Yesterday was the musical. I may get over it. Eventually. We’ll see.
It wasn’t my best day ever. Not even close, actually.
Some days, the pressure just builds and builds.
In the more than 35 years now since I started playing the piano I have learned a few things. One of these things is that successful musicians and actors operate in a peculiar zone between touchy narcissism and the happily oblivious land of the extremely thick-skinned.
In fact – leaving aside the folks who got shang-hai’ed into it in the first place and sincerely really don’t want to be there – I’d say there are 3 basic kinds of people in amateur threatre. Of course… “You read it here first, folks!”
For starters, there are the Touchies. These genuinely touchy people tend not to do well, particularly when it comes to working with others. At the first hint of conflict or criticism they get upset, pack up, and go home. Perfectionists are often very touchy people. The extreme see-saw that takes them from self-satisfied conceit to zero self-confidence or self-esteem at warp factor 13 is likely to blame. Ironically, being touchy is what keeps perfectionist types from getting as close to perfection as we can hope to reach under Earth-bound conditions.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Happily Oblivious tend to always think their performance was just great. They tend not to obsess about perfection (maybe because they think they’ve already attained it). They generally ignore suggestions for improvement. I get kind of annoyed by Happily Oblivious people, but – on the other hand – I kind of envy them too. They’re sleeping well at night. Another upside is that they are often the kind of people you can count on to tell you that YOU were awesome too (even if you weren’t). They tend not to make good theatre critics.
The sweet spot in between is the Pros. These professional types think highly enough of themselves (are just conceited enough) that they’d like to give a perfect performance, but they rarely think so highly (or with so little reflection) that they believe they’ve actually given one. Sure, criticism bothers them. But they suck it up. They reflect that the criticism hurts because there’s truth in there somewhere. Then they work harder than ever on their corrections. And they never let on that the feedback (or anyone’s “bedside manner,” for that matter) ever really bothered them. They’re always ready to go again on the next cue.
It’s just the right amount of ego for being truly functional really. Lucky ducks.
And there’s more. Professionals wait well. While directors go over the blocking for the next scene, they sit (or stand) nicely with their water bottles. They pay attention. They are looking in the right direction. They are good at keeping quiet, staying hydrated, and waiting for their next cue. While they wait they maybe go over their script or discreetly make some costume adjustments. Occasionally they may be seen silently doing dance steps. Or running on the spot. Sometimes they eat that healthy snack they always seem to have remembered.
Actually, you can learn quite a lot about professionalism from watching the best actors or musicians in rehearsal. Even when those “professionals” are children. And – when you work with kids a lot (like I do) – you get good at picking out who’s got the Right Stuff from early on. You can tell a lot from those kids. You may (rightly) guess that they have their own great teachers, parents, coaches, or merely something special inside themselves that reminds them how to be professional. And that they have just enough of an ego to care about doing well. That’s a goal for themselves, not to be anybody’s monkey, by the way. Turns out that personal motivation is critical too.
I worked with a large group of very professional kids this week.
Anyway! Those professional kids make me want to be more professional too. Problem is, I’m still working on this. Then again, if I thought I was done working on it I guess that might put me in the Happily Oblivious camp somehow, so – I suppose, after all I’ve just said – that being “still working on” even this aspect of being a theatre person is somehow okay. Perhaps even the “working on being more professional” itself makes me a Professional? Is this circular logic? An existential dilemma, perhaps? But I digress…
Yesterday was a super day. And a horrible day. I played two shows for a gaggle of school kids (a cast of approximately 250 first to sixth graders from my son’s school). After the first show I was euphoric. After the second show, I cried.
The truth is, both shows went about the same. But my expectations for MYSELF went up a lot between show 1 and show 2. And I didn’t gage myself as really improving at all.
