The Confidence Game by Oliver Armstrong (Triangle Project Music Leader)

  • by nicbriggs

    Friday, 24 April, 2015 - 12:46

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!

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Candida Wingate's picture

Dear Oliver
A year or so back I ran a creative project aimed at engaging parents with their children's school/education - of all the activities we used, it was the music, particularly the singing, that caused the adults to back off. As one mother told me at the end:-

"I wish I could have done some of the things - like the singing, but I found that really uncomfortable and that's a throw back to school where they made me stand up in front of everyone and sing and I hated that. I did try to do it for my child’s sake, but it was really hard."

Breaks your heart, doesn't it?


Sandra Taylor's picture

The term “tyranny of performance” was used by independent arts evaluator, Robert Meadows, whilst facilitating the ‘mac makes music musing’, event last year.

The subject is one which was raised again recently at our ‘Briefing’ event with a slightly different emphasis: process v product. Following lively debate, there was a consensus for both, and recognition that the two co-exist; that children and young people go on a journey/progress and that this can be manifested in a ‘product’ such as a song, a recording of a song or piece of music, a performance or simply playing a piece of music together as a shared experience. Of equal importance is giving the children and young people the space to free play, experiment and express themselves in their music making.

There is something in this ‘sharing of music’ which seems to have a profound impact on progression and on self-esteem. Finding the right vehicle for the sharing and negotiating what that might be with the young people is key though.

I read a blog by The Goober Music teachers which has some interesting insights into product v. process:

A short quote highlighting a key challenge: “ a process based discipline in a product oriented society”

Chris Murphy's picture

Having a good sense of intermediary stages that can be used to take someone from a situation they are comfortable in to one in which they wouldn't normally be can help. For example someone who won't sing in front of others might take part in a group rhythm activity, then using vocal rhythms or other non-melodic vocal activities like chants that can then be extended into elongated sounds that taking you into singing. The Voces-8 method goes through this process so rapidly that you don't really notice the transition from silent movements to full on singing.

Sometimes getting participants physically used to playing/performing in front of others can help. Maybe start with an activity that deliberately sound terrible, or unusual rather, like the dot/dash/squiggle game that uses a mixture of very short sounds, long drones and siren like slides to create something akin to a Stockhausen piece, there is something to be said for the anonymity of chaos that can help draw out many reluctant participants. Even then there's a long road to getting someone to stand up and sing in front of others but if you can break it down into different steps then even if they don't get all the way you can still measure success through how far along they get.

Ali Harmer's picture

I remember Charlotte using the term "tyranny of words" with respect to music in early childhood. I'm not sure where "tyranny of performance" comes from either but I have bandied it about 'cos it's fab.

Performance brings "certainty" to an uncertain, still-developing idea and that can have the effect of a bucket of cold sick on on fragile creativity OR it can energise and invigorate.

Unfortunately performance in music education is pervaded by the critical and the judgemental and a pass/fail approach. Claudia Gluschankof did some research into educating very young audiences in early years settings, her idea being that a musical performance is a two-way transaction with responsibilities for the audience and the performer. Maybe that's part of the answer - we should be showing children (and adults) how to be better audiences.

Cheers Olly. Thought-provoking stuff!

nicbriggs's picture

Thanks for all of your comments! I have forwarded them to Olly!