Should performers do more to engage their audiences?

Katie GilbertWed 4th October 2017

There is more than one way to communicate the power of music

The perennial question in classical music of how to engage new audiences often rears its head: in a recent survey commissioned by Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham, 37 per cent of under 25s surveyed thought classical music ‘needed to bring an end to elitist language and traditions’. For me these traditions and language seek to respect the music, and many appreciate them as such, but perhaps in today’s climate they are in danger of being misunderstood and inadvertently end up excluding. Therefore, I think there is scope for responding to the survey by reconsidering ways of presenting music, not from the negative angle of removing ‘stuffiness’, but with the positive aim of increasing understanding and engagement. Let’s consider the song recital, as this forms the basis of much of my experience.

Very often, singers will briefly introduce the set of songs they are about to sing. Feedback from my audience tells me this is valued, especially when the piece is sung in a foreign language. Doing this can enhance the connection between performer and audience, for this reason it might be good to see more instrumental recitals incorporating spoken introductions. There needs to be the right balance between trite statements such as ‘this song is about flowers’, and bombardment with dense academic jargon. Clear, precise but non-patronising language is needed – the font of good communication for all activities. Consider the lecture-recital format: although academic, it presents a specific question or angle which is explored in detail. This could be adapted for different audiences, using their experiences as the ‘angle’ with which to present the music. For under 25s this could be, say, anxiety at job insecurity, or fast changes in technology (minus excruciating use of slang or text speak!). Another useful element of the lecture recital to use in a piece’s introduction is to draw attention to specific parts of the music, verbally and with musical demonstration – in a lecture used to support the point, and in a piece’s introduction to guide listening with signposts. Meaning is created in the audience’s mind in the relationships between these points.

What about doing away with paper programme notes and song translations? I appreciate the need for them, but when I perform I see heads buried in paper, reading. Maybe it’s just the diva in me, but I think seeing a performer embody music and/or a text is as integral to the ‘core’ of the song, the meaning just beyond the text, as the words themselves. Humans are mostly visual beings, and the whole effect of a live performance isn’t complete without this aspect. Instead of programme notes, a translation could be read as a poem or drama (rather than the news-article summary approach to song introduction). Or a piece could be acted out, giving an audience a physical concept to relate to. I have seen this done before in a ‘family concert’ of Lieder with a troupe of actors, who also silently acted while the song was being sung – everyone loved it! Better still encourage the audience to act it with you, involving their bodies and minds in the process and invigorating engagement with music.

Before my teachers frown, I should clarify that distillation of movement into a set of actions that don’t make the audience sea-sick is necessary. Classical singers and their duo partners could draw from the stagecraft expertise of opera and musical theatre in recital, provided it all enhances the core of a piece’s meaning, never detracting from it. A final idea is to re-order pieces in a recital - potentially breaking up the traditional balance of song sets and songs by the same composer grouped together, presented in chronological order - in terms of relatable themes rather than opus numbers, ie, a set of ‘money’ or ‘trees’ songs.

Returning to the survey: 40 per cent of all respondents thought that ‘concerts needed to be performed outside concert halls and in more everyday places’. Perhaps part of the reason people go to concerts (or the theatre or ballet) is to have a ‘special’ rather than an ‘everyday’ experience, with an out-of-the-ordinary location an integral part of that. Music to me is something special and extraordinary, there is a danger of ending up making it too mundane in the attempt to be ‘relevant’. But I would also argue the presence of music can make an otherwise ordinary place seem like the most special in the world at that moment, and the part of me that wants to bring this specialness to everyone perhaps needs to meet people where they are and want to be. This could include engaging an online audience with video/audio demonstrating a piece as described above. However, I might draw the line at car parks – far too hipster!

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