February 9, 2020 (transferred from WordPress)
How is it that playing for family gatherings was the most nerve-inducing musical experience of my childhood? I distinctly remember being terrified every time we had guests or family over for the occasional holiday meal. Of course, there were the less-than-ideal circumstances of being put on the spot, full from a big meal, and being in those awkward teenage years…but for some reason even the thought of performing for close friends and family filled me with anxiety.
Oddly enough, as much as I dreaded playing for family and close friends, I loved public performances. Why was it that these public performances provided such freedom? Surely there were friends and family in the audience of these public performances, but somehow my mind was able to bypass the fear I felt from the family gatherings.
Last week in class, we discussed the concept and consequences of ‘a public.’ The bulk of the discussion revolving around “Publics and Counterpublics,” by Michael Warner. While the article pertains to written addresses to a public, the following points are particularly relevant to the quest of understanding my love for public performances.
A public is a relation among strangers
A public requires poetic world making
A public consists of strangers, so therefore we have room for imagination. With strangers there is poetic world making, meaning that we have to imagine who is in our public and how they think. This in turn directs our work, as we imagine interacting and persuading our imagined public. This process of imagining and interacting with our imagined public applies directly to music. During the preparation process of a piece of music, there is a constant imagining of not only who will be experiences our work as well as who we want to be experiencing our work.
Imagining a public has long been a part of my motivation to perform. My passion for music came about when I was in high school (and experiencing the turmoil of emotions that came with it) and happened to hear a performance of Janacek’s, String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters.” It was such a moving performance that it brought me to tears. Suddenly, I felt motivated to create meaningful performances for all the other confused high school students that needed to experience live performance. My imagined audiences needed my music. I think that’s why I loved public performances so much…as long as strangers were involved, I could pretend that they needed my music.
Unfortunately, my imagined audience and actual audience often don’t align. This creates confusion of how to relate to my audience..which is a major source for performance anxiety. Some tragic examples of this-
Studio Class. My old professor held studio class in an old classroom. There was a strong odor of dust coupled with florescent lights that beamed down headaches on everyone. The assumption is that you treat your studio class performance as if its a public performance. You are expected to pretend the classroom is a concert hall and pour your heart and soul into every note to move your imagined public…but I could never get over the reality. I was playing in an old classroom with a headache for a room of my colleagues who were either critiquing me or falling asleep. Unable to understand how to relate to my audience, my mind would get confused and along came performance anxiety.
Family Gatherings. How can I play my heart out when I know I’m playing to a group of people trying to justify years of money spent on lessons?
Orchestral Auditions. Although there is a committee of strangers sitting behind a screen, my imagination crumbles knowing that they are probably tired and grumpy and don’t want to be there.
OR THIS BLOG (non-musical example.) While I want to imagine that I am writing to my ideal public, I cannot help but feel self-conscious and awkwardly write knowing that my smart and hardworking peers are forced to read my terrible writing!
The reality of a performance career is that most of the time we have to play in the worst of scenarios. Not for our dream audience, but instead panels of tired and disgruntled orchestra musicians who sit on audition committees, juries of faculty critiquing our playing, peers who can be competitive, etc. While we cannot escape these performance situations, here are a few ways that might help to be adaptable in these awkward settings.
Don’t ignore the setting and instead be fully present. Really, decide to play in the space and for those people.
Acknowledge the discrepancies of the actual audience and the dream audience.
Stick to your message and hold yourself to the ideals of the music. This is hard, but vital. Each piece of music has a different message and intent, so make sure you define it clearly for yourself. That way you can have flexibility and spontaneity in how you present it (or cater) to different audiences.
Remember and respect everyone’s private thought. Especially when performing for those you know well (friends, family etc.) This may seem odd, but it really helps me, as it allows them to be known and also ‘strangers’ that can be moved.
Have an aspirational view of the audience and yourself (this idea was from Mark Greif’s article found here-https://www.chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-With-Public/189921 .) If you think the audience is listening competitively, or only critiquing your playing, make it your mission to convince them to listen differently. Can you play in such a way that they experience the music the way that you intend?
…and hopefully someday I’ll be able to play with all musical freedom and meaning in all scenarios and for anyone…even a family gathering…;)