How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians


An engaged, enthusiastic, and diverse audience is one of the strongest measurements for justifying an orchestra’s value. During my years as a violinist in various orchestras around the country, I have witnessed audiences lose their enthusiasm for live concerts and turn their backs to orchestras as the result of behavior from those inside the ensemble.

Last month’s article showed how conductors alienate audiences through certain behaviors and this month is the musician’s turn. Of course, not every musician is guilty of the transgressions below but they happen often enough that they contribute to alienating an audience, so I’ve created this step-by-step guide to identify the problems along with some practical advice on how to avoid the traps.

1. Never smile.

You are a serious musician who has spent hours honing your craft. Indeed, most concertgoers aren’t likely to understand the full depth of your artistic understanding. In order to make sure they understand this, it is best to project a brooding manner at all times. This is best accomplished by maintaining stoic expressions at all time, even onstage or when the audience responds to a truly triumphant performance with enthusiastic applause.

Granted, it is impossible to maintain a smile at all times during periods of intense concentration but an appreciative audience likes to know you are not pissed at them for showing up and enjoying a concert when they are applauding. It never hurts to remember that no one likes a martyr and you should respond to sincere applause with affirmative body language (yes, even a smile).

2. Accept compliments poorly.

Especially eager concertgoers will be compelled to burden you, the performer, with compliments on your wonderful performance. This is a nice effort, but had the audience member had the training to realize that you played the fourth sixteenth note four measures after rehearsal letter H slightly sharp they would realize that their praise only masks their ignorance and intensifies your shame. If you can muster the strength to be polite, simply answer the compliment with, “Oh, thanks, but I thought I really played rather poorly,” or “You must not have heard Thursday’s performance, it was much better than tonight.”

One thing not taught in conservatories is how to take a compliment. Musicians seldom know how to respond properly to sincere compliments such as “That was a wonderful performance.” Why is it so difficult to respond with “Thanks, I am very glad you enjoyed the concert,” and let that be it? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard musicians (including myself) offer apologies after receiving a compliment. What’s worse is when musicians go so far as to rebut a compliment which only results in the audience members wondering if their opinion really mattered (or that the ensemble is of low quality).

3. Look down on listeners that enjoy popular classics.

If an audience member mentions that they love Pachelbel’s Canon in D or Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, simply look disgusted like you are looking at a bumpkin that has the audacity to ask for macaroni and cheese at a fine restaurant. Be sure to encourage the patron to move beyond those tastes and point them into something much more intellectual such as Berg or Webern (if you sense they may be sincerely “intellectually challenged” then something like Stravinsky will suffice). Shame them into better taste with all the wit you can muster or listeners such as this keep you shackled to an endless stream of performances of classical music’s greatest hits for your entire career.

Listeners love Canon in D and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for good reason and they should never be embarrassed for what they like. Yes, it is common for musical tastes to grow as the listener is exposed to a wider range of works but that doesn’t devalue works that are historically popular.

Getting people into the door of classical music is hard enough without haughty behavior so musicians could benefit by finding out why listeners like standard repertoire and then finding something in those answers they can use to suggest other works.

4. Never worry about wardrobe.

You are right to assume that the audience only attends the concerts to hear the music. Therefore you mustn’t make a fuss about whether or not your black pants match your black shirt, if you shoes have holes in the soles, or if your tuxedo shirt collar has a stain from the reception 5 years ago. The artistic temperament gives you license to be comfortable first and trendy last.

Starting out in this career, I would never have guessed that audience members would care about what musicians wore onstage. Even so, I encounter a regular stream of patrons who mention something they noticed about a musician’s attire.

Musicians need to remember that patrons regularly bring binoculars to concerts so the next time you think you’re fooling them by using a black marker to mask a stain or that dark brown top can pass for black, think again. Just as we eat with our eyes, we listen with our eyes as well and if patrons didn’t care how the orchestra looked, they’d sit at home and listen to CDs.

5. Keep tabs on your email and texts during concerts.

If you sit in a discreet part of a stage (anywhere but concertmaster) you may certainly take advantage of several measures rest by reaching into your purse or pocket to pull out the PDA or I-Phone. The added bonus is you can check how much more time you have before you can head home.

The temptation is great to use the technology we have in the work place. While these things happen during rehearsals and are generally accepted if it isn’t distracting, at a concert, once again, people have binoculars and are checking out everyone!

6) Complain to patrons about pay at concerts.

You’ll never be paid what you’re worth and you should always let listeners know this. Regardless of how much you earn, you should always be willing to give it all up for a little more.

Although some orchestra musicians certainly earn a good living, the average musician earns well below what it takes to raise a family. Finding the right way and the right time to keep the public educated about an orchestra’s financial issues and a professional musician’s value can be treacherous.

On one hand, you want patrons to know that a living wage is a very important and necessary thing to maintain certain artistic standards. On the other hand, publicly complaining about wages right before or after a concert will leave many patrons with a bad taste in their mouths. After all, these are people who are already willing to pay steep ticket prices and you never know if the individual had to make sacrifices to attend the concert.

Fortunately, when musicians work together they do a good job at finding the best time and place to bring this discussion to the public. As a result, it is best to avoid discussions compensation unless asked and even then, discretion is almost always the best option.

