Guest post by Jennifer Mackerras

A performer with “presence” has something to say and is communicating effectively, with focus, commanding the audience’s full attention

– Mark Swartzentruber, concert pianist

Occasionally one attends a concert where the performer’s presence seems so modest and yet so powerful, commanding awed silence from the audience… I think such an ability comes from a deep love and respect for the music and a willingness to set aside one’s ego in the service of the music. Loss of ego brings powerful presence and creates an empathic relationship with the audience.

– Frances Wilson, pianist and blogger on classical music and pianism

The topic of stage presence is one that is often subject to heated debate. Who has presence? Is it the person with the biggest or loudest personality? Is it the performer who gives the most original interpretation of a work? Or is it something rather more personal and less showy – the performer whose focus and commitment to a work is so total that the audience is compelled to enter their musical world? Fran certainly came to that conclusion in her excellent post, quoted above.

So how do you learn to set aside your ego? How do you learn to put yourself in the service of the music? Here’s some practical advice on how to move towards that goal, coming from the work of FM Alexander.

The Private Universe theory

Back in 1923, FM Alexander wrote a sentence that I keep coming back to in my teaching:

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. – FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual

In other words, all of us have a psycho-physical make-up – a unique melding together of mind and body – that is composed of all the influences, individualities and quirks created by our upbringing, friends, schooling, environment, media… We create our own little private universe of ideas and beliefs about the world and how we interact with it, and we act according to its rules. We think and act according to our private universe – our psycho-physical make-up.

Now, some of the ideas in our private universe will be fantastic, but some of them will be rather less so! Sometimes our ideas of what we need to do to fit into the world really don’t help us. Just think about the kid at school who tried to hide his insecurity and lack of self esteem by bossing other kids around. Or the girl who spends her teenage years hiding behind a wall of hair so that she doesn’t have to interact with the world.

When it comes to performing, each person will approach the performance according to the rules and assumptions of their private universe. If their private universe says that people only like them if they’re loud or very extrovert in their presentation, then they’ll approach the performance of music that way. If their private universe says that people are naturally judgemental in nature, and particularly if they assume that the judgements will be negative, then they will approach performing in such a way as to protect themselves from the negativity.

These private universes then begin to manifest themselves physically. Perhaps one performer will tense muscles in order to shield themselves from the negativity they assume they’ll receive. Another performer might be so concerned to ‘get the music across’ that they add in lots of unnecessary movement and tension that ultimately detracts from the piece they’re playing.

My job as an Alexander Technique teacher is to help performers get out of their own way. I work with a lot of musicians – amateurs, students and professionals. Typically, when they reduce the physical tension they create, they report feeling more vulnerable. But they also report an improved ability to achieve what they want technically, an improved sound, and improved ability to ‘get inside’ the music.

The best performances often come from the performers who are most prepared to ‘sit with’ the audience; to be wholly and unapologetically themselves. They are not trying to hide themselves because they are nervous; they are not trying to project an image of themselves, nor are they trying to ‘present’ the music. They are simply placing themselves at the service of the music and the audience

How can you begin to achieve this state for yourself? Here are a few ideas.

  • Really know the music. If you feel unprepared, you are more likely to be nervous, and more likely to increase the mental and physical tension prior to performing.
  • Come up with a one phrase (or even one word) key to your goals for each piece that you are playing.
  • Before you play, acknowledge that being nervous is completely normal and reasonable.
  • Remember that mistakes are normal. Everybody makes them!
  • Before each piece in your programme, take a moment to settle yourself and remember your key word or phrase.
  • Really examine your attitudes towards the audience. Do you view them as adversaries, or as a group of friends?
  • When you’re an audience member, are you judgemental? Or are you there to enjoy yourself? Perhaps remembering that audience members come out of enjoyment may be a helpful thought before you perform.

If you work on changing your thinking, you can begin to change the muscular tension that is getting in your way. And if you can do this, everyone will benefit: you, the audience, and the music.


 

jen_working6Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com

 

The first of two guest posts by Jennifer Mackerras exploring the benefits of Alexander Technique for musicians

Injury to musicians: everyone knows it happens, but very few like to talk about it. For professional musicians, this is entirely understandable: nobody wants to endanger their career by being open about the pain they might be experiencing. And with amateur musicians, very often discomfort while playing becomes such a problem that they stop playing entirely – they vanish from their ensembles or music groups, and no one really questions why.

