My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The cheerleader in the Green Room

© Willee Cole -
I am a pianist, a collaborator, an accompanist, a coach, and sometimes a teacher but did you know I'm also a cheerleader?  No, I don't have pom-poms or skimpy outfits but when it comes to spirit I don't think I can be beat in the Green Room and onstage, especially when I'm accompanying someone that hasn't done a whole lot of performing in public.  For me this part of my job is critical, not only because having a more calm, focused, performer is in my best interest, but also because I have a strong desire for everyone with whom I perform to experience the incredible synergy that can occur between performer and audience.  In my mind, if I can help musicians enjoy performing I can help them see not only the value of sharing of themselves through performing, but also of practicing, rehearsing, and working hard beforehand.  As Daniel Coyle states in his book, The Talent Code
"If you don't love it, you'll never work hard enough to be great."
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement yet I have walked onto stages with musicians, seasoned and unseasoned, that are absolutely terrified to perform.  My goal is to help turn this around one person at a time because through performing great things can happen regardless of whether or not the musician in question is on his way to becoming a professional.  Successful performances lead to an incredible sense of accomplishment, an understanding of what hard work can lead to, and a connection between performer and audience.  It can also prove that perfection is not what it's all about - that the audience is there with the desire to be moved or entertained in some way, not to rip apart the performer when the inevitable misplaced or out-of-tune note occurs.  

So what do I have in my cheerleader's toolbelt?  Here are some things my team players inevitably hear me say in the Green Room...
  • Have you learned your notes?  Have you practiced?  Have you listened to your teacher?  You've done the work, trust it.  
  • It's not going to be note-perfect so when something happens, just say to yourself, "What do you know?" and move on.  
  • When you're in the audience what is it you most want?  How do you listen to a performance?  Are you listening for wrong notes or words?  Or are you wanting to hear good music and to see the performer enjoying what they are doing?  What makes you feel most relaxed as a member of the audience?

©Erica Ann Sipes
  • What do you like about this music?  What do you want to say with the music?  If that's what you are thinking about when you are performing the audience will walk away with a whole lot more than just a bunch of notes.
  •  If you can create magic while you perform, that spell will enchant the audience so that those inevitable imperfections will be undetectable to the audience and at times, even to yourself.
  • I love this piece - it's such a great piece of music. Let's go out and enjoy it!
  • You're performing in a beautiful space!  Go out there and listen to yourself as if you're out in the audience.  Enjoy the sound!

One of my greatest rewards in my job is finishing a performance with someone, standing up to take a bow, looking over at him or her and seeing sparkling eyes and a giant smile looking back at me.  When that happens I know that a seed has been planted.  Regardless of whether or not they ever do another performance I am content knowing that this experience held something of value and wasn't full of the angst, disappointment, or humiliation that can so often occur, especially with young musicians.  

Recently I've had the joy of having many positive experiences.  Here are two that stand out in my mind...

The first one involved a junior saxophone student.  The young musician is an extremely talented , hard-working young man.  We've talked a bit this past year about practicing so I know he's been working on improving what he does in the practice room.  A few weeks ago he gave a junior recital and as far as I know this was the first time doing an entire program by himself.  It was jam-packed with difficult repertoire - even I was a bit intimidated.  But in the rehearsals leading up to the performance we had talked about letting go and expressing through our playing what we love about the music.  After performing the first piece, Paul Creston's Sonata, we both walked offstage grinning from ear to ear.  He had played with incredible confidence and we managed to get into an unshakeable groove.  After the next piece, Debussy's Rhapsody, we walked off for intermission and he said, still grinning, "I don't know what's going on with me. I just want to go back on stage and keep playing!"  Needless to say I quickly reassured him that nothing was wrong.  Here's what he posted later that night on his Facebook page...
"I learned a valuable lesson over these past few days: the focus shouldn't be on hitting every single note and rhythm, but instead about making music and enjoying it while you do so - all the rest will fall in place."

The second story is about a young singer that performed at her first departmental recital about a week ago.  She was quite nervous to have to stand up in front of her peers but she was incredibly prepared and was connecting in a very moving way with one song she was singing in particular, Barber's "Crucifixion."  I have performed this piece many times previously but with her interpretation I was left breathless each and every time because I had not doubt that she connected with it in a very powerful way.  In spite of that, up until our last rehearsal I sensed that she was frustrated with one particular entrance in the middle that understandably stumps just about every singer I've worked with.  I had stopped correcting her because I didn't want her obsessing over it at the performance.  The last time we ran through it she looked at me and said, "Did I get it right?"  I looked at her and said, "I'm not going to tell you because it doesn't matter.  I don't want you to count, I don't want you to think, I just want you to feel because what you're doing is powerful."  I then gave her my "creating magic" spiel and urged her to focus on expression at the performance.  She may have still been nervous at the departmental recital - who isn't?  But boy did she deliver.  Even I had to catch my breath at the end.  And how did she feel about it all?  Here's what she said in an e-mail to me...
"Even though I messed up I was told that it was a wonderful performance by my peers - that whole expression thing must really work because The Crucifixion almost made me cry!"
For her to make herself almost cry while standing onstage for the first time in front of her peers, is a sign of some powerful magic - magic that she should be proud of!

So pom-poms or no pom-poms, I will continue cheerleading from the Green Room because who doesn't want a little magic in their lives?


  1. I love your post. When I performed my own senior recital (saxophone), my accompanist did just what you did, and with a lot of humor. Before my first piece, she was making me laugh so hard that I had to catch my breath before walking out. Now that I'm starting my public school teaching career, I find myself waving metaphorical pom-poms in front of students virtually every day. Many of them lack the confidence in themselves to show each other what they really can do, and I want to find a way to create an environment in which they feel comfortable and willing to share. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, minusthelinus! And love your name. :-)

      Humor...humor is definitely helpful as long as it doesn't grate against the person with whom I'm performing. For most people it does seem to help to get them chuckling a bit. I also like it because it usually sends folks onto the stage with a really big smile on their face which sets up the audience so well. It makes them feel like, "Hey, this person is excited to be here performing for us!" That can be a welcome change to recitals where the performer is obviously very terrified and nervous.

      And thank you for bringing music into the schools - such an important job but also a hard one, I imagine. I can't imagine working with so many little kids all at once - it's truly a gift.

      So keep those pom-poms handy - those kids are lucky kids :-)

      All the best,

  2. What a wonderful article. I really enjoyed it and it so resonated with me. I am also a music educator and have taught thousands of students around the world. I have researched and found that mentally preparing before practice or a performance is so important. I have my students write down the positive outcomes of what they want from the practice or performance, then I ask them to visualize it. To actually see it happening in their minds eyes. They find this very helpful to see or imagine what is going to happen, it helps take away some of their fears. Thank you again for your excellent blogs.

    1. It's so nice to meet you, Les. Thank you for adding your own thoughts about working with students. I love your suggestion to write down positive outcomes and then having folks visualize them. I think so many young musicians think that music-making has to involve the physical act of playing at all times so an exercise like this can pull them out of that mode. I'm a big advocate for mental practice and healthy mental self-talk.

      I'm looking forward to checking out your own website more and to having some more discussion with you in the future!

      Thank you for all the work you obviously do!