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Got Stagefright?

In the process of trying to convince people of the value of attending a live event, performing arts people will often cite the opportunity for chaos. They will say something along the lines of a recording will be the same every time, but in a live performance, anything can happen.

I wonder if this is really fair to the performers and crew that worked on the show because it essentially tells the audience they should be rooting, just a little, for something to go wrong.

It may seem relatively harmless, especially if you aren’t out there loudly proclaiming the certain death of the lion tamer or acrobat who operates without a net. There are a lot of performers out there who (mostly) quietly suffer from stage fright and even just a little hype can exacerbate their anxiety.

A book review in the New Yorker last August recounts some of the more famous/infamous instances of stage fright suffered by Daniel Day-Lewis,  Laurence Olivier and Glenn Gould, among others. It talks about the different things that weigh on performer’s minds, no matter how hard they try, including whether they can live up to the legend that has been attached to them.

The audience rooting against them or judging them is among the anxieties they suffer:

Some performers displace this cruelty onto the audience. The pianist Charles Rosen believed that the spectators were out there waiting for the performer to slip up: “The silence of the audience is not that of a public that listens but of one that watches—like the dead hush that accompanies the unsteady movement of the tightrope walker poised over his perilous space.”


Baryshnikov believes that it is the feeling of obligation to the audience that triggers stagefright: “Suddenly the morality kicks in. These people bought a ticket to your show.”

The problem of stage fright may be more widespread than we are generally aware. In addition to silently coping with the problem, the New Yorker article notes that many artists use beta-blockers to help them deal with their fear. This is not without some controversy.

Some people said they resulted in “phoned in” performances. Some raised the ethical question, asking whether the use of beta-blockers by pianists was any different from the use of steroids by athletes. (There is an important distinction, though. Steroids add to the body, increasing muscle mass in order to improve performance. Beta-blockers remove something from the body—the flutist’s lip tremors, the cellist’s hand tremors—in order to permit the person to produce the kind of performance he has already shown himself capable of, outside the auditorium.)

This reminded me that Drew McManus had written about the issue of “performance enhancing drugs” for musicians a dozen years ago for The Partial Observer.

I briefly thought that a more constructive use of the “anything can happen” phrase might be to associate it with idea that you may see a breakthrough performance or a moment of inspiration and synchronicity that transcends the normal experience.

I quickly realized this approach may increase the anxiety for the audience. “Am I witnessing a transcendent moment? How do I really know? I wasn’t really bowled over, but maybe I missed it. I should probably join the standing ovation just to be sure, right?”

The truth is, live performance has the potential for witnessing some crises and participating in moments of transcendence. To ignore that these opportunities exist does a disservice to the experience. Regardless of whether these factors are mentioned, performers are still going to experience stage fright and audiences are still going to wonder if they are missing something everyone else seems to get.

Not to mention, these experiences aren’t unique to the performing arts. Athletes fear they will lose the edge that makes them great and many spectators find themselves unable to figure out what is going on or why anyone gets excited by the sport in the first place.

While it is generally acknowledged that the arts have to be sensitive to the barriers that may exist for audiences, the same isn’t really true for the performers.

In many other fields of employment there are coaches, counselors and human resource personnel available. Granted, many of these resources are less than perfect. A highly paid athlete is going to get a lot more support and guidance from the team’s infrastructure if they fall into rut than a fast food worker will from their company.

How many theater companies, dance companies and orchestras have a program in place to provide coaching for a performer who has lost their edge? (Actually, the dance company practice of having regular classes might count as that.) Or acknowledge that people might have debilitating stage fright, much less provide help for people who are experiencing it?

I am left wondering how prevalent it is since it isn’t often discussed. Given that seven people, (a fairly large number for that column), commenting on Drew’s Partial Observer admitted to using a drug to deal with anxiety, I suspect it is more prevalent than we imagine.

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Some Parts Of This Post May Be Boring

I was going to hold off featuring this in the blog until a later date, but Carter Gillies comment on my recent Distract Me From My Distraction post decided me.

Maria Popova recently assembled the thoughts of many luminaries on Brain Pickings, In Defense of Boredom.

Years before the internet, video games, cell phones and the like, people were already thinking about the value of boredom in shaping us as individuals.

Popova’s opening thoughts probably won’t be news to anyone.

Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.

She quotes philosopher Bertrand Russell:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

Perhaps most applicable to the arts are the words of Susan Sontag:

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

Sontag’s thoughts bring up a whole host of questions. Some are familiar like whether it is appropriate to have the expectation of art to be entertaining. The concept of being in the wrong mode or modes of attention is new to me. I have certainly been to performances and encountered works of visual art where I understood it was less about the meaning than the general sensory experience.

