On Speaking About the Music

Like many musicians, I worked on July 4th. Especially for orchestral musicians, big family holidays like Independence Day are an opportunity to get the whole community together, give everyone a good time, and remind them all what a treasure they all have to have a fully professional symphony orchestra in their town.

Concerts like these typically don’t list the music to be played in their programs – music directors generally like to take advantage of the rare opportunity to converse with their audience without disrupting the flow of the traditional symphonic concert. It’s great to see the audience establish a relationship with the musicians beyond “Ok, so now I will play my music for you, and you will sit quietly and attentively, and then when I am finished, you may applaud.”

Still, it’s tough to get that interaction right, as was demonstrated by one sequence that evening when the conductor announced that several of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs would be up next. The audience visibly perked up – Copland? Singing? Independence Day? Oh boy! And then the conductor spoke about the music for a few minutes… And then the baritone came on-stage, and he spoke for a few more minutes about the music, telling us that the music was over a hundred years old, and not actually composed by Aaron Copland… And by the time the orchestra actually started playing, both the orchestra and the audience had to pick themselves back up from the droopage that had occurred between that initial “Oh boy, Copland!” and the start of the actual playing.

So what would I like to see more of in musician/audience interactions? Well, we can start with this…

  1. Accurately assess the needs of the music. Musicians all too often fall into the old standby of “let’s tell them some history about the music!” Start with a few dates, add an inspirational figure here and there, a dash of information on the contemporary political or social scene, and you’re in business! I don’t think that’s good enough. The music that we play is incredibly varied – over four-hundred years of music is regularly performed – and not a one-size fits all thing. The light that we shed on the music should reflect that variety. I think that it’s absolutely amazing that Schoenberg’s groundbreaking piece Pierrot Lunaire, the work that unlocked atonality and still sounds so edgy and modern today, is over one-hundred years old. On the other hand, how the audience hears Beethoven’s 5th Symphony will probably be much more affected by hearing about the roughly autobiographical content than by hearing that it’s over 200 years old.
  2. Don’t state the obvious. When you play Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture, people expect that there will be themes representing both love and conflict. Most people know that Copland didn’t composer the Old American Songs himself (and for those who don’t, will knowing that change how they hear it?). Don’t give your audiences the well worn path, guide them towards the road less traveled.
  3. Keep the focus squarely on the music. One of the big problems that arises with the “historical information” method of speaking is that it talks about everything except what the audience is about to hear. Knowing that Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony is one of the first ever examples of program music is interesting, but that factoid alone doesn’t tell the audience what they’ll be hearing. If that knowledge is tied into the fact that the third movement represents a storm, and that they’ll hear birds calling to each other at the end of the second movement, then suddenly you’re directing your listener’s ears and changing how they listen.
  4. Ask the audience what they’d like to hear. Has anyone thought to ask what their audience would like to experience during an in-concert interaction with the musicians? Pass out a survey to your audience! Use that feedback to design future talks with the audience.
  5. Vary how you talk to your audience. Think of new ways to communicate the important stuff to the audiences. I highly recommend David Wallace’s book Reaching Out: A Musician’s Guide to Interactive Performance. Not all concerts are interactive, of course, but there’s still a lot of great stuff in here about how to engage with audiences in unexpected, and therefore invigorating ways.

Audience interaction is uncomfortable for some musicians – a lot of orchestral musicians, especially, want to just play their music, and let it speak for itself. There’s something to be said for that. However, for those musicians who do engage in speaking to their audiences, I really don’t think that it’s to much to ask to have more up their sleeves than the “historical information.” trick.


One thought on “On Speaking About the Music

  1. Thanks for addressing this, Dana. As you know, I frequently find conductors’ content frustrating and insufficient and therefore incline to wishing they’d say nothing and just let the music speak.

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