Yesterday when judging the ORMTA Southern Zone Competition in Hamilton, Ontario, one of the participants came up to me before performing and asked if it would be appropriate if he talked about one of the pieces on his program before playing it. My response to the pianist was that more than being just appropriate, it was a brilliant idea and I looked forward to hearing him speak.
The piece that he was playing was Larysa Kuzmenko’s In Memoriam to the Victims of Chernobyl, a dramatic, moving, and atonal piece, precisely the kind of piece that many people might have difficulty connecting with. That is, until they understand that it is also a work dedicated to those who perished in the most catastrophic nuclear accident in history. The pianist also mentioned the current Japanese nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear plant as a contemporary frame of reference. Because of his introduction, the audience was able to connect with his fine performance on a level that they might not have had he not talked beforehand.
Audiences love it when performers talk. It is absolutely necessary for every single type of popular music, and many artists in these genres are able to connect in ways that they would not be able to by merely keeping silent and playing their music.
We in the classical music world need to learn how to talk to audiences for two reasons:
1. It helps you connect with those who have come to see your performance. Let’s face it, the traditional concert situation is more than a little awkward these days, with a room full of audience members who may be largely uncomfortable with the experience of going to see music live and, to make matters worse, keep quiet all the way through. They often feel like they’re supposed to merely observe, although they’re not certain what they’re supposed to appreciate. When you speak to them, you can break through that distance right away, and if they find you engaging, you can start the process of winning them over before you’ve even played a note.
2. Audiences for the most part really, really want to like classical music, to understand and appreciate it. But since it’s not a part of current popular culture, many people feel a kind of distance between themselves and the music, and perhaps more than just a little intimidated around the high culture that allegedly goes with it. Finding the right tone and words to introduce a work of music (preferably without sounding the slightest bit high-minded) can reassure the audience that they may just have the ability to appreciate the music on your program and want to look further into the world of experience that classical music can provide.
Regarding what you’re actually going to say, it’s always best to find the words that come from a place of genuine connection rather than what you feel you’re supposed to say. It might even be a worthwhile idea to talk about your own personal journey and how as a performer you connect with the music you’re about to play rather than throwing around complex musical terminology. Try it. Your audiences will thank you.