Show up, look at the camera, face the music

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A student and I were discussing stage fright, one of my favourite subjects. “This might sound like a silly question,” she said, “but where are you supposed to look when you perform?”

No such thing as a silly question.

I’ve written about this quandary before in the epilogue to my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance Several years ago, I had a moment of revelation when I realized that one of my top technical problems–bowing my head and hunching over while playing the cello–was caused by my introvert’s fear of other people.

“Even after what I’d learned about my habit of looking down while playing, it was incredibly hard to stop doing this. My natural shyness made me incredibly reluctant to look at the audience while I played, for fear of accidentally making eye contact.” (1)

I found a solution to my problem by taking inspiration from the way that television newsreaders appear to gaze steadily and naturally at the “audience” (even if it’s only the camera). What would happen if a newsreader delivered the news with her head down? Her message would be lost.

And it’s not that different for us, the performers of music, and the messages we want to share.

I asked my student “What would happen if you looked at the audience while you were performing?”

She looked taken aback.

I continued: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? That they might look back at you?”

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But seriously, would that be so terrible? Why does a musical performance have to be this hallowed thing where the person on the stage seems so remote that they might as well be on TV?

News flash, they can already see you and you can already see them. Why do we pretend that we can’t see each other for what we truly are? 

I’m reminded of another student who came into my office a couple of years ago with an end-of-semester gift for my assistant. “But if I can ask you for a favour,” she said, “don’t tell him it was from me.”

“But why?” I asked, and then “Oh.

The student squirmed. “Please just don’t tell him.”

“If that’s how you feel about him,” I said, “why don’t you ask him for a date? The class is over, you’re graduating, he’s graduating, and he’s no longer your teacher in any capacity.”

She was shocked. “I couldn’t!” she exclaimed. “He might…he might see me.”

I repeat: would that be so terrible? To make ourselves vulnerable, to give ourselves a chance to share our true feelings in the hopes that love may be reciprocated?

Why do we hide our innermost and most beautiful feelings? Why do we worry so much about what “they” might think when in reality, chances are that “they” are so wrapped up in their own pain and their own anxieties that they aren’t thinking anything negative about us at all?

The answer is that sometimes our displays of vulnerability don’t end well at all. The question is whether or not we take the chance to do this at all. I’m here to say that I think we should. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson reminds us in section 27 of In Memoriam, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.”

Those lines have become a cliché, but they’re good words to live by. Performing is like that. Putting yourself out there and truthfully expressing the emotion of music to an audience who needs that music now more than ever.

We live in troubled times. In the face of this horror, it’s so tempting to withdraw into silence. When we are scared or we don’t know what to say, it’s all too tempting to fix our gaze on the floor, to hide behind the music stand, to go inwards.

Or we can be exceptionally brave, and speak the truth. There’s that expression “facing the music.” Even when there are a few things in music—and in life—that we don’t want to face, it’s the artist’s job to do so. We must show up. We must speak the truth. We must be grateful when others show up to hear and see us.

The world may be falling apart, but we still have music. And it’s in music that I find answers. When I’m at my saddest, I turn to one of my most beloved pieces of music, Bach’s Actus tragicus BWV 106 (“Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”).

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The crossing recorder parts remind me of all the crossroads at which we find ourselves. The “footstepping” basso continuo line (my job!) reminds me that we are always walking towards the unknowable, and we mustn’t look away.

We still have music, and we still have each other. My answer to the student was that we must walk out onto the stage and look out at the audience, look at their faces, and think–or say!–“Thank you for showing up. I’m grateful for you.” 

And then do what we do best, in the hopes that it may, even in some tiny part, take some of their pain from them.

© Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

(1) Miranda Wilson, Cello Practice, Cello Performance (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 116.

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When money can’t buy music

Under normal circumstances, musicians don’t have much political power.

We don’t like to admit this, because we want to be the “critic and conscience of society.” In the face of oppression, we want to speak the truth fearlessly, like Pete Seeger. Or fearfully, like Shostakovich.

In reality, our protest songs and our satires go unheard or misunderstood. We may stir the hearts of our audiences, but we don’t soften those of our leaders.

That’s under normal circumstances. But recently? Nothing’s been that normal. Nothing at all.

Case in point: the phenomenon that several top musicians have declined to perform at the upcoming American presidential inauguration. Elton John turned it down. Andrea Bocelli reportedly considered it, but also declined, possibly fearing a backlash from his fan base. A member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir quit because she “could never look myself in the mirror again with self-respect.”

All of this creates quite a big problem for America’s soon-to-be rulers, doesn’t it?

I’ve written before in this blog about music as political protest, and about the at-times uneasy relationship between musicians and the ruling class. (And in case anyone accuses me of liberal bias, I’d like to point out that in my experience, liberal elites can behave just as badly towards musicians as conservative ones.)

Ever since there has been such a thing as a ruling class and a music profession, each group has had something the other wants. Consider the troubadours, wandering around the south of France pretending to be in love with wealthy patronesses, who were presumably fond of showing off their pet troubadours to their wealthy girlfriends. Consider just about the entire career of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is how it goes: musicians provide the rich and powerful classes with status symbols. Music, being expensive, is “classy” in every sense of the word. By the same token, musicians are the perennially broke supplicants to the ruling class, whether we’re looking for sponsors or applying for government arts grants. That’s how the world has always worked.

Until now. Under normal circumstances, money could buy pretty much everything. Until now, it was always clear which one of us was singing for his supper and which one was paying the piper.

But just as so many things have been turned upside down recently, so has this. The only precedent I could think of where musicians have made their point by not performing is the famous story of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony–surely the most imaginative response to a labour dispute in music history.

Obviously, since I’m not an international superstar, no one’s going to ask me to play at the presidential inauguration. But I did ask myself what I would do if–by some wild leap of the imagination–I were offered a substantial sum to do so. I’ve never been averse to the idea of selling out, but in spite of my modest avarice for the largesse of rulers, I think my conscience would compel me to turn it down too.