Right now some of you are reading this guitar-ish related blog after getting an email with the above title and probably rolling your eyes.
I hope you’ll bear with me.
A while back I was asked to perform at TEDx Schenectady and coincidentally enough a TED Talk / performance was something I always wanted to do.
More specifically, I was asked to do a performance with KoriSoron and talk a little about the music we played but I was having difficulty with that proposal as what we do, as a technical / craftsman’s approach, in KoriSoron isn’t really interesting to people who don’t have a music degree. (Having said that it DID take quite a few performances for me to figure out how much context I’d have to give an audience for the pieces we played.)
The theme of this TEDx was “The Future is Now”. To me, a TED talk should demonstrate ideas or approaches that are actionable for the audience in some way. Lecturing on the broad strokes of South Indian music and how a group of musicians in upstate New York adapted that to western instruments and a quasi funk tune form wasn’t going to give people a lot to take home and adapt for themselves.
As an alternative I decided to:
- Contextualize our performance by examining the transition from music being solely a live experience, to music being something held on an object that was played to music being something that had no associated object or per-sale cost associated at all.
- Examine the real needs of the market and then talk about simply trying to give people the product they’re willing to support (namely artists and songs who move them).
- Tie that back into what we’re trying to do (namely that) in KoriSoron. We were told that we had a strict 18-minute time allotment. I knew our tune was just under 6 minutes long so IF I could get my talk down to 10 minutes we’d have enough time to do both.
How To Prepare for a TEDx Talk
- Have a unique point of view (and an end point) and if you’re not sure it’s unique make sure it’s going though some filter of you where you can present it authentically. In general I’ve found that the only people who don’t worry about the uniqueness of their ideas are EXACTLY the people who SHOULD pause for a moment and ask, “Hey is this REALLY my idea and if it’s NOT my idea which part of it can I really call mine?” If necessary, that is the thing to extract, refine and build upon.
- Research. This might seem like an odd second step but I think doing a little research on everything I’m considering talking about gives me a number of different perspectives (and may even change the focus of the talk) and – more importantly – it leaves a presenter in a better place if there’s a Q&A.
- Outline. When outlining, spend a LOT of focus on the beginning and the end. The whole thing needs to be good ’cause if it sucks in the middle people will zone out in the end.
- Write the whole thing out like a paper. The “trick” to most art is the unimaginable amount of work that goes into making something look effortless. Write big, broad and clunky strokes if need be. Just get it down with the end goal of delivering it like a story (keep reading).
- Read it to other people who will challenge or ask for clarifications about what you have written. When you do this, imagine that you are reading someone ELSE’S talk to them and do NOT take their criticisms personally. That’s really important. I struggled A LOT with this presentation and determining what I wanted to mold it into and my wife was the one who said, “You have 16 ideas in what’s supposed to be a 10 minute presentation. Maybe you should try 1 or 2.” I don’t always agree with her, and I struggle editing with her because I DO tend to take her criticisms personally, but my work is immeasurably stronger after it’s gone through those passes because it helps clarify what I’m trying to articulate and why I’m trying to articulate it. **Quick shout outs here to John Harper who did a lot of leg work and went through multiple revisions, Caroline Dillon who did a couple of passes with me, Warren Senders who was kind enough to give me 45 minutes of his time to talk about music as language, Daren Burns, Jose Duque, Ellie Lee and everyone else who helped with a kind word or an open ear.
- Edit based on what you find of value from those criticisms. Never say in four words what you can say in two and speak it aloud as you edit it. (It doesn’t matter how good it looks on the page, if it can’t be spoken it’s worthless). Also start to anticipate Q&A questions and work out some rough answers for them. This game is 90% preparation and 10% execution (although on game day it’s 100% execution).
- Time yourself reading it – without interruption aloud. Try reading once fast and once slow. Get a sense of what the time is.
- This step depends on where you’re at. If you’re way over time – you have to go back to steps 5 and 4. (If you get 2-3 people asking, “Hey what about that one thing you had in there?” you may want to pay attention.) If you’re at (or near) time – stand in front of a mirror and watch your recitation. When you do this, try to watch yourself like a third person and be observational and constructive. (Look for random pacing, shoulder slumping or odd postures, weird ticks or other things and unless you do this a lot you will be shocked at how you come actually across in public. Recording this and reviewing the recordings is a good idea as well.
- One thing you’ll notice is that your hands are probably awkward holding a sheet of paper. Trust me – you DON’T want to be holding a piece of paper on game day. Make an outline of points of your presentation to remember the “bones” of your presentation as a “story” instead of a number of phrases to memorize verbatim. A story is more natural and flowing than a presentation and can be embellished and edited on the fly. Try to remember the specific details of the original presentation and gradually start moving towards progressively smaller notes and moving away from the original presentation entirely.
