Musicians, talk to your audience and tell your story

Invite your listeners to understand why they are here


We would like to welcome Carol Saffer in her first story as a CutCommon contributor.


The importance of audience engagement shouldn’t be overestimated when it comes to music. But the first time I came to learn the value in human connection with artists was not through a musical experience, but at a writers’ festival.

I love writers’ festivals because you hear the story tellers tell stories about the books they have written.

My experience witnessing Steve Toltz was no exception. I had read his debut novel Fraction of the Whole before I listened to Toltz talk about his book. It made me feel different. I still loved it. Now I understood it better. He told me the reasoning behind the characters. He described his wilfulness when creating one of the major protagonists of the novel. What an impact this had on me. It gave me such a sense of being in on a secret, one that opened up his writing to me and me alone.

So, what has this to do with music?

Well, heaps, actually.

For me, there is nothing better than being at a performance when the musician tells you the story behind the music. I think of it as comparable to a meal with friends: Pouring good wine. Placing the food on the table. Sharing the recipe of that special dish that you place before your loved ones. It makes the meal more enjoyable.

It’s all the more special when you tell the story of how and why you concocted the dish, not necessarily following a recipe but perhaps adapting or improvising as you went. You are saying: ‘Come eat at my table, celebrate our time together’. It is welcoming and inclusive.

When an artist takes the time to talk about their music, they are saying the same – come listen and rejoice. Telling the story behind the piece about to be played, or has been composed – or sharing the inspiration and perhaps the anxieties, as well – encourages us as listeners to dive into the waves of the music; not just dip our toes in the water or wade in the shallows. The musician is saying: ‘Let me tell you what is behind this so that you will be buoyed by the music or conversely drown in my passionate performance’.

A conversation with the audience conveys not just the creative process, but is an invitation to understand more about the performance. As members of the audience, we then experience the nuances that one might not otherwise notice. We glean that shining moment when we are lifted out of the ordinary, realising the musician is offering us the privilege to enter their world.

How could you refuse such an invitation?

Yet, there are still musicians who don’t want to talk, or think you are not worthy of hearing their stories of creation, inspiration and improvisation. I once sat through a highly-anticipated concert by a Canadian pianist, accompanied on stage by her three-man band. They were the only people she spoke to all night. She spent the entire concert focussed on having a good time with her band, an act made selfish by her neglect of the audience. The only conversation that night was between four people – the rest of us were not made welcome. It was inhospitable and self-indulgent.

An occasion like this was not made disappointing because of the cost of the ticket, or the attitude of the performer. It was a lost opportunity, for the audience but most particularly for the musicians.

In order not to finish on a sour note let me say that was the exception rather than the rule.

As a guest of the chair of the Melbourne Jazz Festival I attended Kurt Elling’s 2015 performance at Hamer Hall. A tour of back stage before the concert, with a rare treat of actually standing front and centre on the stage, kick-started the evening.

Kurt Elling, his band, conductor Benjamin Northey and the members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra led a conversation with the audience not only with their music but with the accompanying patter and stories. It was engaging, thrilling and personable.

How many times has Elling sung Nature Boy? Yet on the night, he introduced and talked about it so intimately, leaving me with the impression this was the first time he had sung it and was doing so just for me.

I left Hamer Hall with a spring in my step, a song in my heart, feeling connection and affection created by listening and engaging with the musicians on stage.


If you would like to hear musical storytelling in a live performance, we recommend checking out Gemma Turvey hosting the New Palm Court Orchestra’s next event – Freedom Trail on 4 July at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Carol Saffer is studying journalism and chairs the NPCO board.

Image Esparta Palma via Flickr CC2.0.

%d bloggers like this: