Matthew Hodge did a mathematics and statistics degree 20 years ago and, by rights, should be working in a bank by now. However, one day he stumbled across an old book that explained how to listen to the nine Beethoven symphonies. This got him obsessed both with classical music and how to explain it to laypeople - to the point where he quit the world of maths and stats and went to join the classical music industry. During the last 14 years, he has worked for three of Australia's major classical music companies and is currently Director - Sales and Marketing at Queensland Symphony Orchestra. 




It’s the night of that big concert or recital. You’re going to be on stage, with anywhere from several hundred to possibly even a few thousand eyes watching you perform. You’ve practiced for days till every note is burned not just into your brain, but into your whole body. The perfectionist streak in you has come to the fore, and no detail of the score has been left unchecked. You have thought through your approach to tempi, dynamics and - if it’s a concerto - what you need to think about in your interactions with the conductor and the rest of the orchestra.

All of this is geared towards making sure you give the performance of a lifetime. 

So I have a question for you: Let’s say you knew the audience was going to hear your recital and rate you an 8 or 9 out of 10 as one of the best soloists they’d ever heard. If I said that you could raise the audience’s enthusiasm for you by at least half a point, and all you had to do was spend two hours extra prep time and talk to the audience for 3 minutes before you perform, would you do it? 



The Power of a Pre-Concert Intro

Even though it can be difficult when managing nerves before delivering a technically demanding performance, musicians who stop to speak to their audience have a massive advantage in winning the audience over to their performance. 

As the Director of Marketing for a large Australian orchestra, one of my jobs is to read customer surveys after every concert. Every concert generates at least 50 (often more) comments from ticket holders, talking about the experience. What I find fascinating is how many comments will refer to the conductor or one of the musicians speaking to the audience from stage. 

So why is a musician talking to the audience so special? Essentially, I believe speaking to the audience creates an extra connection to them which enables them to hear the music in a new and better way than they would have otherwise. In short: you talk, the audience thinks your playing sounds better. That might sound crazy and not what they taught you in music school, but a lot of evidence points to the reasons why this can be successful at boosting the audience’s engagement with your performance.



The Three Ps of Musical Taste

Over the years, I’ve been interested in reading the science behind why we like the music we do. There are lots of things that drive our musical taste, but overall, I find they group into three broad factors. I call them the Three Ps of Musical Taste.



  1. Purpose - People tend to like music for specific purposes. So, for instance, some people might listen to music to alter their mood. For others, it might be that they want a night out. It’s important to realise that the purposes audience members have for listening might be different than the purposes you have for performing. For instance, you might like performing a certain work because it is rich, complex and showcases your technique. For the audience, they like listening to it because it has happy melodies and makes them feel good. (You would be surprised, if you were to poll the audience, how many classical music fans are predominantly at concerts for a feel-good tune!)

  2. Personal Connection - Also called Peer Pressure. We tend to like music better if it is recommended by a friend or if we know other people that like it. It is because we are looking for signals, even before we have heard a note, that this music is for people like us.

  3. Pattern Matching - This is the idea that your brain, when it hears a new piece of music, is trying to match it to the type of music it already knows. If the music is similar to music it knows, your brain can follow it more easily. If it sounds too different, then your brain has more difficulty predicting where it will go. Most people are unaware that this process happens in their subconscious and so they tend to blame the music for the problem! If you’ve ever encountered somebody who loves classical music from the 19th century, but thinks 20th and 21st century music sounds horrible, the issue is less with the music and more the difficulty their brain has in processing the sound.



These three factors can form both the barrier to entry to your music or a gateway in; they are both a problem to overcome and an opportunity to draw your audience in more deeply. So creating a brief spoken introduction that addresses all three factors allows you to influence your audience to enjoy the music they are about to hear. 

By planning your talk around overcoming audience barriers, rather than sharing potentially random information, you have a powerful way of shining the spotlight on the music you’re performing, which is ultimately what you want.



Using the Three Ps as a Framework

The simplest way to prepare your talk is to work through the 3Ps - in reverse. 



