by Jeff Nytch
As artist-presenters, we must have a clear idea of:
Who our audience is…
What we want to say to them.
Why are these things so important? Because without a clear understanding of these two things we are not likely to make a meaningful connection with our audience. The hard, cold, truth is that all too often classical musicians (especially those of us in the new music world) hold their audience in contempt (perhaps not consciously, but it can still be there). This results in us viewing a concert as something we give them on OUR terms – and they can take it or leave it – rather than constructing something that takes into account their needs as well.
This does not mean we “dumb down” our art or simply cater to the lowest common denominator. In fact, artistic integrity, authenticity, and excellence are prerequisites for creating a meaningful experience for an audience. What I do mean is that we must respect our audience enough to structure the concert experience in such a way that the experience of the audience is our top priority. If you keep this principle always in the forefront of your mind, you’d be amazed at the far out stuff you can get an audience to buy into. If you ignore it, then the finest piece presented by the finest performers can still leave audience members looking at their watches, counting the minutes until they can flee the auditorium.
Though below I talk specifically about multi-media concerts, the same principles hold true for ALL concerts. I’m going to structure my remarks based on the theme that multi-media/interdisciplinary concerts are hard to pull off. They’re hard:
Since they’re hard, they take a lot of extra planning and rehearsal. A LOT. Let’s take these one at a time:
~ Just because you can create some cool multi-media thing doesn’t mean it adds up to a satisfying artistic experience. The “coolness” of something isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged for very long, usually because “coolness is the eye of the beholder.” SO: you have to judge your multi-media pieces with the same critical eye you would any of your compositions: how does my piece engage with my listener and how do I keep them engaged over the course of the piece? What am I trying to express to my audience and what is the best way to get that across?
~ The effectiveness of media can be influenced greatly by where it occurs on the program: what is it the audience needs at a given time?
~ Adding media to an experience that has been exclusively sonic up to that point is a VERY powerful tool, and there is such a thing as oversaturation, overstimulation.
~ This is especially true for visual elements: once you’ve introduced them, it’s very hard to take it away. So use them carefully – even sparingly – and always for a specific purpose within the overall flow of the concert.
~ Media should be used to either draw the focus of the audience to a particular part of the stage (to facilitate a transition, for instance), or to enhance their experience of a particular piece.
~ Because of these issues – when & how media is used to enhance the artistic experience – as well as the difficulties of technical needs, the concert needs to be conceived as a whole, as a single artistic entity, and planned and rehearsed accordingly.
We want to give the audience a satisfying artistic experience: i.e., keep them engaged with what’s going on for the duration of the concert.
How do we do that? One thing that’s absolutely key is:
~ Provide a sense of organic flow to the whole: things need to progress in a logical fashion: emotional flow; what senses are being stimulated, and when; what is the journey you wish your audience to take??
~ It’s just like conceiving of a composition: what is the emotional arc of my piece and how will I accomplish that? Or, if you’re not trying to create an emotional arc, then what emotional/spiritual space are you trying to create, and how to do you draw your audience into that space? These are the exact questions you must ask of the concert as a whole.
Tech is hard. Countless things can go wrong – and often do. So unless you’ve really worked everything out and tried it over and over and over and over, it’s really easy for a technical glitch to ruin everything – and even then, things can go wrong. If you doubt how significant a problem this is, just look at how a multi-million-dollar opening ceremony at the Olympics was marred by some technical failure that prevented the 4th ice pillar from rising at The Big Moment! So how do we minimize how often those moments happen?
These rules are hard and fast:
~ Tech/media need to be as solid and failsafe as possible. The more complicated the tech, the more you have to had tested it, re-tested it, re-re-tested it.
