Sue’s Views

A Blog by Sue Matsuki

Set Singing vs. A Formal Cabaret Show

by | Jun 7, 2021 | Sue's Views | 1 comment


This question may seem obvious, but it’s a little more complicated right now. Since I know that many of you do not sing sets, I thought this column might be helpful.

As many of my New York readers know, my band and I have been singing regularly at West Bank Café and at Pangea. We were hired to sing “sets” vs. doing a formal Cabaret show. Since the Pangea gig is a Jazz Open Mic it’s all about singing sets and having audience members and special guests come up to sing. At the West Bank, it has been interesting for me to watch the different approaches by the various singers performing there. This is what I’d like to discuss today.

First, let me speak about my approach. We bring 2-sets of tunes for our 2-hour block and while I do set up tunes, check-in with the audience and crack a joke or 7…I am mostly there, in my mind, as back-up music as the nice people dine. Think about how long it’s been since anyone could just have dinner together, there has got to be a certain tolerance for people talking at the table as you sing. Again, this is as compared to doing a formal show where everyone in the room is there to hear you sing and watch a show.

In a restaurant, they also have patrons who come to dinner on a regular basis. Think of this as a HUGE opportunity to make new fans for the formal cabaret shows you will be bringing to the venue. During your break, go up to their table, introduce yourself, get their names for your mail list and pass off a card or your show flier.

A friend asked me if I minded that people were chatting as we were performing and I said, “no”, that I knew how to do this. You have to block out the noise (and that one really loud table) and perform forward using all your “Cabaret connection” techniques to stay focused and entertain the people who are there to listen. You have to let your audience know that it’s OK and that you’re OK, because many of our fans will be annoyed by these loud patrons. I say that when a table of people who don’t know me stop talking and tune in, it’s the best feeling as a singer…you “got” them. It’s then that I feel like I’m really doing my job!

Before I move on, let me briefly discuss the noise and sound levels because it can be distracting. At West Bank, during Covid, they had these love partitions separating the tables and the sound issue was interesting. The partitions allowed the diners to chat and we could not really hear them on stage, but the partitions also blocked their view. The sound from us seemed to have traveled over the partition so each cubby could hear us, but we were not intrusive on their conversations. However, talking over the mic was an issue. Many of my guests said that, for whatever reason, they could hear us sing very clearly but when we spoke it was hard to hear. This is why a formal Cabaret show may not work as well in this particular singing circumstance. I’ll discuss this more below.

Just be prepared not to hear yourself that great and to basically do minimal patter. Oh did I mention the sirens, motorcycles and honking car? No? Well, be prepared for that too, it’s much worse than the loud loading of ice in the middle of your heartfelt ballad!

We are SO spoiled in this gorgeous genre of Cabaret by having attentive fans come to see our formal shows so, this way of singing for many, has been a learning curve. With the clubs and cabaret rooms all opening up, it will be interesting to see if this way of singing will continue. Will the singers doing these gigs still be willing to work for tips and dinner? Some of us are doing pretty well with this format because there are no room and production charges. I guess time will tell if this way of singing will continue in our world. I am doing both right now. I have booked a formal show for the Fall where I know my material will be listened to by an attentive house as I continue to do these other gigs for fun and exposure.

As I mentioned earlier, there are different types of “sidewalk shows” being offered at West Bank and different singers with different ways of presenting their programs that have all been very successful. It’s what makes this gig so much fun! These shows are all wonderfully different!

Mark Nadler, Billy Stritch, Eric Yves Garcia are all “self-contained” acts who play for themselves and who all really know how to “work the room”. This type of gig is in their blood…it’s what they do, and they present outstanding shows with all the charm and great music of a Cabaret show just much less formally. They are all also “on mic” right there at the piano which seems to be an advantage sound-wise at West Bank.

Gabrielle Stravelli has them stopping on the street to peak into the club (this is optimal for the club by they way) with her jazz set singing format. She too has this background singer thing down while still presenting an outstanding show.

The two more Cabaret-type shows that I saw there were Meg Flather and Tracy Stark and Karen Oberlin with Tedd Firth. Both shows were stellar, and both worked because these folks are outstanding performers. For Meg’s show, we were having dinner after our set way in the back of the room, and while we could hear their singing clearly (and beautifully), her song sets up (patter) we very hard to hear. With Karen’s show, she did a combination of a pattered Cabaret show within her 2-sets, but I think the club figured out the mic situation a bit better (and I was much closer to the stage this time) so I could hear her stories before each song.

