At lunch a while back we were discussing a colleague who had joined a chorus in retirement, and my friend said she couldn’t fathom what could possibly make a grown man want to perform in public. Children, OK, they wanted to please their parents and it’s an accepted part of education, but why would anyone choose to put himself through that as an adult?
Needless to say, she herself avoids giving the scientific talks that I frequently have to do: it is (just) possible to conduct a career in science in the shadows as she does. And I admit I share some of her dread of public speaking, although these days it goes well for me more often than not.
But I think I do understand the attraction to stages as well as the fright. My best performance experiences have been musical: I played the flute quite well in school, and enjoyed playing in bands and orchestras and (sometimes) as a soloist. When a performance is going well, everything falls into place, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s like flying: there’s a glorious surge of confidence as you ride that thermal up and up and up. Sharing that joy with a crowd heightens the experience.
A bad performance is like falling – or worse, it’s that extended moment when Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and hangs suspended in the air, frantically pumping his arms and legs in an effort to stay airborne.
So what determines how a performance will go? How do you know before you throw yourself off that cliff? Preparation is probably most of it – practicing a piece of music until you know it inside out, for example; although with a talk, that can make it sound too static and stiff. A certain freedom and confidence to have fun with the material and improvise a bit is important for speaking and probably for most arts as well. Even with music, if it’s a solo there are opportunities to be a bit free with cadenzas etc, and do it very slightly differently each time. That ensures you keep up your own interest as well as the audience’s.
But some days are just bad days to perform. Psychological factors are key; and if you’re anything like me, physical factors have a big influence on the psychology. If I haven’t slept properly, or have a cold, or my hormones decide to have a parade, then my head just isn’t in the game. Probably there are strategies to overcome that – sports psychology is a big field, and there are a lot of similarities to performing in other arenas. My guess is this is what separates the really great performers from the people who just get by: their ACME gliders have a backup engine for when the thermals let them down.