To talk or not to talk

12th March 2012 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 3 comments

Our discussion at the Guildhall on Friday, about talking to the audience, turned out to be unexpectedly interesting. It would take too long to report on all the facets of the discussion, but here’s one of them.

All the performers agreed that talking to the audience is a fine thing, desirable from many points of view, but much more difficult  to do than is commonly realised. It seems that talking uses a different part of the brain than playing an instrument does. Many performers reported that, no matter how calm they felt before they went on stage, their focus was disrupted by the act of talking to the audience. After speaking, they turned to their instrument, only to find that their concentration had become frazzled. Their heart was pumping, their hands were shaking, their vision might be disturbed. Even singers said that, although they obviously use words when they sing, it’s a different matter to use their own words and their own tone of voice when speaking to the audience. Everyone felt more vulnerable.

Performing from memory seemed to be especially affected by talking to the audience immediately beforehand. Some performers agreed that the process of public speaking somehow drags their thoughts up onto a conscious level, and this is counter-productive if you are about to play from memory, when you need a deeper, more trustful attitude. You really need to quell that inner voice which questions things.

In short, it seems that no matter how fervently musicians believe in talking to the audience, there may be inherent difficulties in doing so, and these difficulties might have a neurological explanation.


  1. Mary

    How interesting. So much of the creative and performing process seems to have deep neurological roots that we are only now discovering. As a performer turned teacher, I don’t find talking to the audience so much of a problem at concerts. To me it feels like an extension of the teaching room, where I always talk about the music and try to put it into a historical and stylistic context as we work at pieces. But I don’t perform from memory, so perhaps that is the crucial factor.

    However, as a composer/teacher/performer I know that I go in and out of zones quite consciously. When in the middle stages of composing a piece, I need to be left alone to work in silence, and to be undisturbed until I emerge naturally. Perhaps this need to stay in my ‘composing zone’ is my equivalent of what you describe. I can be very flustered and not be able to explain anything in words for several minutes after a lengthy composing session!

  2. Susan Tomes

    Sounds very similar! The journey you describe, from ‘the composing zone’ to the world of words, is the same one the performer travels, except in the opposite direction. Just as you find it hard to regain the power of fluent speech after a composing session, so a performer might find it hard to ‘get immersed’ in music after chatting to the audience.

  3. peter

    I think I mentioned this to you, Susan, in a letter I wrote to you some years ago, following one of your Guardian columns. The odd thing about this is that for most right-handed people, the part of the brain which handles words is the left hemisphere while music is handled by their right hemisphere. But for trained right-handed musicians, music switches sides sometime during education, and is usually handled by the left hemisphere. Perhaps this is why musicians find it hard to talk and then to play — in both cases, the same hemisphere of the brain is involved.

    Also, our hands are each controlled by the opposite hemispheres of the brain, and this must have an impact for those instruments involving co-ordination of the hands. Only some of the brass family (trumpet, trombone), do not usually require two-handed co-ordination.


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