Wake Up, Listener! Notes on the Classical Music

“There is no such a thing as the average concert listener and no one can speak in his name” was an opening declaration in the article “From the audience” by E.M. Foster, a famous British writer of “”Where the angels fear to tread”. This sentence came to my mind during my last recital. It came just as a wild contrast to every marketing guide that teaches us the audience analysis and urges us to ask the question: who comes to listen to our playing? According to Aristoteles, age is a principal criterion when analyzing the audience. The quick Internet research will confirm what every classical musicians see from the stage: persons over 50 years old, many retired, middle class upwards, well educated. Today we put more weight on the question about the motivation of our listeners: did they choose the concert themselves, or was it a gift, is the concert the only available entertainment on that particular date, does my partner insist on me coming along? The list is endless but every listener has his or her reason to attend the concert.
Our brain is playing tricks with us. There is the oscillation between our imagination and the facts. In other words, before we hear the first sounds from the stage, we have our wishes and our idea about how we want this concert to be. In the first seconds, we have to revise our expectations. Again and again during the whole concert. I experienced it myself when the exaggerated high or too low expectations change the perception of the audience about my performance. The musician is successful when he or she meets the expectations and tops them. But if the concert is below the expectation, it is a flop. Our brain has an easy logic.
No doubt, our audience is the most important instrument. Perhaps as important as the musical instrument we are playing onstage. I like the idea of Alfred Hitchcock who used to say that he wanted to play the audience of his films “like a piano.” He did not compose his great works in a vacuum, but rather with a careful and shrewd understanding of how each creative decision helped to shape a different experience for the viewer. The careful selection of the program for the audience would be the first step towards reaching the audience. But there is more to that. Establishing a contact with the listeners makes a difference. Some instrumentalists are at disadvantage as they sit with the profile to the audience and cannot establish an eye contact with listeners. Singers have a better situation as they address the public not only with the tones but in a conventional way, through words and are more direct in expressing their emotions. I mean the facial impressions. Today we live in a visual world; the classical music wants not only to be heard, but also to be seen. The audience wants to see how the musicians experience it through their body language. Through the empathy, some people would find a key to better understanding. I was surprised to realize it myself at the choir concert. First, I was concentrating on the music with closed eyes and it sounded a bit too dissonant. When I started watching the choir members, it felt a huge difference. What a joy to see how much musicians were involved in the music they were singing! I was immediately moved by their emotions and from that moment for me, their concert was a big success!
What is the experience of the listener during the concert? Mister Foster has more observation on the audience: “Not only does our enjoyment of music differ but also our attention wanders from it in different directions, and returns to it at different angels, so that if the soul of the audience can be photographed, it would resemble the flight of birds. This elusive flight of winged creatures is spending much of the time where it should not, thinking now “how lovely”, then “my foot’s gone to sleep”, passing in the beat of a bar “where Beethoven goes back to c minor again” and to “did I turn the gas off” to “I do think he might have shaved”!
The expression “soul of the audience” fascinated me. May be there is a real connection with the audience that is able to influence the musical performance? When on stage, I always feel the presence of the audience. There are 50 shades of silence that I am able to distinguish during my playing. It is a truly fascinating experience ranging from “you will hear a needle drop” silence with absolutely nothing to hear (not even my own breathing) to a restless shuffling sounds. The extremes are the sound of writing messages on the touchscreen, soundless buzzing of the phones and coughing. But there is an unconscious feedback too – it has to do with my own energy level – when I can keep the tension and canalize it into the musical tones, I get an immediate reaction from the listeners. I feel the direct response from them and it motivates and re-energizes me. I call these moments “magic moments” – the feeling that fingers are running by themselves, my inner hearing is fully activated and I keep control of my performance. There are some funny tricks to put myself back into the active concentration state like saying in my mind’s eye my name during playing or putting a question to myself” who is not listening”. It sounds strange but it works wonders. Apparently, our brain reverses the direction and restores the lost attention. This way the musician is part of the “soul of the audience” and participates in the collective listening experiences. The concept of “hearing from within” is powerful.
The size of the hall and the vicinity of the audience are big influence factors too. There is a paradox but the bigger the hall, the less we, musicians, feel the presence of every listener, the faces merge and depending on the lights, we can hardly see. Stanislavski speaks about the “public loneliness” and I guess it is the feeling of being onstage in the spotlight and being observed from all sides. I remember reading about Martha Argerich and her decision not to play publicly alone. The temperature in the hall, the lights intensity, the colors and the smell of the room interfere with our feelings and the perception of the concert will different.
The concert remains in the memories of the audience if their expectations are met. It is a big success if these expectations are topped. It is like a lottery for many “no name” musicians due to the priming effect: the marketing machines speak of the “incredible”, “unbelievable” and “unimaginable” whereas it is just good. A tough challenge for everybody who wants to succeed in the highly competitive music business and a big chance for all underestimated musicians!
I would like to finish my blog with the words of Mister Foster: “Over? But is the concert over? Here was the end, had anything an end but experience proves that strange filaments cling to us after the music has been gone. Schumann or was it Brahms? The concert is not over when the sweet voices die. It vibrates elsewhere. It discovers treasures that would have remained hidden, and they are the chief part of the human heritage.”
What is your experience with concerts? Do you have expectations? Do you think that every concert has the “soul of the audience”? What was your strongest feeling during or after the concert, as the audience or as a musician?