Carefully, patiently dissecting the urge to perform yields the unexpected anatomy of our truest motivations. What are these factors that drive us? They may be obvious or obtuse, noble or base. They may appear in one guise, only to be exposed later in truer form. They often take a bit of coaxing before revealing themselves. But if, as Socrates believed, the unexamined life is not worth living, then this part of life, this sliver we share with so many others, is perhaps most worthy of our unfaltering gaze. Why do we perform?
One person may seek applause, that intoxicating (though fleeting) sense of loving attention –even if by way of relative strangers. Another may seek notoriety, the recognition factor itself. And this fame, whether accompanied by admiration or dislike translates to the feeling that they have become “somebody”. Here, any attention, loving or not, will do.
Still another may seek the satisfaction of pure artistic expression, the creation of beauty in the eye of the creator, regardless of any other beholder’s reactions. They answer to the muse alone, and their works are immune to criticism from any other source.
However unlikely it may seem, those with a gambler’s heart, a fantastic self-image, or a poor ability to predict odds may actually perform as a way to seek their fiscal fortunes. After all, television is ripe with images that seem to spell out the formula for success as “Believe in Yourself + Look Attractive + Get Lucky = Success”. The necessity of adding hard work and hard knocks to the formula can be deeply unsettling for those raised on the inherent parables of MTV, American Idol and America’s Got Talent. Even harder can be the realization of how outright piracy, legal loopholes (like the safe harbor and takedown policies that fuel youtube) and the pauper payments of streaming have turned artist income streams into a hobbyist's trickle.
Perhaps counterintuitively, pursuing money doesn’t necessitate greed. The money from singing can be a powerful tool for the world’s social and economic betterment. Many performers take great satisfaction in raising money and awareness for charitable causes. Dick Van Dyke is well-known for his performances in support of the Midnight Mission. Rockapella’s Scott Leonard, and solo artist Peter Hollens have used their music to help provide relief for Japan in the aftermath of the April 2011 tsunami/earthquake/nuclear disasters. And every performer and lecturer at the annual SingStrong a cappella festival raises money to support the Alzheimer’s Association and local music programs.
Because money is society's de facto measure of worth, for many artists, it’s at least a factor in the equation.
Some use the audience as a proxy, a stand-in for someone else. These people seek the approval of someone very particular, a parent or early teacher –even if that person is no longer present, or even alive to provide approval or disapproval.
Fear of Failure
Some perform because they fear that choosing another path is admitting failure as a performer. Though they might prefer another vocation, they doubt they will never achieve in another field what they can accomplish in the arts; they perform for fear of failure in another pursuit.
Chka Bow Bow
And on the lighter side, some perform for enhanced romantic access. Courtship requires attention and singing is a surefire way to get it! Whether that results in attention, affection, a genuine connection, or more physically intimate rewards is an open question. When asked why they perform, many male singers at least, reply happily and succinctly, “Babes!” It might not be the whole story, but lest we forget, that was a prime motivation (performer or not) for every person you were ever descended from. If it hadn’t been, you wouldn’t be here to read these words.
Some perform to transform. They want to take on the persona of another, whether a newly defined character or simply an exaggerated, heroic self-reflection. They leave the ordinary, colorless world behind and become something more pure, or more outrageous. The stage is an arena in which society encourages such bold choices. (Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Kiss) Less so in, say, the supermarket.
Some perform to join a community, to be one of the gang, the clique of cool kids. They wouldn’t much care whether the group ever performed so long as they all hung out together. And to choose this path isn’t folly. The rewards of longer and healthier life by virtue of singing in groups have been well documented. (Effects of Group Singing and Performance on Marginalized and Middle Class Singers; Lifespan Singing; Quality of Life of Older Adult Community Singers in Finland)
Some people believe that God wants them to sing. This may come from a belief that singing is a predestined, best-use of His glorious gifts. (This might also be a convenient way to cover ego with religion: “I don’t want to be a star; God wants me to!”) Or it may be that singing is a conduit for spreading one’s chosen Gospel.
Others believe less in deity and more in destiny. Not that the Almighty wants them to sing, but that they were destined, fated, or even genetically built to sing. From a humanist perspective, the calling could be a Utopian efficiency. Possessing a voice which is unusually low, high, distinctive, pure, dexterous etc. may lead a person to believe in singing as predestined. And this destiny of singing is no less reinforced by the reactions and expectations of others. In other words, if everyone around you tells you that you were born to sing, it won’t be long before you believe it too.
Perhaps ironically, some perform to overcome their fear of performance. No victory could be more decisive or more satisfying. And for many, performing is a very real fear. As Jerry Seinfeld says, people often list performing as their greatest fear, above even dying. They would, literally, rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
On any given day, most of us balance a number of motivations. We could, if pressed, probably make a pie chart showing something like 20% being part of a community; 10% transforming into another persona; 40% meeting hottees; 30% making great art.
And for those of us who perform often, these numbers and categories can change a great deal. They are malleable, influenced by the rehearsal and performance experience itself. On a day when your fellow singers are annoying, artistic satisfaction can take on greater importance than the (temporarily lacking) feeling of community. When the audience is octogenarian, the goal of meeting hottees just might take a back seat, leaving greater energies available for other motivations to take on new prominence. These shifts are simultaneously the reflection of, and causal force of our growth.
All of this points to a performance inertia: those performing have a tendency to continue performing. The more of our lives and our energies that we invest in our art, the more our motivations seem to adapt to the very rewards we receive. It’s difficult to know in a given moment, which is the egg and which the chicken. If you love performing, even on the day when no one applauds, does that mean you were truly motivated by something else? Or have you changed your motivations to support the rewards you receive? Perhaps on this day, a combination of the two.
And what if you achieve the goals you strove for? What if you get the standing ovations you thought you were seeking, only to find that this leaves you unexpectedly luke-warm. Perhaps your motivations change not only by what you fail to achieve, but by what you do, in fact achieve. But of course, this is only so when illuminated by our awareness. Without watchfulness, we’re doomed to endlessly repeat our lessons.
Our love of performing is rarely static. Each experience, each setback, each reward tells us that we must examine, not once, but with unwavering diligence. And for the director who would create and preserve the most joyful ensemble, we would do well to remember how profoundly varied our singers' motivations truly are. But rather than an impossible morass, this diversity is actually a path to empower a director with a toolkit of varied rewards. The scarcity model is turned on its head when we discover that we aren't all seeking the same things.
Our personal evolution is revealed to us in those moments when we face and recognize the goals we most prize. And over time, as we grow, we may slowly awaken to the understanding that old motivations have dissipated, hopefully to be replaced by ones of nobler character and greater virtue.