There are two previous articles on this blog concerning this topic:
Not surprisingly, readers have searched for what the heck to say! More than once! I’ve been thinking about that, and had a few ideas. Hopefully this post will help spark some of your own.
First, see if you can find out what type of audience you’ll have. Young? Older? Mixed? Any children? Is this a concert related to an art exhibit or other event? You can go to the venue or series web site to check out the programs from last year, look at the photos, etc. The person who hired you can also be a good source of information like this. You’ll be able to intuit what they mean by asking followup questions.
That means, just talk to people. If you make a mistake, that’s OK. Your audience is full of people, too.
Don’t read from a CD insert, a history book, someone else’s program notes, or anything else. You’ll sound stiff. If you’d feel better w/notes on an index card or two, use them. Be sure to look at the audience, not at the floor. You may want to practice this with a friend.
Historical cataloging information is not why people came to hear you. Hearing you reel off opus numbers isn’t so interesting when they’ve come to listen to the music. Neither is an explanation of publishing order vs. composition dates. And when you’re playing one or two pieces from a set, the order of the set doesn’t matter. Whatever you’re not playing, won’t make sense to them unless it’s a very well-known piece.
Explanations about theory won’t turn them on, either. When I play Messiaen, for example, I don’t talk about his rhythmic modes. And Messiaen’s rhythmic variations are practically impossible to pinpoint. If I can’t hear the difference between a whole note and then a whole note tied to a 16th several pages later, the audience isn’t going to hear it, either. Tell them something they can relate to, like bird songs, church bells, church organs, and dreams. Invite them to go outdoors with you in their minds. They are accustomed to hearing many different sounds simultaneously, but may not realize it. When you take them there, they appreciate it.
Try to come up with something interesting. You can speak in everyday terms (avoiding musical jargon) without talking down to your audience. Just because they may not know the same vocabulary you do, they doesn’t mean they won’t comprehend a few comments in non-specialized language.
I’m thinking of a friend, a PhD candidate in economics, who explained economic theory to me. No jargon. It worked! Considering my total lack of knowledge in the field, I was truly amazed.
- When you say hello, mention something about the instrument you’ll be performing on, or a landmark you noticed on your way into town. Or just say how happy you are to be there. Thank them for coming out to support classical music. And thank the person who hired you, as well as the board. Tell them you’d love to meet them later. You’ll come across as being approachable.
- Tell a story about the composer or the piece.
- Explain that a fugue is like a round. Name a couple of rounds they’ll know. (You can supply the titles!) Then just say that fugues are a little more involved, but they will hear the main tune throughout the piece. (Or call it a melody ~ they may not know what a theme is.)
- Talk about how you chose this particular program, even if you chose it because it’s music you like. (I’ve actually said that before, after mentioning other possibilities. Everyone loved it.)
- Introduce an unusual piece, invite them to enjoy it, and let them know you’ll be asking for a show of hands later.
- Distribute a questionnaire about what types of music they like, how often they attend concerts, whether they would come back to this venue, would want to hear other pieces by one or more composers on the program, etc. Audiences like to participate. You can make it easy for them.
- Ask everyone to write down the title of their favorite piece or composer. You could have a discussion after the concert.
Still not sure what to say? Try it out on a friend. Try it out on your mother. Invite them to ask questions. That way, you’ll get an idea of how well you’re communicating.
But mostly, just try it! Remember, you know more about your program, why you chose it and how you think about it than anyone else in the room.
I have to say, I never thought I’d feel comfortable talking to an audience until I tried it. I am not the world’s most extroverted person (until I start performing). So, since I’m speaking to audiences every time I perform a solo program now, I’m suggesting that you jump into the ring and see how it goes. Let me know! We could have an ongoing discussion right here.