The fulfilling drama of performing.
We tend to undergo dramatic changes whenever our behaviors are framed as public performances. Telling a good joke in private or voicing a passionate opinion to a friend--these are natural, colorful self-expressions. But if someone told us television cameras would start rolling while we told the joke or expressed the opinion, suddenly we'd be "acting" and probably would feel stiff and artificial. Sometimes we even forget how to smile when we have to "perform" a smile; when a professional photographer asks us to smile naturally, we inexplicably can't figure out which muscles we normally use, so we end up grimacing weirdly into the camera.
Physical skills, as well as personal expressions, feel different when there is an audience. As millions watch, the figure skater misses the triple jump she had landed perfectly in practice just moments before. Or the golfer misses the two-foot putt that would have won him the championship and million-dollar endorsement deals. This unpredictable immediacy of the present moment provides the very drama that makes sports competitions so riveting to witness.
In our culture of specialization, performance tends to be thought of as a big deal, an event that invites public scrutiny and critical judgment. This is not a view shared by all cultures, however. Apparently, in certain tribal societies the spoken language contains no word that corresponds to "musician." The reason is simple: They have no concept of a set-apart class of specialists that might be known as "musicians" as opposed to all the "non-musicians." In other words, virtually everyone in these tribal cultures, both young and old, joins in the singing, dancing and drumming with communal spirit and without apology or fear. Musical activity is accepted as normal and basic; music is considered an enjoyable component of life, of celebration and of oneness with the tribe. But in industrialized society, the idea of performance is daunting to many people. Like all challenges, of course, it presents an opportunity.
Why should we require students to perform at all? For one thing, it's a crucial part of the learning process-the capstone experience that pulls it all together and often signifies a leap in mastery. When you perform something well on stage, it becomes really part of you, in a way that no practiceroom moment can duplicate. Even more importantly, performing means communicating with others, so music comes into its own as a magical language when it takes to the stage. After all, it's the sharing of music that truly gives it meaning.
The Ego in Crisis
It's easy to sense that dramatic changes are underway when we go on stage. We feel the familiar physical symptoms driven by heightened adrenalin, which we call "nervousness": dry mouth, racing heartbeat, cold hands, perspiration, accelerated thoughts and overactive digestive processes. These are primal mammalian brain reactions that kick in whenever survival itself is at stake, and they are beautifully designed for the purpose. Hands get cold, for example, because if blood stays more around the vital organs and less in the extremities, we will survive longer if one of our limbs got caught in a trap or bitten off by a predator. As if we were cornered chipmunks, our racing thoughts and sped-up energy prepare us for either of the classic survival options: fight or flight.
But no one would claim that our physical survival is actually at stake if all we're about to do is get up in front of thirty-five friendly individuals and play Sicilienne on the flute, a Beethoven sonata on the piano or sing "Ol' Man River." Yet many find themselves suddenly filled with visceral panic as they are about to go on. (In fact, when I was competing once in a major piano competition, we were ominously informed that medical personnel would always be on call backstage, should a contestant suffer some sort of breakdown!) So something else must be operating here-some significant fear that seems as momentous to the brain as survival itself. There must be a good reason, according to many studies, fear of public speaking is one of the greatest fears human beings have. I think the underlying fear can be easily stated: losing self-control in front of others, and facing the possibility of embarrassment and humiliation.
Something new is going to happen, and we don't know what. It might be very good, or it might be very bad. Either way, it will be a surprise--we seem to have utterly relinquished control over events. We tend to feel physically peculiar, too; when I chat with a music student and ask if he ever feels--when stepping on stage--as if he had suddenly been transformed into some sort of outer-space android with a totally different nervous system in place of the usual one, he always knows what I'm talking about. We do tend to feel that way, disconnected and odd, at least in the first moments of a performance--until we find a groove, hit our stride or, as the French say, "ease into the bath."
When I think of the performing experience and how it affects us, I picture a delicate transparent shell around the performer, like a clear, pliable bubble or membrane. This is the shell of ego, the protective shell of a person in control, navigating through various everyday life situations. Most of the time we depend on the existence of that shell, imaginary as it may be, as our refuge whenever we might need it, our invisible armor, our personal zone of privacy. But that shell cannot stay intact on stage, where we voluntarily step in front of others and make ourselves the focus of attention--and this is what we sense in advance, instinctively, about the nakedness of performing. Will our fears cause the shell to harden, become brittle and shatter? In other words, will we fumble unnervingly and feel humiliated? Or will the shell happily melt away, permitting our musical impulses to soar trustingly out into the room with newfound energy; joining meaningfully with the receptive spirit of the audience? In any event, something new and exposing will happen as soon as we sense this is the official performance, "This is it."
