Over the last four posts, I’ve assumed that audiences for classical and jazz performances are dwindling and older patrons are not being replaced with younger ones.
In the previous post, I mentioned a few ways classical music performers could communicate more effectively and host more appealing and more engaging performances. They included impromptu speaking, performing unspecified programs, and making some democratic decisions.
It’s understandable why some people would dislike these suggestions. Their reasons relate to the Christopher Small quote I used in the previous post:
….Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by social beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships. These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.”
The performance is the focal point where all these relationships finally interact at their most complex level. A successful performance is one where performers mirror and reflect all these relationships back onto the audience and onto the social construction in which it is occurring.
Performances are, in this sense, rituals of acknowledgement. Performances that don’t acknowledge these relationships will fail.
Acknowledging Relationships in the Concert Hall
For example, classical music concerts celebrate (among many other things) form, rules, formality, and structure. Deviations from structure are frowned upon. It doesn’t matter what the rules are, as long as the performers and audiences are abiding by them (maybe that’s a slight exaggeration). If everybody adheres to the structure, the performance will be successful.
A pianist who flubs a note will be criticized for his/her inability to adhere to (or live up to) the rules written in the score. Audience members who cough, whisper, or unwrap candy will be scorned because they don’t follow proper concert etiquette. Concert venues will be criticized because they can’t keep the room at a steady 23.5 degrees Celsius, as stated in paragraph 25b in the performance contract. The architect will be criticized because you can’t quite hear the bassoon from the back row.
The most admired classical music performers, promoters, organizations, etc. are the ones who embody these kinds of structured, formal relationships. Those who celebrate this paradigm will dislike and distrust any chaotic element brought into a performance. Democratic decisions, impromptu speaking, and unspecified programs would be distasteful, awkward, and unacceptable.
Under these circumstances, performers are best to mirror all these complex relationships as best as they can. A successful performance depends on it.
Acknowledging Relationships in the Jazz Club
What about jazz music?
Jazz concerts are just as complicated in the relationships they celebrate and acknowledge.
For example, jazz performers celebrate improvisation, spontaneity, being “in the moment,” and the individual voice. Attempts to formalize certain elements of a jazz performance will be met with varying degrees of resistance. Solo order, set lists, rehearsals, dress attire, tune arrangements, spoken introductions, ensemble placement, chord changes, bowing, and lighting are (with varying degrees) ignored, left to chance, or decided on “in the moment.”
A jazz musician who can’t play All of Me in the moment may be thrown off stage. A jazz musician who only plays Charlie Parker transcriptions is odd. A club owner who gets anxious and upset one-minute past the scheduled downbeat may be considered harsh and unreasonable. A concert promoter who demands set lists months in advance will be difficult to work with.
I say “with varying degrees” because the jazz aesthetic is fairly loose. Some jazz ensembles will take dress attire very seriously and still be considered a jazz band. Jazz music is very accommodating, and can handle a broad range of individuals, eccentricities, and broad definitions of the term.
Still, the best jazz performers are the most reflective mirrors, whether they are celebrating a Miles aesthetic, a Gershwin aesthetic, a Wynton Marsalis aesthetic, or a Sun Ra aesthetic.
Foggy Mirrors Need Polishing
A friend once told me of his experience attending a classical music concert. It was a solo piano performance. He didn’t understand why the pianist left the stage after every piece. The performer also didn’t speak to or acknowledge the audience. He just played his program and took bows.
My friend felt awkward through the entire concert and didn’t enjoy himself. What’s going on here?
Maybe these kinds of concert formalities are becoming less reflective. Though, maybe my friend was the only one who felt awkward. Then again, what if he was the only one in the audience?
A reflective mirror in one context may be foggy in another. Likewise, a reflective mirror, over time, needs polishing. It’s difficult to know the extent a performer and mirror needs polishing, if at all. In fact, you could argue that it’s my friend who needs polishing.
Nevertheless, these posts were written on the assumption that audiences for classical and jazz performances are dwindling, and older patrons are not being replaced with younger ones. It’s safe to say then, that the classical and jazz paradigms need polishing. This is exactly the conversation that needs to be had.
Of course, my observations aren’t limited to classical music performances. I’m interested in all kinds of performances, whether it’s a performance of classical music, jazz music, Sunday mass at church, Sunday football, or a ritualistic gathering. There are similarities in all these things; we can learn from them.
When I was fifteen, I remember being asked, after attending Sunday mass, what the priest’s homily was about. He talked for 20 minutes. I didn’t retain one word of it. His speaking was too bland and boring. This priest was a poor reflection of the relationships I celebrated and expected to have acknowledged….when I was fifteen.
Though, I remember my grandmother was asked the same question, and she couldn’t recall either. It occurred to me that most people aren’t paying attention to what the priests are preaching during the homily. The quiet, reflective environment gives this illusion that everybody is focused on the speaker. So then what’s going on here? Why do we let this happen?
Attending church is about more than hearing a priest speak. There may be foggy aspects of the ritual, but there could still be aspects that are highly reflective. Otherwise, people wouldn’t attend church. These rituals are mirroring many complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and often-conflicting relationships.
But regardless, if audience members in church (or in the concert hall) are entering journeys of discovery and are actually bored out of their skulls, then there has been a breakdown in some of the relationships that make up this ritual. It’s in need of polishing.
(…and a dusting)
Over the last three posts, I’ve assumed that audiences for classical and jazz performances are dwindling and older patrons are not being replaced with younger ones.
I suggested in the previous post that one way to make performances more appealing to more people is to support more feedback loops. This means having the ability to adapt to circumstances, change game plans, and interact with audiences. This is an important element of effective communication and good performances.
I’m revisiting Christopher Small’s book Musicking. His observations are inspiring:
“A flowchart of communication during a performance might show arrows pointing from composer to performers and a multitude of arrows pointing from performers to as many listeners as are present; but what it will not show is any arrow pointing in the reverse direction, indicating feedback from listener to performers and certainly not to composer (who is any case is probably dead and so cannot possibly receive any feedback). Nor would it show any that ran from listener to listener; no interaction is assumed there.”
The problem with feedback loops, is that they require spontaneity and impromptu material – things that classical performances notoriously lack.
I’m not suggesting that classical musicians learn to improvise. That would be like moving a mountain, and would be inconsiderate of all the complex relationships at work in the concert hall.
I’m suggesting rather, that we start with moving pebbles and experiment with this flowchart of communication. Here are some general thoughts, in no particular order:
Clapping in Between Movements
Any piece with multiple movements is bound to awaken an elephant in the room.
The issue isn’t whether applause is or isn’t appropriate for the piece, or what the performers prefer, or what the composer wants (or wanted!). The issue is in poor communication. There’s a discrepancy about how/when to show appreciation, and performers rarely correct it.
Sometimes this isn’t an issue – the audience may already be unified and everyone has a mutual understanding about clapping etiquette. Unfortunately though, this is taken for granted and really, audiences aren’t unified. This causes awkwardness, anxiety, tension, bad feelings, debate, and one big elephant.
Performers have an opportunity to rectify this by establishing a simple feedback loop: Before the piece begins, ask the audience!
Take a vote. Have fun with it. Performers can vote too. Personally, I’m indifferent. And I’ll make that clear to my audience. No judgment. No stress. Just an easy vote. After the vote, everything is clear.
There are only two possible outcomes: clapping or no clapping. Performers need to be ready to accept either, and be comfortable with the spontaneity of this situation. It’s important that nobody knows for certain what the outcome is going to be. The choice needs to be real.
However simple and subtle, feedback loops and spontaneity can add a special magic to a performance. As I mentioned in the previous post, having the ability to adapt to circumstances, change the game plan, and interact with audiences is an important element of effective communication and good performances.
Pulling the Concert Out of a Hat
When I perform classical music concerts, I have to submit a program up to two years in advance. Every piece must be decided on, often with little flexibility.
The TSO recently announced their 2013-2014 season. I suspect every concert has been contracted and programed down to the exact minute.
This is understandable when you consider that marketing machines need that amount of time to turn their gears, sell tickets, sell subscriptions, confirm sponsors etc. When promotional efforts centre on repertoire selection and programs, it’s no surprise that these things need to be decided well in advance.
This is another example of a system that leaves no room for spontaneity and feedback.
Compare this to my trio, Myriad3. Our performances rarely require us to submit a program in advance. Before a show, we may write out a set list to provide a rough structure, but we never follow it exactly. That’s because circumstances are always changing. The circumstances during which you’re preparing a program/set list are completely different from when you’re on stage performing.
I’m not suggesting classical performers call tunes on stage, or disrupt the effort of their marketing machines. I’m suggesting rather that they incorporate a little bit of flexibility into their programs.
How about this: pull the program order out of a hat. Every audience member knows what pieces are going to be performed, but nobody knows when. It’s a simpler version of “calling tunes,” as in the jazz tradition.
Even still, this may be too chaotic for the current paradigm. It can be simplified. Suppose there are four major pieces to be performed. The first and last piece can be programmed, but the order of the middle two are undetermined.
There are only two options. ABCD or ACBD. Again, performers need to be ready to accept either, and be comfortable with the spontaneity of this situation. To make it more interesting, the audience can decide. Take another vote. Or ask a single audience member to pull the order out of a hat.
It can be fun and many variations are possible. It also creates another simple feedback loop.
Why Don’t Concert Halls Have Windows?
It occurred to me that having the ability to adapt to circumstances has no value if circumstances don’t change in the first place.
For example, if the Canadian Opera Company performed La Boheme every night for 10 days in a row, the circumstances in the concert hall would be virtually the same every night. Even if there were a thunderstorm outside, you would never know inside the concert hall.
It’s as if classical performances are designed to insulate against change and circumstance. Great effort is made to preserve one setting, one instance, and one ideal.
