Giving Concert Talks: Three Things
Fri April 13, 2018
This past Wednesday I attended a recital here at the University of Oklahoma for the "Sooner Bassooners" where they premiered my piece, 'The Tinkerer'. This group, made up of bassoonists from the OU Bassoon Studio, does a lot of fun repertoire, and they always have such wonderful concerts. I did not intend, initially to write for them though. In Fall 2017, I finished "The Tinkerer", for Bassoon Quartet. It was a clever little piece written in a minimalist style that I felt deserved a performance of some sort. After emailing the piece to our Bassoon professor (Rod Ackmann), and waiting for their hectic semester to draw to a close, I was invited to a rehearsal to hear a second reading of the piece. I made my way to the rehearsal, and found the entire ensemble playing the piece. At first, i was a little worried since it is a piece that demands precision from all parts. However, after listening to the group perform (far under tempo, as it was only their second read), I was in agreement with Mr. Ackmann that the piece sounds great with a full ensemble. Also, to my surprise, it was the first confirmed piece on their Spring program. I'm just thinking: "Oh boy! If only I could be happy about this with General Exams starting this week!" After a few weeks passed, I was through General Exams and both my workshop event and a Lecture Recital. I decided to take Rod up on his offer to stop by anytime they rehearse. I emailed, set up a time I would arrive at, and heard a vastly improved version of my piece. I was sold. this is gonna be a great performance!
Then, as I am collecting my papers to leave the rehearsal space, Rod asks me if I'd say a few words about my piece at the concert in April. Of course I agreed to do so, as he was doing so much for me it was the least I could do! Then I ran into a problem: I wasn't used to verbally delivering program notes!
Upon asking my advisor for tips on giving verbal notes at a performance, he said: "Keep it simple. Three things about the piece that the audience can listen for in the piece with no knowledge of the score, or advanced knowledge of music as a whole." This advice immediately ruled out my desire to re-tell the conception of the piece in an abridges format, but I made sure to include the bit about what a "Tinker" is, just as a reference to gnomish engineers of high fantasy. Though upon further explanation, I saw the point he was making. If you give an audience too many things to talk about, they won't be able to enjoy the piece. On the other hand, if you don't give them anything to look for, then they're flying blind. All of this combined with an effort to keep what I say accessible to the audience felt like a lot to think about.
I then had to do something difficult: Find Three Things the audience can listen for without any knowledge of the work, or access to the score. I quickly settled on the energy of the piece, being constantly in motion - akin to the moving parts on nearly all available surfaces of a Tinker's workspace. I also decided to talk about the minimalist aspect briefly, in that it is about the continuous evolution of an ide in very small increments. I struggled thinking of the final thing to say, then that struggle gave me an idea: much as I was struggling to find words, a composer might struggle to find the notes, and a tinker might struggle to see his ideas come to life. This gave me my three talking points, and I was ready to go.
After the Haydn Trumpet Sonata (with accompaniment arranged for Bassoon Ensemble), I made my way down across the legs of several audience members (I instinctively sit at the sweet spot of auditoriums even if I have to get on stage and I'm a horrible person for it) and had just enough time to remember my three points before Rod called me to the stage to talk about my piece. I thanked him and the entire ensemble for the hard work they'd been putting in, then talked about my three points in what I felt was a good amount of time then took my seat near the middle of the auditorium. The piece was wonderfully performed, and the audience seemed happy with it. I felt the piece was a success. At the reception immediately following the show, I had people talking to me about the piece and even mentioning how they really liked the imagery in their heads that the piece gave them.
Bottom-Line, I learned how to give a successful concert talk in a relatively rushed manner and I'm ok with it. I almost wish I had gotten the chance to do so sooner, but now that I think of it I'm frequently either at a very formal event where program notes are the standard, or at casual events where I'm either performing in or conducting the piece I'm premiering! It feels good to be out of the driver's seat for once. Could I have more control by conducting the ensemble? Sure. However, this experience was rare for me in that I was able to fully immerse myself in the music as it happened alongside the audience. I'll always have a strong hand in the execution of my more experimental works, but for something like this, I don't see the need anymore. In the end, three things are all we need to know about most of our music to keep audiences engaged. I'll remember that from here on out.
Zachary C. Daniels