22 November 2012

Training the Audience

It would be fascinating to know how many music students there are in the world.  I am quite sure that if all those studying music at universities, colleges and conservatoires around the globe were herded together they would number well into the hundreds of thousands, if not more.  Almost certainly they would outnumber those currently employed in one form or another in the music business.  Instinct tells me that there are more putative pianists than there are pianos, enough optimistic orchestral players to fill all the professional symphony orchestras of the world several times over, more budding opera superstars than there are opera houses and certainly more ardent drummers than there are rock bands with vacancies.  A perennial question from those of us who see these vast numbers coming through the doors of educational establishments around the world is, why do they do it?  We all know that there’s not much money to be made out of music, that it’s a life of solid drudgery and endless disappointments, and that for every concert, recording or gig we manage to secure, there are a thousand that have gone to someone else.  I’ve lost count of the bitter organists who moan – “How come HE gets to play there?  I’m much better and I’ve never been invited!” – or the bitchy sopranos who claim that “SHE only got the role because she’s had a boob job”.
Success in the music world is down to ability (5%), hard work (20%) and good luck (75%), and the competition is so intense that a single misjudgement can kill a career stone dead.  I well remember a brilliant pianist who, given his break and asked to present a 45 minute recital at London gallery, blew it all by playing for around  30 and seeing his audience walk out demanding their money back for short measure.  I run a course at Middlesex University which is intended to provide students with the elements needed to recognise what hard work is needed to fill the necessary 20% work and to recognise when a bit of luck comes along and how best to grab it; it remains to be seen if this helps them in their future careers, but it certainly stops them thinking that the world owes them a living just because they got distinction at grade 8.  But the sad fact is, the vast majority of music students will not find a music job at all and end up as company directors, government servants, hotel managers, train drivers, cleaners, insurance salesmen or, in the worst-case, bankers and financiers.  Have, then, their years of dedication to the cause of music and their commitment to educational courses been a waste of time and resources?

Not a bit of it, for they have been trained to be something far more vital to music than mere players, promoters or pushers.  They have been trained to be members of that most elevated club, the audience.  And there are many, many vacancies for good audience members.  We are desperate for people to fill all those seats in all those auditoria in which we have been able to secure an engagement.  True, there is no salary, but there is something much more valuable on offer; an enriched and profoundly enhanced life
The value of training people to be an audience is usually understated.  After all, the argument goes, anyone can buy a ticket to go to a concert, so why bother with any formal training?  The same argument goes to driving – anyone can do it, why take a special test to be a bus or truck driver?  Just look at the moronic imbeciles who take to the roads of Malaysia and Thailand and you will soon see why special training is a necessity if not an actual requirement.  The popular karaoke singer, lauded by his drunken peers in the seedy surrounds of the bar, may well stagger home under the impression he can sing, but put him on a stage with several hours of Wotan in front of him and he will very soon buckle under pressure.  In every human activity, proper training is of inestimable benefit.  I’d hate to think my train driver has not been trained, and if my cleaner hadn’t had some proper instruction, my toilets would soon smell like they do in China or India.

By trial and error any fool could get a train to move, and most human beings could wave a mop over a urine-stained floor unaided, but how much better the job will be done and how much more satisfaction you will receive from the job if you have been thoroughly trained and have the confidence to handle every eventuality. So it is with an audience.  We can all sit there and feel bored or excited.  But what’s the point?  A quick thrill (or short period of tedium) can just as easily be had seated on a (clean or dirty) lavatory.  Music is something special which can enrich our lives.  But only if we approach it properly; a lot of people have had a revelatory moment listening to music, but for those of us trained in the art of listening experience such things far more often and infinitely more profoundly.  To understand anything is to appreciate it all the more.  By training hundreds of thousands of young people to understand and appreciate the intricacies of music, a generation is being built up which will find great enrichment from a concert and will not only regard it as an essential part of their life, but will help spread the news to those who have not had the benefit of a similar education.
When the Malaysian Philharmonic started up, we devised an education programme designed to train an audience - to explain the music to them and to give them a thorough grounding in the skills needed to listen intelligently to the kind of music we played.  Once the intellectually challenged moved into the driving seats, that all went off the agenda in favour of a so-called “educational” programme designed simply to get children into the concert hall. The idea was as simple as the brains behind it;  pull in the kids, give them a good time, and they will come again with their parents.  So every few weeks on a Saturday and Sunday morning  the hall was packed with noisy children who were faced with the spectacle of an orchestra trying to look as if they were having fun while a funny man dressed himself up (a football shirt sticks in my memory from one of the more pathetic shows) and played small bursts of insignificant fifth-rate music (often signature tunes from long-forgotten British shows of no relevance whatsoever to the children in the audience) on a motley assortment of non-musical instruments.  It barely kept the children entertained at the time, and if any of them ever came to a formal evening concert, it’s inconceivable they would have drawn any connection between 90 seconds of Pop Goes Bach and 90 minutes of Bruckner Seventh.

If we want loyal and enthusiastic audiences in the future, we need to train them properly, not push pointless and irrelevant music-related entertainments at them.  Listening to music is a serious business and needs proper training.


  1. More hating Malaysia. Very tiresome, let it go.

    1. Former MPO subscriber27 November, 2012 08:51

      I don't see the example Dr. Marc gave of a failed programme as "hating Malaysia". It is merely one more real-life example of what began as a world-class symphony orchestra sinking into the abyss. Those of us who love Malaysia are heartsick about this.

    2. Pointing out something that went wrong does not equal hatred; but if one is lack of self esteem, getting defensive will surely protect one's ego.

  2. Couldn't agree more about audiences needing training. But how to do it for those who have come late to classical music? You can't expect a 50-year old to start taking piano lessons. Are there any courses or books or CDs out there to explain the difference between a piccolo and a pizzicato?

  3. Ian,
    Two very good books worth reading are Aaron Copeland's "What to listen for in music" and Leonard Bernsteins "The joy of music". Each is a fascinating read, as well as an insight into two of 20 Century's most creative musical minds who were also great communicators.
    I enjoyed them a lot. Whether they have made me a better trained audience is another matter.
    Yours Dr Peter

  4. Many thanks, Dr Peter. I'll look out for these.