Why is that? Why don’t concert halls have windows? More from Small:
““(Auditoriums) allow no communication with the outside world. Performers and listeners alike are isolated here from the world of their everyday lives….Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by social beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships. These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.”
If audiences are dwindling, then these assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships, as expressed in the design of concert halls, are also dwindling. The reinvention of classical music concerts needs to consider all the symbols, gestures, and relationships that uphold these assumptions.
A more extreme reinvention of classical music concerts would include rethinking, designing, and building the space in which concerts are held (possibly with a few more windows).
At this moment though, it’s more practical to experiment with simpler feedback loops (installing windows isn’t an option). So how about some impromptu acknowledgement of the outside world? Comments on the weather, current events, personal stories etc.
I can tell you that, as a musician performing classical music concerts, these kinds of interactions are frequently demanded from presenters, venues, artistic directors (and ultimately audiences) who are hosting classical music concerts. It is no longer acceptable for performers to simply play their program. We are expected to engage, interact, tell stories, be personable, receive and give feedback.
In a sense, we’re being asked to acknowledge circumstances. Ignoring your circumstances and audience is robotic and socially awkward. Nobody’s comfortable with that.
Figuratively, performers can act as windows to the outside world. Or, on a deeper lever, perhaps we should act more as mirrors.
I’ll leave that for the next post
Recap: I’m writing about making music performances (particularly jazz and classical) more appealing to more people.
I have two areas to address:
- Giving audiences and performers more/alternative freedoms
- Improving communication/collaboration = improving performance
The Emperor is Naked!
“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.
“Listen to the voice of innocence!” exclaimed his father; and what the child had said was whispered from one to another.
“But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.
There may be audiences who thoroughly enjoy (for example) every second of Mahler’s 9th (75-85 minutes long!). Not me. When I saw the TSO perform Mahler’s 9th, I was probably only focusing on the performance for 10 minutes, max. The rest of the time, I’m embarking on journeys of self-discovery, thinking about my career, wishing I could socialize with my friend, and ironically, secretly chastising all the coughers, whisperers and wrapper-crinklers.
Cynical, maybe. Or is the Emperor naked? There’s only one way to find out.
Open More Feedback Channels
I’m writing this firstly because I don’t think I’m the only one. I suspect most audience members wish they could at least push pause, stand up and stretch.
I’m also writing this because, as I mentioned in my previous post, performing is a widespread collaboration between all participants and contributors. Improving performances means improving the quality of communication and collaboration. If our goal is to make music performances more appealing, we need to start communicating and be honest about our experiences during music performances.
This includes audiences communicating with performers.
One way to do this is to open more feedback channels. Otherwise, how would performers really know if they’re connecting with audiences?
Classical music concerts are notoriously rigid in how they support feedback. Compare concerts to hockey games, where there’s clapping, heckling, cheering, socializing, analyzing, eating, drinking, standing and leaving whenever and however you want.
Audience feedback at concerts is limited to applauding only after the completion of a piece. Occasionally there’s some cheering and the odd “bravo!” There are also standing ovations (which my friend Scott MacInnis has nicknamed “standing evacuations”). But generally, for 95% of the performance, any kind of body movement is frowned upon.
How Did This Happen?
I have a habit of eating every morsel of food on my plate.
Sometimes this is because I enjoy what I’m eating. Other times, it’s because I was taught to eat that way.
This may come from my parents, trying to instill good manners and eating etiquette into their kids. After all, my grandparents grew up during the Great Depression. Picky eating and leftover food aren’t options when there isn’t enough to go around.
Times have changed; there’s more food.
I don’t have to finish all my food, but I still do, sometimes to the detriment of my belly. Because of habits and social pressures, I often eat all the food on my plate whether I enjoyed it, or not.
Readers take note: you don’t have to finish all the food on your plate. Throw it out or ask for half-portions. Or do what Kim Kardashian does and spray Windex on it.
Likewise, you also don’t have to sit through entire classical music concerts. Get up and leave, or ask for half-portions. Or do what the Loony Toons do and throw tomatoes on stage.
But these kinds of feedback channels – because of concert etiquette, social pressures, habits etc. – are closed. Somehow, the concert tradition has evolved this way.
Maybe it evolved for good reasons, but my instincts are telling me that times have changed and the concert tradition’s response to this change should be to open more feedback channels.
Supporting Feedback Loops
I’m not suggesting that we immediately open all feedback channels. There’s a reason why they’re closed in the first place:
Think about how comedians deal with feedback, or laughter. If everyone’s laughing, they may stay the course, or take more risks, or put a little more energy into the performance. If no one’s laughing, they’d better change their game plan, fast.
It’s similar with heckling. Once hecklers reach a certain point of annoyance, comedians should deal with them.
The best performers will interact with the audience/hecklers in an entertaining way, as if it’s part of the show. Having the ability to adapt to the circumstances, change the game plan and interact with audiences is an important element of effective communication and good performances. The goal is to support “feedback loops.”
But this requires impromptu material. Performers of classical music have no impromptu material.
