Twice of late I have heard the term The Tyranny Of Performance discussed first by the early years music specialist Charlotte Arculus*, then at a seminar by Phil Mullins* on musical work with teenagers in Pupil Referral Units.
Twice of late I have heard the term The Tyranny Of Performance discussed first by the early years music specialist Charlotte Arculus*, then at a seminar by Phil Mullins* on musical work with teenagers in Pupil Referral Units. I am not entirely sure where the phrase originates, if its from a study, a theory, one persons philosophy or a well known understanding of how we humans work, but simply that four word saying caught and held my attention. Both times I heard the phrase discussed it was in relation to the shift in atmosphere, confidence, a break in the flow in the engagement of a person making music when they were observed. When the activity became a performance.
This idea is one I recognise within my own work in early years and the excellent Alison Harmer has produced wonderful work on children making music in dens (go google her work and papers), observing how children play and create in their own safe space, away from eyes of adults looking to judge, quantify, to seek out a performance. Yes some children revel in standing in front of others, expressing wonder and joy and skill in performing, but a truly great thing of young children (and I wonder when many of us lose this) is the ability to play for the sake of it. Not to impress others, not to practice or perfect a skill, but just play for plays sake. When they become a subject they can at times change how they do what they do. My own 4 year old son a prime example, singing his Christmas concert songs at home with abandon, dancing around the house to the words of the play, then stage struck, petrified, anxious when others sat, eyes fixed on him, waiting for him to perform. The songs lost their joy.
But it is not the children that have been on my mind. It is the staff.
When we talk about singing (and the ‘we’ I am talking about are music practitioners, trainers and specialists), in arenas such as social media forums, conferences and meet ups, a common complaint is often about the lack of joining in from staff. How staff can, at times, sit silently, sometimes miserably, or even not even be in the same space, sitting elsewhere, doing mysterious ‘other’ work, or chatting about this or that.
A year or two ago I began asking staff at training sessions what their memories of singing were. Asking if they were good, bad, what had stuck with them. The most common response was one of being mocked. Of being teased by teachers, adults, other kids. They had been taught, by the words and behaviour of others, that they couldn’t sing. That they were tone deaf, “oh no one wants to hear me/you sing! Cover your ears”.
A large proportion of staff had labels stitched onto their minds that, when it came to music, and specifically singing, they were not good enough.
The Tyranny Of Performance, the being judged, the fear of being judged, the learning to judge oneself not by joy but by performance, had taken its heavy toll.
I am not sure what the solution is.
But in part it must be finding ways that allow staff to “get it wrong” without the pressure and fear of “getting it right”. To let their voices come slowly, imperfect and unpolished, drawn out with encouragement and grace.
*Since writing this blog both Charlotte and Phil have said they did not bring the topic of Tyranny Of Performance up, or know its origins. Phil is convinced it was me who introduced it to him. So if you know, let me know, please!