David Wallace  

Reaching Out: A Musicians' Guide to Interactive Performance

David Wallace
June 26, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

I first met David Wallace in 2006 at a seminar about Teaching Artists that I found inspirational - his enthusiasm, dedication, and enormous wealth of knowledge in the field deeply impressed me. Since then he has written a book, Reaching Out, A Musician's Guide to Interactive Performance, about all he has learned over the years in his role as a faculty member at the Juilliard School and a Teaching Artist for the New York Philharmonic. (Check out his bio - he's also an accomplished violist, composer, and theater arranger.)

David is very involved with the NY Philharmonic's radical Very Young Composers Program; I caught up with him recently at a Young Peoples' Concert pre-concert KidZone activity where he was playing on his viola the melodies that very young people indeed were writing on a white board outside the hall. It was truly inspirational; the kids were beside themselves with glee in wanting to be the next to write a melody for David to play.

David and his publisher have graciously permitted Polyphonic to excerpt the Prelude and first chapter of his book about interactive performances, which is a truly significant resource for any musician who is performing for an audience, young or old, outside of the regular symphonic concert stage experience.

- Ann Drinan

Prelude: A Musical Quandary

During the winter of 1997, I wrestled with a musical quandary. I had just been offered a wonderful twenty-concert visiting artist’s residency in Saginaw, Michigan, but I had to figure out a way to make it work with my repertoire. After all, not every audience immediately appreciates highly polyphonic Baroque works, Texas fiddling, or atonal, contemporary pieces. Amidst the excitement of planning the residency, my mind kept echoing the dubious refrains of concert-presenters and conductors who were considerably more cautious than my newfound friends in Saginaw:

”Kids just don’t like classical music.”

“I think you’d be better off if you presented a piece that told a story.”

“You can’t play any modern music on our series; we have to consider our subscription base.”

“I really don’t see how effective outreach can be done by just one violist!”

As much as I hated to think about these negative pronouncements, I had to admit that each statement was grounded in a stark reality. In order for my residency to succeed, I had to remove every barrier between me, my audience, and the music I loved. I needed a method for making the music come alive.

I spent the following months painstakingly figuring out how I could apply tried and true educational principles to a concert setting. The Juilliard School, the Lincoln Center Institute, and the New York Philharmonic had trained me in powerful methods of creative, experiential teaching that works wonders in long-term residencies, but could these methods work in a performance?

By the end of the residency, I could answer with a definitive, “Yes!” In the process, I had gathered several new proclamations to replace the former ones:

“You play the best music I have ever heard.”
Dustin, fourth grade

“[The concert] was truly inspiring. So much that I have taken up private lessons again and am looking into attending Juilliard.”
Amal, tenth grade

“The song by J.S. Back was cool.”
Andie-ah, fifth grade

“I have terminal cancer, and your concert just did me more good than all my chemotherapy treatments combined!”
A seventy-year-old Episcopal priest

I had found a powerful way to share my music with the public I so fervently wanted to reach. I am writing this book so that you and other musicians can do the same.

By nature, any form of serious music may not be easily accessible or instantly gratifying to the broader public. Unfortunately, few people spend time learning to appreciate something that offers no immediate payoff. Moreover, in our multicultural, postmodern worldview, classical traditions have lost their elitist claims of being “superior music.” Cultural and social status no longer provide significant motivations for attending concerts.

Clever marketing may draw new listeners to the concert halls, but audience members will return only if they are truly captivated by the concert experience itself. Our best recourse is to rethink the way we present our music.

This book presents a method for opening and heightening the perceptions of your audiences so that they are just as passionate about your music as you are. Most importantly, this method is grounded in the music itself, not marketing shenanigans or extramusical gimmicks. Various artists, ensembles, and orchestras have tested, refined, and contributed to this approach as it has developed. The ideas presented in this book represent contemporary practice, not just theory.

Although many of my examples come from the experience of classical musicians, this method has worked for performers of jazz, bluegrass, Latin, folk, and other musical styles. If you are a serious musician who wants to give your audience a deeper experience of music, this book is for you. Let’s go out and open some ears!

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