If I had a dollar for every time someone made excuses for their work, their technique, or their appearance before or after an audition, a performance, or an in-class assessment, I could retire today.
I always say that talent is overrated and Geoff Colvin wrote a wonderful book about that topic. Setting all talent aside, there are still things a person can do to care for their music and its presentation before other people. Recently, this image was floating around on facebook:
I couldn't agree more with this.
The time a person has to prepare their work and love it into being from every aspect of that work happens before they decide to bring it in front of other people. When a person makes the choice to bring their work in front of other people, they are also saying to those people: "I'm ready for you to see and hear my work. I am ready for you to respond to my work. I am ready for my work to be out there."
It is also completely true that people get nervous about putting their work in front of others. This is natural and understandable. Scientific studies show us that when we walk out on stage in front of people, or stand up in front of our peers or our teachers to present our work, we immediately lose about 60% of what we have prepared beforehand. This is because the body has a natural reaction to pressure or perceived threat of any kind. It's called the Fight or Flight response and it is completely necessary to living creatures of all species. If humans didn't have this natural instinct, we also wouldn't know to run away from a lion when it's chasing us licking its chops.
---NO! I'm not comparing teachers, peers, audience members, or music jurists of any kind to hungry lions, though there are many out there who could be even scarier to a person than this. I do not condone their behavior. In fact, I hope that the day I do anything remotely resembling it is the day I retire from this profession.---
In fact, I am saying just the opposite. Most of the time, if people are holding auditions or teaching a class or paying to listen to us perform, they are doing so with a great deal of enthusiasm - whether or not they show that to us. They are happily anticipating hearing what we are about to give them. If they're not happily anticipating it, trust me: this still has absolutely nothing to do with us as the performers. If we look them in the eye and tell them a reason or reasons why they should not joyfully anticipate what we are about to give them, we are immediately and irreversibly giving them the message that we are "not ready for them to see and hear our work, not ready for them to respond to our work, and not ready for our work to be out there."
This obviously is not the message we are intending to send if we have previously made the decision to show up for the audition, show up for the performance, or show up for the class knowing what was expected of us.
Friends, The Work (with a Capital W) is The Work. The Work speaks for itself.
No matter what we say before or after we present our work to others, the work will have done the more important talking. We simply can't avoid this. When people listen to us, whether they know it or not, they are listening for more than just the finished sound on the surface. They are listening for what relationship we have formed with the work. They are listening for choices that we have made along the way in forming that relationship with the work. They are figuring out if we understand the work and if our choice to form a relationship with that work was a clear and informed choice. They are (more often than not) excited to be invited into that personal space between us and the work and don't want to be told we actually "don't want them in here." If we "don't want them in here," then we can't expect them to want to "be in here."
Although every single point on the list above is absolutely a part of this, a few things in particular can be emphasized:
#2. Work Ethic
Work Ethic is not what we think it is. To me, it doesn't mean working "harder" or "longer" than someone else. It doesn't mean having more stamina or drive than someone else. It means making it our business to know what we have to offer to the world and concertedly putting ourselves in front of those people who we believe might need us. After all, if we find out who those people are, we need them too. A professional relationship like this is mutually beneficial and less likely to be wrought with resentment and heartache in the long run. If we are cats trying repeatedly to enter ourselves in the dog show, this will continue to be futile because we are expecting others to change without first looking at ourselves and knowing clearly what we can offer.
#4. Body Language
Body Language speaks circles around what words come out of our mouth. If you don't believe me, listen to the brilliant sociologist, Amy Cuddy, give her amazing TED Talk about it.
#9. Doing Extra and #10. Being Prepared
Logic tells us that if, because of Fight or Flight, we could stand to lose as much as 60% of what we have prepared when we go to present our work in front of others, we need to prepare an extra 60% above the amount we would prepare to achieve 100%. This is not to say that preparation is all of it. Work Ethic, Body Language, choice of material well-suited for us, and choice of who to present this material to are all working in tandem to help us achieve our success. Further still, some factors of success in these situations are out of our control because we can't control other people or their states of mind or their life circumstances at the moments they are sitting down to hear us present our work. This, of course, opens a whole other topic which I'll have to cover in a different post later on.
