One more time, with feeling

One thing that always caught me off guard when I was in school was seeing teachers outside of the academic setting. “What? Teachers live at school. They don’t do things like go to the movies or go shopping!” Well, brace yourself. This teacher swing dances.

The point of that statement is not to prove that teachers have social lives (gasp!), but rather to lead into discussing some of the music I’ve encountered as a result of rediscovering this hobby. In particular, there’s a song that’s used for a pretty popular group dance whose lyrics resonate with me every time I hear them: “T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” by Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young, most popularly recorded by Jimmie Lunceford. The song more or less expresses that same sentiment (“if you’re going to do something, do it convincingly”) for its duration; deep lyrics they’re not, but an important message nevertheless.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating laziness or relying on panache rather than preparation. But I am advocating committing to what you’re doing and living “in the moment,” so to speak. There are volumes written about this concept, not the least of which is Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis. In his extremely useful book for athletes (but also for anyone whose vocation requires any sort of public performance…like musicians!), Gallwey discusses how to focus the mind to allow for optimal performance and redirect our thoughts so we can be mentally present in crucial moments. But what does this have to do with my song? This: as performing musicians of any age and experience, we are constantly striving for the conditions most conducive to a successful performance. In other words, if we can find the “way that you do it,” the “what you do” part will often follow.

This idea is especially pertinent around the time of the two annual student recitals at the studio where I teach. The students put so much hard work into preparation for these recitals, what with learning their pieces, practicing how to bow and clearly announce who they are and what they’ll be performing, and getting accustomed to playing in front of people. In this preparation, I always try to instill in them a sense of confidence through the knowledge that, if they slip up in some way, as long as they keep playing it’s extremely unlikely that anyone in the audience (besides me, maybe) will recognize that there was a mistake. Performance isn’t about being 100% perfect; I’ve heard some extremely prestigious musicians make some extremely big mistakes in performance. But do I remember what the mistakes were or where in the pieces they happened? No!  Why? Because those musicians were so convincing in their interpretation that even with a few blips, whatever piece they were performing still retained its integrity and musicality. There were no frustrated faces, no exasperated sighs. Just beautiful music, even if it wasn’t quite the music the composer originally intended.

So, whether playing tennis, dancing, speaking publicly, playing an instrument, or just living life, I invite you to consider the way that you’re doing it. Are you so focused on being precise that there’s no spark in what you’re doing? Or are you throwing a little caution to the wind with the knowledge that even though there might be a flub or two, you’re going to enjoy the ride all the while? Because after all, I’ve heard that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing…

*This was originally written for the blog for my place of employment, but I figured, what the heck, let’s post it here too. *

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