panic attacks and something just kind of developed from there and now I’m a yoga teacher. I don’t get panic attacks anymore but I do get nervous and hey nobody wants to be taught yoga by a stressed yoga teacher! So tip 6 is definitely one way I’ve managed to shift some of the anxiety I feel about teaching. I’m realising more and more it’s just about showing up and doing what you’ve got to do and then letting go of your attachment to the outcome! Keep up the posts – they are so inspiring.

  • Christine Kane

    hi mags – the committee is so much fun, no? i’m getting better at handling it. but on the day of a big show, the inside of my head is like the united nations! (only, not so united.)

    hey kathy! yes, it was a huge crowd. and a wildly uplifting night – with some of the best dancing and choreography i’ve ever seen. chautauqua’s a wild place! i would’ve loved to have seen you…

  • Kathy

    If I had only known! I knew you were playing in Chautauqua but not that it was going to be such a scary event for you. Growing up in upstate NY, I envisioned this one of your smaller friendly crowds. I didn’t realize the Institute had grown so much. My business brings me to Buffalo often but just not this week unfortunately. Think of all your adoring fans wishing they were there….and we are there in a way. Smiling and wearing our own version of colorful bird hats here at home for you.

  • Mags

    Hi Christine – Thanks so much for the honest behind-the-scenes-and-in-your-mind look at what you go through before a performance. And, thanks especially for the guidance on how to deal with the “Committee Committed to Staying Small” that has its meetings in my brain… ๐Ÿ™‚
    Cheers, Mags

  • Christine Kane

    choloe – no, that’s hysterical! every singer-songwriter out there loves you that much more!

    corrine – wow – sounds like you’ve had quite a life. can’t wait to see you at blogher. (and of course it only happens BEFORE. AFTER you’re so relieved and proud and glad it’s done!)

    hi jennifer – hmmm, i found the audience to be highly learned and academic. and kind and excited. i think summer at the chautauqua institute attracts a lot of different people. the institute itself has more culture and art than anything I’ve experienced in a while. (it was a little overwhelming!) i saw some of the best performing tonight than i have in my whole life! so, thanks for the words of warning – but your region of the world was just fabulous!

  • Jennifer

    If it is any constellation, Chautauqua Institution is a very rural area. The people that come to your show will be interested in what you preform. They won’t even care if you suck for the most part. They are just happy that you came. There is not that much culture around there with a lot of the audience will be coming form the south of the institute. (I know because I grew up south of there.)

    If you rock though…you will get lots of exposure because they will tell all of there children whom have moved to bigger more cultured places. LOL… They will tell anyone who will listen about you.

  • Corinne Edwards

    Mary McArthur was a friend in high school. Her mother, Helen Hayes, better known to us as Mrs. McArthur, always said she would not get on the stage with anyone who did not have stage fright.

    When I was on TV, I was always a wreck before a show.
    I always comforted myself with her statement.

    Funny how it only happens BEFORE you go on.

  • Chloe

    I have no idea who Jimmy Buffett is. Is that bad?

  • Christine Kane

    elaine, i’m glad that you could find it applies to your own situations. that’s the crossover i hope for – even when i write about music.

    hi kay! and thanks! sound check was wonderful – and it’s always an honor to be among so many talented people. (of which there are many here!) i’ll pretend you are one in the 5000…

  • Kay

    Make that one of the 5,000….

  • Kay

    4 or 4,000 or 40,000 it really makes little difference when you frame it in your CK way….in the moment, of service, opening up and being who you are!!! You will be terrific!!! And I suppose you might look at it this way: the larger the crowd, the more opportunity to be of service.
    Wish I were one of the 4,000!

  • Elaine

    Christine – these are wonderful and you are so right… whether performing music, performing on stage, performing: delivering training or delivering a presentation to an audience… these are great!! I’m going to read these the next time I’m going through the anxiety and nerves… Thank you. What a touching and lovely thing to do… to play at nursing homes – you are truly in service for the world! Have an amazing evening!!!