Locus of power in performing

Performing music in front of a crowd always gives me the heebie jeebies. Talking about something in front of a crowd does not. Making jokes in front of a crowd is even worse, but singing in front of a small room of people does not. This anxiety, as i have come to find, is not really about other people. It is absolutely pleasurable to get someone interested in a new type of music that they have never heard before. It is great to get them involved in what are the pressure points of that music, what makes it great, and why they could develop an ear for it. But then there is always the question of why and how i must be the one to deliver this information. How can i be confident that I am delivering it correctly and that i deserve to be delivering this. I don’t want to dismiss this simply as an anxiety about self.

It could also be that once you practise and become better and better at something, you want to showcase those skills to going in front of other people, and express the fruits of your practise. It is a sort of a dig at showing off, but giving the pleasure of listening to other people. Which bothers me too. The desire for others to appreciate something that you did that was good – and not just others you know who care about what you have to say – *any* others, some others – ‘others’.

What power dynamic dictates whether a person feels desirous and deserving to go in front of an unknown audience – and what unknown audience – why them and why you.

Often times while engaging with music, questions of power need to get asked. These are very explicit in ethnomusicology / musical anthropology contexts, given as it deals with ethnic contexts at the outset. Power questions in whose musicology should be considered ‘ethno’ and why, have now established themselves as the base of modern thinking in ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicological questions sometimes also deliberate about the nature of power within different performers who are playing together. In some cases, this hierarchy is automatically arranged, for example, the conductor is an authority over interpretation and leading the whole orchestra; the concertmaster has an authority over tuning the violins and so on. Other hierarchies are more complex and implicit, such as the one between collaborating performers in Hindustani music, where the instrumentalist must take the back seat and follow the lead vocalist.

These hierarchies and power equations are a matter of the musical culture itself, and perpetrate through performances and through the tradition. However, there has to be another power dynamic in play simply to get up and to say: you must listen to me and i have something important to say now (through music). This question has often confused me as i delve deeper and deeper in trying to understand more about classical and social music – what is that should make one go up in front of other people, confident that what they have to say is important and deserves to be heard.

In classical music, there is also a lot of talk about a ‘worthy’ audience. A lot of the inside secrets of classical music aren’t delivered to unworthy audiences, who wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t be able to comprehend the level of music that you want to be playing.

In community musical styles, this is easily resolved. We all sing together, and the power and the beauty of music is shared. It is known to everyone, and everyone takes agency of it. Even if it is some more than others, everyone is an equal partaker. In a concert hall, you are the messenger, and you have found an abstract message through music. You are a carrier of an unknown abstract message, thickly tainted with your own interpretation, and heavily crusted and cornered with your abilities.

But when i stand in front of an unknown audience, why should i take upon myself, the agency to convey abstract messages that are highly open to interpretation, in front of people i don’t know who have no reason to care about me or the message i want to deliver.

When you are a member of the audience, you share the agency of listening to something with anywhere from 50 to thousand people. When you perform, you share it with far fewer. When you are in the audience, and you feel like walking off, what do i do – how should i modify my craft – what do i do to engage you? If i do everything in my power and still fail, should i blame you? Should i expect you to sympathize with my music or voice and its quirks? Should i expect you to understand me or revere me? To respect me or to relate to me? Should i expect you to love me or to think I am cool? Do these questions in part depend upon genre?

Which of these questions gets to determine the voice of my musical style, the core values that i would like to project? How do i carry this along with the weight of musical tradition and how do i balance it with personal preferences in the artform?

How much of my life do i open in front of an unknown audience? Given how replacable we all are, does my life in particular even deserve any guardedness? Why should my going ahead and playing make me vulnerable? What do the messages say about me anyway? If they are shared and abstract messages, then what does it even matter that I have to deliver them – why should i even get vulnerable. Why are you even celebrating? If i perform, am i not, by default, an exhibitionist?

The answer to most of these questions is – that it is different for different audience. In music, there is not just power in authoritative stature of the performer, but also in the multiplicity of intention and agency, which makes it a very different kind of power place. I don’t feel like i want this power, regardless of whether i could handle it. Armchairs are far more comfortable than any stage could ever be.

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