Suppose every audience member had a gauge over his/her head, accurately measuring attentiveness, enjoyment and pleasure. If every gauge showed that everybody was bored out of his/her skull, the performers would still have no choice but to continue with the show. Performers of classical music lack the vocabulary to adapt to different circumstances.
Programs are decided years in advance. Every note on the page is fixed. Entrances, acknowledgements, bows, curtain calls, and encores are all planned well in advance. Even “impromptu” speeches and jokes are often scripted.
For My Next Post(s)…
Let’s loosen up a bit! This will be the topic of my next post.
I’ll write more about supporting feedback loops in the concert hall. Strong feedback loops are key to effective communication and good performances.
I suspect though, that there are factors at work here that I’m not addressing. As per my previous post, things are more complicated and relationships in a concert hall can’t be reduced merely to a performer-audience dynamic.
That model might be best for practicality though. Stay tuned!
Recap: I’m writing about making music performances (particularly jazz and classical) more appealing to more people. In the previous post, I suggested that resolving discordant expectations and giving audiences more/alternative freedoms are the most important issues to explore.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Here’s why:
Where Are All Your Friends?
Myriad3 has performed all across Canada in the last 6 months. We publicize tours the only way we know how. Press releases are sent to every press outlet in every city we visit. Professionally designed posters are made for every performance. We also spread the word through social media.
We go above and beyond what could be expected from a touring band like Myriad3.
At one particular venue, the turnout was poor. So the manager frustratingly asked us: “Where are all your friends!?”
I responded: “Our friends are back home in Toronto. Where are all your friends!?”
I didn’t say that; politeness got the best of me. But this raises the question: Who’s responsible for attracting audiences?
It’s Not My Job
Well, it is and it isn’t. Performing is complicated.
The question we should be asking is: Who’s responsible for performing?
A less traditional and more holistic view reveals much diversity in its nature and function. Performing is the result of many complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional relationships.
When you go to a jazz club, who’s actually doing the performing?
- The band
- The manager who hired the band
- The restaurant owner who hired the manager
- The architect who designed the restaurant
- The politicians who shape the policy that gives everyone the freedom to build restaurants and attend concerts
- All of the above
Everyone has a stake in the moment that culminates when the band performs. Here’s another one. Who’s actually writing this blog post?
- The software engineers who designed Microsoft Office
- The engineers who designed the Macbook
- The designer who created this website
- The Starbucks in which I’m writing
- All the above
Everyone who has a stake in a “performance” have different functions, different goals and different means to achieve them. If you alter one aspect of a performance, you could be throwing everything out of balance and interfering with someone else’s creative work.
For example, it’s not always clear what the function of a jazz band is. Are they to provide ambience? Or are they to be the center of attention? Being the center of attention may interfere with the manager’s intentions. However, providing ambience may interfere with the purpose of the stage, which the architect built for the musicians to perform on. Conflict.
There’s No Such Thing As An Audience
This is when my head starts to spin:
Audiences are also stakeholders in a performance. If audience members sense discrepancies in the purpose of a performance, this creates a similar conflict.
If an individual expects ambient, background music and instead is attending a feature performance, that individual will be bored and unhappy. Similarly, if he expects a feature performance and the seats are uncomfortable, he’ll be unhappy.
This leads to an unconventional view of performances: that there’s no such thing as audiences. Or at least you can’t differentiate between performers and audiences. Everybody’s work, function, perceptions, and expectations come together – the focal point being the moment and immediate present. Conflicts and discrepancies will cause some kind of tension or disunity in the moment. People are unhappy, experience isn’t optimal, and the performance is less beautiful.
(This is beginning to sound a lot like George Carlin’s “Big Electron.”)
Performance is Collaboration
Such systems don’t like being tampered with, for risk of interfering with someone’s creative work and throwing everything off balance. If we’re discussing making music concerts more appealing to more people, moving forward and proposing solutions has to be a delicate, respectful process.
One principle to observe is that performing is a widespread collaboration between all participants and contributors.
As I mentioned previously, the collaboration between the jazz club manager and Myriad3 was weak. They’re should have been more communication about expectations on both sides.
If a presenter is boring his audience, he needs to improve his presenting skills and communicate more effectively. This makes a stronger collaboration between him and his audience, and overall a more pleasing experience.
Similarly, if classical music audiences are being bored and embarking on journeys of self-discovery, there has been a communication break down, resulting in a weak collaboration, and a weak performance.
When companies release new products, they include manuals, software development kits, help lines, customer service, public forums and many other means to communicate with collaborators. It’s never perfect, but some companies do better than others.
I’m not necessarily suggesting classical/jazz music concerts follow suit, but it’s important for them consider the ways some companies and organizations communicate with their community.
For My Next Post(s)…
From what I’ve written so far over the last two posts, I have two areas to explore:
- Giving audiences and performers more/alternative freedoms
- Improving communication/collaboration = improving performance
“Unfortunately, most of the behaviors that speakers engage in, send audiences members off on what we call ‘journeys of self-discovery.’”
