When Your Solo Falls Flat On Its Face… Whataya Do?

Have you ever been in a situation where the solo work you do completely falls flat on its face? Or perhaps an element of your solos fails to resonate with the audience? Last night I encountered the latter during a performance with Deception.

In Deception I solo a lot… and I mean a lot. In every song I solo at least 12, if not not 24 or 36 bars. In order to make my solos interesting, I do a lot of different things. However, because this is blues, and not free jazz, there are certain unwritten rules that blues listeners expect players to follow.

My solos tend to be melodic, and within the chord changes. I hardly ever play outside the chord changes, and when I do, I use those notes only as very quick passing notes, and only in certain songs. With the style of blues that Deception plays, this is what works.

One of the things that has come to define Deception’s sound is the saxophone. My tenor weaves its way around the vocals and guitar when I’m not soloing. 

For the most part I play in the upper octave and palm key region of my horn, with the occasional altissimo note peppered here and there. I end some songs on an altissimo note as well. For my solos, although I play over the full range of my horn, my screaming altissimo notes, as well my altissimo glissandos and falls, are the hallmark of my solo work.

Normally my solos are met with applause, as the audience loves this kind of altissimo work. Last night however… Apparently not so much.

Last night’s crowd was smaller than normal. At this venue we usually play to a packed house of about 75 to 85 people, but the nice patio weather took it’s toll last night. (Don’t forget, we’ve had an absolutely shitty spring, so a nice night would drive anyone out on their deck. I’d have been on mine had we not had a performance.)

We had about 30 people for our performance at the Gourmet Gallery last night. Most of those who were there, stayed for the whole night. And while a number of our loyal fans were there, there were also some new faces in the crowd. Faces that were staring at me blankly much of the time.

Whenever I played a solo and I was up in the altissimo, and either falling or glissing into say Art’s guitar solo, or Bob’s Hammond solo, the audience just stared at me like I was from Mars. It was very strange.

At other times, during my solos I’d play a riff in altissimo notes and move back down into the normal range again. Again the audience would just stare at me.

I started to feel rather insecure, because I believed the audience most likely thought I was squeaking. So I began to repeat the altissimo riff again to show them that I wasn’t squeaking, and that this was actually intended. Same stare from the audience. Then it was like they were thinking: Wow, she meant to sound like that?

For a while I gave up and played in the regular range of my horn, but I found that too limiting. Then I just said f*#! that. I give up. I’m going to play what I normally play.

When our 2 hour show was over, people must have liked what we played because: 1. They stayed for the full 2 hour show, and 2. A number of them came up and complimented us.

I did get someone asking me about my horn, and asking me about what I was playing. This gentleman did throughly enjoy the evening. He stayed for the full 2 hour performance, and sat directly in front of the mains, despite there being ample seating a bit further away.

Last night was an interesting evening. I can honestly say this was the first time that I can recall this happening to me. Maybe it’s happened before, and I just don’t remember.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever had the audience just stare blankly at your solo work? How do you work around it?

You want to play to them and engage them in some way. You want your work to resonate with the audience. Based on your experience, what kinds of things work? Perhaps in some cases it’s also just not possible to engage them.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

© 2011, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. In a crowd there are always a certain number of people who will applaud. It’s been my experience that in certain settings—for example jazz festivals—the percentage is usually higher. I think that the more people that applaud, the more likely it is others will applaud… Peer pressure as it were.

    Because the attendance that night was just under 1/2 of what it usually is, thanks to the great weather, the applause that was there was fairly muted. The people who did applaud were sitting at the back of the venue, so the people at the front didn’t hear it—thus they didn’t feel even a small amount of peer pressure.

    I find reading the crowd is often difficult when stage lights are shining in my face. Usually altissimo combined with my vocal effects are enough to sway the crowd, and I know by some kind of affirmative response that I’m connecting with the audience. I have never had an audience gesticulate wildly though. Playing for a group of deaf-mutes would definitely be an experience to remember. At that point, I’m thinking stage presence would be paramount. 😯

  2. Reading the audience is a skill in itself and part of being a good performer/entertainer.

    Sometimes an audience is just too ‘cool’ to respond overtly, no matter how much they enjoy the show. Unless you notice a change in behavior during the show — particularly if you see a lot of fidgeting or hear coughing — you can pretty much assume that this is the case, ignore it, and just be content as musicians to play off each other’s responses.

    If an otherwise responsive audience suddenly plays ‘possum after your solo, you can just grin and bear it, or flatter yourself that they were too stunned to respond. 😉

    Ignoring the obvious contexts where a response really isn’t expected, one option is to do what you did: change up your style a little to see if you can connect. This is, of course, a much more viable option where improvisation plays a large role in the performance. When the selections are more explicitly arranged, changing up the program — the sequence and/or tempos of the tunes — is more feasible.

    One time at a recurring dinner club date, a combo in which I was playing was encouraged by a decent crowd that stayed and continue to drink for three sets. To be honest, this was the third week into a month’s agreement, and based on our ability to draw a crowd during the first two, it was beginning to look like there most likely wouldn’t be a fourth. As we were about to wrap up the last set with a bit more confidence in our viability as a working ensemble, one of the members commented on how oddly everyone in the audience was gesticulating. One by one it dawned on us. They were signing. We had just spent the last three sets entertaining an academic conference of deaf-mutes.

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