The Art of Performance: Traditions and Adaptations for the Classical Musician

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By Joe Young

I often forget that simply discussing music with other musicians brings me great joy. Today I found myself discussing what makes performances successful and worthwhile in our ever-changing society and culture.

The focus we found ourselves revolving around was the performance of classical music in a small recital setting, and what turns out to be applicable for other larger classical settings.

Different genres

For every genre of music there is a sub-culture that follows and enjoys it. It seems a goal that classical and jazz musicians have aside from growing in popularity or getting a more musically fulfilling gig, is to bridge the gap between people who don’t listen to classical (and jazz) music and those who already enjoy it.

There seems to be a bigger push in the past 15 or so years to try and make classical music more popular (as there has always been, really). The fact is, there are people that are not going to like any sort of classical music–that is true of any genre.

Classical music – traditions

How do we get non-classical music listeners to enjoy (or at least open up to) classical music? We need to be more adaptable performers, and to be a performer, solo or ensemble, big or small, is to adapt to changing culture and redefine what it means to be a performer.

What do you see when you go to an orchestra concert? You see well-dressed attendees and clapping only after the end of pieces, the orchestra taking bows, and a traditionally strict sense of guidelines to which the audience is supposed to adhere.

Hip-hop, rock and pop

What do you see when you go to concerts of other more mainstream and popular genres like rock, pop, or hip-hop?

They have their own sort of universally accepted guidelines of audience behavior–but they are all very similar.

It is understood that you can cheer whenever you like, dress however you please, enjoy a beverage (adult or not); the rules are different than in a classical concert. There is no right or wrong, obviously, just different.

A performer

To answer the first question of what it means to be a performer, let me try and dissect all the aspects:

1. To be a performer is to be an ongoing-practitioner of our instrument and music.
Performers practice with the goal of perfection (or as close as we convince ourselves we can get to “perfection”) in mind. Daily we rehearse pieces of music, technical exercises to increase our threshold to how fast, or long, or beautiful we can play.

2. We lead a musical lifestyle.
We listen to other professionals in our field, analyzing, praising, and criticizing their musical abilities so that we can constantly compare to them what we want from ourselves.

We read and learn and discuss topics that interest us related to our music or ideas that create our own musical world. We engulf ourselves in facets of life that relate to our love of music. And also, we love music. For some, performance may become our job and source of income, but we still (should) love it. For others it may just be a hobby–by default (hopefully) those people love music as well.

3. We recognize that performance is a large part of being a performer.
We know that giving recitals and concerts, along with interesting programming are essential to keeping the audiences interest and comprehension of the musical stories you are presenting them. From pop musicians (insert any name from the radio) to classical musicians (i.e., any major symphony orchestra), they all know the stage presentation and musical lineup has to be one that will cater to the audience.

Lady Gaga may have fireworks and backup dancers and theatrical lighting–that will appeal to her audience and they will expect and appreciate it. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present themselves very formally, with an artistic, dimly lit, quiet auditorium, black tuxedos, and high-quality published programs–that will appeal to their audience as well.

4. Probably the most important aspect of being a performer is putting the music first.
Putting the music first is to have perfected the music and be able to tell a story with it. Anyone can play any piece of music technically correct, but can they tell a story with it? Can they put heart and soul into? That is what really makes a performer–-connecting with the music, and being willing to share that connection with an audience.

Making classical music more attractive

To address the idea of how to make performances, of a classical setting, more successful and popular, it is important to recognize what works in other genres.

Lady Gaga may have fireworks and backup dancers…

I’ve pointed out what aesthetically works in radio-popular genres (lights, dancing, etc.) but there are still aspects in these genres that are not too over the top that they couldn’t be adapted to classical performances. From popular groups like Radiohead or John Mayer, two very different styles of music, they keep one constant in their concerts. They communicate with the audience—literally.

They talk to the audience before and after songs, they talk about the music, or nothing related to music. Some musicians will tell stories, some will tell a joke, or just make comments about “how great it is to be in front of fans of this music.” Simple, right? I say very.

The same in the classical world?

I like to think that a classical performer could take the same approach, essentially getting rid of the dead silence throughout the performance.

I AM calling for a change of history.

Let us keep our audiences awake–because, classical musicians, we must not circle around the elephant in the room and admit that even our friends, family, and co-classical musicians are still going to fall asleep to some of the pieces we play.

Why? We don’t always have a steady, thumping beat like the radio genres do: it’s easier to get bored with our music if you are not a hardcore fan and listener. I used to fall asleep at any classical concert. I have grown to love all classical genres through listening and study and discussion: I don’t fall asleep now.

Audience etiquette

To address the aspect of audience etiquette, that should be something that is more flexible. That, however, will be dictated specifically by where a concert is held.

All music is to be made beautiful. The way in which we present it, however, is something I think that we can change.

There are great examples of these ideas in place already. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has “Symphony on the Prairie”, which is a series of outdoor concerts at a big field where the audience may sit where they want in the grass with blankets or chairs, and they can bring food and drinks. It is a picnic for concertgoers.

Open mic!

Why don’t we ever see any classical solo or small ensemble groups at open mic sessions? I think that we should. Chances are, the younger generations at an open mic session would appreciate something other than a guitar or piano with lyrics alongside side a cajón.

Though I will not degrade that–personally I have a long history (and current) of being one of those performers. I think that as surviving classical musicians there is a lot we can learn from popular bands and artists. If you are striving for gaining more fans and followers, people have to know you exist.

Social media

Use Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, and whatever other social media there is that is so popular. Post things on YouTube and spread it around. Then, when you have a recital and people are aware of who you are, have your music ready (first off…) and then be captivating with your presentation of music!

Cater to your audience, but try and go outside of the box. Talk about the pieces of music in between. Tell a story about the composer or piece, or a story that you think of when playing this piece. Ask questions of the audience—rhetorical questions.

Or…maybe literally ask them questions!

There are endless possibilities of how to captivate your audience outside of already having a musical showcase for them. Is it a possibility that you could have a recital in a park? At a coffee shop? Why or why not? Don’t throw away traditions but adapt them; change them for the environment and culture you are in.

I plan to wager that if you throw the audience non-traditional bait, they will bite. We should be trying to get as many people to open up to classical music as possible, but don’t change the music.

All music is to be made beautiful. The way in which we present it, however, is something I think that we can change.

Joe Young

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