Speak Up: How a Few Words Can Enhance Your Musical Presentation

For the past hundred and fifty years or so, classical music concerts have been somewhat of a hallowed affair: performers wearing formal attire, presenting the music in a highly ritualized environment; the audience sitting passively and quietly, waiting to receive their fix of the sublime. In such an environment, talking might seem sacrilegious. When performers choose to break the spell of silence, they are putting themselves at risk, as some members of the audience are likely to consider words to be a disturbance to the musical continuity of the event. On the other hand, a few choice words can really enhance the communication between artist and audience: the language of music is obscure and sophisticated, and the vast majority of casual listeners can benefit from having a few “pointers” on what is about to happen for the next five, ten, or twenty minutes.

Spoken introductions are best kept succinct, to the point, and somehow light-hearted. Through several years of performing, I have found that people are likely to find me funnier when I’m on stage that in other social situations. I think there is some sort of psychological trick at play—as an audience member, you’re expecting to be entertained, so you’re automatically more inclined to laugh and be amused by the guy with the guitar and fancy attire. The trick, of course, is not to outstay your welcome, and not to try too hard—it’s very easy to go from “funny musician” to “self-indulgent blabber who ceased being funny about five minutes ago”.

In terms of the musical content of your stage barter, make sure you’re not indulging in too much jargon and techno-speak—those are instant turn-offs for even the most benign of crowds. Rather than talking about the miraculous modulation that happens after the false entry of the secondary theme in the development, for example, you might want to direct your listeners towards the remarkable change of colors they can hear about two-thirds of the way through the piece.

Explaining a bit about the structure of a piece (again, using lay terms as much as possible) can also enhance appreciation. For instance, I always tell my audiences that Dowland’s Nocturnal is a set of reverse variations—they’ll be hearing the varied material first and the theme at the end, at which point they’ll realize the theme had been running through the music for the entire duration of the piece. That gives the public something to hang on to, and makes their listening experience a much more active and enjoyable one. Along the same lines, I also make a habit of telling people a ballpark figure for the duration of longer pieces—something that keeps them from getting restless and actually helps them enjoy the moment, rather than wonder “is it over yet?”

As with your other musical endeavors, the trick to being a successful speaker lies in practicing. When you’re running your program in preparation for your performance, you should definitely include practicing your spoken intros. Extemporizing is extremely hard and should not be taken for granted—keeping to a terse and to-the-point script will ensure you’re communicating what you want, without wasting time and boring the more sophisticated members of your audience.

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship