This article is part of the Psychology section.
“When I play in public, am I an actor ?”
This is a profoundly important question for musicians. It basically asks us “what is your essential motivation for playing in public”? But this is not an academic, theoretical discussion, as it has major consequences on how we play, on how we approach music, and especially on how we think about “performance”. Stagefright is intimately related to this question: in terms of anxiety production, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of “putting on a performance” compared to just “being sincere”?? Is it possible to “put on a show” while being totally and authentically “yourself” ??
There are whole schools of psychology based around the question of “why we do what we do”. Some people (Freud) believe that man strives principally for pleasure. Others (Jung and Adler for example) consider that the drive for power (status, money) is the principal motivating force behind our behaviour, while others (Frankl) consider the search for meaning primordial. Victor Frankl’s book “The Search for Meaning” is an excellent read with respect to this vital question.
So why then do we want to play in public, and to what relative degree is our desire to perform motivated by the search for pleasure, adulation (power), and/or meaning ?? And what does this word “public” (or “audience”) actually mean: do we consider the people with whom we are playing also as “public”? These are fascinating questions for performance psychology.
Let’s look first at why we play music – or, in fact, why we do any “unessential” activities at all – before we start to talk about why we might want to do them in public.
WHY DO WE DO WHAT WE DO ?
Why do we ski, snowboard, surf, dance, write, paint, play sports, climb mountains, sing, play the cello, collect objects etc? None of these activities are essential for life and in fact, most of them require effort and expense. Usually – hopefully – we do them for the same reason that dolphins leap and dive with the waves in the open ocean: because we (and they) love doing it. In other words, because it gives both meaning and pleasure to our lives.
In the same way that people love to watch dolphins swimming and playing, if we do any interesting activity well enough, it is possible that other people may want to share our pleasure. This can be done in two ways: actively or passively. Doing it with us (playing music together) is the active-participation equivalent of swimming with the dolphins. The more passive alternative for sharing in the pleasure is by watching us doing it, which means reading our writings, looking at our paintings, listening to our music etc (and simply watching the dolphins).
If we are very lucky, well-taught, skillful, and motivated, people may even pay for us to do our thing, with or for them, and we may ultimately be able to earn our living through our passion. (See Amateur/Professional). This can be a wonderful liberation from the long, boring working day that most people have to endure in order to pay the bills. But, again just like for the dolphins, there can be a price to pay for this success. Whereas the dolphin loses its liberty entirely and is confined to an Aquapark, for the human, this success can have the unintended side effect that our intimate, personal satisfaction is no longer the sole objective of our activity. Now, the satisfaction of our audience is also important. This can be a problem.
WHAT IS “AN AUDIENCE”? WHAT IS “PLAYING IN PUBLIC” ?
Playing music completely on our own – with nobody, and for nobody – is the starting point for a discussion of performance psychology. This is pure music, without any elements of “performance”. Whereas keyboard players do this a lot, most other instruments are single-voice instruments and thus normally need other musicians to fill in the harmony.
This need for other musicians to make music with us is quite lucky/advantageous in the sense that playing music with others already introduces the aspect of performance to our daily musical life because our musical companions are not only playing with us but are also listening to us. We are all simultaneously both active participants and audience. Here, we are all playing not only with, but also for, each other. This is very healthy and provides a wonderful stepping stone to playing for a “real”, (= non-participating) public (see Chamber Music).
But when we have an audience watching and listening to us as we play, do we play “for” them, do we play “to” them, or do we just ignore them and play for ourselves or for some higher goal ??? These are not just simple questions of language but are rather primordial philosophical questions, at the root of performance psychology.
WHY PLAY IN PUBLIC ?
When we play without a public – alone or with other musicians – we are playing (hopefully) for our own pleasure, and with complete sincerity. This is the purest and simplest – but not necessarily the highest – form of music. Adding an audience does not imply that we must automatically lose this sincerity, however when we add an audience, things do normally change.
Our awareness of the public can heighten our sensitivity to the music, inspiring us to even deeper, more powerful interpretations and exciting us to surpass our normal energy levels. Normally, this is the positive function of an optimum amount of “stagefright”: it gives us adrenalin, concentration, and focus, even if we are exhausted, or we had a big fight with our partner, or we’ve played the piece 100 times etc. Some people actually need the motivation that having an audience provides in order to play their best and to get deeply involved in the musical interpretation/communication.
For other less-seasoned (or less-confident) musicians however, an audience can make it harder to get in touch with our inner self because the audience can be felt as a distraction, an external pressure that makes us self-conscious and interferes with our natural contact with the instrument, our bodies, and our emotions. This has nothing to do with sincerity but is rather a problem of Stagefright which will need to be overcome in order to fully enjoy the activity of playing an instrument with, to, and for others.
