Journeys of Self Discovery (Part 4) – A Message to Classical Musicians: Loosen Up

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 😉

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