Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Audience Animals

Discuss with Stephanie how to deal with tough audiences

In this video, Stephanie talks about how tough audiences can be during concert time. How can you deal with this? What are your suggestions?

Released on March 1, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello again, it's me, Stephanie, together with Virtual Sheet Music. Before I begin today's video, I wanted to start off by saying that I'm going to change the way I do things in this and in future videos. I've had various people get in touch with me in my six-month stint with VSM, but not nearly as many as I'd have liked. And let's face it, though all of us come from different walks of life, professional musicians, teachers, students, closet instrumentalists, choir singers, concert goers, you name it, the one thing we do have in common is music. So if we don't share our thoughts, then it's a missed opportunity. You need neither profundity, nor wit, nor a deep knowledge of Schoenberg serialist techniques to drop me a line. Reflect on what I've said. Ask me a question or simply contest what I've said outright.

So to prompt you, at the end of each video, I'll be requesting that you suggest something that you'd like me to talk about in my next video. It could be something academic. It could be a reflection on music and society today. It could be something generically musical that's been bugging you. I'll look at all the suggestions that come in and choose the one that excites me the most. As for today, well, in part, it's a response to my previous video "SOS Orchestra." If you haven't seen it, please do. And there are also some interesting comments from VSM members, too.

Now, there I talked about the absurdity of orchestral concerts, adopting strict formality with 21st century audiences. So today, I'd like to talk about the audiences themselves. Now, before I begin, audience types as we know are geographically bound both by national characteristics and obviously by the type of performance halls available. Being in Milan, you will appreciate that my experiences will be extremely different from yours and you may totally disagree with me. A perfect reason for getting in touch, wouldn't you say?

So I'm gonna start with La Scala, how can you not? Before Christmas, I took my daughter to see "The Turn of the Screw" by Benjamin Britten, a great opera, incidentally for kids because it's got ghosts and two out of the five characters are children. You know, you just can't fail with that opera. Anyhow, as you can imagine, La Scala is La Scala, and looking down from the cheapest seats in the house, I could see throngs of people puffed up at the thought of being in one of the world's most important theaters. After the interval, though, about half the audience had gone. You know, maybe some of the technical flaws at that performance turned people off. If you paid 200 plus for seats and then see the computer graphics go ape on more than one occasion, I suppose it's understandable. But undoubtedly, the un-Italianness of the music was partly to blame. You know, why go to a La Scala when there are no tenor hits, "Nessun Dorma," or chorus greats, "Va, Pensiero" or "The Anvil Chorus." No Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, Rossini, or of course that absolute theatrical must, the lead woman who dies at the end: "Butterfly," "Traviata," "La Bohème."

You know, it was clear sitting there that night that many in the audience were tourists, La Scala being an intrinsic part of the tourist route. And of course, a lot of tickets come in with a hotel package. I can imagine the average punter having sat through the angst of Britten and in the absence of Verdi's oompa, jolly hits or the schmaltzy Puccini numbers would simply have abandoned ship at half time. La Scala does, however, have another type of audience, a tiny bunch of diehard Milanese fans that eagerly await that one fluffed note of the leading tenor or soprano, so they can enter into action, booing and hissing their participation in the history of the institution, thereby assured. Now, I don't know if this happens elsewhere, but I just find it really, really rude on the part of the audience, and it's certainly unfair to the musicians and totally counterproductive to the music and indeed the storyline.

Of course, there are those who genuinely want to hear some music at La Scala, but maybe Dario Fo who won the Nobel Prize for literature, had a point when he said, "La Scala is not for the Milanese. It is for corporate businesses and outsiders." I can't comment either way, but for those of you who get to The Met regularly or Covent Garden or any number of other famous theaters, opera houses, and concert halls throughout the globe, do you think Dario Fo's comments Re:La Scala can be applied equally to your geographical context? It's certainly interesting to compare and contrast.

