Guest post by Ruth Phillips
Many people ask me on Breathing Bow retreats if stage presence is something we can practice, if it is possible to find a way to be exactly where we are – in a concert hall with an audience right here and right now, about to share what we love?
I believe that the answer is yes.
Musicians’ preparation a concert day can range from taking beta blockers to eating bananas. However, as soon as we are on stage we feel fear. Fear of losing control or mental focus, and above all fear of judgement. Our muscles contract, our heart rate speeds up, we go blank, our bow shakes, we sweat….the list of symptoms for ‘stage fright’ is endless and for many of us, coping with them simply isn’t enough. Why would we want to play music if concerts were merely to be coped with not rejoiced in?
We fight or try to ‘get over’ the fear. We tell ourselves how foolish we are to feel it (‘There’s nothing to be frightened of!’), or we boost ourselves up with ‘positive’ thoughts – which are in fact just judgements (‘You’re wonderful!’ ‘No-one’s here to judge you’). Or we pretend (‘Imagine the public naked!/ that you are on a beautiful beach/that you are Steven Isserlis!’ ) We practice as much control as possible and cram our minds with thoughts.
But what if we were to stop fighting and actually listen to the fear?
Marshall Rosenberg, in his work on ‘Non-Violent Communication’, says that all humans share the same fundamental needs, and that every emotion is the expression of either a met (‘positive’ emotions) or an unmet (‘negative’ emotions) need. Through the ‘negative’ emotion of fear we could bring our attention to the unmet needs that we have as performers, a list of which would go something like this:
Most of us, surely, would love to feel all these things when we are on stage! So, how can we practice them, so that we are fulfilled not just in the practice room but also on stage?
Personally, it is through yoga and meditation that I have been liberated from the prison of fear and found joy and presence on stage, but there are many other doorways. Alexander Technique, T’ai Chi and Feldenkrais, for example. Whatever discipline we choose, it seems to me that practicing the following things are key:
1. Tensegrity (gravity and core muscles)
3. Getting ourselves out of the way
Obviously, we need tension to move, even to sit, but we also need release. Life and music are a constant play between tension and release. The pull of a wave, a dominant chord resolving to the tonic, an in and an out-breath, an up and a down bow all express this perfect relationship, the word for which is Tensegrity.
Tens(ion) plus (int)egrity.
“Tensegrity is a structural principal of geometry where shapes benefit from strength and flexibility due to the push and pull of their parts.” – Will Nagel
By using our entire body as a biomechanical system – abandoning ourselves to gravity and having movement flow from our core through to our limbs – we can learn to play with stability, efficacy and ease.
“When the abandonment to gravity comes into action, resistance ceases, fear vanishes, order is regained, nature starts again to function in its natural rhythm and the body is able to blossom fully, allowing the river of life to flow freely through all parts.”
Awakening the spine…Vanda Scaravelli
A note on working with Gravity
It takes strength to hold a bow-arm from the string, and with added adrenalin this becomes even more challenging. Gripping harder we migrate to the tip of the bow to avoid confronting the weight. Practicing in a way that works with, rather than against gravity, however, we reorganize rather than withhold the weight. In forte, for example, the arm is aligned so that there are as few kinks as possible and the weight flows freely into the string. In pianissimo the elbow is low and the weight, unable to travel up the hill of the forearm just as water does not travel up a U-bend, rests at the elbow.
A note on working with the centre of gravity and our core muscles
Every form of skilled or powerful movement on terra firma illustrates that athletic movement works best when power flows freely through the core. – Terry Laughlin, Total Immersion Swimming
The terms can be vague and we often use them incorrectly. Some speak of muscles, some of bones and others of energy centres, but I think most traditions agree that the area around our centre of gravity is key to all movement. When we walk, for example, we move our centre of gravity forward, throwing ourselves off balance, and the released leg swings forward. The swing of the arm in bowing or shifting is no different, with movement happening through release and not tension.
Another example of movement coming from our centre is the twist of the torso. The cello teacher, Steve Doane, talks about finding the horizontal axis of movement by sweeping one’s gaze from left to right as one crosses from the A to the C string or shifts up the fingerboard. This works because we do not shift our gaze just with our eyes or even just our head. There is corresponding shift – an imperceptible twist from left to right – at our centre. Doane says:
“This swing supports the shifting motion by communicating energy from the feet through the hips to the back and arms. It is an essential part of your dynamic cellistic balance.” -‘The Owl’ exercise – Cello Ergonomics
Initiating movement from our core does not mean hurling ourselves about. In fact, by making sure the big cogs power the little cogs, movement becomes more efficient. Just try the string crossing exercise with the opposite core movement – turning from right to left as you cross from A-C strings on the cello – and you will see how restricted your natural power and flow is.
“To relax is not to collapse….It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings.”- (Vanda Scaravelli – Awakening the Spine.)
The tennis player observes the ball as it leaves his racket and completes the trajectory he has sent it on. He is no longer ‘in control’ of the ball but rather relaxed, alert and watchful. Primed for the return. Once we have learned to initiate movement from our core, we must also practice this attitude on non-doing, in which we find space, peace and freedom.
A note on practicing non-doing
Working with the breath is a wonderful way to practice release and non-doing. Rather than controlling every millimeter of the stroke, the out-breath is used to lead the release of the bow, and the in-breath to lead the preparation. At the end of the out-breath there is a still point, just as there is in the arc of the bow, the arc of a phrase.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. – TS Eliot
Getting ourselves out of the way
“When we relax about imperfection, we no longer lose our life moments in the pursuit of being different and in the fear of what is wrong.” – Tara Brach, meditation teacher
We fear that unless we inject every phrase with our ‘personality’, our ‘interpretation’ will be boring. However, when a musical line falls like an autumn leaf, or rises like an eagle soaring on a thermal, is this our personality? Or our interpretation? When we are able to get ourselves out of the way, there is no ‘I’ to judge or be judged. Because there is no judgement there is no duality, no perfection, no imperfection, no right, no wrong, no them (the audience) and us (the performer). Instead, there is security and connection.
“In order to really be, you have to be free from the thinking…”
“Non-thinking is an art and, like any art, it requires patience and practice.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh (Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise)
Thought is necessary. We need to think during our practice – about the composer’s life, the harmony, the metre, the structure – but thought in the form of planning, judging, remembering and commenting takes us out of the present moment, which inhibits our ability to listen. Observation, however, which we develop through meditation practice, focuses our attention on the present and brings spontaneity.
“The bow must be a living thing at all times, and all living things need to breathe” – Steven Isserlis, cellist.
For me, the breath is the thing that binds all of this together. No-wonder it is at the root of so many spiritual practices! It is inspiration and expression, tension and release, taking in and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is not ‘ours’ though it passes through us, and it connects us with ourselves, our bodies and the audience. With all living things. The ocean breathes, trees breathe….It is everything we are and everything music is. When we are aligned and in harmony, we feel as if we are being breathed, just as we can, in performance, feel like the music is playing us. Only then we can find true expression and make a contribution.
Ruth Phillips is cellist, teacher and creator of Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshops for cellists and other musicians
Next retreat in Provence: 16 – 20 October 2018
What is Stage Presence and how do we practice it?
Autumn retreat in Provence with Ruth Phillips and Jane Fenton – October 16-20th Exploring tension, release and space through yoga, breath and mindfulness. Held in a magnificent Provencal farmhouse, and catered by whole-food chef, Tara Lee Byrne. Open to all musicians – amateurs, students and professionals
Further information and booking thebreathingbow.com