There's a remarkable feeling of aliveness and connection we all are capable of but, unfortunately, rarely feel; it's often referred to as "living in the moment." One thing is sure: to get up on stage and perform is to plunge oneself instantly into the energized realm of "living in the moment."
The feeling of nervousness performers have is not a feeling many people are used to. Thus, we may fear and dislike the word "nervous" and all it implies. Of course, it only adds to our general agitation if what we're nervous about is nervousness itself.
It can ease our fears greatly if we can find a way to frame the same physical sensations with different, more encouraging words. Why not think of our hyper-energy, cold hands and vapid thoughts as adventurousness, as symptoms of excitement and anticipation? Most experienced performers will say they still get nervous before every show, but they often add they welcome the feeling, finding it essential to the heightened focus and alertness that are hallmarks of vital performing. Undoubtedly they have, consciously or subconsciously; found a positive conceptual framework for the aroused physical state we usually call nervousness.
Fight-or-flight symptoms are an uncommon experience for modern people, since for most of us primal survival is not a danger-ridden daily issue. Our ancestors may have risked their lives hunting mastodons (nervously) in order to eat, but we drive to the supermarket. Yet, our brain's wiring hasn't changed much, and human survival responses still are triggered by the idea we are under some sort of imminent threat. Since this is a rare event, we easily may overreact when those feelings do occur.
Another, perhaps less obvious, reason we find the nervous state distressing is that we're not accustomed to being held accountable in the dramatized way that is part of every public performance. Public performance is a powerful truth serum, stripping away all self-delusions and instantly revealing--in front of an audience--the solidity of our knowledge, the precise degree of mastery we have arrived at. All bets are off when we step on stage, and things usually don't happen exactly as rehearsed or predicted. What deep, integrated learning it takes, both in body and mind, to welcome such accountability with confidence.
By contrast, if you are taking a spelling test, you can pace yourself--stop and think for a moment before committing to a particular answer. You can take time to retrieve your knowledge. If we could do this with music, there would be no issue of nerves. But while spelling is mental, musical performance is physical and mental, in addition to the fact that it gives you no extra time to think. It obviously would ruin the magical spell of a performance if we were to stop abruptly in the middle of a phrase, stand up and say to the audience, "Sorry, folks, I really messed up that last passage (which does surprise me since just half an hour ago I played it perfectly during the warmup)--so let me take another shot at it, okay? Thanks!" No, since the flow of sound mustn't stop, we find ourselves deeply accountable to the music and the audience.
One little discussed and surprisingly beneficial aspect of performance nerves has to do precisely with this accountability. The unconscious mind, uncannily aware, knows when there are loose ends--such as incomplete memorization or a technical passage that's been learned too shallowly to be secure in performance. Something must be done to tie up the loose end, but the conscious mind has refused to pay any attention to the matter during practice; perhaps it's not even aware there's a potential problem. So the unconscious tugs at our sleeve, using the symptoms of nervousness, saying, "Please, for your own sake, take another look! Right now, before you step on stage! Don't assume you really know this!" In this instance, nerves are functioning as an effective strategem for self-protection. If we try to cajole ourselves out of nervousness using generalized feel-good psychological techniques, we miss its pragmatic, helpful message and (later) pay the consequences. Similarly, if we berate ourselves, or our students, for suddenly messing up something due to nerves that had "never been a problem before," we are ignoring the cleansing truth-of-the-moment that nerves invariably provide. Instead of indulging in chagrin and frustration, we should just get curious. Forget our egos and receive the message.
Admittedly, getting the message just moments before walking on stage doesn't give us much time to respond--though many a performance has indeed been saved backstage, ten minutes before curtain time, by someone listening carefully to the nerves and restudying a specific spot that was mentally shaky. The more useful response in the long term, of course, is to realize that when daily practicing is honest and thorough, nervousness of this type simply won't arise in the first place.
Nerves have much to teach us. I remember clearly the occasion on which I was the most nervous in my life: my first concert as a concerto soloist with orchestra. In retrospect, I'm glad I got so nervous; the nerves helped me learn more in one night than I ever could have from a teacher or from practicing.