I'd now like to look at another type of audience, this time in the form of parents who take their kids to children's concerts. You know the type, industrious, anxious that their child gets some kind of culture. That's me, that's me, here I am, you know. Now, I waited till my daughter was seven before taking her along to a concert, not at La Scala incidentally. And it was a concert based on the theme of animals, so you had your bird song in Vivaldi, fish in Debussy, and of course Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals". Okay, predictable music, but at least a theme that kids could really get their teeth into.

Anyhow, I'd like to say that the concert was great, but it was kinda hard to hear when one, children and parents were talking throughout the concert, two, babies were crying throughout the concert, three, toddlers were running around all over the auditorium with their parents following behind throughout the concert. This is no exaggeration. Honestly, I found it hard to fathom why an orchestra would pimp itself to an audience so blatantly ignorant of the basics in sitting down and listening, unless of course the orchestra gets funding for educational programming, and it probably does. There was nothing, nothing educational about this particular experience. And as I sat there blushing in the darkness, embarrassed that I was lumped into this rudeness all around me, I vowed that I would never again take my daughter to a concert where the only thing to be gleaned was how not to behave and where bad manners was apparently okay.

Now maybe the concert hall needed some tips on organization, maybe getting some ideas from successful children's programs in action elsewhere in the world. Certainly, there was no age limit for my...where I was sitting. None of the ushers ever intervened with the particularly rowdy children. And frankly, I was too cowardly to complain. Again, I'd be really interested in seeing how my experience compares with yours.

