I’ve just spent three days at the Verbier Festival, immersing in chamber music performances at various mountainside locations 1500metres above sea level. I don’t listen to anywhere near as much chamber music in London when I’m home. I’m never in the right headspace. But, up in Verbier, the ever-changing weather combined with picture postcard views around every corner promotes an altogether different kind of mood. In Verbier, I feel open to anything and ready to immerse myself in as much as time will allow.

View over the Salle des Combins © Nicolas Brodard | Verbier Festival
View over the Salle des Combins
© Nicolas Brodard | Verbier Festival

Verbier is best known for its skiing. But during the summer months, for the past 20 or so years, its numbers have swelled to accommodate 250 young musicians, 80 international soloists and conductors for 60 concerts in venues across the town. This year’s budget was a staggering £6.63m. The money follows what is clearly a high-profile, aspirational event. But the draw isn’t, as far as I can see, solely down to aspiration stitched into the Festival’s scale. There’s another reason that musicians are drawn to the Alps.

For the exceptional young musicians of the Verbier Festival Academy, or the two training orchestras, or the alumni’s chamber orchestra, the location, its subsequent lack of everyday distractions and the infectious sense of community which results all offer an escape from life 1500m below. The awesome surroundings protect and inspire in equal measure. Every concert is a product of this unique environment.

Such a description isn’t an especially unique selling point. Aldeburgh has its Britten Pears Young Artist’s Programme, Gstaad has its snow. Tanglewood plays on a similar sense of escape, so too countless other summer-bound festivals. Can surroundings have a similar effect on an audience? If performers consider they’re more focussed when they’ve escaped to a summer location, could an audience member consider themselves more focussed in the same location? And if they are, what impact does that have on their listening?

In Verbier, I’m struck by the sense of community. Young musicians mingle with international stars; audience members mingle with all of them. As everyone necks their espresso and smiles warmly at one another, so the tyranny of the traditional boundaries mapped out by performers and audience alike are blurred. As a result, concerts are no longer something one attends, they are events we all participate in regardless of who’s paid for their ticket and who’s receiving a fee. This environment and the nature which cocoons it results in an intensely sensory experience, something which turns on the endorphin tap and leave it running.

The Eglise seen from the inside © Aline Paley | Verbier Festival
The Eglise seen from the inside
© Aline Paley | Verbier Festival

Proximity is also important. The non-festival concert going experience is, for me at least, largely rooted in orthodox concert venues. This can make for a very staid experience, in some cases rather cold and detached. Performers are distant and elevated – I might as well be listening to a recording or a radio broadcast. In Verbier, many of the chamber concerts are performed in a small church where the audience sit on benches the lighting is subdued. Noone is any more than 50 metres away from the performers. The performers aren’t on a particularly high stage, meaning audience and performers are – for the most part – as close as they can possibly be.

I heard Beethoven’s Op.130 quartet played by Quatuor Ébène in Verbier’s Eglise. It was a powerful performance. The audience’s proximity to the performers meant we formed a relationship with the quartet. We weren’t observing them, but participating with them. The effect was profound. I deployed a different listening strategy with Ébène’s concert, using a model I learnt when training to be an executive coach. I wanted to reflect on what I thought the music was saying as I listened and, if I had the chance, what would I want to say in response? The answers are private and beyond the word limit of this article. What surprised me, though, was the extent to which I had become immersed and consumed by proceedings. I’d experienced an entirely focussed, active and attentive kind of listening. I felt rewarded.

Quatuor Ébène © Aline Paley | Verbier Festival
Quatuor Ébène
© Aline Paley | Verbier Festival

I’ve come to really appreciate using attentive listening at concerts recently.  Maybe others already do this. What impact might newcomers experience if we encourage them to listen in a more attentive way? Such listening strategies will be personal and individual, but there are some fundamentals. Ridding ourselves of the distractions in our life seems like an obvious win. Digital devices distract us as much as others, and the content those devices distribute favours instant gratification over longer-term investment. How much more focus might we have in the concert hall if we all agree to switch them off long before we step into the auditorium?

The most powerful criteria for me is proximity. The classical music world strives for perfection, none more so than acoustics. But it’s the intimate settings – those locations which were primarily designed for concerts – which yield the most powerful experiences by virtue of an audience being able to get closer to the performers. My most profound experiences have been in unexpected places where performers have been incredibly close. If I’m finding that having listened to classical music for 20-odd years, what excitement might newcomers experience?

Verbier Festival Orchestra © Nicolas Brodard
Verbier Festival Orchestra
© Nicolas Brodard

What about increasing the production of endorphins before a concert? A musician in the Verbier Festival Orchestra told me that he reckoned that one very good reason why audiences and performers were so primed for performers at the Festival was because all parties had embarked on steep climbs to concert venues before they played. Think how you feel after a short burst of gentle exercise. Combine that with an impending concert and it might be your mind is in the best place to hear and appreciate something new.

These three ‘fundamentals’ make me wonder whether we – audiences, marketers, journalists – need to work harder to adapt audience expectations and challenge the demands of our present age. Instead of thinking that classical music will cast you into a more relaxed state, do we need to encourage audiences to prepare themselves for a more focussed listening state before the concert begins?

In developing new audiences, we’re in danger of talking down the subject we love. I’m advocating promoting a listening strategy which defies the short-term attention span our everyday life promotes. It might make for a richer experience in the long run.