The closer to a performance date, the more a performer begins to wonder if reading a book or watching a movie or even speaking to another person might inadvertently knock some vital mnemonic brick out of place, send the whole edifice of memorized exactitude cascading into the abyss.
Performance asks us to function at heightened levels, at higher tempos relative to our steady-state.
All media jobs are about live performance.
Preparation is all about learning how to listen to our senses to figure out what we want to do, and then asking them to step aside for a while so that we can think clearly. Preparation is the difference between practice and improvisation. Preparation is the invisible shield held by pros.
Public speaking can focus the mind in a singularly powerful way. In preparing for a public talk, a speaker must not only organize his or her thoughts, but must do so in a way that makes them crystal clear to an audience who hasn't heard them before. If the speaker prepares properly, that process will reveal flaws in logical arguments, examples that may not convey proper authority or power, and dramatic beats that do not make audience pulses quicken on cue. Preparation and rehearsal are vital to the enterprise because the goal, of course, is to move your audience.
Public speaking can play with your head, too. A great talk given once can convince you that you're the keeper of something profound, a seer, a visionary. A great talk given repeatedly can gradually inure you the hard work it takes to keep presenting it afresh each and every time you present it. Remember, the next audience has not yet heard what the last audience heard. The job of a speaker is to make it fresh and new each and every time.
I'm reminded that so much public speaking relies on electronic media these days. It's probably an unavoidable phenomenon. In a visually structured world, the power of images to amplify a message cannot be ignored. But to cede all of a message's power to smart pictures usually dilutes the message itself and disrespects the process of designing those images. If you're going to use pictures, develop them in concert with your talk, lest you bolt them on as an afterthought and start to believe that "giving your audience something to look at" is a good idea. Once your audience thinks that your pictures at least give them something to do while you drone on, you can safely count yourself among the walking dead at the front of the room.
Which leads to the most obvious thing that so many, many speakers miss. Say something that matters. It's not enough to be an expert in a subject. Whatever you do be sure to think hard about what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. If you're message is ordinary, boring, irrelevant, or otherwise not very engaging, it will mean even less to your audience. That's why, to bring this blog back to the beginning, rehearsal matters so much. In rehearsal you uncover the merits of what you want to communicate and the way you plan to do so. When you practice it like you're doing the real thing, you can't hide the sour notes, and you can savor the parts that sing out.
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The gestures of an orchestra conductor physically do nothing but move the air, and even that has minimal influence on the physical world. So why do conductors matter?
There's something about leadership that makes conductors matter, and it's not just about making music. The world's great orchestras--a sadly diminishing number--can most certainly make their way through the conventional repertoire with minimal guidance. With a concertmaster's tempo, the corps can play the score. Hey presto: instant Mozart!
But we all know there's more to music than meets the metronome. Imparting influence and opinion, a conductor makes a million subtle and not-so-subtle gestures that influence the outcome. Many of those influential gestures take place far from the performance podium. In rehearsals, in frozen snippets of conversation while pouring coffee in the break room, even going back so far as decisions about which musicians to hire, conductors set trajectories for invisible forces that emerge as sound at performance time.
Some creative acts come to life from the hands of singular auteurs. Painting, rather obviously, springs from the brush of a singular artist. But what of opera? What of filmmaking? What of golf course design (presuming you're into that sort of thing)?
Collaborative creative enterprise may require the input of many on a team, but above all it requires vision. It needs clear guidance, and success demands leadership.
Not everyone can lead, but the moment that statement gets spoken aloud, people bristle. Not being a leader does not imply diminishment of value. A complex evaluation, value becomes a measure of absolute quality, not relative quality. In relative terms, the lead tenor at Saturday's Metropolitan Opera performance is certainly more "valuable" to the production than an anonymous chorus singer, but this should not impugn that unknown singer's value overall. Leadership demands that all parts take themselves seriously, or as the great acting coach Constantin Stanislavski once famously remarked, "there are no small parts, only small actors".
Conductors do not play the instruments wielded by musicians seated before them. They may be able to play, but they usually do not do so at performance time. But the great ones understand the nuanced and complex language everyone shares beneath the baton. Conductors are responsible for the entirety of their musical ship, first movement to last, downbeat to final rest. Sometimes they're forced to haul an orchestra over challenging terrain, but most of the time they do something completely the opposite. Most of the time a smart conductor knows how to keep the wolves of distraction and random interference away. A conductor says, “I'll take responsibility for where were going, but I'm still counting on you to get us there.”
