The Eight-Thumbed Piano Man
For a time, I was the music specialist in the Dance Department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. The job was multifarious and included accompanying dance classes (ballet and modern) on the piano, managing the audio/video equipment, creating music tapes for special events, and generally helping out wherever I was needed. I also managed the department’s final Dance Showcase of the year.
The Dance Department had just undergone a major upgrade. It had a visionary new director and had recently moved into brand new studios in one of the freshly renovated older buildings on campus. It had also acquired state of the art sound and lighting equipment expressly for the main studio, which could be used as an experimental performance space. The Dance Showcase was to take place there.
Because it was the end of the school year, both faculty and students were happy to defer many things to me. I was equally happy to have a job and be useful. I designed the posters. I set up and ran the lights and sound equipment for the rehearsals. I produced the tapes of recorded music that would be used for most of the showcase works. Most important, I was the event stage manager.
Early on, one of the teachers asked me to accompany the ballet piece he was choreographing for the showcase. His work involved about a dozen dancers from one of his classes and he wanted to use a Chopin Waltz as the music. I was delighted to be asked and agreed readily. It was not a particularly challenging piece, as Chopin Waltzes go, but was in a difficult key and had some awkward leaps in it. However the piece came together and I rehearsed with the class for several weeks before the performance.
Needless to say, the day of the performance was hectic. What with getting the studio set up and attending to all of the last minute details, there was not much time for anything else. I had given little thought to that Chopin Waltz and more to what I needed to do right before and right after it I played it. I had not even allowed time to warm up properly, much less focus.
And then it was show time. The audience was seated, the lights were out, and the Dance Showcase began. Everything was going smoothly. The sound and light cues went seamlessly. The dancers were on their game. It was wonderful. Then came the ballet piece. I pre-cued the subsequent number, turned around, and sat down at the piano. The choreographer gave a nod and I began.
Somehow in the few seconds between setting that sound cue and sitting down on the piano bench, I had grown eight thumbs and my hands had turned to blocks of quartz. Had someone rearranged all the keys on the piano? Were those really grapefruits in my hands? It started badly enough and gradually degenerated into a catastrophe. I had to stay with it for the sake of the dancers, but Frederic Chopin was scarcely in evidence. I managed to pull it together enough in the coda to end on the right chord, but the stunned silence followed by weak applause told me just how bad it had been. Well, that and the audible comment from someone in the audience, “What just happened?” I slunk back to the sound console to run the next cue, trying to make myself invisible.
Analysis: This lesson is about role clarity. Performing is a role with very specific requirements that extend far beyond practice and rehearsal. The mind needs to be fully engaged and the physical mechanism (e.g., voice, fingers, muscles) limber and ready. In this case, I missed all of those requirements, and in the process let a lot of people down. It is very difficult to perform multiple roles at the same time, particularly when the requirements of those roles conflict. This is as true in consulting as it is in the arts or anywhere else. Lack of role clarity combined with a lack of role focus is a prescription for failure.
Lesson: Never perform in the same show you are stage managing.
That brings us to the end of this largess of self-revelation. I am feeling a bit exposed, so allow me to cover up. The good news is that these three failures are not representative of my total output. Over the years, I have been reasonably successful at most things to which I have set my hand. And I have had one or two stellar successes that completely offset the Sanitation Pyre and Dance Showcase incidents. The important thing is that I have never repeated any of these mistakes, and I continue to allow them to inform my work. The overall lesson is to understand what it is you are working with, always consider the risks and consequences, and never forget to think.
So there it is, Bill. I have finally answered your question. I may have muffed it nineteen years ago but I think I have nailed it this time, although probably a tad more thoroughly than you had envisioned. Nevertheless, I think it proves the value of recognizing and assessing our failures as well as our successes. It makes me wonder, though, how Geoff might have answered it. I sure wish you had been there for that interview.
And what about those of you who have now read these tales? Does any one of these lessons resonate especially for you? Perhaps one of you would like to take a stab at providing your own answer to Bill’s question.