Creative Arts with Patrick Moore


The Importance of Poor Performance and Bad Luck
October 25, 2014, 12:41 pm
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the Importance of Poor Performance

I am reading Herbie Hancock’s new biography, Possibilities. On the first page I read:

 “… this show is really heating up. The band is tight— we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell. … The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. … it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats. Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it. Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there , unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.”

Herbie made a mistake, and Miles made it better for having happened that way.

Having taught hundreds of one-day workshops, I often feel performance anxiety. I worry that I may not perform well as a teacher.

After the workshop is over, I ask the students to fill out my feedback form, and then I file the forms away. I used to be afraid to read them but had to keep them for three years as part of my certification as an instructor.

feedback form

In recent years I force myself to glance at the feedback forms. I can see immediately if there are “10”s on the form or other numbers.

A year passes. I prepare to teach that same workshop. I re-read the student feedback forms and past handouts. I can’t believe how horrible last year’s handout was. I spend hours removing assumptions and judgments and replacing these with different perspectives. I think what a horrible teacher I must have been a year ago. And then again I feel performance anxiety about the upcoming workshop. 

This process is not comfortable, but it does improve my teaching over time. Which is more important—my comfort, or the improvement of my teaching?

For one’s teaching to improve, there must be worse performances for it to improve from. This is the importance of poor performance.

If I could pray to God, or purchase a statue of a patron saint for teachers, or get a blessing from a shaman or purchase a talisman, that guaranteed my next performance would be perfect, would my perfect performances help, or hinder the quality of teaching over time?

Perfect performances make us feel self-satisfied, a quality in teachers that does not benefit students’ learning. Perfect performances require no improvement, only repetition of what was done perfectly last time. Perfect teachers demonstrate to students, once you have “it,” like I do, you don’t need to learn any more. This is a lesson that I hope students do not learn from me.

On the other hand, poor performances, that students see are better than before, and better again next time, teach students that they don’t have to be perfect, that a more important lesson is willingness to experiment, even if mistakes are made, willingness to look at ways to improve and commitment to improving each time. That is a lesson I hope they learn from me.

Poor performance can be a good thing, but it is not always a good thing. In my 13 years of presenting small workshops, poor performance was often a source of my feeling shame and thinking of my guilt. These feelings and thoughts only reduced my performance next time. Without the willingness to examine oneself and commit to improve, poor performance is not a benefit to anyone.

Herbie Hancock learned to not judge his performances, to not linger too long on what was done wrong, but to adapt and grow and make it better for having happened:

“…that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything . He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

 It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage . As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it— he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing? And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing. Miles trusted the band, and he trusted himself, and he always encouraged us to do the same. This was just one of many lessons I learned from Miles.

We all have a natural human tendency to take the safe route—to do the thing we know will work— rather than taking a chance . But that’s the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present. Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment. It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life. I was lucky enough to learn this not only from playing with Miles but over the decades of playing that have followed. And I’m still learning it, every single day. It’s a gift that I never could have imagined back when I first started…”

When I am feeling performance anxiety, what should I pray for? What should I hope for? What intentions should I send energy to?

I ask to perform well, when this is the best service for others, and to perform poorly, when my improvement is the best service for others. If some of my performance will be poor, I ask that I find the courage and commitment to make the poor performance better for having happened that way.

In another post I will describe the importance of occasional bad luck.

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