Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More Creativity Questions

Vicki's comment raises new questions about creativity.

Is creativity always play? An electrical engineer told me about the regimen he'd established when he encountered a problem at work. Before he went to bed, he restated the problem, then purposefully thought no more about it until the next morning when he was shaving. Then he opened his mind to whatever thoughts arose, with the rule that he would discard no solution, no matter how crazy or unrelated it seemed to be. Being an engineer, he had established strict rules for problem-solving, but he had learned to abandon all the rules - those he'd been taught, those that had worked in the past - while he shaved.

At the time, he was working on a higher-definition camera for television. To create is to bring something new into being. So it makes sense that, at some point in the development of that camera, the rules that governed how any previous camera worked had to be changed or discarded.

It's at that moment when we abandon what we know (or have been taught) is true, that the creative breakthrough comes. And it's scary.

When I was developing my vocal method, it occurred to me one day that everything I'd been taught, everything I'd ever read about a singer's breathing had to be wrong: we don't have voluntary control of the abdominal diaphragm. I immediately panicked: Who am I to dispute accepted knowledge? I spent the following two weeks trying to disprove my new theory, before I could begin to develop the scientific basis for a different way of breathing.

I've seen that scary moment often enough in students to believe that it may be a necessary component in creativity. The day they walk into a session with "I can't," "I'll never be able to," is breakthrough day - the day that they abandon what they know or have assumed to be true and float free of their old rules.

Yes, Vicki's right that their immediate responses are hope and joy. But change is frightening. Taking that next step into freedom is a challenge.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Creativity Questions

Some chicken-or-egg questions:

Is creativity a human need? New archeological evidence -a 100,000-year-old animal-bone paintbrush, 75,000-year-old shells with drilled holes for use as beads, a 300,000-year-old flint hand ax - tells us that creativity was a part of Paleolithic life.

Does creativity satisfy an individual need? That is, art for art's sake? Or because we're essentially a curious species?

Or does creativity satisfy the need to communicate? Is communication the basic need, with every creative act or idea a tool for communication?

If we know creativity was active in the Stone Age, has it been necessary to individual survival? Or to the survival of the species? We know that humans are like birds in their inherent ability to sing. The vocal mechanisms are similar; brain activity while singing is similar. We assume, then, that humans first sang for the same "reason" as birds sing - courtship. After the recent discovery, in both Indonesia and South Africa, of pre-historic axes that are too fragile or too heavy to be utilitarian, similar assumptions have been made. Perhaps they were created to demonstrate skill to potential mates.

Whatever the answer to any of these questions, doesn't it make sense to foster creativity? To create an educational system based on creativity?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Understanding Shame

I have a student (I'll call him Hal) who often triggers an essay or blog. His lesson yesterday was no exception. Hal had completed the score for an indie film. The director, producer, et al, were more than satisfied, they were thrilled. They thought his work would raise their film to a new level.

Then he said he had a piece for chamber quartet that he thought was really, really good, and he wished he knew how to break into "the system" to get it played. But he was "an outsider," didn't have the right credentials, his music degree wasn't even in composition, etc., etc. I gave him half a dozen suggestions about where to send the piece. He repeated all the reasons why no one would pay any attention to it, and added that all those thoughts were no doubt due to his "superiority complex," because he thought his quartet was so new, so different, that it would change music in a positive way.

A perfect example of what Brene Brown talks about in one of her TED talks (, and what I've written about in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Except that Brown doesn't seem to realize, at least in that lecture, that the shame affect is positive for our well-being. According to Sylvan Tomkins' affect theory, shame is an innate physiological mechanism that, when we get too excited - when our breathing and heart rates become too elevated - returns our bodies to a more normal state.

What happens when we perform  - and I consider that to be any time we expect to be judged - we get excited, anxious. In Brown's term, vulnerable. "Too" excited, and shame is triggered and, along with it, our entire humiliation biography. We know we've crossed over that line between excitement and shame when we begin to hear the negative thoughts about ourselves or our work running around in our heads.

After I told Hal that what he had just said made no sense at all (We have a long relationship, so I used stronger terms and banged my head melodramatically on the music stand.), I ran through the above explanation. He'd heard it all before in a different context, but hadn't related it to his composing.

Brown is right that "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." The reality, for Hal, is that his composition is not likely to change the world of music. A lot of people, string quartets included, are afraid of change. So if he takes his excitement - what he had called his "superiority complex" - down a notch, all those negative thoughts will fade away. He'll be able to market his piece in a clear-headed manner.

