Air for an Audience

An article by Nathan Curnow.

June 2018. We’re about to perform in the German city of Heidelberg. It’s a beautiful evening, and we’re trying to keep calm as the sun dips below the rooftops of the baroque streetscape. It’s the opening night of their annual literary festival. The Spiegeltent has been erected in one of the cobblestone squares of the old town district and now sound check is over, the stage is set, the venue is filling up. I have to be cool, but it’s easy to be undone by the significance of all this. The city of Heidelberg has flown us halfway around the world to be the headline act in the birthplace of Romantic poetry.

For me, it’s the culmination of twenty years as a poet and spoken word performer. I’ve worked countless rowdy bars, quiet libraries, country halls and tin sheds, using nothing but my voice. Spoken worders aren’t singers, comedians or musicians. We don’t have tunes, punchlines or a guitar to hang around our necks. We don’t even have a piece of paper to read from. All we have is a bare stage, a microphone and our memory, which we hope works, plus some experience in rhythm, rhyme and intonation. We manage air for an audience, the air across our vocal cords, the air that we form into words.

Now jump back twenty years to when I first got up at an open mic. Imagine a dark, upstairs room, with bodies jammed onto couches so rundown that no undergrad would want them in their share house. It’s a hot and stuffy Wednesday night on Brunswick St in Melbourne, windows jammed open for fresh air, tram’s dinging their bells as they pass. You’re in a room full of weirdos and wannabees, each one waiting for their name to be pulled from a baby doll’s head. You’re at Babble. And suddenly you’ve been chosen to have your three minutes on stage.

It was do or die back then. And most of us died. Some were a three-minute train wreck. Each night was an electric circus of danger and possibility, the room supercharged by failure, success and expectation. It was there that I began exploring voice. I’d listen for hours, asking why some people hit and some completely missed. Mostly it was a total drag of a night, except for one magical moment when someone got up and did something amazing, something that gave us enough reason to return the following week and endure it all again.

So what makes a voice hit its target? It’s obviously a combination of what’s said, how it’s said, plus when, where and why. There’s the anger and urgency in the orations of Malcom X or the fierceness of Nina Simone. There’s the dramatic delivery of Alan Rickman, the charm of Jeff Goldblum, the sultry heat of Eartha Kitt or the creepiness of John Malkovich. I don’t have the clinical knowledge of a specialist. All I know comes from my years on stage and from being part of a listening audience.

Earlier I said that I had to keep cool before taking to the stage. Everyone has doubts, especially performers, but staying cool and present gives your voice the best possible chance of sounding believable in the moment. People respond to what they perceive as real, so like a magician, you’re hiding the tricks. You’re managing your nerves so that the audience won’t see the techniques of your delivery. People want to think it’s natural, effortless, even though deep down they know it’s not.

I contend that there are three elements to manage an effective voice. Now, these aren’t Toastmasters or TED Talk techniques. They’re not ways to sound as captivating as Maya Angelou or James Earl Jones. They may not give your voice the X factor, but they’re fundamental to working a microphone or to just having a conversation down at your local supermarket.

The Internal

When I was six years old I had a debilitating stutter. I was unable to say the smallest words like ‘hi’ or ‘and’, the sounds refusing to complete their release of me. My mother suspected it was due to the tantrums of my Grade One teacher, a lady whose face lit up redder than the planet Mars before she exploded at the little children before her. My mother was right, I was petrified of the woman, and this fear manifested as a stutter.

It’s almost impossible to find your voice when your inner world is in chaos. Performers might commonly suffer stage fright, but we can all feel that same intense pressure in our daily lives—the threat of judgement, the fear of failure, the weight of expectation. When we’re constantly overwhelmed we’re not safe to feel ourselves, and being ourselves is the key to voice. If eyes are windows to the soul then perhaps voice is the orchestra of it. The sounds we make reveal us—who we are, what we fear, what we want or what we’re hiding.

