Climb Ev’ry Mountain

There comes a moment, when we leave home, go to school, go to college, go to work, when we realize that everyone is not like us. As similar as we all are (and we are), we’ve all probably had that moment of realization: they don’t learn the way I do.

I had a gig recently, as many gigs are, with people from a variety of backgrounds and learning processes. Not everyone read music, not everyone had the same training. Yet I think it’s more common that we’re willing to admit, that in any given professional field, we expect everyone to some of not all of the same training.

Not everyone processes the information the same way. Some people are visual, some are aural learners. How do you measure their abilities? By how they learn?

I’m reminded of an analogy given: learning is like climbing a mountain. There are many paths you can take. And people can argue over which method is best, but if we’re all teaching the same result, aren’t the different paths valid?

I’m thinking of performing music primarily. Some people read it, some don’t; some people train in schools while others pick it up on the job. While different approaches leaves something to be desired by some, there does not seem to be one right way of climbing the mountain.

Based On A True Story

There is a saying in writing: “write what you know.”  It makes sense to talk about, write about the things we know about.  While there are exceptions to the rule, and researching a topic can help us understand it to the point of writing about it, I would like to amend the saying.  Write what you know, but don’t write about yourself.

I sat in a reading of a new musical.  Both writers came forward to welcome everyone; they explained their passion for the project.  They both lost someone close to them.  The show was about losing someone close to the main characters.

I felt like I was sitting in on someone’s therapy session.  At times, it was uncomfortable, and a bit on the nose.  It was sad when it was trying to be funny.  There were references that felt like insider information.

We want to relate to the characters, and as writers we especially want to draw characters that have dimension and depth.  When we are so close to the characters and the story, it’s difficult to find the distance needed to gain perspective on the piece.  And to your audience, it can feel like you’re hitting them over the head.

I cannot count the number of shows I’ve seen, or I’ve worked on, where the writers are the characters and vice versa.  We lose sight of why the show is interesting to an audience other than the writers.  They are working out their interests on stage, rather than engaging the audience.  There have been times when I’ve wanted to say: you’re not that interesting.  But then again, neither am I.  Art imitates life, but art also allows for license with life.

Writing is therapeutic, and very helpful for working out problems, emotions, situations.  There are some personal episodes I’d rather not put on stage or in public print.  There are always exceptions to that rule; there are some life stories that are just too good not to tell.  “This is based on a true story.”   When writing we have to ask: is it interesting to an audience, not just to myself?

But I’m Here

Some professional careers are linear.  You start at a low-level position, a desk job, then slowly, but surely you move up the corporate ladder, one rung at a time.  The performing arts is not one of those careers.

As the song, “I’m Still Here,” points out, you could be “Top billing Monday, Tuesday you’re touring in stock.”  For a great many artists, you can get a headlining role one season, and then find yourself back in the audition line for a chorus role.

Some performing artists can make a point of being selective about which jobs they take.  There are some gigs that are wonderful for their content and the people you’re working with; other gigs can just be great money.  And that’s ok, too.

I think many artists are surprised when work is going well, and then it’s not.  We assume a certain level of experience and reputation will only elevate us to a position above jobs we’ve taken in the past.  That’s not necessarily true, especially in lean years.

No matter the gig, the work is important to someone, even if you’re taking it to fill some empty weeks or months.  And even if it’s not the gig you want to be doing, how you handle it and your own behavior speaks volumes to others about you.  You’re still there, and it’s still your reputation.  And it’s still work.

In My Humble Opinion 

Everyone has an opinion; everyone is a critic.  Sometimes we open our mouths too soon, spouting off what we think is a witty remark, only to find ourselves in the company of those involved with the work of art in question: insert foot here.  I’ve been in those situations many times; I’ve said the wrong thing at the wrong time in front of the wrong people.

Tact is a lesson often painfully learned.  If you’re working in the performing arts, or even surrounded by it, it’s easy to rub shoulders with artists.  I’ve worked on one show, giving my two-cents about another show I didn’t care for, only to find there are friends of other friends in that show.  No surprise there.  Lesson learned.

So if you work in a professional field, does that mean you give up your critical view just to save face?  Not necessarily; there’s usually a better way to express thoughts, without resorting to negativity.  If only more politicians could take that stance.  The very word ‘critical’ has a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t.

If we are involved with a project, we want to see it succeed; I try not to mention the negative side of a show I’m working on (not that there ever is one); that is also the very reason I keep names and shows anonymous on the blog.

A friend made it clear to me, when he was invited by a friend to a performance of a very long running, and very tired show.  The performance was not the best; as he put it, when you’re invited to a show, with friends involved, you don’t need to have an opinion.  I also like to think that if I’m being paid by a production company to work on a show, it’s better not to bite the hand that feeds.

You’ll be great

Whenever you are approached by an employer, it’s important to look good. This, we know. Whenever we talk to the press, or interested individuals, it only serves us well to say it’s going well, even if it’s not.
I sat in a performance class, and the teacher asked a student, “how was the program coming along?” The student replied: “ok.” The teacher promptly responded, “it’s going great!”
No matter what we think of our work, our time, or our progress, it’s important that it looks good to the others around us. For better or worse we must put on a good front when dealing with our progress.
In the eyes of an employer, whenever we are subbing out a gig, or making plans that are still in flux, the best response is: it’s going great. I’ve experienced plans falling through and situations not going as well as I’ve hoped. It’s going great; no matter what.
Part of being a successful performer and artist is being able to absorb the difficulties that emerge from being a freelancer. We are constantly adjusting and dealing with situations. The best thing we can do is say: “it’s going great.”

Continue reading You’ll be great

Reading the Room

Being able to read the room during a performance is as important as the preparation for the performance.  Artists can spend months preparing for an event, only to be thwarted by some unforeseen variable.  Being flexible and focused in the moment is what makes some performers so amazing.

I heard an interview with a stand-up comedian about this issue.  Planning a routine, with jokes ready is all a part of preparing for the delivery.  As this comic pointed out, if the jokes don’t land, or the audience is not interested in a particular topic within his act, he must move on and adjust.

We sometimes find ourselves in performing venues where the room is very live; the sound of the space can change the way we deliver a line or a lyric in a song.  Some spaces such as a cathedral have delays for up to 10 seconds; other smaller venues can make the sound instantaneous and intimate.  What audiences don’t always realize is the amount of information performers are taking in, while performing, and adjusting to their surroundings.

This is not to suggest that ‘winging it’ is a better option than being prepared.  Just because a performer doesn’t know exactly how a particular performance is going to go, doesn’t mean he or she isn’t fully prepared for any and all variables.  But of course there will be something they did not plan for.  Which makes it exciting to watch.

For those of us who are type-A, over-achievers, and planners, it’s hard to let go of a the well-thought out planned performance that we think we’re about to give.  Having a plan is great, but being able to let that go and adapt to your surroundings is even better.

You Snooze, You Lose

There are always messages we put off from answering.  it could be a voicemail, a text or an email.  In the age of better communication, I find it can be worse than the old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation.  We want communication to be for our convenience; sometimes that means missing out of the conversation.

How often has this happened to you: you get an email asking if you’re available for a gig?  You’re not?  Could you recommend someone?  Two weeks later you get around to answering the email and you think of someone you’d love to offer to the potential employer.  Too late, the gig was taken.

When we sit on messages which need to be answered, chances are we are not the only individuals being asked.  And when a recommendation is needed, time is still of the essence.

I’ve ben on both sides of this situation.  I hate being the person, waiting to hear back from someone about a gig.  I also hate finding out I was the person being recommended, but the friend recommending me did not feel the need to respond quickly enough.  It is tricky, and in the long run we cannot be upset by someone else’s lack of communication.  That usually doesn’t work out well for them.  And I find the best people are the ones who respond with all due diligence.

Yes, we are all important people, and our time is valuable.  I have to chuckle when people play that card in their excuse.  “I was just too busy to respond.”  Or, “I didn’t get your email until two weeks later!”  People, we all lead lives of no-so quiet desperation; answer your emails.  I’m just as guilty as the next person.  But when it is gig you want or can do, I imagine you’re quick to the draw in responding to that person.

Rest of the Day

For most freelancers, there’s nothing better being able to jump from one gig to the next.  Finishing a show is a wonderful feeling, coupled with the exhilaration of starting on something new; something to distract from the post-show blues.  But everyone needs a break every now and then.

As a friend once explained to me, planning at least a day between projects is beneficial.  Having time to plan, schedule, take care of bills, is an important part of any performer’s career; it is also not the time most performers look forward to.

When we travel, on the road for a show, or coming back from a concert, it takes a toll on our mental and physical state.  While this is all obvious, we can feel guilty for simply resting on a day off.  This is the case for freelancers, when we go for lengths at a time without work; the minute we get work there can be the fear of losing that momentum, and taking that time to rest and catch up on life.

When there is work, we need to work.  When there is a day, or days between gigs, we shouldn’t feel guilty or wasteful for resting.  I’ve been in situations when I think pushing through days off, continuing to work; while there’s nothing wrong with working on days off, they are days off.  Take them.  Resting is just as important as being active.

Merrily, We Pass It Along

Fear is a great motivator.  It is also a great hinderance.  If there is a gig you cannot take, a job you cannot do, you want to pass it along.  You might be asked if you can recommend someone else to do the job, even if you wish you could do it, but it just doesn’t work out.  The fear we all have is recommending someone better than yourself, who might get asked (first) in the future.

Like many professionals, I’ve been in that position of having to recommend someone else for a gig.  If I’m asked to play a performance, or rehearsal, and I’m not available, inevitably I’m asked: “can you recommend someone?”  And I want to pass along the gig to someone I trust, but also to someone who can do the gig well.

A colleague of mine expressed the fear he felt in recommending someone whom he thought was better than himself.  I think recommending someone better than yourself is always a good move.  You look better for recommending someone capable to do the gig.  You also look more confident for being able to invite someone, who might be better than yourself (capability is not linear) to do a gig which you might not be available to do.

The last thing any professional wants to appear threatened.  That implies they are less capable and insecure.  We all want to be the best, but as others become more capable, more equipped, it only serves to become friends with those more capable than ourselves.

When there is someone younger and more energetic for life (you know who you are), and there always is someone younger, the initial reaction is to reject them, purely because they are a threat to your own success.  But the reverse is true: if you recommend them, support them, they are your connection, and you are not threatened by them.  Never be threatened.  The work in the performing arts is not linear.  Just because you’re working full-time at one point, doesn’t mean you always will.  And while you are able to pass work along to other players, pass it along; there will always be better people out there.  And the best people return the favor.

And we all have a choice: choose better players who can best us, but also make us look better, and show we are confident.  Or, choose the players who are not-so great, who you can always play better than, who ultimately don’t threaten you and don’t show you in the best light.  If they don’t play the gig well, that only reflects poorly on you because you recommended them.  Always choose the better players; they make you look better.

Good Times And Bum Times

It is by far easier to preach than to practice. As the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers, I can only speak for myself; they might find the preaching difficult at times. But it’s true; preaching is often easier than practicing.

Whenever I teach or coach singers for auditions or performances, it appears as though I am able to sit comfortably behind my piano, listing off advice like a doctor prescribing a medical treatment: take two of these and call me in the morning. Sometimes the advice is easier said than swallowed. When a performer pins all their hopes on one audition or performance, it’s easy to say to them, “it’s only an audition,” when it can mean much more to them.

We can place too much emphasis on the expectations and hopes on an event, than on what the event can actually deliver for us. And when those hopes are dashed against reality, when the audition or performance opportunity doesn’t pan out, we are quick to feel the sting when someone says to us simply, “it’s only an audition.” (Cue the raging disgruntled performers; we’ve all been there.)

But that’s precisely what it is: one gig, one show, one audition. Sometimes they go great, and sometimes we wish we could go back and do it all again but better.

To everyone who is a student, or coaching or taking lessons, I am awe. It is not easy to be out there day after day, yet you do it. For the record I’ve never made it out to be easier than it seems; we want to encourage and to be encouraged, through good times and bum times.