Breaking the Fourth Wall
I still remember vividly the first time I heard the Boston Symphony in a live concert, a 1978 performance of Schubert’s C Major Symphony with Sir Colin Davis. For many years, I have had a book about that great orchestra called Community of Sound, by Louis Snyder. Twenty-seven years after its publication, it is enjoyable to read about a few of my teachers when they were younger and to see pictures of mentors sadly now absent. Of course, when I bought the book I was much younger too, which is a fact I find slightly less enjoyable. I’ve kept my copy for all of this time, and I’ve always especially liked its title. I’ve thought a great deal over the years about the phrase “community of sound.” What does that really mean, and what could it come to mean in its full potential?
“Community” is a bit of a buzzword in the orchestra world today. I use it all the time. It appears more and more in the literature that surrounds the field, but I wonder if we are all using the word with the same meaning. We must strive to make sure that “community” refers not only to an investment in us, but that it also means that we musicians invest in the community. To establish indelibly the positive sense of community that our Players’ Associations seek to develop, musicians must learn to break the fourth wall.
In theater, the fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience, the other three walls being formed by the shell of the stage. In strictest terms it is the defining line between fiction and reality, or “the suspension of disbelief.” In his theory of epic theater, Bertolt Brecht created the term “breaking the fourth wall” for that moment when a character will turn, most uncharacteristically, to address the audience directly, thus giving the audience an access through reality to the fictional world they are observing on the stage. The term has been adapted from the theater to include books, film, and television.
Musicians in symphony orchestras can adapt the term to serve a new purpose as well. All too often in our concerts halls there seems to be a dividing line between the orchestra and the audience. To establish a closer relationship with our audiences, boards, and community leaders, orchestra musicians need to break the fourth wall.
I realize that I am distorting the term somewhat. In music, there is not the dramatic line between reality and fiction, though I suppose some would argue that point. But, allowing for that distinction and the adaptation, what would it mean for symphony musicians to break the fourth wall?
It would mean establishing a connection with the audience and inviting them into the community that surrounds every orchestra. Further, it would entail expanding that community to all constituents of the city or region.
How is such a thing accomplished? Sometimes the smallest gestures are the most appreciated and have the longest impact. On your players’ association letterhead, you should send notes of thanks to reporters when they have written positive stories, to business leaders when they have made positive contributions, and to audience members who have made special gestures of support. Send signed cards from the orchestra to your friends and supporters to mark those major life events that affect us all, whether happy, sad, or worrisome. While the signing of a card will take each of us mere seconds, some of these cards will hang on the walls of your biggest donors for years and live in their memories for decades.
Before the concert, walk through the lobby and shake a few hands. That’s how you start to build relationships—simply by meeting people. In the sports world, it is said that the incredible (and to me, mystifying) rise of NASCAR is largely due to the accessibility of the participants to their fans. While it might be hard for us to imagine, an audience member’s experience is greatly enhanced by a few words with the performers. That person will tell their friends, all of whom will remember the positive experience of their encounter with a member of the orchestra. In all walks of life, the more friends you have, the more support you have when it is needed.
How does all of this serve to insure the survival of our institutions and the elevation of the livelihood of the orchestral performer?
The more our boards know about us, the more they will understand our lives and the inherent difficulties and challenges involved in making a living by performing in a symphony orchestra.
The more contact we have with our local press, the more trust we build. Through that connection, the positive message of our players’ associations can be spread throughout the community.
The more access we create to our local political and business leaders, the greater our chance to communicate the financial role that our orchestras play in the healthy life of any city.
And while these are indeed contacts that might be needed in times of crisis, they are also contacts that can be built to avoid crises.
Some might correctly ask, “Isn’t it our management’s job to promote a healthy image of the orchestra?” And the answer would most certainly be “Yes, it is.” Where managements are advocating for their orchestras with a positive message, then players’ association and ICSOM should be there to assist them. But in this era of negative rhetoric about the arts, there are many situations in which we must become our own advocates. We can no longer concede the pronouncement of a negative future for the arts in America.
I have heard of stories where some managers try to create the illusion of breaking the fourth wall by instructing their musicians to “smile more.” The very idea of that directive assumes that the appearance of a happy workplace is more important than actually having a happy workplace! If you want the musicians to appear to be happy, isn’t it apparent that creating a positive atmosphere would prove more effective than issuing a memo?
The turnover in managerial positions will almost always be greater than the turnover in your board and players’ association. The musicians and the board can create an atmosphere that can sustain our organizations through the debates of our differences and lead us to the path of our shared visions for all that our orchestras can achieve.
All of our players’ associations have any number of committees: orchestra committees, negotiating committees, media committees, etc. It might be time for us all to invent another committee from within our ranks. This committee could be charged with fostering the environment of “family” that we all should hope will surround our orchestras. They could send cards to our members when they need the support of their colleagues. They could seek out opportunities to make gestures of friendship that would not only serve to unify us within our own orchestras, but also to build positive relationships with those who surround and support our musicians in their city. So the next time you have an opportunity to elect your travel committee or artistic committee, I hope that we all will also consider electing a “community committee” that will serve to strengthen the orchestra within the bargaining unit and elevate the profile of the players’ association in the minds of those we seek to serve.
At your next concert, imagine the fourth wall. Do you feel separated from your audiences? Sometime I sit back and wonder, “Why have these people left the safety of their homes to come and watch me work?” That’s always an issue for musicians, isn’t it? Is anybody really listening? Do our audiences fully understand what we are trying to do? Really, why are they there?
I suppose they’ve arrived in our concert halls for many reasons. Certainly, some have come merely to be seen, and some have been dragged by their dates. But those are the few. The vast and not so silent majority have come to listen, learn, remember, dream, and imagine. They have come to experience a convocation in their city. I see no “graying audience.” I see a gathering of young and old who have come to see where we can take them.
In a time where every person’s day is filled with its unique difficulties, and in a world that slumps with its heavy burdens, they have come to allow their orchestra to provide them a moment for the suspension of their disbelief, a respite from the weight of their own day. That moment will serve as a reminder that the aspiration of the arts is the elevation of the human spirit.
For so long, the public has read of a decline in the relevance of the arts. But those questions of sustainability have been answered time and time again through the community service of the musicians in our orchestras and of those who support us. A recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that 51% of people who regularly attend arts events were also volunteers that served their communities, while only 19% of non-attendees were so inclined. I’m afraid that some of the negative rhetoric about the future of the arts in America has left some members of the public with the view that artists feel a sense of entitlement, as if society owes us something. But the truth is, society doesn’t owe it to us to support the arts; society owes it to itself.
Let us now resolve to reach out to our public and our communities anew, by breaking the fourth wall.