Practicing spontaneity: be like Hillary & not like Donald
The run up to the American Election is interminable so I don't generally pay attention, but one item caught my eye a couple of days ago: It turns out that Donald Trump, brilliant politician that he is, says he is doing very little preparation for his 3 debates with Hillary Clinton.
Ms. Clinton, who is an anal retentive policy wonk, is said to be feverishly preparing for the debates by assimilating copious briefing notes on a wide range of subjects. She is also participating in mock debates with unnamed men so she can hone her verbal sparring skills.
The prize in play is of course the most powerful elected position in the U.S. So you would think that Mr. Trump would put some effort into brushing up on a few things like foreign policy, military policy, labour policy, etc. But he prides himself on his ability to come up with answers and brilliant policies at the drop of a hat.
The news item struck a note with me because, like Mr. Trump, I have the attention span of a Labrador puppy. I can't help it, I was born this way.
This is not a handicap because in many situations, you can bluff your way out of trouble. Except when you’re performing solo in front of people.
You are without succour when you're on stage. The collaborative pianist can help you in the performance but they won’t necessarily coach you on the lyrics or your presentation of the music to the audience.
For the first few years, when I performed, my dearest desire was that I wouldn't forget the words to the song. I kept hoping for the whole experience to be over before I goofed up the lyrics.
As years went by, I got better at the lyrics, but then my teacher started insisting on proper pronunciation and vowels and then she urged me to consider the "feelings" in the song. Feelings? It's all I can do to keep track of this other stuff and now I've got to worry about emoting. As Mr. Trump would say, "Very unfair".
You can only do one thing well at a time. So how do you sing, remember lyrics, emote and move about the stage (and not incidentally, entertain the audience), all at the same time?
It finally struck me that some of these activities needed to be more or less automatic. With enough practice, the action of making sound can be handled by certain muscles without too much coaching by the thinking part of your brain. With enough practice, the words will pop out of your mouth at the right time and in the correct order.
This is not news to any of you. We are constantly urged to practice in order to get the basic singing skills in place. Of course the tempo of practice tends to increase as the date for a recital or performance looms closer. With it comes mild panic as you or your coach notice things that aren't quite right.
So perhaps you decide to bury yourself in practice and research the history of the work you are going to present (applies to solo recital or being part of a large production). You practice every day for lengthy periods, listening to yourself as you iterate through variations of tone, volume, emphasis on various words. You experiment with combining gestures, body positions and facial expressions.
In the meantime, you learn more than most people would ever care to know about the composer, the music you'll be singing and much other information of doubtful value.
You could visit the venue of the performance to get a feel for the space and how it deals with sound, especially your sound.
What are the results of expending so much time and energy? On the pro side, you likely feel a lot more prepared and therefore more confident in your performance. You can calmly anticipate the performance knowing that everything you will do is planned down to every note.
Further, you've loaded up with a large body of knowledge that will perfectly inform your performance.
On the con side, you might be quite fed up with the subject matter and now just want to get it out of the way so you can stop thinking about it ... forever. Your consciousness can go to a cupboard at the back of your mind and shut the door, confident that everything will run on automatic and according to plan.
Isn't it possible, though, that you've taken all the fun out of it both for yourself and the audience? If you're running to a plan, there is no room for whimsy or spontaneity, for some little piece of improvisation that might turn a good performance into one which is delightful and memorable.
Someone I used to know frequently used the words "harmony, synergy, balance". I don't know if he knew what he meant by this mantra, but I think they ideas are appropriate in this situation. Harmony is the fit of all the facets of your preparation and later performance. Synergy for the support that your intellectual efforts provide to your performance. Balance is the provision of the right amount of knowledge, practice, serendipity and confidence in your skills.
How you make it all work for you is a journey that never ends.
Like Hillary, study and practice diligently. Like Donald, rely on your ability to improvise. Carefully.