Lines on length

My formative musical education came about through being a choirboy, at St. Peter’s Church, Earley, under the guidance of the brilliant Gary Turner and his caring, redoubtable assistant, Ruby Carter – both very much missed. I have vague memories of joining the choir as a probationer when I was 7-years old, younger than my eldest son is now. From the outset, there was one part of every service that I used to dread – the sermon.

With a few notable exceptions, they felt interminably long, even though in reality they rarely lasted more than ten minutes. I rarely listened, of course, even when my interest in the subject grew in later years. In fact, reading during the sermon was tolerated and when I had a good book the time would pass very quickly.

The old adage about ‘having fun’ obviously applies to the sermon-shortening magic of a good book, but in preparing to present Mahler’s Third Symphony on Saturday, a work that I love, have a strong personal connection to and am so happy to be performing, it’s struck me that ‘having fun’ doesn’t adequately describe the experience of listening to a symphony of nearly 100 minutes, the first movement of which is longer than many complete symphonies. And it’s a problem that bothers me, because as ever I am determined to do everything I can to make the APO concert experience as richly rewarding for the audience as it is for us up on the stage.

As a non-professional orchestra, our audiences contain a higher proportion of people who are less familiar with the experience of hearing a live orchestra in concert. This proportion is increased by our long-running concert virgin scheme, which sees us give free tickets to anyone who pitches up claiming never to have heard a live orchestra – no questions asked (about 5-10% of our audience for each concert falls into this category).

Many have questions about how a concert works, stemming from common myths about classical music: ‘Do I have to dress up formally?’ (Emphatically not.) ‘When should I clap?’ (When you feel like that’s the appropriate reaction to the music. Whooping, cheering, or silence are also appropriate reactions, depending on the context.) ‘What are the rules of a classical concert?’ (None really, except to try not to do anything that distracts your fellow audience members – much like you’d expect in a theatre or cinema, though perhaps with more emphasis on ‘noisy’ activities like eating or drinking, as the music can be very quiet.)

Anxiety about the formality/pageantry of a concert can be dispersed, to an extent, by simply being friendly. If practical to do so, players mingle with the audience front of house before the concert and during the interval, I welcome the audience (especially concert virgins) before we play, from the podium. The orchestra is full of normal people living a passion, and doing the above helps to break down any perceived barrier between the performers and the audience.

But there’s one area that we’ve never really addressed adequately, and it’s an anxiety I still get when I attend some concerts. The feeling that I’m not ‘getting’ a piece of music, and that somehow I don’t deserve to be listening to it. And obviously I’m totally used to attending ‘classical’ concerts. If you are already feeling a little anxious about the whole environment/occasion then feel you can’t connect with the music, the whole experience will be, at best, a bit ‘meh’.

This problem is exacerbated in a longer work. It has the potential to be the most boring sermon by the most boring preacher. And so we’re back to my quandary: I love this symphony and Saturday evening will be very special as I make music with over 100 fantastic people, but what can I do to help engage every single person in the audience through the course of a very long work? Unless I do that, I feel I’ve failed.*

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about the value, or otherwise, of programme notes. In it, I mentioned:

It’s wonderful to get to an end of a piece of music and realise that you’ve been completely whisked away into another world by it, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Music can’t always be an ‘absolute’ experience, where the listener doesn’t think about anything else, or indeed about anything, while listening. It may have happened towards the end of my first experience of Mahler 3, but I’d spent plenty of time thinking about other stuff during the performance (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but our ability to concentrate and listen will be the subject of a post in the near-future, as I think it’s interesting and relevant, when talking about a long work, like this symphony).

The notion that our attention spans are getting shorter is contentious. This article does a good job of debunking it and highlighting how attention span is task-dependant. It seems slightly odd to approach listening to a Mahler symphony as a ‘task’, as if choosing to come to a concert shouldn’t be naturally enjoyable (or even ‘fun’!), but I do think it’s important to think about how we go about the concert experience, by giving it our full attention.

