Public Speaking for Musicians: Speak From The Heart to Engage Your Audience

Are you glossophobic?

In plain English, do you fear speaking in public?

You are not alone! Speaking in front of others is a common fear. And yet, many of us are called up to do so, whether at work, in making presentations, in our personal lives making toasts at weddings or eulogies at funerals or leading discussion groups at local community organizations or charities.

And for musicians, public speaking is an essential tool of audience engagement, since it draws the public into the world of music and helps audiences to understand better the universality and power of music.

Yet for many musicians, speaking to audiences is a challenge that brings up performance anxiety. Musicians worry that they do not know what to say to audiences. Perhaps they do not feel comfortable speaking to large groups or they perceive that the public is judging them. For musicians who are not comfortable in social situations, public speaking only heightens that concern. And for musicians with perfectionistic tendencies, public speaking can be a nightmare.

In order to allay these concerns, I include a unit on public speaking in my class at Yale because public speaking is a teachable skill! Yes, some people have a natural gift and others do not but there are certain tools that you can learn to help you feel comfortable speaking in public.

It starts with having something to say and then giving it your personal touch. My students have skillfully absorbed these lessons and have wowed us with their presentations. Let’s take a closer look.
sarahkay200Taking a page from the world of pop music where audiences soak up information about their stars, I encourage musicians to draw upon their personal experiences from the world of music or any other part of their lives. As the 23-year old slam poet Sarah Kay urges in her amazing TED talk, no matter what your level of experience, there are things that you know to be true. And when you share from your heart, you are connecting to your passions and you can overcome your fears of speaking to the public.

I encourage my students to come up with 3 things that they know to be true and ask them to give a 2-minute speech in class about their favorite piece of music. I was amazed at the variety, the creativity and ingenuity of these speeches. In just 2 minutes, many of them were able to share their passions and inspire the rest of us with their insights. And by adding a personal touch, they were able to enhance the power of their remarks. Here is a sample of the in-class speeches.

Drawing on her childhood memories, one of our opera singers told us how her parents would sing her to sleep with her favorite song, Summertime, from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. She sang us the opening line and related how the song reminds her of good times and her wonderful childhood in the South.

Several students shared about the pieces that inspired them to become musicians. One student, a singer who has also studied composition, heard Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4 for the first time when she was a teenager attending a music camp. Sharing how profoundly moved she was by the piece, she demonstrated the arc of the piece by gesturing with her arms and slowly moving her body up and down. We were entranced!

Another singer who did not grow up listening to classical music told us how as a 13-year old, she heard a hauntingly beautiful but unnamed choral work. The melody stayed with her and years later, when she chanced upon a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Abraham and Isaac, she immediately knew that this was the piece that inspired her career!

The speeches from our class composers tapped into their personal way of making music. One composer, whose work draws on both classical and popular music, chose to talk about an electronic pop piece that despite its surface simplicity, spoke volumes about the importance of structure in a piece of music.

Our other composer, who is also an accomplished organist and church musician, gave us a taste of his own work, a Chaconne that evoked the Baroque style, first showing us his notes from his composition notebook and then playing the ostinato from the work on the piano.

Another one of our opera singers, who has a healthy sense of humor, went back to the year that he taught music to rowdy elementary school children who had no training in classical music. He regaled us with the story of how he taught Debussy’s Clair de Lune, using a YouTube video with color bars showing each note of the piece. He was amazed by the reactions of his students which got to the heart of the piece, triggering words like “lullaby” and “nighttime”, feelings of them “calm” and “peace” and thoughts of the moon and water. In his poignant conclusion, he told us that he will never be able to play the piece on the piano, which reminds him to be humble since he has only scratched the surface of the music world.

And let us not forget the restorative power of music. One of our string players was on her way to a Yale Philharmonia rehearsal of a program that included Barber’s Adagio For Strings when her mother called from Asia to tell her the sad news of her grandmother’s death. Our student was very upset and went off to the rehearsal, unable to focus her attention on the first few works on the program. Yet once the rehearsal turned to the Adagio for Strings, she was so moved by power and the beauty of the piece that she was able to play and feel a sense of healing.

The crescendo of these speeches was such that students began to clap for one another. One of my students summed up the experience of speaking and listening to his classmates by remarking, “This is better than TED talks!”

And no wonder! All of these students were sharing from the heart and from a place of personal experience.

The Bottom Line:

The next time you are called upon to speak in public, gaze into your heart, tap into the things you know to be true and share them with conviction and authority. Your fears can subside since you know that you have something meaningful and unique to share with your audience.