The Musician’s Guide to Public Speaking


By: Kim Pensinger Witman

In: Catch All

Many of us arts admin types were performing artists in a former life. So when we get called upon to speak to patrons/donors/staff/colleagues/board members, we welcome the opportunity to be in front of people, right?

Uh, right…

If you find yourself a reluctant spokesperson for your company or brand, I encourage you to use your musician chops to shape and polish your public speaking skills.

Embrace the Silence

Was it Debussy who reminded us that music is the “silence between the notes?” We all know how to honor rests in our music-making. Yet we struggle with verbal tics that kill the potential silences in our speech.

“Ums” are nothing but little pauses that allow us to formulate our next thought. Taking them away is scary because it robs us of the microseconds we need to prepare. Just replace them with rests. Silence.

And remember the concept of the agogic accent: One important way to place emphasis is to precede the object in question – whether it be a chord or a spoken thought – with silence. The thing that follows the silence escalates in importance in proportion to the rest before it.

Attack the Interstitials

It’s always safer inside a phrase than it is in that place where one idea ends and another begins. When you’re playing or speaking from memory, this is an even bigger issue. Kinesthetic and aural memory will usually get us through the middle of an idea – musical or conceptual. But when it comes to connecting those ideas, nothing but conscious, thoughtful, strategic planning will do.

Sonata Form

 Examine the larger hierarchy of your talk the same way you would consider a satisfyingly structured piece of music. Even a long speech will feel shorter if you provide a journey that your listeners can glom onto. Introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda. Or some variation thereon. There are as many possible structures for presentations as there are for musical compositions; just choose one that serves your material and stick to it.

Play Your Part

 Whether you’re a soprano in an opera or a horn player in an orchestra, part of your success lies in understanding your relationship to the larger unit. Before you plan your speech, thoroughly examine the role you are about to play. Identify the other players – your staff, your audience, even the people who are decidedly not in your current audience – and use that information to help you refine what to include in your presentation and how to weight the various elements of it. Some of the paralysis that besets speechwriters comes from the mistaken notion that when we speak, we must be all things to all people. At any given moment, in any individual location, we each have a very specific role to play. It’s clarifying and freeing to know what it is.

Name It

 Stage fright. If you have it, name it. Own it. And figure out what takes the wind out of its sails. Meditation and yogic breathing aren’t the only ways to address the panic; many performers meet their flight-or-fright reaction head on with vigorous activity. Running up and down stairs. Jumping jacks. Oxygenation helps manage adrenaline.


 And finally, use your performer chops to identify and hack your environment. Don’t be sabotaged by bad acoustics, inferior lighting, or a thoughtless setup. You can’t always change these things, but do your best not to be surprised by them.

Now get out there and talk to us!

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Kim Pensinger Witman
As the Wolf Trap Foundation’s Senior Director of Opera & Classical Programming, Kim Pensinger Witman has the privilege of running a small but prestigious opera company that is also a young artist development program. She started her career as a freelance pianist, adjunct university instructor, assistant conductor, registered music therapist, and music administrator. Since 1997, she has run Wolf Trap Opera and overseen the division of the Wolf Trap Foundation that presents orchestral and chamber music concerts. Kim has produced over 60 operas, ranging from undiscovered baroque gems to world premieres. Under her direction, the WTO earned a 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Opera Recording, for a live performance of Musto’s Volpone. For over 20 years, she has traveled the country, identifying the brightest talent for Wolf Trap Opera, hearing over 10,000 audi tions in the process. She is a frequent adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has served as a panelist with OPERA America, the National Opera Association, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
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