~ Your tech must be rehearsed in the space and under concert conditions. Ideally, you should have a rehearsal devoted just to tech and THEN a dress rehearsal which simulates the concert in every detail. The dress rehearsal is NOT the time to be testing or working out tech issues in the space for the first time. I’ve seen a lot of tech-heavy programs, and in those cases where things go off flawless it’s ALWAYS because the stuff has been tried, tested, and rehearsed to death. And sure there can still be things that go wrong that are nobody’s fault, but in my experience a good 90% of stuff that goes wrong in tech-heavy shows has to do with inadequate preparation – whether that be testing the tech itself or, often more importantly, testing the tech as it interfaces with real people in real time under performance conditions. Just because something worked in the lab doesn’t mean it will work just as well onstage in a performance setting.
~ I have never once, ever, been in a situation where there was too much time allocated to getting tech set up in the hall and rehearsing it in the space. Not ever! So don’t underestimate what’s required.
With equipment needing to be set up, computers hooked in, projectors cued, etc, there is a LOT that has to happen between pieces. To make this flow as smoothly as possible, there are three things you must do:
1. You have to work out a plan conceptually beforehand. This goes hand-in-hand with working out the artistic flow of the program, since logistical jog-jams can disrupt the emotional flow of a program just as much as juxtaposing two pieces that don’t really work well with one another artistically.
~ Make a tech list: every item that’s required for every piece, in order – the instruments, any tech needs, every last detail down to how many music stands, any extra implements you’ll need, where the glass of water goes, everything.
~ Sit down with a scale map of the stage, pieces of paper with the major items like a piano or percussion set-up (drawn to scale), and start shuffling: work out every transition between every piece, down to the smallest detail: who is doing what, when, and how long it will take. Try to minimize the amount of shuffling that takes place between pieces, not just in the interests of keeping the transitions as short as possible, but also to soften their impact on artistic flow as much as possible.
~ Set up the stage in such a way that transitions are reduced as much as possible.
2. Work out ways to make the transitions themselves part of the artistic experience:
~ Use some sort of other media – a mini film, a spoken word piece, a solo instrumental work – to keep the audience engaged while the transition takes place;
~ Draw the focus of the audience away from the activity on-stage – this can be accomplished through lighting or any of the ways I mentioned above;
~ If you opt to talk about the piece beforehand (and we can debate whether or not this is effective), then you must be as polished as you can in your presentation: work out what you’re going to say & how you want to deliver it, WORD FOR WORD, IN ADVANCE, and then PRACTICE IT just as you would any other aspect of a performance. Avoid technical jargon and instead try to make the piece more “real” to the audience by talking about what the piece means to you, perhaps the story of how you came to write it or what you were trying to accomplish. Remember: the people who are educated about music don’t need to be told what they’ll already hear on their own, and the rest of the audience doesn’t care (that may be hard to hear, but it’s true).
Most of all: DO. NOT. WING IT.
3. Practice the transitions themselves. There need to be AT LEAST TWO concert-order rehearsals of a concert containing lots of transitions or tech: one in which you don’t play any music (unless it’s a tech + music combo) but instead focus on each transition and having each technical element work under performance conditions with the equipment and the space you will be using in the concert. This rehearsal will expose any kinks that still need to be worked out. THEN you have a dress rehearsal that is, in every detail, just like a concert, so that you can polish things up that last little bit.
At the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, we had four kinds of rehearsals:
You’ll notice that through all of this I’ve said basically nothing about the content of the pieces themselves. It’s not that that isn’t very important to the audience’s experience. But it’s just that normally that’s all we focus on and we don’t pay attention to any of these other issues. And here’s some news: you can have the best piece in the world, but if all these other issues aren’t in place the concert will still fall flat on its face. Conversely, you can have a very weak piece but if all these other elements are rock-solid the audience can still have a satisfying experience (we’ve proven this at PNME many, many times, where a certain piece that would never stand successfully on its own is the perfect transition or bridge within the context of the entire concert).
It’s not that “the art of the piece doesn’t matter,” it’s that all these other elements are part of the art, too: they ALL contribute to the experience the audience has, the relationship they have with your work. Keeping this as your focus will allow you to tap into the tremendous power that a successful concert can unleash.
Jeff Nytch is the Director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Previously, he served as the managing director of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. Jeff is also a vocalist and composer.