Maslow and Performance

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When I was working through the implications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for choirs back in the Spring, my focus was on the rehearsal environment, and in particular how the director can diagnose and thus meet singers’ needs within it. As it’s the time of year when choirs find themselves performing a lot, I found myself reflecting on the way that performance environments generate and satisfy the various types of need.

At the basic end of the scale, performance nerves are a symptom of safety needs - the combination of unfamiliar circumstances and personal vulnerability of putting yourself on the line in public can leave people feeling psychologically insecure. Many of the strategies I have discussed over the years for managing this form of environment are essentially about helping people feel safer. These include such things as preparation to anticipate the experience and thus diminish the fear of the unknown, building trust within the group so they keep each other safe, and managing adrenaline levels to attain a state of useful readiness rather than loss of control.

It is a commonplace that singing in a choir meets your need for love and belonging. But singing to people takes this feeling and multiplies it. People like choirs, they like being sung to. They feel grateful for the sense of occasion a choir brings to an event. For the performers, this is wonderfully affirming: you take your sense of mutual belonging out into the world, and the people you sing to respond as you belong to them too.

It’s not bad for your esteem needs either.

But the thing that’s also going on here is that, as a performer, you realise you are meeting other people’s needs. By sharing your music with an audience, you are also giving them a sense of belonging. And those higher needs that making music satisfies in rehearsal - cognitive, aesthetic - you have the power to stimulate others in the same way.

Making a valuable contribution to others’ lives is a direct route to self-actualisation, and why it is so intensely satisfying to perform. I know there are those who want to join a choir only for the act of singing together and don’t want to perform, and I’d never want to deny them those pleasures, but oh boy there are levels of deep satisfaction that you miss out on if you never share your song.

And thinking about performance in these terms has helped me understand why it is that technical proficiency is only a partial predictor of enjoyableness in performance. It is exciting to hear experts perform, but less skilled performances can also be pleasurable and meaningful experiences. You can hear that a less-skilled group has imperfect control over what they do, but you can accept it and not let that stop you having a good time.

And that’s because at any level of expertise, performers can meet an audience’s belonging needs. So long as they have enough grasp of what they intend to do to put the audience at ease (which is mostly a case of getting on with it with purpose), the act of sharing the music creates an affirmative experience.

The better your control of the technical elements of your craft, the better your insight into the communicative power of the music, the more you will also meet an audience’s higher needs, of course. Which is why we can still recognise and appreciate skill. But that doesn’t stop us being touched by performances when skill is imperfect.

There is a theme in early-19th-century writers such as ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber that exalts the sincerity of an untrained, childish performance over the complications of expertise. For example, from Kreisleriana, Part II:

[W]hen I feel thorough battered an bruised by godless bravura arias, concertos and sonatas, than an insignificant little melody, sung by a modest voice, or played in a halting fashion, but sincerely and well meant and speaking directly from the heart, can bring me comfort and cheer.

Now, these kinds of statement are, in context, highly ideological in intent, but also, they have a point. I wouldn’t wish to live in a world that didn’t have godless bravura arias, but I am happy to live in one where you don’t have to be a virtuoso to make human contact through meaningful music.

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