Sarah Nicolls and her Inside-Out Piano
Sarah Nicolls and her Inside-Out Piano

My Sound and Music Audience Labs experience has been moving, educational and productive. Some people have heard some new music they definitely wouldn’t have normally and I have been privileged to make new friendships and hear about how my show has connected with and moved people, often quite deeply. I’ve also heard astonishing things about people’s lives. As well as an Audience Development project, it has incorporated venue development (showing venues how they could branch out in their programming from just music, or into more music) and artistic development – having felt the power of my show to move people deeply (proper laughing & crying!), I’ll find it hard to go back to just playing piano recitals!

I ran a project called In Our Hands, which alluded to having our children’s lives in our hands and to the fact that I made films with people showing just our hands, for anonymity and for the poetics of seeing gestures that relate to talking about parenthood (there were also interesting gestural parallels to piano playing: people sitting at a table and using the surface to explain their thoughts). I’ve been touring my original show, Moments of Weightlessness, which uses the piano, as a thing I made and as I push around and hoist it into different positions, as a metaphor for having children, revealing my journey into motherhood through music and spoken word (see it in Brighton or Cheltenham). The aim of this audience development project was to get people with a life experience connection to the show – i.e. most likely parents, or people interested in children – but who would not necessarily have an existing interest in new music, to come and see the show and experience some contemporary ‘inside piano’ music. There has been overwhelmingly positive response and you can read/hear the feedback here.

The connections created have been deep and people have had very strong experiences, which they’ve then shared with me after the show. The engagement has worked both ways: I’ve also received quite a few stories from people who weren’t involved in the project initially but who heard about it when they came to my show or saw the installation of the piano.

In Canterbury, I met with women who said they definitely don’t go to see this sort of thing normally. The filmed session was long and expansive and the gestural image worked well. It gives a sense of the people but without focusing on facial expressions. Bodily expression is normally secondary but these films put our hands as central and the gestures that came out often involved touching the heart, or neck or clasping the hands in intensity. We talked about birth and parenting and shared very personal stories. A week later they came to the show and their ensuing experience of my music, they said, was really moving and not at all alien. Cutting through to the emotional content, they weren’t put off by extended techniques and preparations, which would often be heard only in niche or specialist environments (yes, they are absolutely common in contemporary music concerts, but not for non-specialist music audiences). They found the lyricism and narrative wove together and made sense, and crucially felt welcome in the environment of the theatre, listening to music composed this year. Connecting in advance of the show also worked both ways: for me to know who a section of the audience was, made my experience of performing more meaningful.

The film I made in York was another intense discussion that again led to really thorough engagement with the whole project: one woman came to all aspects, including show and family workshop. We had children at this session, which worked fine and only tethered what we were talking about in the present, and in reality: although we discussed birth, the children’s present needs and demands were constantly at the forefront. This gives the film a raucous, grounded feeling but didn’t stop us discussing with intensity.

I ran a written project in all the locations too, for anyone unable to make the filmed session. This led to me receiving stories from all over, not just tour locations, and meant people began to engage with my music without even seeing the show. Interestingly this meant the ‘life experience’ connection was one step removed – the album isn’t explicitly about children or parenting as it is ‘just’ music, but clearly the message began to get out about In Our Hands in a bigger way. People who were booking for the show anyway also got in touch to say how interesting it sounded.

My experience of the classical ‘new music’ world had previously been limited purely to sound: I wasn’t doing theatrical work previously and although programmatic elements might exist in a piece, I wasn’t creating concerts with themes about life. To have made this shift is to have both found a new freedom in my own music making and to have also found absolutely that audiences are up for listening to anything. With real life framing, they helped and led me to contemplate the sounds with poetic ideas as starting points. Personally, I think this is as much about allowing people to feel included, to give them a foot in the door. I, as a specialist audience member, have so many entry points to a new music gig – knowing people there, knowing the composers, being entirely familiar with environment, even having the ‘right’ language to talk about it afterwards – whereas for many, they really can be intimidating. (Interestingly, I found this even when taking my now husband to his first classical concert: Ruth Wall at Wapping Power Station. He was then totally into Live Art and Experimental Theatre but still found the new sounds unfamiliar and the whole concert setting a bit odd).

The audiences generally for my show have been very mixed and many non-specialist audience members (“I’m not a music person”, “I’ve never seen this inside piano stuff before”, “I don’t normally go to concerts”) have enthused about my piano, the idea behind it, the sounds that come from it – and of course the fun I can have with it (it does swing after all!). Afterwards everyone piles onto the stage to get a closer look and try making some sounds and then they exclaim to me “this should be how all pianos are!”. That feels like a great achievement to me!


  1. In Our Hands footage
  2. Come and see my show, Moments of Weightlessness, at Brighton Festival (Tues 24th May) or Cheltenham Festival of Music (Sat 10th July).
  3. Listen to my album on spotify, buy it on iTunes or get a physical copy at one of my shows.

My thanks to Vic Shead [@brightvic] for her brilliant marketing work on my project, Sound and Music for selecting In Our Hands for Audience Labs, and Arts Council England for their continuing support of my tour, album and installation.