Sunday, March 25, 2007

How was it for you?

Our annual “at home” spring concert was a week ago at Stamford Arts Centre in a beautiful Georgian (that’s King George to you, not Republic of .. or the southern states!) ballroom which has featured in many a filmed costume drama. Beautiful surroundings complete with chandeliers and a wonderful acoustic. However, we have become victims of our own success and our almost 80-voice choir (of whom at least 60 turn up for any given concert) doesn’t fit on the stage any more! So we decided to do the concert sideways on along the long side of the very long and thin ballroom. This meant that we could stand in three rows, but the audience were only about four deep and very wide. The other unfortunate side effect was that there were no stage lights so we had to have the house lights on which meant that the choir could see the whites of the audience’s eyes! A scary prospect indeed. But we pulled it off and everyone had a great time.

Except me.

Well, that’s not strictly true, I did have a really good time, but not a great time. Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether I have a good time or not. As long as the choir enjoy themselves and the audience has a good evening out and our standards remain high, it is of no consequence what I am feeling. It is strange though how unpredictable my experience is. I have had absolutely amazing, fantastic gigs where we’ve all been firing on all cylinders, the audience have been fantastic and everyone has had a great time. It is unpredictable though.

Which reminds me of my days as a performer on the stranger fringes of the theatre world. I could be totally prepared and really looking forward to a show, only to have a really bad time and end up feeling that the show had been rubbish that night. Yet afterwards in the bar audience members would tell me how fantastic it was, other cast members would say they thought it was one of our best shows. Then the other way round: I could feel that I was really flying, had never performed better, the connection between the performers would be electric, we’d never done the show so well, it was a triumph!! Only to come off stage to find a relatively empty bar, a lukewarm audience reception and fellow cast members drowning their sorrows in their beer and vowing to give up acting immediately.

It’s not so simple then. Even performers in exactly the same show can have completely different experiences. So I came to the conclusion that it is actually irrelevant how you feel about a performance. All you can do is be prepared and do your best, then it is simply up to the audience to take it or leave it.

As far as singing concerts go, there are several other factors involved. We always rehearse on the afternoon of the concert, so maybe I’m just too tired to enjoy the evening as fully as I might. Sometimes we have a cracking rehearsal, everyone’s relaxed, we have a bit of a laugh and the singing is wonderful. But come the evening and the nerves kick in (and they can see the audience in all their glory!) and perhaps the songs are not quite as good as they had been that afternoon. That just goes to show that we shouldn’t have expectations: be in the moment, the show will be what the show will be.

Then there’s the audience. As a performer (and now a conductor) I am badly affected by an audience’s response. We all want to be loved by the audience, we want to please them, we want them to think we’re the best thing they’ve ever heard, we want to see happy smiling faces lapping up every moment. And oftentimes that is what happens, but there will always be the few audience members who are looking a bit tired or bored or both (even though they may be having the time of their life) and they are the only audience members I see and I start to think “They’re not enjoying it. They don’t like me. I’m not doing very well. I should give up and buy a shop”. Then I start to doubt myself and perhaps the next song is a bit wobbly because I’ve taken my eye off the ball, which then spooks me a bit, which then means I might make a bigger mistake in the next song and so on. And all because perhaps a single audience member is not smiling enough! How shallow can you get??!!

After the concert last week lots of the choir mentioned how smiley the audience had been. I was beginning to wonder whether we had been playing to the same audience when I realised that the choir see a different audience to the one that I do. Why hadn’t I realised this before! When we are singing and the audience is smiling and enjoying themselves, I have my back to them and simply don’t see. Then when I turn round to announce the next song (or engage them with some so-called witty banter) they become serious because they’re concentrating and listening intently to what I’m telling them about some obscure Eastern European song about a red fez or handkerchief in a puddle. So I’ve decided to commission a pair of wing mirrors like the ones the moods used to have on their scooters. I’ll put one on each shoulder, then whilst I’m conducting I can glance in the mirror to see the rapturous, smiling faces of the audience have the best time of their life!

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Chris Rowbury


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