Walking the walk

Here’s a comment from pianist Jeffrey Biegel, a long-time reader, on my “Who’s Your Audience?” post. I’m putting it out front on the blog, for all to see. And there’s not a word i’d want to add. Thanks, Jeffrey!

From a readerI am so happy to see this topic–I have waited more than 20 years for someone to address this. Since the late 1980s, I have been actively doing what you share. While maintaining an active list of standard repertoire, always exploring neglected works and finally, commissioning new works for piano and orchestra since 1998. With the progress of technology, my job has become more adaptable, somewhat easier–no less time consuming–in reaching more and more people in the business of music, fan bases, and composers. You Tube is only one small part of the process. It is the daily interaction with many people, mostly via social networking, which brings one closer to our audiences and presenters. I have reached thousands of people this way, and the commissioning projects I have created have seen a boom in interest mostly through our technological resources. Having said that, it is still extremely important to be on telephones and personal emails to keep it personal, rather than blanketing on You Tube to the masses. People still like the personal interaction, and I was never one to just let the powers that be take care of it for me. Many years ago, it was 1988, in a visit to Lucille Ball’s home in Beverly Hills just five months before she passed, she was intrigued about the idea of how a classical pianist gets close to his/her audience. She asked, “Don’t you talk to your audience, or just step out on stage and play?” I replied that we normally play and don’t talk. Well, she flapped her hands and said, ‘well, I can’t believe that. Isn’t there a way you can talk to them first, so you can get closer to them?’ I said I do that in programs with works that require some comments beforehand. She said, ‘You should do it more often then’, which I have. There is no easy way to get close to audiences, fans etc. It requires work time and personality. believe more and more performers will take to this method of reaching out to audiences as time marches forward.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Greg, I just posted a link to this comment on JazzBoston’s Facebook page. The advice applies equally to jazz musicians who want/need to get closer to their audience — as does much of what you write. Whenever I check in, and I wish it were more often, I find something valuable. I’ve recommended your blog to many of my jazz colleagues. – Pauline

    • says

      Good points, Bryan. Just because it’s now permissible to talk doesn’t mean you should. I just saw S.A.R.A. (Sounds and Rhythms of Afghanistan) last Thursday and it was quite possibly the best show I’ve seen in years. Four musicians from different regions of Afghanistan playing traditional art music from their regions as an ensemble. Other than some brief introductions of the various musicians in different configurations there was no speaking and other than general bio info about the group there weren’t any program notes for the music–not even a program list of the music. They just did what they did best–the rubab solo lasted over 20 minutes itself (it could have last an hour and I wouldn’t have minded). And the audience loved it. Thunderous applause and cheers after every single number.

      There were a few ethnics in the audience including a number of faces I know and have seen at other non-Western events (and many of whom are still recent immigrants that still can’t speak/read/write English very well so program notes would have been useless for them anyway). Nobody seemed to care that these musicians hardly ‘interacted’ with the audience–they were there for the music!

      • says

        Point taken, Jon, and I’ve been to concerts like that. Two years ago, for instance, in Tunisia. I heard some Tunisian groups that didn’t speak to their audience. Though one of them — Sufi musicians — got the audience up to dance with them. (Without saying a word.) I was the first one they brought out on their little dance floor. No words were necessary. The guy just came up with fiery, happy eyes, and took my hand.

        But back to the concert you described. One reason there was no need to talk is that, in most cases, the only people who come to a concert like that are people who already know they want to be there. They’re more enthusiastic, in advance, than the normal classical music audience is. If you’re a touring wind quintet, I’m going to bet you don’t have one-quarter of the amount of buy-in in advance that the group you described did. So if you want to build your audience — make the people hearing you tonight want to keep hearing you in the future — talking to them won’t hurt at all.

        And the group you described is also — I trust your description completely — exceptionally good. Maybe one rule of thumb might be that if you can win your audience 150% without saying a word, then go for it. But if you can’t — which would mean most of us — then talking, in addition to playing, can’t hurt.

        One last thing. Many classical ensembles aren’t used to thinking about active involvement with their audience, in their speaking, their stage behavior, and most crucially not even in their playing. So talking to their audience might be a step along the road of waking themselves up, and, eventually, making their playing more compelling.

        • says

          “They’re more enthusiastic, in advance, than the normal classical music audience is. If you’re a touring wind quintet, I’m going to bet you don’t have one-quarter of the amount of buy-in in advance that the group you described did.”

          Very true–and I think that’s the odd thing. S.A.R.A. didn’t need to have the same kind of marketing apparatus that a typical classical music audience needed and certainly didn’t need the same kind of marketing apparatus that a typical pop music group did. Which is all the more remarkable that a group like this (as well as several other non-Western classical OR pop music groups) can get an audience at all.

          I’ve been blogging profusely about in house and word of mouth kinds of advertising/marketing–something that happens with groups that just don’t have the same institutional infrastructure for marketing that the typical classical and pop music groups have. Namely, groups that would appeal to the underserved audiences out there. I think it’s incredible that groups that don’t fall into the mainstream of Western music (either the classical or pop variety) can do what they do and still build audiences.

