Public speaking for musicians pt. 2

Welcome to teaching artist skills part 3—tools for solving the problem of what to say when speaking with audiences. (If you missed them, here are parts 1 and 2.)

This past week I heard two terrific performances in Cambridge: the Escher String Quartet played at the Longy School and the following night A Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry joined forces at Sanders Theater. In both concerts the artists spoke from the stage: these were brief, personal, and engaging introductions.

The Escher quartet’s second violinist Aaron Boyd introduced the Webern 5 pieces by drawing a parallel to Schubert’s use of silence in his Bb piano sonata. An unlikely connection!

You might wonder, what if the audience isn’t familiar with Schubert or with the sonata? I don’t imagine that Aaron introduces the work this way with every audience, but for the Celebrity Series concert it seemed a good fit.

What made this work for me, and this was true whether you knew the sonata or not, was that it piqued my interest about the use of silence as an expressive tool, as part of a composer’s eloquence. It got me (and the rest of the audience) to lean in and pay attention to how silence is used in the Webern. Which is really the optimal kind of close listening you want your audience doing.

And before A Far Cry played the opening work on their program, violinist Alex Fortes welcomed us and said how excited they all were to be playing for us. His energy and enthusiasm were clearly genuine and it made the audience feel good to be appreciated.

He also described how in the Ted Hearne piece they were about to play that we would hear samplings of a wide range of other works quoted, including Andrew Norman, Mahler, and Bach. Again, it helped the audience point our ears toward what we might listen for—giving us a handle on the experience. Did we need to catch all the references? No, but it got us ready to be surprised by the range of styles and to be curious about these slices of excerpts we would experience.

So how do you choose what to say?

An entry point is a way to invite an audience in to a work—a portal that helps listeners make a connection to what’s being performed. Entry points create a bridge and open up curiosity.

In Reaching Out: A Musician’s Guide to Interactive Performances, David Wallace writes, “Entry points can help people to appreciate musical works in essentially three ways: on a purely musical level, on an intellectual/metaphorical level, or on a personal, emotional level.” Here are Wallace’s recommended questions to ask yourself when choosing an “entry point” for a piece:

“What makes this work great?
What excites me about it?
What do I especially hope my audience notices?
Is there anything unusual, cool, or striking about the work?
Is there any musical element or metaphor that underlines the entire work?
What entry points would make good aural or visual “hooks” for first-time listeners?
What difficulties would a first-time listener encounter in the work?
Is there anything pragmatic or historical about the work that would help a listener?
What aspects of the piece are so strong and immediate that they need no activities to highlight them?”

And teaching artist consultant Eric Booth recommends that for each performance you think through your relationship with the work anew—what is turning you on about it now. Think about why this is worth sharing with this specific audience (a group of retirees or a classroom of 10 year olds). It’s your genuine love and excitement in this that you are communicating to your audience. It’s about being real with them.

At a loss for words?

Let’s say you were going to perform a complex or intimidating string work for an audience that will include both veteran fans and people new to the genre. How might you engage listeners and capture their interest? What would help get people curious about the piece? What if you framed your comments by starting with:

“Here’s what really fascinates me about this piece . . .”


“I was thinking about how best to introduce this work tonight and I decided to tell you the truth—it’s a piece we were afraid to tackle and we programmed it on a dare. What scares me most about it is not just that it’s fiendishly difficult, but that in a way it’s haunted me ever since . . .”


“There’s a bizarre story — a bit of a scandal actually — connected with the writing of this piece. And this has influenced—for better or for worse—how we think about and how we perform it . . .”

Or, (if you were going to offer a little more in-depth “informance” and had a little more time to play portions and have the audience react, you might try:)

“We’ve been fighting over how to play a particular passage and wanted to ask for your help to sort this out. So we’re going to play you the two versions of this passage and have you help us decide which to use . . .”

What each of these approaches has in common is they are direct and immediate—as though the audience is a welcomed friend. They aren’t stuffy, they aren’t focused on composer dates or academic sounding analyses of the work. They’re intended to pique the audience’s curiosity about the performers and the piece in question and to create a sense of open dialogue among friends.

What’s worth talking about

Stick to experiential issues, how the music is perceived and experienced by listeners. As in the prompts above, highlight personal reactions, histories and stories around a work, both your own and/or the composers’.

One of my pet peeves, though, is hearing in an introduction a kind of blow by blow description of the moods, phrases, and the emotional territory of a work I am about to experience. I know this is a common occurrance but it’s as though we’re telling listeners that there’s a “correct” way to hear and process a movement. There isn’t. So don’t use a bunch of adjectives to describe themes or movements—let me have my own experience.

However, it’s great if a performer gets very specific and personal about her OWN reaction and response to a piece. Just don’t characterize or legislate that a piece is one way or the other as though all audiences will experience it the same way. We won’t.

Sometimes musicians feel that they need to “prove” in their speaking that they know the history of a work and can analyze the work, or that they know how to use multi-syllabic words. They want to come across as erudite, so they use fancy words (like ‘erudite’) instead of everyday language (like ‘smart’). And they get lost in delivering details that only alienate their audience.

My advice is to get over yourself and set your ego aside. Your remarks should not be about teaching facts or delivering information. No one wants to be lectured at. Instead, get personal, be authentic and help the listener get inside the music and make meaning.

Need a final reason for speaking to audiences?

How about that it can help presenters decide to book you. Even having an introductory video on your site that includes you speaking engagingly about yourself, your music, and your mission is a marvelous way to get a viewer curious enough to listen to more of your music.

And when artists showcase at booking conferences—performing for concert series presenters who can book them for future seasons—they are expected to talk about themselves and their music. Why? Because people who run concert series want to get a sense of how artists will interact with their audiences. It’s one of the factors they consider in either choosing to book you or not.

And whether or not we call ourselves teaching artists, our ultimate job as musicians is to help audience members succeed in making their own meaning in and through our music. The world needs now more than ever musicians who can authentically connect with audiences.

Here are some more resources for improving the full range of your teaching artist skills and opportunities:

1. My book, Beyond Talent has a whole chapter on audience engagement and residency work.

2. Eric Booth’s Music Teaching Artist’s Bible has helpful advice, perspective, examples.

3. The Teaching Artist Guild site has resources and job listings: sign up to get their quarterly newsletter.

4. Ensemble Connect program celebrates its 10th year this coming season: amazing 2 year fellowship program for artists that includes teaching artist work (they also have a fab new summer institute)

5. Weill Music Institute’s resources for Teaching Artists (free: you just need to sign in with a password you create)

6. Weill Music Institute’s Musical Connections videos (63 examples of teaching artists working in communities and making impact!)

This week: How could you introduce a work on your next program in a new way? Challenge yourself to expand your skills and energize your listeners.

Next week: Mindgames, perfectionism, and what your audience REALLY wants.

I’d love to hear what you come up with!

As always, I welcome your feedback and suggestions: reach me at

And if you’d like to discuss your career goals, and find out how coaching can help you achieve them, let’s talk! I’m at

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!


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