Usually, as an accompanist, you have to follow one kid (usually one scratching away on their violin or maybe a warbly young singer). You sit so you can see them well. You cover up for their timing errors, jumping ahead a few bars if they fudge an entry here or there, and just generally try to make them sound “okay.” You only have them to listen to. Generally, you have one rehearsal, then the “thing” (usually a concert or exam). Two rehearsals is a super luxury. And, honestly, the bar is fairly low for these sorts of performances. Try to make sure you end at the same time. Perhaps get in a few fairly synced crescendos and diminuendos. Depending on the kid, really. With some kids you can do more. With others less.
That’s one kid. I got 250. In a dimly-lit auditorium that was packed with people. It was hard to hear everybody. Seeing the director (the “conductor” who should be able to “play us all as one big insturment,” as it were) was even tougher. I think she had to step up her conducting style to “super incisive” to accomodate my mid-life visual needs.
Right before the show began, a family of three squooshed into the seats right in front of me. “Is it okay if we sit here?” the mother says. I look around the crowded auditorium. What can I say?
Now the father (?), in the corner (pressed tight against the wall), has his big feet on the keyboard stand as well as the bases of the two music stands that are holding up my binder. Throughout the performance from time to time all the equipment quivers alarmingly. And I am amazed how little this adult man clues in.
Even worse, this man looks exactly like Rex Murphy, from CBC radio’s Cross Country Check-Up. In fact, I suspect he actually IS Rex Murphy from CBC radio’s Cross Country Check-Up.
Canadian media personality Rex Murphy, for those who don’t know.
Let me see. How can I put this? Oh yeah – this is extremely disconcerting.
Rex Murphy is staring me in the face. He’s uncomfortably close, his feet are on my stands, AND (even WORSE worse!) he is craning his goose neck to stare at my sheet music most alarmingly, almost as if he is expecting at any moment to have to step in and play for me.
This man doesn’t seem to get that all this is rather disturbing to me. In fact, it’s downright off-putting to me. Instead of gathering this – to the contrary – this man now says to me “Anything I can do? Help out with? Positive energy?” He literally says this. A little too sincerely.
“Vibes would be great,” I say simply. Oh brother.
“Can I HELP you?” says Rex…
I hope he gets I mean “vibes” as in energy and doesn’t start to set up a rack of anything. It’s already extremely cramped here.
And then the kids sing. Ensembles sometimes at two (or three!) different speeds. Soloists with tiny voices or who (even worse) sing way off key. Gaggles of kids wearing cardboard bear ears trying to do the “grapevine” as they burble along to “Do the Walkie Talkie.” And – every so often- a superstar. A kid who’s really GREAT, has wonderful timing, a clear strong voice, and good stage presence.
I wipe my sweaty palms, wondering why these places are always SO hot. Hanging on for dear life, I just try to keep up (not screw up!). Because of the crazy LECO lights beating down on us, I think my glasses are dirty too. Even right after I’ve cleaned them.
Now I need to back up briefly and tell you another thing I’ve learned in over 35 years of playing the piano: Some people have a little “friend” who lives in their head, looks out at the world through their eyes, and provides a steady running commentary throughout any kind of public performance. A student of mine who suffered from this affliction named her friend “Mr. Blabby-Mouth.”
Here’s a little secret about me. I suffer, at times, from a case of Mr. Blabby-Mouth myself. MY Mr. Blabby-Mouth likes to sit behind my eyes and say helpful and encouraging things such as :
- “Ooh – look how many PEOPLE are here. Isn’t that a LOT of people?”
- “I wonder who they all are. I’ll bet a lot of ‘em are a lot more smart and talented than YOU are.”
- “Hey! Isn’t that ____? She doesn’t LIKE you, you know.”
- “Dare ya to make a mistake!”
- “Just a little one. And see how fast you recover.”
- “Ooh, you’re doin’ good…”
- “Psych! Psych!”
