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Mo Field on the Needs of an Audience

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One of the many things that ended up in my notebook under the heading ‘To think about later’ from LABBS Harmony College back in April was something guest educator Mo Field said about what an audience is looking for in performers. It now appears to be later, and my brain is ready to think about it.

In summary, the three things she listed were:

1. Is this competent? (Can they trust your skill-set?)
2. Can they believe you? (Are you saying something that matters to you?)
3. Is it relatable? (Are you saying anything that matters to them?)

The first thing to note is that these are both sequential and hierarchical. Until the listener is reassured that they’re safe in your hands from the perspective of your capacity to operate your instrument/ensemble, they’re not going to have any attention to give to the content of what you do. Assuming you are indeed competent, they’ll move on pretty much immediately to engage with your content.

They next look for the integrity of your intent. Unless you evince some personal investment in the message you convey, they won’t vouchsafe any of their emotional resources to it either. This sheds an interesting new light on the concept of stageworthiness, which I discussed a while back (after the last LABBS Harmony College, indeed). Why should I care about this material if you don’t?

Only when these basic needs are satisfied will a listener open up to the possibility of finding your material relatable. And they might not, of course. Not every message speaks to every person. But one of the things the arts do is give us opportunities to empathise hypothetically, they invite us to stretch our imaginations into places where we might not have direct experiences. This is the dynamic that underlies the belief that engagement with the arts is in some way an ethical endeavour, as it encourages the exercise of compassion.

One of the interesting things about this sequence is how quickly we can progress through to relatability when things are going well. Our holistic, System 1 brains can identify things like competence and believability almost instantaneously. Often we have decided whether we are going to offer our hearts up to this performance before the singers have finished their initial inhalation. Indeed, in these cases, we don’t even notice that we’re travelling through these stages unless there’s something to hold us up en route. The wobbly start that means we don’t let ourselves relax until a couple of lines in, or the technically capable performance that just seems to be trying too hard.

Another is how the concept of ‘technically competent’ actually operates at multiple different levels of skill. You don’t have to be expert for an audience to trust your skill-set, just well-enough in control that you don’t feel you have to sit on the edge of your chair listening carefully in case they fall out of the music. And the converse is also true. I have enjoyed many a relaxed and joyful if rather rough around the edges romp through some music, and likewise felt anxious as a clearly advanced group teetered dangerously on the edge of their ability.

This hierarchy also reminds me of a discussion we had in a session at the Holland Harmony education weekend a couple of years back about when it sounds like singers don’t understand the story of the song. Whilst this may be the impression the audience gets from a performance, you can’t necessarily assume that the performers aren’t deeply committed in their hearts to the beauty of the song and its message when they are struggling with the skills needed to execute it.

Having said that, sometimes the key to helping them develop the skills they need is to look past the concrete obstacles of technique through to the artistic intent in their hearts. Where the imagination leads, the voice may follow, so show them the path through the trees…

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