Audiences listen with their eyes as well as their ears

By Barry Kempton

Last week I blogged about the live concert experience and the key factors that I think make some performances memorable and some not so memorable.  The factor that I think bears more examination is what I called charisma, but might be better termed stage presence.

In my list of memorable performances, I included a pop/folk group called Everything but the Girl at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh.  I loved their recordings all through my university days and beyond, even though it’s probably fair to say that these were not the most gifted musicians in their peer group from a purely technically stand point.  But as an audience member of that early 1990’s performance, the energy and enjoyment of the band – the simple enjoyment of making music and of one another’s music making – was infectious.  They were having a good time, and it was impossible not to feel as though we the audience were experiencing something special if not unique.

How many concerts have you been to where you can say that about the performers on stage?  If like me, your count is a relatively low, it’s worth considering why.  I think that it’s partly down to the fact that this kind of energy on stage can’t be faked.   At least most musicians can’t fake it because they’re not actors, they are musicians.  Playing or singing music well is associated with integrity – good musicians are opening up their hearts and souls as they perform for audiences.

The last thing I want to advocate is some kind of pretend witchery on stage.  But I think that musicians, particularly student musicians during their formative years need to be reminded many times over that performances are for an audience, an audience that wants to be engaged.  It is not enough to bury your concentration and gaze in the pages of music in front of you and ostensibly ignore the audience who have made the effort and paid money to hear you perform.

Whether musicians like it or not, audiences listen with their eyes as well as their ears.  Orchestra musicians often appear to be the most unaware of this – perhaps misled by the fact that there are so many of them on stage; influenced too, I believe, by the sense of hierarchy in an orchestra.  The conductor is the focal point, the principal players next.  A rank and file 2nd violinist should contribute to the team effort without drawing too much attention to him or herself.  Keep your head down and play the notes in front of you.

Attend a concert where the same orchestra musicians are performing in a chamber music ensemble and it’s likely that you will see and hear a completely different performer on stage, one who feels empowered to project more personality to the audience.  I’ve noticed this on many occasions.

Music conservatories around the world have certainly begun to expand the scope of their teaching – to focus not only on technical quality and musical interpretation, but also on the tools modern musicians are likely to need to succeed in the tough world of professional music: presentation skills, entrepreneurialism and imagination among them.  I would suggest adding audience awareness and engagement to the list.  Audiences are there to latch onto every little bit of acknowledgement from the performers, and I believe that it will be those musicians (and groups of musicians) who embrace this who will be the successful artists and orchestras of the future.