Give Me A Chance To Come Through

If you’re a student, or have been a student, you need referrals and recommendations.  Whether it’s for another degree program, or the “real world” as we like to call it, the same principle holds true: you need connections with other professionals.

It helps when you study with a teacher who is connected to the professional world.  If you’re a musician, your private teacher is your primary contact and support.  You want to find a teacher with whom you connect on an artistic level, but also can talk to and from whom you can get professional advice.

I have a friend who recently wanted a recommendation from her teacher.  This teacher is very well-known in the professional world, and one word from him would certainly help her out immensely.  And perhaps that is why he doesn’t give out his recommendation often.   As much as we need the support from those around us, sometimes teachers reserve their referrals or support.

I can see both sides of this issue for my friend; she could benefit greatly from his help, but for him to give her his aide might show favoritism.  It also takes away from allowing her to make her own path, however hard that might be.  And sometimes the struggle of making your own path is part of your own development.

We need to be able to ask for help from mentors and teachers, but also not begrudge them if they are not able to give us a leg up.  And if someone can’t, someone else can.  We can also help them by offering a stamped, addressed envelope to wherever their recommendation needs to go, or offer a specified criteria regarding where the recommendation is headed.

If You Can’t Please Everyone

You gotta please yourself. Or so the song goes. We all want and need encouragement and validation. We want to please. Period.
A friend recently made me aware of this quote by Robert Kennedy: “One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time.” I love this. No matter how many people you please, there is always going to be someone or some faction (20%) that’s going to dissent.

If you accept this level of dissent, the world becomes your oyster. If you don’t care about pleasing everyone, you can start focusing on what you actually care about.

I love this quote because it’s true to life. We can’t please everyone. We sure can’t please that 20% who can’t be pleased no matter what we do.

So focus on yourself: what do you wish to accomplish? And why are you concerned with that 20% you can’t please?

We’ve Never Done It Like That Before

The seven last words of any dying institution. In my family it usually pertained to a church community. It never failed; whenever communities would regurgitate this old mantra, things were bound to get worse before they got better. I’ve written on this topic before. I’d apologize for being repetitive, however human behavior isn’t all that unique these days either.

I was working with a musician who had this attitude. This musician was used to doing things his way; I needed things done the way I liked them to be done. Ever been in a situation with someone stubborn? Makes for awkward encounters.

I approached this musician, and his excuse was he wasn’t used to my way of doing things. I encouraged him to follow my lead, me being the music director and he the pit musician, and I assured him that I had my reasons, based on conversations with the production team, which were none of his concern.

Arguing with a member of an orchestra is not something I enjoy. But in the heat of battle, or performance rather, the conductor needs the musicians to follow him/her. We can’t stop the show to explain ourselves or beg for each and every player’s understanding. Just follow and listen.

Listening is paramount. The rest of the band was playing together just fine; this one player had other ideas. I knew removing this player from the band would cause more problems than it would fix; so I needed to fix this problem. Rather than just playing whatever tempo and groove he wanted, I encouraged him to play with the beat of the band.

And also acknowledging that although he wasn’t used to it, I hoped he could adapt. Being flexible and working with change is all a part of the gig.

Pick A Tempo, Any Tempo

I’ve had the good fortune of playing in ensembles with really smart musicians.  Some of them have a level of intuition, sense of style, and overall musicality is unparalleled.  I find myself learning on gigs with musicians more experienced; it’s always an opportunity to gain from them.  However I’ve found smart musicians sometimes take it upon themselves to do the job of the music director when they are in the band and not at the conductor’s podium.

There is the saying “The captain goes down with the ship.”  The music director is responsible for the music of the show.  If something is too fast or too slow, the music director is the person to go to.  It is the conductor’s job to set the tempo, or train the drummer or musician starting a musical number, and maintain a tempo that works for the performers on stage.

I recently had an encounter with a musician I respect, but with whom I had a disagreement about a tempo.  The tempos set by this musician (in this case, a drummer, as drummers often hold a tempo in place), began too slowly.  This musician didn’t really follow my gesture as I conducted the music.

When we spoke about it, this musician felt that the singers needed another tempo than I was giving.  I quickly pointed out to him that that is my job.  Besides, I had words with the stage manager, singers, and others in the production; my choices of tempo and actions I take are for reasons, which I don’t always need to explain to the band.  Their job is to follow the conductor.  And if the conductor is wrong, then he/she takes responsibility or whatever flack may come from it; I doubt any conductor would admit to being wrong, but such are conductors.

It brings up a point: all the musicians are smart, talented players.  Each and every player in an orchestra or band could set a tempo, perhaps, and know what cues need to be given.  However there is only one conductor, and the job of that conductor is to set a tempo that everyone can agree on.   If everyone plays at their own tempo, the ensemble is not together and the music suffers.  We each have a job to do.  The orchestra is not a democracy; there has to be a clear leader, and the players must follow.

The Need To Compete

The only person we are competing with in life is ourselves.  That’s the mantra we hear from grade-school on: we’re not competing with each other in our own development, but competing with the best version of ourself.  There is more to that ideology than simply saying we are in an existential self-competition and nothing more.

We are, in fact, in competition with those around us.  Using simple supply-and-demand logic, there are more of us available to work than there are positions, particularly in a specific show or production.  When there are two positions available in an orchestra for flute, and 200 flutists show up to play, they are all in competition with each other.  If there is a show needing a director, only one person will get that job; there are many other directors who will not.

While we are all competing for a finite number of professional positions in our careers, every career is slightly different.  Every path each of us is on is unique.  As florid as that might sound, or self-help-y, it’s true.  For every actor auditioning and looking for work, they each are in a spectrum of looking for career jobs, side work, voice-over work on the side, commercials and whatever else they can find.  Musicians, likewise, find a multitude of paths in ensemble and solo work, composing and arranging.

Sometimes I see someone with a job I wanted.  I think “they took my job.”  No.  They received the job for a number of reasons to which I will probably never be made privy.  It’s really none of my business, and if I did know all the details to how someone else was hired over me for a gig or performance, I’m sure I’d cry for the injustice of it all.  Or, I could move on to the next gig.

The work is not linear.  As Sondheim wrote in Follies: “Top billing Monday, Tuesday, you’re touring in stock, but I’m here.”  One day you’re on top, leading the show and feeling ahead of everyone around you; the next day you think you’re failing because someone else is in the lead.  Constantly comparing yourself to others is exhausting and ultimately fruitless.

They will never have the career you have.  You will never have the career they have.  While we might be competing for the same gigs, we might not all want the same career.

Use Your Words

We are all knowledgable about something. We are all also ignorant about something. No matter how much we study or try to learn, there will be something new, different, or outside our line of vision, about which we know nothing.

It appears to be true that in many professions we can ostracize others around us by our language. Lawyers who use too many legal terms or doctors who use big words describing an ailment can confuse their clients leaving them feeling dumb. Hopefully that’s not the goal, but for some professionals, they can’t help but use their words to show just how smart they are.

I was sitting in a musical writing class when I accidentally used a word others didn’t know. The moderator was describing something and couldn’t think of the word. I jumped in with “chromatic mediant.” It’s a term to describe chords in music moving up or down an interval of a third. It sounds fancier than it is; I thought in a room of musicians it wouldn’t be an issue. Someone immediately turned to me and called me a show-off. I confess to you now, in writing, that was not my intent.  It reminded me that despite what I know, there’s bound to be someone know knows more (or in this case, less).

I do believe in theatre, we must work to speak in simple, direct terms. The intent is not to dumb things down or be simple-minded, but in the collaborative arts we all are knowledgable about what we do, but not always aware of what everyone else knows. With a director, choreographer, music director, lighting and sound designers, a costume designer and stage manager, writers and producers, it’s easy for anyone to start speaking more technically than necessary. Always consider what you say, and what you mean to say.

Try To Remember

On this day we remember those who have fought in the name of freedom and for this country. I’m reminded of the role of music in celebration and remembrance.

So far I’ve heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung and “Taps” played on a trumpet. These pieces of music hold so much emotional punch for many Americans. But I also hear the national anthem everywhere, done every different way possible. I don’t hear the same amount of riffing on “Taps,” but perhaps that’s because it’s usually reserved for funerals.

I had the good fortune of seeing the Star-Spangled Banner at the National American History Museum in Washington, D. C. It’s enormous. It also makes the words and music of the anthem seem all the more authentic.

I realize we all probably hear the music of songs like the anthem or other anthemic themes and don’t stop to really think about their meaning. We can become numb to the meaning behind the music.

As we celebrate with parades, brats, and beers, take a moment to remember what we are really celebrating and what we are really experiencing in the music. Then imagine any holiday or memorial without music.

If It Ain’t Baroque

Don’t mess with a good thing. If you’re performing and audiences respond well, keep doing that, whatever it is. Although ticket sales and commercial popularity are key in determining if something is working, they don’t always tell you if what you’re doing is healthy or sustainable.

I recently played a performance and some friends who are voice teachers attended. They could speak very definitely regarding the vocal techniques, good and bad singing of the actors in the cast. In commercial theatre, singing is only a piece of a larger puzzle when it comes to evaluating a performer’s ability and likability in performance.

While some of the performers didn’t have the best vocal technique, they were compelling performers. And regardless of their technique, if audiences respond well to their performance, why change anything? The real question is: can the performer sustain their singing voice if they are not supported with healthy technique?

I’ve seen performers overcompensate with physicality that does not help their singing. Some performers emote by breathing by raising their shoulders and clavicle bone. Last time I checked there is no air in your clavicle or shoulders, however audiences respond to the emoting shoulders because it shows real emotion, right?

In a business where subtly is often lost on audiences, performers do more and make bigger choices. Through the course of a run of a show I’ve seen performers get bigger and bigger, until their performance doesn’t resemble their initial performance.

It’s not the audience’s job to determine if a singer is singing correctly. They merely respond to what they like. It’s the performer’s job to perform and entertain; hopefully they can sustain their performing for a long time with a healthy approach.

The Genuine Article

It’s easy to be intimidated by others’ talents and successes. We can react by being shy or elusive, not wanting attention. Then there are those who react by being gregarious and over-the-top. They respond by being more attention grabbing and larger than life.

I’ve noticed the latter in the performing world. There is an atmosphere of this ‘fake’ behavior; a friend pointed out that’s it’s as much an insecure reaction as those who are shy and introverted. The extroverted, over-the-top behavior I’ve experienced in others seems to be a cover for their own genuine feelings. Rarely do I encounter the person underneath the veneer of this character they put on.

And to the over-the-top person, they probably believe they are being genuine, and perhaps they are. I saw a post recently on Facebook, (I know I shouldn’t read such things) where someone in the industry was spouting how wonderful it is to be them, and listing other people for whom they are grateful; that’s all well and good. It went on from there to be a lot of mush and flowery language. If I could sum it up: “I’m so thankful I’m so humble; thank you for making me so wonderful.” A paraphrase, but to the point.

Where is the genuine sentiment in this? Are they grateful or using the moment to boost their own presence? It’s a fine line, and I wonder how best to be genuine while exuding the confidence and out-going behavior needed in the professional world. The other thought that comes to mind is: if you’re pretending or being ‘fake’ how long until others realize this?

Say My Name, Say My Name

Like it or not, titles and names are important.  Whether it’s a family lineage, or a military rank, it’s tells us who you are and what your position is.  Performers can take on various roles depending on the show, and the titles they are given designate their position.

I was playing a show recently where this became important.  I should clarify: conducting a show.  I introduced myself to a myriad of other people.  Some said to me “Oh yeah, you’re the piano player.”  Not quite.  It’s not so much a point of ego as it is a clarification.  With that clarification comes the responsibility of being a part of the creative team as the music director and conductor, not the piano player.  I don’t suppose you’d say to the captain of a ship, “Oh yeah, you’re the guy with the hat, playing with the steering wheel.”

I knew a performer once whose accountant listed her profession as a singer and her husband as a musician.  He was promptly fired.  She was a musician first who happened to sing.

Because so much of what we do as performers is behind the scenes, we have to represent ourselves in our work.  And for all the piano players out there, I’ve heard too often, “I’m just the accompanist.”  You’re never just an accompanist.  Being raised by two ministers in the midwest, I understand humility all too well, however if we condition our identity by ‘just’ being a musician or actor, we undermine our own value.

There is a fine line we walk in the performance industry.  Many performers let their ego run rampant and are the reason for the ‘Diva’ stereotype.  However for those of us who are so humble we hide ourselves, we might not get noticed, and then might not get hired for the next gig.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ego.  Knowing who you are and what your role is on any given gig is important.  Knowing whether you’re the sideman, or conductor, or wonderfully just the piano player (never say that.  You’re the piano player.  period.)  will help you navigate the professional performance scene more effectively.