1. Pattern Matching - create a listening framework for the work

The antidote to the problem of Pattern Matching is to provide your audience with a simple audible framework for what to listen out for. For most 19th century classical music, the composer has provided a structure with the sequence of movements. Even longer pieces like tone poems break down into audibly different sections. Structure can be difficult to work out with more complex works, but nearly every piece has some sort of plan of where it is going, and this is what you need to communicate.

Start by jotting down a brief description of the major sections. If you are only doing a short intro, you possibly wouldn’t want it longer than a sentence or two about each section.

The part that requires a bit of thought is how to describe the music in such a way that it doesn’t a) require any specialised music knowledge to understand and b) is audible if you are sitting in the hall with no score in front of you. (For instance, I wouldn’t recommend using key changes as the major description element - even though this is common in musical analysis. It requires a certain level of music theory to understand and even a musically trained audience might find it difficult to hear key changes.)





2. Personal Connection - insert your personal thoughts and human stories about the music

To address the issue of Personal Connection, you want to signal to the audience that this music is for people like them. So sharing a little of yourself and particularly what you like about this music is highly effective because you take on the role of a personal friend recommending a piece of music. While the structure for addressing Pattern Matching can be objective, you want this second element to be subjective. 

Another thing that is helpful here is to share a story about the composer, if you can find one, that humanises them and helps the audience understand where they were coming from. 



3. Purpose - help people to understand why they should listen to the music

Finally, to address the Purpose factor, you want to guide the audience into the actual mood of the piece and give them one or two reasons for listening. This is because, left to their own devices, the majority of audience members will primarily judge a piece on its melodies and their own preconceptions about the “mood” of the melodies. So a piece of music might be actually composed to be playful and adventurous, but because the harmonies are more dissonant than 19th century classical music, the audience decides that the composer is trying to write dark, heavy music when this is actually not the case. 

The solution to this is simply to give people a reason for listening to the piece beyond just “nice tune”. (Unless that is exactly the point!) So if it’s a showcase for your instrument, say that. If it’s an exploration of sound colours, say that. What you want is for your audience to switch off their standard criteria for judging whether they like the music and adopt a different one. 



Example: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111.

Here’s an example of a simple three-paragraph intro for Beethoven’s last piano sonata. I’ve flagged where I’ve touched on the three P’s throughout:


You’re about to hear Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, the last of his famous set of piano sonatas. Perhaps, because it is the last one, for me, it feels like he is saying farewell to the piano. 

[Purpose and Personal Connection: I’m hinting that this piece should be listened to as if it’s a poignant goodbye and tried to give them more of a connection to Beethoven and his headspace.]


It’s in two sections, or movements.

[This is me subtly explaining the musical term “movement” in case I have newbies in the crowd]. 

The first movement is about 10 minutes long, and is full of intensity, maybe even anger. Is this Beethoven expressing his frustration with the way his life became increasingly difficult as he got older? Have a listen and decide for yourself. The second movement is the complete opposite. It is a 20-minute long theme and variations, where Beethoven takes one simple tune and creates increasingly elaborate variations on it. Some of the variations sound simple, some sound transcendent and other-worldly and one even sounds a bit like jazz! 

[Pattern Matching: I’ve given the audience an audible framework to listen to the two movements and even a few things to listen out for during the long second movement.]


To me, this is one of the most moving pieces Beethoven ever wrote for the piano. It’s less of a piece of music and more of a spiritual experience. 

[Personal Connection and Purpose: I’ve told the audience that I love the piece, which connects them to me and I’ve set them up to listen to this in a more meditative way - “spiritual experience” - rather than to expect something fast and upbeat.]

Finally, by deliberately keeping my language not too high end - I’m not dumbing it down, but nor am I delivering an academic lecture - hopefully I will also signal to the audience that this music is not just for the highly sophisticated. It’s something for everyone.



Conclusion

It may seem far-fetched that a spoken introduction can make your performance be received even better than it otherwise would, but all the evidence is behind it. So next time you perform, ask if you can do a brief spoken introduction and give it a go. If you are new to this, you will want to spend a couple of hours collecting your thoughts and practising out loud, but the effort is well worth it. Done well, you will build rapport with your audience and ultimately influence how well they receive your performance.