Years ago when I was a music student, it was compulsory to attend weekly informal concerts, the purpose of which, was to provide encouraging performance experiences, for those brave enough to play in front of their peers.
On the first Wednesday in the autumn term, we all piled into the studio, to listen to a preconcert pep talk. We were urged to be generous and supportive to all of the performers, to give the most inexperienced a well needed confidence boost. This was easy to start with, as the first concert was always oversubscribed with wonderful performers.
What actually happened from then on was interesting. The more popular members of the student body continued to be resoundingly applauded for their performances, no matter how inept. We all enjoyed watching them and appreciating the bravado with which they shrugged off fistfuls of wrong notes.
However, as the year wore on, increasing numbers of shy, awkward students were also asked to perform. When we watched one of these less than charismatic individuals play, our level of appreciation dimmed. Sometimes, watching the averted eyes and diffident body language of these shrinking violets, it was as if we were being dared to enjoy the experience. Applause always shrunk to a perfunctory level, as we closed in for the kill, even when the music was technically really well played.
What was happening? We music students prided ourselves in our ability to judge when music was well played. Why did we react so cynically to these timorously correct performances? Why were confident, but inaccurate performances still bringing the house down?
The answer is quite surprising. Most of us have five fully working senses and these are never used in isolation from each other. A great example of this, is how our senses of taste and smell are enhanced by the description of food, on a menu card. Which description makes you hungrier? Plain “Fish Fingers” doesn’t do it for me. What about, a pretty picture accompanied by “Crisply coated, succulent cod fillet, sourced from sustainable shoals, lovingly served with slices of pickle, on a bed of crisp cos lettuce and a generous serving of our own-made tartare sauce?” The visual input has prepared my senses of smell and taste for a real feast, and I don’t even eat fish!
Most of us are highly visual creatures. Our sense of sight modifies pretty much all of the other senses. Looking smart is just one small important part of a performance. It’s not just a matter of what you wear, though it is very important to dress for the occasion.
Smiling is a good start, but it all depends on why and how you do it. Bob was a musician whose performances used to make me really nervous. It was almost guaranteed, that during difficult passages, nerves would get the better of him. As his playing grew less accurate, Bob would start to smile, in what he thought was a reassuringly friendly manner. With every wrong note, the smile became wider, until teeth bared, it stretched from ear to ear. It wasn’t until he was back on firm ground, that his smile relaxed and the lines of communication opened again.
On the other hand, I have known Jenny, from when she was a little Suzuki violinist. As a child, she had naturally serene smile. Even when she was intensely focused on what she was doing, the smile shone from within. It was a pleasure to watch her play. Jenny has continued to delight and engage with audiences and is now using these skills in her chosen profession as a doctor.
What really counts, is when we help children to communicate their engagement with the music and with the audience. When children become aware, that performing is giving their music, as a generous gift to an audience, it will make positive changes in their body language. An open face, relaxed shoulders, freedom of movement, all help the audience to see the soul of the music. If the gift is given grudgingly, or diffidently, the audience will sense the incongruence and feel uncomfortable.
When we help our children to practice, of course we are helping them to learn to play accurately, but importantly, we are also teaching them self confidence. When children are helped to enjoy the rewards of personal hard work and focus, confidence grows and shows in their body language, when they perform. Self confidence is taught, not by criticizing mistakes, but by recognizing and celebrating the little moments, when hard work and focus start to pay dividends. Help your children to grow from these moments and you will help them to become open, generous and charismatic performers and successful adults.