All of this said, nothing speaks louder about us as musicians than our work, itself. There is a reason that music transcends barriers of time and space, language, culture, geography, age, gender, and so on. It doesn't need our words accompanying it to effectively say what it has to say. If we add our words, this becomes a part of the work as a whole. In fact, when composers began to do this, the text presented in a printed program served to do exactly that: to dilate the sensibilities of the piece and to heighten enjoyment of it. That type of accompanying information is clearly not the type of talk I speak of here. The type of talk I speak of here includes statements like this:
"You'll have to forgive me. I am still getting over a nasty cold and I'm not sure what it's going to do to my singing."
"I really didn't want to sing this particular song for you, but it's all I have ready."
"I'm pretty sure this is going to suck, but I guess I'll try."
"I haven't played this in months. Here goes!"
You wouldn't believe some of the things people have said to me as an addendum to their work. Why in the world do we do this? If we are professional or even serious avocational musicians, we have already worked extremely hard and against some of the greatest odds a person could face in their career path to get where we are in this moment. We have invested our time, our money, our energy, and more into this work.
Why not just let that work and all it took to get here in this moment speak for itself? Isn't that enough? If that's not enough, or if we are not ready in this moment for any reason, why make the choice to present the work in front of others to begin with?
Just my truth. Take it or leave it.
A lot of people have called me a “thought leader” in choral music. At the age of 34, I’m not sure I can be a “thought leader” yet and I am also not entirely sure what this term means. I do know, however, that I have a lot of thoughts not only about choral music but about music in general.
I’m sure that now that I’m putting these thoughts out there, a lot of people will disagree with me. I’m fine with that.
These are my truths as a musician of 27 years and I hope that they are helpful in some way to you if you’re taking the time to read them. If they provoke you in any way: thought, word, or deed, they will at least have started something moving within you and, in doing so, let you take one step closer to finding your true, authentic self as a musician in this world.
When I work with students, one of the first things I say to them is this:
NOTHING I SAY IS CREED AND I WILL NEVER TELL YOU THAT IT IS.
I truly believe this. There is no one right way to do anything. On my own branch of the music tree, it takes many different types of people from many backgrounds, many training styles, many ages, and so forth to complete the circle that is choral music today. I am, daily, in awe of my colleagues. Like most people, I’m sure, I have my moments of frustration, jealousy, resentment, self-doubt, and so on. Still, I try hard not to let that overshadow my personal sense of pride in what is happening in choral music and my willingness to openly celebrate it.
In recent years, I have had a stark disconnection from this world in large part due to going through a period of discernment and reflection in my life. I feel strongly that I can’t comment properly on what other people are or aren’t doing if I am not well informed, myself, and willing to look at my own life and career without complacency.
A few years ago, Karl Paulnack gave a speech to incoming freshmen and their parents at The Boston Conservatory. At the end of it, he said this:
“…If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do…”
When my cherished teacher and mentor Conrad Susa died in 2013, I had the opportunity to speak at his memorial in San Francisco and then at his burial:
“…To say that art has limits is unfathomable to someone like me. One of the most cherished lessons I learned from Conrad was how to simply be an artist without limits, but living in a limited world. Whereas he fought daily for his personal right to privacy and to being true to himself no matter the cost, he also managed always to have an eye on the real world outside of himself - particularly in the form of other people…
…This is the true test of a composer of Conrad’s caliber: to be true to oneself while also bravely engaging enough with the outside world in order to bear the burden of telling its story, dilating its languages, and immortalizing its people; to be a mirror so that people can see and hear themselves in a new light - and thus, make groundbreaking, world-changing decisions; teaching us gently: without ever letting us feel like we are being taught. In other words, WE…are The “Limits” of Art and we have considerably fewer limits than we think…”
If we are to view our work as musicians in this way, we have to look deep within ourselves and face whatever our truths are. In this series, I will do that. Please come along with me and be sure to let that motion within you start: talk with me or others about it, question, challenge, validate, condemn. Do what you need to do - but do it for the sake of music. After all, if you’re reading this, it is truly one of your best friends.