Why the audience matters as much as the performer

Many of us may have memories of screaming and dancing at rock concerts. Maybe we didn’t even pay much attention to the music, but the evening experience was one of shared fun with friends, and being carried by the power of a large crowd whose energy has been focused and joined together by the music. In classical performances this experience can be present too, albeit in a more inward fashion. Live classical performers equally rely on audience engagement for the show to be a success. While screaming and getting drunk is usually not common, deep emotional engagement and focused meditative listening from the audience is as important as how well the performer plays. Though I have cherished the times that I have reached out and exposing people to classical music who have less appreciation for the art form, for the resolve and confidence it has built in me, the magnified energy of an engaged audience is life changing.

Of course, getting up in front of an audience requires a certain amount of “devil may care” attitude, since the mind games involved in trying to read peoples reactions can start to feed into ones own fears and self doubts. As they say “you can’t win them all!”. On the other hand, I find it ideal when I can feel confident enough to allow a sense of exchange and openness with my listeners, regardless of their reaction.

On a large stage it is rarely possible to gauge an audience response, and when I have tried, I have usually miscalculated. For example, in a second performance of the Saint-Saens cello concerto I found myself agonizing over almost every passage, petrified that I might miss a shift, or have a memory slip and humiliate myself. My focus was laser sharp, but I was so self-judgmental that I completely missed the fact that I had performed almost flawlessly. When the final chord hit, I was prepared to slink off of stage and hide my face in shame. When the roar of applause and immediate standing ovation dragged me back on stage for three bows, I was completely and utterly floored. Listened to the recording several weeks hence, the tears rolled down my face with amazement that even with my critic on my back the whole time, I had performed with incredible passion and accuracy.

In a house concert setting that is more intimate than a large stage it is harder to project my own imagination on the audience. With people practically in my lap, their enjoyment, or lack thereof, is evident on their faces. Most of the time the intimacy of the setting yields to a deeper listening from all those present, and this energy lifts my performance to even higher levels of expression and poignancy. However, this is not always the case. I had two concerts this weekend, with two very different audiences. and experiences.

The first concert on Saturday evening was an experience that I will not soon forget. I could hear sighs and gasps at certain moments of surprise or beauty in the pieces. I watched people close their eyes and practically swoon during the Tango. While I did not overly focus on these responses, they encouraged my own enjoyment of the music, and I felt my musical love blossom into my performance. It really struck me that evening how much music making is an endeavor that requires equal engagement from both the listener and performer, that the audience is as important in their function of bringing meaning and joy to the evening as the performer, as they take the initial joy and energy created by the performer and magnify it. In a sense, they are part of the instrument that vibrates with the music, and the level of their ability to vibrate, respond to the actions of the performer, like an actual physical instrument, can make all the difference in the quality of the experience. After the final number the audience lept to their feet, a final confirmation of my experience.

One day later, I approached my next engagement with renewed vigor and confidence, and performed at an even higher level than the night before, with more accuracy and passion alike. But the energy and vibration found no where to land. It moved around the audience members, vibrated with some, but mostly dissipated without impact or engagement. No matter how much I reached out to the audience, the response was little or nothing. It wasn’t as if they disliked it, but it didn’t resonate with them, it didn’t move them. While I knew this at the moment, I was confident enough to not lose my sense of meaning in the music, and continued with equal force. I was careful not to over play in an attempt to cause some response, but stayed centered in my love for the music. When the program ended a luke-warm applause ended after one bow. The host praised me for my intonation, in an awkward attempt to convince the audience that this was a performer worthy of respect, if nothing else. But he was reaching across a void. In the past I might have felt incompetent, or doubted my own abilities to inspire. I determined instead that this was not my “instrument”. Yet I also cherished the fact that I was playing for ranchers and people who may have never heard a cello live before. I was a strange exotic bird that they examined with fascination, if not passionate engagement, and on some level probably enriched their enjoyment of the music they usually resonate with by contrast.

As I am beginning to end my time as a professor in Montana, I have had many more experiences of the latter kind with the majority of the culture here, with a small selection of people who have been more devoted fans than I have ever experienced in the past. Lecturing for non music majors in my music appreciation class, I often have to explain the most basic of musical knowledge. These experiences have strengthened my knowing that this place is not where I belong, that I prefer a home base where my art form is more familiar and understood. Traveling back East, or to the West coast for concerts, the response to my music and person is overwhelmingly positive from the majority of listeners, and more informed, and the contrast is startling.

There is some magical reality that we cannot quite comprehend that determines where and why things work in one place and not another, and with some people and not others. Is it cultural, energetic, psychosomatic? I have been grateful for the strength that my Montana experience has given me in learning to stand alone inside of my passion and sense of who I am and what I do, even if the forces around me work against rather than with my intentions. But true strength is learning to give up a fight that I know I can’t win, and walk away knowing myself more fully in order to make choices that will magnify my success and build my confidence.

My hope is that my move back east will be like my experience when I finally put aside the instrument that I had played since high school. In a way, I did not know what I was capable of, or how much I had been limited, until I had an instrument that could respond to my actions, and even challenged me towards greater technical mastery. Within a few months of acquiring my current cello, my level of playing had increased exponentially.

Numerous times I have been approached by people after a concert who said that they regretted having quit playing this or that instrument. I always respond with the same heartfelt assurance that as a music appreciator and an audience member they are as important as the performer. “You are a professional listener” I always say. And I over and over again express my gratitude for their act of being a witness to the beauty of the music. I could not do what I do without them.

Here is to finding my partners in music making, you appreciative and wonderfully active listeners. I can’t wait to discover what success we are capable of together!

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