Engaging Today’s Audience: 3 Things That Can Make A Difference to Classical Music

One of the “buzzwords” in today’s classical music scene is audience engagement:  how to create a meaningful experience in a live performance between the artist and the audience in order to attract new audiences to classical music, especially the elusive “young adult” audience.   This is a challenge in the era of the Internet where people can access music anytime and anywhere.  Therefore, it takes something special to get people to leave the comfort of their homes or unplug their earbuds and venture into the concert space in order to experience live music.  

Herein lies the irony:  as easy as it is to access music 24/7,  it’s lonely out there on the Internet and today’s audiences crave special and unique experiences. Thus, today’s musicians have an opportunity to create that unique and special experience for today’s audiences.

These thoughts were much on my mind the week I taught my public speaking class at Yale, one way I feel that classical musicians can use to create that special experience for audiences.  And in a wonderful instance of synchronicity, it was the same week that I attended two special events at Yale presented by the ingenious Igudesman & Joo violin/piano duo.  First was their comedy show, A Little Nightmare Music, blending classical music and popular culture in order to attract a wider and younger audience to classical music.  The duo has been wildly successful, having figured out how to attract over 28 million viewers to their You Tube videos and perform not only in concert halls but also in packed stadiums and on TV to audiences around.  The concert at Yale was hilarious and the audience loved it!

As an added bonus, the artists were on hand the next day to present a master class with students of the Yale School of Music with the aim of helping these talented young performers enliven their performances.  I attended since I was curious to see what they could teach our students about audience engagement.

Based on my super-charged week at Yale, together with a lot of my own concert-going, here are my reflections on three things that classical musicians can to do start engaging their audiences and bringing in the public to the music hall.

1.    Speak up and come out of hiding!

It is time for classical musicians to come out of hiding and share themselves with the public.  

Messrs. Igudesman and Joo are able to pack the halls by using classical comedy techniques, together with singing, acting, and dancing to “make fun with music” (as opposed to making fun of the music).   Humor is a powerful way to connect with audiences and comedy comes naturally to them.  Moreover, their running commentary is integral to the success of what they do and they are masters at communicating with audiences through their words.

This is where speaking about music becomes so important because it is a powerful way to bond with audiences.  What I am talking about is sharing personal insights about the music they are playing, thus providing audiences with another dimension to the music.

I come from the new music world—having chaired the board of the American Composers Orchestra for many years and now am proud to serve as Co-Chair—where composers, conductors, artistic directors and performers happily share their thoughts with the audience.  One of my favorite elements of an ACO concert is the composer portrait video that we present at each concert, where the composers and their collaborators are interviewed about the work to be performed.  We get a special insight into who the artists are and it prepares us magnificently for the music that we are about to hear.

Moreover, some of my most powerful musical memories involve artists speaking about traditional music.  I will never forget the Tokyo String Quartet’s all-Beethoven concert series in Carnegie Hall when Peter Oundjian was the first violinist.  Just before the performance of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. Mr. Oundjian spoke to us from the stage of Carnegie Hall about what the Grosse Fugure meant to him and told us that his father had introduced the piece to him when he was 8 years old.  The audience was rapt and for my part, I listened to the work with completely different ears.  To this day, when I hear a performance of this great work, I remember Mr. Oundjian’s words.

What about the “young audience” that classical music organizations are so eager to cultivate? My friends at So Percussion feel that classically-trained musicians have an opportunity to expand the audience by “inviting them in” and being open to the needs of this audience. These audiences are smart and perceptive and will sense when they are being talked down to.   While they may not have not had the opportunity to hear great music, this audience can be drawn if musicians share their passion for the music and give them personal insights into the music that will get them excited about the music.

So use your words and help the audience to see the piece through your eyes and your heart. It makes a big difference.

2.   Harness The Power of Your Body

In addition to words, your body language plays a significant role in helping to connect you to your audience. Igudesman and Joo  have learned how to use their bodies effectively and have discovered the freedom that comes from movement.  Their performances are laced with physical antics:  Joo’s playing the piano upside down while lying on the floor, Igudesman’s playing the violin while kneeling and lying down or dancing around the stage.  Their facial expressions add to reinforce their joy in making fun with the music. 

I love it when performers show me through their bodies how they feel about the music.  Earlier this year, I attended a concert of the St. Lawrence String Quartet at which the first violinist, Geoff Nuttall, practically danced in his chair as he played the music.  (He also spoke eloquently about the individual pieces on the program).  And the brilliant cellist Maya Beiser , for whom new music is a “special, transformative experience” that creates a powerful connection between the audience and the performer, evokes a sense of depth and power from the intensity of her playing.  Her body language tells us how transported she is by the music—whether it is Bach or a new work that she has commissioned-and we are transported along with her.

Thus, in a musical performance, your body language and the visual cues that you give to your audience go a long way to communicating how you feel about the music.  In the master class that Messrs. Igudesman and Joo presented at Yale, the artists put our students through a lot of fun exercises to get them to use their bodies.  They had the students mimic models walking down the catwalk, encouraged the students to move around the stage while they performed, and urged one performer to show us the beat of the music as he played the violin—all so that the students became more comfortable using their bodies to enliven the performance.  As our dynamic duo emphasized in the master class,

“Be passionate and precise and beautiful and intense.”

So learn how to use your body in order to enliven your performance and engage your public.

3.    Invite The Public into Your Performance

As important as it is to practice and be prepared, a live performance is very different because you are there to create an experience for your audience.  In a performance, be sure to acknowledge your audience.  You need to feel the public and adapt to them. 

The catwalking game that the students played during the Igudesmand & Joo master class was a great way to think about what of entrance you make:  when you bow to the public or introduce yourself, what are you saying about yourself?  Are you the soloist who commands the respect of the hall?  The ensemble player who is there to share with an intimate group of colleagues?  A member of an orchestra who thrills at being part of a large group effort?
And what does your audience want to know about you?  Whether you are performing music or speaking to a group, the way you walk on stage and introduce yourself is your first opportunity to create the bond between performer and public.

It is also important to be in the moment to sense what the audience needs. Are you performing for a university audience, for children or for the general public? Igudesman and Joo did this by peppering their commentary with references to performing for the “educated” Yale audience—and the audience enjoyed being acknowledged. 

The same thing applies when you are speaking about music.  Make eye contact with your audience. Smile.  You are there to share something special with your audience so let them know that they count! 

Make the audience feel a sense of discovery when you perform. In the master class, the artists asked two students who were performing a duo to get away from sounding overly rehearsed and takesome risks during the performance to surprise one another.  They also took the music away from the students while they were performing and even had members of an ensemble switch up their parts in order to liberate them from the music!  Those of us in the audience could tell how much fun the musicians were having and it added a special thrill to the performance.

As for the multiple distractions that can arise during a performance– from mobile phones and sirens to heart attacks—Igudesman and Joo advised our students to embrace these distractions! The moment you can do that, it is a leap forward and “it gets you out of your little square”.  You are suddenly transported into the hall and the public will love it.

So, if you can feel the needs of your audience and respond appropriately, not only will it enliven your performance, but it will also make the public feel a part of a magical experience.  Musicians have a golden opportunity to make this happen so here is another chance to get the public hooked on our great music!