I have a confession to make: I frequently enter these “journeys of self-discovery” during classical music concerts (among other types of performances, speeches and presentations). It turns out that classical music concerts are great for thinking about my career, time management, goals, and what to get my mom for Christmas.
I used to think this was because I wasn’t smart enough, or because I had focus issues. But now I know I enter these journeys of self-discovery because I’m not being engaged to my liking. I’m bored.
Being bored is not how I want to spend my evenings, so I avoid going to classical music concerts. Actually, if I was attending my own concert, I’d probably be bored. So this issue is important to me.
Am I the Only One!?
I wish every audience member had a gauge over his/her head to measure attentiveness.
Hollywood movies probably achieve high levels of attentiveness. Lecturers and orators probably achieve less (unless you’re a celebrity/expert like President Obama). I suspect classical music concerts are low on the attentiveness spectrum.
If that’s the case, then this is a big problem. Having audiences embarking on journeys of self-discovery is contrary to the intentions of the performers, just as it’d be contrary to the intentions of an orator or movie director.
Further, there’s also the issues of dwindling concert attendance and making concerts more appealing for younger audiences. If the future is bleak, then performers (myself included) need to address the issue of boring our audiences.
Arriving at solutions is complicated, of course. One reason is because identifying the problem is complicated. But this is what I want to explore over the next few posts.
I’ll start with boredom.
Boredom’s Not Good
I think that’s a fair assumption. We try to avoid boredom and and we try to avoid boring other people.
Check out this Squarepusher video:
You’ll notice two things.
The first is that Squarepusher gives impressive performances. The second is that you’ll stop watching after you get bored. Having the technology, choice and privacy to “turn it off” is very significant.
We get bored (and angry, frustrated, unhappy etc.) when 1) the situation conflicts with our expectations and 2) we don’t have the knowledge or power to control the situation and stimuli.
1. The Situation Conflicts with Expectations
If there are misunderstandings or unrealistic expectations of the purpose and function of the current circumstances, boredom is likely.
A few examples:
- “This should be entertaining.”
- “The next time will be better.”
- “Coffee shops are great places for peace and quiet.”
- “She said I would enjoy this.”
- “All classical music is awesome.”
- “Many people enjoy this. I should too.”
- “Libraries are great places to socialize and meet new people.”
- “I always enjoy this.”
- “Tom Cruise is in it, so it’s gotta be good.
- “I can’t wait to socialize at the classical music concert!”
It’s complicated how unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings are formed, and that’s beyond the scope of this post.
However they’re formed, there’s definitely some kind of discordancy or miscommunication between an individual and his/her circumstances. Those circumstances could include ones ego, other individuals, groups, companies, social situations, or a combination of these.
It may be clear to most people that socializing in a library isn’t appropriate. Anybody expecting otherwise is going to get bored or be asked to leave. It’s not always clear in other situations though. This is because performances are the result of many complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional relationships (which I’ll expand on later).
For now, the most practical solution is in effective communication and clarification, so that everyone involved in certain circumstances have some mutual understanding about purpose and function.
2. Having the Power to Control the Situation
I get bored at classical music concerts because I don’t have control over the variables that would otherwise optimize my experience. I’m trapped in my seat, facing forward. Excessive moment is frowned upon. Chatter isn’t allowed. It’s poor etiquette to check your email. I can’t request songs. Can’t order a drink. Can’t fast-forward or rewind. I even feel bad getting up to go to the bathroom.
I have no power to turn something off, or turn something else on. Thankfully, I can still turn off/on my mind and embark on journeys of self-discovery!
Having this power is similar to what Glenn Gould refers to as “kits.” From a CBC interview:
“I have a feeling that the end result of all our labors in the recording studio is not going to become some kind of autocratic finished product such as we turn out now with relative ease, with the help of splice-making which we do or which engineers do for us, but is going to be a rather more democratic assemblage. I think we’re going to make kits, and I think we’re going to send out these kits to listeners, perhaps to viewers also, as videotape cartridge gets into the act, as I think it will, and we’re going to say, Do it yourself. Take the assembled components and make of those components something that you genuinely appreciate. If you don’t like the result as you put together the first time, put it together a second time. Be in fact your own editor. Be, in a sense, your own performer.”
In a broader sense, the controls on a YouTube video act as a kind of “kit.” Play, stop, fast-forward, rewind, increase volume, decrease volume, change quality, turn on captions, full-screen, and comments (among others) aren’t necessarily used to assemble components of a piece of music, but rather to assemble the components of general, everyday experience.
Choosing to socialize, order a drink, request a song, or get up and leave could also be assembly options in certain circumstances. Even more broadly, so is choosing to attend a classical music concert or a Squarepusher concert.
I’m part of the video game generation (for lack of a better term) – people who grew up with extraordinary diversity and powers to control their stimuli. Why would I attend a classical music concert, when I could spend time on YouTube, or play video games where I have more much more freedom and control?
After all, this is how we combat boredom, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, and day-to-day. Classical music concerts are very suffocating in this regard.
If we’re discussing how to make music performances more appealing to more people, then resolving discordant expectations and giving audiences more/alternative freedoms are the most important issues to explore.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Complications arise when you think about the meaning of performing, which I’ll write about next post.
This post is in response to the discussions regarding jazz students’ attendance at jazz concerts.
I teach privately at the University of Toronto, and usually have between one and four piano students studying with me during the academic year. My students rarely attend my performances. I can think of one or two instances in my four years teaching at UofT.
Also, In October 2011, my trio Myriad3 performed UofT’s faculty concert. This was part of the Faculty of Music’s official calendar of events, and Myriad3’s performance was meant to represent the jazz faculty. We counted two students in the audience.
It’s a valid concern – jazz students not attending jazz concerts. If you want to learn about performing jazz music, you should learn from the jazz masters and attend their performances.
It’s unreasonable to assume that students attending a school for “jazz” or “jazz performance” are solely interested in those things, nor should they be.
A Teaching Paradox
I hold two opposing outlooks when teaching students.
First, I assume they’re studying to become professional jazz pianists. I think this is a sign of a good teacher. Students are expected to achieve the same, high standard I hold for myself. If they hope to achieve that standard, it’d be wise for them to attend my shows. It’s very frustrating that my students never hear me perform.
At the same time, I can never assume my students are studying to become professional jazz pianists. Our gatherings around the piano, jazz music, and performing may only be serving as a launching pad for related or alternate careers. My students are “finding their voice” in a broader sense, one that will inevitably include the piano, jazz music and performing, but may also include other, diverse interests.
Considering this, I can think of three reasons why my students aren’t attending my performances:
- My students aren’t primarily interested in studying jazz performance.
- My students don’t know how to teach themselves to be jazz professionals.
- My performances aren’t appealing enough to attract students.
Students Aren’t Primarily Interested in Jazz Performance
Being a jazz performer may not be part of “finding their voice,” just as “Dixieland music” and “electrical engineering” aren’t part of mine. Diverse interests and natural inclinations may drive them away from jazz concerts, and towards other activities.
Then why are they enrolled in a jazz performance program?
To learn. To explore.
It’s both reasonable and narrow minded to assume that a jazz education is meant to inspire creative work in jazz performance. A strong teacher and a strong community can harness both perspectives.
One of jazz education’s strengths (and music education’s in general) is that it can tolerate a broad range of individuals and interests, yet still be extremely rigorous and disciplined. Graduates from jazz programs will also go on to careers in sound engineering, journalism, education, jazz theory, composition, medicine, law, film, finance and many others (including performance in multiple, diverse genres, not just jazz). That’s because music education can offer advancement in multiple skills, including communication, leadership, learning, business and problem solving.
A student’s education in jazz, whether focused on performance or otherwise, will stay with them forever.
Students Don’t Know How to Teach Themselves
Maybe they don’t know what it takes to craft a career in jazz performance. Maybe their education has failed them.
It may seem logical – “if you want to perform, you should imitate master performers.” This also may seem logical – “if you want to know something, ask questions.”
But how do you know what questions to ask? How do you know specifically what to imitate?
Students need to be responsible and figure things out for themselves. But teachers need to be responsible too.
A good education and good teachers will ingrain good habits into their students. We’re really good at ingraining II-V-I habits, inspired by the jazz masters. If attending jazz performances is important to the teacher, ingraining good social habits, inspired by the jazz community, should be on the agenda too.
My Performances Aren’t Appealing Enough
This is directed firstly towards performers. Here’s a video of a Squarepusher concert – he has no trouble getting fans out to his gigs.
This is a pretty impressive performance. I don’t mean to suggest that jazz artists incorporate LED light shows into their performances. But I do suggest that all jazz artists work on developing their performance skills.
Putting on a good show is more than ordering songs fast-slow-fast-slow. Performing (jazz or otherwise) is an art in itself and jazz artists aren’t excluded from studying what makes an effective performance.
In a way, jazz artists are competing with acts like Squarepusher and technology like YouTube. Jazz fans and jazz students don’t necessarily expect LED lights and extravagant displays, but they do expect to have a good time. Jazz artists should be striving to make it easier for audiences and fans to connect with them.
But producing good jazz shows isn’t only up to the artists. There are many people responsible for making jazz appealing to students.
As I mentioned, we counted two students at UofT’s jazz faculty concert last year. But we also only counted two faculty members. If faculty members aren’t excited and talking about jazz concerts, it’s unfair to expect students to.
I haven’t been to any faculty concerts either so I don’t exclude myself from this criticism. But it supports the idea of needing a strong, supportive community with effective leadership.
(Special thanks to my Myriad3 buds, Dan Fortin and Ernesto Cervini. We’re on the road in Philadelphia and have been discussing this topic thoroughly.)
I just returned from another music competition. In Nottingham, England. Solo jazz piano. Didn’t win. Again. I guess I’m not built for these things.
I don’t have a problem with competitions. They’re the same as winning a Juno, landing a jazz festival gig or getting a positive review. It’s a clash of culture bubbles.
As long as everybody’s winking at the same time, these things are win-win-win for everybody involved (except for the losers of course). It’s just that competitions are blunter and bolder. So there’s a lot more winking, which can be tiring, make your face hurt and challenge your conscience.
But all of these things – winning a Juno, winning a competition etc. – are designed to accomplish the same thing: To formally recognize an individual’s contribution to a domain. It’s a rite of passage, a tribe’s acceptance, and a tribe’s renewal.
(Side note: I highly recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity, where he discusses, among other things, fields and domains: “Creativity must… be seen not as something that happens within a person but in the relationships within a system.”)
To make things complicated, some domains are more difficult to define than others. The Nottingham competition defines the domain like this (note that there’s no mention of the piano, solo piano, solo-jazz-piano and acknowledging those traditions):
“4f. Performances. The design of the 20 and 30 minute ‘short programmes’ is largely left to the competitors, and the range and contrast of music performed will, ideally, be quite wide. Obviously, the inclusion of a large improvised component is implicit in the term jazz. However, the committee makes no attempt to define the term ‘jazz’ in a more formal sense, thereby tacitly acknowledging that ‘jazz’ denotes a wide spectrum of diverse musical practices and styles which is continually enlarging and evolving. Indeed, as Darius Brubeck, André Hodeir and others have argued, jazz is perhaps best defined as a process where by musicians conceptualize and re-adapt pre-existing music rather than as a musical genre per se. Thus, original compositions, arrangements, performances of ‘standards’ or even free improvisation in musical styles which draw on any aspects of the musical rhetoric associated with the musical styles normally described as blues, stride, swing, be-bop, hard bop, cool and modal jazz, freejazz, jazz-rock fusion and even ethnic crossover will all be admissible under the umbrella of this competition. However, although jazz is often a forum for improvisation, innovation and experimentation, it is widely considered to be an ‘inter-textual’ genre which builds on ‘traditional’ elements and practices and acknowledges these through performance. Accordingly, the committee requires that each competitor acknowledges this ‘traditional’ aspect of jazz to some extent through the design of the short programmes…”
Nebulous! Compare this to math and science, where there’s much less wiggle room. The structures that make up this “jazz domain” are so broadly defined and loosely organized, it’s no wonder that individuals within the field are never in agreement. This is when everyone starts winking.
Despite all the winking, it’s still important to accept judgment. More from Csikszentmihalyi:
“Because of the scarcity of attention, we must be selective: We remember and recognize only a few of the works of art produced, we read only a few of the new books written, we buy only a few of the new appliances busily being invented. Usually it is the various fields that act as filters to help us select among the flood of new information those memes worth paying attention to. A field is made up of experts in a given domain whose job involves passing judgment on performance in that domain. Members of the field choose from among the novelties those that deserve to be included in the canon.”
How does a field help us select among the flood of new information? They create competitions, awards, jazz blogs, newspaper reviews, music schools and they tell friends that Keith Jarrett is a genius. Keith Jarrett 1, Chris Donnelly 0.
Anytime a judgment is made known to others, you have hosted a competition and announced the winner/finalists. It may not be in a blunt and bold fashion like the Nottingham, Montreux or Monk competitions, but you’re still contributing to this system of filtering through endless memes.
Critics of music competitions aren’t really criticizing competitions per se. They’re simply in disagreement with the definitions of their domain – how it structures knowledge, its inclusiveness, how it demands/stimulates novelty etc. There’s nothing wrong with music competitions, just as there’s nothing wrong with the World Series or with choosing which shirt to purchase. They’re just as important and necessary as any other form of judgment.
I digress. Read the Csikszentmihalyi.
On a personal note, despite all this, I still have to admit my disappointment. I’ve spent 10 years practicing, crafting, studying, writing, memorizing, transcribing and performing loads of solo piano music only to be beaten by a 14-year old reading a lead sheet, among others.
That’s the price you pay for being part of a broadly defined and loosely organized domain. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m sorry and relieved to say that Nottingham 2012 was my last piano competition – I’ve passed the age limit restrictions, and my face hurts
You may have heard the story of Joshua Bell, world famous violinist, busking in a subway station in Washington.
Imagine an industrial printer in your home office. Or imagine a home printer trying to serve the needs of a corporate office. Neither makes sense. Both are ugly and inappropriate. I would never presume that one would be appropriate for the other’s circumstances.
“But industrial printers are such beautiful instruments! They’re works of art! Pure genius!”
Not in my home office they’re not! If a salesman installed an industrial printer in my home office, I’d consider him incompetent, foolish and out to lunch.
That’s because when it comes a printer, it’s easy to perceive the circumstances for which it was designed. You can’t separate what a printer is, from what it does, and from how it functions in certain circumstances.
Music is no different.
Bach’s music is beautiful in many circumstances. But not ALL circumstances. If you perform Bach’s music at a hoedown, you have a problem.
