Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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Critiqual Mass

In the last column, we discussed listening to your audience. Here, we concentrate on how to take that information and objectively (yeah, right) use it to assess ourselves.

Contrary to some thought, making music and enjoying the praise it brings are not incompatible. The human psyche wants to hear good things about itself - it is a crucial component of our ability to be a part of society. We all deserve to hear when we do well, and we should feel that internal glow that comes from a job well done.

Just the same, growth is important in any endeavor we choose to pursue. The amount of growth is not the point - there is nothing at all that says everyone who follows a particular path should aspire to the same level of accomplishment. The thing that makes such pursuit exciting (and an addition to the lifelong learning process) is an aspiration for constant improvement. By striving to be better, we are always looking to others for lessons (which adds to our listening ability!) and using our minds and talents to apply those lessons to ourselves.

In order to make this improvement, we need to be able to make an absolutely honest and fearless self-assessment to determine where we are starting and exactly what we need to work on.

Self-critique is very difficult. In any area, it tends to be the hardest thing for any human being to do - not least because we need to discard any internally held notions of our own abilities. Please note that this means we have to discard any idea that we are worse than we really are along with any delusions of grandeur. In fandom, many find it harder to believe they are really as good as others say than to believe in their own visions of deficiencies. Let me make it clear - when working with your own abilities, you are the only one hearing your criticism. An "aw, shucks, I ain't so good" attitude won't work here.

The problem that arises, then, is one of gathering information you can be fairly sure isn't biased by your own preconceived notions.

One common method is to tape your own activities and listen to them later. Be very careful when using tapes, especially when recorded under uncontrolled circumstances (like an open filk). If you've never heard your own voice played back to you before, you will hate it. Guaranteed. In your own head, you hear a symphony of resonances from your bone structure that simply aren't present in a recording. The sound of your voice in this situation is unpleasant because you aren't used to it - don't make a value judgement based on that reaction! Most recording artists (professional or not, it doesn't matter) have to spend a lot of time getting used to their own voices.

Remember also that such recordings don't show you under the best of circumstances. They are not an accurate reflection of the best you can do - even if the performance is fantastic the quality of the recording may cause it to sound horrible. You should realize that professional live recordings are often made on multiple nights - and even if all done on one night, the bad stuff is left out. You need to make sure that you use such recordings only to analyze things like your response to pressure situations, your choice of material, your performing technique, or your audience response, not the resonant quality of your voice.

Whether your voice or any other instrument you play, technical ability is actually the easiest thing to assess. Either you can hit that note or play that run, or you can't. This is one of the things practice is for - that's the place to find out you can't hit those notes like Frankie Valli can. Much less embarrassing than finding out in front of everyone in the filk, that's for sure.

Performance ability is harder to determine on your own. It isn't something you can test behind closed doors, and it isn't really very easy to practice. Some techniques can be developed - for example, the ability to talk while tuning - but the effectiveness of those techniques can only be gauged by watching the audience reaction.

Back to that audience response thing, huh.

Which brings us around to that list. Let's discuss some specific things you should look for in your own performance based on that list from last week:

  • Eye Contact and Room Activity: This means you aren't grabbing the attention of the room. This isn't always easy, but it should always be your goal. Some things to think about if this seems to be one of the areas you've noticed might include:
    • Your voice and volume - can you reach the corners of the room? Can you at least reach the circle? Volume is often a matter of breath control and it can certainly be improved through exercises.
    • Your own eye contact - do you spend too much time looking down or at your book? If you spend your entire song or concert with your nose pointed at the ground or buried in your filk book, your audience will find it all to easy to drift their attention elsewhere. Even if you can't memorize your songs, at least know them well enough that you can set aside places to look up and at the circle or audience. If you're shy, mark places in your music where you look up and smile, just like you might make breath marks.
    • Other things going on - are more exciting things happening on the other side of the room? If so, you can learn to wait through them (this is much like a longer version of waiting for laughter after a punch line before going on.) The fine art of vamping until ready often means vamping until the room is ready.

  • Followers: We discussed this example in quite a bit of detail last week. Suffice it to say that if you want to participate in rowdy sings, you need to learn or write some rowdy songs. If you want to participate in ose sings, you should have some ose material. If you find the sings are often opposite your preference, you need to invest some time into cultivating a circle that enjoys the same stuff at the same time you do.

  • Body Language: For any given song you sing, you should have some idea of how you want people to feel while you sing it. With a few exceptions, most of the time you want the audience to be relaxed (arms loose or lightly resting on something, body slightly leaning forward, eyes on you. Additional signs, like toe-tapping, are also good. If you aren't getting this reaction, it could be due to the attention situation I mentioned above, or it could be due to a technical problem in your singing or instrument. It could be due to the subject matter of your song. It could be due to the room being cold. It really is up to you to decide if the reaction is relevant and then to figure out what it means.

  • Silence: I leave this for last because achieving silence without having to ask for it is the true measure of your control over your own performance. Even in a filk situation it doesn't happen very often; if you've ever achieved it while doing a bar gig then you've really arrived. It is most often the right mix of all the above elements plus the subject of the song and the mood of the crowd. If you manage to get it to happen remember as best you can what elements were present and decide if you have any control over them.

I can't emphasize enough that I'm mentioning these things and encouraging you to look at them so that you can improve yourself. I am in no way saying that a filk is not a success without mastery of these factors - if we could master them all we'd be making money for this instead of just having a good time.

All I really hope is that you'll be able to take this information and apply it to yourself during a single song at your next filksing. With any luck, the insights you get will give you a long list of practical things to work on as you practice at home for your next convention or housefilk.

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.