Audience Pleasers?

Jonathan Bellman

Kyle Gann has a wonderful blog here about audience behaviors, specifically in New York. The quick, dirty, and utterly insufficient summary would be that audiences differ but sometimes behave predictably, that audiences in different spaces can have characteristic behaviors, and that mob psychology (all right, “group psychology”) sometimes informs behavior. Read it yourselves, though; Gann has plenty of pithy comments to make about new music performance spaces, the NY Phil, Jazz clubs etc. Here’s a small sample: “When I talk about ‘the audience’ I may have BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music—and I know what he means] in mind if I’m thinking of a perfect world, or the NY Phil in mind if I’m thinking of them as a bunch of shits who don’t deserve anything better than Kenny G, but I am thinking of an entity that possesses, for me, a palpable presence.”
Well, I don’t know how they do it in New York, but…
The question of audience behaviors and motivations is an interesting one, though, and perhaps the very last one that performers want to hear about. Pre-programmed—or at least predisposed—audience behavior suggests is that there is rather more disconnect than you’d like between what a performer does and how the audience responds. As a performer, you may get less than you deserve, or more, or something only marginally related to what you’ve done, or earned. Pianists sometimes talk ironically about this: you finish, and the audience applauds themselves for having been there. What, then, is the actual relevance of the supposedly audience-pleasing strategies we hear about? A trumpet teacher says, confidently, that since the audience is paying the hear the trumpet soloist, s/he should play soloistically, even on accompanimental or secondary lines. Awkward question, from the father of a trumpet player: when was the last time anyone actually paid for a trumpet recital? I’m enjoying learning the repertoire—Balay, Ropartz, various arrangements—but really, do people pay to hear this? This repertoire is heard mostly on university campuses, yes? We all know that the dynamics here are complex indeed: is your teacher watching, or playing, is this a friend of yours, is this a girl you’re interested in, is this a piece you’ve played, is this a concert for which you, as a music appreciation student with mediocre class attendance, are receiving extra credit? What in heaven’s name is a performer to conclude about a performance just given, based on capricious audience reaction?
I often wonder if anyone knows what the hell classical musicians are doing; how much do listeners really get of the topics and styles, themes, form, unity, emotional communication, whatever? It’s not like this music is culturally current, either in terms of how widely it is heard or its idiom. And, you should excuse me, the same can be said of Jazz, and of a good deal of rock. Jazz is quite historical, thank you, which means that for whatever risk is involved, solos are still often attempts to speak an archaic language. Whether they work or not…again, many variables; I love it when people (like Robert Levin) improvise cadenzas in a Mozartean idiom in Mozart concertos, but others sometimes raise their noses at this sort of thing—just “museum music,” don’t you know. I’ve been to plenty of concerts by mega-super rock acts who play…y’know, fine, and the audience orgasms, basically because they’re supposed to. The musicians themselves expect audience hysteria because, after all, they’re used to adulation. As for the audiences, well, given how much they spent on the tickets it had better be a performance for the ages, no? No matter how canned and predictable, with just the right mix of songs in the right order.
So, given the ridiculous number of variables—audience type, mood, ignorance, impatience, the temperature, the situation, the acoustics etc.—it’s hard to imagine how their reactions have anything more than a tangential relationship to what you did up there. Not to depress you, but…
Then there’s Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which everyone gets.
Explanations, anyone?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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9 Responses to Audience Pleasers?

  1. Are we supposed to be explaining something? Is this that dream again?

  2. To be germane now — in sitcom writing rooms we have the phrase “five percenters” — a joke that only five percent of your audience will get, but will love so deeply they’re yours forever. If I am not misreading you, I take it from this:
    ” I often wonder if anyone knows what the hell classical musicians are doing; how much do listeners really get of the topics and styles, themes, form, unity, emotional communication, whatever?”
    that the same ratio obtains in classical performance. Being a member of the other ninety-five percent, I have no idea whether this is true. But I do know that too many five percenters will get you cancelled.
    When I go to big theater productions, especially comedies, I often feel that the audience is over-liking stuff, because they’re rooting for their money, as if the show were a horse they had in the sixth at Santa Anita.

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    My problem is, and I seriously do not mean this to sound arrogant and superior in any way, I’m part of that 5% that totally “get” what’s going on on-stage. Actually, I may be a bit beyond that. Having been a recording producer for both radio and CD, I can hear many edit points (shifts in ambience, and even mic positions, musicians moving and coughing, the separate room the pop singer is in, etc.) that I sometimes wish I wasn’t a part of that 5%. So, I come from the perspective of not being able to understand how people can’t understand, and it is surprsingly frustrating. “What do you mean you don’t understand Webern?”
    But it is also a danger to expect people to understand more than they do. Besides, they probably DO understand more than they are given credit for, but don’t have the training we do to express it verbally.
    Do they all “get” Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto? They most likely get how incredibly beautiful the second movement is, and that would please just about any composer with a modicum of modesty, no?

