Author: Megan Ihnen

Burnout is a b****. Let’s avoid it.

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

I would wake up, and it was there. I went about my day, and it was there. I would let my head hit the pillow in exhaustion at the end of the day, and it was still accompanying me. This low-level, ominous feeling had been following me around for months — contaminating every loud and quiet corner of my life. I even avoided counting the number of months that I consciously knew it was there. It started out as just feeling a little “off” or a little more worn out and wearied after each day of normal life-in-music tasks. Then, that dark cloud began to make its grim presence more known. I couldn’t shut it out because it was tied to everything that I loved. That feeling whispered to me in the darkness, “You’re not enough. Nothing you do matters. But don’t tell anybody that you feel this way because they won’t trust you with their projects.” I tried to do everything I knew to recharge: I cut out drinking, worked out more often, ate tons of vegetables, actively practiced self-care, and – most importantly – doubled-down on my work. My heritage is so full of that Midwestern, Protestant work ethic that it seeps from every pore. That tradition taught me, “If you’re feeling dull or distressed, just work harder.”

I started to get nervous. It wasn’t working. That dark cloud was getting darker. The fog was creeping into my practice and performance. It was creeping into my teaching. It was making it difficult to write and to record podcasts. I went to conferences and felt elated only to come home and feel even more defeated. I had to admit it: I was in total burnout.

I felt so sure. Now I don’t know…

“I can’t be burned-out,” I cried to myself. “My identity is built around being productive. I am a person who gets shit done.” Nevertheless, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t getting stuff done. I was not being productive. I needed to find that part of myself again. I needed to find the part of myself that created more energy by practicing, teaching, and writing. How do you create that energy? How do you reconnect with the ambition that drives you with greater productivity? Was it lost for good? Was this the moment that I begin to slip away slowly from my lifelong passion?

Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

“I don’t know what singing even looks like in my thirties,” I confided to a friend. “I felt really sure about what it looked like in my twenties. It looked like taking every job and getting lots of experience. It looked like a perpetually full calendar.” She asked, “Well, what do you want it to look like?” I whispered, “I don’t know.” I should have realized then that this would be the key to reconnecting with my productivity. Clarity. Clarity is the key. I had stopped dreaming up my audacious goals and had gotten stuck in the minutiae of “getting things done.” Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

Planning for a remarkable life

In an early 2017 episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss interviewed Debbie Millman, the incredible designer and founder/host of Design Matters, who described an exercise she calls “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life.” Millman recalled this exercise that she completed in a very early class session with Milton Glaser and that she now teaches her own students. He asked his students to write a detailed description that lists what their life would look like ten years from now. Then, he instructed them to read their essay every year. Millman also reminisced about finding her own essay from that class many years after she wrote it while moving house. She realized just how many goals she had planned for herself in that exercise that came to fruition.

You may be thinking, “A goal-setting exercise, Megan? Really? How mind-blowing…” But, stick with me. Remember that dark ominous cloud from earlier in this post? It wasn’t the vegetables, bubble baths, or motivational Pinterest quotes that helped me escape its path and rediscover my productivity mojo. It was this.

Working backwards from your major milestones

I started teaching a goal-setting exercise in my “Make It Rain” music business workshops before I stumbled across the Debbie Millman episode. However, this exercise shares some very similar points. The most important takeaway is to, “imagine yourself in the future.” For my goal-setting exercise, we start 20 years in the future. It is, at the time of this writing, the end of 2017, and 2018 is just around the corner. Let’s imagine you’re using this goal-setting exercise as a stand-in for your run-of-the-mill New Year’s resolutions. I like to plot this out on a timeline, an example of which you can see below. But you should pick the visual representation you like best.

career milestone timeline

First, look twenty years into the future. In 2038, who do you want to be? It is time to dream big. Think about where you will be in your life and career. What are the seemingly impossible goals that you would like to have accomplished? Then, the ten-year point on the timeline is a mixture of seemingly impossible and “highlights of a career” goals. This is the part in which you think about “what kind of legacy do I want to leave in my field or for my family?” Before we get to this goal-setting exercise in my workshops, I teach participants about what I consider the four levels of a career: generalist, specialist, expert, authority. We discuss how to strategically level-up from each one of those categories. The difference between your ten-year goals and your goals twenty years in the future is the difference between your goals as an expert in your field and your goals as an authority. An expert has a solid track record in handling complex, higher risk/higher profile projects and usually works with industry-leading clients. Let this help you brainstorm goals that have to do with complex projects and industry-leading collaborators. An authority receives honors and awards by professional peers for contribution to thought leadership. This could help you brainstorm goals that would fundamentally change your industry. Experts author seminal books on industry-related topics, perform (or speak) at leading national and international festivals/conferences, and influence a large fan/supporter base. An expert is also able to pick and choose work and enjoys “celeb status.” The easiest way I find to explain this is that an expert is someone who a reporter “inside the field” turns to for their opinion. An authority is someone who a reporter “outside the field” asks to comment on their general domain. You can hear it now, “Hmmm, I want to write a piece about opera. I’ll ask Renée Fleming…”

I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore.

As a personal note, when I returned to this exercise feeling utterly defeated by burn-out, this was the most difficult part of the exercise to do. I had pages of notes for things that needed to happen in the next few months. But thinking about my twenty-year goals? I was left with a big blank. I had lost sight of my biggest vision. I had lost sight of who I wanted to be in the farther future for the sake of the dopamine high of crossing off a to-do list in the now. In fact, I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore. If you haven’t been in that place, I hope you never have to experience it. If you have, please take even more time to dream up the most unbelievable, extraordinary, and astounding goals for your life. I want you to skip past the step in which others would say, “Who do you think you are?!” and march right on through to the point at which they might just faint in astonishment.

The halfway point

The five-to-six-year point of the goal timeline is where we identify the halfway point to those larger goals. When I have workshop participants complete this part of the exercise, we try to pinpoint the halfway milestones to big goals. For example, I will have some students suggest that they want to win a Grammy Award in ten to twenty years. We will often discuss that it is more likely to be considered for a Grammy when you have had a decent amount of recording experience in your history. But just recording regularly doesn’t make you magically ready to take home some hardware from the ceremony. Some of the things we also discuss include: writing/playing works about which you are deeply passionate, increasing your technical skills to be recording ready, finding a recording engineer you trust, working with a label, becoming a voting member or getting sponsored by two voting members, programming with a strong vision that still falls within the guidelines, and much more.

If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

What are the halfway points to your seemingly impossible goals? Can you achieve even more clarity on the most desired aspects of those goals? What I mean here is, is it important to you to win a Grammy because you love recording music? Or, do you want to win for different reasons? If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

Two-year goal actualization

You can take as many “business of music” courses as your heart desires, but nothing will be useful to you unless you know the trajectory you want to take. That is why we start at the farther end of the goal timeline. It’s the big goals that help us plan the course along the way. Now, our two-year goals are where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Your five-to-six-year goals hopefully began to look a little more realistic or timely to you. That’s a good sign.

If you’re like me, the two-year goals are where motivation starts to kick back in after I’ve scared the beejezus out of myself with the wildly ambitious goals. These begin to look like actual SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. I had a student reveal to me that one of her big, audacious goals was to be an EGOT winner. (EGOT is an acronym for “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony” in reference to persons who have won all four awards.) We talked about how her two-year goal actualization would be full of auditioning and gaining experience in all four of those areas. It’s a rare honor to receive all four of those awards. To do so, you need to be undeniable in all of those arenas. You can’t avoid learning about how television gets made and focus all of your energy on stage acting if your big goal is to be an EGOT winner. Take a moment, now, to outline your two-year goals in alignment with your overarching “Who do you think you are?” career-spanning goals.

Quarterly goals with metrics

Finally, we’re getting closer to the here and now. Take your journal, or piece of paper, and sketch out the quarters between this moment and your two-year goals. In each one of those quadrants, give yourself a handful of assignments that you know will help you achieve the two-year goal(s) you wrote down. Remember our students who wanted to win Grammy awards? Maybe their quarterly goals include:

  • Make a repertoire plan that will progressively work toward the type of repertoire to be recorded.
  • Do an internship in a recording studio to learn more about the process.
  • Make a professional studio recording of a specific upcoming performance/recital.
  • Network (make sure to identify a specific place, specific event, or specific people) with audio/video recording professionals to learn more about who to have on my recording team in the future.
  • Record every practice session or performance to get used to listening to myself on recordings.
  • Listen to those recordings on the first weekend of every month.
  • Make a plan to post new recordings after the listening session.
  • Sit in on an editing session with specific friends or mentors to learn the process.
  • Ask specific friends or mentors for advice on working with labels, producers, and engineers.

None of these quarterly goals seem particularly difficult or challenging when we write them out like that. But, surely, you can think back to a time when you were dragging your feet because you just didn’t know where to start on a big project or a specific action didn’t make it onto your calendar. You had the big end goal in mind, but you didn’t know how to strategically plan out the micro-actions to get yourself there.

