…and demonstrating historical keyboard actions
Public outreach is a term that does very well in academia these days. It guarantees that one’s research, one’s department, or even one’s university will be there tomorrow. If we want to make people appreciate our work and open their purses in our favor, we have to go to places where these people are and we have to learn to talk their language.
Musicians have known this for quite some time. Even for someone with good references, it is pretty much more difficult to get funding for a cute concert idea than it is for an established researcher to get a stipend for a snazzy research project. We have learned to talk about our work. We have also learned to deal with the old problem that one may not use too many words to tell an audience that what they never knew before one started talking is in fact very interesting.
This took me some getting used to. A few months after my arrival in Sweden, I was asked to participate in the annual three introduction days where concert arrangers could hear and see what productions the musical umbrella organization of our ensemble had to offer. Our ensemble’s producer asked me to do an intro about the different types of harpsichords and to play a piece.
The spectrum of musical styles presented on such a day is very wide. I was new to the game, I was new to the country, and I was still speaking English. Unfortunately, nobody had the wits to give me any further directives, although I distinctly remember that I asked for them. Such as: a reminder that, if presenting in English, I might talk slowly and not too much; or an explanation that these people expected a presentation of a nice program for their little church or concert hall, and nothing else – that they, in fact, weren’t even expecting a harpsichordist to be there and were likely completely disinterested in my work, unless I managed to interest them then and there.
I had no clue about all this. I thought that everybody would love the harpsichord. I gave, as I thought I had been asked, an impromptu lecture about the main traditions in harpsichord making, complete with squeaky felt tip pen drawings, and I concluded by playing Francois Couperin’s lengthy and pompous b-minor Passacaille. Afterwards, someone came to me and said kindly but unmistakably that on the next day, I should just play my piece and someone else would do the presentation. My throbbing embarrassment was somewhat alleviated by the fact that that second presentation did not go too well either: after all, I had learned how to interpret the meaning of the collective sigh at the end.
The most important thing to observe before one addresses one’s audience is what that audience can absorb in terms of length and density of information. For a verbal presentation of composers and the music during the program this usually (or should I say: hopefully) causes no real problems. For explaining exotic, large instruments like the harpsichord or the fortepiano, on the other hand, a parting session of Show And Tell is by far a better option than a mid-recital lecture. Audiences always do want to know everything about these instruments. However, they did come to listen to music in the first place, and one does well to honor this desire. I usually encourage people to come and look at my instrument after the concert. Here in this country, people are unfortunately sometimes too shy to do even that. Elsewhere, one might instead need the help of a second watch person to prevent curious people from creeping into the instrument.
To demonstrate how a harpsichord works is not difficult. The jackrail can easily be opened and the working of the jacks can be shown to a fairly large group of people. Fortepiano actions are trickier. One needs to concentrate pretty fiercely when extricating and putting back such an action without causing an accident. If one touches a key while doing either, the next thing heard is a faint Crick! – and that was your hammer. We like to avoid this risk – re-gluing hammer heads is fiddly and the result is almost never as mechanically stable as the original thing. My friend Matt Bengtson has solved this problem in a great way: he presents a short video on his website where he explains what various fortepianos do, how they can sound and how the Viennese action in his own instrument works. Here is the link: