Prelude: A Musical Quandary
During the winter of 1997, I wrestled with a musical quandary. I had just been offered a wonderful twenty-concert visiting artist’s residency in Saginaw, Michigan, but I had to figure out a way to make it work with my repertoire. After all, not every audience immediately appreciates highly polyphonic Baroque works,Texas fiddling, or atonal, contemporary pieces. Amidst the excitement of planning the residency, my mind kept echoing the dubious refrains of concert-presenters and conductors who were considerably more cautious than my newfound friends in Saginaw:
”Kids just don’t like classical music.”
“I think you’d be better off if you presented a piece that told a story.”
“You can’t play any modern music on our series; we have to consider our subscription base.”
“I really don’t see how effective outreach can be done by just one violist!”
As much as I hated to think about these negative pronouncements, I had to admit that each statement was grounded in a stark reality. In order for my residency to succeed, I had to remove every barrier between me, my audience, and the music I loved. I needed a method for making the music come alive.
I spent the following months painstakingly figuring out how I could apply tried and true educational principles to a concert setting. The Juilliard School, the Lincoln Center Institute, and the New York Philharmonic had trained me in powerful methods of creative, experiential teaching that works wonders in long-term residencies, but could these methods work in a performance?
By the end of the residency, I could answer with a definitive, “Yes!” In the process, I had gathered several new proclamations to replace the former ones:
“You play the best music I have ever heard.”
Dustin, fourth grade
“[The concert] was truly inspiring. So much that I have taken up private lessons again and am looking into attending Juilliard.”
Amal, tenth grade
“The song by J.S. Back was cool.”
Andie-ah, fifth grade
“I have terminal cancer, and your concert just did me more good than all my chemotherapy treatments combined!”
A seventy-year-old Episcopal priest
I had found a powerful way to share my music with the public I so fervently wanted to reach. I am writing this book so that you and other musicians can do the same.
By nature, any form of serious music may not be easily accessible or instantly gratifying to the broader public. Unfortunately, few people spend time learning to appreciate something that offers no immediate payoff. Moreover, in our multicultural, postmodern worldview, classical traditions have lost their elitist claims of being “superior music.” Cultural and social status no longer provide significant motivations for attending concerts.
Clever marketing may draw new listeners to the concert halls, but audience members will return only if they are truly captivated by the concert experience itself. Our best recourse is to rethink the way we present our music.
This book presents a method for opening and heightening the perceptions of your audiences so that they are just as passionate about your music as you are. Most importantly, this method is grounded in the music itself, not marketing shenanigans or extramusical gimmicks. Various artists, ensembles, and orchestras have tested, refined, and contributed to this approach as it has developed. The ideas presented in this book represent contemporary practice, not just theory.
Although many of my examples come from the experience of classical musicians, this method has worked for performers of jazz, bluegrass, Latin, folk, and other musical styles. If you are a serious musician who wants to give your audience a deeper experience of music, this book is for you. Let’s go out and open some ears!
What Is an Interactive Performance?
What’s an interactive performance?
“A concert where the performers talk.”
Really? What do they talk about?
“They might say something about the composer or the music they’re about to play. Sometimes they’ll tell you something about their ensemble or instruments or say something funny about the group.”
Oh. Does the audience get to do anything?
“Sure. In an interactive concert, they can always ask whatever they like at the end of the concert.”
Hold it! Hold everything.
Unless I’m mistaken, the word “interact” implies that some sort of exchange is taking place. One person does something, which elicits a response from another person, which results in a new situation, which leads to another response, and the cycle continues. Cause and effect. Input-output. Give and take.
Interactive museum exhibits offer hands-on activity stations where visitors can learn by participating. Interactive computer games allow players to shape the direction and outcome of the game via continual conscious input. Interactive comedians invite audience members onstage to improvise skits with them.
In a world that is becoming increasingly interactive, why do so many musicians still think that an interactive performance is a concert where the performers talk and their silent, dutiful audience listens? If we publicize a performance as interactive, we must interact. Otherwise, let’s call our event a lecture recital and stop kidding ourselves.
So what is an interactive performance? For the purposes of this book, let’s assume the following definition:
An interactive performance is an event where the performers help audience members to perform, create, and reflect in ways that heighten their musical perceptions.
We can accomplish this objective through countless means. To illustrate a few possibilities, here are four successful musical interactions from actual concerts:
- 1. A conductor teaches 2,000 audience members to perform along with the bass drum part to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
- 2. The leader of a jazz combo asks her audience to fill a hat with popular tune titles, which will be drawn by band members and quoted in their solos during the subsequent performance of Sweet Georgia Brown – the drummer promises a free CD to anyone whose selected quote isn’t used!
- 3. To introduce the unconventional musical language of George Crumb’s Black Angels, a string quartet helps the audience to create a piece that uses strange sounds and extended string techniques to evoke “images from a dark land.” After the performance, the audience compares its compositional decisions to Crumb’s.
- 4. Using introspective “actor’s studio” questions, a violist leads his adult audience to reflect deeply on a personal grieving process and to express its emotions by humming a succession of consonant and dissonant harmonies prior to a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Elegie.
Now we’re interacting! Do you see the difference? In each of these instances, the performers personally involve their audiences in ways that heighten their musical experiences. The performers are not merely sharing information or teaching listeners about the music, nor are they doing flashy, entertaining things that fail to tap the audience’s musical intelligence. Rather, they are enabling the audience to enter the specific world of each piece.
The conductor simply could have prefaced his performance of Fanfare for the Common Man with a brief biography of Aaron Copland or a discussion of the work’s history. But as an audience member, would receiving that information match the thrill of performing one of Copland’s masterpieces with the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra?
The jazz musician could have explained quotation and told her audience to listen for familiar tunes. But would listeners feel the same excitement and payoff as when the band dared to let them have direct input into the solos?
Of course, real interaction entails a certain degree of risk. It might feel safer and easier just to talk. However, once you take the plunge and truly interact, you quickly discover that the payoffs far surpass any risks.
When you enable an audience to listen with a focused mind and active ears, there’s a palpable electricity in the room. Nobody’s daydreaming about what he’s going to do after the concert. No one’s critically comparing your interpretation to one she heard last fall. Everyone is focused on the music and the moment. Often, the audience will offer insights that may not have occurred to you, and your own perceptions of the music will deepen.
Heightened musical perception is the interactive performer’s raison d’être. Such a performer learns to engage, educate, and entertain an audience, regardless of its demographic or level of musical expertise.
Interaction is more than a nice, extra touch for adding variety to our events; it is a vital component to the survival of serious music. To develop audiences, we must plan events that meet a growing demand for hands-on, audience-centered experiences. We need performances that draw new listeners into deeper levels of musical comprehension and satisfaction. We need musicians who can actively engage every listener in the house.
Interactive performance meets these critical needs. And unlike many audience-development strategies, interactive performance is artistically grounded and fun. All it requires is the intelligent application of a few principles, strategies, and skills. Let’s learn them!