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Don’t diss audiences – they’re doing their best

15/03/2020

“….the quality and general culture of audiences have diminished in equal measure……The average listener of today has hardly the faintest idea about what he is hearing. He neither knows anything about new music, nor can he differentiate between outstanding, moderately good and poor performances.”

Sir András Schiff, The Telegraph, 8 March

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself bridling at criticism of “the audience”. There have been a few occasions, mostly in music reviews, where the audience and its behaviour have been commented upon in less-than-complimentary terms. I feel offended because as a regular concert-goer I am part of “the audience”, and I will nearly always rush to defend it.

And why? Because there’s a very simple equation here: without an audience, the musician/s does not have a concert, nor a fee. He/she/they may be performing to a handful of people or a full house at Carnegie Hall, but the audience is a crucial part of the concert experience. Without an audience, you are just playing into the void (sadly, some musicians are finding this is a necessity as concert halls close due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that’s another story).

András Schiff’s comments revive – yet again! – that tedious old chestnut that you need specialist knowledge or a certain level of education to enjoy, or better still appreciate classical music. The truth is, you don’t. All you need are your ears and a willingness and curiosity to submit to the sounds, to the experience, the flow of the music and the emotions it provokes. There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy the experience, and there’s no test at the end of the concert to see if you “understood it”, no exam in musical analysis to check you know what Sonata Form is or the meaning of Allegro Amabile (“smile as you quickly play”). The majority of audience members are there not to show off their specialist knowledge, but because they enjoy the experience of live music. And in fact, contrary to what Schiff says, many audience members are highly discerning and really can spot whether a performance is truly inspiring or mediocre: they may not be able to express this in high falutin language but they can certainly sense it.

Performers like Schiff would do well to remember who is paying for the tickets to their concerts, for without those ticket buyers, those valuable (but, it would appear, not always valued) “bums on seats”, The Audience, there wouldn’t be the same opportunities to perform. This is especially true for less well-known musicians who are trying to make a living playing for local music societies and regional arts organisations, where the ability to pay the artist a fee is predicated almost entirely on ticket sales.

Patronising, arrogant attitudes towards audiences, and potential audiences, don’t really help an art form which is constantly trying to attract as wide an audience demographic as possible, and serve to reinforce the notion that classical music is “elitist”. If I was a newbie concert-goer reading Schiff’s comments, I think I might be tempted to head straight out of the concert hall, never to return.

Let’s stop behaving as if classical music is for the few, not the many; that it’s some kind of precious crystal that only a select minority can see and engage with. Instead, let’s endeavour to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of their credentials or knowledge.

Read Jon Jacob’s thoughts on this issue here.

Article credit: Frances Wilson, who blogs on classical music as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Author: The Cross-Eyed Pianist
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