A Story About Relevance

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FEBRUARY 2016 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing.

Not long ago I played a concert with the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra, and my family came to watch the performance. I asked my dad what his favourite piece in the program was, and I was surprised to hear him mention first the contemporary composition written by our composer-in-residence, Sarah Ballard. I thought about this for a long time - it seemed odd that a piece with such an unusual musical language would touch my dad deeply when he knew very little about music at all.

Eventually I had a thought: what if it was because he was a computer programmer? His eyes were always on the details - one small syntax error could make a huge difference in his world. It would make sense, then, if his ears were on the details too; and in a contemporary piece like this, there were plenty of them. Being a musician really changes the way you hear music, so I wondered - could being a computer programmer change the way you hear music too? If I was right about this, what else could affect the way you heard music?

Nowadays, I believe the answer to that question is: a lot. We spend a long time at school thinking about what our relationship is to our performances and the music we play, because that’s incredibly important - but equally important is the relationship that our audiences have to our performances and the music we play. How does the music affect them?

When we’re scrolling through newsfeeds and walking past advertisements in our daily lives, we decide what to read based on what we find relevant. There is something about it that we have a connection to. We live in America, so we care about American politics, whether we are citizens or not. We all have to eat, so we pay attention to what food is available around the spaces we live and work. We like to laugh, so we remember ads that are funny and perhaps talk about them too.

Being a musician affects the way that we hear music because it gives us a set of experiences that allow us to connect to the composer, the performers and the musical material that we are hearing, but that’s surely not the end of the story. Each of us has individual reasons why we find a certain kind of music appealing regardless of whether we are musicians or not. Everyone who is not a musician has reasons of their own, too. This is how, in my opinion, we decide whether or not we find a musical performance relevant - these reasons help us decide what to listen to.

Before I could ever improvise, I found it fascinating to watch musicians improvising because I could see in their eyes - or their eyelids - a combination of freedom and struggle. The freedom that I wanted, and the struggle I wanted to escape. I went to watch people improvise whenever I could; not because I knew anything about what they were playing, but because I could connect to the reasons why they were playing - in other words, their purpose.

As musicians, I would describe our relevance as any kind of relationship that can be formed between our audience and our purpose. When we’re singing songs of unrequited love, most people will be able to connect to that, because most people have experienced unrequited love. On the other hand, there’s a reason why such songs are not the mainstay of children’s television.

Your audience is a huge part of your performance. Personally, I would like for my audiences to enjoy my performances even more than I do - which is a lot! When we take a moment to think about who our audience is, what experiences they might have had, what ideas they have been exposed to, and what might lead them to attend our performances, it can really give us a lot of ideas on how to improve our performances so that they are more engaging for ourselves as well as those listening to us.

Caring about our audience is what makes them care about us. That’s what makes them want to hear us play again. That’s what makes them want to tell their friends about us. That’s what makes them want to support us and help us build a sustainable career - and that, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is something most musicians will probably find relevant.

Perhaps they’re computer programmers. Perhaps they’re teenagers. Perhaps they’re NEC students. Perhaps they’re not. Every detail that makes us who we are affects the way we hear music. As someone who cares about my audiences, I have found that being interested in who they are helps to make our performances more meaningful and enjoyable, enriching the relationships formed when others hear us.