Don’t Speak

Don’t Speak

Lectures, panels, interviews, introducing pieces, answering audience questions: these sorts of speaking engagements come with the territory of being a composer. Personally, this is probably my least favorite aspect of the trade, but I never refuse when people ask me to share my wisdom in public—I think it would be rude to refuse. My problem is, I get nervous and never really know what to say. But when I see a check from Meet The Composer dangling at the end of the tunnel, there’s no turning back and I manage to get the job done.

I only have one fond memory of introducing a piece during a concert. At the 2004 Santa Fe International Festival of New Music, I actually had people laughing—at appropriate moments, I might add—and my easygoing delivery even encouraged audience members to ask questions. This must have been an anomaly because it never happened before or since. Some composers are naturals when it comes to public speaking—Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon immediately come to mind. Maybe I should tell presenters and performers beforehand about my lack of skills in this area.

Or here’s a thought: How about not having composers talk during a concert at all—certainly not just because they happen to be in attendance. As a concertgoer, this would surely make me happy. I can’t stand it when there’s an impromptu lecture in the middle of a concert. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to suffer through ten or twenty minutes of loopy pontificating only to end up feeling uncomfortable, both for myself physically and vicariously for the deer-in-headlights composer. Limiting all the speeches to pre-concert talks or separate events would spare those of us in the audience who came to hear the music.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Speak

  1. JimB

    I find it depressing how articulate most composers are these days. They seem to make their living as much from words (teaching, lecturing, writing grant proposals) as from music. Were composers this verbal in the past? There isn’t enough record of Bach’s conversation for us to know, but I don’t get the impression that Schubert or Beethoven were particularly glib or quick to extemporize a 10 minute lecture on the compositional techniques in their latest piece.

  2. mdwcomposer

    I get nervous and never really know what to say

    And rightly so, Randy. One of the ways I got more comfortable with this
    aspect of the “business” was a few years ago when I finally realized
    that the talking thing is a performance skill. So of course it
    makes me nervous. With that in mind, I decided I could “practice” it
    just like any other performance preparation: planning ahead what I’m
    going to say, timing it (nothing like 5 minutes or less), figuring out
    what I’m going to do with my body in general, and stealing from other
    performers: timing from stand-up comics (even though I don’t try to be
    funny), deportment from singers (they’re trained in it). Hasn’t helped
    my annoyance at having to do it, but it’s made me feel better about the

    But as to the larger point (and building on JimB’s comment), it’s
    disconcerting that we work so hard at manufacturing the music, then have
    to work so hard (or not, some are naturally gifted verbally / socially)
    at keeping our talking chops in shape – chops that aren’t related to
    composing. However, it seems to be part of our job description these
    days, so there we are with “a check from Meet the Composer dangling” as
    Randy says. Fighting it means going against the cult of
    personality which seems to be a cornerstone of life in the 21st century.
    I’m not willing to spend too much time tilting at that windmill. So I
    have a public composer persona that is pleasantly benign, I speak
    slowly, clearly and with a smile. And I write grumpy comments on New
    Music Box about the whole subject.


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