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November 1993 Viewing Audiences Objectively, An Interview with Robert Spevacek, By Harvey Phillips

Robert Spevacek has been director of bands at the University of Idaho’s Hampton School of Music for 25 years and teaches conducting, euphonium, and tuba. He was formerly a high school band director in Delavan, Wisconsin and is a member of the American Bandmasters Association and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. Several years ago we heard of his interest in learning how audiences respond to the choice and sequence of music performed at concerts and what draws people to band concerts in the first place.

How do you view the importance of music for a concert?
   Several years ago, while watching a percussion ensemble perform all of the latest percussion compositions at a state music convention, I happened to turn around and look behind me. What I saw there was a crowd of people with eyes glazed over. They looked like hundreds of deer staring into car headlights. Although the percussionists played splendidly and had worked hard to prepare for the concert, no one in the auditorium wanted to listen to that music.
   After this experience I wondered what the audiences looked like during some of my performances, so I videotaped the next several concerts, but I aimed the camera at the audience from backstage. They were unaware of the taping; I just wanted to find out what held their attention and what turned them into transfixed deer. The results were not entirely startling, but there were enough surprises to make me think about how each piece of music will be received and whether anybody will want to come to the concert to hear it.
   In judging the effectiveness of the programming for a concert, directors should not rely on the comments from those in the audience, as these are often misleading. Any audience, and particularly one comprised of parents, will generally praise a performance even if the program consisted of musical genres that were difficult to comprehend. Until fairly recently it was a good formula for having no one show up at a concert to program new music. In recent years, however, band and orchestral composers have produced some wonderful new music that educated audiences will come to hear and feel confident that they will be intrigued if not thrilled or entertained. The key to a satisfied audience is to give an excellent performance, one with the right notes played at the right time with good tone and musicality. If those elements are missing, an audience may pay attention to the peripheral details but will not be entranced by the music itself. This is true regardless of what music is on the program.
   It is important to remember that audiences like melodies. At the 1984 International Brass Congress at Indiana University many of the programs were quite traditional with lots of the Carnival of Venice type of music. This was a very sophisticated audience that loved every bit of the tuneful and masterfully played fare. At one time players avoided those old chestnuts and preferred to stay on the leading edge with avant-garde music. If that brass congress had occurred in 1968, the program would have been entirely different.
   My programs tend to consist of 50-75% new music that has features that will make people want to listen. My colleague, Daniel Bukvich, has an amazing ability to write pieces that reach across the footlights. His well-constructed compositions frequently incorporate visual elements that excite audiences without being trite. I also include traditional pieces that are proven crowd pleasers.

Have you developed a formula for selecting and organizing pieces within the concert?

   It is certainly not a hard and fast formula, but I usually start with a piece that is sure to grab the audience’s attention. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly fast or slow. We might start with an overture, such as Candide, or an exciting chorale prelude. Whatever starts a program is of paramount importance. Whenever faculty members listen to audition tapes for hours on end, I have noticed that they frequently listen to only the first 20 seconds of a tape. If the first 20 seconds are not well done, they stop listening. By the same token a concert should have something to turn the audience on. Even more important than the opening is what closes each half of the program. A particularly dramatic work almost has to end the concert, or at least the first half.
   At the 1968 M.E.N.C. convention in Seattle, the Oakland Youth Symphony played something called a theater piece. Written in a 1960s style, the work was Jewel Encrusted Butterfly Wing Explosions.
   The musicians rearranged the stage for a long time, and the audience was restless for the piece to begin. Finally, it became obvious that the work had already begun; one musician bounced a beach ball and others carried a mummified violinist on stage. These bizarre activities continued for about 45 minutes.
   About a third of the audience left early, but I stuck it out to see how the performance ended. Of the people remaining, one-third cheered wildly and about a third booed. I thought the strong response was wonderful, even if people hated the piece. At some concerts the audience merely reacts to the performance; in this case people developed strong opinions about the music.

