Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is it a performance or playing?

We spent much of our break between semesters attending concerts by Michigan musicians (Joshua Davis, Max and Ruth, Seth and May, and Starlight Six). As often happens, I began to consider how what I observed during these concerts might apply to teaching. This was especially true when we got to see Joshua Davis at two different venues on December 13th. The first was at a theater in Frankfort, Michigan showing a movie to which Joshua contributed. Later, at an after party, he played in a pub across the Betsie River in Elberta.

At the theater, Joshua performed before the movie while photos from his trip played on the screen behind him. He shared a bit about the project and a few songs that had resulted from the experience. I saw this as a performance because he had limited time to share a planned set of his "best material" in a polished fashion to an audience he could barely see beyond the first few rows. 

His playing at the pub was much different. Joshua was set up on a "stage" separated from the audience by a pathway that many of the patrons used to get from the bar area to the bathrooms. During his set, he joked with the people as they passed by and interacted with the audience. We yelled out requests and he obliged. Furthermore, it was clear that he was trying out some new approaches to familiar songs. I call this playing because it was more relaxed and playful than his earlier performance.

As I reflected on the differences between these two shows, I realized that I need to be better about distinguishing between performing and playing in my practice. There is a place for both in teaching, but I am afraid I have not always made an intentional choice about the approach I will use during a lesson. When there is limited time, little opportunity to interact with the audience, and a need to share my best, most polished material, then a performance might be the way to go. Otherwise (and if I am honest, most times), I would be wise to be more playful in my teaching - trying out new things, seeing how the audience responds, and making the necessary adjustments.

And before too long, maybe I can schedule an "open-mic lesson." Of course, there will need to be intentional efforts to turn over to the audience the responsibility of making music. Still, it would be interesting to hear how they might interpret the music and make it their own. 


  1. Interesting post. Looks like the film you were watching was "The People and the Olive?" Meryl Marsh, the beautiful, blond runner featured in the film was my student (french horn, trumpet, piano). I think she'd agree that the best teaching is most like playing--spontaneous, context-responsive, improvisational.

    One of the things I've noticed in working with newbie teachers is that their most prepared lessons often get less than stellar results. And the lesson that takes flight does so because they were able to take advantage of the (hate this cliche, but it's a real thing) "teachable moment." The problem is that you don't often identify teachable moments when you're new at the game, so you have to plan, plan, plan--and perform.

    Performing is good. The Detroit Symphony never plays--it always performs. But playing is perhaps a more useful art, in teaching.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. Yes, it is "The People and the Olive." An interesting movie and a great set of songs written by Joshua about the experience.

      Your point about experience is a good one. I find it frustrating to hear educational reformer who talk about how hard new teachers work compared to experienced ones, as if time-on-task is the only thing that matters. Of course the new teachers work longer hours preparing a lesson - they are often starting from scratch. And therefore they "plan, plan, plan -- and perform." Like seasoned musicians who make "performing" look easy, we need to recognize seasoned teachers as a valuable asset in our education system.