Hello from the Other Side (of the Fourth Wall)


It’s a Saturday night, 7:58 PM. You’re racing your way down the street to a concert that you’re definitely going to be late for. You sprint up the stairs, and the box office knowingly waves you through (you definitely haven’t done this before). The hall lights are dimming and the stage lights are coming on as you frantically search your ticket for your seat assignment, Q18. Your heart sinks as you scan the mostly-full Orchestra Row Q and find your empty seat, right smack in the middle. But you’re not going to back down, not after all of this. Trying not to step on anyone’s toes, you awkwardly limp through a sea of legs as you whisper a series of “Sorry!” and “Excuse me!” You shuffle to your seat RIGHT as the performers walk out onto the stage—success! Feeling relieved (and ignoring the grumpy faces of your new best friends to your left), you sink back into your chair to enjoy the show… and then it hits you.

<<You’re at a new music concert>>

Panic sets in again as you desperately bring the program notes to your face, but it’s too late. You’re at the back of the hall, and it’s officially too dark. You lower your program (and your head) in defeat as the players launch their way straight through a program of wonderful, thrilling, but sometimes straight-up weird sounds. It could have been a fun experience overall, but instead of enjoying yourself, you’re a little preoccupied. For the rest of the hour you can’t help but wonder: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Between all of us, I bet we could pool together countless anecdotes like this one. These are the stories of concert experiences (and not just new music concerts!) that could have gone very differently if we had just one thing: time management skills.

Just kidding, that’s a different article. Today, I’m talking about forming a direct connection between the performers and audience. For this article, I’m mostly talking about speaking directly to an audience, although there are many more ways you can connect with your audiences (like adding interactive elements or audience participation).

Of course, this isn’t a revolutionary idea. Most people reading this article are probably already familiar with this idea as a way to become a more engaging performer. But then again, it’s still not super common (at least in my experience) to attend a concert where there’s more than just a straight run of a program. Heck, my last two degree recitals barely had any talking, and I knew they could have used it.

Why is it so hard to board this train (and get everyone else on it, too)?

  1. Tradition

We’re all participating in these elitist rituals we call “classical music concerts”. They have a proper time and place for everything: the correct times to clap, the correct stage setups, the correct order in which very specific people walk out on stage, etc. The people who are “in” know exactly what these things are and when they happen, and we turn our noses at anyone who doesn’t. Nowhere in this dumb script is there a stage direction that says “performer turns to the audience and starts speaking about why she loves the next piece”.

We can all think of reasons why we stick to these outdated ideas. For bigger entities like orchestras, it may be time constraints and/or funding (e.g. how do we please our older, tradition-loving board members?). For soloists and chamber groups, I’m guessing it has to do more with the next two items.

  1. Anxiety

As mentioned in a previous article, I am an anxiety MACHINE. I am an absolute PROFESSIONAL at being nervous on stage (and in general), whether I’m playing or speaking or just sitting in a chair. So this section is a no-brainer for me, but for many of you, it might not be. Whether or not you have performance anxiety, I believe we all experience different kinds of vulnerability when we perform vs. when we have to speak candidly with our audience members. Speaking with our normal speaking voices about things we care about is such an honest and often difficult mode of expression. Some of us deliberately chose to pursue music BECAUSE we know it can be harder to express some emotions using speech alone. On top of that, we have lessons and classes every week that help us make our music more expressive, but we spend a lot less time talking about it.

Tldr; it can be hard and nerve-wracking to express what we want to when we speak, so we choose not to do it.

  1. Flow

Performances are at the core of what we do as musicians. We spend hours tirelessly studying and refining our craft until it’s finally time to share what we’ve created with our audiences. And so, as we prepare to go on stage for big performances, sometimes we only have enough headspace to put our heads down and stay on par with the course. Besides, didn’t the audience come to hear us play our instruments, after all? Why take attention away from the blood, sweat and tears that you put into those precious 60 minutes? When we’re about to try and transport a freaking 350-max occupant hall into the world we’ve so carefully created, why disrupt the magic (and concentration) with some weird and winding speech about Ravel?

OKOK so why do it?

Well, why do you perform? My guess is that you want to share music that you find especially beautiful, moving, fun, thought-provoking, or straight-up wild. Whatever your reason, your audience deserves to know it, and you deserve to be heard. It’s like any of your personal relationships: however obvious you try to make your intentions to the other person, the most direct way to communicate is by speaking up. If you share what you love or what you find intriguing about a certain piece, or even why you chose to program it in the first place, the audience will have the opportunity to connect with you and your performance on a personal level.

To be fair, there is definitely value in sitting back and just enjoying a performance, with no words necessary. You could make it all your own without needing any sort of formal understanding of what’s happening. But I’m the type of person who likes to be given at least a little direction. I’m also the kind of person who, a lot of the time, needs to have things spelled out (especially when the ideas become more cerebral). Whatever the piece, I want to be able to experience it the way the performer(s) and composer intended it to be experienced.

I’m not saying performances should have long and winding pre-concert talks inserted into them. History, theory, and context will always help us understand pieces better, but this is what our lecture classes (and lecture-recitals) are for. At the end of the day, I go to concerts to witness real people express their beautifully real emotions and thoughts that come in all shapes and sizes. Let’s make a point to share them with each other.

Bye-bye, fourth wall!

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