Holly Mulcahy of The Partial Observer recently posted a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog entitled How to Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians. (We are not the only ones who sin. She penned a similar post aimed at music directors. Next month she promises to take on management. Joy.) Among the sins mentioned are looking bored, never smiling, wearing soiled and wrinkled concert attire, and deflecting post-concert compliments. Ouch. She pretty much hit the nail on the head in her observations of musicians. The offensive behaviors she mentioned are present everywhere in the classical music world, and Knoxville is no exception.
If a musician went to a play where the actors glowered at the audience and chatted through the curtain call they would, rightly, be appalled and come away with a sour taste in their mouth. Somehow, though, we just don't think the same way about our performances. I've been thinking about why this is the case since I first read Mulcahy's post. I think a big part of the problem is that, despite years of intense training, musicians are rarely taught how to be performers. In music school, technical and musical perfection is the emphasis of training. Stage presence is rarely mentioned. When I was in school my instruction on stage presence was limited to my viola teacher urging me to practice in the shoes I planned to perform in, to make sure that I would “maintain my modesty” when I bowed in my somewhat low-cut recital dress, and to give me a quick lesson on the order of hand shaking / bows when I soloed with an orchestra. I was never told that it was important to wear black undergarments because stage lighting can render seemingly opaque fabric see-through, or that there are audience members equipped with binoculars so even if you sit in the very back it is important to be neatly dressed, smile and look engaged. I learned these lessons the hard way.
I don't know what it will take to solve the disconnect musicians have between performing and being performers. It would help if the art of performing were emphasized more in training, but I don't think that would cure the problem. This has been an unfortunate tradition for many, many years. My feeling is that unless the issue is appropriately and persistently addressed by management at the professional level, no amount of training in youth orchestras and colleges will make much of a dent. In my years of performing the issue of stage deportment has rarely been addressed until orchestra management or the music director is so irritated that they explode at the unsuspecting players with a rant of, “would it hurt you to smile once in awhile?!?!” Usually the rant is where the instruction ends and nothing really changes. A notable exception to this happened a few seasons ago here at the KSO. The string players were asked to turn to face the audience when we stand for applause instead of standing in front of our chairs with our profile to the audience. Did people moan and groan about it? Yes. Did we do it? Of course. I don't know any musicians who deliberately set out to be rude and disrespectful to the audience. When we are given specific direction we are willing to change (even while grumbling). Now, several seasons later, turning to face the audience during applause is something most players do automatically. Similar direction would most definitely bring the grumbling and resistance that goes on whenever a group of people is asked to change their behavior. Ultimately, though, I expect we would all toe the line and become better performers for it.