The Audience Connection
Back in April 2013, while walking between classes at IU Southeast, Dr. Joanna Goldstein, the director of the orchestra, walked up to me to discuss stage presence and etiquette in preparation for the world premiere of ‘Superhero Symphony’, a piece I had written for the IU Southeast Orchestra. What I found most interesting about Goldstein’s approach was that she, a graduate of Julliard and somewhat of a traditionalist in regards to music, insisted on leaving behind the tradition of a student composer merely standing and waving to the audience at the end of their premiere and felt it would be more appropriate for me to not only talk about the piece at the beginning, but also to come onto stage afterwards to conclude the concert with Goldstein and the Orchestra. Her justification for this action was that in this day in age, where contemporary classical music is having difficulty retaining strong audiences, our one medicine for survival is with how we connect to the audience. In a sense, she’s right, though there is debate on whether it should be our goal on whether we should merely connect with the audience or give them something that challenges their cognitive abilities to appreciate music. Is it not possible to do both? So, with that in mind, and after attending a seminar with Dr. Michael Callahan at Michigan State, I have been inspired to focus today’s blog on the topic of what it really means to connect to the Audience. Because….what better thing is there to talk about while sitting at Starbucks and sucking down a Venti Mocha Latte at 10:30 in the morning?
Understanding Music The non-musical audience is smart. This was a clarification that Dr. Callahan insistently made at the end of his seminar. With good reason, too. Perhaps it happens to be one of the most crucial misconceptions about the musically uneducated listener. You can’t really fault musicians for having the pretentious attitude that unless you are trained in music you can’t possible understand it, though it is an illogical claim because in this modern technological advanced world you can’t go anywhere where people don’t have ear buds in their ears or restaurants aren’t adding music to their ambient environment. So the question is – do you really have to be formally trained to understand music? I’ll use my girlfriend, Alison, as an example of this. Alison has basically had no musical training unless you count beating on a one octave wooden xylophone in grade school. She grew up in a softball family, and also took upon drawing as a hobby. She is an excellent artist, but has never played an instrument. Well, when we were first dating I would often invite her to my concerts and she would come to them without hesitation. One of the concerts I invited her to was the Louisville Philharmonic’s performance of Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’. I was fortunate enough to be asked to play the Tenor Tuba part, which is most euphonium players’ secret dream. Following the concert, I asked Alison what she thought and the first thing she said was “Mars was badass!” Ok….so I’ve been studying music for nearly two decades and I’m not sure any of my formal instructors have ever used the phrase ‘badass’ when talking about a piece of music before. And because Mars is probably the loudest and most exhilarating of the movements, I made the mistake of assuming that was really the reason she liked it like so many people who typically prefer mars and Jupiter over the other movements. Well, several months after the fact Alison and I were sitting on the couch at my mother’s house watching a football game. There was a marching band playing a song in the background, and I paid little attention to it not noticing any instantly recognizable motifs. Within seconds, Alison sat up and looked at me and said “That’s Mars!” At first, I was thinking “oh, it probably isn’t…it probably is just something that’s loud and similar to Mars”. Boy was I wrong, because following this I heard the recognizable 1-5-#4 note progression – the defining melody from ‘Mars’. Sure, you can’t determine someone’s musical worth in one instant like this but because similar events of this nature followed weeks and months into the future, I had come to the conclusion that despite all of my musical training, Alison very well may have a better set of ears than I do. This can be a valuable lesson in connecting with your audiences: Don’t ever underestimate what your audience might know about music. Interesting fact about Gustav Holst. He was disturbed by the popularity of ‘The Planets’ because he considered himself to have written far better pieces of music that he wished would have gained more adoration. This was in contrast to the beliefs of his family who had kept most of his scores for wind band under lock and key until recently in which they have agreed to release them.
So going along with not underestimating what the Audience knows about music, another important goal for a performer or composer to achieve is to make it personable. This can be one of the most difficult things to do as a musician, as it sets forth limitations against what your own desires in music may be. Fortunately, for me I have been able to mash together my own personal interests with the interests of a large audience to write a piece with not only a topic they can relate to, but also I have been able to write music that they can very easily comprehend and understand And they don’t need the knowledge of a bunch of technical terms revolving around certain specific things I did within the symphony. Superhero Symphony is a relatively tonal piece with a lot of melodic and thematic patterns that are easily taken in by the general audience. I had the satisfaction, however, of attending the performance of a piece that is not as friendly to the non-musical mind. The even bigger treat was that the composer, John Corigliano, was in attendance and spoke about the inspiration behind his Clarinet Concerto. Instinctively, I would have expected a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo that only the musicians like me in the room would have understand – but another faulty assumption lead me to realize that what he was actually talking about was his friendships with the orchestra, the solo performer and the conductor…and even more importantly, his relationship with his father. I doubt I was alone in that my entire perspective of the music changed just by hearing his personal thoughts spoken through a microphone in front of an audience of more than 500 people. What an incredible experience that was! If anyone ever has the opportunity to hear a living performer talk about his masterpiece, they should take full advantage of that! What I would have given to have been able to hear Igor Stravinsky talk about his Rite of Spring, or Symphony of Psalms.
