Mind the GAP

What is at work in the communication field between the musicians, the music and the young audience?
1. The Communication Field

What is at work in the communication field between the musicians, the music and the young audience?

In the London Underground there are signs and recorded voices warning you about the gap between the platform and the train, so that you won’t accidentally fall into the gap, while entering or leaving the train. The same kind of warnings could (and should) be issued by producers of school concerts, for there are indeed similar gaps within a concert that musicians can easily stumble into, if they are not careful ‐ or prepared for the challenge!

In school concerts – as in any concert – you have the musicians on one side and the audience on the other, divided by what you might call a communication field. Especially with school concerts you need to pay extra attention to what’s going on in there. Most of what is going on there is, of course, the music itself.

And as far as the music is concerned, producing school concerts in Denmark these days is mostly quite an easy job. Generally we have access to some of our finest professional musicians playing a broad scope of different musical genres, and this means that the music side of things is usually ready and set to go, when we start working with an artist or a group. Often you do tamper a little bit with the order of the music pieces/songs, or maybe with the length of certain passages etc., but usually it is limited to minor corrections like that.

- Here it’s important to remember, that in Denmark we typically have only one or two rehearsals, possibly one trial-concert, before a tour, that’s it - so there’s not a lot of time to dwell, anyway… -

With the music set and in order already up front in the production process, we as producers can instead focus on some of the many other aspects that create a good concert experience for the children, besides the music itself. And this means entering a grey zone: the communication field, I mentioned before – and this is actually an area, musicians are not always as well versed in, as they are in the music itself. Brilliant music skills are not always paired with brilliant communication skills, our experience shows. A lot of musicians seem to think, that once the music is well rehearsed and the set list decided, their work is done, and they are ready to meet their audience. And while that may be true, if they are playing a regular concert for their regular grown up, money-paying, audience, who are familiar with them and their kind of music, the same is certainly not the case when playing a school concert. Their school concert audience have not paid money to see them, or even chosen to see them, they might not be familiar with their kind of music, the concert will more likely take place in a gym rather than a concert hall etc. A very different situation! So when your music is ready and in place, your real work is actually just beginning – and the first thing you have to figure out is how to….

2. Cross the great divide – venture into the communication field!
  • Musicians > Communication field > Audience - Model

Let’s re-cap: We have the musicians on one side, bristling with great musical skills and - hopefully – some equally great music prepared for the concert, and we have the audience on the other side – hopefully – eager to hear, what the musicians want to play for them, more or less prepared for the occasion (by teacher/study material), and more or less experienced in the concert format as such. What’s happening between these two parties, described as the so-called communication field, could be looked upon as an almost physical place that you can act in and fill up with different things. Mostly music, of course, but there’s much more than just music happening in this field – and these things can either work with the music or against it.

One of the things you should pay real attention to, are the gaps between the pieces of music(hence the title of this lecture: Mind the gap!) as these gaps provide you with some of the greatest possibilities and most powerful tools to help your music reach your audience as a school concert musician (or any kind of musician, for that matter)! Since the main active operators in this field are the musicians, rather than the audience, it’s the musicians that have the main power to determine what’s happening there. And we as producers can help them do make use of this opportunity.

So what exactly is happening there, besides the music?

Well, for one thing, there might be some…

3. Obstacles

Any obstacles in the communication field will prevent the music from reaching its audience with its fullest potential This, on the other hand, means that if you put some focus on the communication field, you may find ways to enhance not only the chances for, but also the impact of the music reaching its audience.

Some of the possible obstacles in the communication field – and thus things we need to focus on as musicians and producers - are all the physical aspects of the concert: (set up on a stage or on the floor, the musicians positions on the stage, placing of music stands and microphone stands, (lack of) stage presence, deciding whether to do the speaking in microphones vs. acoustically, relevant or misleading body language, etc.). Many of these things are quite easily dealt with, while some require more time and practise. The removal of music stands, slight changes of body language or new movement patterns on stage are just a few examples of small changes that can make a big difference.

