Task Focus vs People Focus in Performance

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When I first started teaching, I was very focused on the content of lectures, on what I was going to say. In my second year, when I had more of a handle on this, my attention migrated to how the students were getting on with it. By the third year, I became increasingly obsessed with levels of warmth and oxygen in the room.

Similarly, in preparation for performance situations, like many people, my attention starts off on the content - in musical contexts, learning the notes and words, in comedic ones, developing the material. Until I've got a grip on the what, I don't have very much attention available for the how.

But I have also seen performances where the performer is far more focused on the act of performing, of connecting with an audience than on the content. The technique/material was quite ordinary, even mediocre, but the audience feels good about it because the performer is really focused on making them feel good.

This seems to be a particular instance of the distinction between a task-orientation and a people-orientation I have noted in other contexts. I note that my approach to performance is consistent with other realms of experience - not oblivious to the needs of people but with a primary interest in the task in hand.

Now, task-focused performers can be a bit churlish about their people-focused colleagues. They can be sniffy about the level of operation, whilst slightly envious of the response they get. And there is indeed a threat to excellence from a good audience response - it affirms you where you are, and might therefore not inspire you to practise so much (as in the case of the broad-brush togetherness you get in some jobbing quartets).

On the flip side, people-focused performers can be heard to mutter darkly about 'technically perfect but dull' performances with a similar level of resentment. There's a form of reverse-snobbery going on here: oh they think they're so good with their fancy note-accuracy and structured call-backs.

Two observations:

  1. The more obvious: this is clearly a both/and rather than either/or situation. We need to attend to (and get feedback from) both the material and the audience. Sure, most people will start with one or the other, but for a complete performance, you need to grow out to encompass both
  2. The more interesting: when you listen carefully to the cavilling of each group about the other, you can hear people protecting their ego boundaries from what they are going to have to work on next. Today's disdain may become tomorrow's to-do list

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