For a performer, nerves and adversity can be a wonderful motivator in the short term, bringing a necessary edge to the voice, but if left unmanaged the performance will eventually suffer. This goes for anyone, no matter where or what the occasion. It’s hard to speak if you’re in distress, and sometimes the smallest audiences are the most terrifying.

The Meaning

Have you ever seen a music video that bears no relationship to what the song is about? If not, check out the Look of Love by ABC. It’s bizarre! Or have you ever listened to a good audiobook that’s read badly? There’s a disconnect between the message and the delivery. The voice seems to ring untrue. To deliver a believable voice we must understand our message and what it means.

Sometimes a well-intentioned producer will employ trained actors to read the work of poets, instead of the actual poets themselves. I understand the idea, but I’ve never really known it to work out. Why? Because actors tend to overshoot it, emoting it to death, putting themselves and what they do before the message. Rather than being stewards of the poem, they think it’s about themselves doing it.

In A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Bob Dylan sings: ‘I’ll know my song well before I start singing’. It’s a simple line, one that’s always meant a lot to me. The clarity of the idea combined with his sing-speak sound has made it unforgettable. If you truly know your ‘song’, you’ll know its meaning. This guides your delivery so that you can get out of the way of your own performance. Now that’s a kind of irony, isn’t it? How can a performer get out of the way of their performance? Simply, by managing the ego. Realising that it’s not all about you gives your voice room for the message, providing the best chance of bringing people together.

The Audience

There are those magical moments when a performer feels perfectly in tune with the audience. It feels like you’ve become involved in something bigger, a shared experience you can’t explain. For the performer, it’s like they’re delivering the show but receiving it as well. Spoken worder Sean M Whelan says:

‘It’s about being inside that moment for the duration of the performance, but it’s about being outside of it at the same time.’ (2012, Verity La)

Our voice reveals our relationship with our audience. It reveals how we consider them, whether their loved, feared or loathed.

Some ‘page poets’ resent having to read their work in public. They’d rather be one step removed, speaking only to the reader through the printed words in their new book. And yet live readings are where most poetry books sales occur, so they’re thrust onto the reading circuit. What results is something that’s excruciating to sit through. You can hear their disdain and discomfort in every word.

As I said earlier, people respond to what they perceive as real, and in my experience the only thing an audience won’t forgive is contempt. You have a role to fulfil beyond your own doubts or misgivings, and they want you to fulfil it. If we’re uncomfortable with this role then our voice suffers. In this sense, our attitude toward our audience completely relates to the who, what, where, when, why and how of speaking.

Now as you already know, these three elements connect and overlap. They relate to us being in the present, whatever the context, wherever the stage. These moments are full of pressure, irony and expectation but we have to find peace with that in order to speak. Ultimately, I think it’s about acceptance. To deliver our best voice we must accept that things may fail, and that failure is a success if it’s genuine. We must fool ourselves into thinking that our own magic trick is trick-less. Because it is, and it isn’t, and that’s exactly how real magic happens.

June 2018. I step up to the microphone in Heidelberg, breathing in the air that’s mine and all of ours. By recognising this I can find my voice, managing it out of respect for myself, my message and my audience. I breathe out and the air is formed into words that hopefully hit their target. Then through my voice, I begin the show, which is all of us creating something.


Nathan Curnow is an award-winning poet, spoken word performer and past editor of Going Down Swinging. His books include The Ghost Poetry Project, RADAR, The Right Wrong Notes and The Apocalypse Awards. He has taught Creative Writing at Federation University; been a peer assessor for the Literature Board of the Australia Council, Creative Victoria and Arts Queensland; and recently co-judged the Newcastle Poetry Prize. In 2018 toured Europe with loop artist, Geoffrey Williams, performing at the OFFMilosz festival in Poland and opening the Heidelberg Literature Festival in Germany.


“Unless stated otherwise, this article represents only the views of the author and not the views of the AVA”