The Emperor Nero was one of the very few heads of state who was a performing artist. He was what we would today call a singer/songwriter. He accompanied himself on the lyre, and gave public performances of his songs. None of his lyics, alas, has survived, so we don’t know whether he was any good. He also took a turn driving in chariot races, and nearly got killed at it, so we do know that his passions were sometimes better developed than his skills.
Somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, I read that Nero invented applause. He wasn’t sure his songs were going over, so he did something about it. “If you like my song,” he decreed, “clap your hands when I finish.” He was the emperor, so nobody was going to just sit there with their hands in their pockets, even if togas had had pockets, which they didn’t. Failing to show enthusiasm for the emperor’s songs could get you inconveniently dead. So the whole applause thing caught on.
Nero was not alone in feeling insecure about the impression he was making. Artists crave applause, because it reassures us that we’re appreciated. Conversely, lack of applause can be deadly. People give up and walk away when they feel nobody cares. Songs don’t get sung, paintings remain unpainted, novels don’t get written.
One of the nice things about playing music in a group is that you can give one another encouragement and support. “Great solo!” “I love that song.” “We’re sounding really good.” Even when there are no gigs, or no paying gigs, or gigs that are sparsely attended, the group can keep itself on track and moving forward. The applause is an inside job.
I got to thinking about this last night in connection with my interest in playing pop songs on cello. Doing a solo act is difficult not just because there’s nobody to do the soundcheck or sit at the card table and sell your CDs, but because it’s harder to offset a shortage of applause. Having a couple of club owners turn you down or not return your calls can be a deadly momentum-buster.
It would be for me, anyway. I find myself not wanting to tackle the project at all, because I can’t quite see how to keep up the momentum. I can do the music, that’s not a problem, and I’m pretty sure people would enjoy it. But I don’t have a fan club to give me a fresh injection of enthusiasm when the road gets rocky.