PERFORMANCE: ARTISTIC SINCERITY OR SHOW BUSINESS ?
Independently of whether or not an audience is felt as a help or a nuisance, if the satisfaction of the audience becomes the overriding and unique objective of the activity, then this activity has become a “show”. In a “show”, the performer is acting, pretending – doing whatever she thinks is going to have the best effect on the public. This is a commercial activity, showbusiness, entertainment. Here we are playing for the audience.
“Art”, on the other hand, is something else. Here, the “performer” is not “performing” for the public, but rather allowing the public to share in a personal, meaningful, intimate experience. In “art”, the artist – just like the dolphin in the open ocean – does exactly what they want to. The public can take it or leave it. This is playing to the audience.
Dolphins don’t need a job to pay the bills so it is unlikely that many would choose to be in an Aquapark rather than out in the open ocean. We, however, need to be able to pay the bills ……… so we need to be able to do both “art” and “business”, even though we infinitely prefer the artistic option.
NATURE, ART, MUSIC, AND BUSINESS
Think again about the difference between dolphins swimming and leaping in the open ocean and the same dolphins performing tricks in a Waterpark. In the open ocean, their activity is beautiful and spectacular but their only reward is their pleasure. Any public who have the luck to see them are just privileged spectators, observing the dolphins’ natural behaviour. This is nature in its purest form, which corresponds exactly to art in its purest form. This is the equivalent of those wonderful times when we play music that we love with people we love to play with, and we don’t even really care if there is an audience or not. Here there is no need or desire for acting.
Now think about the dolphins performing tricks in the Waterpark. Here, the dolphins are paid – with food and treats – to do their tricks on demand. This is nature harnessed by business. The dolphins are probably not unhappy but they would certainly not be performing these tricks on their own in the open ocean. This corresponds to the musician doing an OK job, playing the music that is put in front of us and with the people who are put next to us. This can be also very pleasant but we are not the master of our destiny. A little acting may be necessary in performance here, even if it is only to disguise the slight boredom or frustration of not doing exactly what we would really love to be doing.
Think now about circus animals: some are well treated but many are not. All depend for their daily bread on their performances that long ago lost all natural motivation. This situation is the equivalent of a musician doing an unpleasant (musical) job in order to pay the bills. Considerable acting may be necessary here in performance: to stifle yawns and avoid audible or visible displays of lack of interest !
The comparison between musicians and dolphins is useful as it shows how the effect of business on nature is the same as the effect of business on art.
WHEN ACTING TAKES OVER: THE LOSS OF SINCERITY AS THE PRICE OF BUSINESS
It’s very easy to get scrambled up in these two overlapping universes of sincerity and business, not just in music but also in life in general. In this world in which everything has a price tag, where everything is bought and sold, even the most sincere human emotions are marketable, manipulable commodities. In fact, getting access to these deepest human emotions is the ultimate goal of marketing, which is why sexuality, music and children are used so much in advertising.
Doing any supposedly beautiful, sincere, emotionally charged, intimate activity for money but without sincerity, genuine feeling or intimacy is not only a sham(e) but also a form of prostitution. Advertising is a perfect example of this. Every smile, every display of false emotion used to sell a product, is a mini-prostitution of emotional sincerity by the participants, and a debasement for the viewers/listeners. And how many of these do we absorb in a lifetime? Probably millions. This is the highly contaminated philosophical air that we breathe 24/7.
So it is not surprising that sincerity is a scarce and suspect commodity, in the music business as well as in the business of life. Many of us are actually uncomfortable with public displays of sincerity, preferring a sort of cool detachment that guards and protects our intimate emotional life from being seen and judged. Some people referred to Jaqueline Du Pre’s trancelike absorption, complete sincerity and unashamed emotivity while playing as “masturbation in public”. She, unlike more businesslike performers, was not acting at all and had no part of her attention directed towards surreptitiously observing the audience’s reaction while she was playing to see what effect she was having. She is the ultimate example of playing music as a selfless, timeless, philosophical search for meaning, in contrast to the more common egotistical goals of recognition, money, power or simple showing off.
The difference between “commercial show” and “artistic sincerity” is the difference between pornography and loving intimacy, between advertising and science, or between a lot of modern commercial pop music and real, sincere music (of any style). It’s not surprising that so many pop music videos are so suggestive of pornography: both porn and commercial pop music are based on the financial exploitation of what should be sacred human activities (making love and making music).
TYPES OF MUSIC: SINCERE MUSIC, SHOWY MUSIC
There is music for every occasion, for every situation, for every emotion. Between the extremes of the deep, serious, philosophical, and intimate on the one hand, to the light, frivolous and entertaining on the other, there is a whole world, with every shade in between. And often, even in the same piece of music, we may need to jump instantaneously from depth to frivolity – especially in opera, theatrical, and italian music (see also Introvert/Extrovert).
