Speaking About Music: How to Be Confident and Powerful

If you happened to wander by my classroom at Yale recently, you would have seen and heard my students and their professor (that would be me!) moving their arms, doing knee bends, rolling their lip, singing scales to the tune of “mi mi mi” and reciting tongue twisters under the tutelage of Violinist and Professor Brian Lewis who came to my class to help us learn more about public speaking and overcome “glossophobia”(the fear of public speaking).

In fact, in some surveys, fear of public speaking is the number one common phobia, ranking even higher than the fear of death!  So Professor Lewis was there to give us some valuable tips on how to get comfortable with public speaking since he adn I both believe that this is an essential skill for today’s musicians.  Here is a summary of his remarks, together with my own observations on how to speak in public with power and confidence. 

He focused on  3 areas:

1.    The mechanics of speaking
2.    The content of the narrative
3.    The execution of the speech

The goal was to show us how to make a connection to and engage your audience, which these days is viewed as one of the most important opportunities to grow the audience for classical music.

1. The Mechanics of Speaking

Back to our opening warm-up (literally!).

These exercises were designed to reduce stress, warm up the vocal chords and help us find our vocal range.  He also recommended running around the building before speaking in public in order to relieve stress.

I found it very interesting that Brian started off with the physical and realized that I do this all the time:  before any speaking engagement or before my class, I get on the elliptical for 45 minutes and review my notes because I find that working out is a great way to relax, feel energized and help me focus on sharing my content to help my audience learn what they need to learn.

2.  The Content of Your Speech

Brian emphasized the importance of having a narrative that fulfills three objectives:

a.    It is informational:  it provides useful information to the audience.
b.    It is motivational:  it elevates the audiences and inspires them to have a new thought or take a new action.
c.    It is conversational:  it engages the audience because they feel as though you are talking to them as a friend.

The following can help your speech to achieve these objectives.

  • Tailor your remarks to your audience

For starters, think carefully about who is in your audience and what they would most like to learn from you. Therefore, what you say will differ depending on whether you are talking to a high-school audience, a group of senior citizens or a general classical music audience.

Just as our friends from So Percussion observed when they recently visited my class, you need to invite your audience into your world and meet them half way.

Bran also advised us to limit our remarks to 5 minutes per piece of music because beyond that timeframe, you will lose your audience.  Moreover, if you plan to speak about every piece, you may very well be adding 20-30 minutes to the program.

  • Prepare your remarks

Brian also emphasized the importance of preparing your remarks.  He journals extensively and writes out the drafts of his presentations in his journal, revising them as he gets new ideas.  I loved this because journaling is one of my biggest tools as well.  In fact, I have my students journal as part of our coursework to generate new ideas, document their success, note their challenges and brainstorm their solutions. 

He also advises creating bullet points rather than writing out your entire speech, because this will help your speech to be more conversational.

  • Make it Personal

Audiences are fully capable to reading program notes so you want your speech to be something different from what the program notes say about the piece.  Therefore, your speech should bring in your own experience with a particular piece. 

This dovetails very nicely with what my students have been learning in class:

Speak from your point of view and use your personal approach.  If you are an intellectual, share your knowledge.  If you are known for your humor, be sure to add that in!

And by all means share what you are passionate about because passion is infectious!

3.  The Execution of Your Speech

Brian had a lot of strategies for helping to reduce performance anxiety, because public speaking is a form of performance.   Here are some of his tips, along with a few of my own observations.  

 Rehearsing your speech

•    Practice speaking to find your rhythm and pacing

Practice delivering your speech before the presentation date. Be aware of nervous tics like “um” “ok” and aim to reduce them.

Brian feels that great speaking starts with the written word so he had my students select a favorite poem to recite in class. My students came up with a wonderful range of poets:  Yeats, Baudelaire, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Shel Silverstein, Billy Collins, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Etheridge Knight and Borges. 
Another advantage of reading poetry aloud is that it teaches you timing and pacing.   And indeed, their delivery of the poetry depended upon good timing and pacing in order to convey appropriately the beauty of the language and the emotional content.
True confession:  I have never “gotten” poetry so this exercise showed me the value of reading poetry aloud.  And I have just subscribed to About.com’s free email service where I receive one classic poem a day.  I now find myself reading these poems aloud in the morning and it is wonderful to be connecting to the great tradition of classic poetry.

•    Observe your body language

Brian also recommends that you practice your speech in front of the mirror to see yourself in action and become aware of your body language:  i.e., how and where you place your hands, how you move around the stage and any distracting tics that might undercut the effectiveness of your delivery. 

•    Use visualization

Borrowing from a sports psychology technique that he learned from Juilliard professor and performance anxiety specialist Don Greene, Brian suggests visualizing yourself successfully delivering your speech.

Another visualization technique that helps some people is to run through all the potential disaster scenarios and devise with strategies to overcome the challenges so that you will be prepared with solutions to these obstacles.

•    Do a dress rehearsal

He also suggested arriving early and doing a dress rehearsal of your speech in the place where you are doing it.

Tips to help while you are delivering your speech

•    Draw the Audience in

One of Brian’s most helpful comments was that audiences are there to learn from you, not to judge you.  Your objective is to share your passion about the music and draw the audiences in.

Use a conversational tone.  In order to make people feel that you are speaking them individually, make eye contact with your audience members.  Depending on the space that you are in, walk around the room (which is not possible if you are on the stage!).

One of my favorite techniques is to ask a provocative question which I tailor to the audience.  For example, if you are performing for a group of people who do not know much about music, try a question like “Who here does not understand classical music?”  This helps audience members to overcome any shyness about their lack of understanding of the material and will make them feel that you care about them enough to share your own thoughts and passions.

•    Relax

Be sure that your body language is relaxed and welcoming. Do not read from your remarks and use your bullet points.  Refer to your notes as needed during the speech.

•    Be Yourself and Be Confident

Two of my favorite confidence-boosters are tapping into your Strengths and Flow so focus on what you do best!

For example, one of my students is a very positive person. Using that strength when he recently spoke at a concert, he told his audience how much fun he had playing the piece.  After the performance, an audience member told my student that those words helped him (the listener) to enjoy the concert a lot more.  So my student’s ability to tap into that strength was a positive influence on the audience and made them enjoy the concert all the more.

•    Be Flexible

Brian related a powerful story of the importance of being flexible depending upon the circumstances of your audience.  He showed up at a predominantly Hispanic high school in Texas prepared to speak about Bach and counterpoint on the day after the murder of Mexican-American singer Selena.  The students were wearing black armbands to show that they were in mourning.  Brian tossed away his prepared remarks and instead spoke about music and death.  The result was a much more powerful, relevant experience that deeply engaged the students and demonstrated the healing powers of music.

•    Be of service

One of my favorite tips to speakers is to think about how you can be of service to your audience because this can take you out of the fear zone. So when you speak to audiences, think of how you can help them understand, appreciate and enjoy the music.  This will take you out of yourself and help to lessen any fears you may have around speaking.

We learned a lot of wonderful techniques from Brian and had a great time in the process.  And my students used a lot of these lessons when they spoke in class about their projects.  Here are the four techniques that worked best for audience engagement!  As my students observed, public speaking is a skill that can be acquired with practice and patience.  A few small steps right now can pave the way for years of success!