4. Opportunities

The point is: the communication field between the musicians and the audience is there, whether you use it consciously or not, and whether you make it work to your advantage or not. It’s like a filter that your music passes through on the way to your audience’s ears. The better your music are and the better you play it, the easier it will make its way through the filter to reach your audience’s ears – but you can actually do even more than just play well.

Since there is not music all the time, the gaps between the different pieces of music you play leaves you with a unique opportunity to steer the audience in the right direction, to open a door to the music for them to pass through – and that’s why musicians have to think very hard about their verbal communication from the stage. And not only hard about what they want to say, but also how they choose to say it. Who says it can also be important. First when you speak, do you really enter the room (and the minds) of your audience, so all the musicians should, quite literally, ‘have a say’ in this.

Musicians also have to consider, how much they want to say (which can easily be too much!). Don’t turn the gaps into the main attraction here…! Examples of “gap filling over-achievers” could be Danish entertainers like the late piano virtuoso Victor Borge and the still vibrant folk troubadour Niels Hausgaard, who both excel in extremely long introductions to each new piece of music, making the introductions themselves the central part of their performance, rather than the music. In smaller doses, however, the introductions remains the most obvious, easily accessible, and powerful resource to open up the communication field between musicians and their audience.

5. Different Communication Strategies

Naturally, there are a great variety of verbal communication strategies the musicians can choose to fill out these gaps, and help the music along. The kind of music you play (Instrumental/with lyrics? Acoustic/electronic? Grown up/children’s music?, etc) as well as the age group you are playing for (1. Graders, 5. Graders or 9. Graders?) are both important factors in determining, how you choose to communicate from the stage. The three most common approaches we have encountered in Denmark are these:

  • THE MUSICIAN AS STORYTELLER! – the children’s book concert

Many musicians resort to using stories and fairy tales to tie things together, especially when playing concerts for smaller children.

  1. Pros: All children love a good story – and it’s an easy way to tie things together in a coherent way. Seems, however, to be regarded by some musicians as a kind of necessary “sugar coating on the bitter pill of having to listen to music”.
  2. Cons: Not many musicians are also good storytellers, and adding an actor easily obscures the whole concert thing. There’s a danger that the music fades into the background or is reduced to sound effects, which is of course a crying shame!
  3. If you insist: If you wanna to tell a story, it’d better be damn good, and you’d better tell it well! And keep it short, too! And preferably closely related to the music! I repeat: Trust the music – it’s quite something even on it’s own, you know!

  • THE MUSICIAN AS TEACHER” – the classroom concert

Many musicians think they are expected to be teachers, when performing in schools – but there are already plenty of teachers in the school, so, musicians, when playing a concert in a school: Just be artists, please!

  1. Pros: Not many, really! Musicians are sent out to play concerts in schools to offer an artistic experience to the children, not to turn the concert room into a class room. So, maybe if you try to substitute the word ‘teach’ with words like ‘share’ and ‘tell’, then that might show a better course, that would retain the artistic element of the concert experience.
  2. Cons: As I said: It is a concert, not a class! It should be an artistic experience, not an occasion to “get-out-your-notebooks-and-prepare-for-a-test!”. So keep the teacher lingo and test questions out of the concert hall!
  3. If you insist: Put all the important facts you want to convey to them about your music into a separate study material, and let the teachers be the teachers here! Then use the concert to give the children a more personal and artistic angle to these facts.

  • THE MUSICIAN AS YOUR FRIEND – the snapshots/patchwork concert

Introducing every song or piece of music with a personal angle or reference to the lyrics and/or the children’s or musicians’ daily life. Usually handled as a kind of direct, friendly conversation with the audience, with the songs forming a kind of patchwork of the daily life and thoughts of the musician.

