Choose your audience and beyond...

May 29, 2017, 3:57 PM · Why is the quality of one's playing so tightly associated with who the audience is? Yesterday, I played Mendelssohn violin concerto to a 3yo kid, who wondered into my practice room. I played for him while watching his big grin and nonstop bouncy little figure. This was my best playing of the piece ever! I usually play better when I could see the birds outside the window. Do you have similar tendency? How do you go beyond this limitation?

Replies (8)

May 30, 2017, 12:03 PM · When I am playing for a non-musician, what I am thinking and my physical symptoms (hands clammy, etc.) are very different. What you can do is put yourself in the state of mind you would be in during a tough performance while you practice. One teacher I met at a summer program years ago told us to run up and down the stairs a few times and then play our pieces, so we could prepare for stressful playing situations. Things like that are hard, but they do work. I hope this is the kind of advice you were looking for.
May 30, 2017, 1:10 PM · I think that just like we learn how to play harder repertoire more effectively with practice, we also learn how to play in more challenging performance situations more effectively with practice. Playing for a 3 year old probably feels a lot like our daily practice, and we can move past our self-consciousness, while playing in front of adults or other musicians is a situation that we probably have to learn over time how to get past our self-consciousness, and we have to continuously practice and put ourselves in situations that are the right level of uncomfortable. My best performances have been in really low-stakes environments.

Recently I played in church and had kind of stomach ache before, which maybe kept me from thinking too much, and listening back, there is some stuff I'm not happy with, but it ended up being the performance I have been most satisfied with. My profile has a link to the youtube if you're curious ;-)

I think we all have an optimal level of arousal for performance, and really good performers have probably gotten better at consistently getting themselves to that level as quickly as possibly. I like to imagine that there isn't much better for improving than performing consistently - Sometimes performing stuff that is well within your technical means, and sometimes performing stuff that is a stretch. I probably don't take enough risks in terms of the latter.

Edited: May 30, 2017, 6:58 PM · Helen, what a great idea! Although, for me, rigorous physical exercise actually calms me down. I shall try your trick before a tough performance.

Christian,what you said makes great sense. I am probably my onw tough audience in that I rarely find a perfect moment during practice. I practice quite a bit these days, somewhere between 3 to 4 hours a day, many sessions spread throughout the day. I'm still taking weekly lessons too. My teacher kept telling me I think too much. I almost need some sort of distraction rather than absolute focus to play the music to my satisfaction.

May 31, 2017, 3:36 AM · "Why is the quality of one's playing so tightly associated with who the audience is? ... How do you go beyond this limitation?"

I think this is an important question: I would say this is not a limitation, this is what music is! I have certainly had similar experiences. Young children can be very receptive, perhaps because they have not yet been over-educated... Music is a means of communication, so without receptive listeners, it is incomplete. This is why live music is a "magic" experience. I find that if there is a musical person in the audience, somehow I can feel this, and it draws a musical performance from me. In other words, the listeners are also playing a crucial role in making music. I think the fact that you have this experience shows that you are a true musician!

As I recall, the famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein said that when performing, he liked to focus on a receptive child in the audience and perform for them. As an audience member, I am always listening for a genuine and spontaneous element in a performance; if this is missing, then I feel disappointed. One could even say that just as sound cannot exist in a physical vacuum, genuine, satisfying music cannot exist in an emotional vacuum. Thus, practising is not performing - by solving problems in the practice room, you can then be ready to perform for appreciative listeners.

Edited: May 31, 2017, 2:44 PM · Mary, what you said is extremely insightful! Meeting receptive audience is why I play better when I play for kids and Song birds. This also explains well the opposite situation I experienced yesterday whe I had an opportunity to play for an unmusical old relative. It was the most uninspiring experience,as she kept interrupting my playing by asking questions unrelated to music. It was hopeless. I ended up just turned into parctic mode.
Edited: June 4, 2017, 10:01 PM · I can relate to this subject with a good degree of immediacy since I just finished a pair of recital performances (of the same program) in two rather different venues.

I don't think that there is any performer, from amateur to grand master who is not affected by the performance venue or context, etc. Heifetz frequently played for the troops during WW II under difficult conditions and usually outdoors. One time it was pouring rain and they wanted to cancel the concert. Heifetz said "No! I said I would play on this day at this time and that's what I'm going to do". Well, exactly one soldier showed up. H. played the entire planned program for that one soldier and later said that it was the best he ever played in his life!

This past Friday, June 2, I gave my 1st performance in one of the schools that I teach at - the Lakehouse Academy in Asbury Park, NJ. This was in their small recording studio and the audience spilled out into the attached lounge. I performed my recital last year in the same venue. Both recitals went pretty well. However that studio is dryer acoustically than my own living room and the Yamaha piano wasn't so sympathetic for my program that included the Beethoven sonata no. 7. But that's a good challenge to finish all of my phrases well with good use of the bow and vibrato, etc. - sort of the violin equivalent to a pianist's good use of the pedal. The audience was great - and that's a two-way street. I like to talk to my audience when I give a recital. I'll sometimes start off with a joke to break the ice and tell them something about each of the selections. I also encourage questions and we got into a really lively discussion about the violin after intermission.

Today, June 4, I played at a senior center in a real auditorium. By auditorium standards, this was pretty dry, too. But still, it had some bloom to the sound and the much larger physical space was more comfortable, too. The piano, a nice Mason & Hamlin, was better, as well. My pianist felt the same way. This audience was great, too, and most appreciative. I'm glad that I went from more cramped and dry to more spacious, both physically and acoustically. The reverse would have been very uncomfortable. Otherwise, I really enjoyed playing for and relating to both audiences.

When all is said and done, I try to take what I find good and helpful in my performing environment and incorporate it into my performance. If there is little that I find helpful or sympathetic, then I go more deeply within myself and try to bring out and share what I need to. And doing so in turn helps the performance environment.

June 6, 2017, 12:43 PM · I play viola in a local amateur orchestra, and once a year (in addition to our regular concert schedule) we play a concert at a community centre on the poor side of town. The audience there is quite different from that in our normal venue: it's a much more informal setting, with people drifting in and out during the performance. But a lot of these people find something in the music to connect to, and aren't afraid to let it show. When we play a familiar piece someone might grin and give his seatmate a dig in the ribs. Someone else might get up and start to dance, while one woman just sat there with tears running down her cheeks. You really feel motivated to play to such people. We played the Peer Gynt suites, and when we got to Hall of the Mountain King the audience went nuts. In fact, when we finished the concert it didn't feel as if everyone had gotten their fill, so we played Hall of the Mountain King again as an encore - and got the same thunderous applause all over again. It's a wonderful experience, and one I look forward to each year.

It's not just a classical thing. Last night I went to a local bluegrass jam. It was warm enough that we played outside, standing on the street corner outside the hall where we usually meet. People walking by would stop and listen for a while, and leave with big smiles on their faces. It's fun enough when we're playing for ourselves, but sharing our joy with passersby is even better.

June 6, 2017, 3:22 PM · As a cellist I've been playing piano trios with the same violinist friend virtually every Thursday morning for 17 years. After our pianist became incapable of continuing, at age 95 (and died a year later) we turned to another pianist with whom we have continued to play on the same schedule for the past 6 years. During these 17 years we have endured about 2 recitals a year for family members and friends. But about 2 months ago our "new" pianist started inviting her neighbors in for our weekly sessions (hard to call them rehearsals or practice) followed by tea and cookies or cake.

Having and audience for sight-reading (or close to it) is a new experience for me. After all, there are times when one or another of us gets a bit lost and we do a restart at some letter or measure number. I find it a completely different feeling than a "performance." We seem to have no expectations of ourselves (maybe the pianist does, because she has pre-picked what she wants us to play that morning) and that makes a difference in degree of tension or nerves - for this I have pretty much none! The "audience" seems to appreciate what we do since they come back week after week - maybe it's for the tea and cookies. It may be a good experience for real performances, I won't be able to tell until we have one again.

The relative problem with real performances is that I want to compare what we (or I) do with what the audience members might have heard from the Beaux Arts, or Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein trios. I've always had this problem with public performances, whether solo or chamber music, which I've been doing for 70 years as an amateur and have not gotten over it yet - obviously I probably never will. No such problem when just practicing "for people."

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