The audience was full of women including my mum and my piano teacher. The hall was familiar to me. With nearly ten years of daily practice under my belt, nerves were not likely to get the better of me.
I sat at the piano and began to play.
Footballers, tennis players, singers and other performers usually get to warm up before they start the main event. Year 12 music students, who are about to perform Chopin on a piano in the local district hall, don’t.
I struck the first five notes. Chopin died on those keys. My fingers were used to playing that piece. They’d moved along the keys of my piano every day in the same sequence for the past two years. Yet it wasn’t my fingers that were the problem.
The piano played as if someone had stuffed it full of cotton wool. The piano had no resonance. Even though my fingers knew what to do and where to go, I relied on my ears to tell me what came next.
I heard nothing.
My fingers faltered.
The music stopped.
Embarrassed, I began again. I got to the end of the first page of three that were in my head but not on paper in front of me. But no sound reverberated to remind me of what came next. I stopped. I bowed. I left the stage.
I don’t remember what happened after that, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling of playing on a piano with no feedback. It’s much the same as playing on an electronic piano that has not been switched on.
A brand new musical
Last night, I went to the World Premier of a brand new musical. From the moment I walked into the foyer I was transported into the 50’s.
I met my family there and we entered into the auditorium–early for a change. The theatre was decorated magnificently. While we settled in and chatted to each other and those around us, characters came and interacted with us. It was such a warm, inviting atmosphere. We could hardly wait for the beginning of the show.
The show was great. An accomplished band, very talented performers and choreography that enabled anyone to join in the fun, told a story. Though the story lost me a little, so did ‘Cats’ which I’ve seen four times. So that doesn’t signify the level of my enjoyment.
I can still hear the songs this morning. I can still remember the jokes. I can still remember seeing the faces of the performers as they realized that they were in front of hundreds of people and that it was a good place to be.
But, from where I sat, it felt as though someone had stuffed the auditorium full of cotton wool. The music resonated around us but was not applauded. The performers urged the audience to join in.
Nothing. Well, nothing until I clapped as loudly as I could, quickly joined by my husband and then slowly joined by others spread throughout the auditorium.
Either the jokes went over the tops of the heads of those around me or the people in the audience thought they were in church. It seemed as though the audience needed permission to enjoy themselves and give back to the performers.
When I commented on this at the end of the show my comments were not very well received. Understandably, I guess. But having been a stage performer virtually all my life, I know how important it is to get feedback from the audience. If it’s funny, laugh. If it’s good or demonstrates effort, applaud. If you really enjoyed it, cheer.
The Conductor handed over his baton
Twenty years ago, I went with my children and their pre-school to an orchestral performance in our then-home-town of Memphis, Tennessee. A clown wanted to be part of the show.
The Conductor gave the clown a chance to play a violin, a cello, drums, a trumpet. None of them at all successfully.
Then the Conductor handed over his baton. That was even worse. A very obedient orchestra played according to the whim of a very uncoordinated, out of time, clown.
The clown looked miserable…until the Conductor told the clown that there was a place within the auditorium that the clown hadn’t yet tried. Every orchestra and every performer needs an audience. Without an audience, a performer has no purpose.
So the clown sat with us, and we all practiced being the audience together.
Maybe that’s what the audience needed last night–Practice at being the audience at the theatre.
Performers need feedback from the audience. It is what encourages the performer to continue, to try a little harder, to soften their pose if necessary, to know which jokes are funny, to perfect their timing. Performers need us to be brave enough to laugh, clap and cheer – even if we’re the only ones.
Don’t worry if you’re the only one who got the joke. If you laugh, you give permission to others to search harder to find the joy. If you clap when no-one else does, who cares? It encourages the performer. It’s like saying,
‘Yay! Well done! Thanks for all the work you’ve put into this!’
It’s not the last of the performances for this musical. But I really hope that future audiences relax a little and allow themselves to become part of the performance.
If not, perhaps the parents of those performers should quit paying for their music, singing and acting lessons, and enroll them all in tennis.