Listening to shame is a good idea, if we understand what shame is really telling us.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rhythm Uncaged

The Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett broadcast on PBS was vaguely irritating, but I didn't know why. Her costuming was a little odd, given the period of the music they were singing. Bennett, after all, was there in his tux, as he would have been in the old days.

I walked into another room, away from the distracting visuals, and realized my irritation came from their non-duetness. They were singing from different rhythmic bases. Bennett was feeling the rhythm in his entire body. Gaga didn't feel the rhythm lower than 4 inches in her chest. Bennett was in the groove. Gaga was making shallow footprints in the sand. As a listener, I was having to switch back and forth physically, and began to lose the beat myself.

I took a few drumming lessons a couple of decades ago, but quit because I couldn't beat the drum and count out loud at the same time, as instructed. I was okay when I was yelling "1, 2, 3, 4." Not so bad with "1 and 2 and 3 and 4." But I fell apart at "1, ugh, and, ugh, 2, ugh, and, ugh . . ." I could beat the rhythm fine if I didn't have to count what I was doing. Counting is in the head; rhythm is in the body.

When we're breathing naturally, the lungs expand downward with the incoming air, compressing the guts against the pelvic diaphragm; then the guts press back to expel the carbon dioxide. In rhythm. The fluid of the central nervous system flows all the way down the spine and then back up around the head. In rhythm.

Watch a pre-toddler listening to music. They rock on their diapered bottoms and wave their arms in perfect rhythm. They're not musical prodigies, they're just being human. Still too young to think about music, they're feeling it in entire bodies.

Rhythm isn't a skill we need to be taught; rhythm is life that too often needs to be uncaged.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music and the Brain

A few facts about music and the brain:

1 Listening to music activates both the cognitive and emotional areas of the brain.

2 Playing a musical instrument also puts the visual, auditory, and motor areas of the brain into play and, over time, strengthens the corpus callosum, the bridge between the right and left hemisphere.

3 No other activity measured to date involves as many brain connections.

4 We acquire musical memories first and they're the last to leave. Alzheimer's patients who may not recognize a spouse or their children are able to recognize tunes from their past.

5 Humans sang before they spoke, singing that involved both rhythm and melody. Stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak can sing songs from their past.

If music involves more of the brain than any other activity, if music actually strengthens the brain, both in terms of the volume and speed of connections, why wouldn't we build an educational system with music at the core?  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Crying For No Reason

In a video that's circulating (, a 10-month baby responds to her mother's sad song with tears. Tears collecting in the eyes, then sliding down the cheeks.  Sadness isn't one of the 7 pure affects that Sylvan Tomkins recorded in 6-weeks-old babies, but this sure looks pure to me. Enjoyment, one of Tomkins' affects, is visible on the baby's face at the beginning of the song. She attempts to imitate 3 or 4 of her mother's words with her lips. Then the tears begin to collect.

We don't think of babies being sad. Red-faced crying when they're hungry, shrieks when something hurts, but not tears of sadness. But our emotions are sensory responses to our experiences, not cognitive responses. The mother sings the song's sadness, wraps the baby in her own emotional field, the baby responds. As adults, we don't always know why we cry. An image, a song, a few words of kindness, and the tears appear. We don't decide to cry. We don't "think" about the reasons for our crying unless we're asked.

We don't think of babies being lonely. One of my grandsons was adopted when he was nine-months old. When he was four, his mother was pushing him on a swing, higher and higher. They were still laughing as they left the playground, hand in hand. He said, "I was so lonely until you found me."

That emotional responses can't be tested in pre-verbal children doesn't mean that they're not being felt and remembered. That we don't have reasons for our own emotional responses doesn't mean that they're not real and valid.



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Is Creativity?

What is creativity? I've been trying to puzzle through this question all week.

The facts that I know bring up more questions: 

(1) Every culture on earth will, if it has enough resources to survive, begin to add decoration to themselves, to their pots and cave walls. They will dance and sing. They will tell stories. Does this mean that creativity is an inherent human drive?

(2) Creativity is not limited to artists. Entrepreneurs are creative. Workers are urged to "think outside the box" - to come up with creative solutions to problems. A friend was recently complaining about her life. She was under so much pressure; she needed time and quiet; she had no money. Another friend, a secular person but a retired therapist, said, "Why not become a nun?" Where did that off-the-wall idea come from? She doesn't know. "I just wanted to jog her thinking into a new path."

(3) Creativity is such a powerful force that it has historically been suppressed and punished. Are we then crippled, mentally and emotionally, if we're not allowed to live and work creatively? As we would be physically, if our feet were bound, or if we were malnourished? 

(3) Julia Cameron, in The Artist's Way, says that "God, The Great Creator"is a form of spiritual electricity that we can tap into. Is this another name for the same field that Sir Rupert Sheldrake calls  morphogenesis? He characterizes this field as an information, not a creative, field. But I know two inventors who claim that, if they have an idea for a new widget, they'd better get to the Patent Office in two weeks before someone else beats them to it.

What is creativity?     

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Creative Problem-Solving

When/how do we get answers to our creative problems? Seldom by trying to think our way through, a method that seems to get more circular and frustrating the longer we keep at it.

I knew an electrical engineer who had developed a strict problem-solving regimen. He laid out the problem before he went to bed, then thought no more about it. The next morning, while shaving, he opened his mind to any ideas that might float up, no matter how irrational or unrelated to the problem they appeared to be.

A writer friend finds answers when he goes for a walk with the intention of staying in the present and opening all his senses to whatever flows in. The scent of honeysuckle and new-mown grass on one such walk provided the solution to an unfinished story he'd put away months ago, a story unrelated to either honeysuckle or grass.

In her Writing and Wellness newsletter (, Colleen M. Story writes that she keeps a notebook by her bed for the answers that come in that dreamy, not-quite-conscious period between sleep and waking each morning.

My ah-ha moments often come in the shower. When I lived in an old house without a shower, I relied on ideas coming at the intersection of Rtes. 27 and 518, where there was no stoplight and where I sat in my car for a long time with my conscious mind only partially engaged.

In each of these anecdotes - and I have many, many more - either the problem-solvers are open to sensory experiences or their minds are in a semi-conscious state. In all of these anecdotes they were ready to accept solutions that they would have discarded as illogical if they had been "thinking" about the problem.      

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Know Who You Are

I'm an avid follower of The Voice. This season the coaches' theme seems to be "Know who you are." Based on the genre the contestants choose, the music they choose within the genre, and the persona they present on stage.

Not easy advice. If we continue to learn and grow, we must continue to adjust our self-images. Like children whose shoes fit fine yesterday, we don't become aware of the need for a new image until the old one begins to constrict us.

Unlike children, who know when they need bigger shoes, adults tend to rationalize their discomfort. We blame ourselves when the towns we live in or the jobs we have become too small. When the people around us no longer understand what we're interested in or what excites us. We try to fit into the outgrown shoes instead of shopping for new ones.

As in any creative process - for we are always creating who we are - frustration and pinching is often what we need to re-assess ourselves. Who have I become? What will feed this new person? Who will make room for me?


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lessons Learned from Potty-Training.

I was thinking this morning about how/why we have dis-integrated ourselves, separated our heads from our bodies.

It occurred to me that potty-training is the last time in our lives when we're taught to observe what our bodies are telling us. We ask toddlers to let us know, or head for the bathroom, when they need to pee or poop. We praise them when they do.

But do we ask toddlers to tell us when they've had enough food? We're more inclined to try to spoon in "just one more." Perhaps reprimand them if they spit out that spoonful. One of my grandsons wanted one blueberry for breakfast. One. When his "Music for Toddlers" teacher asked each child what they'd had for breakfast, he said, "A blueberry." The teacher told him that was impossible, and persisted until his mother stepped in and confirmed that was his breakfast of choice, gathering "bad mother" looks as she did so. Twelve years later he was on both the wrestling and football teams and something of a gourmand, able to produce a tasty wine sauce should the mood strike him.

The subject of pooping having been raised,  the word "control" came next. I never use that word with my voice students. I want them to find their healthy, natural voices. But in the beginning they all want to control the quality of the sounds they hear, and invariably use a subconscious sphincter-like action somewhere - throat, abdomen, chest - to do so. I've come to believe that they associate control with potty-training. They've been praised for that muscle closure, so by gosh, that must be the right way to use all their muscles.

I once asked a friend what control meant to her. She extended a clenched fist that could have meant she was holding on to what was hers or that she was ready to punch someone. That's not control.

Control of one's body and one's life is being able to consider a number of options and choosing the one that seems best at the time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Positive Role of Despair

I had just finished writing a letter yesterday to a friend who wasn't sure whether her new idea was born of desperation or inspiration, when I received an email from another friend in despair, sure that he'd never get his novel published.

