When Your Brass Quintet Outnumbers Your Audience
by Drew Holmes
The stations went by as I stared out the train window: Summit, Short Hills, Orange. With each passing platform we were nearer to our destination, the recently completed New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. I was leading the newly formed Drew University Brass Quintet and NJPAC had hired us to play their Christmas Tree Lighting, one of the first events at the newly opened venue.
Brass quintet playing relies on personality and camaraderie as much as skillful performing. My first quintet in high school left me with fond memories I was eager to recreate. College was almost over by the time the right personnel was on campus, so I acted quickly in assembling the group.
This was our first major performance and my first time as director of an ensemble. Everything had to be perfect.
We arrived at NJPAC and met the event coordinator who led us to the second-floor balcony, our stage for the performance. “Okay, you’re on!” she said as we finished our quick warm up.
I looked down to the courtyard below and my heart sank. There was no one there. We were a five-member group, and we outnumbered the audience.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yep!” confirmed the event coordinator, our lone listener.
We played well, but I was disappointed. I had been in a quintet before, but for everyone else this was their first time playing in a group like this. We worked hard to prepare and for no one to hear us was a major letdown.
On the train ride home (the fare barely covered by our gig money) I thought of what went wrong. The venue was new, so most people had not been there before. This was a first-time event, so no one knew what to expect. The scheduling was disorganized, so there were competing performances throughout the arts center.
Then the volume went down on my negative thoughts, and I started to see the positives. We performed off-campus. We got (modestly) paid to make music. We had performed well.
Our later gigs drew more people. Parents weekend, the on-campus Christmas Tree Lighting, and my Senior Recital were all well attended performances. While it was gratifying to see so many faces in those audiences, it was not about the size of the crowd. The connection we made with each other through making music was the most meaningful part of each performance and the true fruits of our labors.
Performances are never the true accomplishment in making music — the true accomplishment is the preparation to perform. The performance is the celebration of that achievement.
Sometimes we share that celebration with a large crowd, sometimes with just one person. Regardless of the audience the true celebration is in ourselves.