There is condescension in every field and every aspect of life. You can’t get away from it. But in the nonprofit arts sector the condescending tone needs to stop. And yes, this is somewhat about the snobby affectation classical music can allude to, but it is more about general decency, especially when the coda to any concert experience is asking for money.
Here is a list of situations. You decide which conversation is a door opener or door closer.
You are a conductor or soloist standing in front of an audience about to perform Pachelbel’s Canon in D. You want these patrons to be impressed, you want these patrons to come again, you want them to love you! After you welcome them to your concert, you feel compelled to talk some more, (maybe they will be so impressed with you and the orchestra a big donation will surely follow!).
Do you say:
A. “As you know, Pachelbel received musical training from Heinrich Schwemmer, who, of course, was the cantor of St. Sebaldus Church….” And continue with more facts and dates.
B. “We hope you enjoy this work and find it as mesmerizing as we do. Please join us at the post-concert reception, we’d love to hear how this work affected you!
You are a well-known orchestra musician in a prominent and very public position. You feel compelled to share the awkward clapping moment between movements from last night’s Tchaikovsky Symphony #6 concert on your Facebook Fan Page.
Do you say:
A. Well that was awkward! Some of our esteemed audience didn’t read that there were four movements in the Tchaikovsky! What a relief when the conductor waved them to stop clapping, hahaha! #rubes.
B. I love when an audience enjoys a work so thoroughly they can’t retain their enthusiasm. That was the most exhilarating third movement of Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony I’ve played in years! I’m grateful for our audience last night and thankful many of you brought friends who experienced their first orchestral concert! #LoveLiveConcerts! #NewAudiencesRock
You are an influential donor and board member who is about to be awarded a plaque of gratitude for your years of service and donations. The audience is awaiting the concert but you will have to say a few words after receiving the plaque before the music can get started.
Do you say:
A. When I was in Europe, attending the farewell dinner for Frederica von Stade, it was then that I realized why I love this orchestra I stand in front of right now. Perhaps it was the words of Renee Fleming that evening when she said to me, “There is no real separation between the work that I do and me [the person who supports and connects to the arts community] because it is what feeds me. I love the arts!” Anyway, thank you for this award, and in the great words of my dear friend Leonard Bernstein (may he rest in peace), “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Enjoy the concert!
B. I’m honored to receive this plaque from this fine organization. This orchestra has been a huge part of my life and one that has brought cultural richness to my city; and for that I am grateful for you all! Let’s enjoy this concert!
It is so easy to desire to appear the authority and expert at your field. But there is a fine line of holding the door open to curious minds and slamming the door shut to insulted minds. People want to come to concerts and they want to feel they are smart for doing so.
Be careful of the tone of voice when speaking to audiences. Here’s a guideline to curb the condescending tone:
Avoid phrases like, “of course,” “as you know,” and “obviously.” It’s hard to leave these words out if you don’t actively hear yourself saying them. I am guilty of this in preconcert lectures I’ve given in the past! But listening to other preconcert lectures as an audience member, it occurred to me that those words actually made me feel dumb for not knowing something I “of course, obviously” should have known!
Publicly shaming audience on social media is a tricky subject. On one hand you want to share your experiences, but on the other hand you may be representing your orchestra by default in the eyes of concert-goers. Be nice and don’t shame people. Your future audiences thank you.
Name dropping and sharing travel to exotic places to dine with stars are like seasonings. You don’t use everything all at once, otherwise you are a bore. Save some mystery for the post-concert conversation and try listening to other people’s travels and experiences too!
And finally, a most important reason for curbing the condescending tone: people like giving to people and orchestras when they are made to feel welcome and intelligent.