Glenn Gould claimed to “detest” audiences, regarding them as “mob rule” and “a force for evil” (he retired from performing in public at 31), but most performers take a far more positive and generous attitude towards audiences.

Audiences – real living, breathing audiences – have been much missed over the past year with concert halls, opera houses and theatres closed for months in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing performances from empty venues like London’s Wigmore Hall are a poignant reminder of how important audiences are; they’re an integral part of the concert experience and without an audience a performance isn’t really a “concert” in the truest sense of the word.

Glenn Gould had a good reason for his dislike of audiences: he suffered from stage fright and saw the public concert as a “gladiatorial” experience, the audience a hostile force, hungry for evidence of weakness or errors on the part of the performer. The fear of making mistakes in front of other people – a natural human instinct – is very common amongst performers, professional and amateur, and is one of the main drivers of performance anxiety.

We don’t want to mess up in front of other people, of course we don’t. We want our performances to be as close to perfect as possible, with just the right amount of technical assuredness combined with artistry to draw the audience into the music’s soundworld, transport them, excite and enthrall them. But perfection is a human construct, an idealas opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. We are all human – even the most incredible musicians who enjoy almost god-like reverence – and we are all fallible. Accepting this is one of many ways we can better understand and manage performance anxiety.

Audiences don’t come to concerts hoping to see the performer fail. They are not there to spot errors or imperfections in performance; they have paid for tickets because they want to hear the musicians perform. They are there because they want to be there, to hear the music, and because they enjoy the concert experience and admire the performers. 

Performing is about connection not perfection. As musicians, we want to connect with our audience to communicate and share our music with them. It’s a sympathetic, almost supportive relationship, as the audience create atmosphere and a sense of occasion in the concert hall – and also affect the acoustic of the venue. That special relationship between musicians and audience has been much missed over the past year, and almost every musician I know cannot wait to be back in the concert hall performing to a real live audience once again.


This quote by English conductor Mark Wigglesworth, from a recent British newspaper article, has resonances with the philosophical statement “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Of course what Wigglesworth is referring to specifically is the lack of audiences for music this year, due to concert halls being closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In his article, he accepts that there has been plenty of excellent online music-making and performances, not to mention broadcasts of archive performances (for example, from the BBC Proms archive), but he makes the very important point that audiences contribute to the special atmosphere of concerts (something I have covered in a previous article), and provide “an intensity of concentration for both performer and listener”.

But does music really not “exist” if no one is listening to it being played? Of course not – and in fact, musicians are very used to playing without an audience: most of the time this is what they do when they are practicing.

Music is an act of communication whether playing to a live audience, recording equipment in the studio, or to oneself in the practice room or the comfort of one’s home. Wherever we play music –  to a full house at Carnegie Hall or at home alone – we bring to life the dots and squiggles on the page, communicating the composer’s ideas.

Never underestimate the power of just playing music alone, of being able to explore a score by oneself. For virtually every musician, professional or amateur, this kind of playing is how we get to know the music intimately and through which we make the most interesting and intriguing musical discoveries. When we play alone, we play for and to ourselves, but this is still an act of communication. The player is also a listener – and if one is undertaking serious work on a piece of music, the act of communicating to oneself and feeding back on what one has heard is a crucial part of the process of practicing and refining.

There is, of course, another important aspect to playing alone and that is the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from playing without practicing – playing for the sheer pleasure of it, nothing more. At times like this, we revel in the sounds, the feel of the notes under the fingers, the physical and emotional responses the music provokes. Many of us have favourite pieces which we turn to for this kind of playing. This kind of playing is relaxing and therapeutic – a way to unwind after a busy day, or to de-stress; it is also precious, deeply intimate and personal. And for professional musicians, whose diaries are, sadly, still mostly empty, a curious benefit of the coronavirus lockdown is that many are rediscovering the joy of this kind of music-making, free from the pressures of the profession.

There is nothing more wonderful than hunkering down with a piano in splendid isolation, especially at night! – Howard, amateur pianist

Music exists the moment it emerges from the instrument, and never ceases to exist thereafter –  and someone is always communicating and listening, even if it is just the person who is playing…..

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash