…To make a first impression. What will that be, positive or negative? Memorable or ho hum? It must be the best we can craft, for it will last.
AS A READER – do you judge a book by its cover?
In a book shop a cover or title sparks our eye. We skim-read the back cover, then open at the first page, taste a few pars. This is usually enough to decide if we want to spend time with that author and that story. We lead busy lives and throw aside a boring book.
In my writing, of books, articles and speeches, I seek a tantalising hook.
As a musician, I focus on a wonderful entry of sound.
FOR WRITERS: How to hook publishers and readers
Authors hear horror stories that a publisher may read a precious manuscript for one page – at best – before rejecting it. Make that a paragraph, even the first sentence. Poetic flights of imagination in chapter two are lost if people don’t read that far.
We sweat over our opening phrase, for it has to catch the reader’s eye, prick interest.
My past decade has been absorbed writing a narrative nonfiction around family stories which morphed into memoir. I’ve changed the starting point many times; different chapters took their turn to usher potential readers into my story. My writing buddy switched on a light-bulb when she suggested ‘Play your strongest card first.’ I wrote a new chapter, praying for a ‘killer opening sentence.’ But before submitting to an editor, I still polish these pages, the voice, the tone – to ensure it will be read!
My music student is delighted with her recent exam results – perhaps because her lesson before was one of those frustrating ones. You know the type? The teacher spends half the lesson on the first line of the first movement. ‘What about the modern work, the rhythms and ensembles are so tricky!’ I hear her think. True. But I know that if she can catch the examiner’s ears, start strongly, she will ride through further difficulties on a wave of confidence. For didn’t we spend the past months smoothing out such issues?
Carl Maria von Weber wrote some of the clarinet’s most satisfying repertoire. His second clarinet concerto asks the soloist to make a loud dramatic opening on a top note. In this case, I attack it with the fingering that speaks easy and safe, with no risk of squawk.
Yet Weber asks me to creep in on a subtle pianissimo in his other two works for solo clarinet. To avoid an undertone on this most vulnerable, touchy note, I need just the right angle of instrument and just the right reed. Before a recent performance my practice alternated a dozen reeds, narrowing down to a few in the pre-concert rehearsal in the venue. Obsessive? Possibly. But it pays off, because I know if the first note sings out beautifully, the rest of the performance will flow with ease. I can relax and enjoy the music.
As an adjudicator I see and hear the value of a positive first impression. As I wrote in my book Confident Music Performance:
A positive opening is crucial The first notes or words are very important for your own confidence and the audience’s appraisal of you. If your initial sound is squeezed out with strangled tension or a miscalculated projection, your stomach will plummet. You will think, ‘Oh no, this is going to be a fiasco!’
If that first note or word sings out beautifully modulated with seemingly effortless ease, your confidence will soar with it. First impressions linger in listeners’ appraisals. In most auditions, a few seconds are enough to tell the panel if they are interested in the applicant. When I adjudicate, I notice constantly that a player’s control of their first note or lack of it is usually indicative of their whole performance. On the other hand, if you suffer an initial mishap, don’t give up. Many players warm into their presentations.
When I coach people with their presentation, we may spend two-thirds of the time working on their opening sentence. We reword it for arresting impact and to avoid words that may stutter. We identify crucial words to colour with voice tone; to highlight with a pause and breath. We practise delivery and projection to increase impact.
The public speaker must capture the audience in that first tantalising sentence. Many listeners give undivided attention only at the beginning and end of a speech. Choose your opening gambit with care, condensing into it your most arresting statement or an intriguing question, a quotation or startling fact, or a story. People of all ages love stories, but they must be relevant.
If your take-off is smooth the rest of the flight usually flows with fewer bumps. Navigate your course with a clear focus on the horizon – your audience – rather than dwell inward on your own queasy stomach and sensitive ego. Most fears are self-centred. Keep looking out! Most listeners will empathise with your agonies but would prefer not to suffer along with you. They are there to enjoy themselves, to be enlightened, provoked or touched by your content. Rather than wish you ill, they want you to succeed. Adopt a friendly face from the audience and pretend she is your grandmother in whose eyes you can do no wrong. Speak to her.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Whether we present words or music, read or spoken, never underestimate the power of a positive opening. Our listeners and readers respond to those first moments; if they are arresting, powerful, beautiful, we hold our audience in the palm of our hand.