image of sextet eighth blackbird with caption "Eighth Blackbird Masterclass Wisdom"

The terrific ensemble Eighth Blackbird (8BB) gave an excellent masterclass at Manhattan School of Music years ago that I will never forget. OK, I’m a biased fan of the group, but see what you think. Here is some of the 8BB ensemble’s masterclass wisdom: How to deliver better performances.

In the masterclass I was struck by how many of 8BB’s comments revolved around issues of “selling the performance” (their phrase). I was glad they spoke so directly to this important aspect of musicianship because its rarely taught and is too often ignored.

“Selling your performance”

To clarify, the 8BB concept of “selling your performance” has nothing to with marketing, self-promotion, or butts in seats. It’s about winning your audience over, engaging them so that they experience with you the energy and emotion of the music you perform.

It’s about fully communicating your view and message to others, so that they join you in an active artistic experience.

There’s a big difference between merely replicating on stage what you do in the practice room. Performing for others is about communicating a story, a point of view, and a realized interpretation.

How do we know what is getting across to our audiences?

It’s a tough question. In the masterclass, 8BB approached this issue by asking performers about their intentions and conceptions of the pieces they performed.

They tied the ability to “sell a performance” to key decisions that need to be made in rehearsals. They asked the performers . . .

  • What’s the character you’re after with this phrase?
  • What’s the direction of that line—where are you headed?
  • What’s the function of this passage in this section of the piece?
  • When you started working on this piece, what did you decide to focus on?

In some cases, the musicians had clear concepts but these weren’t coming across as demonstrably as they thought.

In other cases, the musicians had been distracted from deciding about the direction and intention by instead focusing on the logistics and mechanics of playing the piece.

The bottom line here is that in performance, we need to have made clear decisions, phrase by phrase, section by section, in order to have a compelling and cohesive whole.

How to help yourself and your students deliver performances that make a bigger impact

Selling the performance first involves making clear decisions about your musical intentions with each phrase. To make sure what you intend comes across to others, you may need to drastically exaggerate the character, sound color, articulation, dynamics, and/or other features in a phrase.

Why? Because what seems clear to us in a practice room is very different from what comes across for an audience in a hall, with some people seated 40 or 50 feet away.

Learning what is really coming across the footlights takes performance experience, reflection, feedback, and the willingness to take risks. And of course, recording yourself is always the best way to train your ear to listen more accurately.

Ultimately, selling a performance is about the clarity of your intentions and your artistic choices.

This is the same in our career and life experience: what we communicate to others in our teaching, interviews, daily interactions—it’s all about the clarity of our intentions and our choices, and becoming sensitized to how we are coming across to others.

Here’s to your inspired performances,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live We

PS: Get more masterclass insights here:
How to Teach a Masterclass for Musicians
and more masterclass help at
Masterclass Manifesto: Do’s and Don’ts plus HGTV to improve your teaching now

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