Do you program marches on concerts?
   Not every time, but I use them frequently. Marches are a great part of our band heritage, audiences love them, and they have the potential to be played very musically. Recently we played a piece that we referred to as the National Anthem of Hades. It is a very dramatic work and the crowd seemed to enjoy it, but I thought we would have an entire audience of axe murderers if we left them like that. We closed with Manhattan Beach March, which inspired one student to tell me, “You are the only person I know who can make a lullaby out of a march.” I replied, “That’s what the tune is.” Another time we might play Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite just because it’s fun. As with all music, marches should be played with the utmost musical integrity to be effective.

Another important consideration when performing concerts is the appearance of the ensemble, but many young players don’t realize they are under a microscope.

   Having judged many contests, I can almost tell how the music will sound by watching the band sit on the stage and measuring its enthusiasm. To give an excellent performance, the conductor and players have to be excited about the music programmed. That spirit travels like an umbilical cord all the way out to the audience. Many people at a concert pay attention to what they can see as much as to the music. Conductors can use this to their advantage by programming works with effective visual aids, such as slides or players actually moving on stage. Again, I program works such as Voodoo and Surprise Pattern Illusion by Daniel Bukvich because he combines visual and musical elements so well. Conductors should avoid programming these all the time because people would get very tired of it.

What techniques do you use to build an audience?
   The school of music mails concert information and puts notices in the paper. Mailing lists are fine, but I believe that people in my community read the local paper carefully. The newspaper could put one line about a concert on the sports page, and many people will see it and attend. Putting on a great advertising campaign with pictures in the paper doesn’t increase the audience all that much. Building an audience is the result of making sure that every concert will excite them. It is a thrilling performance that brings people back the next time. My concerts always include a soloist to give students and faculty members an opportunity to play important solo works and to create a different texture. I find that vocal soloists interest audiences the most. Although some conductors don’t want to play transcriptions of classical vocal literature, there are many original pieces that are excellent for winds.
   I program many transcriptions, perhaps as much as a fourth of our repertoire, because the students need to hear and perform works by master composers. Some people in this business raise an eyebrow at that and say we should perform only original works, but musicians have been playing transcriptions for centuries. Unless an original work consists strictly of string or piano music, it may transcribe well for band.

What methods work to lure people into attending a concert for the first time?
   Each semester the university offers a music survey course, which is taken by hundreds of students. Throughout the class students hear a variety of concerts and ensembles. Most of these students have never graced the door of a concert hall because they didn’t know they would enjoy it. Even after the course ends, many continue to attend concerts.
   Since the course started a few years ago, we nearly fill the hall for most concerts. I estimate that my audiences include 25% music majors, 25% townspeople, and 50% students from outside the school of music. The hall seats about 450 people, and our concerts draw 300-400, depending on the time of year. If a performance occurs during a week when every student is writing ten papers put off until the last minute, the audience will shrink. Although we don’t have packed concerts every time, the music faculty has found a good formula to encourage people to give music a try.

Many beginning directors struggle to devise entertaining programs that draw a large crowd. How do you help students to prepare for this?

   I teach a literature course for aspiring band and orchestra directors. We examine programming formulas, discuss music proven to please audiences, and analyze how to publicize concerts. I tell students that these are some of the elements of a successful program, but nothing builds public support like a series of good performances.
   In good music programs students develop good musical skills and will ask their parents to attend concerts. As word spreads about the program, audiences should continue to grow. When players develop a good, characteristic tone on their instruments, people will come to hear it. People flock to Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts to hear Bud Herseth play. Even if he merely tunes on an A at the beginning of a concert, his artistry speaks for itself. If a different trumpet player performed with a lesser sound, the audience would form a different impression. When a concert is well performed, people will come back to hear the next concert.

Do you share this philosophy with younger groups appearing at contests?

