Public Speaking For Musician Entrepreneurs: Draw In Your Audience with an Enticing Theme


EntrypointPeople love music. It has been around since the early days of human’s existence on the planet and it is not going away. But classical music is under attack for being too elitist, too difficult, too alien to the experience of today’s audiences.  That’s why it is important to find ways to invite audiences into the world of classical music.  One of the most effective ways  to do so is by speaking to audiences about the music that they are about to experience.

I have been doing a lot of work with public speaking this year: a webinar at Chamber Music America, a series of webinars for the College Music Society, two professional development workshops for the New Jersey Symphony and teaching public speaking to my students at the Yale School of Music.  Musicians need to be trained in public speaking because for many of them, spoken language is not their preferred idiom. So I like to reassure musicians and arts leaders that public speaking is a teachable skill that improves with practicing.  Indeed, in many ways, public speaking is like performing:

  • Both are public.
  • Both involve a performance.
  • Both are creative.
  • Both provide an opportunity to share something that you care deeply about.
  • Both are a language that communicate something special to an audience.

How can today’s musicians and arts leaders embrace this powerful tool and hook audiences into the wonderful world of classical music?

The trick is to do so in a way that presents a feature of the piece that reflects your passion, excites the audience and is a key to experiencing the work of art.

Let’s take a closer look on how to find create a compelling speech by examining the intersection of 3 key elements:

  1. Y0ur Passion
  2. Your Audience
  3. The Work of Art

 1. Music and Passion

Have you ever wondered why TED speakers are so skilled at making speeches? That’s because they receive a lot of coaching in how to make a great speech, including a list of 10 rules or TED Commandments.

One of my favorites is:

TED COMMANDMENT 3:  Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion.

Not surprising, right?

Great speaking starts from passion because passion is infectious.  Not only does it motivate you but it also inspires other people.  So the first step in writing a compelling speech is to tap into your passion for music as the prelude to writing a great speech.  

Reflect on when you fell in love with music and what it is about music that was so compelling.

At the NJSO, members of the orchestra shared how they fell in love with music:

  • One musician attended his first concert as a child and fell in love with the violin since it carried the melody and was the star of the orchestra.
  • Another watched a classical music concert on television and were captivated by the magnificence of the orchestra.
  • Still another musicians chose his instrument in elementary school as part of a school program because he loved the sound and it looked “cool”.

In my class, one student, a guitarist, recalled seeing a movie when he was 12 years old about a guitar player whose final scene culminated in a big a concert.  That was the magical moment that inspired him to become a musician.

For another student, it happened in 8th grade Spanish class when a friend told him about a great new rock album featuring a song on the bass.  That moment propelled this string bass player to dive into music and make it his calling. 

To help you tap into the moment you discovered your passion for music, reflect on these questions:

  • Go back to the moment you realized that music was special for you.
  • What was that moment? How old were you? Where?  What were you listening to?
  • What was different about music from anything else in your life?

You should now be feeling more connected to why you became a musician in the first place!

2. Your Audience

Since the goal of public speaking is to engage the audience, the next consideration is your audience:

Who are they and what do they need?

Please respect your audience.  They have come to your performance so they have shown interest in what you are doing.  All too often, speeches about music use technical jargon and send the message that music is “good” for you.  That tone of condescension will only alienate audiences and reinforce the image of classical music as elitist and unapproachable.  By reflecting on who is in your audience, you are meeting them where they are in their lives and bringing them into a special world. Just think of the opportunity that you have to share!

What you say will differ depending on whom you are addressing.  Both at the NJSO and in my class, the musicians identified a wide range of audiences to whom they speak:

  • Children, both pre-school and elementary school
  • Young people in middle school and high school
  • College students
  • General classical music audiences
  • Seniors
  • Community groups
  • Academic audiences 

Each of these audiences will have a different level of familiarity with music, as well as different needs.  Therefore, consider the following before you write your speech:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the age?
  • Their life experience?
  • Their level of familiarity with music?
  • What are they looking for from this performance?
  • What are they looking for from YOU?

3. The Work of Art

The third element of a great speech considers the work of art:  what is it about this work that is critical to the audience’s understanding the piece they are about to hear?

Think of a speech as a well-constructed piece of music that has a theme.

A lot of musicians make the mistake of cramming too much information into their speeches.  This is confusing! Instead, pick ONE thing that comes from your place of passion, is appropriate to the audience AND is a key to understanding the work itself. This is known as the “entry point” of the work.

At the New Jersey Symphony, we discussed Dvořák’s American Quartet and brainstormed about ways to introduce a general classical music audience to the piece, the composer and the instrument through the lens of an entry point.

For the American Quartet, a violist felt that the opening theme of the first movement was critical to understanding the work.  He enriched this point by sharing that Dvořák himself was a violist so it was no surprise that the composer gave the opening theme to the viola. Lastly, as a violist, he was thrilled that he was able to introduce the theme.

Other ideas for the entry point include:

Piece of Music:

Rhythm, color, melody, structure, patterns, motive, the story, the mood.  


Where was s/he in her/his life when s/he wrote this piece?

Why did s/he write the piece?

What is the back story, history or the context?

How old was s/he?


Sound, mood, range, feel.

Bottom Line:

In short, as you prepare to write a speech for you audience, select ONE theme for your entry point that meets these 3 criteria: 

  1. It ignites your passion;
  2. It will excite this particular audience; and
  3. It is at the heart of the work.

Yes, writing a great speech takes work and a lot of thought.

But just think of how much more compelling a speech you can give if it ignites your passion and invites your audience into the work in a way that will excite them.  By doing so, you become an ambassador for music and are doing tremendous service to our field.