Most musicians are going to have to speak in public at some point. While the most famous soloists may get away with only playing, it’s become expected to address the audience, at least briefly. There are entire books about public speaking (a top fear shared by 75% of the population), so this post will just scratch the surface.
I’ve been blessed not to have a bad case of this, so it’s hard to give advice about cooling your nerves. I think old advice like “picture the audience in their underwear” isn’t all that helpful. But if it’s your first time up on the stage, you might be comforted to know: with the glare of the lights, you won’t even see the audience. Just look ahead where you think one person might be, and talk to them. Not that you’ll see them.
The other thing to know is that audiences want you to succeed. You might feel like you said “um” a million times, but we are actually wired to tune out those filler words. They are a natural part of speech. So practice a little and you’ll be just fine.
The other old advice that keeps being repeated–for every situation–is “just be yourself.” Well, be an idealized version of yourself. Yourself at your most affable and relaxed. This is your public persona.
How do you see yourself as a musician? Are you energetic and playful? Skilled and serious? Empathetic and emotional? Intellectual and analytical? You can actually dial this perception up or down. You might have an endearing “aw shucks” attitude, or an earnest “save the world through art” attitude. It will come off as genuine if it is.
What to talk about
A common pitfall for many composers (and some performers) is to get into the nitty-gritty mechanics of music. If you’re speaking in terms of themes or motives (especially if you can play short examples), that can help an audience navigate the composition as they listen. But things like deep-background pitch and rhythmic structures or formal design proportions are best left in academic articles (or your blog). A lay audience will be much more engaged by a story behind the piece, its inspirations, how it connects to other music, art, the news, etc. Even if you write completely abstract music, humanize it. And this is coming from someone who hardly ever writes with an emotion in mind!
Besides going on and on about technical details, just going on and on can be the worst thing to do. Keep it short and sweet. Ask whoever is producing the concert (or whoever asked you to speak) how long they want you to speak.
Write some bullet points, so you don’t sound scripted, and practice with a stopwatch. Doing this four or five times will help you internalize the most interesting and important bits (you may have to rewrite your bullets!). And it will keep you from rambling. As I said above, audiences are sympathetic. They will quickly forget a little ramble. So don’t feel self-conscious, but do them a favor and practice.
Need some coaching?
Besides practicing, if you’re really nervous, get some coaching. Practice in front of someone else, especially if they have experience speaking themselves. In my job, I regularly coach students on their pitches and presentations. Those that take advantage do better, mainly because their nervousness is diminished. They’ve essentially presented to an audience before the “real” thing. Hit me up if you need a consultation.