The Night Has 1,000 Eyes. Mostly Red.
Last night, I performed with legendary pianist/bon vivant/local treasure James Polk’s Centerpeace sextet at the Elephant Room. During one number, we had a surprise guest appearance by none other than ZZ Tap.
No, not ZZ Top. We don’t let them into the Elephant Room. I said ZZ Tap, which is the stage name for tap dancer Zeke Zimmerman. Zeke also happens to be the son of trombonist Randy Zimmerman, who was on the bandstand last night.
But this was no moment of onstage opportunism–Zeke brings the goods. Last time I saw him tap was about two years ago, when he was still in high school. He sat in at one of the AJW’s school performances at the end of the Ellington/Strayhorn season. I don’t remember the set of circumstances that resulted in a 17-year-old being present at an elementary school with his tap shoes during one of our performances, but there he was–so we pushed him onstage (not that he needed a big push). The kids ate it up.
At the Elephant Room, I could see that ZZ had acquired a whole new level of polish since that day just a couple of years ago. He still had his tap chops from before, but now he had the ability to hold the room–not a small feat at the Elephant, a long narrow space that swallows sound about halfway back. On the break, his dad told me that he manages to find an audience opportunity every couple of months.
That’s the key–performing in front of real live people in a real live venue. A place where people don’t know you, aren’t there to see you, and may be a little drunk besides. If you can shake them from their garrulous conversations, petty arguments, and clumsy attempts at seduction–even for just a few minutes–you’re accomplishing something.
A lot of parents like to push their progeny onstage, for some reason. And although most kids relish the prospect, precious few deserve the opportunity. So if you happen to be one of those parents, let me give you a few pointers–not for your sake, but out of respect for the general public that will eventually have to withstand the assault.
1. If your child possesses a talent or a predisposition toward one, by all means encourage it. But by ‘encouragement’, I don’t mind leaping hysterically to a standing ovation every time they blow their nose. Hold back a little. Slavish enthusiasm on your part is not doing your kid or the rest of the world any favors.
2. When they are old enough (middle school age for band; younger for dance, drama, and orchestra), find them a good teacher/mentor. I don’t care if you are a great performer yourself–it needs to be somebody from outside the immediate family. Your child’s motivation to take to the stage in the first place is a response to your family dynamic, so inserting yourself into the picture is just going to muck things up. Unless you’re the Jackson Five, and we all know how that turned out, don’t we?
3. This one is the most important of all. LIMIT or ELIMINATE their access to the Internet.
HA! You thought this was going to be easy, didn’t you? But no, I’m serious. Hold off as long as possible on reinforcing their idea that performing is a solitary activity you can do in front of a webcam set up in your bedroom, then beam out to the entire online universe. For anybody who wants to eventually perform before a live audience, this perception is Death.
Don’t believe me? In that case, I have three words for you: Lana Del Rey.
I’m not going to rake this young lady over the coals anymore; so many others beat me to it. I only saw her so-called ‘disastrous’ appearance on Saturday Night Live after the fact, and considering how much people were trashing her, it seemed unwarranted–certainly not bad enough for her to cancel her planned tour in the wake of it. But clearly, she was not at ease that night.
But why on earth should we expect her to be? Her popularity up to that point hinged on a self-produced Internet song that went viral and had the public clamoring for more. But producing a three-minute music video is very different from standing before a studio audience and many thousands more on live television, and delivering the goods. Just how much do we expect of this young woman?
I know, she worked club dates before. She’s personable, and probably knew how to relate to a small room going in. But Saturday Night Live is not a small room. It’s a hot, claustrophobic set filled with a live audience, equipment, technicians, celebrities and their egos, and adrenaline pumped by the realization that almost no editing is possible. Seasoned performers have been challenged by it. So again, I don’t know what you all were expecting by throwing this young lady into the snake pit.
But don’t let that stop you! By all means, expose your children to the arts. And if performing is their desire, encourage them to go for it. But don’t set them up to be sacrificed on the Altar of Cheap Thrills. So many thousands before them have laid their necks down willingly for their fifteen seconds, and the line still stretches around the block. The Simon Cowells of the world are sharpening their knives.
Is that what you want for your child?