- Practice telling the story like an actor or a story teller. Get back in front of the mirror and in front of people. Record both versions and don’t stop adding, cutting, editing and revising until the story version of your presentation is better than the original presentation. Make sure to be aware of time and transitions. Two days before my presentation I was still over so I kept cutting anything I could to make time.
- This one might only apply to me. Don’t get frustrated with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. This is a profoundly artificial and unnatural process. If you take this seriously and try to do your best, you will likely be confronted with deeply ingrained habits and other issues that you will have to try to fix on the fly to get through the presentation. For me, this is another story for another time.
- Prepare for a worst case scenario. That doesn’t mean expect the worst just don’t get thrown when unpredictable things happen. Be prepared to project and enunciate if the sound requirements aren’t what’s expected. (Neither of the mikes at my TEDx appeared to work so they just had to put an ambient mic in the front of the room. The video isn’t available.)
- Practice smiling and making eye contact. You don’t need to practice this in any “audience” of friends or family with more than 2-3 people. You want to engage people. People can hear when you’re smiling on the phone. They know when you’re engaged in a presentation. If you practice the presentation stressed you can guess how you’re going to perform it.
So there’s the prep. Now in contrast, the day before I had done a highly technical talk on FERPA policy that was just as awkward and stiff as trying to plow through 21 slides in 8 1/2 minutes would allow. Let’s just say that that presentation needs some revision. ; )
How did this one some 22 hours later go?
Events like these are always challenging as there’s a LOT going on. We picked the tune that best represented what we do with the least amount of gear. I got there around 11 and the other guys got there at 11:15 and just before 11:30. The event started at noon, but it turned out we had doors at 11:30 so we literally had 15 seconds to soundcheck and then had to strike the stage.
There was a first 1/2 then we kicked off the second half. A few of the speakers had gone over so we were about a 1/2 hour behind so we had to set up quickly and go with what we had for the soundcheck. I did my presentation and performed it the best I could. I guessed it was going well because I saw a handful of cell phones start to go up as I was speaking so I guess I was saying something interesting.
I got to reference Hershell Gordon Lewis by name (I believe a TED first and a moral victory for me) and did a brief introduction before we played Ganamurti Melakarta.
I adjusted my sound based on the amp being on the floor (carpeted – the room in my house has wood floors and is reflective). I made a bunch of quick adjustments before we packed up. I made the semi intelligent observation to just put the amp on a flat wooden chair for a more reflective surface for the performance but forgot to adjust it when we played. (3 hours later – “Why is it so nasally? OH YEAH!…”). So that got sorted out. Midway through something happened where the form got changed just enough that it threw me off a little during my solo. I got back onto it and rode it out until the end of the tune. People seemed to like it. We got applause.
We ran over so unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any questions.
The remaining presenters then presented and the event was over.
There is always a lot of built up stress followed quickly by an “Is that all there is?” reminder with events like this and that feeling is about managing expectations. With any type of local event you should expect some variation on the following:
- Don’t expect that the event is going to be a network event unless it’s billed that way. A lot of presenters are volunteers. They want to do what they said they’d do and split. You’re going to be disappointed if you expect to speak to everyone.
- Unless your name is on the marquee, the audience didn’t come there to see you. I remember playing a gig once where no one said a word or had any reaction while I played and I thought people hated it. I packed up in silence and just tried to get out as quick as possible. For months afterwards I’d run into people who were at that show who were really complimentary about my playing. People don’t come to gigs to talk to musicians so if you want to speak to them (engage them and potentially start to build fans) you’ll need to introduce yourself and make yourself available to people as they mill about. Every once in a while people will be moved enough to talk to you but openness is a two-way street. Note – this is incredibly difficult at the END of a gig when people want to go home. This is the challenge of a working musician.
- That the event staff will be profoundly earnest and hard working – but will also not be people who do this every day and will generally not be able to anticipate every need. When I’m working at Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI – a local Middle Eastern film festival that I’m the Artistic and General Director of) events at Proctors GE Theater in Schenectady, the people who work a lot of those events begin to anticipate any of the general commonalities. You can’t do that when you run one local event in your first couple of years. Managing the venue, tickets, and people and food and speakers. It’s just too much. (From personal experience a NOTABLE EXCEPTION to this rule is Maria Zemantauski and everyone associated with the HVCC Guitar Festival who put together an event that was one of the most musician friendly I ever attended.) So plan on having your needs worked out (and their solutions if need be) in advance. Ex: “No power? No problem? I have a 50′ lead cord here!”
- Gigs are always what you make them. I find you do these events, just like you take the opportunities that you can, because it’s never known what person or situation you may cross paths with attending one but it’s certainly known what the opportunities are in not attending one.
This post is already two times longer than I intended. I have a part 2 so I hope you’ll come back and read day two of the Cinderella story!
As always thanks for reading!