The triangle that connects music, musician and audience

Ilona Sie Dhian Ho

A personal reflection on what curation in music means to me as a musician and Professor of Violin at the Royal Conservatoire

The best concerts I have been either on stage or in the audience, have something in common. I remember from those concerts a shared musical experience between the musician and the audience, which is the result of a strong triangular relationship between music, the musician and the audience. This has become what I am ultimately searching for in a performance. It means that preparing for a concert is no longer only a matter of studying music and searching for my personal interpretation. Preparing for performance includes the audience as well. The triangle is a metaphor for the concert experience that you probably have experienced some times as well. The music is performed beautifully by a musician who is clearly enjoying him- or herself, and the listeners are all captured and touched by it. Thus, the audience seems able to experience the music in a meaningful way.

This triangle defines quality in a performance from three perspectives. The music offers particular qualities or characteristics that can be recognized, valued and experienced. The performing musician needs skills and personal dedication to make these qualities resound. The listener needs listening skills to experience the music in a meaningful way. These skills and qualities are not self-evident. All three elements require a cultural context, learning and a certain openness, accessibility or hospitality to connect with the other elements of the triangle. How can we take each of these elements into account at conservatories, where we mainly focus on musical traditions and musicianship?

The third corner of the triangle, the audience, is not yet rooted in our educational system. Is there a place for the audience in the conservatoire curriculum? Do musicians need an audience to learn to respond to other listening perspectives? Could musicians collaborate with their audience and create steps together to develop and explore musical preferences? If they can, this could result in innovative music education in society. These questions urgently need to be answered, because if the listening perspectives of new audiences are not integrated into the curriculum, classical music practice will increasingly be marginalized, misunderstood or rejected as a historic art form with no meaning or relevance for today’s world.

Curation in music includes taking care of the listener

In her exposition ‘Yearning to Connect’, Heloisa Amaral describes the history of the role of the ‘curator’ in the arts, how curatorship has changed throughout the centuries and how the term is increasingly used in music as well. Who and where are the curators of music nowadays? Concert managers, impresarios and artistic directors of festivals could be regarded as professional curators because they ultimately decide which kind of music will be exposed to the public, and how and in what form. But are they the only ones to take responsibility? Should performing musicians be passive and depend on a few to determine what, where and how music may resound? Don’t all musicians have a voice, and a responsibility to contribute to the curation of music?

From the perspective of classical music education, I like to start thinking about curation from its etymological root, from the Latin verb curare, or ‘taking care of’. Music needs interaction between sounds and listeners to become meaningful, or to become music at all. With live music, this meaningfulness emerges in the interaction between musicians and sounds, sounds and listeners and, not in the least, musicians and listeners. Curation in music means taking care of the quality of all interactions within this triangle. Because musicians are involved in all of these interactions, they are well-positioned to take up curatorial responsibility.

Curation as part of music education

My job as a violin teacher at a conservatory is to train future musicians to become performing music curators. But how can curatorship be integrated into conservatory education? I admit not having had any thoughts about this in my first years as a conservatoire teacher. That’s why I’m humbled when I meet colleagues who are not aware of, or eager to think about curatorship as part of the curriculum. It is tempting to focus completely on learning to play the great repertoire of classical music and ignoring the audience; to close the door of the rehearsal room, be inspired by the music and just practise; to be the ‘perfectionist’ who devotes his or her life to the search for the ultimate performance. It is the romantic ideal that many musicians still cherish, and it makes them believe that playing well is too demanding to allow them to spend time on something else.

But we have no choice. In addition to traditional skills, future musicians will have to develop knowledge and skills that will enable them to better care for an ever more diverse audience. Skills to find out how to get in touch with a diversity of people, and tools to communicate music in different ways. Playing well remains a prerequisite for a successful performance, but it is no longer enough. If we want to connect with any audience within a music performance, we need more.

Going outside of the conservatoire

There is no one way or one strategy that will lead to success. The approach will always depend on context. For instance, musical outreach projects which intervene in a neighbourhood and aim to interact musically with local people, require knowledge of the environment. This includes the general musical and cultural background of local communities, the circumstances in which performances have to take place, the (absence of an) active musical practice and the cultural diversity of the neighbourhood. Students must go outside the conservatoire in order to come into contact with all these elements. Only then can they start developing ways to connect.

