July 14, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Hyper-sensitive and irritable. Unable to think of other matters. Waiting for that moment when I am called. My stomach churns every time I think of stepping forward and speaking into the microphone. Around 1,700 people will be in front of me and film cameras are pointing in my face. It is live-streamed around the world. A slip of the tongue will not go unnoticed. If I pass out, it will go on You Tube. If I have a nervous breakdown and flee the stage, it will be news. I have no choice. I have to perform.
My university is in the middle of graduation, which is a special and lovely day for our graduands and their families. The university likes to put on a show and it is all delivered live. That includes the Deans reading around 450 names at each ceremony, which takes about 50 minutes. I used to sit on the stage and see the poor Dean thinking that I could never do that. When I agreed to be Dean I somehow forgot that it involved this duty. A sense of dread dawned on me when I realised.
A number of the arts involve performance, such as music and drama. But we are all required to perform in various contexts and settings form time to time, be it in lectures, speeches, interviews, telling a joke to friends. It certainly seems to be a special kind of skill. Some do their best under the pressure of performance, others don’t do as well and there are some I suspect who cannot face it at all. In my own case, I get very nervous about graduation in particular. My mind fills with scenarios of what could go wrong and there are plenty of butterflies, anxieties and worries.
Yet I would also admit that I seem lucky in that once I begin the pressure of the situation tends to make me deliver my best performance. I can become highly concentrated on the task, almost to the point that I forget where I am. I know it might sound an easy job but I have all sorts of nationalities on my list and some names that could easily trip me up. At the end of one ceremony last week, I indeed suffered a slip of the tongue on a relatively easy name and had to write a humble apology the next day. 50 minutes of reading names leaves me completely drained. When I moved away from the lectern at the end, I realised my legs were completely stiff as they had not moved an inch in all that time.
When we watch a play or go to a concert, it is easy to look upon a good performance and not realise how much work and energy has gone into it. The best performances usually look completely effortless. But the skill is in creating this deceiving appearance. The required concentration can be entirely exhausting. When I sat down this week, after my seemingly simple role in the ceremony, I thought of what I had heard of top-level chess players expending so much energy in a match that some of them lost weight as they played, even though they are relatively motionless. I don’t know if that’s true but I can believe it. It was how I felt.
Having tried it in some form, I will always empathise with live performers. It can be very satisfying when it goes well but terrifying in the run-up. In return, I would ask that anyone at my final ceremony tomorrow will be forgiving if I make a mistake on their name. I have prepared as much as I can. If only I could guarantee that every syllable will be perfectly enunciated. But part of the thrill of a live performance is that it is delivered against a background of human frailty.