Plebs: Classical Musicians and their audiences (It’s not just Andrew Mitchell…)
I think deeply about the relationship between classical musicians and their audience.
Unlike folk or jazz audiences, whose interactions – clapping, singing, dancing, heckling – go a long way to giving those forms a living identity, a context, an ethos, forging links between performer/audience member, our audiences are often altogether excised from the act of performance. The no-man’s-land between the symphony orchestra and the first row is ineffably bigger than just a few feet.
The audience are expected to sit reverentially, silently, and to politely (not too enthusiastically, please) applaud after often nearly an hour. They are then scowled at (I have seen this often) by a row of grim-faced violinists raised begrudgingly to their feet by the conductor at the end of the performance. It is no wonder that a gulf seems to exist between us.
A colleague told me about when she once played as an extra with one of the top London orchestras. The orchestral manager came out to brief the musicians, and after the requisite information was given, the manager congratulated the musicians on a fabulous concert the previous evening and said that “the audience just loved it”. A principal woodwind player said out loud, with relish: “What do we care what they think?”
I have also been guilty of laughing with colleagues about innocent questions or comments made by earnest, less-informed audience members during the interval or after a gig. I have seen musicians roll their eyes after being congratulated by a member of the public. And ex-Conservative chief whips aside, I have often heard non-musicians described as plebs…
In difficult economic times, music and the arts suffer, as does everything else. Musicians, after dedicating a substantial part of their life mastering their craft, feel underrated, underpaid, misunderstood; funding is being cut, jobs are being lost. I was on trial with the Scottish Opera in 2011 just after their working year got cut down to just 26 weeks. I met the then principal trumpeter on his valedictory tour, after which he was stepping down following decades in the job to start an entry-level office job outside of music, just to be able to provide for his family. Times are hard…
This is exactly the time to coax out an attitude change.
During times of uncertainty, it can be very easy to begin to resent the amorphous, hundred-headed mass that sits out there in the dark watching us during our work hours.
Classical music is elitist: so goes the adage. This is normally said in reference to audiences – often older, richer – and to the whole nineteenth-century ethos, from our garb to the strange rituals and the frowns you get if you cough; that’s a whole other matter that I won’t expand on here. Yet if they’re not careful, the musicians themselves can put up barriers with their own audience. I am not tarring all with the same brush, but it is fair to say the attitude is prevalent.
There are many, many initiatives and organisations out there that try to bring audiences closer to music. My own beloved Southbank Sinfonia has regular rush-hour concerts most Thursdays at 6pm where entry and alcohol is free; the orchestra are at ground level with the audience and members of the orchestra stand up and introduce each piece, giving a human, personal touch to each work. This is a wonderful, inclusive ritual, and I know first hand that the audience love it. This is one of myriad initiatives by arts organisations to bring in audiences. It fosters knowledge, understanding and empathy and above all, loyalty in the punters.
What classical music needs is for its practitioners – the rank-and-file string players, the second clarinettist, the freelancer playing the triangle, all – to develop a deeper respect for the audience. After all, if they didn’t come to watch, there would be no work for us.
My fiancée is a Classical Music PR Account Manager. As part of her mandate, she briefs her clients on how to treat journalists: how to interact with them; how to consider their own work from the journalistic perspective; what to say and how to say it, in order to maximise exposure and build ongoing relationships. When the right balance is struck, everybody can benefit: the paper gets a great spread, the radio station puts out a stimulating package, the player gets more coverage. This media training is invaluable to success and to lasting relations.
If musicians, not just soloists, but every member of every orchestra, as part of organisational training, were briefed on interacting with audiences – on representing and being the voice of their organisation, nay their artform – the positive effects would surely manifest. Audience figures, regulars and newcomers, would rise, as would coverage and reputation. Reciprocity is the key.
Yesterday, I took part in an intriguing talk and demonstration about trust and leadership in music by the conductor and broadcaster Charles Hazlewood. It was part of a corporate seminar about branding, future trends and customer service at Speakers Corner at the Mermaid Theatre in Blackfriars.
Here is a video of a previous performance of Charles’s exact same talk.
It went down a treat with the audience, made up of businessmen and women, and gave them an alternative take on trust and leadership in the workplace, albeit a more ephemeral one. The musicians, of course, had doubts about the placement of this talk in a business seminar about “being the brand” and sniggered when an audience member exclaimed that Charles Hazlewood “clearly had great product knowledge”. Well, the chap was right, he does.
Branding, future trends and customer service. If they are to survive and thrive, do classical musicians – wholesale – need to stop sniggering at the ‘plebs’ and start thinking about these things?