Speaking A Cappella

It’s no secret that classical musicians are among the most sublime communicators of ideas and emotions. Whether singers or instrumentalists, they use their art to reach parts of the human mind and soul that mere spoken language cannot.

But what happens when you take away this most potent of all communication tools? When the scores are put away and the violin cases are snapped shut, do musicians suddenly turn into shrinking violets and stammering wallflowers? Or do they continue to blossom as witty, precise, natural and engaging conversationalists and speakers?

The answer can be as complex as the nature of music itself, according to a handful of prominent professionals whose daily work involves the writing, performing, conducting or discussion of classical music.

“In my own observation, it really runs the gamut,” says Grant Gershon, the music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “The musicians I know can broadly be broken down into two categories. There are those who express themselves clearly and have a natural performer’s instinct to make verbal connections the same way they make musical connections, and who seemingly use the same part of the brain to do that. But I also know musicians for whom music might actually have been a substitute in their early development for verbal skills. Some of them would rather do anything imaginable than [verbally] introduce a piece of music they’re about to perform or banter with the audience.”

Peter Schickele is not one of the latter group. A well-known and well-loved American composer of legitimate modern classical music, Schickele is best known for his fictitious brainchild P.D.Q. Bach, supposedly the last and least talented of the children of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the service of his loopy creation, Schickele has composed an equally loopy body of comical “classical” music and has traveled extensively, performing it with various ensembles and soloists as “Professor” Peter Schickele, the greatest living authority on P.D.Q. Bach.

Schickele admits to being a lifelong ham –“my mother said I was a born performer and that I started entertaining people when I was 18 months old” – who relaxes when he’s in front of an audience. “I was that annoying young man who would deliberately fall down a flight of stairs to shock people – if there was carpet on the stairs.” 

Educational Programs Aid Communication
Schickele acknowledges that many musicians use their art as a kind of substitute for verbal skill, but adds that “these days, more so than 50 years ago, musicians are often involved with educational programs or outreach that requires them to talk.” And, over time, they improve.

Operatic soprano and educator Carol Vaness was involved in just such a program in the early years of her professional singing career. Vaness, who began singing in 1979 with the New York City Opera and has since performed on the greatest opera stages of the world with such legendary singers as Luciano Pavarotti, today is a professor of music at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

“Speaking, if you’re an outgoing blabbermouth like me, well, it doesn’t scare me,” she says. “And I don’t need a script mainly because I began my career with a group called Affiliate Artists, based out of the San Francisco Opera. It was an outreach program where they wanted everybody to enjoy the arts, regardless of whether or not you had a lot of money...We did what were called ‘informances’ and we became adept at emceeing, interviewing and being interviewed.”

Not everyone has found it so easy. Vicki Bentley, a violinist with the Springfield (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra and a Toastmaster for nearly 10 years, says such programs helped her hone her verbal communication skills. Heavily involved in charity work, Bentley said she always found nonverbal communication through the performance of music to be almost second-nature, but that speaking came a bit harder.

“I find it more difficult to communicate verbally,” she says. “Sometimes I tend to get a little bit misunderstood. But musical communication on a nonverbal level comes naturally to me.

“Communication happens at many levels, and Toastmasters is all about those different levels and the details that are involved. So much of communication is nonverbal, and the language of music is universal. Music can reach the parts of the brain at the most basic levels, which is something speech can’t do.”

Still, she says, bridging the gap between verbal and nonverbal communication has made her a better speaker and a better musician. She says she recognizes singing as a particularly refined amalgam of the two: “Music and language are a conjoined effort. They enhance one another. That’s why singing is so effective in teaching. The words teach, and the song helps you to remember.” 

Making the Leap
Elan Chalford, a violinist who lives near Tampa Bay, Florida, and a Toastmaster for nearly 12 years, views speaking and playing music as a dexterous mental leap. The two activities involve two different parts of the brain, he notes. When you’re in front of an audience talking and performing music, the key skill that’s needed “is to be able to move back and forth between those two parts of the brain,” Chalford says. “It’s a lot more difficult than people might think. When I started doing it, I could feel a resistance, a kind of wall I had to pass through. But the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

Chalford says Toastmasters has greatly improved the speaking part of his presentations. “After I had been with Toastmasters for a while,” he says, “when I was with any band on stage and something needed to be said, I could easily step up to the microphone and say something, whether it was a question of filling time or introducing a tune.”