I was an eighteen-year-old college student and had just won, much to my amazement, my first concerto competition. The award was a performance as soloist with a community orchestra before an audience of about two thousand people. Although I was a novice at formal concerts and had never performed a concerto before, the two pieces I played were comfortable to me, and all had gone surprisingly well up to this point--the lessons, the audition, the rehearsals with conductor and orchestra. But there's nothing quite like an actual performance, as I was about to find out.
Concert night arrived. I put on the tuxedo and strode out on stage, feeling as frozen as a piece of petrified wood. The piece was Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brillante, which starts (luckily) with a safely undemanding slow section, lyrical and expressive. Although my fingers felt a bit stiff and alien, I was riveted on the task at hand, and the music sounded perfectly okay. Then came the fast "brilliant" part. That started to go well too, although the fast tempo did fuel my adrenalin more than I needed, which in turn made the tempo even faster. But despite the precipitous speed, I began to enjoy the occasion more, breathe more calmly and allow my ego to take an interest. Soon my thoughts were drifting pleasantly away from Mendelssohn's familiar notes and toward my own situation, reflecting on how nicely things were going and fantasizing about the rousing ovation I hoped to hear at the end. By this time, I was definitely not "in the moment"!
It was during a rapid, but quite simple, transition figure of repeated sixteenth-notes (Yes, after several decades, I still know the exact spot in the score.) that the daydream vanished; I plunged back into the reality of where I was and felt the nerves hit again, all at once. This time, though, the nerves were on a mission: They wanted solid data, and they wanted it now. I heard a strange voice in my head, a part of my mind I'd never heard from before. This nasal, crisp, robotic inner voice wasted no time on small talk. It fired questions at me in an insistent, machine-gun style: "How many times is this figure repeated, is it going down or up, what key are you in, what key are you going to, what exactly happens next?" In highly condensed brain-time, these questions were actually posed all in the same instant, but they were crystal clear nonetheless.
It was equally clear I was doomed to flunk the quiz; I didn't know a single answer. But hadn't I played the piece over and over in the past without a hitch? Yes. Didn't that prove I knew the piece? Well, I thought I did ...
Let's freeze the movie frame for a second and take a look at what was really happening. The passage in question is actually so uncomplicated, and fits under the hands so naturally, that I'd never given it a lot of thought. I'd learned it in ten minutes and usually just let muscular habit and my good musical ear guide me down the familiar pathway. But as soon as I heard the list of robot-questions on stage, I felt true panic because I instantly grasped the way in which i was unprepared. The questions themselves were 100 percent fair. This wasn't neurotic self-tormenting on my part; this was a straightforward request for factual information about the piece I was presenting, which as a well-prepared performer, I should have known. It was my job to know the piece cold, to be able to recite all its musical data without touching a piano. Had I learned it in that way, I wouldn't ever find myself on stage grasping at tactile, visual or auditory kinds of memory--all of which function automatically and strongly, but also are primal functions that can't stand up to any sort of questioning. In other words, the tactile, visual and auditory memories can evaporate at any time. They come easily; therefore, they can go away easily. But exercising one's left brain to name every note and analyze all the patterns without looking at a score or touching an instrument is productive work. It's a bracing mental workout that solidifies the memory by actively retrieving information from the recesses of one's own mind. This process is radically different from the simple, passive act of recalling how familiar music goes.
Similarly, a successful academic student knows active studying is infinitely more effective than passive reading. For example, asking a friend to test you on the twenty-five vocabulary words (and to jump around the list, so the quiz won't be too easy) will cause you to retrieve the definitions from your own head, thus giving you the certainty of knowledge that leads to solid confidence under pressure. But just reading over the words and thinking, "Yes, these certainly do look familiar," calls for no retrieval of information at all; this is passive studying and poor preparation.
Since we know with certainty that we are going to question ourselves on stage, we simply aren't prepared until we've created the sort of solid musical memory that will stand up well under the pressures of adrenalin.
All this was dear to me in an instant. It also was clear that it would have taken me no more than five minutes offstage to study that passage in such a way that I could have answered the quiz with ease. But I hadn't done that, hadn't seen the need, and now I was being held accountable. That attack of nerves was, in fact, highly beneficial, teaching me a practical lesson that gave me far greater on-stage security in the following years. I wouldn't have paid any attention to the lesson if I hadn't been trying to "survive" in front of two thousand people.
