All About Doubt. . .
“It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach, young fella,
just make sure they’re flyin’ in formation.”
John Wayne to a young, anxious 1LT. in “The Flying Leathernecks”
This movie, about Marine Corps aviation in the Pacific Theater during WWII has always been one of my faves. In this scene, the grizzled combat veteran Colonel (played by Wayne) is gearing his squadron up for the next major naval battle of the war. As they’re about to leave, the young LT. comes up to the Colonel and says he’s scared and isn’t sure of himself. Wayne acknowledges what we all know – about any significant field of human competition: everybody’s nervous…it’s how you handle it that matters.
It’s an old saw that performers have to have confidence in order to do what they do. Under normal human circumstances, we would never put ourselves—exposed and venerable—out on a stage in front of hundreds, thousands or (via TV) millions of people, so, yes – it takes confidence and lots of it. I’ve used this quote for years as a “send off” phrase for my recitalist and other performers about to take the stage. It always gets a laugh and relieves tension and seems to set the right tone.
But something happened recently that led TBT to think an element may be overlooked in the confidence in performance equation and that is what would seem to be the opposite, and yet somehow equal, task of avoiding doubt.
No doubt (sorry) you’ve seen the Facebook meme with the pie chart about performer’s emotions and sure enough, there it is: crippling doubt is the largest (and red) portion of the diagram.
But what does this actually mean in our everyday work as actors, singers, dancers and performers?
In TBT’s university studio several weeks ago, he was working with a young artist when just this concept arose. A non-major and Army vet who’d seen combat during two tours of duty with the US Infantry in Iraq, this young artist really has no personal self-confidence issues…he has quite literally seen and heard more than most of us will ever understand -- but this is singing, and that’s different.
The young singer was working hard and doing well. Notes, rhythms and text were well in mind, and character was in evidence. But something kept holding him back. Finally, after one of his “self-edits” (he stopped himself), I raised my hand and asked permission to address the issue.
“What you need to do,” I said, “is not simply sing with confidence—you’re doing really well with that. What you really need to do is let go of being so self-aware and allow things to present themselves organically. If it’s wrong, we’ll fix it, but avoid doubting yourself.”
A look of shock—almost disbelief—came over the young artists face and he stared off into the distance for a few seconds. Then he said: “It really is all about doubt.”
Yessir, it is.
With new resolve, he dug back into the performance and the previous uncertainties simply vanished – they weren’t there anymore. With powerful intent to allow the various elements of his preparation to evidence themselves and avoiding self-doubt, the performance that followed was of a very high quality which left he and I both very pleased.
He smiled with satisfaction, then grew momentarily serious as what had just happened sunk in on him. Then he said again: “Huh…it really truly is all about doubt.”
Yessir, it certainly is.