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.