The Performing Persona and Technologies of the Self

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That's a very poncy-sounding title isn't it? It's a classic example of starting off with a simple, practical question, and discovering that miscellaneous bits of cultural theory lodged in my brain from past research projects are actually quite helpful in thinking through the answer. The title only comes later when it's time to write it up...

So, the question that started this all off is: how can we, as performers, remember to do all the stuff in performance that we have prepared in rehearsal? There are all kinds of things that an ensemble will have considered in their performance preparation, and that the members 'know' to do, but you find yourself half-way through a song and realise that you're not doing something you should be, or are doing something you shouldn't (through ignorance, through weakness, through your own deliberate fault...).

In the discussion that raised the question, several possible approaches were discussed:

  • Having a mnemonic or checklist to get each element set up and primed before the performance
  • Anchoring aspects of the performing persona in ensemble rituals
  • Articulating the primary purpose of the performance/shared values of the ensemble as a guiding principle
  • Visualisation exercises to establish a sense of identity

Having laid these out in a list, they suddenly started to look remarkably like what Michel Foucault described as 'Technologies of the Self'. These are the processes by which individuals ‘effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality’ (quoted in chapter 7 of my choral conducting book).

A good (and timely) example would be the New Year's Resolution. It's not just that we decide to eat less and join a gym in order to lose 10 lbs. We also want thereby to become a person who has better self-control and more social confidence.

The key elements of this idea in the context of performance-preparation processes are the way that they operate in multiple, interwoven domains - physical actions, cognitive operations, attitudes, emotional habits - and the way they are assumed voluntarily, at will, with the goal of practising them to embed them into fluency. The state of perfection to be attained is that of the ideal performer who doesn't forget what has been prepared in rehearsal.

The list of approaches is quite varied, and this to an extent simply reflects the different learning preferences of the people contributing to the discussion. And of course, from an educational perspective, multiple approaches are a good idea. In the first instance, it gives more people the opportunity in the first instance to catch onto the idea in the form that is most immediately accessible to them.

At a deeper level, like so many things in music, if you only learn in one way, you'll only have a brittle and mono-dimensional grasp of it. So if you have a moment of confusion (say, in unfamiliar circumstances, or under the influence of an adrenaline rush), your memory blank removes all your knowledge. But if you've learned it in several ways, you are much less likely to forget everything all at once.

Moreover, the Self is a rich, varied, multidimensional thing. So it will need a variety of activities and approaches, both imaginative and physical, in order to shape it. I will have more to say on this in another post shortly.

But the most significant point about identifying the performing persona as a Technology of the Self is that, whilst people will need and draw upon the help of others to perform these internal and external operations, the decision to embrace them is their own. It requires an active commitment from the individual in order for any of them to work.

Gramsci (to name-drop another cultural theorist who pops up in chapter 7) described 'hegemonic power' as rules that are enforced by those who are subject to them. This is the stepping-stone from a top-down imposition of power to the more sophisticated (and either healthier or more insidious, depending on your view) operation of the Technologies of the Self, whereby people identify with a moral order and adapt themselves to fit.

The practical corollary of this is that it will become the task of the members of the ensemble themselves to develop checklists, mnemonics and exercises to share between them to help them all progress to that performance nirvana where they get it right every time, at will.

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