Start with Meaning: A Conversation with Adam Marks about Teaching Public Speaking to Musicians

Adam Marks' public speaking class was one of the highlights for me of last summer’s Music in the Mountain’s Conservatory. I was teaching the Alexander Technique to the festival students, and Adam not only invited me to sit in on his class, but encouraged me to help the students apply the Alexander Technique when they practiced speaking in front of the class. Since Adam and I are both returning to teach at the 2015 Music in the Mountains Conservatory, I asked him to talk with me about how he developed his public speaking program and how it can help musicians enhance their performances.

Pianist Adam Marks, practicing what he preaches.

Pianist Adam Marks, practicing what he preaches.

Adam: We were raised in an era of very strict conventions around concerts. This is how to begin a concert. This is how to transition between pieces. And we entered our professional lives just as things were changing quite a bit. We’re at the fulcrum of a very interesting shift.

Andrew: Especially in chamber music, it’s rare to see a group perform without one of the performers speaking from the stage. It seems like one of the things that you’re trying to do in your public speaking classes is to really enhance the entire performance.

Adam: If you start by saying to a group of musicians, "Who here has been to a concert where somebody talked and it was awful?” Everyone will raise their hand. And the bottom line is that if you have nothing to say, you shouldn’t say it. Speaking shouldn’t just fill time or check off a box.There’s an opportunity to bridge a gap here. To share some of your self.

Andrew: What drew you to explore the public speaking aspect of being a musician?

Adam: I had trained in speaking. I did competitive speech and debate starting in middle school. And then I took courses and was competing pretty regularly in speech and debate in high school. And when I was at Brandeis for my undergraduate, trying to make myself a legitimate pianist—whatever that means—I was also getting a minor in theater.

At the end of my college time, I started to play contemporary music. And I realized that it required a bridge to the audience if you wanted it to appeal to anyone but a “new music audience.” And they didn’t necessarily need help to understand, but permission to engage.

Andrew: It’s so common to go to a new music concert and have a performer give a semi-technical description of, say, metric modulation in the Elliott Carter piece they’re about to play. But you seem to steer away from technical explanations.

I started to map out the experience that I wanted to have on stage. I would think about the performance as a whole: how I wanted my time to be. I’m responsible for that time. And I realized, the more you put these things together—speaking and performing—the stronger they both are.

Adam: There’s never a completely homogenous audience. So I always say: “Figure out things that will actually make sense to everyone.” And usually that means starting with your journey, your engagement with what makes Carter Carter, whether in that metric-modulational way or not. Because for the person who knows everything about metric modulation, you can give them a new way to listen and engage. And for the person who has no understanding of metric modulation, you can suggest where to put their ear and how to think about the music.

Andrew: What do you find among the students you’ve worked with: is there a sense of buy-in to the idea of talking from the stage or is there resistance?

Adam: People have so much fear surrounding public speaking. I try to remove some of those fears as early as possible. I like to start from the place of: “You don’t have to do this in public.” You have to learn how to do this for yourself and for this room. And we take some of the pressure off of the performance aspect of it.

I mean, if somebody were coming in to study violin for the first time you wouldn’t begin with, “Let’s start by imagining a recital in which you play all of the Bach partitas.” You wouldn’t. You would say, “Let’s start with some fundamentals and build some skills you can eventually take to the stage.”

Andrew: One of the things that interested me in watching the class was that you didn’t start with techniques like, say, voice projection or diction. You started with meaning.

Adam: If you start very technically, everyone gets stuck thinking, “Here’s the mechanism I must engage with.” But if you start with meaning, you connect to the musical work we inspire students to do. If we’re being good musicians, good chamber musicians in particular, we have to be able to articulate our ideas. And if we start with what we already have, use those skills first and learn how to adapt them for an audience, it’s far more empowering. The chance of success goes way up.

And I also find that people will forgive style if the content is meaningful, and not the other way around.

Andrew: When I’ve watched you speak at a concert, it seems clear to me that you know what you want to say, but it still sounds extemporaneous. In the class, the students were developing very short and succinct statements or stories—maybe 30 seconds. But you didn’t have most of them speak extemporaneously—most of them memorized their talks. Is that a distinction between being a beginner at public speaking and being more experienced?

Adam. Yes, I think so. Actually, with anyone—at any level—knowing how you end is crucial. So I’ll usually memorize how I want to end and really practice that, because it’s so crucial to know how to stop. I think that’s where a lot of people fail. Knowing how to stop and how to transition is the most important thing to anchor.

We speak every day. It’s our primary means of communication. We get nervous when it becomes performance. So when we figure out everything around the presentation before dealing with the technical, we tap into that everyday experience as opposed to creating an artifice. And that’s a perfect connection to Alexander. Alexander is about finding the natural movement and releasing the unnecessary things that we have built up to create a more natural flow in your body.

