We practice to be the best we can be, and, although performance perfection is something we strive for, deep down we don’t really expect to pull it off. Most of us know that by the end of the show we’ll be able to look back with self-critical eyes and point to various moments we know could have been better.
As well as the mess ups we’re conscious of, there is also the category of mess ups we suspect we’re making but don’t even know about. These may include everything from poor enunciation to unfortunate wardrobe decisions. But there is one area of our performance that we can and should keep at 100% perfection and that is our attitude.
Last year I performed at an all-day event which took place in a crowded and bustling restaurant. Afterwards I carried my gear out to the car and then went back inside to say goodbye to the group of event organizers. You could tell right away something was wrong. The first thing I noticed was the organizers all sitting with glum faces and the second was, no music. “What happened to the piano player?” I asked.
Someone replied, “He didn’t play a note. Just as he was about to start he got offended at something someone said and slammed down the lid and stormed off in a huff.”
I had to wonder what had been said to cause the pianist to react in such a way. And I marveled that his need to be angry was so great that he would throw away his current gig and probably all future gigs at that venue. I can’t imagine doing that. It was crazy to me that a professional musician could simply lose it.
Losing our temper (or losing our s**t as more colloquial speakers would have it) is something that most of us have done. In some circumstances a display of outrage can get others to quickly understand the depth of our feeling and perhaps take us more seriously. For the most part however, to blow up at a situation is like saying, “I don’t like what is happening so I’m going to dramatically and irreversibly destroy this interaction.”
It’s a childish action akin to flipping over the board game when you’re obviously not going to win. It’s a sudden ripping of the social contract in which we agree to behave in a calm, kind, rational manner. I can’t think of any time when a display of anger has been helpful either to me or any other ukulele performer.
As an entertainer you are there to uplift human hearts and minds. It’s a job unlike most others. So while a little irritability may be acceptable in your day job it is highly unproductive for a performer to let this happen. Each unkind word and every bit of unsympathetic body language gets noticed by your audience and informs their experience of you. Therefore you can’t afford yourself the luxury of even one ugly moment because no matter how good the rest of your music is it’s the moment that your attitude slipped into negativity that will stay in the memory of the onlooker.
I’ve found that nearly every difficult situation can be turned around to create a mutually positive outcome. On the rare occasion that a situation is truly unfixable then the only way out is to make a polite exit. But in my experience there is never a need to show our exasperation by blowing up.
The friction between humans doesn’t necessarily have to be face to face either. It often begins at home through online contact. When you get an email from someone who is communicating in a way that annoys you the temptation is to reply in kind. Instead it is far better to remain polite and remember the main point of the communication. Stay businesslike and deal with the main issue/s and ignore the peripheral stuff. Usually the email writer was not intending to be offensive. Assume that all people basically have good intentions, for this is usually true.
As in the piano player example the peak time for explosive interactions is just before the show. For both organizer and performer this can be a stressful time especially if there are other random happenings taking place at that moment. Bear this in mind and stay especially calm and kind. Keep thinking about why you’re there: to delight and entertain. Any word or action not in keeping with that goal must be left undone.
I am reminded of broadcaster and ukulele player Arthur Godfrey. He portrayed a friendly folksy image for over 40 years. He was loved throughout America until he did one mean spirited act. Live and on air he fired Julius La Rosa, one of his popular young singers, and the decline in Arthur Godfrey’s career can be traced from that moment. In that single unkind act the audience peeked through the favourite uncle façade and caught a glimpse of an unpleasant and cruel side to the man.
As a performer you can’t afford to let one negative interaction let you down. So expect the best of yourself and believe the best in others. Assume that everyone you meet is on your team and rooting for a happy outcome. Keeping a 100% good attitude is not a future performance goal, it should simply be business as usual.
P.S. And what got me started on this topic? I watched a hilarious documentary called Winnebago Man about Jack Rebney (a.k.a. The World’s Angriest Man.)
If you can handle the extreme profanity you may get a giggle from seeing his original outtakes from a shoot for a 1980s RV advertising video. The uninhibited way he lets loose with his anger is refreshing and funny exactly because such behavior is socially unacceptable.
© Ralph Shaw 2016