In my experience, there's no one perfect leadership format. Conductors, directors, management executives, and lead surgeons in operating theaters, come in all different personalities and styles, even if they share a few distinct traits. But in all cases I've believe that good leaders are in touch with how subtle gestures can have profound influences on those beneath their baton. If they're paying attention, good conductors will be influenced just as much by the corps bowing hard across the strings as the string players respond to tuxedoed arms waving up front. Because when it comes right down to it, leadership of successful teams uses the intangible qualities of nuance and gesture to make things that matter. Big, obvious decisions tend to be easier to deliver, but not necessarily more desirable to experience. While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, nuance and gesture are the invisible heart of the sublime.
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Performance day. Delivery. Showtime.
Months of work across multiple departments compress into a single shiny point, a captured spark inside a gleaming stone.
It's always the same, and it's always different. By the time something is finally ready to leave the workbench, creators knows every single pixel, every sound, every explanation and justification and reason and inspiration behind every molecular detail in what's about to be revealed. On small projects the coalesced energy presses gently, urging enthusiasm. But on big projects, the potential energy grows exponentially. The coming kinetic release threatens to break on the shore of the event like a tidal wave, like the San Andreas fault growling to tip Los Angeles into the hungry sea.
Oh, Sweet Experience! There's no better teacher for managing the rolling deck of the boat than having brought many, many of them in to shore before. But that doesn't mitigate the buzz. And make no mistake: there's always a buzz.
Everything can go wrong. It's vastly challenging to predict every single eventuality you're likely to encounter on the day of a big show. No matter how much you like to think you leave nothing to chance, variables have a way of creeping in. Generally big performances do not happen in locations of your own choosing, or your own control. That's the biggest source of unexpected drama. You're also likely showing your work, whatever format it may be, to people who are not specialists in your field. You're not showing to other painters, nor dancers, nor even caring school guidance counselors who will clap enthusiastically for every single kid who gets up at the spring talent show to belt out a song. In the real world, your audiences demand something that wows 'em, that moves 'em, that makes 'em think their money was worth spending with you. But caution: if you're thinking you might get away with a Music Man moment, think again. You're not going to engender warmth simply because your clients will see themselves immediately reflected in their so-very-wise commissions. You're going to need much more than that, and flim-flam gets you nowhere. You have to deliver the goods, and you know it.
The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." I've always regarded this as a cautionary tale from a performance master. Coasting on talent and experience is never enough. Preparation and practice makes all the difference in the world, and there's no getting around it. And if…IF…you should be so lucky as to have generated a good idea to work with along the way, well, that never hurts either.
Assuming you're serious about your craft, there always comes a day when what you're working on needs to get seen. Whether you've been commissioned by a big corporate client or you're working on your magnum opus of a novel, there always comes a time. Practice and preparation will get you far; they're essential, and deadly serious. Yet real life is not a practice run. Like Han Solo said, "Going against the living? That's something else." Expect to be scrutinized, expect to be cross examined, expect to be dissected in a million different ways. You may have been working on this thing, whatever it is, for months, but to your audience, it only lives for the few minutes they get to experience it, and they don't really care about how hard it was to create.
Everything can go wrong, perhaps. But everything can go right, too. Walk carefully but confidently. Answer questions, but don't defend positions. Own your creations, but be generous is sharing them. Because if you've been honest about the work all along, and it really is something of value, then your big performance--and that's what it always is: a performance--will be the vehicle that helps convey your vision to eyes that do not know what to expect. It's through those eyes that you have a chance to reach someone else meaningfully.
That's why this moment matters, because, as you know, the eyes are the gateway to the soul.
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Superman flew. He had to: people watching television decades ago saw it with their own eyes.
But that's television; we all know it's just make-believe, even if we tune in to lose ourselves intentionally in the story. Movies are a whole lot more immersive, just by means of working within more expansive boundaries and defining different expectations. But things are changing all over the land of make-believe, from the Province of Television to the Domain of Movies. None of our electronic fictions are precisely what they once were, and it isn't just because computer generated effects have replaced ropes and harnesses for our heroes.
