You’re ten years old, it’s Christmas eve. Uncle Fritz (fictitious name) has gotten in disguise: Santa’s about to distribute the gifts. The living room is packed with relatives, in dizzy anticipation at the surprises to come.

Alas, before Santa Fritz can grab the first gift, your mom stands up, and blurts out to all ears: “Wait, wait! Before we open any gifts… Billy, why don’t you get your violin and play us a few Christmas songs? Wouldn’t that be lovely, everyone?”

pack o’ nerves with a bow in hand

Egad!! What did she just say? Alas, before you can raise any objection, the clamor to hear you summon the Yuletide muse overtakes the room. Every family event needs its music, right? Looks like it’s time to enter the ring and deliver the goods. No way out of this one!

Yes, this truly happened to me, on more than one occasion (different family, only passing resemblance to the characters above). And how well did I play those Xmas carols, prithee?

Here’s a video of truly bad kids’ violin playing, a tad worse than my own chops back in those days. I dare you to listen to it until the end.

YouTube Preview Image

know thine audience?

Back to my story. So the impromptu gig is over, everyone’s now fully gaga over the presents. As you pack your instrument, you think to yourself, in ultimate Christmas sag: “now every Uncle Tom, Dick and Jerry knows I play the violin. And badly, at that. Yeah, Merry Christmas, mom.”

OK, why this story? Here’s what I’m getting at.

You know your family. And they know you. A recipe for artistic triumph?

Today’s top internet marketing gurus emphatically insist that you gotta get to know your market/audience, that “your audience/client is your friend”. Driving this new reality is that we live in a brave new age of transparency, they say, and the trend is only going to deepen in every sphere of life.

Yet have we fully understood what we mean by such assertions? You wanna get to know all these people, warts and all?

First off, are we talking about individuals, or groups? We all know what difference it makes when you’re getting to know people one-on-one versus the round-table approach. How this relates to my point is that the communication tools which allow us to deepen our knowledge of our customers/audience today are both one-to-one and many-to-many, in terms of relationship potential and process. Blogs and wikis are two such examples.

And so in this new, more relationship-intensive marketplace, exactly what kinds of relationships are we looking at? In other words, in terms of my story, are you sure you want to bring everyone into the family?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I love/hate you all!

Professional musicians will attest to this experience, which can be more extreme from their point of view. How many times have you heard a pro say they’d much prefer playing to strangers than to a room full of family members?

After all, as the story goes: “these people know me! if my performance bombs, can I then truly carry the family torch in public?” In other words, in front of your folks a performance is always more than just a performance: there are unspoken expectations to meet, and reputations to carry beyond one’s own. Indeed, I’d argue that in the very nature of your performance and style the family must be able to somehow recognize the image it has of itself.

Indeed, an audience of strangers can provide a professional performer with two routes of escape from such pressures. If the audience doesn’t like it, they can simply bookmark their experience with a quick and dirty label: “it sucked”, or, “waste of time and money”, etc. Beyond faring worse in one’s career if this trend continues, there’s no weighty corporate responsibility to carry for the performer. And if the audience does like it, stranger-ness in itself is worth its own weight in mystique gold. An artist can capitalize upon this mystique effect, esp. in the creation of his/her public image and persona.

At the extreme of anonymity, there’s busking and street performance, particularly in urban areas of high pedestrian density. Here, you’re playing pretty much exclusively to strangers, whether passers-by or temporarily attentive throngs.

Not only does this remove the pressure to play to bolster family pride or to prove your stuff to friends, but at times it even removes the pressure of… having an audience at all. I myself have busked in such situations, in Vancouver, Canada, in Paris, France and London, England. I can tell you that after a while, the experience is pretty much like: “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it fall, is there really a tree?”

Therefore, I must inevitably conclude that any musical endeavor, no matter how private, at the very least implies an audience. You can’t remove performance from music.

so you play an instrument?

You know what they say about success: preparation meeting, uh, opportunity. Surely this saying should apply not just to those of us who aim for the stars, but to anyone clockin’ in the hours on their fave musical instrument, week in, week out, “just for the hell of it”.

Seriously. Unless you intend to keep your music passion and leisure activities an official state secret, someone’s bound to ask you someday to play for them. So what kind of preparation do you have up your sleeve for those moments opportunity knocks on your bedroom door?

It’s strange indeed how many amateur musicians don’t think of their learning progress in terms of performance-readiness. Think about it, when you say “amateur musician”, what come to mind? Probably one of two things: someone practicing an instrument at home, in cosy anonymity, and someone playing for family and a group of friends, again in a home setting.

Indeed, probably the most familiar image of amateur musicians in our cultural history is that of youth playing for the family in the living room or parlour. In fact, here’s a pic of me, at age 14, one year after I had formally quit my violin lessons. Apparently the family still craved more “shaky bow” experiences, despite my despondent retirement from dedicated music practice.

gilles violon 1984

Strangers and Acquaintances! Introducing…

In the final analysis, you’re more nervous in front of your peers because it’s the family/tribe reputation that’s at stake. Though reputation is always an issue with playing in public, playing in front of family can be more emotionally distressing because of all that baggage that comes with family pride (or shame!). Not to mention that notoriously elephantine family memory, always ready to make you relive old embarrassments, 60 years down the road.

In terms of performance-readiness, deciding which style of amateur musicianship to go for might then also depend on your “standing” (i.e. the quality of your relationships) in your circles of allegiance, family, friends, etc. In a nutshell: how savvy you are with the high-stakes game of tribal politics.

So my guideline for “knowing my audience” is: whether you’re doing market research, or simply playing in the kitchen, take the “I like you, you like me” principle with a grain of salt. Rather, as Dame Evelyn Glennie puts it, focus on “making a difference” – to both the people you know and don’t know.

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