- “Look again how many PEOPLE…”
- “Aww, too bad – you screwed up…”
I figured out a long time ago that Mr. Blabby-Mouth is best off left sedated in the corner. Or maybe in the pocket of my other pants (the ones I left at home). My former student liked to duct tape the mouth of her “friend” and lasso him to a chair.
The trouble is, it feels a lot like Rex Murphy sitting there is my Mr. Blabby-Mouth come to life and staring me, quite literally, in the face as I play. It feels like he’s breathing down my neck, willing me to screw up.
“That’s MS. Blabby-Mouth to you. And I’m comin’ to get ya, Butterfly…”
I manage to get through the first couple of numbers somehow anyhow, and I’m starting to relax. Then something goes wrong.
It’s hard to pinpoint how it starts. But I think Rex finally gets to me.
It’s a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque number, with a solo becoming a duet, then a trio, and finally a quartet. The whole piece, in “four four” time, is based cleverly around the idea of chopsticks. All I have to do is play chopsticks.
I get the first bar wrong. The little girl does her entry at a funny time. And we’re off to the races. Disaster. I never completely recover the piece.
For the next number my job is to shake off the chopsticks thing and not let it get to me. This is very important now or I could go to pieces for the duration. I am starting to wonder how I got into this and if I shouldn’t have taken the gig. After all, I was only looking for work starting after Lou starts JK. We’re still months and months before. And I feel rusty. Not fabulous in the way I hope to be once I get some daytimes back.
“Shit, shit! I am blowing this,” I think.
That’s about the moment when Rex, who is still gawking at me, decides to helpfully speak up. During the show. Yes, he’s literally decided to speak to the accompanist during the show.
“Are you okay?” he says. That’s great. Just great. Who IS this guy?
“Sorry, are we dating? I didn’t get the memo.”
I don’t say that, I just think it. What I actually do is sit very straight, with my hands in my lap, and try to completely ignore this audience member from hell. And here’s what I’m wishing I could do…
“Dude. Just. Stop. STARING!”
So here’s my helpful tip for well-intentioned audience members. Just mind your own business and watch the show. Please. Don’t pick a performer, helper, or accompanist to stare at if you’re sitting less than 3 feet away from that person. You will make them uncomfortable. Don’t offer to sub in. You’re not an understudy.
And – for Heaven’s sake – please don’t talk to me during the performance. Just don’t.
If you feel you MUST do SOMETHING, try SMILING. I know it’ll make ME feel better.
I do get through the rest of the musical. Somehow. A couple numbers (the jazzier ones) go great. There’s a rap with the Big Bad Wolf that I love playing.
There was that “Walkie Talkie” thing with the bears. Okay, that was bad. But I wasn’t entirely to blame there. Even though the director stopped the show there and made me start the piece over after telling the whole auditorium that my tempo was too slow (she had a microphone, so I’m pretty sure everyone heard. She addressed herself to everyone anyway…).
I mentioned you need to have a thick skin to do amateur theatre, right? Well. I rest my case then.
Thing is, you can’t take it too personal when Mrs. B, the director, is that, umm, direct with everyone. It wasn’t personal. And it WAS a school show, after all. And I liked Mrs. B. I kind of got where she was coming from, I guess.
But embarassing? Well, yes. But I have to suck it up. I have all those amazing kids – troopers to a man (and tiny mouse-eared girl!) – to live up to.
Would I do it again? Hell yeah. Will they ask me to? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, how can I mentally prepare students for any future “Rex Murphy” moments they might encounter?
I’m thinking of putting something like this on the wall at the studio, so we can ALL rehearse NOT being intimidated. What do you think?
At least Boo was proud. His class attended the first show today. “I clapped hard because you were great, Mumma,” he told me as he lay in bed tonight with his arm around my neck. :)
Big shoes to fill. A son’s admiration is a lot to live up to. And certainly worth a little humble pie once in a while. After all, I want him to grow up to be a very Professional Kid. Hope Mrs. B asks me back again next time!
All for now,