Monday, March 19, 2012


Nobody would disagree that our most basic responsibility as school orchestra teachers is to make sure our students acquire sufficient technical skill and  awareness of what's happening in the music so they can be moved and enriched by their recreation of art.  Indeed, many careers are built around this one premise.

But there's more.  Music education is not confined to the rehearsal room. The program's survival needs to be assured.  One needs to successfully negotiate the minefield of education politics. There is a need to be an advocate--to the decision makers, colleagues, parents, taxpayers and to other students.  Each one of these aspects deserves an article (or ten) of its own.  This time, some thoughts about the need and value of music education outside the classroom:

An obvious outcome of instruction is a successful public performance. For our programs to have fidelity, performances must be the musical culmination of of our technical efforts in the rehearsal room. Primary objectives should be for students to demonstrate technical mastery, awareness of musical value, and awareness of stage protocol and presentation style.

I like to view a performance as the "final exam" of a period of instruction--in today's jargon, a "performance evaluation."  So we dutifully select an appropriate program which builds and demonstrates technical and musical accomplishment, we teach these skills and ideas to an optimal level, and we make students comfortable with proper appearance requirements and stage demeanor.

Then comes the concert--the performance evaluation--where our students are tested in front of an audience. It's almost always presented without sufficient rehearsal time in the venue, which is almost always inadequate. We find ourselves performing in a cafeteria (where people walk around, eat, and socialize), or in a gymnasium (where people walk around, yell and scream, eat and socialize.) And what happens?  Our audience, made up mostly of parents, act as people act in cafeterias and gymnasiums. Our well-trained students see the less-than-exemplary audience behavior and are uncomfortable and ungratified despite our best efforts in the rehearsal room.

It's obvious who needs to be educated here, and we teachers are ones who must do it.  From the very first time students appear in front of an audience, we must, in polite but certain terms, make clear to our audience our expectations of them. The expectations are pretty basic no matter the age level of the students: remain seated for the entire concert, do not talk during performances, and do not distract the students from their task in any way--no flash photos, video, cell-phones, waving, whistling, yelling, etc.  It is possible to impress these things on an audience in a positive manner without insulting or offending them, and this should be done at the very beginning of every performance.  After that, the teacher must not be reluctant to stop the performance if the audience needs reminding.  It's important to remember that training the audience is an educational activity, too.  These parents and friends are often new to this activity, and they deserve to have all the etiquette spelled out.  This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our concern for our students' success while introducing our audience to its very important role in the long-standing ritual of concert performance.

I've been in the presence of a few teachers who truly were masters at handling this important aspect of music education. Their parents respect them for insisting on exemplary behavior from everyone involved. I firmly believe we all need to do this, and I encourage everyone to give serious thought to the creation of a short, positive and clear presentation of proper audience involvement, and use this statement to begin each performance.

Audience etiquette is one of the cornerstone identifiers of a civilized society. It is our responsibility to be sure it is understood and practiced by our audiences as well as by our young performers.  I believe audiences will be more aware of the accomplishments of our students as they become more connected to what is happening before them.  Then they will perhaps be more meaningfully supportive when their help is needed.