The performer/audience, duck/rabbit paradigm

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ July 21st, 2013. Filed under: Performance.
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In an earlier posting about amateur music ensembles (“Learning to be an Amateur” March 23, 2013), I asked the question, “How do you motivate amateurs to seek perfection, unlike professionals whose livelihood depends on it? We know that everybody wishes to be perfect in every way, but reality often has its own way of disrupting such wishful thinking with mundane real and imagined limitations.

Some say that “talent” takes care of the problem of perfection because the latter is a natural consequence of the former. But I am taking “talent” out of the mix because, like Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyne and others, I suspect “talent” is a chimera or at least, a distraction. No matter the individual’s innate predilection for playing a music instrument or singing, a person can become as good as they want to be, given motivation, focus and direction (i.e., lessons).

The answer to my March question recently came to me in a flash. But the answer is rather complicated.

It begins with the premise that the music performers in an ensemble are simultaneously the audience of the ensemble. The players listen to each other while playing, for the same pleasure they get from listening to a concert from afar. And these “concerts” happen over and over again, in the form of rehearsals, and almost incidentally, public concerts.

One example of this paradigm is particularly vivid. During the performance of certain compositions that feature brief solos, individual listener-performers listen intently to the fellow member who is playing the solo, set to the ensemble’s accompanying murmur. Each listener-player silently cheers them on, winces in sympathy, or grinds their teeth in dismay. I never fail to be amazed at the dual nature of this experience, where I am simultaneously staring intensely at my music on the stand, keeping my place when playing or counting bars of tacet, while listening intently to the soloist in the same manner as a sit-down audience member.

I should add that the performer-audience paradigm also takes place in the mind of professional musicians, but it is background to the sobering, if not tense act of making a living as a professional musician. Also, when professional musicians were young, they switched over to a kind of intense practice regimen when the goal of making a living in Western Art Music pulled into view. Both scenarios are clouded by the constant threat of imperfection and its consequences – failure and ultimately, disgrace. There are 20 if not 200 people waiting anxiously to replace every professional who stumbles twice, or even once.

I should state up front that likely none of this discussion has any relevance whatsoever to popular, jazz and ethnic music ensembles (unless they are state-sponsored). They may have other kinds of shibboleths, waiting to be discovered by me some day.  My discussion is limited to performers of WAM (Western Art Music) gathered together in large ensembles (full orchestras, string ensembles, and wind bands).

The Parallels

There are several parallels that immediately come to my mind.

The world of Western Art Music is famous, some would say notorious, for performing programs of music only once, twice or perhaps three times, then quickly moving on to rehearsals for the next concert. Contrast this parsimony with theatre, where an individual stage presentation will be shown dozens of times. The theatre experience of multiple performances of the same program is played out for amateur WAM listener-performers because for them, all the rehearsals represent multiple performances. But with one important difference. The “concerts” are flawed, sometimes showing improvement, sometimes failing due to one or more audience-performers’ limitations. Nevertheless, the performer-audience members are ever hopeful of a perfect performance perhaps after several run-throughs, perhaps even timed for their public concert. Granted, theatre ensembles rehearse before their “run” but the style of rehearsal is far more piecemeal than a music rehearsal where the music ensemble plays the score as nearly perfect as possible from the very beginning.

I am also reminded of team players who observe their current game unfolding towards victory or defeat as each member of their team provides the technique and the spirit to not only win the game, but also to work seamlessly in the face of adversity. The post-game elation (or depression) represents the good or bad concert, and during practices (read “rehearsals”) the momentary failures are down-played in the hopes that another run-through will show improvements.

A final parallel is seen in concerts of Western Art Music chamber ensembles, such as a string quartet. They all take pride in being conductor-less. In order to pull off such a feat of artistic integration, the group of four or more must seat themselves in a semi-circle or U-shaped configuration so they can see and cue each other. This performance practice is well-known and even obligatory but what is not equally understood is the fact that the performers are “concertizing” to each other in the most intimate manner possible while the audience is largely ignored until the last notes are played. The audience is placed in the odd role of cultural voyeurs looking into the intimate conversation of close friends. Contrast this inward configuration with any group in popular music where the quartet always faces out to the audience, an almost impossible configuration by Western Art Music ensembles, or so they claim. Not so, the Carion Woodwind Quintet ensemble.

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The problems

Being a listener-performer inside the music has its problems.

The seating is a liability. The further one is from another section of the ensemble, the less one hears that “voice”. More important is the distraction of playing while listening. Think “cell phone use while driving”. These problematic conditions are obvious, and some would say, go without saying. The liability is tolerated because the positive rewards, the mutual construction of the music, are far greater.

One of the most interesting problems of amateur audience-performers is the participant’s perception of musical failings within the group. Personal musical failings take on an ethical, even moral dimension. Fellow musicians who consistently fail to achieve perfection due to lack of practice degrade the listening (i.e., concert) experience and corrode the camaraderie of the “team”.

Even tuning of instruments can be a satisfying or cringing experience for the entire ensemble. Despite having tuned to a tuning note, individual notes need to be constantly tempered, a skill many amateurs seem not to understand.

Interestingly, amateur ensembles can be very tolerant of random mistakes, infinitely more so than professional ensembles. “Cast not the first stone…” You may be reminded of the frequent positive critique of many a performance of professional musicians where the audience members judged the concert to be “authentic” and “human” because of occasional lapses in perfection.

Many ensembles have a “come one, come all” policy, with no audition requirements. This attitude is in keeping with the very best in cooperative community thinking, where members join in order to share their deep mutual pleasure with fellow enthusiasts, no matter what their creed, religion, ethnicity, etc. There is even a place for beginners, found in positions labelled second and third chair, where the music is lower in range and often not so exposed. The positions operate somewhat in the manner of an apprenticeship, with the understanding that one can always move up in the “corporation” as one improves and develops confidence. The marvel is that composers sometimes purposely write their compositions with this human dimension in mind. Isn’t that a wonderful thought!?

But when a member is consistently imperfect, the ethical component reveals itself. The amateur player with the problems may invoke the postmodern shrug and sheepish smile after they botch a music phrase, claiming “that they tried”.  But they can seriously degrade the listening experience for fellow ensemble members. They can even damage the morale of the ensemble, sometimes beyond repair.

Amateur musicians are often caught between a rock and a hard place, given that their musical pursuit is a hobby, one of many life-style activities (making a living, parenting, continuing education). Some may even be proto-beginners, having returned to the music instrument of their youth after years, maybe decades of neglect. But these impediments become irrelevant during the heat of performance (including rehearsals).

The conductor

It is well known that the conductor’s job is to establish and maintain the beat for the benefit of the musicians. That includes changes in tempo, some of the most terrifying moments in music (and one of the reasons why marches succeed so well, given that they never vary their tempo). To this end, performers are constantly badgered and admonished to “look up” at the conductor instead of intently reading the page of music in front of them. Television announcers used to have the same problem, until the advent of Teleprompters.

A secondary responsibility of the conductor is to act as a sound engineer, gauging and tweaking sound levels of the ensemble to match the wishes of the composer and the acoustic conditions of the performance space. It is in the variable nature of loud and soft moments, interestingly called “dynamics” (as in a dynamic, as opposed to a mono-tone/monotonous, event or person), that amateur ensembles show their true colours. Despite the best efforts of a conductor, some/many amateur ensembles play medium loud from beginning to end, with an occasional moment of extra loud. Amateurs (and beginner music students) are generally unaware of how dramatic dynamic levels must operate in order to be musically expressive to listeners.

At this point, I should say in full disclosure, that I am a listener (and RCM examiner) who needs and demands musicians and ensembles to “go big or go home”. I know there are some conductors who aspire for the subtle side of dynamics, but I’m not in that camp. Subtle for some is a grey wash of sound for others. But that’s my bias I suppose.

Be that as it may, the regulation of the tempo and dynamics can take on new meaning when the conductor steps out of the picture, that is, off the podium, at a concert. After the conductor has “set the mix board” in rehearsal, the ensemble without conductor in concert must take collective responsibility for itself by listening to each other (as I described already) in order to mutually realize the beat, including tempo changes and temper the dynamics.

In a conductor-less concert, a passage marked quiet (i.e., pp/pianissimo) is not quiet enough if a player cannot hear his/her stand partner. During the performance of a melody or occasionally, a solo passage, the accompanying voices must play softer than the principal melody, regardless of the dynamic marking in the music notation page. In other words, if he/she can’t hear the person “speaking”, he/she is too loud.

Last but not least, is the most important role of the conductor of an amateur ensemble. Mediator. Relationship counselor. Morale booster. Conductors of professional ensembles are one of the last bastions of autocracy. Not so amateur ensembles. The conductor of an amateur ensemble is usually there at the pleasure of the players, usually receiving a modest stipend for their efforts, but more often than not, because their love of the music propelled them to move up in the music performance world to the ultimate position – manager. Like a professional conductor, they must manage the musical resources of several individuals to form a unified sonic event, but rather than impose their will on the membership, they bring unity to a motley event, at the behest of the membership. The “audience”, that is, the membership in the ensemble, bestows gratitude and loyalty in exchange.

The amateur musicians also give an amazing gift to the conductor – absolute silence between run-throughs of passages, or an entire piece, while the conductor muses about this or that improvement. This self-imposed silence can last up to two hours long, which is remarkable, given the fact that the room is filled with a multitude of excited individuals deeply and passionately sharing the experience with each other. As you read this description you may be reminded of a typical lecture or even performance where the listening public is absorbed in the listening experience without interruption. But remember that the members of the amateur ensembles are team players in the act of cooperative goal-making. Quite the paradox.

When each ensemble rehearsal comes to a close, I cast my mind back to dance classes I have seen, where the dancers will clap in appreciation to the work-out provided by the
instructor. I have never seen this moment of appreciation in a music ensemble, which is a great shame, I think.


The actions of listener-performers I have just described recall Christopher Small’s several books about musicking. Each player is immersed in the intoxicating pleasure of the magical mix of sounds in a way that can never be equalled by the listening experience of a passive audience member who sits passively, contemplatively, while mustering acts of attention that defy normal behaviour. Each performer-listener becomes an insider. Each player lives the music structure instead of analysing it with pen, paper, and score in hand.  And the production of the music is supremely interactive, perhaps the most important concept in this twenty-first century.


Ruth Finnegan (1989) The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town

Susan Bennett (1997) Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception

Christopher Small (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening

Malcolm Gladwell (2002) “The Talent Myth,” in The New Yorker, July 22, 2002

Stephanie Pitts (2005) Valuing Musical Participation

Harris M. Berger (2009) Stance: Ideas About Emotion, Style, and Meaning for the Study of Expressive Culture

Henry Jenkins et al (2009) Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture

Daniel Coyle (2010) The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown

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