7. Roll eyes when your colleagues make mistakes during concerts.

There is nothing more insulting to you as a professional than a fellow musician that is not performing to your standards. Worse still, someone in the audience might think you were the idiot who made the mistake. Rolling your eyes and/or smirking lets everyone know that you are not only innocent of the transgression but you acknowledge that it was wholly ruined by someone else.

Regardless of how obvious the mistake, it is never professional to acknowledge it with facial expressions or body language. A real professional understands that a well practiced poker face at times of “artistic indiscretion” is the best way to play down mistakes. Even though this seems like a straightforward rule of thumb, it is all too easy for musicians to let this behavior creep into their onstage behavior.

8. Snub anyone and everyone in a lesser artistic position to yours!

Musicians from lesser orchestras, amateur musicians, and former teachers are all snub-able. Although it is acceptable to engage these individuals in the absence of colleagues from your orchestra (or from one better), conductors, or soloists you should keep the interaction to no more than 15 seconds and avoid direct eye contact.

If you get cornered by one of these artistic underlings, do your best to look awkward and invent any excuse to exit the conversation in mid-sentence. Never worry about feelings of those you must depart from; after all, approval comes from above, never below!

It is a shame to admit it, but everyone gets caught up in the social status bear trap at one point or another. Even so, it pays to keep the social fight or flight mechanism from clouding your judgment. You never know who you are talking with so be nice and treat all colleagues with the level of respect you expect they would show to you.

9. Give dirty looks to the audience.

Whether they are coughing too much, drop their program, or clap between movements, audience members need you to let them know when they misbehave. Shooting a stern look in the direction of the indiscretion is a way to let them know they did something bad.

Unfortunately, people need to cough and they will drop programs from time to time and even though these things happen during some inopportune moments they are rarely showstoppers. Regardless of how much these things may distract or annoy shooting accusatory looks out into the crowd doesn’t send a very good impression.

Clapping between movements is a different story. There is a seemingly never ending debate on whether or not proper etiquette exists, but I am confident that there will always be listeners who become so moved by the music that they want to clap at the conclusion of a movement. In this case, perhaps it is useful to apply the old adage “the customer is always right.”

10. Look bored.

Even though it may be your first time performing a work, a true artist has the ability to manage a vacant appearance. A slight slouch adds to the effect so the audience knows that your artistic limits have yet to be reached. For added effect, try to nap during long rests (note: this is especially useful if your instrument is such that you can use it to lean on).

Night after night, performances can turn routine and it is oh so easy to forget the importance of sitting up and remaining fresh. As has been pointed out above, orchestra concerts are visual activities; up to 100 musicians moving, breathing, and phrasing together can be effective visual cues for audience reaction. If the orchestra is on the edge of their seats with excitement, the audience will be as well. If the orchestra is too casual and lackluster, the audience will be fidgety.

Next month’s article will expand the series to include the Top 10 ways managers alienate audiences. Even though they aren’t front and center onstage during performances their actions can have far more impact on how audience members react to the concert environment.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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12 thoughts on “How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians”

  1. I enjoyed your lists and I’m wondering if you’re planning to compile one that takes audience members to task for some equally outrageous behavior. (My favorite is the woman who decided to breast feed her baby during the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto.)

    • Bob,
      I’m glad you have enjoyed the lists so far. Yes, the final installment will be ticket buyers that alienate themselves. That will be out in February.
      Thanks for the comment!

    • Bob – what’s wrong with breastfeeding a baby during a concert? It probably kept the baby from fussing and disrupting other audience members as well as those on stage. As a musician and nursing mother, I applaud this woman.

  2. I have loved your last two articles and laughed out loud. I can’t for the life of me however see what a manager could do to alienate an audiance. lol

    David Adair
    General Manager
    Georgian Bay Symphony

  3. Great article. We need to remind ourselves that we are performers, before, during, and after the show. All our interactions with audience members should encourage a positive experience. As much as I’d like to deck the audience member who asks me in the parking lot if I wish I’d played the flute (instead of schlepping the bass), I’ll remind myself that they are the people who support me and what I do. (“Heh, heh, no only when I have to carry it!”)
    Still, it’s great to lean on the damn thing when the concert gets really boring….

  4. Loved the list. (and the Mangers list as well)

    I’ll also add my classic conversation with a collegue that went along these lines:

    Other: I cant believe those people who clapped between the movements
    Me: Well you re-tuned between the movements
    Other: That’s totally different etc

  5. What about people who bring their toddlers / babies to concerts? (Happens all the time in my Midwest orchestra). Please please can I give a dirty look in the general direction of the offending parent?

    • That’s a great question! While many times babies and toddlers can be loud at concerts, it is something an orchestra should deal with. Many times people just don’t know what is suitable for their kids and orchestras can be vague about suggesting age appropriate concerts for children. It’d be far more productive to have an usher deal with an offending parent than toss dirty looks. My recommendation is to approach the orchestras you frequent and see if they could do a better job at helping parents decide which concerts their children would be welcome, whether offering a guideline on a website or an usher to help.

      That very reason is why I wrote this guide for bringing children to the symphony.

      I hope that answers your most excellent question.


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