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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Engaging and Adjusting

The thing about negative feedback is that it's extremely useful for knowing how to improve. (Mostly, not counting the guy who wondered if our mothers were proud (I'd like to think mine would be.)) And the topic that stands out most glaringly is audience engagement.

This is a long standing problem for many groups dating back to the start of the genre. Somebody left an anonymous comment on my last post comparing us to "geography teachers." Scot Gresham-Lancaster wrote that The Hub was compared to air traffic controllers. Their solution was to project their chat window, something we've talked about, but never actually implemented. There are papers written about how the use of gestural controllers can bridge this gap, something we have implemented. But what projected chat, gestural control, and synthesised voice all have in common is hiding behind technology.

Thus far, we usually physically hide behind technology as well, sat behind tables, behind laptops and do not tend to talk to the audience. However, not all of our gigs have been this way. When we played at the Sonic Picnic, we were standing and we had a better connection to the audience, I think because we were behind plinths, which are smaller and thus we were more exposed. Other concerts, we've talked to the audience and even even have given them some control of our interface at certain events. This also helps.

Performers who have good posture and good engagement are not like that naturally; they practice it like all their other skills. A cellist in a conservatory practices in front of a mirror so ze can see how ze looks while ze plays and adjust accordingly.

Also, it turns out that it wasn't just me that 'crashed' due to user error rather than technical failure. There's two solutions for this - one is to have a todo list reminding the player what they need to do for every piece and to automate as much of that process as possible. The other is to be more calm and focussed going on stage. When we were getting increasingly nervous waiting to be called on to perform, we could have been taking deep breaths, reassuring each other and finding a point of focus, which is what happens when gigs go really well. Alas, this is not what we did at all.

So, starting next week, we are practising in front of a 'mirror' (actually a video projection of ourselves, which we can also watch afterwards to talk about what went right and wrong). We are going to source tall, plinth-like portable tables to stand behind or next to. The composer of every piece will write a short two sentence summary explaining the piece and then, in future, we'll have microphones at future gigs, such that whoever has the fastest change will announce the piece, say a bit about it and have a few bad jokes like rock bands do between songs. We're also going to take deep breaths before going on and have check lists to make sure we're ready for stuff.

On the technical side, I'm going to change the networking code to broadcast to multiple ports, so if SuperCollider does crash and refuse to release the port, the user will not have to restart the computer, just the programme. Also, I'm hoping that 3.5.1 will have some increased stability on networking. My networked interactions tend to crash if left running for long periods of time, which is probably a memory management issue that I'll attempt to find and fix, but in the mean time, we get everything but that running ahead of going on stage and then start the networking just before the piece and recompile it between pieces. To make the changeover faster, we've changed our practice such that who ever is ready to go first just starts and other people catch up, which is something we also need to practice.

A pile of negative feedback, even if uncomfortable, is a tremendous opportunity for improvement. So our last gig was amazingly useful even if not amazingly fun.

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