Audiences. The first time I noticed something in the audience, I was playing the finale concert at my first band camp. It was the summer before entering sixth grade. I was concentrating on the music so hard. I didn’t let my attention wander in the rests. I didn’t want to screw up.
I looked up and saw my mom giggling when she caught my eye. After the concert I asked her, “What was so funny?”
“You were mouthing the numbers of the rests so big, everyone knew exactly where you were.” (ONE, two, three, four. TWO, two, three, four. THREE, two, three, four…)
Fast forward a few decades. I’m the director of an arts integration program for secondary schools in northwest Ohio. The performance is an in-school presentation that demonstrates the athleticism and discipline of classical ballet.
There is a small cluster of corn-fed high school wrestlers sitting front and center on the bleachers. They snicker at the male dancer when he’s warming up. They wince and hold their groins when he drops into splits. But when he’s paired with the female dancer in their Adagio work, they stop giggling. Their mouths drop in awe as they can relate to the strength and control the male dancer displays in a slowly turning attitude derrière into a promenade. OK, that’s fancy ballet talk. Here’s the best male dancer I’ve ever seen. Go ahead and let your jaw drop.
Watching the transfixed faces receive the gifts of the muses is to witness the full power of art.
I’ve been watching audiences for a long time. It wasn’t until I curiously searched the internet for “audience watching,” that I actually found this Chicago Tribune article, “The revealing art of watching audiences watching the arts,” that left me a bit cold. I don’t watch audiences for market research. I watch them to understand them and to find affirmation in the true meaning of art as a relationship between performer and audience. The writer isn’t cold, but is amused by seeing reactions. We’re kind of the same, I guess.
I still watch the faces of parents as they joyfully hear their kids squeak out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the clarinet. I see it on the faces of 8th graders as they watch the gods of the high school musical take command of the auditorium spotlight. I see it in the knowing smile of a senior citizen hearing the tunes of their teenage years at a Doo Wop Revival show.
I saw it in the eyes of my five year old son when he first encountered a busker in a New York City subway nine years ago. She was a dancer on a small platform, made to look like she was the ballerina of a jewelry box. She held his eyes as he slowly walked past her, wondering if she was real. He couldn’t look away as he walked past her. His head kept turning as his legs took him farther. He finally stopped to wait for her to blink. It was magic.
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