Journeys of Self Discovery (Part 3) – The Emperor is Naked!

Recap: I’m writing about making music performances (particularly jazz and classical) more appealing to more people.

I have two areas to address:

  1. Giving audiences and performers more/alternative freedoms
  2. 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!


  1. john farah says: | Reply

    Hi Chris!

    Fantastic post. I enjoy that you write your thoughts on this topic in particular, and what I have read of your blog in general. I happen to come from the other end of the spectrum – it’s funny because I just wrote a Blog post of my own, expressing a nearly diametrically opposite opinion!

    I find that even if people are not enjoying what they’re hearing, or it doesn’t speak to them, or their attention span has expired, they should still be respectful and not distractive to the others in the same hall experiencing the same concert. Maybe one simply hasn’t heard the piece enough times to fully appreciate it, but that one guy/girl in row 17 is in the perfect frame of mind to, but with the audience in such a commotion of “free expression”, is now robbed of this experience. That way, at least those who are loving every note, and made arrangements to take the time to come, as well as the musicians who toiled so long (you should sympathise with that part at least!) can unfold their plan for the evening without any hindrance.

    I once was in a concert in Berlin, watching a group from Toronto play, and the woman beside me was speaking, very loudly. I told her perhaps she could at least whisper, and she responded – why? I don’t like the music, and this is me expressing my displeasure. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because her talking was ruining the atmosphere, and the rest of the audience, as well as the musicians found her distracting.

    I think that it’s in the nature of some large-scale works, that there will be inevitable moments where an attentive listener’s mind will still wander. This is normal and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The piece is what it needs to be. One picks up more things the next time. But throwing the proverbial tomatoes ruins it for everybody and makes sure that there’s nothing to be enjoyed by anyone in the hall!

    I agree with the basic sentiment, the classical paradigm is stale and needs to be turned over, but having spent so long in situations that are the reverse of it, I have come to really appreciate the merits of a quiet, attentive audience and find it golden when you just feel that energy in the hall. It shows me how dependent performer and audience really are on each other. And hopefully we do not have to develop anti-heckling material!

    Thanks for the post, I think it’s a very relevant topic to musicians. Looking forward to seeing you play and discussing it more when I’m back in Toronto very soon!

    Best wishes,

    • Chris says: | Reply

      Hey John, thanks for the comment.

      I’ve told many people before to be quiet at classical music concerts, jazz clubs and movie theatres. I agree that throwing tomatoes (proverbial or otherwise) would ruin a performance for everybody, and in concert settings, it’s USUALLY not an appropriate way to give negative feedback.

      I say “usually” because concert audiences are usually unified and want to enjoy the performance. I’m sure there are occasions though when everybody wished they had a tomato to throw. Depends.

      Tomato throwing is more socially acceptable in sports. Do you recall a box of Eggos being thrown on the ice during a Maple Leafs game? It got the guy kicked out and I think he was charged. But he expressed a sentiment that many people were already thinking – that Leafs fans are disappointed. Such an action may not have been appropriate legally, but socially, I think Leafs fans approved.

      But I used heckling and tomato throwing as examples of feedback in general. I didn’t mean to suggest that they become part of the concert paradigm. I think there are other types of feedback channels that are more appropriate (and not necessarily for negative feedback either)

      For example: clapping in between movements. Some audiences would prefer to clap, some audiences would prefer to have silence. Some audience members don’t know what’s appropriate. There’s no way to tell. So why not ask? Take a vote, through applause. That kind of feedback would instantly unify the performance. No awkwardness, no ignorance, no snubbing. Everyone’s on the same page.

      THAT’s the kind of feedback that’s more appropriate in a concert setting. I’ve done it many times before and it works. Audience members have thanked me for it.

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