Crowd energy

After a well-received concert last week at the wonderful McCall Music Society SummerFest 2013, an audience member approached me, pink-faced with excitement. She had adored the concert, she said, and had a question for me. “Does having such an enthusiastic audience have any effect on you, as a performer?”

I considered this. There are certainly few more gratifying sights to walk onstage to than a packed house full of grinning, loudly clapping, palpably excited audience members. Even if one has a crashing case of the don’t-wannas that evening, that kind of energy can lift the spirits tremendously.

The opposite of this is when you walk out to a bunch of bored faces, or a mostly empty hall. In these cases, I sometimes wonder if I ought even to take the repeats, just so everyone can go home sooner. Lacklustre audience energy is particularly perplexing when you feel that you’ve played rather well. There’s that silence after you finish, which fills you with terror, even though you know that the most likely reason they aren’t clapping is that they’re not sure if it’s the end. Then one or two half-hearted, limp-handed claps. You think to yourself, “Perhaps they didn’t like the concert,” and you go home, or to the pub, feeling a bit put out. If only people knew what a boost to the morale nice loud applause can be.

Applause is infectious: when one person starts doing it, other people tend to follow. When I’m an audience member, I always clap loudly out of solidarity, except if the performance was dreadful. To me, it’s part of the audience’s participation in the concert. Concerts aren’t just artifacts deposited on the stage for a bunch of people who are as passive as the furniture. We’re all participants: equal but different, you might say. This is where classical musicians could learn a few things from rock musicians. Classical concerts are quiet-ish, polite-ish occasions. Rock concerts are deafeningly noisy and full of screaming, dancing, applauding fans who sometimes faint with overwhelming joy at the sight of their idols.

This idea led me to think about the religious services of charismatic fundamentalist churches that I’ve sometimes seen on television (and, during my student days, played for). Although the music is typically dire and the preaching laughable, the congregation is entranced. They sway from side to side with their arms in the air, bursting into emotional displays or speaking in tongues. People with chronic illnesses are pronounced healed as they get up out of their wheelchairs or fling away their crutches. It’s as if the energy of the crowd turns ordinarily mild-mannered people into shrieking fanatics.

This kind of mass hysteria is nothing new. Consider the funerals of Ancient Rome, where moneyed families would hire professional mourners to keen and wail loudly during the ceremony. I can only assume that this was because ordinary mourners might be too buttoned-up (or whatever you do to fasten a toga) to have a really good yell themselves, but the professionals’ noisy energy could provoke them to louder lamenting.

Thinking about the Romans inspired me with one of my brilliant entrepreneurial ideas: an employment agency for professional classical music applauders! The clients (performers themselves, concert societies, hall management and so on) would provide free tickets and a small honorarium to the applauders, and in return, the applauders would just about go mad with enthusiasm for the concert, clapping and bravo-ing and leaping to their feet at the end. As coordinator, I’d be paid about $10 per applauder, with an average of 20 applauders per concert depending on the size of the hall. The performers would love it, because the zesty energy of the applauders would inspire them to greater energy in performance. The audience would love it, because they’d feel like they’d been part of something really marvellous. The concert societies and managers would love it, because I’m sure it would increase ticket sales.

Of course, this would never happen. No one has $200 to throw around just to get a good round of applause. But it’s pleasant to daydream, isn’t it?

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