Finally, let's turn to the over the age 70 audiences. Untainted by the instantaneousness of 21st living, they understand the idea of musical development. And unlike my own younger generations, they have the patience to sit through music without the need for regular WhatsApp, email, Facebook, Twitter, or indeed selfie fixes. It's this type of audience where as you sit down, you struggle to find anyone your own age. And anyone younger is much younger because they've been dragged along by their conscientious grandparents. Now I found it's this type of audience that the listening experience seems to be heightened, it's almost got this meditative quality. But of course, I've missed on a whole heap of audience types that you are going to write back to me and explain. Wherever you are, in the U.S., China, or in the Amazonian jungles, I dare you to describe who we are as music consumers. And of course, please do get in touch too, to let me know what you'd like me to talk about in my next video. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Mickey Meloche on May 3, 2017 @1:16 pm PST
I go my grand daughters concert(violin), and I don't allow those distractions. I have been known to ask comatose parents to rally their children in. I'm not a heartless meany but I want to hear this music! My grand daughter is trying to help me learn the violin. Oh boy, she's got patience! I'm musically inclined but violin is the most difficult for me. The first lesson, I had it tied to my neck with a scarf. She was mortified. I wish I'd taken a picture of her face. She's 13 and love spending time inviting people over for jam sessions. Great fun. Thank you for your great videos. Send my love to Scotland, ancestral home on my Mothers side.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on May 4, 2017 @5:01 am PST
Hi Mickey, thanks so much for your funny violin anecdote. I have nothing but admiration for adults that insist on pushing back new frontiers, whether this be learning an instrument, taking a degree or getting a foreign language under the belt. Well done to you. As for my videos, they're only as good as the responses I get from them so do please keep in touch! Regards, Steph PS Which part of Scotland? I'm principally Edinburgh but with Glaswegian/Stirling connections...
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on March 1, 2017 @6:00 pm PST
Hi Stephanie, I understand the frustration of unruly children, but fortunately not during concerts, because I attend several concerts and performances given by very young musicians, and at least half of the audience is made up of other very young musicians with their parents, and they are very silent and attentive. However, it seems that US children have become totally unruly and out of control, and it has become an issue for me, oldy, to go let's say to an aquarium and endure hours of screaming children. I can't understand how those parents can live with all the noise, I am sure those children are not better at home. What has happened to good manners taught from day 1?? My mother was a pianist in Trieste, Italy, where I grew up and I started piano at age 2 years and 3 months. Loved it. By the time I was 3 or so, once a week we used to go to another pianist who specialized in accompanying opera singers practicing at her home. I would spend a couple of hours sitting quietly next to my mother, fascinated by the singers and never opened my mouth. I remember that if I needed to go to the bathroom, I would whisper in my mother's ear between singers. As for the importance of the theatre, at least for me, it makes no difference, as long as the acoustics are good. But once only, I ended up leaving after intermission, because the wonderful pianist played a Bach piece that lasted over one hour, non-stop, from memory, and he was going to play another 1-hour-long piece of Bach for the second part. The chair was also rather uncomfortable for my replaced hips. It was a bit too much.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @12:48 pm PST
Buongiorno Fulvia, beautiful city Trieste but very windy like my hometown Edinburgh!. Yes, you are correct - what has happened to good manners taught from day 1? Therein lies the problem. Our sense of 'individualism' has replaced any recognition of community, in the concert hall and beyond. Indeed, this 'micro', musical picture I've described is indicative of the troublesome 'macro' that is the world today. On the bright side, there's music and the special people who support this art! Looking forward to your future comments Fulvia. Steph
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on March 2, 2017 @5:13 pm PST
Stephanie, thank you for your reply, and I am so glad that you obsviously have been in Trieste. I have been living in Northern Virginia, by Washington DC, for half a century now, but I miss that nasty cold bora and the huge waves that it creates! and they are getting worse, due to the very noticeable rise of the sea level. Sometimes Trieste resembles Venezia at high tide! And by the way, I have a cousin in Edinburgh, whom I have yet to meet! Cheers! Fulvia
Karen D * VSM MEMBER * on March 1, 2017 @4:39 pm PST
I do some work at an elementary school where the audience during the school concerts was much like the one you describe. Parents allowed the toddlers and preschoolers to run around the gym. People came and went while classes were singing. There was a lot of talking. Once a child finished singing, the family would get up and leave. By the time the band played, there was hardly anyone left. Things are so much better now. The principal "reminds" the audience of appropriate audience behavior before the program starts. The school kids stay in their classrooms before and after they perform. The program is "televised" on the classroom smart boards so the kids can watch if they want. At the end of the program, after the band plays, all the kids come into the gym together from pre-k through grade 8 and sing a song for the audience. Everyone stays for the whole program and are much better listeners.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @12:39 pm PST
Hi Karen, thanks for getting in touch. Yes, I've seen much the same thing in school shows - the literal stampede to get seats pre-show, excessive demonstration of parental love during child's performance and then exiting or telephoning or working when said child has finished. Strong principals are, as you've pointed out, the key...though is it my imagination or are they a little scarce on the ground? Steph