Most classical musicians are highly trained and well-educated, says Gershon (who is also a pianist and vocalist, in addition to his role as a choral conductor), “and it’s a lifelong learning process. The amount of training that goes into being a musician is really extraordinary, and the greatest and most interesting musicians are always the most well-rounded and have the best sense of how their music fits into the culture at large.”

Are singers better than instrumentalists at expressing themselves verbally simply because they deal with words set to music rather than notes alone? It may be more complex than that.

“Singing,” says Vaness, “requires a great ability to think fast and re-create a feeling – for example, within the throat or how you take a breath – a physical sensation. There’s a great deal of immediacy.” Beyond the merely physical, however, singers, even if they aren’t naturally comfortable in front of an audience, prepare themselves in such a way that they end up looking as if they’re good at it. “Part of our job is to be actors,” she notes.

Gershon agrees that singers tend to be “more showy” on stage than instrumentalists, but “with vocalists it’s not only that they’re using their voices to express themselves, they’re also used to confronting an audience – looking right at them and seeing their faces. Instrumentalists are used to performing sideways, almost ignoring that the audience is there.”

Or they may shrink into the background, fading into clichés. Jokes about musicians in the various sections of a symphony orchestra are legion, and generally reflect common assumptions about the players’ personalities: Brass players have big egos, double reed players are shrinking violets, percussionists are anarchists, and so the stereotypes go. To some extent, it’s true that when someone is in effect buried inside a large orchestra, smooth repartee may not be that musician’s stock in trade.

“Orchestral musicians have to, by definition, be good listeners,” says Jim Svejda. “And if you’re playing in an orchestra’s fiddle factory [the extensive violin section] you don’t exactly lose the will to live – I’m being a bit facetious here – but you do lose a bit of individuality.” 

Talking on the Radio
Svejda (pronounced SHVAY-da) is perhaps the best-known classical music disc jockey in the United States. He appears regularly on KUSC-FM in Los Angeles and is the host and producer of the nationally syndicated radio series, The Record Shelf, which is carried by nearly 200 public radio stations. He has interviewed hundreds of classical musicians on the air and says that the more he interviews, the fewer he can pigeonhole as being eloquent or tongue-tied.

“It’s really case by case,” he says. “Some musicians are incredibly eloquent, like [the American composer] Ned Rorem. But with other musicians you can understand why they chose music as a means of communicating, because they find it very difficult to put a sentence together.”

One of Svejda’s favorites over the years, for both musicianship and eloquence, is Daniel Lewis, a former professor of music at the University of Southern California (USC) and the now-retired conductor of USC’s celebrated symphony orchestra.

“He’s one of the great conductors of his time,” says Svejda. “And [at USC] he had one of the great musical programs anywhere. He could communicate with anyone and get the ideas through to them. It was no accident that his kids on a given day could outplay just about every professional orchestra in the world.”

Such communication is not easy, says Gershon.

“For conductors, it’s very important to express yourself clearly and succinctly, because time is money in a rehearsal, and people are there to sing and not be lectured to,” he says. “But you also have to communicate the emotions of the music and give the context in which the music was created. In a nutshell, you have to be able to inspire verbally, in as efficient a manner as possible. It’s a challenge.”

Finding comfort with speaking may be easier for the modern conductor, says Schickele.

“The old European conductors didn’t talk too much,” he says, “and their musicians didn’t want them to. They preferred them to say what they had to say in a concise manner, or with body language. These old conductors were almost considered godlike. But back then they didn’t have to do fundraising events and talk to people about money. Conductors today do. And in some cases it’s become popular for conductors to talk directly to the audience.”

Still, to hear musicians at their most engagingly vocal, catch them after work.

“[There’s] nobody like orchestral musicians for great stories,” says Svejda. “They watch the conductors and the soloists and the singers and are firsthand witnesses to the most outrageous things that happen. It’s great people telling great tales.”

Says Schickele: “One thing that always impresses me is that people have this idea of musicians as stuffed shirts, humorless kinds of people. In fact, symphony orchestra members make up one of the greatest repositories of jokes in the country. They are tremendous fun, socially.”

Patrick Mott is a Southern California-based writer and a regular contributor to the Toastmaster.