You have finally made it: years of study, practice, dedication, and perseverance have landed you your first conducting job. You can’t wait to rehearse the orchestra, lead the connections between phrases, guide the interpretation of a piece, and speak to the audience about it. WAIT, WHAT??! Speak?
Ah yes - in those many years of training, I doubt you had much (if any) time dedicated to learning the nuances of speaking to an audience... or writing scripts... or memorizing lines... Though it may seem daunting at first to get a handle on these particular skills, we must all embrace the challenge, as they are one of the most important aspects of our job as conductors outside of music-making.
Who is your audience?
One of the first things to do is determine your audience. Education, Family, Pops, and Patriotic concerts should not be approached in the same manner, and your script/speaking should be nuanced to fit within a certain framework. Let’s dive a little into each:
Education concerts are typically made in collaboration with an education department of an orchestra, but sometimes you will be flying solo. Either way, these programs have some of the more detailed speaking you will be doing, and you want to keep a few things in mind when writing for (or speaking to) children:
1) Be engaged with them! Anytime I enter the stage for a concert of mostly kids, I always smile and wave at the audience. They almost always wave back, and it helps create a welcoming atmosphere right from the beginning. Also, when you are actively speaking, try to find kids on both the floor and the balcony that you can make eye contact with, as this helps facilitate even a small personally connection to them.
2) Repeat important words/names 3 times. I learned this near the end of my time in Detroit from their incredible education director Debora Kang. It won’t feel natural at first, but if you want the kids to leave remembering some key composer names or musical terms, repetition is key. On the flip side of this - be succinct. Less is more here, unless you want kids to start dozing off between pieces. You don’t need to give them a history or theory lesson, just a few key facts that are interesting.
3) Have a participation element! About halfway to two-thirds of the way through a program, kids are tired of sitting still, no matter how engaging the concert may be. Give them something to do! Have them sing (are you doing Ives Country Band March? Have one half of the room sing “London Bridges” and the other half of the room sing “Yankee Doodle” as a group. Then put the two songs together. They will think it’s hilarious, and it’s a much better example of what’s going on in the piece they are about to hear). Other examples: Give them a clapping exercise based on syncopation. Teach them a bit of basic conducting and invite them to conduct with you on the following piece (turning around at times to the audience in order to encourage them on). We even once had a program in Detroit called “The Orchestra Moves” and we had the kids stand up and do yoga to the music. It was a bit crazy, but I am sure no one forgot their day at the orchestra!
And this last sentence is possibly the most important thing to remember with education shows, or really, any shows involving children (including family concerts). Your main goal is not for them to leave remembering all the music, theory, and history you presented - instead, you want them to remember how it felt to experience a live symphony orchestra and leave them desperate to have that experience again. This feeling is what creates life-long listeners!
Though similar to education concerts, family concerts tend to lean more to the entertaining side rather than the educational side. You still want to make sure you are engaged with them by waving at the start and making eye contact throughout, but in regards to facts and “lessons,” limit your speaking to one or two sentences in between pieces, even skipping talking between pieces every now and then in order to keep the music going.
Also - and this will come into play with pops concerts as well - don’t be afraid to be silly and have fun. One of the greatest lessons I learned in my first professional job at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic was to not be so stiff and serious all the time. The music director at the time, and now my dear friend Larry Loh, knows how to give the audience a good time. Talk in a silly voice, make jokes, wear a costume - or multiple costumes! (On one Halloween family concert I changed into a different outfit for each piece based on what the piece was about - the audience and even the orchestra got a kick out of it). Again, the point is to make sure the audience of young families enjoys their experience and wants to come back to hear the music again and again.
Though often times played outdoors with a more casual setting, I still tend to make my speaking for these events more on the serious side by using a much more detailed and dictated script that I will memorize word for word. I like to find quotes that can be meaningful, and also find different ways the concerts can tie into patriotism. Concerts that are a “Salute to Great American Composers” or a “Salute to Hollywood” allow you to play music that is not necessarily “Patriotic” but still celebrate the achievements in art in this country. You also must find something significant to say to all the veterans in attendance so that they can both become engaged with the performance and be recognized for their service.
These concerts are always more fun and lighthearted, so I always feel that the script needs to be a little more in the style of “Curb your Enthusiasm,” where you have a guideline of what you want to say, but your speaking is more off the cuff. These types of shows are actually some of my favorites, because you can be more loose with your speaking. You can also have fun with the audience and find ways to engage with them on the spot (which will become more natural the more that you do it).
Finally, you always want to have a joke or two in your back pocket. Look up interesting and fun facts about the pieces or the genres that those pieces came from. In my first year in Detroit, I was asked to do a Star Wars show with music spanning all the movies. I had never seen a single movie all the way through, so I binge-watched every one and made sure I knew all the backstories and facts so it would seem like I was a super fan of the movies at the concert. And of course, I complemented my speaking with a light saber baton to start the show and a second half entrance donning Princess Leia buns. (It’s showbiz, folks!)
Writing the script
I actually begin writing a rough draft of the script at the same time I am putting a program together. It could be very few words, or just and idea, but it is extremely useful in figuring out the flow from one piece to the next and how you want to organize the concert.
One big faux-pas to avoid? Making everything the most important thing anyone has ever heard. If you constantly have a poignant statement for every sentence you utter (and likewise use a slow, deliberate voice for such words), it becomes unbearable for the listener and loses it’s effectiveness for those times when it is actually appropriate.
The most important thing in a script is to keep the attention of the audience and to not have too many things to say in-between pieces. The audience is there for the music! You can make or break the experience by being a bore.
Feeling more confident and natural in your speaking will come with time, but the one thing you must always do is make sure the words you are speaking represent your voice - even if someone else has written them. Ask to change certain phrases or the cadence of a sentence to match how you would speak in real life. I always find this helps with memorization as well, as it will be more of your natural way of speaking.
Speaking of memorization, this can take hours depending on how many lines you have, so you must dedicate some practice time to this. I always find it helpful to say the words out loud, even if it is just a whisper. The physical act of saying the words will help cement them in your brain and your muscles so that it becomes routine.
Go one page at a time and when you reach the bottom of the page, try saying the entire set of lines from memory. Just like when practicing your instrument, if you make a mistake, go back and isolate that specific part before going forward. Then move on to page two and repeat the process until you are done. It is a tedious process, but well worth not having to refer to a piece of paper (which will only break any connection you have with the audience each time you look down).
If you have a separate host that you will be interacting with, make sure to set aside time to practice with them outside of rehearsal time. If you are doing a concert that will be webcast and you must do all of the lines during rehearsal, the last thing you want to do is waste the orchestra’s time trying to figure out how to interact with each other.
Speaking to audiences is a way to connect with everyone in the room. Even on more serious programs, you can help to engage the audience more by giving them particular things to listen for, or interesting tidbits to think about while the work is being performed. Give yourself enough time to practice - I used to need to do every script from memory, word for word. But now that I’ve been doing it for a long enough time, I can play around with the words or paraphrase information that I want to give and come up with it on the spot. If you want even more practice, find ways to speak in public! My teacher in college actually volunteered when he was a student to be a DJ for his university radio station so he could practice speaking. Take an acting or improv class on the side - it will help build up your confidence for being in front of people.
Mostly, remember to have fun, and never forget what a joy it is to be able to share with an audience our love for music!