Pissing off the patrons

Holly Mulcahy (who drives up from Chicago to play with us occasionally) wrote an article worth reading at The Partial Observer. She called it “How to alienate your audience in 10 easy steps: Musicians” to distinguish it from her first article, which was a tutorial on the same subject for conductors.

Some of what she writes about is stuff that clearly shouldn’t happen on any stage anywhere (checking email during performances, which is flat-out illegal in my band), complaining to audience members about not being paid enough, dressing badly, smirking when one’s colleagues screw up, and the like. It would be nice if this kind of stuff went without saying for adult professional musicians, but sometimes it doesn’t. I try to behave myself on stage, but I couldn’t plead absolutely innocent to any of the above save checking email during a concert. Of course, given that I sit up front and right under the conductor’s nose, that would be stupid as well as rude.

But two of her points were not as well taken, I thought.

1) Never smile. You are a serious musician who has spent hours honing your craft. Indeed, most concertgoers aren’t likely to understand the full depth of your artistic understanding. In order to make sure they understand this, it is best to project a brooding manner at all times. This is best accomplished by maintaining stoic expressions at all time, even onstage or when the audience responds to a truly triumphant performance with enthusiastic applause.

Granted, it is impossible to maintain a smile at all times during periods of intense concentration but an appreciative audience likes to know you are not pissed at them for showing up and enjoying a concert when they are applauding. It never hurts to remember that no one likes a martyr and you should respond to sincere applause with affirmative body language (yes, even a smile).

To some extent, she corrects herself with the line about “intense concentration,” but I still believe she misses the point. We don’t expect pitchers – or batters – to smile while they’re at work. We do expect them to “hustle.” It may be that what Holly is asking for is the orchestral equivalent of “hustle.” Go about 1’50” into this video and you’ll see a pretty good example. No one smiles during this performance (except the conductor, and he shouldn’t). But it’s pretty compelling nonetheless.

I wrote more about this subject a few months ago here, if you want a more detailed exposition of why I think American orchestras should look more like Berlin when they play.

2) Accept compliments poorly. Especially eager concertgoers will be compelled to burden you, the performer, with compliments on your wonderful performance. This is a nice effort, but had the audience member had the training to realize that you played the fourth sixteenth note four measures after rehearsal letter H slightly sharp they would realize that their praise only masks their ignorance and intensifies your shame. If you can muster the strength to be polite, simply answer the compliment with, “Oh, thanks, but I thought I really played rather poorly,” or “You must not have heard Thursday’s performance, it was much better than tonight.”

While this does indeed happen, I suspect the motivation is more a feeling of inadequacy on the part of the perfomer than a belief that the audience is too stupid to know when we screw up. I find myself uncomfortable accepting praise except when I play perfectly. As that’s yet to happen, I’ve always found it hard simply to say “thank you” when someone says something nice about my playing.

That’s not to say that orchestras are full of modest people; they’re not. But no one becomes a competent professional musician without an acute awareness of the difference between what they do and what the music should really sound like.

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