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on March 1, 2017 @3:00 pm PST
When i was a kid of age about eleven, our school took the whole class to an afternoon concert of Stravinsky's Petrouchka.Very bad choice, as most of my fellow pupils did not have any music education, and certainly no classical music education or experience.
The concert hall, the Palais des beaux Arts in Brussels, salle Henri Leboeuf, was filled with classes with all the same profile of unprepared youngsters, all more interested in being out of class and very excited to escape the close scrutiny of teachers and staff.
To me, the concert turned into a nightmare, with fellow pupils telling jokes or making a fuss all the time, without ever being quiet. We'd been in a couch bus or in a train on a group ticket, so this was just the extension of a school trip, and the concert was by no means the main purpose in the pupils' mind. The nightmare was also that of the director, as he broke off somewhere in the middle of the music to shout that he'd never seen such disrespect to himself and the musicians. He tried to play on, and succeeded into terminating the piece, that everyone heard but no one listened to.
I luckily had some better experiences too with my parents or more dedicated groups of students with some classical music education.
I think you just can't expect the music, and the symphony orchestra on a stage, to be self-explanatory, and Petrouchka to be the best piece to captivate an unsuspecting young audience that this might actually be a nice piece to sit and listen with some attention to.
My violin teacher was also playing in the orchestra as 2nd violin leader, and we talked about the event later on. I had to admit I just couldn't stay quiet myself in this turmoil, being poked by others to laugh at their gimmicks, while at the same time feeling terribly sorry for the musicians to have to play in such a jungle.
So I do not think there is a moral. Audiences are audiences : they catch the mood that the sum of the attending people carry with them. Some come for the artist. Some come for the composer or the piece. Some come to be seen. Some, like my school group, just did not care at all about music and the musicians. Some come for the competition and the fighting spirit, in a renowned competition like the Queen Elisabeth, and want to support the young contenders or discover new musical talent.They even may want to be part of it.
This is even true for more variety music. Cities and concert halls do have some kind of public typology, where French public in Paris seems to be very critical and not so open minded, while just 250 km to the north the public in Belgium is often considered to be warm hearted towards the artists or performing groups. That's of course a cliché, but we always hear artists saying this to the press, so there must be something. But even two different concerts in the same place will have a different resonance, and the performing artists may have to adjust to different behaviour.
I haven't reacted much to your videos in the last 6 months, but mainly that is beacuse I'm not being emailed when you do issue one, while I obviously get all the videos from Robert Estrin and William Fitzpatrick. I think you need to talk with the Virtual Sheet Music email team, because obviously they're not putting your parts through as much as they should to reach me.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @12:33 pm PST
Hi Paul, thanks so much for your comment. I went to the Palais 5 years ago to see Dvorak's Rusalka so your childhood experience compared to my own in the same, historical venue could never be more different. Ultimately though, we human 'animals' follow the crowd so your tale didn't particularly surprise me. And as you state, without some kind of musical background, people are often in unfamiliar territory. In the case of teenagers, this translates into bad behaviour, a 'cover-up' for unease. Re: my videos, I just do one a month so no doubt you've received everything. Looking forward to hearing from you again Paul! Cheers for now. Steph
Ignacio Esquivel Pérez on March 1, 2017 @12:01 pm PST
Equal many thanks for
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @12:17 pm PST
Hi Ignacio, a pleasure! Steph
Ken Turley * VSM MEMBER * on March 1, 2017 @5:12 am PST
Share your experience and your comments about audiences. I"m starting a monthly chamber music performance at a local cafe/coffee house. A dinner concert, i.e. Music sure la Table, the audience is mixed in their familiarity with classical music, and so i'm "training" them. With the strict formality of the opera and symphonic concert contrasted with what I know of the rowdy chaos of the Opera Buffa audiences of Mozart's time, I'm shooting for something in the middle. People are enjoying their dinners and the company so there is talking and activity during the music, so people are relaxed and enjoying themselves. But there is a rapidly growing appreciation for the music and attention gets focused on the musicians more and more, then people relax and chat in between numbers. It's working very well so far, albeit on a very small scale. Which brings me to my request: can you speak to how those who do not make the 5% that are successful concert performers, can make a living as a "professional musician". i.e. besides teaching, playing at weddings, church services, cafes, recording studio work, and whatever else is out there I don't know about? Most music schools seem to forget that part. Thanks, Ken from Bridgton, ME USA
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 6, 2017 @6:48 am PST
Hi Ken, yeah, you've hit on a raw nerve for most of us musicians in the 21st century (& what a difficult century its proving, and on all fronts!). I'll do something next month but it'll be only at a general level I'm afraid as I'm neither a 'coach' nor 'career advisor. Aside from my own, direct experience though, I have many friends who work in music and a number who are life coaches. Drawing together these two aspects may provide some direction for you...but my gut feeling tells me you may have accidentally found your path. The musical dinner idea is excellent - innovative, interesting and educational, both for your audience and yourself. I'd be interested to hear how this evolves so keep in touch! Thanks for the post. Steph
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