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My daughter, Hannah, is six years old. She goes to grade one at our neighbourhood public school. Like school children all over the world, she recently participated in her school’s Christmas concert. There was a whole lot of practicing leading up to the show. It started in mid-November and culminated this week in dress rehearsals and performances for the rest of the school and finally the big day itself. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard “Paint the Town December” in the past four weeks. Six-year-olds take rehearsing seriously.
Six-year-olds take performing pretty seriously, too. While the older kids at Hannah’s school had clearly been there, done that when it came to holiday concerts, the little kids were extremely enthusiastic. They sang at full volume, performed all their movements with great gusto, and paused every so often to wave to their relatives, who were snapping photos from the audience. To borrow a phrase from sports, they gave it 110%. When they were finished, they took a bow and drank in the applause. This was their moment in the spotlight, and they felt it.
When adults perform as a group they usually try not to stand out. If you’re in a choir, for instance, your voice is supposed to melt in with everyone else’s. The goal is to sound as if you’re all singing with one voice, instead of dozens of different voices. Everything should blend melodically. I’ve sung in a few choirs, and I understand that. In the same vein, any movements you make should be choreographed to perfection. If they’re supposed to be synchronized, they should actually be synchronized. There’s no “I” in team, and all that jazz.
In an elementary school concert, there are nothing but I’s in team. While the kids are more or less singing together, and they try to perform their actions on cue, they’re a collection of individual performers. They’re not a single body performing in unison. Each one will bring his or her own individual touch to the performance. When they mime painting, everyone will be painting their own picture. Some kids will make big sweeping motions, some kids will pretend to jab with their brush, and some kids (like mine) will paint fine details and pause to dip their brush in more paint. It won’t occur to them to try to match up with their classmates. They’ll do it on their own.
There are downsides to the elementary school approach to performance. When we’re all doing our own thing, we miss out on the beauty that can take place when multiple people really work together to create something. When we cooperate with others, we really can do great things, and build something that is much more than the sum of its parts. The choir with the voices that blend in perfect harmony really does sound better. When the Rockettes are lined up doing their “eye-high” kick in perfect unison, it looks spectacular. Sometimes, it’s good to not stand out.
On the other hand, I think that when we start trying to blend in, we lose something. The unbridled enthusiasm of children exists, in part, because they’re throwing their whole selves into what they’re doing without concern for others. They’re acting with passion and doing their own thing, in their own way, without apology. It doesn’t occur to them to stop and wonder what other people will think of them. They’re not in it to make someone else happy, they’re in it to make themselves happy.
I sat and watched as the kids performed their big finale number. They were supposed to all sway in unison, but they didn’t quite achieve it, so they ended up bumping into each other periodically. The effect was more like drunken lurching, but they didn’t seem to care. They continued to sing their hearts out, and sway in time to their own inner music. As I watched, it occurred to me that a life of passion requires a balance. Sometimes, we need to work with others and do our best to synchronize our efforts. Sometimes, we need to do our own thing without apology. The real secret to life, I suspect, is knowing when to do which.
I don’t think there’s a single answer that’s right for everyone, in terms of when to cooperate and when to follow your own heart. But for many adults, the reality is that we haven’t followed our own hearts in some time. If this is where you are, then why not follow the example set by elementary school performers? Sing your own song, without apology. Spend a little less time blending, and a little more time doing what pleases you. In the process, maybe you’ll find your own perfect balance.