When To Speak From The Stage

The goal of a concert is not to perform great music well, but to co-create personally relevant experiences together inside the music.

To accomplish this goal, of course performing great music, and performing it well, is a crucial part. But it is not all you can do. Speaking from the stage can be one of many strategies you employ to help people connect to the music in ways that really matter to them. If what you say will help the audience make personally relevant connections to the music you are going to perform, then speak right up. If not, zip it and get on with the performance.

Let's look at some of the reasons musicians offer for speaking from the stage to see how they work in relation to this guideline.

Make a Personal Connection

We know that if the people "out there" in the audience know something about the human beings "up here" performing, they are likely to be more actively engaged as listeners. It's basic human nature—we instinctively try harder for people we feel for and like. The skillful presenter uses that impulse strategically. While you might be comfortable telling the audience where you were born, when you started studying music, where you first sang, or what your history with their city or town is, those info-bits are hardly the best ways to link an audience's attention productively to the music.

Audiences love it when you share something personal, but focus on things that give them greater entry into the music, too. Perhaps there is an aspect of this particular piece that is relevant to your life, or perhaps there is something personal about performing it that would open it up for someone in the audience. I recall a story of a flute player talking about a tough 22-note passage in a piece she was about to perform and how intimidating it was, even for a professional. Before the performance, she played it for the audience, explained the nature of the difficulty and why it had to be perfect, like a high dive in the Olympics. The audience was hanging on every note when she performed the work.

So my advice is not to avoid pleasantries, but to emphasize something that opens a shared personal window into the music. Invite them into processes and musical experiences rather than dispensing information.

Break the Ice

An anecdote or two about your travels, or about being tired, or a joke about tenors may break the ice socially, but it does not warm the audience to listen. How can you use words creatively, theatrically, to get over the awkwardness of beginning and take them into hearing? Many ensembles choose to start programs with music as the ice-breaker. That can be a good choice, but it's not the only one. Ask the question of every program: Is there anything we can say or do at the start that advances the audience's ability to really receive this first piece?

Think specifically of ways into a particular piece, rather than looking for general ice-breakers that would work for any piece. Such answers may not come quickly at first, so keep at it. If you can find an elegantly effective way to break the ice so that it enriches the listening, you have just lifted the whole concert up a notch. Maybe you sing just a crucial snippet of a piece, maybe more than once, to introduce a key entry point—then use speech to open it up.

Create an Atmosphere and Entertain

Some ensembles have a lively joke teller who can crack up an audience. Nothing wrong with sharing a good laugh, but my challenge to that group would be to use the humor as an entry point to something about the music or the performing of it.

When you speak, we read your voice, body language, and nervousness—you tell us volumes about who you are. We get uncomfortable if you seem nervous, or if we sense that having to speak makes you uncomfortable. Relax and remember: We don't require perfect sentences. If you can share yourself with us in a natural, enthusiastic way, we will follow you further inside the music. If you can communicate that you are having fun, we'll have more fun. Use that energy to share something interesting or evocative about the music.

Lightness and humor are not the only possible modes. You can also share something relevant about a heavy or mournful work. I recall being in the audience for a piece about grief, at which the performer delicately mentioned his feelings at his grandfather's death and explained how the piece mirrored several of the shades of grief he had experienced when just 10 years old. Among these was a sense of disassociation, as if witnessing the sadness in others at a slight remove. The performer then played two short passages that conveyed that elusive, ambiguous experience of a child facing the confusion of death. The illumination of that specific feeling, and other aspects of a young person's sense of grief, beautifully expanded my sense of the piece.

Provide Information or Context

Certainly this is comfortable terrain for almost any ensemble. However, it is also a place where talking can turn the audience off—if it suggests that music requires a lot of knowledge to appreciate, or that you think the audience members are more (or less) experienced than the performers are, or if it takes audiences up into their heads, when the piece is written for their hearts. (Given the fact that almost all audiences are quite diverse in their makeup, you are likely to miss the mark with a portion of the audience anytime you rely on information as your entry point to the music.) Talking may even weaken the musical experience. If you tell me about the structure of the piece you are about to play, I will tend to listen for the structure. Is that the best possible way for me to discover personally relevant connections to it? Don't just recite to me the stuff from the CD liner notes. Select the information that opens up my hearing and caring.

Imagine the differing responses of an audience member hearing these two little speeches:

Next is Beethoven's Quartet No. 14, Op. 131. One of the late quartets, it has seven movements, and in the fourth movement, displays a structure the composer also employs in the slow movement of his Ninth Symphony. It begins with a long passage that reappears with variations in alternating sections. . .


In rehearsing this late quartet by Beethoven, we were struck by the elusive story that the collage of movements seems to tell. Beethoven was old, deaf, lonely, and angry when he wrote this quartet, yet the piece seems to express spiritual wisdom and a measure of acceptance, particularly in the long, slow movement . . .

Weave a Thread of Connection

Too often audiences think an evening's program is a handful of good pieces that have been put together because they fill about the right amount of time. (Fess up—that sometimes is the case.) Too often, the theatrical shape of an evening—the larger, more satisfying point—is not apparent to listeners who can't pick out a purely musical thread. Even an obvious theme, say, "American Music," conveys only the idea that these are a bunch of pieces composed by Americans—so what?

I urge ensembles to go deeper, to find what it is about American music (or the theme) they wish to say. What is the arc of learning, the contour of the American experience, you want us to follow on this 90-minute journey with you? The speaking component of the concert is crucial to making this larger point. Speech can illuminate the thread that ties the program together, makes it build to more than the sum of its parts. What you're doing is far more than imparting information. Instead, you are sharing your own thinking about why this evening's journey is worth taking with you, and what the reach of our evening could be.

Practical Matters

It is very clear to audiences, and usually just fine with them, that speaking from the stage also accomplishes some practical tasks: The stage set-up needs to be changed; the instruments need re-tuning; the soloist is offstage having a coughing fit; you need to pause while a siren outside the hall is dealt with; people must be thanked; CD sales need to be mentioned; future events must get described. All are opportunities as much as necessities.

How can you turn the information delivery into something that takes people back into music? Think like this: During a change in stage set-up, can you share some of the reasons why the stage arrangements are crucial? While re-tuning, can you include us, to see if we can hear the difference? If a musician has to leave the stage, can you share with us some of the real physical difficulties of performing at this high level: What parts of your bodies tire, what kinds of energy does performance demand? In thanking people, can you link that gratitude to the performance: e.g., "Andrea Jones made this evening possible, and special thanks to her for remembering to provide us with bottles of water. The finale of the first half of the program leaves us panting, and we will need them."

And finally, selling tickets and CDs: Don't be apologetic; these are opportunities for the audience members. Assume they love you and that they were hoping to learn about how to hear more. Why? It takes them further into your music. And because your speaking has been as elegant, thought through, and engaging as your music, they are dying for more.

This article is adapted from Eric Booth's new book, The Music Teaching Artist's Bible, scheduled to be published in the Fall of 2008 by Oxford University Press. Used by permission of the author and OUP.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2008.