My instinct has always been to view art as pure creative expression, emotional catharsis, something that one has to feel in order for it to be “good.” The rhetoric surrounding the cultivation of artistic excellence is one of authenticity—we can tell when a poem is contrived, a painting sterile, a performance devoid of passion. As a musician, I know that to some extent, the emotional connection to the creation of my art is real; playing my instrument is often genuinely cathartic. Sometimes I’ll start my practice deflated and finish almost giddy. Sometimes I have resentful practices where everything sounds rough and ragged, and I lean into that frustration with every muscle in my body. The act of playing something romantic and luxurious never ceases to pull a particular yearning heartstring out from the core of my chest.
As an audience member I can clearly feel the difference between the robotic performance of a child and the emotional maturity of an adult musician. It is difficult to pinpoint what the difference is, but intuitively, we can feel when an artist is being vulnerable. We lament poetic clichés and claim that we can tell when someone creates something “for the wrong reasons.” The language of purity is hidden everywhere in our perception and critique of artistry.
But I often wrestle with the conflicting knowledge that performance is a learned art—from a young age, artists are taught techniques that assist them in the act of conveyance. So much art is made with consumption in mind—who are performers without their audiences, poets without their anthologies, artists with no hungry eyes to view their works? There is something that feels slightly inauthentic about the act of creating art for someone else. The way I drill technique in the windowless cells of music building basements is not the same as the way I appear on elevated stages in opulent halls. There is a certain degree of flaunting in my performance. I have been taught ways of communicating with audiences that feel almost like strategy.
I go weak at the knees and cold at the fingertips when thrust upon the glare of judgmental eyes. But if I walk out on stage like a supermodel and smile flirtatiously at my audience, I’ll deliver them a feeling of comfort, and isn’t that my ultimate job? To make my audience comfortable? Performance isn’t, it seems, all about being genuine. It is a kind of service; I must make myself desirable. I must don a shimmering gown, doll myself up, and put myself at the mercy of the jury.
Once I begin performing, more strategy ensues. There are physical movements I know will ensure my audience knows how I’m feeling and what the music is saying. If a shift in my posture reflects the mood I’m trying to convey, I will, almost intuitively, exaggerate those changes in a performance setting. I am also aware of the effectiveness of strategic movement on the perceived success of a performance, and if I employ it, I cannot help but wonder if I can still call it “natural.” It is corrupted, amplified, publicized, glamorized. It is no longer mine.
Sometimes I even feel that improving my technique serves my performance ego more than anything else. Once I can play well enough to achieve emotional release through music, then in a way, anything beyond that is in pursuit of being “the best”—getting people to be impressed with me. It feels good to be good, but not exclusively because there’s any kind of creative or emotional beauty in it. In part, I want to be revered.
And yet. There is a beautiful and delicate balance in the art of performance—I must not forget what an audience gives to me. There is an energy that expectant listeners bring to a performance that I truly believe enhances the conviction with which I exhibit my craft. Audiences are, for the most part, supportive entities; no one wants to hear you fail. And so performing doesn’t have to feel like I am depleting myself, dissociating from authenticity—it can feel like sharing something vulnerable with people who want to enjoy it. There is something electric there: the anticipation, the nerves, the emotional fortitude, that changes the art from what it originally was into something new and unreplicable and pure in a different way.