Tag Archives: music

The Performance Cliff

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.

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Poetic meter: maths and music

I just finished reading Timothy Steele’s excellent book on prosody, all the fun’s in how you say a thing. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in writing or reading metrical verse. Reading through the table of contents, I had some initial misgivings about, for example, a 35-page chapter on the history of elision; but it turned out to be a gripping read.

One of the main lessons I took away from the book was not to think about metrical stress as a binary on/off, but as a range of numerical values. Steele suggests 4 as a handy number, but you could think about it as a musical scale or any range of intensities. An iambic foot should always have the second beat stronger than the first, but emphasis between feet can vary up and down like a mountain range. He gives this line as an example, where the last 4 beats he would assign stress levels 1-2-3-4, so the weak beat of the last foot is stronger than the strong beat of the penultimate foot: “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.  As well as the initial trochaic inversion, the varying stress strength gives the line its driving shape.

People who dislike metrical poetry often see it as a plodding kettle drum – da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum — but the English language is more melodic than that. Cadences rise and fall and vary like a tune, but meter provides the overall beat. Free verse likes to dispense with that, but the result often strikes my ear like Spinal Tap’s Freeform Jazz Odyssey. So very modern. So very dated.

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