What distresses me, as a musician and an Alexander Technique teacher, is that so often the problems that cause musicians such distress are entirely preventable and treatable. It just takes a little time to find the cause, and find the right person to help you overcome it.

The clinician’s view

Christopher B. Wynn Parry’s 2004 article on ‘Managing the Physical Demands of Musical Performance’ makes for fascinating reading. He includes details of an analysis of musicians who attended clinics run by the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) to that date. 48% had a clear-cut diagnosis of conditions like focal dystonia or tenosynovitis. But the other 52% had no specific diagnosis. Just over half of the musicians had non-structural performance-related problems.

That’s a shockingly large percentage!

We are talking about musicians who were struggling with symptoms that had no obvious clinical cause. They were problems caused by a coming together of over-practice, stress, muscle tension, poor posture, and insufficient technique. All of these problems are solvable. All of them.

There are lots of disciplines out there that can help you: your teachers, performance coaches, fitness instructors… Each has its own benefit. But I’m an Alexander Technique teacher, and I want to give you an overview of how Alexander Technique could help you avoid injury.

What Alexander Technique can do

Alexander Technique is taught in music schools and conservatoires precisely to combat and prevent the ‘non-specific’ symptoms that cause musicians to call for professional help. It isn’t about feeling nice – although that often happens. It won’t force you into ‘perfect posture’ – though other people will notice that you seem to sit and play more easily.

As an AT teacher and performance coach, I help people change their manner of using themselves in activity, so that they can truly fulfil their technical ability and achieve their artistic aims. My job is about helping you free yourself from a manner of using yourself (physically and mentally) that is getting in your way.

I see some common themes in the musicians I teach: too much tension while playing; effort put in the wrong places; and unhelpful ideas about practice and performing. I’ll explain what these are, and give you a hint about how to change things if you think you have this problem.

Too much tension

Do you bang your fingers down on the keyboard? Can you hear your fingers slapping the fingerboard on your cello, or on the wood of your recorder? Do your arms and shoulders feel tight and sore after playing? If so, you’re probably using too much muscular tension. In these cases, I give students the 50% less game: can you play with 50% less effort? This is best first attempted on easy pieces or scales. You may be astonished at how little effort you actually need to use to make a sound!

Effort in the wrong places

This can show up in attitude – 2, 3 or even 4 hour practice sessions with no breaks – or more physically. For example, have you ever thought about what joints you actually need to use to get your fingers to your keyboard? What muscles and joints raise the violin to your chin? It would astonish you how often I work with players who create a tremendous amount of unhelpful physical tension simply because they have never really thought about how to approach their instrument.

Before your next practice session, spend a couple of minutes thinking about the minimum number of joints you could use to achieve a playing position. If you don’t know where the joints are, there are really fantastic phone and tablet anatomy apps that can help you.

Unhelpful ideas

All of us, whether amateur or professional musicians, can sometimes have unhelpful ideas about practising and performing that can suck the joy from our music-making. Do you know anyone who has these ideas:

  • Needing to be perfect
  • Looking on the audience as an adversary
  • Focussing only on the mistakes in the performance, not the good things
  • Being afraid of ‘messing up’, to the point where you don’t want to perform
  • Fearing the audience ‘judging’ you
  • Believing that the only relevant practice time is on the instrument

Because we are a mind-body unity, the ideas that we have can have physical manifestations. If we believe in perfection, for example, we can begin to create a physical tightness as we try not to make mistakes. The physical tension then contributes to us making mistakes, the thing we most wanted to avoid! Try sitting down before your next performance or exam, and note down the ideas and feelings that you have about it. Can you find any twisty thinking going on?

Making music can be one of the most joyous and fulfilling of human activities. I know I’m biased, but I think that Alexander Technique is a great tool for helping musicians to rid themselves of the unhelpful ideas and physical traits that get in the way of musical expression. I hope that you give my ideas and games a try, and please do let me know how you get on. I wish you success!


Reference:

Christopher B. Wynn Parry, ‘Managing the Physical Demands of Musical Performance’ in Williamon, A., ed. (2004) Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance. Oxford: OUP. 41-60.

 

jen_working6Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com