May 8, 2011

Peeps in Performance

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Every few months, my adult students get together for the Terrified Adults and Spotlight Whores Sunday Afternoon Musicales.  These could easily last all day what with my more confident students wanting to pull out another and another piece.  “And now for my fourteenth song.  .  . .

I schedule the recitals for my young students around holidays so we have an anxiety-reducing theme.  The Sunday before Halloween, anyone can come in a costume.  For years, I ran a Spook House in conjunction with the Halloween recital.  It was so much work that sometimes I couldn’t face taking it down until April.  It turned out that everyone was just as happy with a chocolate fountain, although the clean-up from that sometimes lasts until April when I am still finding streaks of chocolate on the walls.

The April Fools recital with its attendant jokes and tricks is always fun. But I still had to stop and think what she was referring to when I asked Michiko if she wanted to play in the May Day recital and she asked,

“Is this the one where we roast the Peeps?”

Now there’s a question for a deconstructionist.

After one Aprils Fool’s recital, I had a little campfire going in my yard.  I had cut sticks for roasting but instead of Kraft’s white marshmallows, we impaled marshmallow Peeps and watched their little faces crumple and melt.

We did not roast Peeps at this past May Day recital.  I lobbied for a May Day theme— Green Men and Queens of the May– but no one got excited about it.  I was counting on something wacky happening so I could write a blog about it, but it was a quiet, intimate affair.  Something quirky usually happens, like the time Bar-Chord Judy acquired her nickname.

Judy had a knack for playing camp songs on her guitar and getting people to sing along.  She had launched into a song when a bar chord came up.  Standing at an uncomfortable angle rather than sitting, she lunged for the bar chord, but her fingers didn’t get there in time.  She stopped and announced, “There’s a bar chord there,” and carried on.  Or tried to.  The room exploded with laughter.

“A bar chord is really just a big fuck-you,” she said.

Then there was the time “Tim’s” girlfriend wasn’t able to attend the recital but sent flowers with instructions for them to be delivered when her man sang.  At first appearance Tim seemed a gruff old guy, but after years of working with him, I found him to be softhearted and sweet on the inside.

When he stood up to sing “Misty,” he said, “I was going to dedicate this song to my girlfriend, but we aren’t together anymore.”

Enter the flowers and an awkward silence.

Tim was struck dumb, standing there with the flowers and his music.   He read the “care instructions” out loud.  That got a laugh, and bought us all time, but did none of us any good.  My mind had gone into lockdown.

“Tim, are you sure you aren’t still together?”  I asked him in a low voice.  I got weekly bulletins about his girlfriend at Tim’s lesson.  They had been together five days previously.

“I broke up with her last week,” he finally announced to the audience.  Because something more seemed to be called for, and because the feelings were apparently still raw, he added, “She shouldn’t have hacked at my rhododendrons!”

Tim said he’d rather sing later, after he recovered himself.  As he sat down, a new student, visiting for the first time, leaned over to her neighbor and whispered– except that we all heard– “Does this sort of thing happen every time?”

Something happens, but not usually something so bursting with human interest.

I said nothing wacky happened on May Day but something important happened. Nina –rhymes with Dinah ( had made it her project to memorize the songs she sings for recitals.

As she put it, “You can’t really sing it until it’s memorized.”

She’s right.  You interact differently with the words and the tones when you are free of the written music.

Nina didn’t bring her music or cheat sheet for “Weep, You No More, Sad Fountains” and “Blue Bayou.”  She came vocally naked, as it were.  I played the introduction; she forgot the first word of the piece.  I fed her the line and we started over.  Every so often, she stopped and thought for an extra beat.  A few times, she looked at me and I prompted her.

She wasn’t nervous.  She was comfortable in her own skin, going about her life.  She sang from memory.  Problems presented themselves which she solved without signaling that she thought she had “messed up.”

Performing is like Life: we go along, things come up and we make decisions. We do what we do when we’re alone–except that people are watching.  The performer’s comfort with whatever happens is what makes for a compelling performance.  We start with being comfortable with forgetting the words or with missing the bar chord.  We start where we are.   We can’t wait until we’re perfect to start being at home with ourselves.











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