But I don’t recall consciously deciding I needed to make that shift. It leave me wondering if I should have asked myself if I was operating in the wrong mode when I was bored. I also wonder how you educate audiences about making this shift without sounding superior and condescending. (i.e. The reason you didn’t like it is because you didn’t realized you weren’t supposed to search for meaning and understanding, you were supposed to focus on the holistic sonic and visual experience.)

Writer and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky echoed a sentiment made by Bertrand Russell about the need to learn to handle boredom. His last sentence is definitely worth some consideration.

I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

This idea that it is important for children to learn to navigate boredom appears again in the words of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who like Russell and Tarkovsky characterizes it as a crucial milestone in personal development.

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

I call attention to all this because one of the central challenges the arts face is this innate, growing fear that boredom means something is wrong with your life. Since this issue has been commented on for 200 years, to some extent this fear is a natural part of being human. The problem is that since stimulation comes at an ever increasing rate, the interval after which a person decides they are bored becomes increasingly shorter.

Since parents and general socialization continue to reinforce this concept of boredom, there is likely little the relatively “slow” format arts and culture organizations can do to combat it other than repeating a mantra of “it is okay to be bored.”

I am sure he is amused that I keep bringing this up, but I think one of the most effective efforts in Drew McManus’ “Take A Friend to the Orchestra” campaign was when he took a guy to a concert at Carnegie Hall and told him it was okay to get bored and Drew admitted that even he gets bored at concerts.

Introducing the possibility that parts of an experience might be boring by giving someone permission to be bored might bias them against the experience from the outset. It is highly likely they were already afraid they might be bored anyway, (along with every opportunity in life that presents itself, it ain’t just you), so being given license to dislike some aspects might be a relief.

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Info You Can Use: You Can Hack Being An Arts Administrator

Drew McManus is fulfilling one of my ambitions.

When I was first starting out this blog, I envisioned creating some sort of repository of information about arts and arts administration that people could consult.

It should be noted that I was unemployed when I started this blog nearly 11 years ago so I had a lot of time on my hands to be ambitious. That plan never panned out. Getting a job and getting really busy sort of diverted my focus from that.

However, despite being quite busy with his job as a consultant, Drew McManus has deluded concluded that trolling through 990 filings and evaluating the effectiveness of orchestra websites aren’t monopolizing enough of his time.

Drew has decided to create an Arts Administration version of Lifehacker. He is looking for people to be contributors to this effort. If you are interested, sign up on his website.

To my mind, everyone has something to contribute. If you are a student in college, you can contribute tips on engaging your friends and colleagues.

If you live outside the U.S. there are plenty of challenges we face in common and plenty of insights from your particular experiences that can be of value.

In that vein, I wanted to call attention to a course being offered free online by Stanford “How To Start A Start up” It is being hosted by Sam Altman of the venture firm Y Combinator. The course speakers are a who’s who of Silicon Valley.

It isn’t directly arts related, but there will obviously be some commonalities with arts business. Among the topics are building company culture, how to operate, how to manage and how to raise money. Everyone keeps talking about the need for a shift in thinking in the arts and this may spur some different approaches.

After learning about this class, I did a survey of all the Massive Open Online Courses being offered by different entities around the country -MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Coursera etc. No one offers anything related to arts administration that I could see. The only online arts administration program I am aware of is the Certified Performing Arts Executive program at University of New Orleans.

[N.B. Dang it! Nina Simon made a liar of me pointing out this course on arts innovation. It didn’t show up on my search because it started the day before.]

Given the lack of any centralized source of information, tips and tricks related to arts administration, a resource like the one Drew is proposing is sorely needed.

Please consider signing up to make a contribution. With your help, a lot of people will be able to hack being arts administrators

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Beware Starry Eyed Assumptions

I will be traveling abroad for the next couple weeks, but as I am wont to do on these occasions, I have prepared a retrospective of some interesting entries from the blog archives.

Back in April 2007 Drew McManus and I had an interesting crossblog conversation with Bill Harris of Facilitated Systems about how you really need to be careful about the assumptions you make regarding the results of studies.

In this particular case, it was in regard to some results found in a Knight Foundation study that at first blush might lead you to believe people who participated in music lessons as kids were more apt to attend performances when they grew up.

That ain’t necessarily the case. Read the comments on my post as well as those on the entry Bill made.

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