08/15/2013 03:18 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

How Do People Listen?

In interviews, classical musicians are often asked how they would like their performances to be "experienced." It is an interesting question that elicits varied and sometimes fascinating responses, but it also raises a couple of other fundamental questions. Is there a "best" way for music to be experienced? And does a performer have any right to expect a certain kind of involvement from his or her audience?

I feel that there are two fundamentally different types of listening, what I refer to as "active" and "passive." The passive listener lets the music come to them, so to speak, and doesn't make a conscious effort to engage. Many of these types of listeners will say that they find classical music "relaxing," and quite often use it as aural wallpaper for other daily activities. The active listener attempts to understand the music as it unfolds, and tries to experience each and every nuance of a performance. For an active listener, a great performance can often be emotionally and even physically draining.

Of course, each of us is an active or passive listener at different times. I sometimes find myself drifting from one kind of listening to another within a single concert, or within a single piece. My personal preference -- and, I would think, the preference of virtually every classical performer -- is active listening. I like to be engrossed, and think that the great works of music are riveting. When I fall into passive listening, I usually blame the performance for failing to be sufficiently engaging. But one needs to be realistic and understand that a great deal of a listener's experience has to do with his or her own state of being at the moment. Sometimes I simply don't have the energy to engage with a performance the way I wish I could. Sometimes I am preoccupied with something else in my life. This is not the fault of the performer.

A phenomenon that is strange to me, yet extremely common, is the passive listener who actively refuses to become emotionally involved. The "needless cough" -- that intentional quick cough or clearing of the throat that has nothing to do with disrupted breathing -- is certainly a frustration for many concertgoers and performers (there was an interesting article about this phenomenon earlier this year in the Telegraph), but the frequency of its occurrence during the most intimate and profound moments in music cannot be coincidental. It strikes me that when music becomes a bit too personal for some listeners, a bit too emotionally "close," there is a physical need to disengage, to distance oneself. Anyone who has experienced a great performance of Stravinsky's Firebird, to use just one of thousands of examples, has undoubtedly treasured that relatively brief section of hushed, intense emotional rawness during the transition into the opening horn melody of the Finale. And, quite likely, many have had the moment tarnished by someone actively choosing to cough at the moment that they were in the greatest danger of being touched by the magic of this music.

As for what is "best," passive or active listening, that is entirely up to the individual. While I prefer to be actively engaged when listening to music, music plays very different roles in the lives of different people. If someone prefers their music to be relaxing, and something that can accompany other, more focused activities in their life, I don't feel I have any right to criticize this choice (though I feel sorry that the person is not able, or not willing, to experience music in a more profound way).

I feel a responsibility as a performer to give the best possible performances I can, every day, and it is my great hope that my playing will be, in some way, important and moving to each and every audience member. However, this idea of "best" can only be from my own perspective. I have no way of knowing what a particular audience member is expecting to get out of my performance, how they choose to experience music, or what preconceptions they might have about the piece, the venue, myself, or innumerable other variables. So while I can hope that my performance will be a profound experience for everyone, I have no right to expect it, no matter how well I feel I am communicating the musical message. Audience members are paying for me to provide a service, and as long as someone's behavior doesn't inhibit the enjoyment of the other audience members, directly (noise or movement) or indirectly (distracting the performer and causing them to perform at a level less than their best), then what right does the performer have to dictate how that person experiences the music?