If the traditional concert format no longer succeeds in bringing the audience to the music, the music has to be brought to the audience. However, the music and the musician should not have to suffer from this. Musicians remain responsible for initiating adjustments to their practice and guarding what they consider essential for their artistic identity. The education we offer must be based on learning to observe and understand the environment in which the audience and musician meet, developing ways to connect and communicate, and making music at the highest artistic level. Competences such as empathy, flexibility and the ability to recognise artistic quality in innovative practices help us to do so. A dogmatic preference for one type of concert format will not help in a world where change is key. Reciprocity is the touchstone in the triangle between music, artist and audience.

Morgenstond

Five years ago, I initiated a ‘district’ orchestra, for the local people of district Morgenstond in the Hague. This has given me, and the students that joined me, invaluable insights into why so many people think they do not understand or feel the message of classical music. We used empathy, general knowledge of repertoire and music education, to find a method that turns classical music into something valuable for this community. By respecting the wishes of the people of the local shopping centre and schools, and by showing interest in their rituals and habits, we have found ways to offer music in tailor-made performances. Local organizations now invite us, instead of vice versa, when they feel music would be valuable on a certain occasion. On these occasions, the choice of repertoire, performance and listening mode are the result of a collaborative process in which both musicians and local audiences are involved. At rare occasions, a stunning traditional concert performance was all that was needed to gain the interest of Morgenstond audiences. But in most occasions, I have experienced that tailored presentation techniques and long-term partnerships tremendously help to make the triangle blossom. The district musicians, yearning to connect, as Heloisa Amaral writes, have to invest in social relationships, experiment with presentation techniques and observe and learn in context.

Curation in the conservatoire

Curation should not only be central to projects outside the conservatoire. It is a subject that can also be addressed in regular lessons. When I ask my students in a violin lesson if they consider themselves to be the future curators of music, the answer is often “What is curation?” After an explanation, they usually say “Yes, of course”. However, the next question, “What are you going to do to be an active curator?”, is more difficult for them to answer. Most of my students haven’t really thought it through or only have vague ideas about it. Some think it’s not their responsibility. Convinced of the power of music to speak for itself, they assume that working on a strong interpretation and a polished sound is their only task. These are, of course, important. A violinist who plays out of tune will probably not give his audience a meaningful experience. But that does not necessarily mean that an instrument lesson should be reduced to intonation and technical skills training. Even in a regular lesson, brainstorming with the student about ways to share music in the student’s personal environment directly helps to make curating music in a triangular way personal and possible.

Challenges for teachers and students

Curating music is an ongoing challenge for me and my students, in the first place because of the different ways in which quality can be defined. There is the quality of the artistic interpretation and the requirements for a technically flawless performance. Apart from that, there is the quality of the relationship with the audience: to what extent is the listener experiencing involvement with the music and participating in the performance? Finally, there also is the search for a qualitative process that leads to a sustainable music-loving audience. What investment is needed to achieve this?

In Morgenstond we first played shorter pieces if the expected concentration loop of the audience was short. We also repeated the repertoire a few times in a season, so that people could recognise melodic lines and harmonies.

In order to curate, to take care of ‘other listening perspectives’, I had to accept the artistic consequences of the educational steps needed to start this process. This is a challenge for teachers and students alike. The concerts can sometimes differ from the ideal image we have in mind at the conservatoire. However, they can still be creative and adhere to our artistic compass. In the concerts with the Morgenstond violin kids, for example, my students had to help and find solutions in unexpected situations:

“Can her little brother also join in the concert? He started playing the fiddle last week”

My senior student Tim and 8 years old Kimberley, who is a member of the Morgenstond Violin kids, look at me. Next to them, I see Kimberley’s 4-year old brother in a leather jacket, holding a violin that is way too big for him.

"Please… My parents will also come to listen, and…?"Kimberley is begging.

Tim, who is waiting for my answer, looks at me with a big question mark above his head. I can read his mind: “How can this boy ever play today? It will sound terrible…”

My answer is: "Of course he should play, but let him bow over, and not on the string. Have fun!"

(Even though he did not make any sound in the concert, his movements were enthusiastic and musical.)

As the artistic director of the Orchestra Morgenstond, I had to solve many daily problems with my students. There were no textbook solutions for any of them. Can Beethoven be played with a disco beat? I would never have suggested it, but what to do when children spontaneously start clapping and drumming and enjoy themselves? In Morgenstond I sometimes felt like the worst and best possible curator at the same time. The worst curator of tradition, but perhaps the best possible curator for the present. Because of the many daily challenges I had, I had the opportunity to train students to recognize values in musical interaction in different ways. Quality is a less static concept than they thought. The fact that children feel that there is a strong rhythm in Beethoven is an important step towards appreciation.

