The Importance Of Food, Shenanigans, & Non-Vomit-Inducing Performance Opportunities

Last weekend, I attended a birthday dinner party of a friend and fellow community voice teacher. We’re basically “career twinsies,” and by that I mean we lead semi-comparable musical lives. We both run studios, teach voice at local colleges, have church jobs, and are professional warblers. I say “professional” with a certain measure of humility, as she’s actually a lot further ahead of me in that regard, having run an uber-successful fundraising campaign for her compositions and had her musical theater stuff accepted and premiered at a prestigious national festival. No big.

Her text-itation said this: “bring food and sheet music! I’ll even play Jason Robert Brown if you can stand it!” So I brought some fatty dip, cheapish wine, and a Big Book of Children’s Songs that never really made it out of my car. Gorging on libations and smoked pig ensued, and for a long time, we sat around and sang some jazz and a lot of The Classics (like Hey Jude and Bennie and the Jets), accompanied by some pretty stellar keyboard and bass. It’s been a while since I had that much fun around music, and the sing-along was just what I needed to keep me up at night pondering a new blog entry.

For a long time, I rode the performance anxiety struggle bus. I am classically trained to present everything as a clean, polished, presentable product. Translated, ornamented, memorized, perfected, thank you ma’am. When I came to school, I was promptly bumped to the top of the “you–were-decent-in-high-school-now-you’re-just-a-little-fish-in-a-big-pond” list and had to work harder than Paula Deen’s metabolism to swim with the big ones. To this day, I still can’t handle when things are less-than-perfect. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t landed me close to therapy, if you count therapy as breaking down in sobs to your doctor during a routine physical checkup…which seems like a natural response to the question “how are you? Your blood pressure seems a little high…” amIright? 

Performance anxiety aside, this all got me thinking about how important low-stakes performance opportunities are for developing musicians, and how hard I’ve worked to incorporate those into my studio the last few years without even realizing it or doing it on purpose. At some point in time, I must have wondered to myself if I was ruining my students for performing by requiring that they memorize everything, dress up, sacrifice their firstborn…the usual. For me, the need to “flight,” (or in my case, throw up) before a performance diminished somewhere along the line, and I started enjoying and even seeking out chances to sing and play in front of others. What prompted that?

In a phrase: non-vomit-inducing performance opportunities. Food and beverage included, naturally.

Case-In-Point: Community “Reading Session” Shenanigans
About once every year or so, another career “twinsie” of mine arranges a dinner-and-drink-meetup of local musicians and theater peeps, after which we promptly parade a few blocks to the nearest recital hall and proceed to stumble (half-drunkedly, as the case has been) through theater and classical rep. Unless we can manage to convince our favorite pianists to attend, these rousing events usually involve a laughable group accompanying effort (“you take the right hand, I’ll get the left…nailed it!“). For some, it’s a way to re-live theater glory days. For others (myself included), I get to hear music I feel I’ve missed out on most of my life, and be forgiven of all memory issues, technique, and the fact that I’m too old, young, skinny, fat, geographically-disadvantaged, or female to ever perform those roles in real life.

yes, I'm barefoot. Those are my shoes.
yes, those are my shoes on the ground.

Example No. 2: Garden-Variety-Shows Amidst Cheese-Laden-Casseroles The church where I work recently had a very informal variety show after worship services. We sat around together. We consumed massive quantities of things containing cream-of-mushroom soup (I think there may have been a salad or two that I completely ignored). Some people sang, some played instruments. I fumbled my way through Art is Calling For Me (accompanying, not singing), and that was a hoot. I became enlightened when a group of older women sang an ensemble number that involved sign language. Apparently they have been singing together for decades. I can’t even commit to a shampoo for longer than four months (my hair grows fast, okay?). At the end of the day, mistakes were made, but everyone had fun.

The more I think, the non-vomit-inducing performance examples start flowing: karaoke funtimes, door-to-door (or business-to-business) Christmas caroling, family sing-a-longs, the list goes on. Notice that nearly all of these examples are successful endeavors not only because they involve shenanigans (loosely related to the trouble-making family, but more closely to the Category of Good Times), but they all involve food. There’s something to be said about sharing a meal, snack, or cup of coffee with someone. It’s a very personal thing. It’s kind of like saying “I don’t know you, but you’re about to become well-versed in my idiosyncrasies as a human. I eat my cheeseburgers in a moon-shape. How do you eat yours?”  If you can eat and have fun while simultaneously making your students less-screechy/uptight/therapy-bound about performing, then you have arrived as a teacher, I suppose.

I’m not saying music teachers need to blatantly ignore tradition or consider the foundations of technique. Nor am I saying that some of my best qualities are a not a result of some serious toiling in the earn-your-place category. When my students even begin to take advantage of the fact that I like to have fun, they are granted a swift-but-stinging reminder that improvement and greatness is the result of hard, sometimes soul-quenching work (did I just call myself great? I didn’t mean to). But maybe we should consider these traditions as yellow lights (mere suggestions?) in the grand scheme of music-making. I think we can all agree that we are built up by encouragement, which can’t happen if you spend a hundred percent of your performances popping tums and stifling the vurps (that’s vomit-burps to you). Maybe we’d all be in a better place, be better teachers, and produce stronger musicians if we all spent just a little more time sitting around eating, drinking, and belting out our no-holds-barred rendition of “Like a Virgin.”

But don’t take my word for it…

me, mid-swig, jamming to "Ain't Misbehavin'"
mid-swig…as usual.

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