Busyness is no longer my currency

I scroll through social media and can see that I was never alone in these challenges. I find that many of my colleagues are suffering burnout. Their dark clouds are stifling all of the positive feelings they initially brought to their music careers. The signs are jumping out at me through the screen. There are many Type-A, workaholic, checklist-or-die types in our field. We wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor. We lament our low wages, lack of sleep, and wearing of seventeen hats even as we glorify this martyrdom in ourselves and others. Achievement for the sake of achievement is a chimera. Instead of slowly drifting away from the field, I found a way to recommit to my larger vision and passion again. I hope that you’ll do this exercise many times. I hope that you’ll do this exercise to keep you clear and sane. Finally, I hope you’ll do this exercise well before you desperately need it.

Whose Job Is It To Teach Audience Experience?

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

— Orson Welles

Orson Welles was addressing cinema as the art which becomes a social act, but his philosophy is no less true for classical music performance. At every step in our education, musicians are taught to rigorously train our understanding of technique, history, and theory. Many walk away with diplomas convinced that technical mastery is synonymous with the pinnacle of musical achievement. But despite this cultural emphasis on precision, there are thousands of displays of high-caliber technical skill that do not speak to us emotionally and do not fully convey the composer’s intent. There is more to musicianship than technical chops.

Inspired by Welles, I’d like to add my voice to the call for our community to pursue a successful audience experience as a priority on par with technical skill. When we perform with care for the holistic audience experience as well as care for the composer’s works, we can create a “social act” that is akin to magic. Audiences experience that magic when all performance elements align in the liminal space. Rigorous study is the pre-requisite for magic along with a thorough understanding of the perceptional foundations that underpin audience experience.

The audience comes to see themselves.

In order for us, as the actors, to successfully create magic and wonder, the audience must also be ready to suspend disbelief and jump into the experience with open eyes and ears. So, whose job is it to teach “audience experience” and create the performances and events that feel breathtaking?

First and most importantly, it starts with a musician’s duty to be a teaching artist. We have a plethora of opportunities to be advocates among our peers by helping to create a culture of curiosity within any ensemble in which we perform. Beyond our peers, we have the opportunity to pass on our vocation in a structured teaching environment, and it is there that we can be most effective.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to get beyond the technical skills we need to teach when we only have an hour per week (or less!) with each student. Eric Booth’s “Law of 80%” espoused in The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator reads, “What you teach is who you are.” Are you devoted to being interested, curious—even captivated by your student musicians and the music they create? Regardless of the age or experience of your pupil, are you actively invested in how your charge is experiencing the music they and their peers are making?

As teachers, we know we are only a part of our student’s musical education. Our students spend a limited amount of time with us, so we should all aim to emphasize the “why” along with the “how” at every single stage of musical development. Teachers and teaching artists can create classroom plans, structure private lessons, and craft events and performances that require our students to study deeper engagement with all types of audiences. We can also encourage our students to be better audience members themselves. We teach our students to become part of the “social act” when they realize that listening is less about whether they “like” a piece of music than whether they can find something interesting or fascinating about the musical work. We must go beyond, “What do I want my students to know?” to asking ourselves, “What do I want my students to do with what they know?”

The job of teaching audience engagement extends to the other side of the fourth wall, too. We need to provide honest and constructive feedback on performance regularly. This is like user testing for your next performance. The idea is to gain insight from people with more experience by asking the right questions. The experience is not over when you tear down and leave the performance hall. It is over after you have had a chance to find out what worked and what didn’t from your perspective on stage and those in the audience whom you trust. You want to find out whether your listeners made a personal connection. If they did, they will come back for more. If they did not, they probably won’t. Audience feedback allows the performer and presenter to respect the various entry points and pathways the listener takes with the music.

If magic is the experience of a result without awareness of the process, arts organizations are in the business of magic. It is so challenging to cross all the t’s on a strict budget in our world, but it doesn’t exempt us from creating magic. Let your organizational benchmarks be measured against similar world-class experiences not just the dollar values. Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in “Making Sense of Audience Engagement” define audience engagement as “a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.” As arts organizations we must cherish our role in making the concert space a place of magic and pass on that love to our artists, interns, and colleagues.

It’s our job as musicians to nurture the audience. How do inexperienced musicians know how to do any of that without being taught? It is our job as arts administrators to care for our audience beyond their role as donors and ticket buyers. We must teach our colleagues and interns to raise more than funds. We need to raise our audience. As experienced audience members, we need to provide feedback regularly. Finally, it is our job as teachers in all facets to radicalize and actualize our students to understand the “why” and not just the “how” of making music for others.

Everything is real. There is no audience.



Contrary to annual fundraising-letter wisdom, I do not believe that music is a universal language. The immense variety of musical styles, systems, and genres performed around the world challenge our belief in a universal aesthetic. Do you immediately understand the use of Indian ragas? If you really stop to think about it, do you truly understand the complexity of Brian Ferneyhough’s music?

Music is a learned language, and it is a language that even as composers and musicians we must continue learning in order to stay literate. Even within the European “art” music tradition, can each music student write a fugue for transposing instruments? Furthermore, performing is a learned behavior. The understanding of music written and performed is not gifted to us at birth—otherwise music schools would have a much harder time collecting tuition!
Many in our community might argue, “Even if I don’t understand how to write a fugue, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand music.” That is where we are making the distinction. Music performance isn’t just for those who understand the mechanics of music composition. Music and performance are relational. The fact is not that one understands the music but rather that one understands how the sounds heard, or produced, or written relate back to us. Music professionals are called to know more and that is why we endeavor to understand more of the language. Why is the sound organized in that fashion? Why does that chord make me feel that way? Performance is for all of us because it is generative not only for our own human capabilities but for our cultural system.

In my series of posts so far, I have argued that music performance is entirely for the performer and then alternately for the audience. What if music performance isn’t an either/or situation but really a both/and? It is both for the performer and the audience. In fact, it is larger than both because it is for the composer, the performer, and the audience member alike. Here’s the best part: the “and.” The act of performance is a special kind of social action—even at its most basic levels.
As Shakespeare’s famous line reminds us, we each have a part to play. When, at the end of a performance the conductor turns to the audience to gush, “You’ve been really great tonight!” I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at some point thinking, “Really?” Yes. You were there. You showed up. You actively listened and thus participated in this dialogue between musician and listener—a dialogue that is an inextricable aspect of the musical performance. You played your part.

The art object by itself is neither art nor non-art: it becomes one or the other only because of the attitudes and feelings of human beings towards it. Art lives in men and women… the processes of sharing become as crucial to the semiotics of music as the sonic product.
—from Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking

We each have a reason for going to a performance. The terror of classical music marketers everywhere is that more audience members forget why they go to these performances in the face of all of their other options. It is true that some people go to a performance quite literally just to be seen. But we must consider the multitude of other reasons. Composers go to hear their musical ideas come to life. Musicians perform on stage to realize the fullest expression of their craft. Listeners go for escapism, for education, and possibly even for epiphany. The fact remains that each person in the performance space has a personal reason to be there. The very reason that performance is both/and instead of either/or is because we are all there to play our own parts.
Finally, there is no truer act of civil society than for all of the parties involved to voluntarily show up to a concert hall and exchange in ideas that are broader than the facts and figures of commerce. Music expresses the experience of individuals in society. Yes, there are examples of music performance bringing about social change. But, on an even more basic level, the act of presenting an idea through the arts that is being actively considered by another listening human is extremely valuable. At a time when polite discourse seems threatened at every turn, musical performance is an event wherein conflicting ideas can be corporately considered. Musical performance is an opportunity for each of us to further shape our own ideas and the society in which we live.

It was absolutely reductive to think of music being solely either for the performer or for the audience. This is a both/and situation because we all get something different out of it. We are all there to play our own parts: performer, listener, and composer. The essential thought of this argument is that there should never be two groups: the music-makers and the listeners. There are simply participants in the musical performance. Everything is real. There is no audience.

The Audience: More Than Money and Applause

Paulnack quote
I don’t want to go it alone. Do you? As I described in my column last week, I prepare for my performances by focusing on serving the music in a pure way instead of worrying how the audience will respond and if they will like me enough. But then, I hit the stage with a stark realization—of course I want to be liked. We are relational. Performance is relational. My performance is incomplete without the audience. You’re about to read the most important advice I’ve received about performing: It’s not about you. It’s about the audience.

If our venues are empty we have failed.

The truth is that I didn’t work myself through two expensive degrees to play to empty rooms and wrap myself in a blanket of integrity. I understand that part of my profession is not just mastering technique, but mastering the art of translating those human emotions and grand ideas that are easily overwhelmed by music that can be obscure, esoteric, and–let’s be honest–sometimes bizarre. As much as we, in the solitary spaces of our practice rooms, can throw ourselves into a piece, we must remember that if the performance hall is as empty as that practice space then we have clearly not achieved connection with our audience. That is our responsibility.