          It’s one of the reasons I constantly get reminded of the underground non-academic experimental and noise music community. Basically, the non mainstream music rarely get to enjoy the benefits of the marketing/advertising industry/apparatus that so many of the more mainstream groups do have, and yet they still flourish and continue to get increasingly more numerous audiences.

          In a way, these kinds of groups are the exceptions that break every rule with regards to marketing that we think about for both classical groups AND pop groups. And Western classical music isn’t the only institution that espouses a so-called “passive” audience (as I’ve described in one of my posts http://silpayamanant.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/it-is-often-the-quietest-person-who-achieves-the-highest-degree-of-ecstasy/ –especially as you mention sufi musicians). Another saying that reflects this is the one that we find in Indian music circles–“the purpose of music is to clear the mind to allow for divine influences” which also specifically espouses a so-called “passive” audience.

          There seems to be the recognition that some audiences just don’t need to have the so-called “active” interaction from the performers that we find in so much of pop music culture (in any part of the world) and that the music should be able to carry itself.

          Granted, there is also the recognition that to transmit this kind of musical experience requires a receptive audience–you can’t just play this art music and expect anyone to accept it with the openness that is expected of a suitable audience. At the same time, there is the understanding that the audience’s inclination has as much to do with the exposure that it has as it does with basic psychological proclivities towards certain types of music.

          Yes, the group I heard was just phenomenal–getting outside the aesthetic differences–and yet I know that there were some Afghani’s in the audience that just did not enjoy it that much. The way it was described to me is that the lack of enjoyment is little different than how a connoisseur of Irish/Celtic music might just not like a Riverdance performance all that much. The idea being that these works are derivative of the original cultures and while being highly developed and incredible sophisticated performances, that is not enough to overcome how the performances differed from the normative performance standards and audience expectations of them.

          In the end, in some ways, I feel that if a classical ensemble needs to speak to convey something, then the music wasn’t strong enough on it’s own terms to engage the audience (which, I think is what you are saying to an extent). I just don’t think it’s necessarily a great idea for groups (with “not-so-great”) music to share to hedge their bets with banter. If they are better at speaking the music than they are at play it, then maybe they are in the wrong business in the first place.

  2. says

    “Done rightly, it is a real benefit, but it is often not done rightly.”

    Exactly right Bryan but surely the point of marketing is to learn to talk to the audience, it is a skill that can be learnt.

    Also as I said in a previous comment, a good introduction can point the listener to what to listen to, so the music speaks more clearly.

    • says

      I agree, Ian. And something else that happens when you talk to an audience is that they might start to like you. Which will make them more likely to like your music, or at least to give it every possible chance.

      Something else to bear in mind: It’s now the norm to talk to your audience. Outside classical music, I mean. So new people coming to classical concerts might find it odd that musicians don’t talk. To make up for that, we’d have to make the concerts very special, in all kinds of ways. Or else simply be geniuses, as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were (to name two great musicians who weren’t exactly famous for being friendly to their audiences).

      • says

        I usually talk to the audience, but not necessarily for every piece. It is a skill well worth developing! I would say, based on seeing a lot of chamber music in the last couple of years, that more and more classical ensembles do talk to the audience. But I don’t think it helps if you go on too long, or if you are awkward, or if you don’t know what to say! After all, we spend many years learning how to perform music. If we are going to start talking, then we need to spend some time learning how to do that. Based on what I have seen, I don’t think most classical musicians have yet discovered the knack!

        Greg, this is where your work is really helping.

        • says

          Thanks, Bryan. And I so much agree — if musicians are going to talk to their audience, they should do some work to get better at doing it. Formal training helps, and should be part of conservatory education. But also musicians should find someone they trust to give them feedback, the first few times they speak. Or whenever they speak about something very new, or speak in some new way. Always good to get another point of view!

  3. says

    Very true, Bryan. I did share with ‘Lucy’ that it wasn’t always appropriate to speak, rather, allow the music to do the ‘talking’. But she certainly drove her point home with her usual passion for communication. Her message was quite clear. I would be curious how pioneers like Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball would utilize today’s technology in their craft. I bet Desi would have adopted ‘virtual television’ so people could see the “I Love Lucy” show on a ‘mini stage’ in their homes through virtual projection. Sounds crazy? Not at all. If I could create it, you bet I would.

  4. Rania says

    Classical concerts are awkward business for many people. The performer is dressed formally. He walks on stage very seriously. He bows. The audience applauds. Then music. And it often feels like there is an unbridgeable gulf between you and the person in black, “over there”. He’s mysterious, unreachable, almost holy. I like it when performers talk because I remember they’re human beings. When they introduce the music, I remember it’s about the music, and it makes me focus less on the artist and more on the art. I feel like I’m part of the process. And it doesn’t have to be talking; it can be as simple as smiling- genuinely smiling, when you bow. Simply acknowledging people’s presence. They’re not only receiving the meaning of music at this moment; they’re creating it.

    I have performance anxiety issues that are sometimes very bad, but whenever I remember to smile, it helps.

    • says

      Also, Jeffrey’s story is another reason to have a big crush on Lucille Ball! And I can guarantee that what she had in mind was a warm, honest human interaction. She knew a thing or two about how to relate to an audience!