  1. Pros: A personal angle is important for the audience, makes the experience feel more like a genuine meeting and thus more ‘real’!
  2. Cons: Not really a lot of cons to this approach – being open and personal usually works best in any kind of verbal communication from the stage.
  3. If you insist: Make sure you know your age group and their references and ability to abstract

6. Other types of "Gap-minding"

While the 3 different approaches mentioned above are probably some of the most typical, there are many other ways to handle the natural break between the different music pieces or songs in a concert. Some groups play interactive and/or improvisational concerts, where they create music on the spot together with the children. In those cases, the verbal communication is usually ‘action driven’ – it is mainly used to push the process forward; telling the children what happens next (“Now we have made the verse – the next thing we must do is get an idea for a chorus…” etc.). Other groups build their communication on a kind of internal conflict or play among the musicians in the group as the pivotal aspect (one is teased by the others, one is sad and the others comfort him, etc.). Or they might choose to fill the gap with something other than talk, entirely! (more of this in a moment)

7. Conclusion

So, producers: you have to mind the gaps; both in the broad sense of the communication gap between the musicians and their audience, and more specifically the gaps between the music pieces of a concert. The last type of gaps constitutes a grand opportunity for the musicians to strengthen their musical expression by setting the stage/opening the minds/etc. – it’s almost like a new extra instrument that needs to be practiced and put into play!

So which communication strategy should the musicians choose? Fairy tales or personal experience? Classroom teacher or poetic banter? Well, not surprisingly the answer to that is: it all depends…! It depends on the music, the age group of their audience, who the musicians are as persons, their general communication skills, and, basically, what their aim with the concert is. More often than not, the end result is a mixture of some of the above. But first and foremost: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE! Make sure you speak eye-to-eye with it. Don’t patronize them, don’t speak over their head, show them respect. Be real and make it personal – that’s the most important thing, the audience really wants to meet the person behind the music.

And while the musicians are considering which verbal communication strategy to choose, they actually find themselves in the process of exploring the third and most important leg of the wishbone-model, the leg that poses the central question of necessity (da.: skullen): Why is it important to bring this music to the children? The second leg of the model, artistic ability (kunnen) cannot stand on it’s own either: only in combination with the first leg, the will to share musical ability with the world (villen) will the true potential of the music be released. And while both these legs are important, the third leg is necessary to create something that is truly important to bring to the children. Only then do the musicians have the makings of a truly great school concert in their hands.

Trying to find the answers to questions like: “Why is it important to play this music to the kids? Why have I chosen to play this piece of music? Why is this kind of music important to me as a musician, as an artist?” will help the musicians communicate their music much better to the children. And this is where the gaps conveniently enter the picture. The gaps in the music are really a gift to the musicians; a gift that – admittedly - requires some effort to unpack, but also a gift that repays your effort to use it tenfold!

So thanks for the little gap between each piece of music, that little piece of useful space the musicians can use to set the stage for the next unforgettable music moment in their concert. And by helping the children (and themselves) cross these gaps in the music, the musicians are at the same time enhancing the overall experience of the concert! A true win-win situation!

So, plainly put: MIND THE GAP!

8. Afterthought

You can, of course, simply choose to say absolutely nothing in between the songs or pieces of music, and thus avoid saying something that will work against the music. But saying nothing just creates a new problem, because you still have to get from one song to the other, or one piece of music to the next in the best possible way, which is: putting the audience in a receptive mood for whatever comes next.

So how do you bridge the different pieces of music by other means than actually talking to the audience, while still maintaining musical flow and clear communication? Well, one obvious way to solve that particular problem could be using your body (a potent visual presence in the room!) actively and consciously, maybe even in a choreographed way, as a tool for communication. In combination with an equally creative use of the stage and general set up this can be a very rewarding solution to the challenge of setting the audience up for whatever comes next. Of course, to most this kind of additional physical, choreography-work would require some (or a lot of) rehearsal, but if you come well prepared, even wordless gaps can be made to work for you!

So, again: Words or no words: MIND THE GAP! MIND THE GAP!MIND – THE – GAP!

Jesper Gottlieb, Denmark works as a Producer for Levende Musik i Skolen, a Composer anod a Music Teacher at Aarhus University. "Mind the Gap" was a speech held at a Producer network meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland 2012.

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