Priming an audience for traditional songs

The gig went well last night. Lots of people showed up, including a lot of repeat listeners, and they were enthusiastic and appreciative. But we didn't play that well. The room was noisier this time, so it was harder to hear ourselves and each other. It was also harder to feel a connection with the audience. They seemed to be with us, but they talked through most of the night, including the slower quieter numbers.


I have a new idea about events like this. Perhaps for any highly sensitive person like me, when an event, an encounter, or a conversation is disappointing, our natural inclination is to replay it – especially our perceived errors – over and over again, to analyze what went wrong. This is a very unpleasant circuit of thought, and I have doubted that it actually helps me; rather I suspect that the undermining of my confidence and the additional stress that I give myself is probably more than equal to any insight I can glean into potential self-improvement. So generally I have tried to stop myself from thinking and replaying my "worst moments".



However, resisting thought is, as I understand it now, the opposite of meditation, and I may easily surmise, the opposite of being at peace. As I have just stated, to think about these things is in my nature. Should I attempt to be unnatural to find more satisfaction? I think probably not.



I am intrigued by another possible tactic: to allow myself to revisit my errors – particularly those in performance – in order to correct them and reinforce the memory of the right way – in other words, to practice. The wonderful thing about brain plasticity is that virtually anything unpleasant can be rewritten. I can rebuild my memory of events. To a degree, I can change the past, because the only past that exists is my record of it.



So I am looking forward to practicing songs today, and I'm sure that will be helpful. But that isn't the thing I need to focus on to change my memory of last night. Perhaps more importantly I have to alter the way that I connected with the audience.



Perhaps it was an error to launch both set one and set two purely with music. I thought that would be a strong enough marker of the start of our performance, but I am now imagining a different way. I think it may have been best, it may have been more effective, for me to acknowledge the people who had come to see us, and to tune into their collective mood, and to invite them in a specific way to partake in what we were about to share, rather than just assuming they would tune in to us and the feelings expressed through our music. Similarly, before expecting certain behavior and body language from them, I could have expressed what they should expect from us.



I have done that in other shows recently. For example, I have expressed repeatedly that I think traditional music is far more comparable to TV and movies then it is to popular contemporary music. Old songs are not that suitable for defining a generation or an "in" group. They are ineffective as the aural wallpaper of commercials, shopping malls and offices. But they are extremely useful catalysts for imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. Like theater or literature, they allow you to momentarily live someone else's experiences.



Perhaps the best way to prime an audience for traditional music is to get them ready to ask profound questions about life and about themselves: "What if I needed to commit a crime to survive? What if I had to leave the country and never see my loved ones again? What if I lived in a very different time? What if supernatural phenomenon like witches and ghosts were real? What if alcohol was really the most pleasurable thing in life for me? What if I were young and handsome and single? What if I took more risks? What if the people I trusted the most betrayed me? What if I was a man instead of a woman or a woman instead of a man?"



It occurs to me now that one of the great appeals of ballads for me is the lack of character study. For each person in a ballad we are very rarely told anything of their personality or their likes and dislikes. Mostly it is just their actions that are reported. Their choices are revealed, but very little of the reasoning, because, I think, it is so easy to imagine. That imagining is the real pleasure. In fact, when there is a detail in a ballad that is difficult to explain, the story is even more fascinating because it requires more imagining. For example, why does the lady take the time to kiss her would-be rapist's lips once and twice while he is sleeping in The Broomfield Hill? And why does the frolicsome damsel with her hair tied up in a black velvet band place the stolen watch in the hand of a man she has just met? Clearly you haven't really heard these songs until you start to imagine all that they imply.



The point of this music is not to be pretty or raucous or soothing or even fun, although obviously it can be all of those things. The goal of the musicians should never be to make people marvel at their skill, although they may do that. The point is to help people live more than they can in their lives by imagining themselves in other peoples lives. Ballads are life.