When clients walk into a session declaring "I can't do it," "I'll never understand," and other variations of frustration, I've learned that will be the session in which they will have a breakthrough. A workshop participant spent half an hour last month telling me all the reasons why he couldn't possibly share his writing with anyone else. Two sessions later he did read his work and thanked the other participants for what he recognized as a transformation.

Despair may be a necessary step in creation. Any new idea, any new piece of writing, any new song, is based on past experience, old assumptions, old techniques. Partway through the process we find ourselves somewhere else, somewhere we had not intended to go. Instead of the landscape we saw ahead of us when we began the project, we find ourselves in a swamp, not knowing which tuft of grass will support us, where we should take the next step.

Arriving at the "I can't" or "I don't know" place is a signal that we're going in the right direction. We have already created something new. And we ourselves are not the same writers or singers or entrepreneurs who began the project. Despair arises when we try to force the project - and ourselves - into the old parameters with which we began.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Indecent Sentimentality

It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.”

That’s the Roland Barthes statement that Zoe Heller and Leslie Jamison were asked to comment on in The New York Times Book Review of September 28.

The word sentiment was originally rooted in the senses. We had a sensory experience to which our body responded with an appropriate emotion and action. We labeled that sensation a sentiment.

All well and good. That’s how the human body operates. But we seem to have wanted to separate our identity as humans from our bodies for centuries. Since Plato, for sure, and by the time Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” the separation was complete. The first philosophical wanderings in that direction were probably to answer the question, How do humans differ from other species? But as we began to identify ourselves as human because of our thought processes, rather than our physiological processes, to be rational became the ideal state. Other tribes, other peoples who did not think the way we did were barbarians who should be ruled by us, their lands taken away, their bodies enslaved. Colonialism, nationalism, caste and class systems all arose from differences in thinking, differences in what it meant to be rational.

Rationality became the province of educated men in Western cultures. Sentimentality became the province of women, who were not considered educable. As so often happens with words that become associated with the feminine, “sentimental” acquired a  derogatory definition - a superficial manipulation of the emotions. Unfortunately, “emotional” still carries some of the stigma associated with sentimental.

But by elevating the rational, the mind, above the sensory experiences of the body, we’re completely disregarding all the scientific evidence about how the mind works. Sensory information initiates an emotional response first, then physical, then mental.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Truth in Fiction

In the blog Steve Mitchell and I write together, I disagreed yesterday with almost everything he had written in his last post. 
He had quoted David Mamet, whose words I distrust for many reasons, not least his book, The Old Religion, about the infamous Leo Frank case. My former husband’s great-uncle was the trial judge in that case. He had hired his nephew, my former husband’s father, as his pistol-packing bodyguard. Many books have been written about that case, many films made. Mamet’s version was so inaccurate (he even got the murder date wrong) that I fantasized for several months about going to Atlanta to do my own research and writing a rebuttal. 
The question that Steve raised, however, is about truth in writing. And, by extension, in all art. 
When we manipulate character and dialogue, plot and structure, aren’t we “conning” (Mamet’s word) the reader?
“Manipulate”originally meant extracting silver by hand. It later came to mean handling anything with skill and dexterity. It’s present connotation is more cynical - the “manipulative” handling of people, for example.
Here’s the problem: No more than 30% of the words we use in everyday conversation convey our full meaning. The standard demonstration of that truism is to ask the disbeliever to say, “I love you,” through gritted teeth. Janet McCann demonstrates it more beautifully in her poem, “Writing a Paper on Silence,” in which she lists many different silences, including “the missed beat before ‘I love you, too’ that says everything.”
If I hear a funny or poignant exchange in the supermarket, I quickly haul out my notebook and write down the exact words before I forget them.. When I read off those words to someone else, I act out what I heard and saw, imitate the voices, wave my arms for the listener. When I try to share that experience with a reader, the exact, “true” words will fall flat without the accompanying body language and inflection. For a reader to laugh or sigh over that incident, I have to change the words, or add material - perhaps something that was not present in the original incident, but nevertheless is as close to the truth as I can manage.
Knowing, as I do so, that my experience in the supermarket was mine alone, poured through the colander of my biography, my truth. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Creativity Block

 "I can't sing on tune." "I don't have a sense of rhythm." "If only I could (paint, sing, write, dance, you name it.)" 

Given the absence of a rare neurological dysfunction, none of those common statements can possibly be true. Singing is an inherent ability. Humans sang before they learned to talk. If our lungs weren't breathing and our hearts not beating rhythmically, we'd be in deep trouble. Sound waves, ocean waves, the entire universe is rhythmic. A child happily paints on walls with his mother's lipstick. Another tells fabulous stories about the monster that lives under her bed. They bang their spoons on the table, dance until they're dizzy.

