Public Speaking for Musicians: Hook Your Audience by Telling Your Story

Astrid Opera America Closeup Final

Astrid Opera America Closeup FinalYesterday, I had the privilege of presenting a webinar at the Chamber Music America First Tuesdays series on Public Speaking for Musicians. I strongly advocate that musicians and arts leaders speak to audiences about music.  Indeed, an effective speech can open up new worlds for our audiences by giving them an insight from the perspective of a trained artist on how he or she can embrace music and experience the change that only art can bring about. You become, in effect,  the ambassadors and the change agents for the field!

The first step is crafting a compelling speech. This involves knowing what your audience needs and then drawing them in by sharing your passion and your insights in a way that they can relate to.

If there is one point that I cannot stress enough it is to avoid presenting a spoken program note to your audience.  All too often, musicians make the mistake of delivering an oral version of their program notes.   People can read the notes!  Give them something that only you can say.  Otherwise you are losing an opportunity to draw your audience into your world and into the world of music.

Instead, share your personal insights with the audience!  The famous 10 TED commandmentsthe guidelines issued by the organizers of the TED conference to help speakers deliver a compelling speech–exhort speakers to do the following.

Ted Commandment Number 4:  Thou Shalt Tell A Story.

To illustrate this point in my webinar, I offered two versions of an introduction to the Shostakovich Trio No. 2 in E Minor for piano, cello and violin, a piece that I played last summer at  pianoSonoma, the amateur chamber musical festival that I attend each August.

I invite you to read each speech and tell me which one would get you more interested in hearing the work:

Speech #1:

Hi I’m Astrid Baumgardner, the pianist of our trio consisting of our cellist, Julian Schwartz and Mary Edge, our violinist. I would like to tell you a little bit about our next work, the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor. The work was written in 1944 and consists of 4 movements.  We will be playing the 4th movement Finale for you.


The Trio opens with the cello, playing a six-measure theme, muted and in harmonics.  The movement continues when the violin playing a canon, followed by the piano in low bass. The second movement is a Scherzo, after which we hear the Largo, a chaconne, with chords introduced by the piano and over which the violin and cello play a somber theme. The Finale immediately follows the Largo, starting off with the violin playing a dance ditty, pizzicato.  The 3 of us toss the theme back and forth until we reach the climax of the piece when  the piano has a beautiful series of arpeggios and scales, over which the violin plays the theme of the first movement of the Trio.  The cello then plays the dance motif again and we conclude with a quiet rendition of a chaconne from the 3rd movement largo.


I hope you enjoy the piece.


Speech #2

Hello, my name is Astrid Baumgardner.  I’m a serious amateur pianist.  That’s code for a “one-movement wonder”. I throw myself into mastering one movement of a great work of chamber music and then I have the privilege of playing it with great musicians like my cellist Julian Schwartz and our violinist Mary Edge. And today, we will be performing the Finale of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2. in E minor.

Now there are certain advantages of being the child of Polish immigrants and speaking Polish as my first language because my favorite word when I was 3 years old was “Shostakovich”.  I grew up in a very musical household and the music of Shostakovich, with its deep Eastern European Roots, was clearly embedded in me.  And those memories lay dormant until I became reacquainted with Shostakovich in my 30’s when I heard my first live performance of the amazing Piano Trio No 2 in E minor and immediately fell in love with the piece.

What I love about Shostakovich’s chamber music and this work in particular, is that not only is the music incredibly beautiful and engrossing with its pulsing rhythms, its haunting melodies and its fascinating twists and turns. It is also a mirror into his soul, full of pathos, horror, sadness, sardonic humor and frenzy, along with compassion for the human condition. 

Just think of Shostakovich who witnessed the horrors of the 20th century in Russia, from WWII to the extermination of the Jews to the Stalin era, as well as his personal tragedies of walking a fine line in the Stalin era as a state artist with deeply conflicting feelings that he could only express in his intimate works chamber music.


The pathos is all the more poignant knowing that this piece was written in 1944 in memory of the death of one of his closest friends

And the fourth movement of this trio sums up this range of emotions, using musicals effects from hushed and expectant and macabre to frenetic, to soulful to deathly to near silence.

We start off with the violin playing a diabolical little dance ditty, which Shostakovich develops through pulsing rhythmic variety to create a mood of frenzy and heightened expectation. As we approach our climax, the piano launches into a stunning series of arpeggios and scales and then the violin comes in with another theme, which originates from the first movement of the Trio.  There follows another exchange of the theme among the 3 of us, The cello then reintroduces the dance tune, only this time, the effect is somber. Then suddenly, a series of chords from the Largo movement of the Trio reappear, with a deathly and macabre effect.  The movement dies away with hushed chords, ending with a glimmer of hope since it closes in the major key of E.  So what you are about to experience is a journey into the human soul.

And now, the Finale of the Shostakovich Piano Trio in E Minor.

I am humbled that my audience yesterday clapped after hearing speech #2.  And I personally felt much closer to the piece after delivering those remarks.

Yes, I took a bit of a risk in sharing my personal story.  But isn’t art about taking risks?  The same things goes for public speaking.

So the next time you are called upon to speak about a piece of music, tap into your passions, and share your story by speaking from the heart.

Chances are that not only will the audience will respond with a deeper sense of connection to your performance but you will also feel a deeper connection both to the work and to the audience.