When Joshua Bell performed in that subway station, he calibrated himself to sell to the classical, concert-going community. He also made no effort to communicate to passersbys what his function was. So it’s no surprise to me that he failed miserably to attract any attention.
This experiment would have been more interesting if Bell was dressed in a tux, chairs were set up around him, and he introduced his pieces like he regularly would in a concert hall. Or if he played fiddle music with a spoon player and tap dancer.
THAT would have gotten people’s attention…maybe.
I say “maybe” because there are no guarantees in selling. But it’s still foolish to be presumptuous. If you don’t empathize and consider the wants and needs of other people, your chances of rejection and failure are much higher.
That’s what happened to Joshua Bell. He and his collaborators made no effort to recalibrate, so neither did their “audience.”
Joshua Bell is a horrible salesman.
On May 6th, I sat down with Josh Grossman, artistic director of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It was part of a series of live interviews Josh is hosting called The Artistic Director’s Guide to Jazz. We had a great discussion about four artists performing solo shows at the festival:
One of Josh’s questions was about the importance of mentorship.
JOSH: Benny Green has played with many of the biggest names in jazz but what stuck out for me is that, for many years, he played and interacted with musicians at least a generation or two his senior. For example: Oscar Peterson selected him for the City of Toronto’s first Glenn Gould International Protégé Prize in Music, and he played in Ray Brown’s trio. What do you think having these sorts of musical and mentorship opportunities did for Benny’s playing?
I can think of two reasons why mentorship is important.
We’re all familiar with the first one: If you want to be good at something, learn from people who are better than you (preferably the best). This is the backbone of all learning and skill development, not just for music and jazz.
If you want to be a good musician, athlete, engineer or politician, then study, imitate and learn from the leaders in that field. Immerse yourself in their teachings, actions, philosophy, routines, recordings and creative output. If you have personal contact with them, that’s a bonus!
Which leads me to the second reason why mentorship is important:
Mentorship as a Selling Point
Consider a few opening lines of a cold call. I’m trying to get a gig at a jazz club, jazz festival or university.
- “Hi, my name is Chris Donnelly, I’m a jazz pianist, Juno nominee, NJA nominee and instructor at the University of Toronto…”
- “Hi, my name is Chris Donnelly, I’m a jazz pianist, I just finished a string of performances with Ray Brown…”
- “Hi, my name is Chris Donnelly, I’m a jazz pianist, you might know me from my work on Kind of Blue…”
The potential for making the sale is exponentially higher if I played with Ray Brown, and even more so if I played on Kind of Blue.
I say “potential” because there are no guarantees in sales. There are no guarantees because every person in every transaction has a different trigger. If you had never heard of Kind of Blue, or if it’s your most despised jazz album, you’re less likely to buy right?
A Juno nomination, two NJA nominations and being on faculty at the University of Toronto can be excellent selling points, and I’m proud to have them on my resume. But even so, sometimes it doesn’t match a prospect’s triggers and they don’t return my calls. Then again, sometimes I can get their attention simply by mentioning the fact that I play the piano! It depends on the prospect.
What Are Your Triggers?
Everyone has triggers. Skilled salesmen are good at matching selling points with those triggers.
It’s fun to think about what your triggers may be. Personally, for jazz pianists, if you sound good (REALLY good), I’ll be more likely to become interested in your music. That’s not my only trigger though. If a person I admire vouches for you and your music, you’ll get my attention. Those are my two main triggers for jazz pianists and music in general. I usually don’t pay attention to CD reviews, publicity, awards, nominations, flashy resumes or even what most of my colleagues are saying.
That’s just with music though. I have a completely different set of triggers when it comes to food, clothing and relationships.
I wrote about triggers in a previous post where I explored a spectrum of positive association. Have a read and try to identify your triggers and selling points. Chances are, there are points on that list that, if used in combination, will grab your attention, or will grab your prospect’s attention.
Benny Green’s selling points include his associations and mentorship with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown (as well as being an amazing pianist). Fortunately for him, these things are powerful triggers in the jazz community. He’s had much success as a result.
That’s why mentorship is important.
Consider this hypothetical experiment:
You’re at a coffee house, and you intentionally drop a $10 bill on the floor in front of a cashier. You sit at a table and observe how customers react (you also have plenty of replacement bills!).
I imagine a multitude of ways people may react:
- Some people wouldn’t notice the $10 on the floor.
- Some people would notice, but ignore it.
- Some would pick it up and buy themselves a coffee.
- Some may pick it up, and tell the next person in line that they just found $10!
- Some may pick it up and buy two coffees – one for themselves and one for the next person.
- Some may hand it in to the cashier.
What would you do?
When I think about “luck,” I think about people who know how to take advantage of opportunities and translate them into success. The unlucky person doesn’t notice the $10 on the floor. Though, maybe he does notice it, but doesn’t know how to gain mileage.
We are confronted with circumstances like these every day. There are figurative $10 bills all around us. Anybody can pick them up. Why don’t they?
Recognizing and acting on opportunity is a creative endeavor. It takes study and practice!