Seriously, isn't it time we lightened up?

Seriously, isn't it time we lightened up?


norman lebrecht

March 31, 2011

In the current issue of The Strad, I give encouragement to young recitalists who face half-empty halls, scattered with the elderly and disinterested (and that’s just their families). 

Music has never shirked engagement with popular culture and, since stand-up is now one of the busiest draws at the box office, why shouldn’t a good string player entertain his or her audience in other ways? Break a lance. Crack a smile.

Here’s part of what I suggest.
Forget what the Blessed Dorothy told you in Juilliard
Cathedral never to crack a smile on stage and always to thank (preferably, to
shag) the conductor. Those days are over. String players need to get with the
rhythm and act as if they inhabit the same millennium as the rest of us. If
that means cracking a few warm-up quips, so be it. In a year or two, you may
have enough material for a Saturday-night TV show.
Your thoughts, please?


  • Marie Lamb says:

    I can’t speak for string players, but it didn’t hurt this singer any to follow such advice. Back in my student days, I sang Charles Ives’ “Like a Sick Eagle” in my senior degree recital; my teacher had picked it because she knew I’d be able to sing the quarter-tones it requires. We knew that a lot of my parents’ friends would be there, and that they might not have a clue what was going on, so my teacher suggested a “warning notice” to explain why the song sounded the way it did. After giving the humorous warning, I did the song to an utterly silent crowd…and afterward, to use David Letterman’s phrase, they “tore the roof off the dump!” While it may not be the approach for everyone, it can work wonders in the right circumstances, not just to entertain the audience and make them feel at home, but also to help banish nerves on both sides of the footlights. It works well on the radio, too, when something goes wrong. If one is not among the humor-impaired, I say go for it!

  • Michael P. Scott says:

    Here’s how Norman’s advice is being applied in some quarters:

  • AVI says:

    Yes, absolutely.
    Recitalists, in my experience, generally find that audiences warmly welcome a little chat between works, introducing the performers, the works, and a few amusing anecdotes.
    Orchestrally, presentation is often disappointing. After playing a fantastic concert, many orchestras stand up to acknowledge the applause, and look so glum! Even if they haven’t enjoyed it, the players could at least pretend to… crack a smile, folks!
    (Likewise in presentational terms, I think an audience rightly considers it a bit rude to see orchestral musicians busy packing away – disassembling woodwind instruments, loosening bows, retracting spikes, closing music… while the audience are roaring their appreciation… would you expect to see actors stony faced and starting to get undressed during a curtain call?)
    It’s a little thing for a performer to do – looking like you’re enjoying it / have enjoyed it – but it means a lot from the other side. Trivial to put in to practice, and enhances the experience all round.

  • David Snyder says:

    I glanced at the posted painting and, after about a half a minute, I noticed, oh yes, she’s smiling…..

  • So the low attendance problems for classical music will be solved by performers telling jokes and smiling, eh? They might as well fart against thunder.

  • Take a look at what the Goldman Ensemble is doing nowadays. Come to one of their concerts and enjoy what you see and hear. They are doing wonders for Classical/Art Music!

  • Thomas Z. Shepard says:

    It isn’t whether or not to smile as much as it is to radiate something that is viscerally compelling to the audience. All hugely successful soloists and conductors have some form of personal magnetism that becomes even more important than being a matchless performer. I know many extremely gifted musicians who are turn-offs, and therefore not very commercially successful.

  • AVI says:

    William, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that “telling a few jokes” would “solve low attendance”.
    More that lightening up a little, and perhaps communicating a performer’s enjoyment to the audience better, might help improve an audience’s experience of the whole thing.
    One imagines that a more enjoyable night out could lead in time to an increased attendance of course, and one hopes it would. But I suggest that it – like good customer service – is sufficiently desirable in its own right to be worth talking about, and doesn’t deserve to be so easily dismissed.

  • Emily says:

    The “fart against thunder” comment has me tickled pink!
    I’m all for an earthy interaction. The last time I was a soloist with an orchestra, I remember sharing a giggle with a woman in the front row after a small miscue from the conductor. When I play rock shows, I’m always bantering with people. When I played casuals, I would take requests and make eye contact with kids.
    People sometimes confuse the seriousness, hard work, and discipline it takes to be a fine musician with what it takes to make a performance engaging. There are deadly serious things in the world. Music gives some of them voice. For the rest, I say hear, hear. Lighten up a little. There is plenty of gloom and doom without an ensemble full of people as sour as the audiences they have driven out of the halls.

  • Stephen Fentress says:

    Speaking, like playing, is a skill and can be done well or badly. But if you’ve got an idea, go for it! I’m a classical guy and love Brahms as much as anybody, but I don’t see what is served by the stuffy customs of concert halls. If you’re playing the piece, you must think (don’t you?) that it has life NOW. What is it saying NOW? What can you do to help it say that? I’m also in favor of lighting, media, or other incorporations if they support the message. Thank you for the invitation to comment.

  • Amanda Craig says:

    I love listening to live music, and my enjoyment is intensified by the performers’ expressions but I’d hate them to “lighten up” especially if inappropriate.
    The real problem for me as a working mother is finding the time. I can go to the Wigmore Hall because it’s on a bus route and in a lunch-hour, but even that takes lots of pre-planning. Places like the Barbican and the Festival Hall completely repulsive.

  • It always gets a concert off to a good start, and sets up a rapport with the audience, if the performer looks reasonably pleased to be there, if not actively enjoying themselves. Angela Hewitt’s bright smile can warm the entire Festival Hall, while Paul Lewis looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but on stage. But grinning gaily through the most painful and poignant moments of late Schubert or Messiaen’s most profound measures would not be appropriate.
    It’s different for singers, as shaping one’s mouth into a smile enables one to sing better – at least that what’s my music teacher at school used to say!

  • M.Villeger says:

    Some musicians say something when they play. Others do when they talk before, during or after. They rarely are the same.