Rapport depends on understanding, music and words alike

As a dedicated enthusiast for music of all sorts, I have strong preferences for how it ‘should’ be presented. To my mind it’s fine for those on stage to talk a little when they are playing short, popular pieces, but patter’n’perform holds little attraction for me when attending a formal classical concert. Words have their place, but only as an accessible (inexpensive) written programme note.

Information before the concert begins on the music about to be heard should not delivered by somebody standing from the platform. The spoken word introducing ‘serious’ music performances for me becomes an irritant, not an enhancement of what I hope to hear.

Recent research shows that others too have strong preferences, though not necessarily mine. And unsurprisingly, these preferences are connected with types / levels of exposure to different genres and presentations of music.

Finding a way into the performance
Dr Melissa Dobson of Sheffield University is reported in Classical Music Magazine (6 November 2010) as saying,

It can be hard [for young people / newcomers] to find a way in to classical music because it is often abstract and non-representational, and with no prior knowledge it can be difficult to relate to what you are hearing. Basic terms like “symphony”, “concerto” and “movement” are rarely explained in programmes, creating barriers to feeling at home in the concert hall.

But this research shows that if information is embedded in the concert format, pitched at the right level, and done in a way which creates a rapport with the players, a younger audience can really appreciate live classical music.

New attenders at classical concerts, says Melissa Dobson, felt excluded from the traditional audience modes of behaviour, and had no sense of how the performers contributed to it. In more relaxed settings however, they became more engaged in the performance and felt a rapport with the musicians.

Complex contexts
There is sometimes when considering ‘classical’ music and new audiences the idea that the performers are aloof, or feel no need to include the audience in their world.

This view is typified in the Journal of New Music Research reference to ‘the ritualised performance described by Christopher Small (1998) in the influential book Musicking, in which performers ‘do not want their world to be too close to that of the audience; and individually and collectively, they guard jealously their privacy and their distance from the public’ (p. 73).

Perhaps such a view misses the point, insofar as it attributes knowingly negative motive to performers. It is difficult consciously to look ‘engaging’ whilst performing often challenging music in complete and demanding alignment with some 80 or 100 other musicians. The only ‘motive’ of most professional musicians whilst actually performing, is to deliver the highest possible quality performance. The musicians’ reputations, future employment and, importantly, self-regard do, when all is said and done, depend on how they deliver the product on the platform.

Context however can be a different matter. It’s how the music is wrapped up which will make the difference – straightforward opportunities to understand and anticipate the performance, unstuffy locations, but nonetheless respect for the skill of the performers.

Welcome and include
From personal experience of presenting ‘classical’ concerts, I know that unfussy printed programmes which indicate clearly the duration of (and number of breaks in) each piece of music are appreciated by new audience members, as is an initial welcome from the platform and a brief word at the start of each new item to tell everyone what it is, and who will be playing it.

(Applause at the end of each movement remains a debateable point – we usually either accept it may happen, or if genuinely more appropriate we ask that people wait till the end, in ‘x’ minutes’ time as indicated on the programme, and the musicians then ensure that the ‘gaps’ are as brief as possible: not a big deal as long as we can ensure no-one in the audience becomes anxious and embarrassed…)

The best attraction of all however seems to be the promise of tea and biscuits (or whatever…) with the musicians after the performance, when the performers can relax and chat informally with their audience.

It takes musicians comfortable in their skins to do this, and it’s not for everyone, but it works, where circumstances permit it to be done. No big fuss, just open and friendly, without attitude.

* Is there a wider lesson in this work on inclusion? Can we apply it to other circumstances too?

* Should we just accept that different people at different points in their experience of any given context – music, education, health services, or anything else – will prefer things done in different ways?

* And if this is so, is the really important thing to ensure the professionals concerned have the skills and confidence to adapt the contexts of delivery to the circumstances, with proper support from the organisations which provide the service in question?

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Posted on November 7, 2010, in Reading and Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Using the world of classical music as a lesson to the rest of us on inclusion is stretching things a bit! What with the penguin suits, the instructions in the manual, no, the programme, the tacit requirement to dress up for a concert … its all a bit like going to church complete with priest, temple and acolytes. You’re welcome to come in but here’s the rules!

    Its all a bit intimidating to say the least, from all sorts of viewpoints – socially, intellectually, behaviourally. Anything that’s highly structured with strong expectations from the initiated and high visibility of transgressions is not inclusive – you try clearing your throat at the wrong time…. Newbies can’t even interact with other attendees for fear of showing up their ignorance in public, face to face – scary!

    Inclusion surely includes going out of your way to change the organisation to actively seek input, complaint, criticism and praise from your “customers”. Tea and buns with the punters afterwards is a good start, but what you think of as inclusive and what your customers (current and prospective) reckon is inclusive need to be aligned.

    Part of the problem is to do with the demographics of a typical classical concert – take a look round the Bridgewater Hall when the Halle’s in town and check out the average age.

    Maybe its something to do with lack of intimacy in the cathedral like spaces – The Sage in Gateshead has learnt that lesson and provides a range of performance spaces from 1000’s to a handful, and encourages very publicly participation in mix of genres.

    So, matching delivery to circumstances – who defines the circumstances? To be properly inclusive both you AND your target customers should be involved in that conversation otherwise you’re back to handing down the message from the pulpit.

  2. Ah, I should have mentioned, James, that the events where we did the tea & biccies have been small ensemble concerts (4-6 players, wearing dark slacks / skirts and smart but jazzy waistcoats, not their penguin suits) in similarly small, informal venues – and we even provided children’s music workshops, for free, at the same time in a different part of the building, so no-one was barred by family commitments from attending.

    Like I said (and as I think you’d agree), it’s the way the performers and their audience get along which matters. We certainly had people turning up (repeatedly) who had not been to ‘classical’ concerts before.

    And one further important point here – the performers themselves chose how to deliver the concerts / recitals, and, as you suggest, there was serious discussion (over the tea & biscuits) with the punters as we progressed about how they wanted things done. And we did include music in a whole range of genres.

    That of course the classical musicians can’t do in a big formal concert by a top-level orchestra (which they all also belonged to). And the same applies to other sorts of practitioners too.

    So, to make my original point again, you need the big organisations at the top of their game, to ensure the quality of the product. But you also need the contexts for individual / and small groups of professional(s) to deliver that product more ‘personally’, in ways which enhance the oppportunity for everyone to enjoy, benefit from or otherwise input, shape and participate in the activity.

    Interestingly, by the way, the research I mentioned above showed that even young newcomers didn’t mind the formal attire etc, they just felt that they didn’t understand e.g. in what ways the performance was top-class, or the ways in which the performers actually added value to the music.

    This I think is the real lesson of the research… people often do want to understand! And, given that at least classical music is a publicly accessible activity (not invisible to most of us), this lesson is surely even more true of many other professional activities which impinge on public / civic life, than it is for music?

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