Movies still command a certain measure of cultural attention, but not like they did as recently as twenty years ago. Arena- filling rock and roll bands have taken on profoundly different roles in the culture, too, as have books and other cultural events to a lesser degree. Even television no longer acts as the soothing zone of cerebral down-shifting that it used to be. Twenty years ago NBC's "must-see-TV" line-up held much of the country in thrall, provoking Friday morning office conversations that must have sapped a measurable portion of the nation's productivity.
The change came slowly, methodically, creeping in on catspaws. An easy cause for the change, obviously, was the advent of millions of new web-based ways for people to spend their time, distracting them from large, more widely shared events. The web and its handheld, wireless offspring further fragmented attention. But I believe one of the greatest factors in a new cultural ennui is the corollary to infinite choice. Infinite choice demands an inevitable qualitative discount on well made work just to keep the endless pipes full. As a result, theatrical curtains that used to hide how everything in the world was made have suddenly parted.
Typically we enter into a partnership with performing arts, or any work of art, for that matter. Even if a rock star makes it look like they're just wildly gyrating, the reality is always so much more prosaic: hours of rehearsal, endless practice all alone to perfect complex riffs, preproduction planning, and on and on and on. The partnership with an audience is about suspension of disbelief. We dream about our media idols because the illusion of so much charisma and power and performance excellence is one of ease and effortlessness. We want our magicians to levitate, even as we know that gravity never takes a holiday. We want what they seem to have.
Ever watch a cooking show? Millions do. Cooking shows teach you everything, even if you never intend to cook what they're showing. Most people never try the stuff being made in state-of-the-art studio kitchens. But expectations rise by watching these things, nonetheless, and with those expectations puffing up like soufflés, so do the minimum requirements for general satisfaction. Is this bad? Probably not. An educated public, no matter what the subject, is a better social body. But when everything is ordinary, it's harder to hold an audience's attention.
Lower production costs and an effectively infinite number of media outlets means that humanity's innate curiosity can now be effectively sated for any subject at all. Behind-the-scenes programs, blogs, podcasts, photo galleries, magazine articles, and more can teach you the secrets of just about any subject or endeavor you may want to know. Curious about how to play a diminished C chord on a guitar? Check. Want to know about the manufacturing process of fast food french fries? Yep: that's available too.
It's a funny thing. I like having access to all sorts of information about how the world works. I like knowing how papayas grow just like I also want to be able to look up how to properly place a comma in a sentence.
But endless informational resources about endless subjects is not the same as going behind-the-scenes. Behind-the-scenes programming removes the necessary suspension of disbelief required for theater. Just like audiences still go to see magicians even though they know it's a trick, they go to the movies knowing that the stories they're watching are built by armies of people working for months in movie making businesses. The compact audiences metaphorically sign with creators not to see how it's done facilitates necessary disbelief. The fact is, Superman only makes sense if we believe he can fly. If we see the ropes, we all laugh; it ruins the magic. The moment we go back stage and see that there really isn't a bottomless pit into hell but instead just a wooden trapdoor, we lose a bit of the surprise and emotional connection with regard to the plight of the character and his our her narrative.
And it's a tough thing, steeped as we all are in infinite information. We all have access to trailers and magazine articles and web sites that reveal tons of details about how something gets made. But I suppose my thesis is this: treat behind-the-scenes information with respect, lest you no longer appreciate anything. It's one thing to learn all about a magician's life; it's another thing entirely to learn how he makes the tiger disappear. As soon as you know where that tiger goes, you'll not only stop caring, but you'll be more likely to click on something newer, something incrementally more scintillating, and your own attention will continue to fragment.
Fragment it too much, and then nothing matters at all.
PS -- Yes, yes, it's always the same old request here at the bottom of the blog. "Please share with your friends if you like it...yadda, yadda, yadda." There are even the little buttons around here where you can post it to Facebook, Tweet it far and wide, distribute it all sorts of ways. But you know what? You COULD! And you know what that would do? That would make us SMILE.
Should you say "No"? Should you try and sidestep it, deflect it, get along without it, look elsewhere?
Not if you're serious about your craft.
The thing about being creative, no matter what your business, is that you can't always choose how and when to bring the lightning. Sometimes the dishes simply need to get done. Sometimes you simply have to take a job because someone likes what you have to offer, even if you don't particularly like what they're asking for. Plus, there's always the feast-or-famine reality of life in the creative world. Sometimes you'll wish you'd taken the job you didn't particularly enjoy because it sure beats no job at all!