   Yes, after playing challenging music many ensembles are disappointed if I give them a poor rating. I tell them that playing difficult music poorly is easy, but playing easy music well is hard. All works should be performed in a thoughtful way, and if music is not worth performing intelligently, then skip it. Think back to the many cornet recordings by Gerard Schwartz. Others played the same piece in a pedestrian fashion; he created glorious music. Recently, I heard the Summit Brass give a superb concert of old chestnuts. Any audience that turns up its nose at that shouldn’t come back.
   Of course, all great music can be ruined by a poor performance. In the wrong hands, a Mozart piano concerto becomes only a bunch of scales. A fine artist takes those scales and gives them meaning. Achieving this level puts a tremendous obligation on school conductors who have to draw performances out of players who may not understand the true nature of music.

An audience may not be highly musically trained, but can tell if music is played well or poorly.

   Absolutely. Put young kids in the audience, and they won’t be able to tell you why they like something, but they can tell what is good. Their perceptions will be accurate.

Do you ever talk to the audience during concerts?
   I talk to the audience only if a piece really needs an explanation. The music ought to speak for itself. I do not use program notes for every piece, only when it has a special element. Once I conducted The Flying Dutchman overture in the same hall where the Sousa band had played several concerts, so I told the audience about those performances.
   With a new work or one with poetry or vocals, I may give a little background information. This can be overdone. Many people in our business feel obliged to tell an audience something about every piece. I am offended by this approach at concerts. Incidentally, listening to myself also bores me in pretty short order.
   I remember conducting my high school band on Gunther Schuller’s Meditation, a work that is heavy on the ears of an audience attuned to nothing but tonal music. I asked students to tell their parents that they would not like the piece and to warn their grandparents that they would absolutely hate it. With that information in mind, I figured some of the audience would at least come to the concert with curiosity. We finished and there was no sound. I thought, “Good Lord, they’ve left.” Actually they enjoyed the piece because we had prepared the audience; having been challenged to hate it, they liked it.

What other ideas do you have to share about programming? Your idea of filming the audience is a stroke of genius.
   Directors have to be in a real good mood when watching the tape because it can be a disappointing experience. You may play an excellent piece, but after four minutes, eyes begin to glaze over.
   The principal thing I have learned is to vary the texture of the program. I recommend using soloists, particularly vocalists, because they always hold an audience’s attention. Look for special pieces that are unusual enough for people to remember. People are writing good, experimental works that are worth performing, but be careful not to overdo it. There is nothing wrong with programming music familiar to the audience.

How do you feel about musical treatments of Broadway shows?

   Again, it depends on the type of program. Our particular audience knows that we perform a fair amount of art music. Every fall we give a homecoming concert, for which the esoteric stuff is replaced by a basic 1812-overture concert. With a school audience, Broadway melodies are fine if the students recognize the tunes.
   Last year a faculty member gave a lecture on the Idaho community bands movement, and we complemented her talk with a basic light-cavalry-overture concert. The audience thought it was wonderful, and it was.

What do you hope to accomplish during your sabbatical year away from teaching?

   My project for the year is secondary research into the academic benefits of participating in music programs with special attention to the types of deci
sion-making skills that students develop. Secondary research is, of course, a fancy term for pulling together others’ work and making one’s own conclusions. There are those who would argue that the inherent benefits of the art of music should alone be sufficient reason for music’s place in the curriculum. They are right, of course, but the decision makers need information with some solid numbers. A survey in O.K. Today reported that the vast majority of Fortune 500 C.E.O. so credited continuing participation in music as a significant factor in their development. The country that had the highest test scores in science and math a few years ago is also the only country that requires ten years of music education for every student. One study from California argues that students performed better in science and math by going directly from rehearsals to those classes. I am simply curious as to why these things are so. There are currently many people who are looking for answers to these and similar questions; I simply want to listen to their voices and per haps add my own.           

Harvey Phillips is Executive Editor of The Instrumentalist and Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University.