Whose Job Is It To Teach Audience Experience?

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.

Written By

Megan Ihnen

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.