The Art of the In-home Concert

Nearly everyone in my family is either a teacher or a doctor, so I’ve always been taught to place a high value on service. When I decided to pursue playing the piano professionally, it was with the idea of service in mind — is there a better way to serve the world, I reasoned, than to dedicate one’s life to making people laugh and cry, holding a mirror up to society, overwhelming people with beauty and truth: in short, to make art? In my imagination, concert halls overflowed with grateful patrons, patrons who walked a little taller exiting the auditorium, having laughed at my leggieros, been enlivened by my allegros, and cried at my lentos.

However, when I began to concertise, my reality looked quite different — all around me, all but the most distinguished performers were practically begging audiences to attend their performances. I found concerts mostly attended by two very small sectors of the community — the ‘cultural elite,’ who often come armed with preconceived opinions about music and the arts; and fellow musicians, many of whom attend out of obligation or self-interest — hoping to score a new professional connection or find inspiration for their own music-making. While I greatly appreciated the support these audiences provide, they didn’t fulfill my desire for service because they weren’t generally oriented to respond emotionally to the music. Their wide knowledge base about music meant that they were largely analysing, comparing, and judging rather than immersing themselves in a musical experience.

The desire for a different kind of audience led me to start pursuing in-home concerts in the summer of 2012. In the last three years, my chamber jazz trio has performed about 90 ‘house concerts’ in 24 different US states.

The idea of house concerts is simple — a brave host allows their living room to serve as a makeshift concert hall for an evening. Concerts are free for the hosts, but it’s their job to gather an audience of at least 20–40 community members to hear the music. Herein lies the beauty — while the host, a piano owner, is perhaps wealthy or musical or both, the audience members who they invite could be nearly anyone: their daughter’s math teacher; a workout partner from the gym; the mailman or local police officer; their next-door neighbor; their childhood friend; members of their church, synagogue, or mosque; their dental hygienist.

This invitation strategy engenders a diverse audience — often, in fact, many audience members aren’t accustomed to attending concerts. As we’ve toured the country, meeting people from all walks of life, we’ve made a rewarding discovery: people are hungry for art music! Many would never seek it out themselves because they don’t know which piece or performer they would most enjoy, they can’t afford the ticket price at the symphony, or they’re just not motivated to leave their home in this age of Google, YouTube and Netflix.

But even (especially!) those with no musical experience and knowledge were often moved by the experience and their responses have given me the sense of service that I seek. I’ve listened as audience members profess that they came to a concert fuming about an incident at work or with their family only to be disarmed by the musical experience. I had an audience member write to me after the concert, saying, ‘Thank you for the awakening of my heart tonight.’ And I frequently hear a surprised audience member remark, ‘I didn’t think that I like jazz, but now I think I do.’ When I perform at these house concerts, I feel that, in a very small way, I’m an ambassador spreading the word about the music that I love.

Of course, with different venues and hosts for each concert, we’ve had failures as well as successes. I’ve had to play on pianos that were unintentionally ‘prepared’ in certain octaves, we’ve had a dog vomit on the ‘stage’ right where my saxophonist was meant to stand, we’ve had noisy children, broken air conditioners, and inebriated hecklers unaware of proper ‘concert etiquette.’ However, the vast majority of our concerts have been the kind of events that live on fondly in the embers of my memory long after the final note has sounded.

As musicians, we’re remarkably fortunate to have a passionate, intimate, and inspired community. However, sometimes the very intimacy of our community pushes away those who are on the outside. People all over the world feel distant and estranged from some of the musical styles that we perform, teach, and love. My recommendation to you, my fellow music lover, is this: be an ambassador! Host a house concert and invite people into your home, and, thus, into our community. Your students, friends, and local artists will all walk a little taller on the way out.

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