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Performance Workshop


John Prentice



The purpose of this workshop was to give prospective wannabes an idea of how to become a gonnabe. It may help anyone who wants to progress from doing floor spots into becoming a performer on a concert stage.

Consider it as a driving test for learner drivers - not a manual for Grand Prix drivers.



    This will rise dramatically. Remember you will be phoning all over the country so prepare yourself for a hefty increase as the first quarter's bill arrives. Whilst email can be quite effective for publicity, nothing beats the immediacy of a telephone call. If you have to leave a message on an answering machine, keep it brief and to the point - and LEAVE YOUR NUMBER! Allow a week or so between calls if you don't get a reply - and make sure you're not ringing on the club night! Do your homework!!

    You will need a demo CD (or tape) to send to festival organisers or be prepared to traipse round festivals. The problem with going round festivals is that the organisers will have their hands full running the event and do not appreciate someone trying to sell himself or herself at a very busy time. Make sure that whatever you decide to send looks (and sounds) like a professional product. I have seen demo material arrive through organisers' letterboxes with hand written inserts. This looks very amateurish and will not impress anyone.

    Look at our Folk Radio page. You could try sending demo material with a biography to the various Folk presenters. It will get you heard, but do be careful to keep songs and/or tune sets short, ideally less than four minutes, and make sure the timings of your tracks are clearly displayed. You may even be able to get yourself an interview, which could be live on air, pre-recorded or over the phone.

    Ringing festival or folk club organisers: this is best done about two weeks after you have sent them a demo. Try not to ring before 7:00pm; not after 9:30pm. They don't like to be disturbed over tea or their evening Horlicks.

  • FEES
    This is very much a suck-it and see situation. Just because a nationally known artist is being paid £400 it does not mean you are going to be employed if you halve their fee. They will bring people into the event, you will not. It may be sometimes worth playing for a percentage of the door at a folk club with a guaranteed minimum to cover travelling expenses. Sometimes you may be offered an extended spot at the end of a singers' night. I would not recommend taking this option because some organisers will use it to fill out a night at the club without having to pay you anything.

    B.S. stands for the stuff you find on Texas prairies. A simple tri-fold sheet done in MS Word may be sufficient, or, you may go the whole hog and have a full printing job done. Whatever you decide don't put in something that cannot be delivered. If printed on a dodgy inkjet printer they don't look too professional - invest in a monochrome laser printer, or even a colour laser, they're surprisingly cheap these days.

  • BE POLITE!!!
    This may seem to be obvious but, sadly, it is not something that everyone puts into practice. An organiser may not like your style, they may have a plethora of groups playing Andean Nose Flutes, or, they simply have a full programme. If there's someone on the folk scene you don't like, well, they have the right not to like you. Don't take any rejection personally. Most of all, don't insult the organiser for having the temerity to reject you... word gets around!!

    Even if a club cannot fit you in during the current season, it's always worth asking when they will be booking for the next season - and it there's a 'wish list' you could, perhaps, be included upon. This is usually more effective in person rather than by phone, email or letter.

    You can get more in the way of bookings if you are prepared to offer them anything other than just concert spots. Workshops are always welcome by festival organisers. Try and put one together on something with which you are familiar. Instruments and various types of singing are two ideas that spring to mind. Maybe you can do an hour of songs by one particular artist or on a theme.

    Offer to do some MC`ing or stewarding - remember you are after a platform. If you are MC'ing, practice your intros. I was introduced at a festival like this on one occasion "I've never heard of this guy before and you probably haven't either, er, John Prentice". Or one told to me by Keith Christmas after he had just finished a spot "And now for some real folk music" Read your programme and try and find something interesting to say about the next performer.

    When you get bookings at festivals always be on time for your spot, and for your sound check if there is one. A group at Stainsby Festival one-year didn't turn up, until after concert had started - read your programme.

    Another way to hone your skills at dealing with live audiences is to offer to play at W.I.`s, Old Folks homes or school assemblies. They won't bring in much in the way of kudos or money, but you will be learning your trade and this will pay off when you do get bookings.




  1. Sing songs you know and know well. This may seem obvious but I have heard people attempting songs that they patently were not sure about. It doesn't give a good impression if you're singing from a book or loose leaf folder - whilst it may be acceptable for the occasional song, you should really be better prepared and commit your material to memory.

  2. Know what you are going to sing. Time and again you will see groups get up on stage and then start discussing what they are going to play. Unless you are asked to fill in at the last moment you should have all your sets worked out before you arrive at the venue.

  3. Avoid tuning on stage. This cannot be avoided if one of your instruments goes out of tune during a set. However they should be in tune at the start. One group at a local festival had a 20-minute spot and used 10 of those minutes tuning up.

