KNABLE GAZING: The Performance or the Nachos?
In college, I had a part time job at the Music School stage managing the final recitals for the graduate students. It was just the musicians and me in the tight backstage space, so I would see them intimately in their pre-performance states before they walked out through my expertly held door and throughout the duration of their performances. Watching them, I learned about performance and I learned about performers. And while I don’t believe there are ever two kinds of anything, I saw two extremes through which I have tended to see all performers, classical or otherwise, since.
There are performers who love to perform and performers who much prefer the euphoria after the performance is over.
A pianist who exuded confidence hung out with me and his page turner before his recital began. We talked about my own artistic aspirations. We chatted about his music school experience. He was relaxed but had a pre-show glow about him. It was a pleasure pulling the door to shoot him out on stage. And when his fingers floated and plunged over the Steinway (Chopin to start), his music enfolded the entire performance hall in a blanket of sound. The original act of creation. The crystallized moment when everything makes sense, when the brain surrenders and neurons fire sparks of joy. I felt in sync with his performance, knowing exactly when to open the door for his exits and entrances on stage. His exuberance flowed like a cape behind him.
Similar with an opera singer, a pixieish woman with short dark hair, who for her recital entered from the audience in full tricked-out tuxedo. And while her voice was pitch perfect, she brought playfulness to her arias that liberated them from the old stiff bonds of classical repertoire. She was alive in every moment of her time in front of her crowd, directing them as if they were her orchestra of ears and eyes. In my memory, though perhaps not in reality, she hovered above them like Peter Pan and transformed the bare wooden stage into the forests of Neverland.
But then there was the violin player who was visibly knotted in tension before her recital. She needed to know every chair was set and perfect for her accompanists. She paced backstage, all nerves, no small talk. This was a culminating moment for her and it must go well or she would fall off the precipice into the bottomless pit.
And it did go well. She got out there and played the deafness out of Beethoven. She flawlessly flew her violin through Alpian arpeggios. She was wonderful in her playing, and wonderfully serious about the work of performance. And when it was over, backstage with her flowers, she was transformed. Her trial was over. She had succeeded. She basked in her victory and smiled like a new child.
Of all these performers, though, the one I think of most often is the trumpet player who brought a case of beer backstage before his recital. It was him and me and the beer. Not to drink before or during; this was the reward for after. From the first piece through the last burst of trumpeting fanfare, he was counting down until this recital was over and he could just relax with his friends. It wasn’t enough to hold that promise in his heart; he needed to see the promised land waiting for him behind the white door to help him get through this.
I sound judgmental. I’m not. Some of the best performers I’ve known or seen or heard stories about (and you’ve heard them, too) hate, or at least have extreme anxiety about performing. Nick Drake? Cat Stevens? Adele? They much preferred/prefer the control of the studio to the roar of the crowd. They soldier through and they are often stunning in performance. But don’t assume they wouldn’t prefer to be somewhere else during it.
This is where I intended to proceed with plentiful reference to Big City Folkers, other musicians I know, and, in this case, performers of all stripes who fall either on the side of enjoying being in the moment of performance or preferring the finished side of it.
Admitting that my research methods were limited to one reasonably popular Facebook post, my main realization in gathering these perspectives was that I did not know any performer who would ever admit to being in the “having performed” preference category.
It could have been the way I phrased my initial question—something I struggled with phrasing. It ended up being: “Do you prefer performing or celebrating after having performed?”
I might as well have said: “Are you a true artist or are you someone who’s only in it for the nachos?”
Big City Folk stalwart E.W. Harris referenced what his friend Daryl used to say: “The music is the good part, they pay you for everything else.” When asked to elaborate on the “everything else” E.W. Harris cited “carrying things.”
A longtime performance artist friend of mine, David Rodwin, dove into the posting conversation poetically: “In performing, time bends. Sacred space is manifest from nothing. Invisible connections transmit bi-directionally. It IS magic. And you are the necromancer. Post show celebrations are beer, laughter, and nachos. Delightful and profane. But no magic, magic, magic.”
Gary Dorfman, who ran NYC’s beloved recording studio of yore, The Batcave, threw in with the performing preference, specifying, “The celebration is great, but then comes the inevitable crash from the high of performance.”
Ali Aslam, Big City Folker, refracted the crash through his prism when he posted, “The celebration is only to manage the inevitable swing down [from the performance].”
I identify with the feeling that post-performance celebration is a form of immediate therapy for the trauma of moving suddenly out of the role of performer. Maybe not what Ali meant, but for me it’s going from being the extroverted center of attention as a performer to the generally more introverted presentation of my daily self. I need some kind of celebratory medicine for that transition.
