Many of us will be giving our winter or holiday concerts in the coming weeks. With the rolling out of the new core arts standards for music, our concerts will be the performance process and the present standard. The interesting thing about the way the standards are laid out for performance is that all of the expressive and executive aspects of musical performance occur before the presentation of the concert. Students have refined and expressed musical ideas in rehearsal, until their performance can be judged ready to present. The presenting will include expression and utilization of technique developed through rehearsals, but the technique and discovery of expressiveness and how to express through music has already occurred. The students will be sharing what they have learned, and perhaps infusing their presentation with a measure of spontaneity, but overall they are making public something that has been prepared and judged ready for public scrutiny and enjoyment.
The two essential questions that guide the present standard are when is a performance judged ready to present, and How do context and the manner in which musical work is presented influence audience response? In other words, the issue at the concert is not what will be performed, because that has already been determined during rehearsal, evaluating, and refining. The issue for the concert is how will musical work be presented? For much of the audience at a school concert, the most important thing is seeing and hearing one’s child perform. What is performed is not as important as seeing one’s child play or sing the music. This brings about a community and social aspect to the concert. Everyone there knows somebody on the stage, and parents love talking to each other about their own children while waiting for the concert to begin, or during a break.
The context for the concert is also influenced by the culture of the families that are represented. I teach in an urban school district with a large African American population where the gospel tradition is strong. It is not at all unusual for a parent to shout out during a concert “you sing it” or similar phrases. When I was in the midst of my first performances there, I was taken aback and thought I would have to educate my audience on concert etiquette. Fortunately I thought better of it, and accepted gratefully the heartfelt support they were giving their children as they sang in my concerts and shows. Though my concerts may at times sound like a gospel service from the audience, I love the encouragement to the children and to me that this context makes possible. I should say also that there are times when I remind my audience to listen quietly to the children perform when they begin to chat with those around them during the concert.
I’ve also found that how I arrange and manage the performance space affects how the audience receives our presentations. We use a cafetorium that can seat 200 if rows of chairs are set up auditorium style, or that can seat considerably less than that if tables and chairs are used. For our cabaret, we use the space for a dinner theater format. Dinner and a show served together. The ambiance is informal, and there is a quiet din in the hall throughout the show, though not enough to be disconcerting. For the major concerts, rows of chairs without dinner or tables are set up to create a more formal venue, and the audience is noticeably quieter in this environment. I like having my students perform in both types of venues so that they learn there are different purposes and contexts in which musical work is presented, and that different contexts cause the music to be received differently by essentially the same audience.
Concerts and shows are musical events, social events, family events, and opportunities for a school community to celebrate student achievement in the arts. All of these purposes can be positive motivators as concerts are prepared and presented. The concert is part of the performance process is only reached when the rest of that process has been completed and the performance can be judged ready to present.