So the [rhetorical] question the other day was why anyone would want to read a concert program during the actual performance. Having mulled on it some more, I’m moved to address it more seriously and at length.
At the theatre, the opera and the ballet you never see anyone reading the program during the performance. Of course, it’s too dark. But even if we reverted to keeping the lights up in the theatres so we could check out the fashion and carry on our socialising, I doubt you’d find people reading the programs. And that’s because there’s something to watch.
Watching a classical concert is fascinating and even helpful. But you could argue it’s not absolutely necessary. As far as musical motivations go, I think more people go to concerts in order to hear live performances in an optimal acoustic space than for the visual element. And the audiophiles happily stay home with their hi-fi systems for the sound.
The upshot of this is that the theatrical program is really a souvenir. It doesn’t need to do more than list the cast and provide a synopsis, and a cast sheet supplies that. What you get in the program book is purely supplementary: expansive articles which may be either terrible or illuminating, and I’ve read both kinds at the opera this year.
For all its superficial similarities, the concert program is a different animal. It’s not so much a souvenir as a guide to participation and understanding. More like an order of service. You know, like you get in church.
- The concert program tells you the sequence of a number of independent events: you know who will come out on stage when and what will be played; it might even indicate how long the pieces will be.
- It tells you, via the listing of movements, when to applaud and when to remain silent. Those same listings will point to the overall emotional journey, even if that’s just whether the music will be fast or slow.
- For vocal works it provides texts and translations to follow.
- For instrumental works there are notes which differ from the supplementary essay in that they endeavour (well, some do) to offer writing that will allow readers to follow the music as they listen.
This last point is where historical programs become quite interesting, because as recently as the 1970s it was not at all uncommon to find program notes punctuated by short grabs of musical notation setting out key themes and motifs. These are, in my opinion, much more useful than brave attempts to describe the same musical landmarks in words, and it’s a great pity that the state of music education and the fad against teaching school children how to read music has led to the dropping of nearly all notation from programs on the grounds that too few would benefit.
These features, unique to the concert program, are what have led to the fairly common practice of reading programs during the performance itself, as opposed to before/after/during interval. Even where it’s evident that the program isn’t actually being read it’s very likely that it will be open at some appropriate page, like an order of service.
So that’s the tradition, the ritual, the common practice. The other side of the coin is: do we really need to follow an “order of service” during the concert? For some it’s probably no, or only one of the simplest kind. Looking at key bits of information in advance can be enough and as has been pointed out, the program can be read anytime but the live performance must be witnessed and enjoyed in the moment. If the performance is really good you’d expect it to ensnare your attention completely.
So why read? That’s where preferred learning styles come into the picture. If you’ll concede with me that music is an arcane science and in some respects more “difficult” of approach than theatrical entertainments, and if you’ll concede that modern Western society isn’t so good at “listening” generally as it might be and so has trouble with an art form that demands a lot of concentrated and active listening, then attending a classical concert is going to involve more of a sense of “learning”. And here I draw upon the “VARK” model for the four main biases:
If you’re an auditory learner (which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a musician or even have musical aptitude) you probably like lectures, tutorial discussions, podcasts and Radio National. You might not read the program at all and certainly not during the performance.
If you’re a visual learner you go for pictures, diagrams, timelines and the like. You probably wish that concert programs had more of this sort of thing (so do I), and while you might be reading the program you’re just as likely to be watching the orchestra and the conductor intently and observing how what you can see is matching what you can hear.
If you’re one of the tactile/kinæsthetic learners you probably drove your school teachers nuts! You wanted to move around and touch things and do stuff, you liked practical subjects. If you have musical training you probably sit in concerts imagining what it would be like to be actually playing the music (back-seat piccolo anyone?). You’re probably not reading the program.
If you’re a reading/writing learner you belong to a majority. Is that majority naturally occurring or the result of the reading/writing bias of our education system? I suspect the latter. In any case, you probably like reading the program notes and find them genuinely helpful in guiding or focussing your listening. And you would be the kind of person who, if a little lost or a little bored or a little curious, might very well be found reading the program during a performance.