Monday, February 06, 2006

what's at stake

Reading about terminal degree's student winning a contest at age 14 made me think back to my own piano-playing days and the types of performance situations I was exposed to. One of the strengths of my piano teacher (the only one I've ever had, from ages 6-18) was her ability to maintain high standards and a rigorous level of teaching in the absence of many external motivators like contests. I did, on occasion, participate in the statewide music judging that would have qualified me for state piano ensemble had there been such a thing. As it was, it simply provided a little performance opportunity. And there were more and less formal recitals of my teacher's students as a group, held in her living room.

I didn't get much practice dealing with things like performance anxiety, though, because all of those outlets were so low-stakes. Once I got old enough and skilled enough to play somewhat challenging music, anything I played after the 6-year-olds' plunky tunes was enough to make me feel good. It was only when I started singing - auditioning for solos in school choirs, or, later on, performing in a more extended way in front of an audience - that I developed a good sense of the internal and external standards by which I could gauge my own performance. This happened partly because I was older, more musically experienced, and had a clearer conception of what I wanted to sound like before I started singing. But it's also because I just had more numerous opportunities for self-exposure.

The process of learning to deal with that kind of exposure is ongoing, especially because I constantly have to adapt it to new situations, both musical and otherwise. Simply performing the same piece in different physical spaces requires a mental and aural adjustment - it's still challenging for me not to get nervous, for example, when singing in spaces where I can't hear myself very well; that cushion of reverberation or feedback is somewhat of a security blanket. Job interviews, conference presentations, etc. require the same sort of self-fashioning and self-reassurance in public; what I'm learning from performance is the ability to hear in advance what I want to sing or say, and to use my technical know-how to make that happen.


Terminaldegree said...

Kermit, I think you made some great points. Even if my young students don't go on to be professional musicians, they're gaining some valuable "presentation" skills that will serve them well in anything they do in the future--talking in front of groups, goal setting, focused practice, etc.

kermitthefrog said...

Terminal: As much as I hate to imply that I value music for utilitarian purposes, it definitely does lead to certain transferable skills. Although I think in my case they almost developed backward - for a long time I was much more comfortable speaking in front of a group, for instance, than singing in public. I think my point was that in both cases there's a certain type of self-exposure that can lead to greater freedom of expression whenever one has to perform.