If we are all born creative, how do some of us become convinced that we're not?  We have to be taught.    By parents who see lipsticked walls as destructive, or "the monster did it" to be a lie. By teachers who find a student's Shakespearean sonnet about a pimple inappropriate for the school magazine. By laws that necessarily require us to obey stop signs.

Some of us are fortunate enough to discover that creativity is a state of being that can be a refuge. We hide it, and ourselves inside it, and continue to grow. But others, who have been punished or ostracized for the new and the daring, lock it inside, forget where we put the key, and wonder why life is so dull.  

The creative spirit may lie dormant, but it never leaves us. It's waiting - maybe knocking once in a while - for that moment when we cast off the "shoulds" and "should nots" and open the door.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Imperfect Art

Murray Bail, in his novel, The Voyage, has a pompous art critic say that the power of art doesn’t come from perfection, but from the effort of creation. That we want imperfection because it’s closer to human understanding.

Even though the rest of the critic’s comment is idiotic, that first clause is true. The power of art does not come from perfection. “Perfect” is a word we can apply to an exam paper or to the threading on a screw. “Perfect” is an end word, the end of effort. We’re done when we hit perfect.

But we never say, standing before a Selma Burke sculpture, “That’s perfect.” Burke wasn’t done with that sculpture. She stopped working on it when it was as close to her truth as she could bring it. That’s what we want when we spend time with it, walk around to see it from every angle. Not perfection. Nor do we want imperfection, so we can understand it. What we want is a truth that we respond to on all levels, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Nor does the power of art come from the effort of creation. Of course any activity requires effort - learning the craft, practicing it - but we fully respond to art only if it appears to be easy. So easy, so effortless, that we could do it ourselves. If we leave a concert in a state of awe at the technique of the guitarist, we have been listening to a craftsman. If we leave humming and strumming an air guitar, we’ve been listening to an artist.

What we do admire in artists is not effort, but the risks they take in presenting us with imperfect art. When they say, “I’m giving you the very best I can at this moment.” 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Freeing Creativity

Vick's comment led me to think about how some creative projects seem have a life of their own. I've had a dread of anthropomorphism since the 80s, when the fad among academic sociologists was to study animal behavior in order to understand human behavior. The apogee, for me, was a paper about the sexual behavior of wild ducks. The author, whose name I've mercifully forgotten, and his associates had spent untold hours lying in the cold swamps of the northwest watching ducks mate, and had come to the conclusion that rape was involved. An idea so ridiculous that I planned, for a time, to write a novel, "The Rape of the Mallard Duck." Thankfully, that project died as others became more interesting.

However, when I first began to teach voice, one of my students was away for two months on a business trip. Although she had not been able to practice during that time, her voice had grown so much that I was shocked. Shocked and, at first, disheartened. If she had improved so much without me, why was I teaching?

But I have encountered that phenomenon again and again. I have come to believe, although fearfully, because I have no scientific proof and I do have anthropomorphic dread, that the voice has a mind, or a will, of its own. "Oh," it says, "if you're going to free me, then I will fly free."

Humans are creative beings. Any culture that has the means of survival - food and shelter - will sing and dance, decorate their cooking pots and the walls of their caves. What if any creative impulse - the stories we're writing, as well as the songs we're singing - were continuously at work in the subconscious, waiting to be set free?


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Telling Ourselves Stories

We are constantly telling ourselves stories. That’s what consciousness is. That’s who we are. Storytelling beings, made up of the stories we tell.

The material from which we create our stories, and our selves, originates outside the body from sensory stimuli. We’re bombarded by our senses every second, sorting out at a physical or subconscious level those most necessary to our survival and bringing those to consciousness. That some of our stories never reach the conscious level doesn’t mean that our subconscious or our bodies are not telling, often acting upon, their own stories.

I am not, at this moment, conscious of the pressure of my hips on the chair seat or of my feet on the floor, the weight of my coffee cup, or the taste of the coffee. Nor of the sounds of the refrigerator or the air conditioner. I do, however, notice when something unexpectedly crosses my line of vision. My body tenses a bit. Oh, just a fly. My body relaxes because it has had enough experience with house flies to know that they’re not a threat. I didn’t have to think through, make a decision about that process.     

Ordinarily a fly would not become part of my storytelling, but having brought it to consciousness by writing about it, I am now involved in memories of a particular fly family, black flies. Memories of the job that required in-depth research of black flies for a real-estate venture. Memories of my boss, who he was during the five years I worked for him as his personal assistant.