Here would be my recommendations if you are aspiring to book a gig like this…

  • Go prepared with the intention to sing sets with minimal patter.
  • For us it’s about 14-16 songs per set (because we are not talking that much).
  • Bring extra music in case you feel like you’re ending early but always leave them wanting more!
  • Take that little break between sets (10-15 minutes) to smooze and work the room and say, “thank you”. The club will appreciate this because they are a hospitality-based industry.
  • Have your Venmo and PayPal bookmarks on the table and periodically mention them and that you’re working for tips. You’ll figure out a way to do this gracefully.
  • Speaking of tips, here’s a tip: I have a tall, clear, vase with my logo on it that I put a little light in at the bottom and stock it with a $20, $10, $5 and a few $1 bills. West Bank does offer a Tip Basket but it’s shallow and not that visible.
  • Be prepared to deal with the noise and to stay focused, no matter what!
  • Do your stories and song set up but remember, depending on the audience, they may be there to listen or not…don’t let that distract you. Cabaret 101 tells us to stay connected to your lyric at all times.
  • Sometimes it’s the ballad and the smaller songs that will capture them and other times it’s the big, raspy blues number…you never know. Offer a varied program.
  • Here’s another tip: The earlier sets, 5:00-7:00 seems to be composed of half their patrons and half your fans. The later sets tend to be more singer’s friends and fans so, to me, it seems that the later sets are more “listened to” and less background music vs. the earlier “supper club” set. Book yourself according to what you think would work best for you.
  • Finally…have FUN! We’re back to LIVE singing…this is our JOY! Now go book a gig!

We had a question submitted by the lovely Sierra Rein:
“I see music stands – is it safe to say these set gigs can be rehearsed but unmemorized?”

Sue’s Response:
Honestly, I usually have my set list on the stand and yes, a few of the more problematic lyrics just in case. I do study for each set and try to sing “off book” but Gregory and I are literally revisiting 400 charts over our 27 year of working to together so it’s been a challenge! LOL! Mama old! Yes though, many of us are using stands with lyrics for this type of gig but I would not recommend this for a formal show when you’re taking a cover charge…it’s your job to know your lyrics in that circumstance. Thanks for this question.


1 Comment

  1. Deborah Zecher

    Sue, this is a very helpful post. As usual, you set out the situation clearly and offer cogent and helpful distinctions between these 2 hour gigs and a formal cabaret show. As we all gradually transition back into the cabaret world we know and love, it’s wonderful to have the benefit of your thinking on this issue. And your response to Sierra’s important question is generous and supportive. Many thanks, and looking forward to hearing you soon!


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Sue Matsuki

Sue Matsuki

Co-Editor & Instructor, Cabaret HotSpot and Cab U

Sue Matsuki is the co-author, along with David Sabella, of So You Want To Sing Cabaret (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2020). Sue is the Managing Partner, Co-Editor, Reviewer, Vloger and a Columnist (Sue’s Views) for an on-line entertainment magazine: www.Cabaret She taught Cabaret classes at: The Ridgefield Theater Barn and UCONN in CT, MAC-to-School and Cabaret Hotspot in NY and for the Canadian School of Performing Arts. She has served as Treasurer on the Board of Directors for MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs). She, along with Gregory Toroian, her long time Music Director, now host a monthly Jazz Brunch Open Mic at Pangea. Matsuki also produces benefits and corporate events and is the Producing Manager for Urban Stages’ Winter Rhythms series where she also hosts a Vlog called Urban Stages’ Artists Chat.

Matsuki’s most cherished awards come from winning the 2020 Bistro Award for Outstanding Collaboration celebrating her 25th year of working with Music Director, Gregory Toroian; getting her poster up on Don’t Tell Mama’s “Wall of Fame” for her show How’s That for Openers? celebrating the 33rd Anniversary of singing at the club and being selected personally by the late Julie Wilson as the very first 2004 Julie Wilson Award Recipient, given by the Mabel Mercer Foundation.

Matsuki is an 11-time MAC Award Nominee and a 3-time Winner (in seven different categories), mostly recently she was nominated for Major Female Vocalist. Her MAC history includes: 2002 MAC Award Winner for Female Jazz/Pop/R&B Vocalist; 2002 Nominee for Best Female Recording for her first Jazz CD, A New Take; 2004 Nominee for Duo/Group (with Marcus Simeone); 2006 MAC Award Winner for Special Productions for her sold out 7 week run of 10 Years in the Making with her Musical Director Gregory Toroian; 2007 & 2010 Nominee for Female Vocalist; 2008, 2011 & 2012 Nominee for Duo/Group (with Edd Clark); the 2008 MAC Award Winner for Specialty Song (“One Stop Shopping” by Page/Matsuki/Toroian); and the 2020 Nominee for Major Female Vocalist.

This Jazz/Cabaret/Comedy veteran has played every NYC Cabaret room including: Feinstein’s at the Regency, Feinstein’s 54 Below, The Metropolitan Room, Arci’s Place, Town Hall, Don’t Tell Mama, Pangea, The Algonquin, The Beach Café, The Laurie Beechman Theater, 88’s, and has even played Carnegie Hall along with several legendary Jazz Clubs including: The Village Gate, Birdland, The Iridium and Sweet Rhythm. She has performed in Alaska, Los Angeles, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, Nyack, Maine, Fire Island, Florida, Providence and Las Vegas!

Her jazz CD, A New Take, was nominated for the 2002 MAC Award for Best Recording and her Christmas CD, Sue & Edds FABULOUS Christmas both receive air play across the country and internationally. She is also featured on folk singing legend Christine Lavin’s original music Christmas compilation CD, Just One Angel with a song that she co-wrote with Paul Stephan called “Christmas Angel”.

Matsuki was a Super and “Diva Double” at the Metropolitan Opera where she has been featured in Moses und Aaron; Tristan und Isolde; Norma; and Il Travatore.

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