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Showing Up And Playing Full Out

What It Means To Really Go For It In Art and In Life

I read a story about Bruce Springsteen, in the early days of his career would play in dive bars in New Jersey. Sometimes there would be only one or two people in the audience, and he would do his entire set anyway as if he were performing for a large crowd.

It didn’t matter who was in the audience, he performed as if he was performing to a crowd of thousands.

A few weeks ago, I was in the studio recording a song for my first album. After I did a few takes, I listened to it with the audio engineer. It was amazing how different each take was, especially since I was trying to do my best every time.

Generally, the first take was the worst — it was the “warm-up” take. The second and the third were better but in different ways. Sometimes the phrasing from the second take was better than the third, sometimes the third was stronger, though not always in the same way.

Generally, after three takes, my performance got worse, not better, except in a few cases, where I did something completely different than any of the other takes because in listening to the others, I understood what I was aiming for.

I am a new singer and I’ve been practicing for about two years in earnest. In that time, I have become a better singer overall and a lot of it is learning to hear subtle differences in pitch, in dynamics, in phrasing and having enough vocal control to approximate what I hear.

The audio engineer remarked on how different my takes were. He said I needed to work on consistency in my performance. What makes a musician a professional is that they bring everything to the performance every time — no matter what audience they are playing for.

I thought about what the audio engineer had said about consistency. I was trying every time, but I guess I don’t yet have enough control to produce the same performance every time.

On the other hand, I am not sure that even Bruce Springsteen, playing full out, gave exactly the same performance every time.

I remembered a viral video I that made the rounds of my Facebook feed a few months back. It was footage of a little girl at a dance recital. While all the other little girls follow the choreography, this little girl does her own dance and she goes for it. Here it is, just in case you didn’t see it:

Watching her, made me think about the difference between going through the motions and playing “full out,” or “showing up.”

The other little girls in the line up were doing the choreography they had learned, it correctly. What was so remarkable about the one girl’s performance is that the choreography was the pretext and once the dance started, it was an opportunity for her to express what she felt at that moment.

I’m not against anyone learning the steps to dance and, I would argue, a lot of time learning the steps is what allows you to let loose and make dance your own.

But what I recognized in the contrast was the one girl’s level of commitment. It wasn’t for her about doing it correctly, it was about her dancing full out and expressing everything she felt in that moment.

How often do we dance full out? Or doing anything with that level of commitment? Just go for it, no matter what anyone else thinks because at that moment, it’s not about what other people think, or how they judge you or doing it right, it’s about being in that moment and bringing your whole self to what you are doing.

I teach public speaking and most of the time, students hold back. They do things halfway, out of fear of being judged, out of a desire not to look too foolish.

But every once in a while, there’s someone who goes all out. The wear an outfit, the bring props, they bring a guitar and actually perform a song, they tell a story and act out all the parts, they do original research and have something so well thought out, everyone is stunned.

Everyone has moments of showing in this way. And when someone does, it’s inspiring. It shows us how much more we could all do and what a difference it makes when someone really cares and commits to what they are doing and isn’t afraid to look uncool or have a strong opinion.

So when the audio engineer said I should work on being more consistent, I think what he really meant was, I needed to show up in every moment of the performance, rather than go in and out — sometimes full present, other times timidly there. He could hear the difference and so can anyone listening.

But what does it take to show up?

I understand when I see others not showing up fully, that it is a self-protection mechanism. If you are afraid of being judged and rejected, one way you protect yourself is by not showing too much of yourself — holding back parts of yourself that are sensitive to being hurt.

It makes sense.

There’s a term that comes from boxing — to pull your punches. It means to hold back some of your power, to hit but not as hard as you can.

So we say that when someone sugar coats the truth or doesn’t come out and say what they really believe, they are “pulling their punches.”

The tendency to hold part of yourself back and not fully commit may be described as “pulling your punches,” but I’m happy with the aggression that the boxing metaphor implies.

When you show up, and you don’t “pull your punches,” you have much stronger, and I would say the visceral impact on others. Just as people can sense when someone is lying, they know when someone shows up or doesn’t.

We are more used to people holding back, so that’s the norm and it’s what we expect.

But when someone doesn’t hold back, everyone sits up, leans forward, wakes up and there is palatable excitement in the air. And unlike being punched, the effect is more like being woken up, surprised and delighted by true authenticity, and by excellence.

This distinction between consistency and what I am calling showing up and playing full out makes clearer to me what it is I am aiming for.

If my aim is consistency, then practice is merely about repetition.

If on the other than, my aim is to show up, be fully present and play full out, then every time I practice I have to bring all of myself to what I am doing. It’s a lot more demanding a proposition.

I don’t think any of us know what we are truly capable of. As Marianne Williamson famously said,

“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’”

We fear our greatness. Showing up, playing full out is terrifying because it means that other people might very well reject who we truly are, not just the mask we show them, while our real selves are hidden a safe distance away.

Until we are standing in front of the mask, we will never know how much more there is to us than we know, and how much more of ourselves we have to give.

Isn’t it time we follow the example of that little girl and start really dancing or in my case, really singing, full out, with commitment, joy, enthusiasm, bringing our whole selves to everything we do.

This is what the world needs.

More examples of what true freedom looks like.

More people who are lit up with joy and enthusiasm.

More people who are willing to generously share and show us what moves and inspires them.

As anyone who has witnessed or felt this knows, it is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give.



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