In terms of what we’re doing with students, when you’re dealing with something that is so brief and so short, the beginning and the end are the same. It’s something that is doable. It’s concrete. You can rehearse it and they can deliver it.

They’re also developing their identities of self at that age. So as their voice gets stronger, as their persona on stage becomes more vivid, there’s more room for flexibility. So if a student were doing something longer, and they had maybe three points they wanted to get out, I would focus them on learning the three points, and then memorizing the last sentence.

Andrew: Something that had never occurred to me until I sat in on your classes was that talking from the stage could transition into the performance itself. You really emphasized that the ending of the talk could match the energy of the next piece on the program.

Adam: That came from my own exploration. When I first started speaking at my concerts, I would have all this energy. I really like talking spontaneously. And I would have all of these ideas and my mind would be racing and then I would sit down at the piano and I would think, “Wait, I have to be calm and still now.” It would be very very difficult.

So I started to map out the experience that I wanted to have on stage. I would think about the performance as a whole: how I wanted my time to be. I’m responsible for that time. And I realized, the more you put these things together—speaking and performing—the stronger they both are.

Andrew: As much as you start with meaning, that doesn’t mean that you neglect technique. And I think that this is one of the connections between how you teach public speaking and how I approach teaching Alexander, that the physical coordination is there in support of the meaning, the need to express something.

Adam: Yes, I mean, we speak every day. It’s our primary means of communication. We get nervous when it becomes performance. So when we figure out everything around the presentation before dealing with the technical, we tap into that everyday experience as opposed to creating an artifice. And that’s a perfect connection to Alexander. Alexander is about finding the natural movement and releasing the unnecessary things that we have built up to create a more natural flow in your body. Am I right?

Andrew: Yes. And just as there’s a widespread fear of public speaking, there’s also a widespread policing of posture. So it was exciting to be able to address how the students were, as Alexander teachers like to say, “using themselves” when they were up speaking before the class. And make that a hopefully more positive experience.

Adam: You brought a vocabulary to the classroom that I’ve never gotten to work with in real time with students. I do address the physical on a very basic level. For you to have your laser-cat eyes on that kind of stuff and to help people release in a very physical way, it just changes things so much. And I felt that what you were doing was so complementary.

Andrew: Yes, there was this basic compatibility of approach. I mean, if you take a student standing in front of the classroom, preparing to speak: head forward, shoulders rounded, and hips cocked at an angle. This is clearly not a great place to connect with people as a speaker or as a performer.

Well, why do they have that pattern? The typical way that people talk about it is that there’s apathy, they’re checked out as a teenager. It’s this typical teenage angst.

But it’s not really: It’s a lack of organization in the body, and it’s a lack of organization that comes from sitting all day, and becoming the shape of the furniture that you sit in—or even the shape of the instrument that you play.

You can’t really change the shape that you see by just “standing up straight.” They need to really perceive where their support is coming from. They need to notice how they might be interfering with their breath, that when they let the breath recover, now they have the air they need to speak. But it’s not something that’s put on. It’s an experience of the coordination that supports what they have to say.

Adam: It’s supporting something greater. I think that everybody needs a reason to do something new or to do something different. And in a classroom setting, they can get feedback about what’s changing about their presentation. Physically, verbally, musically. The more we unite all of those things, the better.

People aren’t going to a festival to learn how to have better posture, or learn how to speak in public. They’re learning how to be better musicians. And these things help you be better musicians. When they realize that, that’s where the buy-in comes from. But it takes time. It’s a luxury to have a couple weeks.

Andrew: Yes, and like you said at the beginning, the speaking connects the performers to the audience. I can’t even tell you how many audience members came up to me after the final concert at Music in the Mountains last summer—I think one literally had a tear in her eye—and said, “The students! They’re so well-spoken!”

Praised as an “excellent pianist” with “titanic force” (New York Times), Adam Marks is an active soloist, chamber musician, and educator. He has appeared as soloist with the Mission Chamber Orchestra, Manchester Symphony Orchestra, the National Repertory Orchestra, and at notable venues including Salle Cortot, Carnegie Hall, Miller Theatre, Logan Center for the Arts, Millennium Park, Ravinia, and the New World Symphony Stage. He was a laureate of the 2008 Orleans Competition for contemporary music in Orleans, France. Recent performances include recitals in Brazil, Singapore, and Croatia. Highlights of the 2014-2015 season include a residency with Yale University composers, appearances with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and a return to the Dame Myra Hess Recital Series and live broadcast on WFMT. Adam is currently appearing on stage in Fiasco Theatre’s critically-acclaimed revival of Into The Woods at Roundabout Theatre off-Broadway. To learn more about Adam, visit adammarks.com.

The Music in the Mountains Conservatory is a summer festival for high school and college-aged classical musicians. It runs from July 12 to August 1, 2015. The application deadline is March 16, 2015.

Related posts from the Alexander & blog: Finding the Story and When a Slump Becomes a Slouch: How Much Should We Read Into Posture?