We must not fall into the trap of thinking that “light” music is automatically shallow music. Even though “classical music” tends to be the most serious, intellectual music, that doesn’t mean that “light” music or pop music is inferior or purely commercial. From “light” comes “delight”, and “light” is the opposite not only of “heavy” but also of “dark”. Plenty of noisy, heavy, intense classical music – especially of the 2oth century – is completely pompous, pretentious, superficial and shallow. The same argument applies to “virtuoso” (fast) music. Just because music is fast doesn’t mean that it’s only for showing off technical brilliance (although we may need technical brilliance to be able to play it).
Each musician’s personality is almost certainly better adapted to some musical styles than to others, but we need to be able to play in all musical styles. Therefore we need to be able to work in an objective, scientific way on the way we play (our technique) in order to to be able to change this (when necessary) from what would come naturally to us. In this way, we can make ourselves sound like “someone else” when needed. In this sense, a musician does sometimes need to be an actor. So let’s now go back to the subject of “acting”.
SOAP OPERA OR SHAKESPEARE ? FEELING IT OR FAKING IT.
In acting as in musical performance, it is not usually enough to just do “a good job”. Seldom are the notes or the words alone enough: music and drama – and audiences – need emotional engagement, involvement and commitment. But nobody wants to watch someone pretending to feel something they don’t actually feel. Fortunately, we don’t need to feel sad to play sad music, or frivolous to play frivolous music – if we did, we would live in an unsustainable roller coaster emotional world. Just like with great actors, it is enough to know how it feels to be sad and to let the music (or role) take us there.
In great acting, actors normally don’t feel that they are “acting” but rather that they are immersing themselves in, and actually “living”, the character they are playing. When an actor understands his role and can empathise with his character, then he can make the role his own and is no longer “faking it” but rather “feeling it”. This is the same for musicians, but we are actually luckier than actors because we don’t need to play our instrument like someone else (although trying to do so can be a very useful exercise). When we understand what the composer was trying to say to us, we can just pass it on, but in our own way, with our own voice. In this way we can make almost any piece “our own”, make it “genuine” and express ourselves sincerely through it, thus eliminating the need for acting (pretending).
When performing with an audience we shouldn’t be acting any more than we are acting when we play without public – unless we are doing something purely commercial where sincere motivation is impossible. Curiously, it is when we are “on stage” that we need to be the most deeply in touch with ourselves, sincere and authentic, in order to not be adversely affected by the public. If only this was an easy state to achieve !! It’s such a shame that right at that exact place and time when we most need something, that “something” becomes the most elusive and difficult to find!
MODESTY OR BRAVADO ?
The extraordinary modesty (and shyness) of so many Nobel prize winners gives plenty of food for thought. Peter Higgs (Nobel for Physics 2013) stated that he was pleased to see that “at least once in a while I manage to get something right” while Alice Munro (Literature 2013) claimed, “I only write short stories because I’m so untalented at everything else”. Such modesty is rare in performing musicians. Why would this be ??
We performing musicians, just like “writers” (composers, authors, thinkers, scientists etc) can do our preparatory work quietly, discreetly, far away from the public eye and whenever the inspiration comes to us. However, when it comes to showing that work in public, there is a huge psychological difference between the performing musician’s “performance” and the writer’s “publication”.
A “writer” needs absolutely to be intelligent, but can be painfully shy, socially inept and extremely modest without this being a handicap for their work. For the performer however, the situation is the exact opposite. For the performer, a lack of intelligence is only a minor problem, whereas shyness and discomfort when in the public eye can be an enormous problem, seriously handicapping performance ability (see Stagefright). Music is not just thought and ideas: it is principally the communication of emotion. And the public communication of intimate emotions requires considerably more social self-confidence than the written publication of intellectual ideas (or emotions).
We could make an interesting comparison between music and a certain type of politics. In this comparison, the composer would be comparable to the person who writes the politicians speech, while the actual politician is just the showbiz frontman, the performer (salesman) who can present it (sell it) in the most convincing way. As with politicians, the public presentation of a musician’s “work” is such a huge part of a musician’s life (often it is the ultimate objective of all our efforts) that it unavoidably marks our personality, favouring the unfortunate creation of an indestructible external emotional fortress behind which modesty, shyness and other performance inhibitors are conveniently hidden.
Unfortunately, it is quite hard to hide our true feelings. The harder we repress them, the stronger they become usually, bursting forth in full force from behind their retaining walls like a dam breaking, usually at the most inopportune moments. The insecure Don Juan who fails in the culminating act of seduction has a lot in common with the insecure musician who fails in their culminating act (performance).