For Livingston Taylor, teaching and performing are one
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 2, 2002) – Having been a performer for over 30 years, and having taught the art of musical performance for nearly half that time at Berklee College of Music in Boston, you would be hard put to find someone who has thought more about what makes a good performance than Livingston Taylor.
“The good performer has the ability to observe where their performances go -- they see what’s going on,” said Taylor, whose mastery of the art of performance has garnered him the moniker “the ultimate crowd pleaser.”
Taylor performs a two-night stand at Club Helsinki on Thursday and Friday nights at 8:30.
Taylor’s unique vantage point as a performer and a teacher – and as the younger brother of James Taylor, one of the most critically and commercially successful performers of his generation – has provided him with rare insight into what makes for a good show.
“Good performers are in the moment,” said Taylor in a recent phone interview from his home in the Boston area. “They play simply enough and with enough discipline and restraint to follow their performance to its conclusion, to watch it land, to watch the effect it has on their listeners, to look for people’s response or their lack thereof.
“As I’m fond of saying, you watch your audience. When you do something they like, do it again. When you do something they don’t like, drop it. That’s the essence of being a performer.”
With 11 recordings, two Top 40 hit singles, two children’s books, one guide to performance and countless concerts under his belt, Taylor has a unique perspective to share with his students at Berklee. And standing in front of a class is not that different from holding forth on the concert stage.
“All teaching is performing,” said Taylor. “Whenever you are in front of a class your job is to get them to suspend their reality and to enter your reality and take away something from what you’re talking about. In that way teaching and performing are indeed one and the same.”
Where the two differ, said Taylor, is that “when you’re a performer and people
have paid to come see you, you have a responsibility to be more entertaining than if they’ve paid tuition. If they’ve paid tuition, they’ve agreed on a fundamental level to commit themselves to you for a semester, and so you don’t have to be gratuitously pleasant and entertaining all the time the way you do when you’ve taken money in the form of a hard ticket.”
So much of what Taylor has to impart about the art of performing seems so plainly obvious. But as anyone who attends concerts on a regular basis knows, there are a lot of professional performers out there who seemingly have never thought about many of the basic elements that go into a successful performance.
Taylor even has a theory about those performers who are good singers and songwriters but who seem uncomfortable in the role of performer.
“What you’re seeing in those cases is someone fearful of being discovered,” said Taylor. “They don’t understand why they were successful when they had that early hit record. They’re afraid of being discovered as a fake or a charlatan, or that somebody is going to see that they don’t know what they’re doing. They have all these terrible fear issues -- what if they stop liking me, why do they like me in the first place?”
Taylor himself long ago learned to deal with all of these issues, which is why his performances come across with such apparent effortlessness and ease.
“The first thing is I smile and say you don’t have to like me -- I like you enough for the both of us. It’s so much fun,” said Taylor.
“It’s OK if you think I’m faking, it’s OK if you think I’m a bad imitation of James Taylor. I don’t mind your feeling that way. It doesn’t make me hate you. I love you enough for the both of us. I’m able to own my broken heart. I don’t have to blame them for not liking me. If they don’t like me, I forgive them and I forgive myself. And that means they’re free to come and go as they wish. They can leave whenever they want, either physically or mentally. An audience has the right to reject what we offer -- it was us who asked to be in front of them. And we have the right to let that rejection break our hearts.
“This gets played out every night for me. They look at me and instantly enter my reality. They’re not going to be judged. They can be anything they are and I love them the way they are. They don’t need me for anything other than a quality of life issue, and I need them for my very survival.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 5, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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