by Kay Cook

Dealing with different venues and different performance spaces is something active community groups deal with on an ongoing basis. Here are some ideas for making the most of every performance space.

In 1980 I attended a concert being given by a young opera singer at a local church in our area. The voice of this metropolitan opera hopeful was flowing, unencumbered, beautiful, and moving. Three weeks later, I took my family and two friends to see the same performer. The concert was being held at a resort hotel in a nearby city. Before the first selection was completed, I knew we were not going to have the same experience that I alone had enjoyed several weeks prior.

The resort concert experience was like another world. The young lady’s voice was forced, and during the second half of the concert she perspired profusely, dabbing at her forehead and neck with a tissue throughout the evening. To add to the distraction, the accompanist constantly flipped her head back in order to gain control of a strand of hair that kept falling in her face. The accompanist’s chair squeaked throughout, but was particularly noticeable when she flipped her hair away from her face. Add to this scenario the low roar of golf carts passing by the room, and the dull roar of the air conditioner, which produced a very distinct “D.”

The room, although beautifully decorated, was dark and stuffy. The only light came from the wall sconces. From our perspective, a sconce directly behind the singer’s head blinded us through much of the evening. The accompanist’s wild hair became, unfortunately, the unexpected entertainment of two gentlemen sitting in front of us. It was not long before these two connoisseurs of the arts were “tuned up” for snickering and snorting at anything that moved or made a sound throughout the production.

Giggling men were just part of the visual and audio package that ended up being the stage for that evening. Physically, it was hard to breathe. The ceiling in the room was low, and the carpet was very thick. Heavy drapes hung at every window. The room was oppressive and “too close.” When the audience applauded, the applause, along with the young singer’s voice and accompaniment, was muffled.

Since that concert some 25 years ago, I am always aware of performance space and how choosing the stage entails a lot more than just the stage area proper. The environment a director chooses for a concert is wholly part of the “stage set” and can mean great success, medium success, or failure for the performers and the audience. Performing in a “dead” space can cripple the finest musician, and performing in a “live” space can support both the performer and the audience physically as well as emotionally. A “dead” space, in the case of handbell ringing, encourages the performer to strike harder, which does a myriad of things to the performer physically, i.e. stiffened jaw, tense shoulders, and locked knees. This physical action in itself tends to accelerate the tempi.

Dealing with different venues and different performance spaces is something active community groups deal with on an ongoing basis. When your community groups are invited to perform or you are looking for a venue for Christmas concerts, spring concerts or any other concerts, the first thing to do is explore the space. The room needs to breathe. The atmosphere should give you a sense of space and a feeling the air is moving without the hum of an air conditioner or heating unit. Listen to the inside of the space and then listen to the outside. How close is your venue to a busy street, airport or construction site? If the venue is an above-average venue, the person in charge of that location will be able to tell you how many seconds of reverberation the room produces during a live performance.

Measuring the stage is next. This area needs to accommodate all of the equipment, bells, and any other performance accoutrements. There should be enough room for space between the ringers. Trying to crunch ringers into a smaller space than they are accustomed to will surely produce crashing bells. And ringers who are feeling uneasy physically and emotionally, in itself, will be felt by the audience. If you are invited to be on a concert series with a church, always check the space and sound of the sanctuary. Sometimes the church fellowship hall is a more “live” space. The sanctuary might be a more formal place to give your performance, but it may not be the best acoustical environment.

It will not always be possible to play in a “live” space. As community groups, we are constantly raising money for the organization. Some “gigs” cannot be turned down due to the opportunity of needed revenue, but your Christmas concerts, Spring concerts, and any full or formal concerts are within your power to control. Theaters may sometimes own an acoustical shell or other equipment that can enhance a musical group’s performance. When you accept an event, you may want to add an acoustical shell to your list of questions regarding what is available at the venue. The discussion of acoustical shells is another subject unto itself.

It is a good idea to advise your ringers of what their environment will be when preparing for an upcoming concert. Time for rehearsing in the environment is crucial for the performer and is tantamount to a satisfying performance for everyone. The ringers should know if they are going to have a formal listening audience or a moving audience (reception/cocktail hour). Knowing the space, awareness of inherent sounds, having a clear description of the space and a visit onsite should be on the list of most important things to accomplish before a performance. Number one on the list is know your music and second on the list should be musicality and stage presence. Third on the list is performance environment for the performers and the audience.