Boy, it was strange typing that title. After all, when you’re in the information biz like Modern Drummer is, you’re generally trying to get people to do the opposite. But we’re also in the music biz, and the aim there, at least when you’re on stage, is to connect with an audience. And that’s hard to do when you’re staring at notes on a page.
Recently I had the thrill of watching all three of my kids perform at their annual middle school string concert. A week earlier, I had the pleasure of helping out at our local high school’s jazz festival, where I spent a lot of time on the side of the stage. The jazz festival was uniquely cool because I got to be a fly on the wall as each group prepared to go on. Like most parents of teenagers, I find mine and their friends fascinating to be around. Their nervous energy, their charmingly awkward social graces—they’re reminders that we humans spend a large portion of our lives in a constant state of learning, and improving.
And it’s great fun to watch young musicians prove their skills in front of their families, friends, and neighbors—especially players who are visibly enjoying themselves. I can clearly recall one boy attacking his drums with the glee of a young Keith Moon, and one girl swaying emotionally, eyes closed, as she elegantly bowed her violin. Mostly, though, the young musicians at both events seemed to be processing the performances quite internally, not only avoiding looking into the audience as they played, but at each other.
Of course, it’s to be expected that teenagers aren’t yet expert at the “performing” part of performance. And at contemporary school jazz festivals, the music can be pretty darned complex—Chick Corea’s “Spain,” anyone?—and having charts is a given. So we should temper our criticisms. Consider this, though: Everyone in the audience on both nights, including me, was truly floored by the instrumental chops, the understanding of dynamics and ensemble playing, and the reading skills of all the schoolchildren on stage. But the players who were the most compelling…you could feel the extra connection they were making due to the fact that they were so obviously enjoying the act of making music. Whether they knew it or not, their openness and comfort onstage gave them an advantage.
Especially considering plummeting record sales and the renewed importance of live work to a career in music now, what if we all made it a point to encourage young players to take learning how to connect with an audience as seriously as acquiring the more traditional music skills? It’s something that us older folks could use brushing up on as well. In fact, in this month’s Concepts column, Mark Schulman, who’s spent decades upping his stage game with artists like Pink, Cher, and Foreigner, lays out specific methods for us to do just that. As Mark suggests, fully attending to our audiences’ need for some type of relationship with us beyond the notes really is more important than ever. Because one way or another, they will remind us of that.