Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
29 Thursday Oct 2009
Sometimes as performers we forget that we are in the business of entertainment and illusion. Yes, yes, we’re artists, noble conduits of immortal masterpieces, etc etc., but this is about the receiving end of the music. What we do on the sending end may be a bit different from what the audience receives or perceives.
It doesn’t matter that David Copperfield doesn’t really go through the Great Wall of China, or make the Statue of Liberty or the Space Shuttle disappear. It only matters that it looks like that happens, which is where we derive our delight, wonder, and amazement. Mr. Copperfield, like all magicians, goes through a great deal of trouble and expense to make sure to preserve the illusion that impossible is happening (I saw him perform once and I still can’t even begin to explain some of the stuff that I saw – I can’t even come up with bad or preposterous explanations for some of the illusions).
How does magical illusion apply to us? There are a couple of useful answers to this.
One is that we must remember that we are there to ‘give a show’, and the audience doesn’t care about our personal problems – that we’re nervous, or the part is difficult, or you had a bad day, and so on. We spend uncountable hours in the practice room to perfect ‘our show’, but we often forget that when we perform, there are other factors, i.e. how you look when you enter, perform, and even leave the stage. The audience begins its experience of the performance the instant you are in view on the stage. The stage is an alternate reality. It takes practice, craft, and art to appear ‘normal’ on stage – ask any actor. It has always puzzled me why we don’t have a course or two in Acting as musicians. The audience will have decided 50% of what it thinks about your performance before you play a note from how you entered, how you smiled, your posture, your movements. Did you look serene and confident? Fidgety and nervous? Distracted? Ill at ease? Calm and composed? Do your eyebrows editorialize during the performance? Have you ever seen yourself on stage before/during/after performing (i.e. video)? Or asked friends or a mentor to give you detailed feedback strictly on the impression you are conveying with your body language and stage presence?
There is no substitute for learning a piece really well before performing it, but with practice and feedback we can learn to act, to ensure that the audience’s perception of us is warm and positive. And it does take practice. Mr. Copperfield didn’t just think, “Hey, I’m going to make the Space Shuttle vanish” and do it without any effort.
The other aspect of illusion we need to take into account is doing whatever is necessary to deliver the goods. This might mean using tongued articulation that gives the impression of a difficult wide slur. Sometimes you have to help composers in all kinds of ways when they write stuff out of insufficient understanding of the instrument (e.g. stopped, echo, mute confusion, or that wind players actually have to breathe some time). Sometimes they write stuff that makes it clear that they had a bad childhood and are dumping their pain on you – in your part – in acts of insane polymorphous perversity. Your job is not to die trying to do impossible things. Your job is to give the impression that you are doing it. Some things are just gestures – nearly impossible to play note for note, but easy if you start and end correctly and do some artful wiggling in between. Sometimes you have to leave out a note or two to take a breath rather than try to play all the notes and then end up behind the beat because you took time for the breath. You are serving the music and the audience by coming up with a version that works. Tyros may shriek “Cheating!” but give me an excellent illusion than someone being “honest” going down in flaming wreckage every time. Is it ‘cheating’ to have an assistant to split the book so that you can have enough lip to get through those high, exposed parts?
Sometimes you might switch equipment to get the job done. Ever see a pro trumpet player who only owned one trumpet? A few years ago I had the good fortune to go to New York to play some gigs with some NY freelancers. I was very curious to see what they played. Here you have some of the best players anywhere, players who get to play the chart one time through if they’re lucky, and then have to be perfect when the red light went on. Did they play Kruspe wraps? Geyer wraps? Giant bell throats? Single Bbs? Descants? Triples? Something else? Answer: they played everything. Almost all of them had about six or eight horns of all different types. They had no particular allegiance to anything, but would switch to whatever they needed to get the job done, even from one movement to the next. Since much of their work was recorded or in the pit, etc. they didn’t have to worry much about people ‘listening with their eyes’. They used whatever they needed to do make sure the illusion was maintained.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, said the Wizard of Oz. The power and magic lay in the illusion perceived out front, not what it takes behind the scenes to deliver it.