Performing: It’s a Roller Coaster
“Whispered” from the audience during a recent performance:
Audience Member #1: “Do you like this music?”
Audience Member #2: “What?”
AM1: “I said do you like this music…on the guitar…that he’s playing?”
AM2: “Oh. It doesn’t bother me. Do you want to leave? I’ll go if you want to.”
AM1: “No, I don’t feel like moving right now. I’ll just sit here till he’s finished.”
To be seen and yet not seen is an interesting aspect of the professional musicians lot, your performances are either sought or encountered, they are the sole focus of some and in the peripheries of others, the content is loved or hated; your presence as player key yet at times you’re ignored. The amazing part of this is that it can easily all be going on in the same concert.
Now I’m not actually fuming about the conversation that I shared with you at the start of this piece, it was quite funny in an out of body kind of a way. It’s all contextual, the situation was not a grand concert hall in NYC, although it could have been, but it does bring home some of the basics of live performance. You work, you prepare, you worry, and practice but sometimes you just can’t make everyone happy. Performing in every sense of the word is a roller coaster.
I say that with two distinct meanings. The first is that for a performer to become skilled at performing requires that they must do it over and over and over again. This means you will perform, if you’re serious about it, in front of anyone, anywhere, and at almost anytime (which I can say is true as I’m grabbing any chance I can get to try things out). The bumps, bruises, scrapes, and punches that you take with each visit to the stage are part of paying your dues or in corporate speak: on the job training. These flight hours (if you’re really, really serious about your vocation) will generate critiques, notes that you make after each performance. These need to be objective, although that’s not always easy. You are trying to focus on what worked and what didn’t, you are definitely not trying to set yourself up as your own personal punchbag, there’s just no point. But as a soloist there is generally no one else to blame but yourself when things don’t go as you imagined, using that information to develop yourself as a performer becomes absolutely key. When you bomb, your notebook fills up quickly—the upshot being, with the right mindset, those times when you just didn’t seem to hit the collective spot give you the most information to improve. I’ve got a lot of notebooks at this point.
The challenge is figuring out how you are going to handle all of the elements which make the performance (yourself, your instrument, and that piece you’ve been spending all that time cultivating) and deliver it to that roomful of strangers – who as we have learned may or may not actually want to be there. That takes real work. Listen to any successful comedian in an interview and you hear them explain how long it takes them to build a strong set on stage. In fact, I think they often times explain it more clearly than most stage artists do. You’ll hear them talk about working out material in some small club in the middle of nowhere and they totally fall apart. They will do this over and over but something miraculous begins to occur—they get better. That’s what we’re all trying to do in this life, right? Get better. The best, or should I say most humbling, part of building this skill set is that it never stops. You never finish improving and in order to keep getting better you will find yourself playing in the weirdest situations you could ever (or should I say never) imagine. That’s not to say it’s bad. I’m just here to tell you, in my experience, that the pendulum has a wide swing.
I was having dinner with friends recently (tiny baby was asleep) and rehashed a story of performing a recital in NYC and finding myself the following weekend playing Bach on a golf course at a wedding ceremony where the bride was nearly taken out by a stray ball. Thankfully bride, groom and guests all had a chance to dive to the ground upon hearing the nearby golfer yell, “Oh, sh*t!” Surprisingly, the music did not stop as both guitarist and composer would not be deterred by the errant swing of the would-be Arnold Palmer.
It occurred to me as I swabbed down the decks and made myself laugh again as I remembered the faces of the wedding guests as the ball flew through, that there is an extended process behind every players journey and you really only get to see the end result. No one at the wedding knew or cared that I had been somewhere more musically important days before, my presence fulfilled their sonic needs and, I must admit my monetary ones. So audiences never get to see the daily ups and downs of building a concert career, but you as a player must use every experience in front of people or indeed the back 9 as an opportunity to grow. We, myself included, see a snap shot of each performer—that day, that moment, that piece. Did it sound good or didn’t it? Did you want to hear more or did you want to move on? The venue becomes irrelevant, your experience everything.
The second part of this roller coaster would be the unexpected surprises you have no control over: the venue, the audience, the travel that day, etc. The conversation that opened this post could never have been planned. The question is how do you handle it? What do you do? Plug on? Give up? Call them out? Give them the stink eye? For me, it becomes a question of focus. You have to know that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (just look at the comments people make about artists on YouTube) and while you’re maybe playing in a grocery store next to a rotisserie turkey (yep, done that one, too) someone will be enjoying what you are creating. At the end of this process that’s what we’re all trying to do—connect with the listener. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this musical ride is that you can make a connection with an audience anywhere, if you choose to, and that there isn’t a rule book as to what or where is more or less important if you’ve brought someone asmall bit of sonic joy. More on this next month as I’m about to put my money where my mouth is for all of you…