Also in residence at Michigan State University was John Mackey, who may be one of the more controversial composers in the band world. Most of what you hear through social media and public reviews is that Mackey is one of the best writers for modern wind band. People rave about his music and how great it is, and he’s always a hot topic of conversation. But then, when you talk to some of the musicians seeking out advanced degrees in composition - many of them consider him overrated and think that he only writes loud and fast. I prefer the term ‘dynamically diverse’ and never understood the claim that fast and loud is a bad thing. Perhaps the ‘loud’ aspect of his music stands out because he is able to achieve such a memorable sound out of brass and percussion that people forget about the softer, more passionate moments in his music. That is what I got out of Frozen Cathedral, which I thought was a pretty good piece. Listening to that piece, you can really grasp the feeling of being in a cavern with iced walls and icicles falling to the ground all around you. This is one reason it is such a popular piece. So what does Mackey have to do with this idea of relating music to the Audience. Well, if you have never been to a performance of Mackey, or Corigliano for the matter, I strongly recommend it. But aside from the antiphonal theatrics of their music, I’ve always found Mackey titles to be very interesting and I even messaged him on facebook once with a question that inspired his blog entry, which can be found here: ‘What’s In A Name?’ Granted its important to know that I wrote that three years ago and have since them excelled much further in my musical experiences and academia, but the most important thing I took away from that is that you should make your title inviting. This is why I got away from using traditional names such as ‘concerto’ or ‘sonata’ and started giving names like ‘Perceptions of Strife’ or ‘Starfield’ because they were relatable, but also inviting terms that would entice curiosity. Not everyone is going to come to concerts unless they feel like they will get something out of it and a good way to achieve that is by developing a personal connection on something most people can relate to in someway or another.
The Composer-Performer Relationship
Here’s an interesting idea for composers like me. Instead of writing music specifically that is inspiring to you, try tapping into the mind of the performer and write something that is based on a personal topic to them. One of the greatest experience of my musical career as a student was my collaboration with IU Southeast graduate and distinguished clarinetist, Carrie Ravenscraft. We had met on several occasions, sometimes not even to just talk about music, but shared a lot of personal stories about our struggles to make it through school as non-traditional students. Carrie spoke a lot about the difficulty of managing being a single mom with trying to prepare for her recital and finish her educational work in time for graduation so that she could have a better life for her and her daughter. This was the inspiring motor behind ‘Perceptions of Strife’, which was fully embraced by Carrie and well received by the audience at the premiere in April of 2012. In the first movement, I included foot stomping as if the performer was able to vent their frustrations in ways that would be memorable to the audience – and it worked! Following the performance, several people came to me and asked what I was thinking when I decided to have the performer stomp her foot while playing the music! Curious? You can hear the full composition performed by Carrie here.
Probably the best learning experience during that collaboration process was when Carrie and I presented the 2nd movement in a performance class at IU Southeast. It was certainly beneficial for many young musicians to be exposed to that sort of composer-performer relationship and to learn first hand what can come out of a collaboration of that nature.
On November 17, I had a new composition premiered by the Dynasax Quartet and the IU Southeast Concert Band. When Cory Barnfield, the soprano saxophonist and leader of the quartet, came to me with the commission of writing this piece I decided to use this philosophy and consulted the quartet on what their own personal feelings and thoughts were and what they wanted it to sound like. I titled the piece Divertimento for Four Saxes because not only did I want this piece to be entertaining for the community-based audience in New Albany, but also because I wanted to emphasize and feature the individuality of the group. A couple of the members expressed their interest in blues and rock, and while hesitant to dabble in colors of unfamiliarity I decided to embrace the unknown and write two of the movements based on styles I had never written for before. I may even invite audiences to dance to the particular rock and blues movements, which would be extremely radical for a concert of classical music. Great things, however, have been achieved through radical intentions.
Writing for the performer is important because you are likely to get a very passionate performance that could potentially move the audience. These are things that I hope to achieve when the Divertimento is performed, and what a constant goal of mine is with every new piece I write.
The Audience Connection The Audience Connection is one of the most important aspects of writing for music. This does not have to be achieved through writing sing-song music, and often times it is better to give them something that challenges their listening skills. But what should constantly be on a composer’s (or performers) mind is how they can give someone a purpose for listening. How can you write satisfying music without insulting their intelligence. How can you relate the music to them while still pushing the envelope? How can you establish a relationship with the performer that can be very evident and keep the Audience curious? How you are perceived by your audience is the foundation of keeping new music alive in our ever-changing society, and I fully encourage all new composers to keep this on hand while writing new music.
So, do you agree or disagree? Feel free to comment below and let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading!