Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Performance Paradox: or, why I sometimes hate doing what I love

So it seems I've let this go delinquent a bit, sorry about that. But anyone who knows a performing artist personally should know about the Winter season and what it does to us.

The ironic thing I find is that so often, this season is so hectic that we artists can forget to enjoy what we're doing. It sound ridiculous, I know. Especially for those of us who dedicate our lives to the stuff, and even write blogs gushing about it's power and importance. Sometimes, when we ought to be really grateful and lively, people, we're just flustered and aggravated.

Now, there is at least one valid reason for all that.

An old teacher and now colleague of mine, Prof. Thomas Brooks once told us when we were in the college choir that, in a lot of ways, we were like the college's flagship sports team. We had to act like a team, we had to do it all despite our academic work load, some of us even took the activities of the choir to be the real focus of our time at college, etc. The parallels match up pretty evenly. (And anyone who has been on riser-crew knows that concerts can be as strenuous as a full-contact sport). But there was one exception, a sports team has a season of wins and losses. The college choir, he said, couldn't. We had to have a perfect season every time. If we didn't, there was no going back.

Now, it was a bit of an exaggeration, but I think the point holds true. In sports, you have a lot of plays and sometimes they go bad. It's expected to an extent. You're just an athlete. In the arts, if it goes bad, it is not expected. It's a serious failure. You're not competing in a zero-sum game against an opponent, you're competing against yourself and all the logistical challenges of doing the art.

Any of you who do the arts knows this is true. However incredibly romanticized the performance world is, we don't just go up there and emote and sing and dance and story-tell naturally. We practice, we wrestle against our own nerves, the humidity, the acoustics of the room, etc. Now, if you're far enough along, you know how to overcome that stuff. If you're still learning, it's a battle. But even when you're good, it's still a conscious effort.

So all that to say, sometimes when the dice roll against you, as an artist you have to go into "survival" mode. You go on stage, you smile, you spend every moment controlling all the different factors and you get it done... the audience will usually still be happy, and the outcome can even still be pretty good. But in the process, as an artist, you didn't really do your thing. You just got through it. Then there are the times when you went up there and made music, did your art, told your story. Those are the real wins.

Contrary to popular opinion, the audience cannot tell the difference most of the time. I've known degree-recitals which went horribly, and very intelligent audience members said "I could really tell you were getting into it there" etc. That's fine. This is a testimony to those of us on the stage. We cannot let the audience know. We just have to carry it within ourselves.

Ok, now this post is rapidly becoming a bit of a downer. That's not my intention. But I did want to talk a little bit about the paradox between the art, how much we love it, how we even dedicate all our time to it, and yet how hard it is to pull it off, and when you're there, sometimes you're just not all there. It's weird. But it's just part of the job, I suppose. You can't really ignore it. But you certainly get work over it. I've done that sometimes, other times not so much.

So, this season, I won't tell you what my real score is, because on the outside it's still 3-0. Another one coming up tonight. But I will tell you that I, for one, intend to do my thing rather than just survive.