Being Terrible, Like Cat Stevens

One of my favorite musical artists is Cat Stevens. I think the first album I got into was one that just randomly was on my hard drive: Tea for the Tillerman. I was enchanted by his melodies and tunes. What a brilliant songwriter! 

Cat Stevens has an interesting story of how he got started. When he was young and still in school, he started pursuing a life of music. Knowing that being musical was something he wanted to do, he attempted forming a band. After all, it was the mid 1960s, and everyone in the world was hoping to be like The Beatles. Cat Stevens eventually decided he liked being a solo artist. 

Solo artists at that point were a little peculiar. The Beatles reshaped the music industry and music fandom. Musical groups, rather than solo acts, were the trend. However, solo acts still existed, so they were reshaped with new approaches and perspectives. It seems to me that the approach for solo artists in the mid 1960s was "How can we make these guys as big and grand as a rock and roll band?" So you start to see lots of sweeping camera angles, over-the-top sets and clothing, and so on. You had to make the experience of one guy singing by himself interesting enough to capture your audience. 

So that's what we see with early Cat Stevens. And in my opinion.... 

It's terrible. It's awful. It's pretty hilarious how bad it is. 

I mean, it's so terribly awkward. It's almost like the presenter doesn't know what to do with him. It's like Cat Stevens doesn't know what to do with himself. 

Now here's another video that's slightly better. He's not lip-syncing in this one, so he probably feels a bit more comfortable. But I still feel like he doesn't quite know how to be a solo act. 

But that was Cat Stevens in the very beginning. 

Eventually, he gets tuberculosis and is hospitalized for a long time. Getting sick and being pretty unsuccessful as a pop star can do a lot to a man. But Cat Stevens comes back in the new decade (1970) and does this sort of stuff:

And that's what does it for the whole world. He became massively popular in the 1970s. Eventually playing to huge, adoring crowds.

(Fantastic video!)

My point isn't that the music in the beginning was good or bad - I actually really like Cat Stevens's early stuff. My point is that he was just an awful performer. Cat Stevens was terrible at performing live in the beginning: wasn't very interesting to watch, looked continually awkward, and just couldn't sell the stuff he was singing. 

I tell my kids that everybody sucks in the beginning. I keep hoping that some of them will start to believe me one of these days (a couple are catching on). But I think I know why it's difficult to believe how rocky things are at the start. 

This summer I dedicated myself to going to the Classical Open Mic Night every week (if I was available to go). Every week I'd bring in a new solo to play for the patrons of the restaurant. First couple of weeks went ok: week number one I started with the first movement of Mozart 2, the following week I did the other two movements. 

However, the third week in a row, I really stunk it up pretty bad. 

That third week I decided to play a Bach cello suite - the really famous one that everyone knows. A couple of my students played it last year, so I sort of remembered how to play it. Even though I spent a whole week working on it, the solo was still pretty bad. 

I decided to go for it anyway. After all, I committed myself that I would perform every week. I would just go for it anyways, no matter what shape it was in. 

So I played. It started off pretty well. The restaurant seemed to quiet down as people listened with what I assumed was either curiosity or interested (a horn doing a famous cello piece??). I kept my composure for 85% of the time... until I got close to the end. 

Towards the end, the music starts doing these 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and octave jumps, moving chromatically higher while making the performer jump back down to the original note. This section ALWAYS kills me. It's something I've never been good at. Even now, after playing horn for 18 years, I'm still not good at it. I truly did spend a week working on the piece, but every time I played that ridiculous part I was just too tired to make all the jumps. 

I get to that part in my performance, and, as I expected would happen, my lip gave out, and the notes couldn't even speak anymore. I ended the piece as quickly as I could, squeaking out what little I had left in me, bowed, and ran back to my seat in humiliation. I could feel my face burning with shame. 

It's hard to believe that adage I'm attempting to teach kids these days: "everyone sucks in the beginning." It's not easy to grasp because of the level of humiliation involved. If you want to start something new, you're going to have to be ok with it being not great your first go round. That's pretty hard. Who wants to be shamed and humiliated? Who wants people to know you're not very good yet? Who wants their weaknesses to lay naked before all who can see and hear their work?

It's not easy. But it's definitely part of the process. I haven't figured out how to be ok with still be a newb at performing. All I know is that I have to keep going. I have to keep assessing how things went those first few times and decide how to make things better. 

Things will only get better when you start putting yourself out there to be listened to, judged, and critiqued. A risk factor is fear, shame, and humiliation, but I'm starting to find out how temporary those feelings are. And you know what? Most of the time the people listening to you have an element of support and encouragement in their hearts. A lot of audiences (the humane ones I guess) don't like seeing performers do poorly. I've found myself wishing an artist well when a set starts to go badly. 

So get up there and do you thing. It's not going to go great that first time, but have fun anyways. Chalk it up to experience and go with the flow. If you get scared off by potential humiliation, you'll never get any better and waste a lot of your life. 

Don't waste your life. Get all that bad stuff over with and move forward to the cheering, adoring crowds.