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Columns | Fall 2017

Thoughts To Chew

Safe Spaces for the Audience, the Song, and the Performer

Peter has been writing this column for Pass It On! for many years. A few months ago he approached me about doing something collaborative in this space. After a few conversations we decided to try a column that would explore topics in a different way. We came up with the idea of a conversation about a topic that would be something like an interview, but not necessarily verbatim.

Our first topic is safety. It’s been of particular interest to me over the course of my career. Thirty years ago I worked with an organization called Protective Behaviors, which was an approach geared toward helping children understand, feel, and respect their own sense of personal safety. From my knowledge of Peter’s repertoire I suspected he would have a lot to say on the topic.

Like most CMN members Peter is interested in addressing issues that we all face. In his words, “Why am I doing this? I do it because other people helped me figure things out, and I want to pass on lessons to help others cope with tough things in their lives. Doing any kind of growth involves risk. If we stay in our comfort zone, we don’t grow. And often, when we take a risk, others will take a risk with us. They will share things that were hard to share before, and feel safer after we share with them.”

He continued, “For me, performing is not just entertainment. Yes, it’s great when people like what I do. But if I bring up too much, too soon, I lose my audience. For instance when I sing “It’s Only a Wee Wee, So What’s the Big Deal?,” a song about gender equality, it will go over fine with either a group of grown-ups, or with kids. But in a mixed audience, it becomes uncomfortable, because the grown-ups are uncomfortable singing about ‘wee-wees’ with kids there, and the kids think it’s a funny song, but ‘Gee! I’m not supposed to say that in front of grown-ups!’ So I don’t sing that song in mixed audiences. Figuring out how much uncomfortableness an audience can take is one of the big challenges we face as performers and teachers. Too much can shut people down.”

Doing any kind of growth involves risk. If we stay in our comfort zone, we don’t grow. And often, when we take a risk, others will take a risk with us. They will share things that were hard to share before, and feel safer after we share with them.

Safe Space for the Audience 

It’s important to make sure we first create a safe space for the audience when we include songs that address difficult issues. I asked Peter about his strategies. “There are a number of ways to do this,” said Peter. “First I let them see who I am. Early songs in the set are not controversial, but may address things that aren’t usually brought up. We may talk about how people are different. The songs I choose might include verses about disabilities or mistakes we all make, but all in a fairly light way. I find that being silly and encouraging participation helps an audience understand that I’m not going to be judgmental about them. I tell them that if we want to grow, we have to take some risks, and that singing can be scary. If I notice that teachers are not singing along, I might say, ‘This is amazing! Usually there is some grown-up telling you kids to sing along with me, and none of your teachers are doing that! They’re all singing along with me! Modeling healthy participatory behaviors! Let’s give them a round of applause.’ Almost always the teachers sing along the next time around. If I notice that some people still aren’t singing, I might say, ‘Looks like some folks just don’t feel like singing today! Let’s have a round of applause for those folks who aren’t singing with us, because it takes a lot of courage to be different than everyone else. Good for you!’”  

Emotional Dynamics

It’s important to vary the emotional dynamics of the set. Just as any seasoned performer will vary the pacing of songs between slow and fast, quiet and loud, there’s pacing with emotional energy as well. Most people don’t want one heavy topic song after another, unless they are going to see Joni Mitchell in her Blue period. When we perform songs that push the edge of an audience’s comfort zone, we need to pick which topics we think are the most important to address. We are limited by the makeup of the audience, by the length of the show, and by our capacity as performers to bring up more than a few loaded topics in one set. Personal work, trial and error, and a heightened sense of awareness are necessary to gauge how our songs are received, and it’s our job to maintain a comfort level that assures the audience it’s still “safe” to be in the room.

Safe Space for the Performer

We also need to make the performance area safe for ourselves. Preparation matters. Learn about who the audience is before the show. Make sure the sound system works. Communicate your preferences for seating arrangements well in advance, and make sure they work for rather than against you. Know that concert seating creates more focus for the work we do than a roundtable setup. Roundtables lend themselves to side conversations among attendees who choose not to listen, which is detrimental to the experience and distracting for those who want to hear what we have to say about the loaded subjects.

Safe Space for the Topic

We each have our own level of comfort depending on the topics we are willing to address. Peter has a song called “Little Kid.” He sings a line and the audience repeats that line. The first part of the song is fun and innocuous, and everyone repeats after him, but then a lyric says, “But I won’t hit my little kid when something’s wrong.”

It’s our job to maintain a comfort level that assures the audience it’s still “safe” to be in the room.

Peter knows that some adults in the audience spank their children, and having to repeat that line with Peter is uncomfortable for them. They have to either sing the song and lie, so the people sitting next to them won’t know they use physical punishment, or not sing along and perhaps reveal to their neighbors that they hit their kids. Peter believes it’s really okay for a parent to feel internally conflicted about their own behavior. He’s not passing judgment, and he’s not telling them what to do. It’s a personal, internal question that they may choose to address. This kind of discomfort can propel a parent to find other ways to deal with their children’s unwanted behaviors. And no one is pressured to admit to anyone else what they are doing. It’s powerful. One song can radically change the direction of a person’s life. 

Every one of our concerts is an opportunity to reach out to parents and teachers, a way to give them a few more tools in their toolbox to understand and help with children’s emotional distress. As Toni Morrison said about the artist’s role in troubled times, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Troubled times or not, we have a tremendous opportunity to meet others in places of vulnerability and healing. It’s a gift and a challenge that performers have faced for eons, and we are squarely in the flow of that tradition. Singing can challenge, amuse, entertain, unite, and ultimately, on a good day, change the world.