Forty-five years ago my best friend received an electric guitar for his birthday. Despite my disappointment in him (I was lobbying for golf clubs), I accepted his invitation to play keyboards in the band he assembled. This launched a lifetime of performance in music and drama. 

Perhaps because we were all beginners and struggling to figure out how to make music people would want to hear, I discovered a principle that has been guiding me ever since: My job as a performer is always to help those around me to perform at their peak.

If I’m playing the Hammond in a band, I don’t want the audience to say, “Wow! What a great organist!” I want them to say, “Wow! What a great band!” I want to provide maximum musical support for the vocalist when she’s singing, or for the guitarist when he’s ripping a solo, without getting in their way. When it’s my time to solo, I want to make the band shine still brighter.

If I’m in a pit orchestra, I don’t want the audience to say, “What a great pit orchestra!” I want them to say, “What a great production!” I want them to praise the actors for their performance and especially their singing. I don’t want the singers to have to strain themselves to be heard over the orchestra. And of course I want to play my part, whether on an instrument or as director, flawlessly (though I never quite achieve this).

If I’m directing a choir, I don’t want the audience to say, “How exquisitely the conductor waved his arms!” How ridiculous! No, I want the choir to present an exquisite sound, and if they can do that without my presence in front of them, so much the better.

If I am accompanying a soloist, it goes without saying that I want to shine the spotlight not on my accompanying, but on the soloist. I want to support her in every way possible. I’m certainly far from a great accompanist, but this is my goal. What about the soloist? As a soloist I want, in partnership with the accompanist, to give the audience the best possible presentation of a composer’s or a writer’s work as possible. If I want to take a passage faster than the accompanist can keep up, I don’t want to show up the accompanist, so I’ll slow it down. I want the audience to experience the full beauty of the musical or dramatical work being presented.

If I’m on stage, I don’t want the audience to say of me, “What a great actor!” Of course I love individual praise as much as the next person. But even better is when the people on stage with me get those compliments, in part because I have been reliable, on my spots, giving them the right cue lines, responding to them in the moment. When I performed in The Sound of Music as Captain von Trapp, the teenage girl playing Liesel and I had a walk on entrance, arm-in-arm, from stage left. The director hadn’t told us who should be downstage. I said to her, “You should be downstage; you’re prettier than I am.” She became my friend for life.

This is, I believe, a principle that transcends artistic performance. My job is always to help the people around me to succeed. When I do that, everyone is happier. It’s the best motivator I have to make myself perform to my own peak. And I don’t have to go looking for accolades. They will come.