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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The inner artist

When your art takes center stage in your life, when that’s all your about, well then, there’s a lot riding on it isn’t there? Your self-worth becomes woven into how you performed that day, and that is a false sense of identity. And what’s wrong with that if it motivates you to get better? you may ask. I’ll admit, it does put the pressure on to get better but it’s a far cry from healthy pressure, if there is such a thing. What’s wrong with this attitude is that it prevents you from taking chances (your entire self-worth is at risk remember) and being creative requires a willingness to take chances, to make mistakes and “run with it.”
What comedian said this?

It wasn't any comedian, actually. Could have been, though, couldn't it? It was jazz clarinetist James Danderfer, who is also really funny on stage and off. But he was talking about playing music. He wrote this in his excellent weekly blog. Go back through the archives and there's lots more that pertains to comedians and artists in general.

So many comics I know take an individual performance way too personally. It eats them up until their next good show. Not being a performer, I could never understand this. I figure if your act usually does well, why sweat it if one crowd, for whatever reason, doesn't like it? The only time you should worry is if the duds outnumber the times you kill.

But therein lies the rub, as James so eloquently put it. You can't also just aim to please. Yeah, of course you want the audience to like you (or your act, more precisely), but you don't want to pander. Anyone can do that. To grow as an artist, you've got to take chances. And failing is inherent in taking chances.

James prefaced the above quote with this:

Even at the young age of 17, after being “serious” about music for only 3-4 years, I started to associate my personal image with my art. What does that mean? Simple:

I play great = I am great
I play bad = I am bad

Does that hit home with anyone?

A couple months ago I interviewed Danderfer for He's such a funny guy on stage I decided to ask him about it and was pleasantly surprised with his reply:
When you talk between tunes, you're like a stand-up comic. Did it take a while to get comfortable talking to an audience or were you always like that?
Yeah, it's definitely taken me time to get comfortable with that. Absolutely. After university when I started playing around town a bit and leading groups, I was really nervous about talking so I would just avoid it as much as possible. Then after working on cruise ships and being part of the show band and playing for so many entertainers, like night after night, I think that definitely rubbed off on me a bit. Because you're sitting there on stage just watching the audience while the featured performer has got his ass on the line and is trying to entertain or tell jokes or explain something about the song in an entertaining way, and you can see how they react. So that helped quite a bit. But then just forcing myself to do it. I just wanted to communicate more with the audience, especially if it was original music and there was some kind of story behind it, but was contemporary jazz so it wasn't maybe the easiest thing to tap your toe to, so I wanted to explain the story behind it so that people would get into it more. And the more I did it, the more feedback I got that it was really making a difference for people, especially imagery, explaining thoughts and feelings behind the composition. People really related to it.

Lots of musicians get up there and tell the back-story. But you're also reaching them through humour.
Well, that's the other thing. I really like comedians, I like watching stand-up, and I think over the last couple of years I've started to laugh at myself more on stage, as opposed to feeling embarrassed about mistakes, just embrace them. I really like listening to a good comedian. I think it's very similar to the process of playing music in terms of timing and giving them something. Not saying too much. There are similar elements.

Any teacher or prof who could use humour effectively, you tend to remember the lesson more, too.
Exactly. Good speakers or teachers, good articles or books, they stick with me if it's entertaining. So I try and do more of that. I still haven't actually written anything down, like written a joke or anything. It's just getting up there and trying to do it more. And the more I do it, the more comfortable I am and I think it comes across better the more comfortable I am. Because I'm not up there trying to tell jokes; I just want to relate to people and feel like we're all in this room together and it's an inclusive experience. Rather than just explaining a song, the details, more like an inclusive group.

It is, after all, show business.
Yeah! That's the other thing. Yeah, exactly. It's still a show. That's another thing, getting back to the university schooling, that is maybe a bit frowned upon – the element of show business... No, frowned upon is too strong a word; it's not emphasized so you forget that that's actually a big part of it.

Show business has certain connotations, but you're putting on a show and the introductions are just part of that show.
Right. And the show biz part can be genuine or it can be fake. And people usually know the difference. And that's why so far I haven't written material trying to get laughs. I just enjoy doing it now so I stick with what I enjoy doing. I enjoy talking a bit about the songs – I try not to do too much – and get people involved a little bit. And it's fun. So I just kinda stick with what feels good.

It gives a fuller experience for the audience.
Yeah, I think so. I think it does. I know I appreciate that when I go to a show. It doesn't have to be funny, either. I just appreciate when the performer really makes an effort to meet you halfway, or to give you something to hold on to. Yeah, I know I like it.

Who are your favourite comedians?
I really like Stephen Colbert. Jon Stewart, also. I like his work. Chris Rock. Bill Burr. Louis CK – he's just outrageous. Lewis Black. The pit-bull of comedy, what's his name? Bobby Slayton.

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