What Did You Learn Playing Classical in Bars, Rick?

I was recently asked in a meeting what I had been learning by sight-reading (unrehearsed) and performing (rehearsed) classical in bars, clubs and restaurants.
Where do I start?


Classical Revolution Detroit 2010 Photo by Jon Luebke

I learned that doing such will NOT convert listeners into single-ticket buyers, much less subscribers,… at least not right away. People who have never seen classical performers up close before are often pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed the bits they actually heard… but are not then ready to jump into a crowded auditorium to listen passively to musicians 26 rows away. But they MIGHT with enough repeated exposure, positive associations and introductory information, which form the basis of inspiration. At the very least, we want to plant the seeds for OPEN and POSITIVE conversations they have with family/friends about classical.

People ARE indeed curious… but they don’t know what questions to start asking. They don’t know what they don’t know. So we have to give ourselves permission to ASSUME what they’d need and like to know. If it works out favorably we can call it educated guessing, but if we assume our audience is knowledgeable, then we are imposing unreasonable demands rather than avoiding dumbing down. Many veterans enjoy deepening their knowledge base along with novices. So explain tension and release and how we SHAPE musical phrases.

I learned that relevance-making is not only an art form (what isn’t really?). But it must become part of what it means to be a 21st-Century classical musician. Without sung words for context, newbies and even veterans are hot to have the performers set or even create a modern context for them. Most are not going to bother with program notes or pre-concert lectures. Most want and deserve personal testimony from a performer… lively, humorous or emotional reasons why the next piece is so powerful or fun or today. This is surprisingly easy to do when we imagine we’re taking to family and friends rather than strangers, academics or music critics. I explain that to play this music is to WEAR the composer’s genius for awhile like a diamond overcoat and walk around like it is our own.

I learned that changing music from the original version refreshes music for the musicians and veterans. But I knew this long before I began playing bars in 2010. CutTime is built on adapting masterpieces for our ensembles. By updating the instrumentation, even without adding any enhancements (most CutTime transcriptions do not add anything), people notice different lines and elements. The context is immediately reset if only because we’re playing symphonic or piano music as an intimate chamber group.

It’s no surprise that listeners want to participate in the music by singing or dancing along, showing their excitement DURING their favorite parts, and capturing video of what they really like. Facilitating this during a classical instrumental performance need only entail some outlet or proxy. We have found great success having audience volunteers play onstage with us simple rhythms or beats on cowbell, shaker or tamborine. We’ve also taught the audience basic conducting patterns in 2, 3 and 4 beats.

We’ve invited audience to sit amongst the performers, to take straw polls, to interview and to suggest alternate titles for music… even if a full sentence. All this invites people to listen INTO the music. We also amplify the music a bit so people can eat, drink, talk, laugh and sing without missing much or disturbing the listeners as much. Now, this does increase the volume of the talkers… but it is important to find a balance and let go of ideal conditions if we’re going to insert fine art music into popular culture… which we ARE! It’s not rocket science. It’s simply letting go of our demanding expectations.

Which brings me to my final point for now… that new listeners enjoy quality performances but they also enjoy seeing where this process starts. So chamber music readings are NOT negative experiences in a bar. People are easily impressed that we can read anything pretty well. They want to know what is at risk (like train wrecks or a mediocre performance) and how we lend music more impact. We may soon start experimenting with public rehearsals. There are a thousand ways to welcome in new listeners… and they deserve every one of them.

About mrcuttime

Classical music bassist turned pioneering arranger-composer-conductor while a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Resigned from DSO in 2012 to continue growing, by connecting new audiences to symphonic music with two touring CutTime® ensembles, a hundred published symphonic reductions, his own award-winning romantic compositions, and a revolutionary club classical series.
This entry was posted in Classical Revolution, club classical, community engagement, Knight Foundation, orchestra industry, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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