They say that variety is the spice of life and this would certainly count as variety in mine. After setting up our pre-allocated pitch in the doorway to BHS our esteemed choir leader led us through our 1-hour set of well-rehearsed songs and medleys, with the informal nature of the setting certainly helping us to relax into a fine performance. Whilst many people simply walked past the thirty or so people heartily singing away less than two metres away others paused for a while to sing along, stare, clap and even dance in some instances. We were a little crammed in, and I’m certain that standing out in the street would have attracted a greater audience, but that didn’t stop us raising over £100 for local charities in our 1-hour time slot and that can’t be a bad thing.
It did however leave me pondering over the nature of public listening though, especially in relation to those lone shoppers who simply walked on past with heads bent down and eyes averted. Perhaps some listeners have become so accustomed to precision produced music, like that which we encounter through our plethora of available media channels, that live music at such close proximity (not to mention eye contact with its performers) has become a slightly uncomfortable if not undesirable experience. Whilst acknowledging the role of personal taste and the pressures of Christmas shopping, I was left wondering whether some listeners might also have become so accustomed to listening to music whilst they shop that differences in style or quality have become increasingly irrelevant, or perhaps the art of passive listening has become so deeply ingrained within our culture that audiences have developed reduced levels of interest in the source of music. Either way, the diversity of audience reactions to our efforts reminded me of Aaron Copeland’s words of wisdom that “Composers tend to assume that everyone loves music. Surprisingly enough, everyone doesn’t” (The New York Times Magazine, 1964).
Regardless of our constantly shifting audience and somewhat unconventional venue, it was heart-warming to see so many other musicians, choirs or otherwise, filling the busy streets of Swindon with their melange of musical styles; their efforts not only raised much-needed funds for a range of local charities but they each contributed to the unique soundtrack of local music making which accompanied the Christmas shopping experience of those who chose to hear it, whether in passing or otherwise. Thank you to all those who did stop to listen and to those whose kind donations made it all worthwhile, and three cheers for local amateur musicians who continue to come together to keep local music making alive and accessible, no matter how unusual the venue or response of their listeners.