  4. Sara Heimbecker says:

    I loved Gann’s piece on the audience and your thoughts were an interesting follow-up. Thanks for blogging on this.
    I worked for an Elderhostel program in Vienna for three years in the nineties. This program provided educational tourist experiences for retired North Americans–talk about a predictable audience! The participants had to be at least 55 years old, but were more likely in their late 60s to early 80s. These people predictably loved the Mozart Orchestra in costume, but they also attended other concerts while in Vienna. We often had tickets to the Vienna Symphony (a very good orchestra) or to chamber recitals.
    One particular concert that stands out was a Vienna Symphony performance of, among other things, the Ludoslawski cello concerto. I knew that this audience en masse would hate the piece if they went in unprepared (and likely tar and feather me). I did a short pre-concert lecture for this group introducing them to Ludoslawski, his work in general, and this piece specifically. They learned to watch for cues from the conductor that would signal the start of aleatoric sections within the piece, etc. About half of the group really enjoyed the piece, about half didn’t enjoy it, but all of them were glad that they had seen that performance.
    Another (short) example: these tourists also often had tickets to open air opera performances. Predictably they would really enjoy these (because it was Mozart at Schoenbrunn and they knew they should). However, after we had spent two mornings in “class” discussing the opera, the structure, the characterization, in addition to Mozart’s bio, these tourists laughed at the jokes, cried after the most beautiful arias, and generally “got it.”
    Perhaps as performers what we do on the stage has little relationship to our reception, but what we do before a performance as musicians, musicologists, and educators can make a difference.
    Maybe I’m just trying to justify my existence…

  5. Jonathan says:

    Great comments. I like the five-percenter concept; it seems as necessary as Heinlein’s “funny-once” from *The Moon is a Harsh Mistress*. The “rooting for their money” idea is precisely what I was talking about with big-venue rock shows, and I suppose we can extrapolate back: if I show up for something, or like the artist, I might react in an exaggerated fashion by way of endorsing my own choice, or willing it to be better than it was. I think the five-percenter phenomenon does not only extend to jokes, right? It can also be side comments and coded references and so on in dramatic scripts?
    Beethoven #4: I just read a piece on Martha Argerich where she talked about second movement of this work as her first musically transfixing experience. Actually, I’d say audiences Get It from the opening piano chords–I have quite a bit of sympathy for Owen Jander’s characterization of them as Orphic. D. F. Tovey locates the entire piece in “the upper ether,” and I agree with that too. I could pile up two dozen adjectives about the work and it wouldn’t help: in my experience, even casual listeners get that one, and I don’t think all the analysis in the world, much as it would interest me and the like-minded, will ever really explain why.
    Sara, your resourceful approach sounds (unsurprisingly, to me) like a great success. Fact is, though, those people were already well disposed to the idea of classical music, and were reaching out to be educated, which is to their credit and is too uncommon a human characteristic. I deleted a paragraph that went on about the Shakespeare-education industry, and how a culturally and historically remote artistic medium is given contemporary currency thought the creativity of its educator-advocates–I’ve harped enough on that string before, I think. It’s relevant to us, though, and I often think that there are lots of lessons we should be taking from the Shakespeareans.
    The final, wry observation is this: who the hell am I, or is anyone, to talk about what people get or don’t get? It borders on lone-nut-in-a-rent-controlled-apartmentism: ONLY I UNDERSTAND THE BEAUTIES THE COMPOSERS ARE TRYING TO IMPART! This is one great danger of the academic life, of living too much in our own heads. It is unavoidable though, and should be managed rather than cured, lest we become shy of thinking as hard and deeply as we might (“Oh, who cares anyway…”). For all of us who observe audience reactions, people’s understanding of classical music (or any other kind), etc., it is a valuable idea to reflect on: I am one person; I’m making pronouncements on the basis of *what*?!
    E pur se muove!

  6. If you have two fields of wheat, planted at the same time and from the same stock of seed, but one of them is given more water and more fertilizer, one field will grow taller than the other. The differences in height within each field are caused by genetics; the difference in average height between the two fields is environmental. Similarly, audiences may be different from each other, but that doesn’t mean that their response to a given concert isn’t partly caused by that concert itself. An audience that’s generally well disposed toward contemporary music may be more enthusiastic about a bad performance of a contemporary piece than an audience that’s generally poorly disposed to contemporaroy music will be about an excellent performance of the same piece. The lesson here is that not only are audiences different from each other, but it’s important to understand those differences so you have a meaningful baseline for assessing a given performance.

  7. Sara Heimbecker says:

    I agree that the Elderhostel crowd may have been part of the 5% in terms of being open to educational experiences, but it was not a very savvy crowd. These were middle-class Americans that now had a bit of money to spend on travel (not a lot) and to some extent Elderhostel was “the thing to do.”
    One example: I was in Vienna during the debate about whether or not the Vienna Phil should accept women in the orchestra. I always discussed this issue with the tourists, usually on the way to a concert in the Musikverein, home of the Vienna Phil. I made it clear, however, that we were going to see the costumed Mozart Orchestra (created for tourists) NOT the Vienna Phil. After the concert one of my charges came up to me privately and said, “There ARE women in the orchestra, dear. They just have them dressed up like men.”

  8. Dan Blim says:

    I’ve come to think of classical music in general as something like a band. Any band is likely to have its share of hardcore fans who compare live concerts, demo versions, and every available recording to pick apart their favorite nuances, while everyone else simply decides that they like a particular song from the album. Classical music has the same thing: members of the audience who listen to the same piece in several different performances, carefully attuned, but most members simply decide that they like a piece or don’t, and no subtleties are going to substantially change their mind.
    The key is to somehow, I think, make sure that live performances carry something beyond the experience of listening to it at home (encores, talks, multimedia, audience socializing, improvised cadenzas, whatever).

  9. David Cavlovic says:

    I agree with Dan Blim. live classical performances should offer more than recordings. Watching a nervous breakdown live is always entertaining. I’m KIDDING!!!

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