But in my mind these are actually mediocre reasons to take uninspiring gigs. They're real, to be sure, and they matter. But the best reason to take a job you don't love now and again is that it keeps you sharp. It forces you to come up with solutions to keep yourself engaged. Goofy gigs often also come with requirements you might not ordinarily have selected if left to your own devices. Brushing off rusty ways of thinking has a surprisingly powerful effect of reminding you about your own values, your own best abilities, your own power. You remember your own power, right? The enterprises you were going to pursue, the adventures you were going to travel, the castles you were going to build? When something annoying takes you away from the goal that fired your soul, you can either complain uselessly, or your can re-commit yourself to chasing that spark as soon as you get the job done.
Here's the biggie: the world isn't smooth. There are no ideal realities anywhere. As they say, there are only perfect lives in the movies, and if you're the person making the movie rather than living inside the movie, you're going to be traveling the bumpy roads of reality. That's why embracing periodic potholes rather than completely avoiding them can make you a better driver overall. You learn how to navigate and compensate; you learn how to innovate and rise above. You don't get thrown.
The trap into which too many people fall is that dull gigs can quickly become stock in trade; they can become ordinary, the rule rather than the exception. The gigs you handle out of grumpy necessity can drain your energy from the work you really want to pursue. Take too many, and you stop doing the thing that matters.
And then life gets away from you. You get older, but not better. Life runs out.
But once in a while? Don't fret. If you're paying attention to the most authentic forces driving your creative spirit, you'll come to see the occasional gig you didn't enjoy as an opportunity to grow in ways you might not have expected could use the practice.
And you know what? Feel free to cheer when they wrap.
PS — To our regular readers, please take 20 seconds (or thereabouts) and retweet, cross post, or otherwise pass the link for this blog–and its 1AU Global Media home–onto your own readers and friends! Call it karma, call it kismet: we’ll just call it cool! Cool?
But "live" doesn't just happen. In broad terms, a good live performer describes someone with an acute sensitivity to the world around him or herself. More specifically, a compelling live performer is somebody who knows how to rehearse.
Deeper still, rehearsal is not enough. It's possible to be well rehearsed and yet to have rehearsed poorly. Ultimately this is where skilled direction and production come to bear. Message, motivation, mechanics: you've got to have the tools to make a live event come alive for an audience.
A few days ago I went to the opening night performance for Diana Krall's 2012 world tour. Playing at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore with her stunning quartet, she made it look easy. Chatting with the audience, turning casually on the piano bench to regard her fellow musicians, clearly enjoying the night, the music radiated out across the packed hall into the summer air. There's nothing like a live event.
But even though she commented several times how she wasn't sure what they might play next, and even though the group clearly left room for improvisation and on-the-fly set changes, nothing was left to chance. To say they were well rehearsed is to understate the obvious. But what they really expressed were lifetimes of craftsmanship, and deeply felt affinities for playing music.
Simple statement: I like music. But here's the question, at least for regular readers of this blog: what's the direct relevance to what we do at 1AU Global Media?
As a production facility specializing in real world images and CGI and carefully crafted storytelling, one may think the more specifically human aspects of live performance might not resonate as intensely for for us. Not true. We pride ourselves in extensive live performance backgrounds. Superb production in a traditional sense should appear effortless. That's why Krall's performance sounded so good. To the audience, it just sounded like they were playing. Playing: that is, the act of having fun. Serious things done well can still invest audiences in a sense of fun, particularly if you broaden your acceptance of the word to mean enjoyable satisfaction in what you're doing. At 1AU, we care intensely about making it look easy, even as the craft of doing so requires lifetimes of practice. More to the point, doing a job well, especially a creative one, is precisely what defines fun.
Our clients know they can turn to us for highly sophisticated media. But if you're new to 1AU, consider us next time you're planning a live demonstration, or your executive staff needs to make a public statement, or speak on camera. Preparation for a live event divides the merely enthusiastic from the pros. Sometimes the line is wide; sometimes it's narrow. But there's always a line. Cross over… and go farther.
PS -- To our regular readers, please take 20 seconds (or thereabouts) and retweet, cross post, or otherwise pass the link for this blog and it's home at 1AU onto your readers and friends! Call it karma, call it kismet: we'll just call it cool! Cool?