"Don't expect too much." "He'll probably tell you to stop after a few measures." "Don't get your hopes up." These were the words of wisdom echoing in my mind as Marvin Hamlisch entered the cavernous rehearsal studio in the bowls of The Kennedy Center. "What do you want to sing?" While you wouldn't guess it if you heard him play, classical music wasn't his thing. But I was an opera singer, so I gave him a list of arias to choose from.
"Do you like 'Sempre Libera'? Everyone loves that. Flashy high notes, familiar enough that it isn't intimidating but not so familiar that it's cliche." I concurred and we were off. For the next hour plus, we went through aria after aria and show tune after show tune. Once we were done, he asked "So are you in school? You shouldn't be in school. You need to be performing. Conservatory is great -- don't get me wrong. But for a performer, you need an audience. They teach you what's important to know. For a performer, the stage is the best teacher."
He told me about his first job as a composer. He was playing piano at a party where he met the director Frank Perry. In passing, Mr. Perry mentioned they were looking for a score for his next film. Marvin got all of the information out of Mr. Perry that was possible (including his contact information) and by the end of the weekend -- it might have even been the next morning -- had delivered Perry a score for the film.
Marvin and I performed together. He gave me notes on a musical I was writing and wrote another musical because of them. We kept in touch for a while. I went off to Europe to pursue my career. After some serious health challenges, we lost contact.
Even though I hadn't seen Marvin for half a decade, he taught me the most important lessons an artist can learn: Give people what they want in a way you want to give it to them when they want it and don't spend forever making it "perfect." It never will be perfect, and people don't want perfection. They want an artist, a voice, a song, a score, a painting or a character that they can relate to. With flaws and imperfections and beauty and vulnerability. They are all part of the same whole. They are what makes an artist an individual.
As artists, it's tempting to forget the audience's needs. Too often, we're self-centered and self-indulgent in what we share with the world. We're prideful, only showing what we deem as perfect or what we think our peers will respect. But perfection is different things to different people and seeking it will be endlessly frustrating. To me, art's highest purpose is to entertain, to enlighten, to inspire, to evoke emotion and to change an audience in some way, big or small. If the only people we seek to impress are within our own ivory towers of artistic excellence or our hallowed institutions, we will find the audience is gone in 20 to 30 years. I find as I keep a broader audience in mind, I choose to sing and say more things I actually want to share and fewer things just for the sake of impressing others.
Mr. Hamlisch's legacy as a composer will certainly lend him a serious measure of musical immortality. But to me, his broader lesson is even more important. Whether you're an opera singer, a legislator or customer service operator, there is a way that we can find common ground with our audience -- be they young or old, Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, religious or secular. It might be hard work, but when we expect more of of ourselves, we'll touch more people than we ever though possible.
And that, is exactly what Marvin always did.
first published at fivetdsisters
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more