I spent a week recently in my former stamping grounds, Grand Cayman, doing a spot in the annual stage show, Rundown, which I started there 25 years ago. I performed with Jeff Japal, long-time Tradewinds keyboardist, and a Caymanian, Daniel Augustine, subbing for regular drummer Clive Rosteing, who was ill. The show’s director, Henry Muttoo, basically inserted my spot into the script of the show, and I did a mix of material with some of my Caribbean songs and a couple I had written about Cayman. However one of the Cayman songs was a brand new piece which I had not memorized completely. I solved that problem by frankly telling the audience in plain English, “I just finished writing this song last week and I don’t know it, so if I mess up (I waved a printed copy of the lyrics) you all will understand.” I got through the song only having to consult my paper once, the audience laughed, and it turned out to be a magical session – me and my long-time Caymanian friends, and my music. One of the other cast members mentioned to Henry afterward, “Boy, Dave is so at ease on stage, eh!” and Brother Muttoo, a veteran in the business, quietly said, “Yeah, but he’s been doing that for 60 years you know; you’re looking at a lot of experience.”
A one-time acclaimed stage actor himself, with the popular Guyana ALL AH WE theatre shows, Henry knew what all seasoned theatre performers know; that every exhibition of ease and relaxation in front of an audience is the result of having set foot on stage hundreds, if not thousands of times, doing material over and over, in varying conditions, so that the performer has seen every situation, every eventuality, and is therefore totally at ease on stage, which is what the young actor noticed.
Henry’s point, not often cited by the general public, is a critical one for all performers in the public eye, individually or in groups. The polished and smooth performances that go off without a hitch are always the result of having done the presentation repeatedly. I often tell people that, although we weren’t frontally aware of it at the time, Tradewinds developed into a tight band from playing in nightspots in Toronto, from 1966, six nights a week, all year round, except when we were travelling in the Caribbean or doing weekend gigs across North America. Do the math.
We were playing four hours a night, roughly 350 nights a year, every year for 14 years. When you see musicians performing, and the music is solid, in every case that kind of repetition is behind the seemingly effortless presentation taking place. You have done the material so often, in front of different audiences, on nights when you’re not feeling great, or the crowd is small, or the sound system is acting up, or when the crowd is rowdy. You have learned what works. You have learned the craft of what you’re engaged with; you have become a seasoned product. You have been honed.
Furthermore, it’s not just in music. It is true in theatre generally and in persons who are accomplished public speakers, but it is also true in sport. Right now, we’re watching two championship events – the French Open Tennis Slam and the American NBA Basketball Finals – featuring athletes who have been honed to a fine edge by that over-and-over repetition. Rafael Nadal, at the French, is showing it as he adjusts his game to counteract whatever his current opponent brings to the court; pressuring the weak backhand, or employing the drop shot when the opposing player is too deep. Nadal has been there before. He has the miles on him. Similarly in the basketball clash between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers – the experience from playing the game over and over, night after night, year round is so obvious in one delicious play after another. There was a vivid example in one of the recent matches when the Warriors Stephen Curry, coming up court with the ball, was being harassed by a Cavaliers defender. As he was on the move at 3-point range, the defender reached in and knocked the ball away from Curry; in an instant, Curry jumped forward, grabbed the loose ball, and in one motion let loose a long arcing shot that went clean through the basket for the score.
Curry’s action was part talent, of course, but a key factor in it is that the player has made that impossible-looking shot in practice, time and again, probably more times than he can count, so that the muscle memory of that action is embedded. He is simply doing in public something he has done in private countless times, on countless courts, in countless cities, only net. Repetition is the key. Look at Lebron James shooting free throws; it is clear he is just repeating a groove he has honed in practice. The one step set before the shot is the same; the knee bend is the same; his body rising upward is the same, and the release of the arm is in the same arc, like a piston, as the balls drop in the net. The repetition is embedded in the athlete; he has already spotted the variation before the shot fails, so that in a recent tennis match at the Open one could see the Argentinian player Juan Martin del Potro attempt a drop shot with his opponent at the base line and there was del Potro visibly grimacing as his racquet struck the ball – he already knew from the feel of the shot that it had gone wrong, and the ball falling into the net confirmed it.
To revert to where I started, it is very unfortunate that when one looks at the current Guyana music scene the shortage of places to perform means that the opportunity for those repeated performances is sadly lacking here for our budding talents; our young musicians and vocalists are not getting that repetitive “every night” work. Unless and until that changes, these talented persons are not gaining by the required repetitions; they are not being honed.