In my first guest post here on Greg’s blog I wrote about a performance I recently did of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, and the words I spoke beforehand to the audience. So many people I perform with seem surprised that I enjoy this aspect of performing and that I feel so strongly about sharing in this way. It’s made me realize how daunting it can be for many musicians, whether they are students, amateurs, or professionals, and it is this fear that is the inspiration for this post.
I’ve had my share of public speaking anxiety through the years but here’s the thing – I actually believe that talking to our audiences can be a key to quieting our nerves. It is also, in my opinion, a key to making more people in the audience more comfortable and ready to receive whatever it is we’re about to give to them.
At Radford University where I teach and accompany, the students perform frequently in departmental recitals. I struggle a bit internally, especially when a singer gets up to perform, even more so when what he or she is singing is in a foreign language. Perhaps because of time and budgetary constraints the translations to the songs being sung are often not included in the program. The titles aren’t even translated into English so for the most part the people in the audience don’t have any clue as to what a given song is about. In my mind this is a great way to shoot ourselves in the foot! We’re not at a music conservatory where every piece performed is something that everyone in the audience grew up listening to – most of the students have come from small, rural communities. This is an opportunity for the students to hear some great music for the first time but how can they even begin to enjoy it when they haven’t a clue what the words being sung mean? And how does this affect the performer? Here we have a young singer braving the stage, often for the first time, staring out at an audience full of their colleagues who are looking back with blank and bewildered faces. How rewarding an experience can that be for the singer? How rewarding can it be for the audience? Even I don’t care to listen to singing when I don’t know what I’m listening to and I’ve been listening to classical music all of my life!
So what can we do? Every time I play for a singer in a situation where no translation is being provided, I suggest that the singer come up with a one sentence explanation for what their song is about that can be presented before beginning the song. When done well it can not only help the singer focus, it also helps the audience to have something to grasp onto. It can be like a piece of scenery that can help put everyone in the same place at the same time. It can also break down a bit of the wall that can so often plant itself between the singer and audience, especially when a foreign language is involved. Although it’s rare that a student will work up the nerve to take my suggestion, when they do I find the courage it always makes a difference in a positive way. The faces in the audience soften and take on a more receptive look, they respond more to subtleties in the singer’s expression…sometimes it can be downright magical and all because of a handful of words.
My feelings about this also apply to instrumental music. These days I almost always say something before I perform, unless I’m in a situation in which it would be inappropriate or awkward . The more I speak, the more addicted I become to addressing the audience because so many incredible experiences have come from me reaching out to the audience in some way. One of the most interesting and unexpected results that has happened is that there have been several times when I’ve had audience members stand up to ask questions or to share something personal about how the music has affected them at the end of a performance before everyone has dispersed. This has happened to me here in the States but it also happened to my husband and I in Germany. It has meant that the audience, at the end of a performance, has felt like they can stay and chat rather than flee the minute the last note is played. It has meant that I get immediate feedback and connection rather than having to face the lonely, quiet Green Room by myself. It has meant that music-making has become a social activity, which in my mind is the way music is supposed to be. And the beauty of it all is that with each wonderful experience like this I have grown to love performing more and more — nerves no longer have a hold of me because of my thirst for communicating musically and personally.
As I mentioned at the start of this post I am not fearless when it comes to public speaking. I still get butterflies every time I go out to talk to my audience so it’s something I continue to work on and practice. But I figure I’d have butterflies regardless of whether or not I talk. I may as well let the butterflies escape while I’m speaking so that by the time I sit down to perform they’ve had a chance to fly off somewhere else. And the rewards are just so great – I can’t not do it anymore.
So keep it short, keep it simple, keep it sincere – that’s my motto. Then sit back and watch what can happen with that little act of bravery.
Erica Sipes is primarily a pianist but also a cellist who has a passion for bringing joy, personality, and fun into making, listening to, and performing classical music. She is a blogger, freelance pianist, collaborator/accompanist, closet cellist, occasional private teacher, addicted chamber musician, and performer who is almost always willing and eager to perform with anyone who promises to try and have fun in return. She also loves helping people figure out more efficient ways to practice, prepare for recitals, and to accomplish their musical goals, big and small.