The Culture of Performance

You perform several times every day. What interactions did you have today that demonstrated preparation or experience to other people? Did you ask or answer a question in class? Maybe you tried to convince your parents, students or managers to undertake or believe something for you. Maybe you wrote an article for an online newspaper; in essence, a written performance. Whether you choose your words carefully or you improvise in the moment, preparation and experience for the delivery of a performance is an essential skill of human interaction and stimulates our confidence. We should frequently take such risks to be great learners, leaders and lovers of culture.

At SMUS, we have for years built a strong culture of performance that extends throughout the school. We see this with just a glance at the dense calendar of music events staged throughout the year.

This culture of performance nurtures our development of courage (one of our four school values), as our musicians share the fruits of their talents and their rigorous preparation. Indeed, the practice of performance sets our students up as leaders, with a greater capacity to stretch their skills, an ingrained predisposition to prepare diligently, and heightened courage to risk the exposure of a stage.

“Behold the turtle! He makes progress only when his neck is out.” Now, if only he could sing…

Your concert performance can be nerve-wracking. Exposed on the stage, you shakily anticipate the section you forgot to practise, the run of notes that moves too fast for you, the cue that you must not miss. During the concert, time passes. Notes approach and are gone in a blink of an eye, a flick of the conductor’s wrist. Some moments you remember, some parts went a bit wrong. You will never get them back, but you will have this performance forever.

Camaraderie On Stage

Likely you will forget the specific feelings of anxiety and retain the best of the experiences. Perhaps it was the first big entry, the perfectly prepared shift that you nailed, the note that you and your friend hit cleanly for the first time, all culminating in the relieved rise to receive your well-deserved applause. These are the moments that shape you.

This is why our performance events are predominantly successful and cherished experiences, especially when a large group is involved. Our performers are swept up into the wash of the sound. They contribute individually into a wonderful shared experience, and they are emboldened by the camaraderie.

One performer’s strong sound creates a ripple effect, with surrounding performers building a strong sound in response. Performers ravenously feed off each other’s talent, drive and enthusiasm to nourish and stimulate their own music like a pride of lions roaring from the cello section, a flock of canaries soaring from the flutes, a band of gorillas thundering on the percussion or a parliament of owls crooning with rich resonance. Our audiences are invited to listen past the notes to recognize the camaraderie, courage and the culture of performance on display.

Building Confidence and Skill

It is true that many people are challenged by solo performances, citing anxiety for exposure that overwhelms and taxes their thrill. By contrast, our ensemble performances showcase true eagerness from the musicians to share the climactic results of dedicated practice. Indeed, our SMUS performance events occur often enough so as to become a routine expectation, with students developing a vested interest, confidently tracking their progress, intrinsically motivated to improve their approach to each new performance.

Among professional musicians, frequency of performance becomes a routine comfort. Experts, with little regard for the difficulty of the music, engage in a flow state, with proportionately high musical challenge to match their skill. The flow state is where notes pour from the fingers or voices with little direct thought, where the musician manipulates the music to their advantage, where each moment for a musician on stage with their compatriots is a stratospheric elevation of an ordinary life.

Some can sight read entire performances live on stage; some can improvise spontaneously over a jazz chart with musicians they have never met before; some can mold a meticulously refined engineered performance from a densely complex digital audio workstation.

Where do our SMUS musicians compare to these expert levels? Perhaps they are closer than they think. There are certainly times during a rehearsal or concert when our musicians have mentally disconnected from the physical exertion of each sound, and simply let the notes flow out.

The more often these times occur, the greater our performers are, and the more memorable the performances become. And yet less memorable too, for the many performances start to blend together as they accumulate in your experience.

But when you hear that song on the radio, that classical selection in a film soundtrack, that jazz melody instantly disassembled in a masterful solo you might think: “Oh yeah! I know that!”, “We sang it back in Grade 6 and I got to sing the harmony.”, “We played that piece with a full percussion section and I couldn’t even hear myself play.”, “That jazz chart was super cool, and I did the solo on my trombone.”

Ignited in the plethora of musical memories in your personal history, the neural pathways electrify when you hear these pieces. It’s like rediscovering an old favourite book that you also had a hand in writing. All these performances shaped you as a musician, as a collaborator and as a courageous leader.

We hope you’ll join our Middle School musicians and singers at our upcoming Middle School Music Night at The Farquhar at UVic. The concert happens at 7 pm on Monday, March 9. Tickets are free and can be reserved online.

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Christopher Smith
Christopher Smith '98 is the Middle School Strings teacher and Primary Music teacher at St. Michaels University School.

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