It’s “playing”, not “working”, right?
Performing artists are amazing to watch. They do the seemingly impossible with apparent ease. They convey the most profound aspects of the human condition, while appearing to have no such afflictions themselves. The show must go on, right? Chances are, that amazing artist you’re watching – whether a dancer, solo instrumentalist, orchestral player, or actor – might just be having the worst night of their life.
So much of what we do as performers is built around two basic aspects of performing: the illusion of the virtuoso: that all things are easy to play, and even if they are not, they should appear to be so; and the illusion of constant joy: everything you do is a joyful expression and extension of your burgeoning artistic heart. You look at some of the crossover acts, like Yanni, John Tesh, and Andre Rieu, and they and their bands perform with constant smiles. I have even heard tales (who knows of their veracity) of one of these individuals summarily firing musicians for not keeping a smile plastered to their face at all times. (This is nothing new, I’ve read accounts of what a taskmaster TV bandleader Lawrence Welk was.)
Not so fast, orchestra geek!
We in the “legit” classical world get no easy out, either. Orchestras are pretty consistently being given grief over the fact that their musicians play with such dour expressions. Part of this is due to the difficulty factor of what we are asked to do, and partly to the fact that we are not in charge of how we express the music that is placed in front of us. The person with the waving arms is the one truly expressing themselves. We are merely instruments of their vision, in many cases.
Performers are only human, right?
So, back to my introductory statement. The work ethic of the typical performer is ferocious. We will play with 102º fever, the day our cherished pet dies, or with a broken toe. And we will then put on a brave face for rehearsals, and a big smile for our bows at the performance. For a lot of us, the hardest thing to do is to keep on keeping on when things are absolutely going to hell in a hand basket. Gabrielle Hamilton, acclaimed chef of Prune in New York, writes very well about this from the chef’s perspective:
No matter how well set up you are, how early you came in, how awesome your mise en place is, there will be days, forces, events that just conspire to fuck you and the struggle to stay up—to no sink down in the the blackest, meanest hole—to stay psychologically up and committed to the fight, is the hardest, by far . . .
Is that a light at the end of the tunnel, or an oncoming train?
There are so many times, either in rehearsal, or in performance, where this happens to musicians. Sometimes it is entirely internal. No time for a nap before the show, no time to look over those tricky passages one more time before going on stage, horrible argument with a friend or loved one. These all can and do compete for your psychic head space when you can least afford to cede that sort of mental real estate. Other times, it is an external factor in the performance. Orchestras are a lot like those flocks of birds or schools of fish that concentrate in very dense clouds, seemingly moving in perfect synchrony. All it takes is one attention lapse, one 10% drop in concentration from just one key musician, and that perfect balance is undone. Tiny errors begin to magnify and, if unchecked, could result in a massive fail that we in the business refer to as a “train wreck”.
Self-help guru sez…
My favorite tactic when I feel myself going down that slippery slope is to employ the self-help guru’s aphorism of “fake it ’till you make it”. It’s especially useful in situations where I’m just not into what is happening on stage. I might hate the conductor, or how they’re leading a piece, or I hate the piece, or you get the idea. If I pull myself out of that moment, smile, and then imagine that I’m actually really enjoying what I’m doing, nine times out of ten I’ll recover my mojo and go on to have an enjoyable performing experience.
Don’t worry, be happy.
The other common situation is where I make some drastic, gratuitous, horrible mistake in a performance. This might be a big, honking wrong note, playing in a rest, or just generally being a piggy player. The tactic I use, with varying amounts of success, in these situations, is to just let it go. Music is an ephemeral experience. The notes sound, decay, and are gone. Generally speaking, the audience is very much in this flow, and while something that is exceptionally loud or obvious might cause a moment of concert to them, it will be forgotten about within minutes, if not sooner. For us musicians, we will dwell on that mistake. It will grow in intensity like a malignant thing. Soon, it is all we can think about. We are miserable. Our generally well-honed sense of self-loathing will kick in, and it becomes an all-about-us pity party. That, needless to say, is not the way to bounce back! In truth, there is nothing that can be done about what just happened. You may have earned a glare from the music director, but pretty much everyone else is concentrating too much to care what you just did. I like to think of walling the issue off and saving it for later. I find that the performance is often much more rewarding and focused after that point. Being (and remaining) in the moment is not just good spiritual advice, it’s good musical advice, too.
So, the next time you’re watching an orchestra or chamber ensemble perform, remember that those performers just might be fighting for their musical sanity right in front of your eyes. Maybe offer to buy them a drink when you see them at the local watering hole. Chances are, they need it!