Our audience deserves our respect.

In my experience as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes that performers and presenters can make is not respecting their audience. They make it a show all about themselves instead of seeing themselves as a vehicle of interpretation. The new music audience is a highly sophisticated, highly educated community of people who have devoted themselves enough to our field to learn our conventions and who have taken time out of their own work, home, and family schedules to drive to venues that can be as small and out of the way as they can be crowded and grand. Regardless of how harried their day has been, how difficult parking always is, even if they arrive late, or cough during the ppp sub ponticello section, each person attends hoping to experience music as a profound connection to themselves, their past, to an idea, to emotions that are timeless and universal. As a performer, it is our responsibility to trigger that experience. This is why musical performance is and always has been for the audience.
They want experiences that only we can provide them. Tickets sales reflect how popular we and/or the repertoire are, and how well we market our mission for the event. Audience attendance goes beyond applause, gratitude, and money. Performances are not for the audience solely because they pay for tickets. It would still be for the audience if the monetary obligations were fulfilled by other means.

Financial accessibility is not the same as emotional accessibility.

In the current climate of worrying about declining ticket sales, board meetings are rife with the weary cliché that begins “if we just lower ticket prices…” and usually ends with a complaint about the decay of American culture. Wake up. Our audiences don’t need to be lured with free candy to come eat their vegetables. Frankly, if that’s your approach to programming, you’re doing it wrong.
Although certain concert events with their $100+ tickets can definitely be prohibitively expensive for many, the average classical contemporary prices of $10 to $25 are hardly bank-breakers. As I overheard one audience member laughing after a self-indulgent yet totally wooden and robotic show, “I wouldn’t come back for that if they were passing out $100 bills and a pedicure.” Although our community should make our art as accessible as possible, we must remember that being accessible isn’t limited to being financially accessible.

Performance is a holistic experience.

Yes, I know, you didn’t go to Oberlin to calculate wine-per-guest and you didn’t mortgage your life in student loans to worry about how long a bathroom line at intermission will last. But you know what? A little knowledge of catering and adequate restrooms could improve your performance, however, because your audience will be in a position to be more receptive. We want our music to resonate through and reach deeply into the hearts of the audience members, but first we have to make sure that they are well cared for.

We want to focus on our art, of course, and so when it’s possible performers need to know that we can count on the concert organizers.   We need to ask questions and make sure that our audience is being respected by the venue, and request the help of people who we know are good and not work with people we know are bad. And, when you are in charge of the overall performance, you must think about all of these elements. There needs to be some measure of self-regulation in our community and we cannot simply overlook the enjoyment of the audience because we are too busy with the notes and rhythms.
Even though the audience might be uncomfortable because of somebody’s else’s incompetence, we are the ones they are connecting with, we are the ones they are trusting, and we are the ones who they will associate with their bad time. Therefore, it is imperative to think through audience experience from start to finish, which includes the logistical details along with the musical ones.

Next time you attend performances at your favorite venues, seek out things to complain about. Think about the physical amount of space between the performers and the audience. Is that optimal? Think about the heat or air conditioning. Think about the bar. Think about ticket and bathroom lines. Make a mental list of the times that you didn’t feel embraced by the whole venue. Try and remember every criticism and every little remark you hear around you. Put that into your audience experience homework. Then, try opening your next performance by saying, “I made this for you.” How does that change your connection with the audience?

We are servants to the audience; not slaves to their judgments.

Finally, we are performing a service for our audiences. In a recent conversation with devoted new music patrons Larry and Arlene Dunn, Arlene said, “What I think is really important is to get audience members invested. If they’re feeling intellectually invested, emotionally invested, and aesthetically invested, they’re going to be monetarily invested.” The Dunns repeated emphatically that audience members don’t ask or want you to mold yourself to fit what you imagine they might want, that the audience is often more excited by what challenges them than by what they expect or think they want going into a performance. Music patrons—especially new music patrons—understand that they are sometimes going to hear music they don’t like, but they don’t want you to stop doing it—in fact, often quite the opposite. These performances offer your audiences the chance to discover, to become more educated, to have a deeper emotional experience, to transcend everyday existence.

There is a tremendous space to make your interpretation all about you, but that space exists after we have considered with care and generosity the needs of the audience.

