Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Does Every Band Deserve an Encore? - Essay

The following essay is an unedited re-posting of an essay of mine that was published yesterday in the California Bluegrass Association's Welcome Page. I look forward to your responses to it.

Does every band's performance deserve to receive an encore or a standing ovation every time it performs? I don't think so. Somehow, in our desire to be nice and to encourage every band, we think we should rise, shout, and cheer, encouraging the emcee to bring everyone back for just one more song. Perhaps it's an outgrowth of our desire to use positive reinforcement to improve everyone's performance whether they deserve it or not. We see the worst manifestation of this in the way parents treat their children while they're seeking to improve their athletic performance or teachers relying on telling people who know they haven't done well that they're simply wonderful. It's not necessary to become mean or nasty in trying to improve or correct the performance of others. Rather, we need to reward excellence with recognition, and refuse to accept mediocrity with silence rather than uncritical applause.

In our desire to be nice and to help build our struggling genre, we confuse applause, cheering, and calling a band back with helping them to improve and strengthen their performances to the point where they truly deserve recognition. Trying hard and meaning well just aren't enough. Bluegrass is a difficult and complex genre to master. While we can all identify bands emerging from the parking lot, family bands performing at festivals, children who are cute and precocious, and long-standing local bands wishing to broaden their outreach, we actually know that such groups are not ready for prime time and do not perform at the level of the professional bands they seek to join. They get gigs often because they make it possible for bluegrass promoters to be able to afford to book the top bands who really deserve recognition. I applaud balanced lineup that contain bands of varying quality and amounts of experience. How else can lesser groups gain the experience they need to develop? I don't think, however, that every band performing deserves to be recalled for an encore.

Contests are an excellent way for emerging bands and individual instrumentalists to gain recognition. Winning such a contest, especially where it is characterized by professional standards of blind judging, carries with it the imprimatur of having competed and won against a group of others of similar accomplishment. On the other hand, playing in church seems to lose the quality of a band's performance in the recognition of their expression of faith. Meanwhile, I remember sitting with Tony Williams (Josh's Dad) as he spoke about taking Josh to festivals and contests where Josh had to compete time after time against Cody Kilby, each driving the other to further achievement. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a number of competitors and judges in a post mortem at RenoFest talking about their contest experience with warmth and appreciation for each other and amusing reminiscences about their previous meetings in contests. It doesn't seem that not always winning has destroyed their lives. I talked later with a contestant who learned from his experience that he really had a lot of work to do if he wanted to reach a high standard. Everyone learns in life that their performance has limits and their rise in popularity and recognition depends on hard work and dedication to betterment. Unwarranted recognition without such work can easily lead to self-satisfaction and indolence.

Meanwhile, it almost seems as if emcees and audience are in a league to make sure every band, regardless of relative merit, receives a callback for an encore. If an audience appears lukewarm in its response, the emcee will egg them on until their cheering becomes loud enough for him or her to call the band back. On the other hand, a small group of fans (or agitators) can yell and cheer, encouraging the emcee to call a band back, even though the audience reaction has, indeed, been only modestly encouraging. Neither response is really honest or helpful to bands seeking to improve and earn genuine plaudits. Often, a raucous call for an encore is more a statement about the style

We seem to live in a world where we're increasingly reluctant to make qualitative judgments. Too often I hear performers or fans say, “It's all good.” Well, it isn't all good, and it won't be unless we insist on it. The ease of making recordings without the intervention of a label has also complicated the development of bands, although the recording industry has always figured that about ninety percent of releases never make back their costs. There's plenty of mediocrity to go around; in bands, in performances, and in recordings. Sometimes enthusiasm is mistaken for quality and often slavish adherence to tradition is lauded as honoring the founders. Let's use our applause and cheers to recognize real excellence and make bands earn their returns to the stage.


  1. Ted,

    Not meaning to be critical in a mean way. You are on to something with the opening words of the second paragraph:

    "In our desire to be nice and to help build our struggling genre, we confuse applause, cheering, and calling a band back with helping them to improve and strengthen their performances to the point where they truly deserve recognition."

    If bluegrass is struggling (and I believe it is in it's true form-there's still those out there who understand and can play it and sing it)it is because of the lack of quality control.

    It's possible to bring different elements into the music and still have quality bluegrass, but it still needs to be in the framework the music was built upon. When we forget the framework the quality usually goes out the door.

    An encore needs to be earned not a given. Make the music quality. My idea of quality bluegrass is more than likely very different from yours.

    I like heart and soul over exact precision but can certainly appreciate the precision if it's delivered with heart and soul. There's a fine balance.

    It's not being cruel to performers to not give them an encore.

    I've told people struggling (and wondering what the big secret is to being musical) while taking instrument lessons (not intending to be cruel just trying to put things in perspective) that just because they own an instrument doesn't make them a musician no more than owning a car gives them a reason to go on the race track and compete against Nascar drivers.

  2. In general, standing ovations and calls for encores are becoming the norm rather than the exception for all kinds of performances.

    I think this is a mistake, since SO's really are meant to acclaim a truly exceptional performance, not just a good one. Calls for encores are sort of the same thing. It reduces the exceptional performance to the level of the commmonplace to give such acclaim at every show.

    But you can feel like a churl if you don't stand up with everyone else! So it's hard to know what to do at a performance where you don't really feel that an SO or call for encore is warranted. I am fairly comfortable remaining seated during a (to me) unwarranted SO and I'll leave before the encore if I see fit. I paid for the ticket, after all.

  3. Generally, musicians are their own toughest critics. They can tell that an encore may not be deserved, that a standing ovation for a lukewarm performance is undeserved. They can tell when they're getting sugar blown up their skirts.

    Another point - - applause is all relative. If a performer has truly blown the roof off the joint, the two-way exchange of energy (band to crowd/crowd to band) cannot be duplicated.

    In the end, the hooting and hollering is for the benefit of the crowd. So let 'em.

  4. The phenomenon you describe has been around a long time, Ted. I think encores are built into the schedule by promoters, and bands expect them. It's common to see bands, when they leave the stage, hanging around backstage with their instruments still strapped on, rather than busily putting them back in their cases. They wait for the applause to build or someone to shout "encore!" or the emcee to go up to the mic and ask the audience, "ya wanna hear one more from the ... ?" and they bound back out onto the stage.

    So I'm with you on this. And just as many audiences are pushovers, I think many bands are too. It's a little embarrassing when they come running back out because a few people are applauding enthusiastically while a lot of others are shuffling off to the concession stands or just sitting there waiting for the next band.