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When I ask someone I'm performing with if they're going to say a few words to the audience before launching into the music the response tends to be one of bewilderment, panic, or both.
"Talk? In front of the audience? It's bad enough I have to perform! I can't talk too!!"
I get it, I really do. I've had my share of stage fright through the years. But here's the thing - I actually believe that talking to our audiences can be a key to quieting our nerves. It is also, in my opinion, a key to making more people in the audience more comfortable and ready to receive whatever it is we're about to give to them.
At the university where I teach and accompany the students perform frequently in departmental recitals. I struggle a bit internally, especially when a singer gets up to perform, even more so when what he or she is singing is in a foreign language. Perhaps because of time and budgetary constraints the translations to the songs being sung are often not included in the program. The titles aren't even translated into English so for the most part the people in the audience don't have any clue as to what a given song is about. In my mind this is a great way to shoot ourselves in the foot! We're not at a music conservatory where every piece performed is something that everyone in the audience grew up listening to - most of the students have come from small, rural communities. This is an opportunity for the students to hear some great music for the first time but how can they even begin to enjoy it when they haven't a clue what the words being sung mean? And how does this effect the performer? Here we have a young singer braving the stage, staring out at an audience full of their colleagues looking back with blank faces. How rewarding an experience can that be for the singer? How rewarding can it be for the audience? Even I don't care to listen to singing when I don't know what I'm listening to and I've been listening to classical music all of my life!
Oh my. Sorry. Deep breaths. Obviously it really gets to me.
So what can we do? Every time I play for a singer in a situation where no translation is being provided I suggest that the singer come up with a one sentence explanation for what their song is about that can be presented before beginning the song. When done well it can not only help the singer focus, it also helps the audience to have something to grasp onto. It can be like a piece of scenery to help place everyone in the same place at the same time and it breaks down a bit of the wall that can so often occur between singer and audience, especially when a foreign language is involved. Although it's rare that a student will get up the nerve to take my suggestion, when they do I find it always makes a difference in a positive way. The faces in the audience soften and take on a more receptive look, they respond more to subtleties in the singer's expression...sometimes it can be downright magical and all because of a handful of words.
These days I almost always say something before I perform. The more I do it, the more addicted I become to addressing the audience because so many incredible experiences have come from me reaching out to the audience in some way. One of the most interesting and unexpected results that has happened is that there have been several times when I've had audience members stand up to ask questions or to share something personal about how the music has affected them at the end of a performance before everyone has dispersed. This has happened to me here in the states but it also happened to my husband and I in Germany. It has meant that the audience, at the end of a performance, has felt like they can stay and chat rather than to flee the minute the last note is played. It has meant that I get immediate feedback and connection rather than having to face the lonely, quiet Green Room by myself. It has meant that music-making has become a social activity, which is in my mind, the way music is supposed to be. And the beauty of it all is that with each wonderful experience like this I have grown to love performing more and more - nerves no longer have a hold of me because my eagerness to communicate musically and personally is greater. Like I said earlier in the post, it's gotten downright addictive.
In case you were wondering, no, I am not fearless when it comes to public speaking. I get butterflies every time I go out to talk to my audience so it's something I am working on developing. But I figure I'd have butterflies anyway. I may as well let the butterflies escape while I'm talking so that by the time I sit down to perform they've had a chance to fly off somewhere else. And the rewards are just so great - I can't not do it anymore.
So the next time you perform, I challenge you to give talking a try. Keep it short, keep it simple, keep it sincere and watch what can happen with that little act of bravery.
I'd love to hear other people's stories about talking to the audience! I know there must be good ones out there and it would be a great way of encouraging others to give it a try.