Why do we Perform Better to a Bigger Audience?

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Well, I suppose the first question is whether we do in fact perform better to a bigger audience. I’ve not tested this hypothesis at all rigorously, but it does feel like a good generalisation. A full house seems to bring with it a sense of occasion that encourages performers to step up to the mark and do their stuff more extrovertly, with greater panache. A sparse smattering of listeners seems to sap the spirit very slightly, and a performance that is just as thoroughly prepared and technically competent can feel like it lacks a little something.

Now of course, it could be that the performances really are objectively indistinguishable, but just feel different with a different sense of occasion. I don’t really believe this is the case, but even if it is, the question as to why the subjective experience should differ is still an interesting one.

I think it is largely about social validation. When we are in non-routine situations, we check about us to see how other people are behaving to gauge the appropriateness of our own behaviour. We are sometimes aware of doing this, such as when we suspect there may be conventions or etiquette that we should know about, but mostly this goes on almost absent-mindedly as part of our general operation as social beings.

Going to a concert isn’t a very unusual experience – if you go to concerts at all, you probably go often enough that it feels like a normal part of your lifestyle. But equally there can be any number of unknowns: you may not know the venue that well, you may not have heard some of the performers or repertoire before, you probably don’t know more than a few of the other audience members. So it’s a slightly non-routine situation, and your brain will be on the subconscious alert to check your assumptions about how things are going to go.

In this situation, seeing lots of other people attending the event tells that subconscious bit of your brain that you were right to be there in the first place. Other people’s presence validates your decision to turn up at all.

Conversely, when there’s a small audience, there are all kinds of minor anxieties. You may feel a bit sorry for the performers about the size of the audience. You may feel a bit exposed in having to provide such a large proportion of the applause. And underlying this is the subliminal message that all the people who aren’t there are, by their absence, implicitly criticising you for bothering to turn up in the first place.

And of course, the same dynamic applies for the performers. A small audience tells the socially-aware part of the brain that you’re not very popular, whereas a good turn-out encourages belief in the quality of the experience you’re going to provide. Moreover, the bigger audience is happier and more welcoming to begin with because they have already convinced each other that this is a good place to be.

The corollary of this is that, whilst marketing can never substitute for good musical preparation, the success of the promotional activities can have a direct impact on the musical experience in performance. One of the things we can do to help our listeners get the most out of the performances we prepare is to rustle up as many people for them to share it with as possible.

Other effects are that of peer group pressure amongst the audience. If a few people start to clap loudly, we tend to join in and the enthusiasm spreads. So appreciation is doubly amplified with a larger audience.

Of course, the opposite is possible! I once did a theatre show which was very funny (as previous audiences had demonstrated), but one night the laughs were VERY conspicuous by their absence. We asked friends afterwards and they said although they found it very funny, there was a feeling that they couldn't/ shouldn't laugh.

This can affect the performers too. If the audience's applause is not as loud as expected with such a big audience, then the singers may start to try too hard, losing all the subtleties in their performance. Also, if the crowd is very large, there can be a tendency to be bit shouty to make sure everyone hears well.

Another aspect of audiences that fascinates me is the audience of friends and family versus the audience of strangers.

From the Front of the Choir

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