"Best Practices" is a popular buzzword combo throughout the business these days. Answers.com defines Best Practice as a "term which refers to those practices that have produced outstanding results in another situation and that could be adapted for our situation". Unfortunately, I see too many examples in this business of organizations rushing to implement a Best Practice in hopes of immediately solving a problem, as though the implementation is more important than the quality of what is delivered. For example, the trend of conductors talking from the stage…
In and of itself, talking from the stage can be a great thing. I’ve witnessed a number of conductors and performers talk to the audience from the stage and have done it myself on several occasions. But for some reason, it seems as though the business is looking at the practice as some sort of quantifiable component of successful outreach.
Michael Tilson Thomas talks from the stage and PBS makes a DVD about it. That’s a good thing so now it’s suddenly a Best Practice. Now we see conductors talking from the stage in just about every orchestra across the country, it’s so common this season that you can’t swing a dead cat without getting it stuck in a conductor’s open mouth.
I realized this issue is out of control yesterday as I listened to Jesse Rosen, ASOL Vice-President and Chief Program Office, on Soundcheck with John Schaefer talking about how good the business is right now at breaking down barriers between the orchestra and the audience,
"You see manifestations of this all over, I was in Philadelphia at a concert about a month ago, regular subscription evening, and the concertmaster tunes the orchestra and the next thing that happens is Christoph Eschenbach walks out on stage, holding in his right hand his baton and a microphone as though they were melded together and to me this was saying that this is a music director for today; someone who not only conducts but also communicates."
Jesse went on to say that Maestro Eschenbach talked about the Jennifer Higdon piece they were going to perform. So what? What did he say that was so interesting? Why was the fact that he walked out on stage with a microphone during a subscription concert an example of how orchestras are breaking down barriers as though this were some sort of Best Practice?
I didn’t attend that concert so I can’t say if what was said on stage was interesting or not but I can point to another example in Detroit where their cultural reporter noticed something just isn’t right with this issue.
The 1/14/06 edition of the Detroit Free Press published an article by Free Press music critic Mark Stryker which reported that the Detroit Symphony’s new series, "Classics Unmasked" which featured a microphone wielding conductor was, in his opinion, a "bumpy work in progress". He described the conductor as a charming host but his commentary was superficial.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking from the stage but instead of looking at talking from the stage as a Best Practice in and of itself, how about focusing more on not boring the pants off the audience while you’re talking.
Last July, I published an article here at Adaptistration about this very issue after attending a chamber concert at the Grand Teton Music Festival. Here’s what I wrote,
But here’s the real secret to the quartet’s success (beyond their fantastic artistic ability); it wasn’t just because Chuck took a few moments to talk before each selection, it was because what he said was interesting and added to the moment.
Obviously, Chuck lives and breathes the world of bassoon. Having that sort of intimate knowledge and understanding places him in a singular position to be uniquely equipped to convey what’s interesting about the instrument, its music, and those who have mastered its intricacies. Chuck didn’t drone on and on as though he were giving an academic lecture (as so many people do when trying to talk to the audience before performing), he was simply talking to everyone in the audience as though they were just friends.
So why doesn’t the orchestra world do this more often? There’s no universal answer, however…[many] well intentioned efforts usually end up coming across as timid and dull.
Now I find myself sitting at my computer listening to a national radio broadcast (an opportunity to engage millions of public radio listeners) about one of the prime reasons why the classical music business is tearing down boundaries: because a Big 5 conductor walked out on stage with a microphone during a subscription concert [insert cricket noise here].
I didn’t hear anything about what was actually said nor why the audience member telling this story found the maestro’s words engaging. All I heard about was the mechanics behind the event: conductor talking = good stuff.
Is it any wonder why people from the outside look in at classical music and don’t want anything to do with it?
Postscript: If you take the time to listen to the entire segment you’ll hear Jesse trot out one of the League’s favorite home spun statistics: the amazingly "low" failure rate among symphony orchestras. This time around, they bumped up the number of member orchestras used to determine their failure rate. A few years ago it was 350, then it went to 900, now it’s up to 1,800 (that 1,800 figure was mentioned three times in less than thirty seconds at the opening of the Soundcheck segment). Every year since Adaptistration began I have addressed that defective statistic, the most recent correction was published in an article from June 8, 2005.