Musical performance is for the audience because it is something they need. They seek out these experiences and pay for it with their own earned income. We, as musicians, come to the stage with a performance ready-made for their attention. We are responsible not only to the art but to our audience and their experience. The audience is not only the ticket buyer but a cherished receiver. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of the performance.

The Performer, the Audience, and the Measure of Success

John Zorn quote
Do we really care if they listen? In new music, we are constantly aware of the criticism that our performances seem to be for a niche participant community rather than for a wider general audience. Well, our little sub rosa is that all performers know that we do it for ourselves—and that is how it should be…at least in part. The audience and series patrons argue that they supply the financial backing that makes our craft possible, and we should not only respect their place in our performance but consider them when making stylistic and programming choices. Does the new music performance belong to the performer, the audience, or both? This series will examine why both points of view, though conflicting, are necessary to uplift the other party and elevate both the artistic achievement and commercial viability of our community.

We are the creators, composers, and interpreters, and as much as we respect the audience and want to immerse them in our creation, the work itself is inherently an intentional act that we are creating and they are consuming. Any comprehensive performing musician enthusiastically promotes the creation of compositions, the displaying of sound in performance, and the experience of the music being made. But, should the attention be paid equally?

As performers, we have devoted our careers to issues of musical virtuosity, technique, the interpretation of the composer’s work, and how the variations of each specific performance expresses different facets of the composition. We have studied the historical, theoretical, and often personal context of the composition’s creation. When I’m performing, I know that everyone in the audience “owns” my instrument—the voice—but they are not there to use it as an instrument, and the vast majority cannot or will not have the ability and training to use it in the way that I am while on stage.

This ability, training, and study are privileges, and while I am honored that I have been entrusted to communicate these ideas, I am also (selfishly) receiving the richest experience of anyone in that venue. Not only do we as performers have the most knowledge of the piece and have often even collaborated in some way with the composer, but we absorb the visceral excitement of the crowd. I get the physical joy of stretching my skills to their utmost—and in new music I have material that is always exciting and challenging.

While performing, I use all of my senses to create an experience that is for myself even more than it is for the audience. When reading the score, I can see the interconnectivity of the musical lines take shape visually while listening to them happen in real time—I watch the act of creation from abstraction to fruition. I use body language to communicate with other performers and understand the communication in their subtle changes. And not only can I see it and hear it, but I have the sensation of making sound in my entire being, from the intake of breath to the internal vibrations to the pursing of my lips. It is physical, it is sensual, and clearly this aspect of the performance is for me.

Of course, this is hardly reserved for singers. In Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing “Out There” by David Such, saxophonist and composer John Zorn describes a similar reaction:

After a performance, some people come up and say it’s very visual…Some people say that they didn’t know what was going on…Everybody gets something different and everybody experiences it in a different way. As far as the audience is concerned, I have nothing to do with them whatsoever when we’re performing…I’m concerned with the music itself.

Zorn isn’t suggesting that we all ignore the audience, but rather that there is a useful separation between his role as an interpreter and the audience’s role as perceivers. If a performer tries to alter his performance to manipulate the audience into a specific and universal response, then he has done a disservice to the music and the individuality of each audience member. Zorn may be discussing avant-garde jazz, but would there be any difference from a broader new music perspective? If we view each performance as being for us and allow the audience the space to create their own reactions, then we can ensure that our role in the performance achieves the performance that is most artistically true to ourselves and to the work.
In this case, there is a strong indication that because the performer gets the most out of the experience, the performance event is a heightened moment in the musician’s life and less so for the audience member.

The problem arrives when we try and measure our success. Being personally satisfied and artistically actualized as a musician does not pay the bills. Tickets sales pay the bills. Commissions pay the bills. The audience’s presence is vital to our ability to continue to program and perform new music. That suggests that parity between the performer’s and audience’s experience is necessary. However, when the performance is for the performer, perhaps the model we use for measuring success changes as well. Enjoying our communion with other performers and staying true to our own vision is delightful, but if it so alienates the audience that we turn off our support base, could it possibly be considered a successful performance?


Megan Ihnen
Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen is a tireless promoter of contemporary classical music for the voice. She was invited as the only voice fellow to Fifth House Ensemble’s Fresh Inc. program in 2013 as well as at the 2012 Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA. She has been a featured soloist at both SICPP (’14) and MusicX (’11). She returns to Graz, Austria in February for IMPULS 2015. Megan is also the author behind the popular classical voice blog, The Sybaritic Singer. She reviews classical music performances and writes about musical entrepreneurship during her “28 Days to Diva” series each February.