One of my tasks was to protect him from the media. No photos, no interviews. But I’ve recently seen a photo of him at a gala with a new wife. I’ve seen an interview that mentions an affair with a celebrity, political alignments that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’ve had to re-cast and re-interpret memories in order to understand how he became a man I don’t recognize. And I’ve had to retell myself the story of five years of my own life, who I was then and who I am now.

We all tell ourselves stories so that we can bring some sense of order and meaning into the randomness of life. New stimuli require new stories as we continue to create ourselves.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Power of the Less Powerful

"We contend that when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the action of others." Michael Inzlicht and Sukvinder Obhi

We often talk about powerful performances, powerful books, sculpture. Artists may hope for that result, but our brains have to operate differently. I've been coaching people for job interviews, public speaking, performing, writing for over 30 years. When I ask them for a list of the qualities they want to convey, no one has ever replied "power." One of the great paradoxes of communication is that powerful results don't come from a sense of personal power, but through empathy, sensitivity to others.    

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thinking by Feeling

Rebecca Lee, in a review of Adam Wilson's What's Important is Feeling, quotes Roethke: "We think by feeling. What is there to know?"

The Enlightenment is sometimes blamed for celebrating logic over emotion ("I think, therefore I am."); I blame Plato, myself. Whoever.

Human physiology says that Roethke's right. An incoming sensory experience activates an emotional response that goes first to the body and then to the brain. The time differential is something like .0268 of a second. If I had a better filing system, I'd be more accurate with that number. But it's the order - emotion, body, brain - that matters.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Proust is Worth Reading.

Proust's work has been mentioned several times recently in The New York Times Book Review, either from an "I couldn't finish it" or an "I ought to read it" point of view. So what does this quote from Le temps retrouv√© say about those who won't or can't read it? "In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. . . . The reader's recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth."

What Proust says is true only if writers, while they are writing, are the writers of their own selves. In that case, the dictum is true of all art. If painters, performers, writers are creating from their complete selves - body, mind, and emotion - their audiences will respond with their complete selves. And will believe in the truth of what they're witnessing or reading.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Art of Performance


Performance is not often recognized as a craft that, like any other art form, can be learned and practiced.  The theory, even in some of the most prestigious conservatories, seems to be that if we sing well, or act or dance or play an instrument well, those skills produce good performances.
After I began to teach voice, I found that that theory was dead wrong–in fact, the opposite was true.  If we perform well, our audiences don’t care how well we sing, or act or dance or play an instrument.  Leonard Cohen’s vocal technique is wretched, but when he puts out a new recording he gets the front page of Rolling Stone and the Sunday Arts Section of The New York Times.
Nor do we judge the value of the performance by the material being performed. A few months ago I saw an historical play in which a young actress had been given a series of sentences that began with “In 1864, . . .” “In 1892,. . .” and on and on, for nearly a dozen lines.  Boring?  No, her performance was so good that, when I spoke to her afterward, I used a version of that hackneyed phrase, “You could have recited the telephone book and I would have loved it.” 
So, if effective performance has little to do with either artistic technique or material, what is it?
Performance is communication.  We are performing in every interaction we have with another person or persons.  We assume a role appropriate for the “audience”–an employee role for our boss, a parental role for our children; we use a voice and language appropriate for the setting–loud and perhaps profane at a local bar, dignified whispers at a funeral; we convey factual and emotional information appropriate for the situation–perhaps more emotion than fact in a lover’s quarrel and more fact than emotion in a political speech.
Artistic performance uses all those components of communication, but in heightened form.  Our audiences have spent time and money to have an experience greater than their day-to-day existence. The role or persona that we create for the stage must, therefore, be larger than any other role we ordinarily play, larger than the audience.  The intensity of any emotion must be deeper, using the entire body.  We must own the room, fill it with our energy, even before we walk on stage.  We must believe that we are stars, and we must walk and act like a star every moment that we’re on stage.
  How artistic performance differs from other forms of communication is in the level of responsibility that the performer must accept.  In our daily interactions we expect that a boss or a lover will take responsibility for their side of the exchange, but when we are on stage we are in charge of what happens between us and the audience. 
When people collect into a group, or audience, they give up some of their individual armor.  In return for a sense of togetherness, they become more vulnerable.  They want and need a leader who will gather them up and take them into unexplored territory for an hour or two, someone whom they can trust to take care of them while they’re on that journey.
If we love and care for our audiences, they will follow us.