I mentioned how music cannot always be an absolute experience, above. I stand by that. It’s why we have programme and listening notes (and keep the lights up in the audience so you can read them as we’re playing). There’s also a strong visual element to watching a live performance, which is why I insist (and am well-supported by the APO committee) on spending a considerable amount of money on extra staging, so that in a venue with non-raked seating, everyone can see the whole orchestra. This also has a big effect on sound – when I’ve been in the audience for concerts where the strings are on the floor in the Great Hall, it’s almost like they’ve not been there.

For our audience, there’s obviously a human interest angle with family or friends performing. This connection is very important and helps make non-professional performances special in a different way to some professional concerts. It’s also why I’m looking forward to Saturday’s pre-concert panel (at 6.30pm, in the hall, entrance free), where there’s the chance to hear from members of the orchestra – creating a human connection for anyone attending who doesn’t have a direct affiliation with a performer.

But just because it can’t always be an ‘absolute’ experience, I believe there are ways of listening to the music that give you the best chance of becoming completely lost in its magic. And it has a lot in common with the rise in popularity of ‘mindfulness’ – the art of attending to what’s happening in that moment. I’ve found it useful in managing anxiety and depression, as it stops my brain from going into overload with thoughts racing around all over the place, such that I all too easily lose perspective. Also important is a key principle of being kind to yourself – not to berate yourself if you find your mind wanders, but to guide yourself back to whatever you’re focussing on (usually your breathing).

Concentrating on the music, staying with it, being ‘mindful’, if you will, doesn’t have to mean banishing all thoughts from your head. The aim, I think, is for them to relate in some way to the music. Visualisation is useful: what images/scenes does the music conjure up? There are some wonderful images in our concert programme drawn by pupils of our leader, Mel, who were asked this question.

There’s also a visual element to another way of enjoying the music: associating what you’re hearing with emotions that you’ve experienced at a particular time or event in your life. This can be incredibly powerful. On Saturday, for example, I know I shall be associating the very end of the symphony with the transcendence of a soul into a different place (perhaps love, in our hearts), as I remember my Dad, who died almost a year ago to the day.

Whatever way you actively concentrate on the music and what it’s trying to say, whether it be images/scenes, emotional associations or some other method, you should be prepared for a reaction somewhere between two ends of the scale: at one end, the realisation that you’re at the end of the piece, that you don’t really know how you got there, and you’re still to process your emotions (not always a happy experience – I remember feeling utterly empty at the end of Mahler 6, the first time I heard it, so tragic is its conclusion); at the other end, you find yourself thinking about everything but the music during the performance, completely unable to concentrate.

As per my footnote, below, it’s utterly self-defeating to worry unduly if the latter happens. The concert can still be a positive experience. You’re supporting a fantastic local arts organisation. You’ll still applaud at the end, right? That means a lot to us!

So, if you’re coming on Saturday (and I hope you’ve booked your tickets, if you are – we’re close to selling out), I hope that the above is helpful and that you have a great experience. Thank you for supporting us as we fulfil our joyful passion.

Maybe all of the above is overthinking it – who knows? I rather like the tone of a recent promotional video from the Philharmonia Orchestra and I’ll leave you with the words their music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, speaks in the voiceover:

‘What is an orchestra for, in our world as it is today? For us, our music offers you an opportunity to escape, to turn off your phone, and sit inside a beautiful hall…and there have a chance to be thrilled, inspired, even challenged by what you see and hear. Or simply to think, reflect, or be entertained by 80 musicians who love what they do.’



*Of course, this is a ridiculous aim, befitting a perfectionist who has trouble managing his expectations. And I do understand that for some people, an orchestral concert, or Mahler’s music specifically, may simply not be their cup of tea. Classical music should be accessible to everyone (hence the concert virgin scheme), but despite my passion, I am realistic enough (in my rational moments) to realise that not everyone will like it!