February 23, 2016     Tori Cook

The Importance of Pre-Concert Talks


On Sunday, Encore hosted its second Etude event, gathering a group of music educators from across New England for a lovely afternoon of brunch and a Boston Philharmonic concert. The concert program consisted of Schumann’s Manfred Overture, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

A highlight of the day was spending an educational hour together attending the pre-concert talk with Maestro Benjamin Zander. With his Roland keyboard, he demonstrated various melodic lines in the pieces and pointed out harmonic progressions that otherwise may have been missed by the audience. He reviewed each of the composers in depth and discussed the stages of their lives during which their pieces were composed.

When the performance began, it was easy to point out that time when the flute and oboe came out with the theme in Mendelssohn’s first movement – because we were told to listen to it. You could hear the sweeping romantic lines presented in Schumann’s piece – because it was demonstrated to us only minutes before. And we appreciated being one of the lucky few having heard Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 live because so much of the theme peppered throughout the ensemble could be missed in a recording – as we were told.

Attending the pre-concert talk gave me a new perspective of the pieces but also allowed me to connect with them on a deeper level. And thus, I have decided that no concert should be complete without a pre-concert talk! Here’s why:

  • It engages your audience. Nowadays, attention spans are short. We have instant gratification with Google and social media and listening to a two-hour performance can seem tedious at times, unless you are a big classical music fan. But when you are actively engaged in the performance, it becomes easier to understand the music, the composer and even the conductor’s interpretation. Suddenly, two hours of sound means something more and almost everyone can relate and connect to the piece, even non-musicians!
  • The audience’s responsiveness feeds back into the musicianship of the ensemble. Every performer knows audience response plays a large part in the success or failure of a show. When the audience is engaged the performers automatically feed into that energy and give more to their audience. Similarly, when the audience is sleeping, the performance becomes stale. By engaging your audience, you are not only making the concert more enjoyable for them, but also giving your musicians a chance to play to the best of their abilities.
  • It helps your musicians understand the piece better. As musicians, we can get so involved in the technicality of a piece that sometimes we forget there is a bigger meaning to music – more than the written pitches and rhythms! It is also about emotionally connecting to and understanding a piece with the composer’s intentions. If your musicians attend your pre-concert talk or you share your talk with them early on in the rehearsal process, they are more likely to grasp the concept of the piece and practice performing the piece with its original musical intentions.
  • Builds community support and appreciation for the arts. For non-musicians, it can be challenging to comprehend the grueling (albeit incredibly important) hours of practice and rehearsals that musicians endure in order to put on a 2-hour performance. When these same people attend a pre-concert talk, it becomes so obvious that reading and understanding music is truly an art form. And by experiencing active listening in the process, they are brought into a musician’s world, even if just for a moment, and instantly they “get it”. They see for themselves that the arts are more than technical proficiency, they are about connecting to the world on a deep level and being able to express oneself in times of turmoil or times of love, passion and great happiness. As such, your community is more likely to be engaged with your ensemble’s mission and will likely continue coming back for more performances!
  • Sets the mood for the performance. Not only does the pre-concert talk set the mood for the audience, but it also sets the mood for you (the director) and your ensemble. By reliving the composer’s experience out loud before the performance, it revitalizes each performance and sets it apart from the previous performances before. Perhaps the pre-concert talk changes each night, or a performer might connect more with something they heard only that day in the talk that they then take back to interpret in their performance. It reminds performers of the primary reasons they are presenting the concert and inspires them to make each performance a unique experience for the audience.

The Boston Philharmonic has made it a habit to include a pre-concert talk for every performance, and often to a full house too! Doing this has set them apart from so many other professional ensembles and as such, they have received great support from the community.

It would be interesting to see how pre-concert talks affect the performances at the youth level in high schools or the community. If you already incorporate pre-concert talks, we’d love to hear more about them. We invite you to share your experiences with us at development@encoretours.com or by using our Contact Us page!

Here’s a small video from our pre-concert talk with Maestro Zander:

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