October 27, 2010

What's a festival without music?

Kudos to the organizers of the 2010 USA Science & Engineering Festival for making music such a central part of the festivities. Back in May, we mentioned that the lead-up to the festival included a jingle contest. The festival itself included a science-themed oratorio featuring local K-12 students as well as performances by science songsters Monty Harper, Jeff Moran ("Dr. Chordate"), Larry Morris ("Prof. Boggs"), and Francis Collins. I'd love to hear more from anyone who was there.


  1. Well, Jeff (Dr. Chordate) & I were chatting about it at the Saturday get-together. I think we were both a little disappointed at the walk-by turnout on the 'satellite' stages. I think people liked the songs (I saw smiling faces, at least) but it didn't draw people in that much. I think Monty did a little better with his "kids up on stage" strategy. There was so much to see & do at the booths, people didn't want to hang out by the stages.
    Still, it was a great festival & I got to make a lot of new contacts. Now if they could just put the whole thing in two *contiguous* city blocks!

  2. Prof Boggs beat me to the punch (but I am traveling, in VT at the moment). I was going to be a little more positive, but the truth is that it seemed like there was so much competition for an audience that spread from 4th street to 14th street, even special "performances" often struggled for attention. I went to see Powers of Ten at the National Botanical Gardens (they had some good original songs about a range of science subjects, 7 back-up singers for the keyboardist, etc.), but only had an audience of 10 people. Of course, the Science Cheerleaders had an audience of a couple of hundred, but . . . And the Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling had 300+ in the auditorium in the Museum of Natural History. Nonetheless, I had a great time, hopefully connected with a few people (one of the folks in my audience had sung at Carnegie Hall 3 nights earlier [and he at least said I did well]), so I'm glad I went and hope to do it again.

  3. I had a great time. I did five shows - four scheduled, and one an impromptu stand-in for someone who didn't show up. The 4th street stage, where I did the middle three, was situated on a busy corner, with no seating. The crowd there ebbed and flowed. True, when I brought kids on stage a crowd gathered, but I didn't keep them the whole fifty minutes. My other two shows were in the opening and closing time slots. There was seating for those, but small audiences.

    I never go to a festival expecting to make a lot of connections with audience members. I did connect with some of the organizers and volunteers, and some of the other presenters. If nothing else, I came away with a few possible gigs for next time I'm in D.C., something totally cool to put on my resume, and practice performing my new science songs for an audience.

    I saw plenty of large crowds gather at the stages for other acts. The physics demonstrations got huge crowds. For one, they were making things explode. For two, they are inherently participatory because as an audience member you get to guess what's going to happen. It's tough to engage people on that level with songs. Any ideas?

    I got to see Francis Collins, director of the NIH, perform his songs. He sang parodies based on sixties rock n' roll classics, with words that playfully delivered various science messages. He did a great job. And he had a huge crowd, and got them to sing along. I shook his hand afterward and handed him a pre-release copy of my "Songs From the Science Frontier" CD.

    I was disappointed to miss out on meeting Bill Nye. I had to be at a stage on the opposite end of the festival the same time he was on. Ah, well, maybe next year.

    I think the festival overall was a huge success. I mean, the president gave a speech about it! We can't do much better then that at putting science education in a positive national spotlight. The crowds were huge, and my daughter had a great time exploring various booths. I was glad to support it and I hope I get to do it again.

  4. Thanks for those comments, everyone!

    I agree that Francis Collins has some good lyrics, and he's not a bad musician either. His participation in the "Rock Stars of Science" program, which we mentioned here last month, makes perfect sense.

    I may be missing the point of Monty's question on audience participation, but don't children's singers (of which Monty is one) kind of specialize in that? You know, teaching kids the chorus so they can sing along, and teaching them body motions that fit the words, and that kind of stuff?

  5. Hi Greg,

    Good question. I just wrote a long response and it disappeared into cyberspace! Typing into a text file now so I can save it.

    Yes, I do specialize in audience participation. I just did a show where I had 250 4-6 year olds moving and singing together with my music for 45 minutes. But that was a captive audience of kids in a school.

    Singing on the science festival stage was a whole different animal. There were mostly adults, they were outside, they didn't have a place to sit (at the 4th street stage) and they were distracted by so many other options.

    Francis Collins had his audience singing along where mine wouldn't because he used familiar melodies with repetitive lyrics (note to self). Still, he had a huge crowd already assembled before he went on, probably due to his celebrity.

    My point about the physics demonstrations is that they are intellectually engaging - not challenging, but engaging. You aren't asked to sing or move or do anything physical. Each demo is short (compared to a song) and each one piques your curiosity by inviting you to guess what will happen.

    For example a performer says, "When I drop these to objects which one do you think will land first?" Now I've got to watch to see if my guess is correct, even when I know the answer - he could be up to something tricky! Then he says, "How about when I drop THESE two objects?" Now I'm engaged in an experiment! Will he or the audience come up with a pair of objects that will behave differently? I've been hooked in.

    It's tough to generate that kind of back and forth engagement with a song!

    Having said that, I did have a handful of audience members who were riveted by my performance, or at least stayed for the whole thing. There is an audience for clever science songs; they just aren't as immediately accessible because they do require more effort in terms of focus and attention from the listener.

    I've been trying for years to figure out how to draw a crowd at a festival. Even at a music festival where people come specifically to hear music, a guy with a guitar (that's me) has trouble competing with all the loud bands and rides and crafts and snacks...

    For an individual performer it's that constant back and forth with the audience that draws them in. Jugglers, storytellers, etc. have a bit more flexibility to do that than us songsters. But if I wanted to get really good at drawing a festival crowd, I would find a busy public place where I could set up and perform every day. The best way to acquire a skill is practice!!

    Until then, give me a captive audience of kids and I'll keep them totally engaged for 45 minutes. Ask me to draw my own audience out of a festival crowd, and I'll just have to take what I can get.

  6. Thanks for that clarification. It sounds like you need to dress more provocatively and play an ELECTRIC guitar, Monty! Just kidding; I don't think there are any easy answers. I wonder if you could do something like have a huge sign that says "I TAKE REQUESTS!" ... but then somehow handle the requests in a way that allows you to cover (some of) the content that you want to cover? Maybe you provide a list of topics you're prepared to sing about, and people choose from that?


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