Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons have just written a new book entitled The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us about how our perception of what’s going on can be inaccurate, even if we’re paying attention. The classic example is the title of the book. An experiment had three white-shirted players and three black-shirted players walking around on stage passing balls. The audience was told to count the number of bounces the white-shirted players made. After a short time, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the action – waving from center stage – and continues offstage. How obvious could you get? Well, it turns out that 50% of the audience did not see the gorilla because they were concentrating on counting the bounces. It gets better. Simons played a video of this same experiment for another audience who knew about the gorilla trick, and it was clear that everyone noticed the gorilla this time because they were expecting it. However, at the end of the video, Simons said, “You all saw the gorilla. Good. But did you notice that the background changed from red to gold and that a member of the black team left the stage?” I didn’t. Amazing. I had to run it again to verify it. You can see the illusion here.
The illusion shouldn’t come as a surprise. Magicians have been taking advantage of misdirection for centuries, getting audiences to look over there when the real action is happening over here. And we are astonished every time to see animals or coins or handkerchiefs or whatever appear from out of nowhere.
What does this all have to do with horn playing?
It connects with the idea of sprezzatura of the previous post, which is about presenting a kind of illusion in performance, of finding ways to make your audience feel what you want them to feel, and, taken a bit farther, hear what you want them to hear. As musicians, we are – let’s face it – in the entertainment business. Yes, of course, we want to enlighten and enrich our audiences with our noble and transcendent great art. But the audience is there 1) because it has to [i.e. students who get recital attendance credit for showing up at a certain number of recitals; your recital committee, judging you], 2) because it is supporting you [friends & relatives], or 3) because, although it doesn’t know you, likes your instrument or the kind of music you’re going to play. Number 2 is going to cheer you no matter what, so you are going to try to win over numbers 1 and 3 with your winning performance. You will be trying to deliver a performance as accurate as you were able to achieve in the practice room, but you would do well to keep some things in mind.
1) Make music. Use lots of contrast and invest your phrases with many shades of dynamics, plus other trimmings: tasteful touches of vibrato at the right moment, as well nicely-planned tempo tweaks (rubato, accel., etc.). As Charles Young says, if you don’t make music, the audience will have nothing else to do except count clams.
2) Remember the gorilla. Your perception of what is happening is not the same as anyone else in the audience, even your teacher’s or people who have played the same piece(s) as you. If blips and clamettes sneak in here and there, welcome to the world of horn playing. Let them go and move on. You can listen to the recording and learn from them later. Chances are very good that except in the case of a rare spectacular clam (what Kendall Betts would call a shplooie ooie ooie), many/most folks will not notice the blips. Each one may seem like a gorilla to you up there on stage trying to deliver an immaculate performance, but most of your listeners either won’t notice it, or will not assign it any particular importance. More of a little monkey than a giant ape. Part of the key to a good performance is staying calm and focussed, and treating any unpredicted happenings as no big deal and not going into eek! mode when confronted with a gorilla. If you don’t notice any gorillas, there is a good chance that your audience won’t either.
3) Aside from that, you can also make a contribution to the positive attitude (and thus audio reception) of your audience by other details of the visual aspect.
•Dress neatly and appropriately.
•Smile! Give the impression that you are glad to be here, glad to have the chance to share your music.
•Move freely and fluidly as you play – this is the advantage of standing when playing the horn rather than sitting, where you can get locked into one position.
•Give oral program notes. Speaking with the audience breaks down the “distance” between you and warms them to you as a person and a player. You will need, however, to practice your remarks so that you can give them smoothly without a lot of um’s or ah’s. Best is not to memorize your speech; learn the facts of it very well and make a point of delivering it differently every time. Deliver it as you would in a conversation with a friend to avoid the glassy deer-in-the-headlights look. This takes practice. But it pays rich dividends if you put in the time. Oral program notes also give you a bit more break between numbers, for lagniappe. Note: don’t start talking while you are still getting in position; don’t start talking while fiddling with your sheet music.
•When you’re finished and you bow, don’t pick up or fiddle with your music as you acknowledge the applause. Smile! No matter what happened, give the strong impression that you enjoyed your own performance.
•Remember that you are still “on” until you disappear out of sight. Keep up your “acting”, smile, and stage presence until then.
•After the concert, when someone (who clearly didn’t see any gorillas) comes up to you and gives you a compliment on your performance, simply say, “Thank you.” Or: “Thanks. I really enjoy playing this music.” Or the like. Resist any temptation to confess the gorillas that you saw. Or even chimps. If, God forbid, a nonfriend of yours should come up and point out a gorilla that they noticed in the performance (and were likely looking for all along), simply shrug, smile, don’t comment and turn to the next person in line (you may cross them off your Xmas card list later, or defriend them on Facebook). There is a time to examine and learn from performance gorilla happenings. Right after a performance is not it. Later.
In sum: the good news is that there is a lot you can do about the visibility of your gorillas. They may look big, but you’re the one who’s really in control.