  4. Sing to your audience, not at them. Its very difficult to describe but very easy to spot during a concert. You are not trying to brow beat your audience with whatever you are doing, singing or playing.

  5. Don't worry about repeating songs. I wouldn't suggest that you sing the same songs in each set at a festival but it does no harm to repeat the occasional song, especially if you are requested to do so.

  6. Don't apologise for your songs - This is a bit long and boring etc., or, this is a song about knight and virgins and in the first verse this girl sees a knight etc., etc., etc. If the song is good enough the audience will understand what the hell you're singing about, if they don't then its not worth doing in the first place.

  7. If at first it doesn't work - forget it. Don't keep bashing away at a song if it doesn't suit you, or your style, just because you enjoyed the original.

  8. Beware the demon drink. Many years ago some folk professionals earned themselves a reputation as hard drinkers. Thankfully this doesn't happen very much nowadays. If you are just starting out as a performer it won't impress future employers if you are perpetually seen with a drink in your hand. Don't get pie-eyed, you just end up looking stupid.

  9. Vary the subject matter. Try and pick songs that deal with different subjects, and in different ways. Not many people like a set full of wrist-slashers.

  10. Vary the tempo. You can speed it up and slow it down to keep your audience on their toes.

  11. Vary the key - if possible. This is not difficult to do, and, if you see performers playing all their songs in the same key, then generally it's bone idleness.

  12. Don't copy other people's act - especially an act that is based on humour or observational comedy. Chances are that someone will have heard it before and if you're not very good at it or you just recite the patter like you're reading it from a book then it lacks the spontaneity that's required for that style of performance. I saw someone do 10 minutes of part of Bernard Wrigley's act about three weeks after I'd seen Bernard do the same thing. It was rather embarrassing and needless to say there wasn't an offer of a booking at the end of the night.




Don't do a long monologue to start the spot. The audience doesn't know you from Adam and unless you grab their attention straight away they may wander off while you are still blathering on about God-knows-what.

Start with a strong song. Same reasons as above.

Humour. If you can be humorous, or tell good stories, then that's fine. However some people can't do either so keep your intro's short, snappy and to the point.

Tangential introductions. If you can't think of an intro for a song start telling them about something completely different and bring it round to the subject of the song at the last minute.

A Capella for noisy audiences. It is tempting, when you are faced with a noisy audience, to try and make more noise than they can. Try the opposite - it might just work.




Finish with a strong song - chorus? Leave them wanting more, and singing their heads off.

Have an encore ready. You may just be asked to do an encore so have a well-practised song ready... do not ever ask for an encore, it looks naff.

If you are last on consider a quiet song to calm an audience down and get them out of the venue.




These are what I've gleaned from audiences...

  1. Talking too much at the start. (See above)

  2. Mumbling and unrehearsed intro's. An audience will not warm to any performer who spoils the bit between the songs.

  3. Not varying material. (See 9, 10 & 11 above)

  4. Looking sloppy on stage - drinking from beer bottles etc. You are seeking further employment in the folk field and no one is going to employ anyone who looks scruffy, dirty, ill mannered or yobbish on stage. Would you employ anybody like that, nuff said!!

  5. Not practising enough. Why not? You knew you were going to perform!

  6. Singing with your eyes closed. If you keep your eyes closed you can miss something which you could help later in your spot. Like not hearing any joining in so you think they aren't a singing audience when, if you'd kept your eyes open, you have seen that they just needed a bit of encouragement.

  7. Not appearing enthusiastic on stage. I've seen some performers on stage who are so blasé about their set... if they can't be enthused about it then why should we? Boredom is addictive.

  8. Self penned material - minor keys - too convoluted - words or tune not simple enough. Some of these songs are an act of total self-indulgence. Minor keys employed so regularly to add tension they lose their effectiveness. Storylines so obtuse as to render the song meaningless. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" has been done before. Tunes composed to show how clever the author is on guitar.




So you've had the gig and it's gone well, you had a few people coming up saying how much they enjoyed it and maybe sold a CD or two if you have any. Your heads buzzing and you want to know where the party is. The organiser comes up and slips a few used fivers into your hand and off you go into the night.

Manners are everything - take a minute to have a chat with the organiser and thank him for giving you the booking and it may be an idea to drop him an email or letter a few days later to reinforce the thanks. You probably won't be asked to do another gig there for maybe a couple of years depending how far booked up they are but it's worth taking the time to let somebody know how much YOU enjoyed doing the gig and how much you appreciated being given the gig in the first place.

If you have read to the end of this missive and you are still interested in a folk music career then good luck to you all. If you are not intending to embark on said career then get a life and go and read something sensible!!!!!!!

John Prentice 2004 (with a couple of additions by Mark Dowding).
Minor updates and additions by Bernard Cromarty, August 2012.


Please address any comments about this workshop to  johnprentice45@hotmail.com



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