(Resuming the movie) Somehow, I did manage to salvage the moment by jumping ahead a couple beats to the next theme--or what I fervently hoped was the next theme. Luckily, this occurred right before a place in the music where the orchestra is silent for half a page; this enabled the conductor to figure out where I was so we could get back together quickly. I'd like to think that what the audience noticed was at most a minor glitch; but to me it was a turning point in understanding the job of performance preparation.
Performance nerves illustrate what music study has to offer: an adventurous journey of knowing. We discover that knowing is dynamic, not fixed from day to day, and that true knowing can be ever more deep and integrated. This is humbling and at the same time inspiring. This sense of knowing as an ongoing adventure could easily apply to philosophical or spiritual quests, but the great boon of stage experience is that it brings immediate reality to a concept that might otherwise seem quite vague. The act of performing almost forces us to become our best selves: Performers must be realists, rise to the occasion and shed limitations such as self-delusions, narcissism and unproductive thoughts. Our minds must unite intuition and rationality in a purposeful, high-level way. We must make sense of the abstract. We must become fluid thinkers, always open to new connections. If learning to play a particular piece of music is a journey, then that journey of knowledge isn't quite complete without the culminating stage of public performance--even if it's for an audience of two.
Up to now, this discussion has focused inwardly, on the challenges and opportunities for the performer. But equally significant is the outward focus, the aspect of sharing and connecting with others through music's uncanny powers of enchantment.
As it happens, the expansive side of performing also became real to me during that very same concerto evening years ago. Toward the end of the second piece we performed (Rimsky-Korsakov), there is a solo cadenza--always a favorite spot of mine because of the relaxed, improvisatory warmth of the writing. Something intriguing happened when I got to that spot in performance.
Until that moment, I hadn't thought very philosophically about what "expression in performance" really meant: I assumed my role was to offer my interpretation of the music to the audience, who I hoped would find it acceptable and demonstrate their approval of me with respectful silence during the music and applause (thunderous, please) afterward. However, I now sensed something different; the collective awareness, the attentive mind of the audience was a tangible, mutual bond of energy linking me, the soloist, with two thousand listeners. Actors and other performers know this feeling, but it was new to me and I'd never thought of it before. It was a sense of effortless collective power--not my own power at all.
I seemed to be plugged into a meaningful circuit, a circuit made up of many elements: the composer's thought, my response to it, the piano, my hands, and the audience's individual and collective feelings. All the components energized each other and formed a pattern. This was a reversal in perception; my fears before going on stage had stemmed more from the sense of separateness--the austere formality of the stage, my isolated role as soloist under the lights and the physical and psychological distance all this created between me and "them." Even family and friends were temporarily part of the anonymous "them." That's what makes any performance scary.
But once I accepted the aloneness of the stage, stopped fearing it and stopped trying to protect my ego from its imagined dangers, it began to feel surprisingly comfortable and enriching. I felt one with the piano, relaxed and trusting. I realized my connection with the audience had become intimate, nourishing and boundless. In terms of interpretation, I was receiving as much as I was giving; in other words, there no longer seemed to be a fixed, intact item known as "my interpretation." Clearly, the expressive intentions I had worked out in solitary practice were merely preparations, pale outlines of what I now felt (knew) were the deeper, truer meanings the communal circuit was creating.
The ego-drama of performance can be visualized in terms of where energy is directed. On-stage nerves often are driven by thoughts of "What do you all think of me?" Performing for a panel of judges in a music contest also can make a musician of any age fixate on "What do you think of me?" Such victim-like thoughts can cause an actual physical feeling of constriction, as if one's shoulders were being squeezed. It's as if all the energy in the room, all the scrutiny, were pointing at the performer.
But to embrace performing and its possibilities means to reverse the direction of those arrows. Instead of the anxious egoism of "What do you all think of me?", we can convert to the generosity of "Let me share this with you" and the receptivity of "What does this mean to all of us, right in this moment?" This forms a beautiful circuit of energy. To sense performance energy as a bond with others is one of the most liberating fulfillments a person can have. One might say it's the most compelling reason to study music in the first place.
William Westney is a P. W. Horn Distinguished Professor at Texas Tech University, and also is the Browning Artist-in-Residence. A winner of the Geneva Competition, he has received many teaching awards and given workshops worldwide.
This article is excerpted from his new book, The Perfect Wrong Note - Learning to Trust Your Musical Self (Amadeus Press).
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|Title Annotation:||Out of Control?|
|Publication:||American Music Teacher|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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