New skills to be learned**

"Will they appreciate?"

“I doubt it…”

I often overheard these conversations from my students when we entered the mall where we played a lot of concerts. Students need support and education to reach out to a diverse audience. Most of them have played in the Concertgebouw at least once, but never in a neighbourhood like Morgenstond, or in a community centre or hospital. They naturally wonder whether it is possible to convey a musical message to an audience that is not familiar with classical music. Therefore, before I go to Morgenstond, I try to open up the minds of the students. For example, by making a comparison with literature. “Can a novel inspire a community that can’t read?” I once asked my students in a class to prepare them for their work in Morgenstond. There are many ways to enjoy a musical story. Musical literacy or the ability to read music may not be the most important prerequisite.

Students have to think about new ways of conveying a musical message before being plunged into the new environment. Images or theatrical elements can be very effective to clarify or amplify musical intentions. [PC11] Active audience participation such as clapping and singing helps to make them feel and enjoy the heartbeat of a piece. Creating an atmosphere that enhances the general understanding of the music contributes to concentrated and engaged listening. It is helpful to be aware of the context and situation and adapt the repertoire accordingly. Are we playing on Valentine’s Day, a commemoration or a celebration?

The awareness of the context in which they perform inspirers students to choose music that results in a successful triangular relationship. Knowledge about the location, the occasion and the expected audience naturally leads to choices that enhance a successful performance. As Mozart said: “I know the people in Vienna, so I know that my opera will be a success.” The students who have created performances grow quickly in the confidence that they can convince an audience. I have seen them become more optimistic within six months.

Out of the comfort zone

To teach curation in a regular instrument lesson means that I invite and challenge students to think about different ways to perform. The individual potential of the students can be explored by asking them to look around in order to connect with the audience in their immediate environment. However, I see that students are often unaware of the opportunities they have to be an ambassador of music in their daily lives, outside the concert hall. When I propose to play a lullaby for a new-born niece, they react with enthusiasm and hesitation. Becoming a music curator means stepping out of their comfort zone. They find it easier to play in front of a jury in an international competition than for a baby.

How to retake ownership

From my conversations with students, I draw the conclusion that an uncomfortable or passive attitude of students towards the audience is mainly the result of a limited sense of ownership in the profession. Setting up a music programme, exchanging with colleagues and local stakeholders and building a personal relationship with the audience are an integral part of the activities of a district musician. Students usually do not practise these skills and therefore miss the natural connection between being a musician and being a curator. On the other hand, most students are familiar with modern tools and platforms, such as streaming technologies and social media, that can be used to reach new audiences. Perhaps we should better integrate the online world into curatorial practice in order to stimulate a more direct exchange between audience and artist.

Democracy?

It was my wish to involve the Morgenstond audience more closely and to allow them to participate in the musical events. I encouraged them to develop their own preferences by offering different repertoire choices. But in the end, I noticed that when I listened to my inner compass as a curator, I wanted to have the last word about everything in the performance. Because of my relationship with the locals and my experience as a performer, I was often convinced that I knew best which piece would sound convincing in a particular venue and for the people I had come to know so well.

How democratic should a curator be? How much should one listen to ‘the other’? How do you work as an expert in a dialogue that you want to make as equal as possible? This is a complex question for teachers and students who are so individually trained. I want my students to show confidence in their artistic choices, but at the same time, I ask them to find compromises with the shopping mall officer. In what direction should we move in that field of tension between the expectations of musical tradition and the urge to connect with new audiences?

Looking forward, I would like to make a plea not to create a false opposition between socially engaged students who focus on innovative music practices and musicians who opt for the rigour and craftsmanship of tradition. That’s why we need role models who take curatorship seriously. The involvement of principal subject teachers will be crucial here, but inspiring examples of other great artists can also play a role. Let students get in touch with their practice, or invite them and let them collaborate with students.

I also advocate more exchange of knowledge and best practices. Various conservatoires in the Netherlands are currently taking initiatives to integrate elements of curatorship into their curricula. Although the motivations are often similar, the perspectives are usually different. How can we bundle our knowledge and share it with students?

Finally, there are very concrete steps we can take immediately, starting with the integration of elements of curatorship into student presentations or when assessing exams. It is conceivable that students will carry out part of their final exam programme outside the conservatoire, record it on video and show it as part of their final presentation. What is certain is that it will require attention, courage and cooperation to intensify the interactions between classical music, musician and audience, and that the conservatoire also has a crucial role to play in this.