Chris Q. Murphy, who puts the Big City in the Folk, says he tends to leave a lot of himself up on the stage. “There isn’t much left afterwards,” he explained. “I don’t wanna hang out. I wanna be alone to either reflect or bask in the silence after the mental and physical noise of a performance.” He prefaced this by saying he falls firmly in the performance preference camp.
Bert Lee loves the rush of the show, playing and making contact with the audience. Again, maybe my fault for framing the question as such, but he responded, “The after party depends entirely on who is there. If it is dear friends, then, yeah, that’s nice, but if it’s just a feeling of congratulating myself, I don’t really need it and I’m as likely to have a beer, say a few hellos and hit the road.” Performing preference.
I leaned on my brother Sunny Knable for a classical performer perspective (though Sunny has played in many genres, from French jazz to slumming it with me and The Randy Bandits over the years).
“For recitals, I think of the performance as the party. I get to work with my friends, talk to the audience, and perform something I’m excited about hopefully,” Sunny responded. “A reception can sometimes feel like another performance because I’ve expended all my energy already.”
Because we’re both Sondheim and especially Sunday in the Park with George fans, I had to reference “The Art of Making Art” in replying to him.
Straddling worlds of theater and music in my friend groups, I got varied but ultimately similar responses from actor friends. Actor David Skeist brought in another factor I know many musicians would identify with: rehearsal. Which he prefers to performing or celebrating.
“It’s the pleasure of making and the allure of the unknown,” wrote David. “During the rehearsal process everything is possible. I always feel a wave of very intense sadness in the final day or two before going from rehearsal into performance, because it is the slow closing off of infinite possibilities, even as the piece is finally born into the world.”
Pun Bandhu, one of the most thoughtful actors I know, responded to my query with a dose of reality: “The dirty little secret is, the moments of magic are few and far between, but it’s what we live for, those moments of transferring joy and ecstasy or holding the audience in the palm of your hand, when they are collectively holding their breath. That’s the stuff we kill ourselves for.” He dared to say what I think most here might be thinking on some level: “What artists don’t talk about enough is how rare it is to feel creatively fulfilled in this profession.”
Painful to admit but necessary here, this brings up “profession” vs. the vocational or hobbyist category that most of us in the Big City Folk arena might be forced to name our performing lives for tax and job application purposes. If you do it for your main job, the question morphs from performing verses having performed to “Do you mind performing for money if the performance is not something you really believe in or get much out of doing?” Pun offers the sage advice: “Do things because they excite you creatively, because they pay a lot of money, or because they will further your career. Know why you’re doing something and then adjust your expectations accordingly.”
Meanwhile, back on the original ground of my survey—or rather, up in the air—is my old high school friend Hannah Gryphon who transmogrified from seemingly introverted creative writing buddy in school to dazzling and globetrotting aerialist in resplendent costumes. She didn’t just run away to join the circus. She has made an artistic life and career out of what most of us might consider to be the stuff of dreams.
When Hannah was faced with my flawed question?
“Performing!!! It’s not just my job, or my career, it’s my passion and my calling and there’s nothing I love more than being in the air, whether in training or in show! Of course the show is better because I love sharing that energy with a few hundred or a couple thousand people!!! [And she’s being modest here; that’s just her performance reality.] Of course it’s also nice to relax and connect with others afterwards, but when I’m on contract I’m usually performing five or six days a week so celebrations are not a daily thing.”
It doesn’t even occur to Hannah—Hannah who I might have wrongly guessed a very long time ago to be someone who would not bask in performance itself—to even really consider the concept of preferring anything to performing. When she’s on contract, she’s performing constantly, so forget about anything else.
After so much circling around and diverging from the original impulse—to get at the differences in performers who either thrive on the act of performing itself and those for whom performance is a form of stress that can still be executed brilliantly but is ultimately a burden to be released from—I am left fearing I might have put performing artists into a tight corner by suggesting anyone admit publicly to preferring “having performed” (preferably well) to being in the midst of performing (which might be a great, terrible, or middling experience). There’s shame in admitting this in front of other performers, I think. Even just to say that sometimes it’s not that great performing, that sometimes one wants to get through it, to get it over with, and move on. Or maybe even most of the time for some people. That doesn’t make one less of a performer in my humble opinion.
After all was said and posted, only one response got to the real meat of what I was trying to explore, and I’m pretty sure that Robert Bock did not mean by it that he doesn’t like performing.
Bringing it all back home to the nachos, Robert simply posted two words: “Taco Bell.”
Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who is playing next at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3 on October 19. He just released the single “Moclips Beach Hotel.” His most recent album is Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications. KNABLE GAZING is a regular column appearing on the Big City Folks blog. All of his recent head shots, like the picture of the nachos above, were done by Lucy Schaeffer, whose photo book School Lunch: Unpacking Our Shared Stories belongs on your coffee table.