When does a concert turn into entertainment?
Answer: when it becomes interactive and fun.
On Saturday April 22nd afternoon, I asked the packed audience to write down their names in a notebook being passed around for my concert the following week. I said that I would find songs celebrating their names, such as music from “Annie Get Your Gun” or John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” for anyone named Anne. I also asked them to make suggestions of song names to help me out.
Rule number one: set the atmosphere. I played the theme from the TV game “Jeopardy.” The audience hummed along as I rotated through the various transpositions.
I then announced the rules of today’s game. “Today is Earth Day. I will play a piece. You will guess the name of the piece. If you get it, raise your hand and I’ll call on you after I finish. If you get it, please tell us how it relates to Earth Day. If you guess right, then you get to make a request and throw it into this earth bag.” They were fascinated by the Hawaiian print of the green bag, quite unusual for this part of the United States. I had used this thermo-insulated bag to carry my lunch and other snacks when I lived on Maui.
To warm up, I played a scathingly easy piece: You Are My Sunshine from the Reader’s Digest “Festival of Popular Songs.” Six hands shot up simultaneously. I didn’t know which to choose. So I said they could all make song requests. When the administration of getting the post-it note paper, marker pen, and the green earth bag got in the way of giving attention to the music, I changed the rules. “I will pick one person to answer.”
The game was a balance of easy and difficult. When it got too easy, I played a classical piece. They swayed with the music but nobody had any idea what it was. “Give us a hint,” one person begged. “Mendelssohn.” The hint wasn’t enough. “I’ll give you the German title.” It still didn’t mean a thing. “Fruhlingslied comes from his Songs Without Words. Does anybody know what that means?”
Rule number two: know your audience. This was not multi-lingual Netherlands. Forget playing Lange’s Blumenlied. My mom was right — play what they know. I decided to try the Beatles: Strawberry Fields Forever, Here Comes the Sun, but stopped short of Fool on the Hill. Only the staff member knew these songs.
I remember what my father loved. Indeed, they knew Summertime from “Porgy and Bess” and Barbra Streisand’s Evergreen. Next, I played one of my favorites: the jubilant theme from the 1980’s television series Dynasty. The crowd nodded that they’ve heard it before but couldn’t place it. I gave them hints. I had ventured too far.
In the last ten minutes of the hour session, I peeked into the earth bag. I knew the titles but hadn’t brought the sheet music. Luckily, I had prepared a few songs. They were clearly different from other requests. But nobody knew who requested what.
This was a prep session for next week’s name sake concert. There are plenty for Mary and Anne, but songs about Pat or Patricia and Fred are few and far between.
Classical musicians are trained to pursue excellence in interpreting a piece without fault and bow to the audience in acknowledgement of their applause. In my four years at the conservatory, I never once heard anyone mention audience engagement or developing a rapport. They are the anonymous mass. Even if they come to talk to me after the concert, I don’t ask for their name or background.
In our research on programming live music for elderly audiences (4-page PDF), I didn’t consider other forms of live music performance besides the traditional concert. This all changed after my duo’s five-week concert tour of the USA in Oct/Nov 2010 and my subsequent concertizing and music teaching on Maui. I started to experiment with different ways of delivering art music. What I’ve learned has to do with managing audience expectations.
Each year I celebrate Earth Day by giving a concert, a music jam, a workshop, or something special. One year, I organized the Hawaiian blessing of two new electric vehicle charging stations and invited two musicians to play the music. Last two Earth Days I invited my colleague’s ukulele class to join my piano class in jam sessions. This year I changed my usual concert format into a guessing game.