The Next Level: You, A Perfect Vehicle for the song, the poem, the story.
Self-consciousness, self-doubt, hesitation, and fear of rejection are common feelings for beginning performers. Many experienced professionals are members-in-good-standing of this highly inclusive club. Often, pros are not anxious but bored doing what they have done a thousand times before. Both situations look the same to an audience: a performer who is emotionally absent and going through the motions. This is called “phoning it in.”
If we wish to connect with the audience at a deeper level, we cannot let our anxiety or our boredom show. It’s best to get rid of them, but if you can’t, then learn to pretend. Fake it till you make it as they say in some circles.
First, you need great material. This is a non-negotiable requirement and the genesis of connection. When you write you are mining for gold. No performer succeeds without the bullion of great material, either theirs or someone else’s.
Then you commit everything you have to that great material. Your commitment gives it life: the song needs the singer, the words need the speaker.
Your goal is to be transparent to the material and connect with the people via that material in spite of your concerns that you might not, or that you are sick of being on the road. You can do this by playing a trick on that part of your mind that harbors all doubts. The trick is to come to believe that:
I am not the song (the words), and the song is not me. The song is bigger than I, but it must come through me to live. I will be still to not distract attention from the song as it emerges.
The “I” that is being still is the part of your mind that wants to critique how you are doing as you do it. Or critique how the audience is receiving. It is the voice that says you just sang a bad note, or you are sweating too much, or you should not have worn these tight red pants, or you should have picked something else to perform. Your inner “I” wants you to pay attention to the group talking in the back of the room, to the noisy A/C that just came on, to how you can get your parking stub validated, to any random thought.
You, the vehicle, must focus and commit to the material.
If you come to believe that it is not you but the material that is being put out there, and you have faith in the material, then you will be at your best. It is the same power given to all who engage in selfless acts: heroic men in war or mothers protecting their children. To men and woman who feel they are serving something greater than themselves is given the power to overcome obstacles they thought they could not deal with in common hours.
You will have the power to ignore the internal voice that distracts you from your purpose: To be a perfect vehicle for the material.
Ideally, as you perform, you are surrounded by the material. The emotion and meaning of the words you speak or sing fill every part of your mind and body and come out of you like you mean it. All great performers do this. It is why we go to see them. It is what you can do, and must do if you want people to come see you.
How do you achieve this mind set? Practice thinking it and doing it. You could meditate on the “I am not the song…” mantra for a few minutes each day. You could try serving others in uncommon ways, thus avoiding constant thinking about yourself. Maxwell Maltz’s famous book Psychocybernetics puts forth the idea that whatever you think about regularly will manifest itself in your life. There is some modern empirical evidence to support this. And there are centuries of philosophy and religious tenets that have no doubt this is the case.
Just as your instrument and your voice need physical practice, your mind needs to practice what it will and will not do. You are not evicting your internal critic, just getting him to take a nap so you can do your show in peace. He may return after your encore, but too late to sabotage another show.
How to practice? Try focus: Pick your best song, speech or poem and polish your performance until you have never done it better. Make it your show opener. Then focus on your next best piece and make it your show closer. With a great beginning and a great ending the middle will take care of itself.
I practice the same material until it is automatic. I use performance checkpoints and prepare for them as they approach, visualizing where my fingers will be and how my throat and body will feel at those key points. My mind is occupied with the material and little else. My body takes pleasure in executing that which it has done many times before. Since my mind is minimally involved with the mechanics of execution, I am able to let my emotions be led along by the words and sounds. I practice having those feelings so that when it is time to deliver and be a perfect vehicle, I am at my best.
Whether it is great or not is for the audience to decide. But at least I have had a happier time performing than if I was listening to my internal critic yammering on.
That’s how I do it. And written out like that it does seem like a ponderous way to do a simple thing. It’s like describing how we breathe: so many words for a natural process. As we work on our act we sometimes forget how to breathe and in the forgetting need to re-learn at length until, at last, we say, “Oh, is that all?”
This is advanced work. I am not talking about beginner’s stage fright, or simple anxiety from lack of practice. If you have been on a plateau for a while even with good material, good audiences, and a polished presentation, then the next level for you is focus and emotional commitment.
In your quest to be a perfect vehicle for the material, remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. ____________________________________________________
Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage and Podium