An interview with Ruth Phillips, cellist, teacher and creator of Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshops for cellists and other musicians

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Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?

My mother is a music teacher and my father a painter. I started the cello at the age of 4 and had to get up every morning to practice before school. To be honest I remember it being excruciating. I was so uncomfortable in my body for so much of my childhood and early teens that I was unable to feel much connection to the instrument. To this day, I do not know how much the hours of practice on the instrument during those and even some of the subsequent years served me. However, singing and being immersed in music as a language from so early, having it be a source of community and communication, at first in the family and, later, on music courses, in chamber music and orchestras, was something from which I could not, initially, turn away and which, ultimately, I chose as a way of life. Career is a funny word…At the time I would have been ‘choosing a career’ I simply followed my heart and did that which I loved. Both my parents did that. My husband and I do it. I suppose, fortunately, I have never known anything else.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I was a friend (and fan) of Steven Isserlis from a very early age – way before he was famous – and I attended the Cello Centre run by his teacher Jane Cowan both in London and at Edrom. If anyone breathes through their instrument in my opinion, it is Steven. That pretty much set the bar for me, though playing so effortlessly and with such apparent joy was an alien concept for a long time to come. Other inspiration was largely drawn from the extraordinary experiences I had year after year at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove, with Sandor Vegh, Andras Schiff, Daniel Phillips and Johannes Goritzki, and later my wonderful teacher in the US, Timothy Eddy. What touches me is that every one of these people goes back in some way to one person whom I sadly never met or heard play, but the great grand teacher of so many of us – Pablo Casals. I was incredibly lucky to play in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for eight years under conductors such as Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and there are other things too, … standing on a street corner in Bamako (where my son was born) singing and dancing, African drumming, looking at the waves, writing a poem, watching my husband paint….it’s all connected.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

For musicians, a sense of belonging is important and yet as a freelance musician, that sense can be elusive. One is so easily replaceable, indeed so often replaced, and usually without explanation or a chance to evolve. It is hard not to take this personally (and of course sometimes it is personal) and thus become less and less confident even as one gains experience and ease on the instrument. The challenge seems to be to develop an inner confidence and be true to one’s voice. Now, approaching my mid-fifties, I, along with many of my colleagues I believe, am facing the challenge of moving gracefully into the latter part of my life as a musician. For me, this is about continuing to play whilst allowing the world of concert touring to flourish largely without me, turning my energy instead towards holding and passing on something of that which I have been so lucky to have been given. Happily this period coincides with having a young child late in life so it’s quite a relief on all fronts!

How did you develop your Breathing Bow technique?

I mentioned Steven Isserlis and most of my life has been spent trying to understand how his exquisitely breathing bow worked (because I don’t think he really understands it himself, it’s so natural!). His teacher Jane always spoke about winged bowing which was an important key, but learning how turn the lock and open the door took the next two decades and I am of course still learning.

When my beautiful Banks cello on which I had played all my life was smashed into a hundred pieces on tour with COE in 1989, I was forced to face the fact that it is not the cello but my body (and heart and spirit if you like) that is the instrument through which to express the music. The trouble was, I wasn’t in any way connected to my body. That was a point of breakdown, my starting point, and the point at which I went to study in America.

Since that fateful day, there have been several moments and elements that have come together to influence my approach. The first was my teacher Tim Eddy saying to me in my first lesson ‘Ruthie, something has to move inside you for you to be moved to play‘. It took me the next four years to understand and experience the truth of this, but that phrase changed my direction completely. Initially I became interested in Alexander technique and had a teacher come out to Stony Brook to work with all the string players. Then, on my return to the UK, having developed a frozen shoulder and been told I would never play again (doctors should get some counselling on how to deal with such situations!), I started practicing yoga and was lucky to find a teacher, Peter Blackaby, who revealed to me how movement happens in release, and how that release is connected to the breath. This, itself a mindful practice, led to practicing meditation.

Though I work happily alone, I am lucky to have two dear friends, also cellists, with whom I collaborate, one an Alexander teacher (Dale Culliford) and another a yoga teacher (Jane Fenton). I love working alongside them and increasing my own awareness at the same time, keeping my approach alive and changing rather than fossilizing into a technique. I hope to enjoy other collaborations in the future. For example, I’d love to work with a Feldenkrais teacher.

How has this technique helped you as a musician, performer and a teacher?

At university in America where I performed solo for the first time (having sneakily avoided it until then!) I suffered terribly from stage fright. Before my degree recital I actually thought I was going to die. I have since found out of course that I am not alone with having had these feelings. It’s helpful as a teacher to know that place first hand and, also, to know that it is not something one needs to suffer at all, let alone in silence. Having come through that myself I know that stage presence is something one can practice, just as one practices vibrato. I am now happier on stage than anywhere else. (Well, apart from watching my six year old son make fresh tagliatelle for 25 people!.)

How does your Breathing Bow technique support and help string players?

I suppose wind players have the greatest advantage in uniting their musical phrasing and their technique through the breath, because they can’t play otherwise. As string players, however, the breath is rarely mentioned other than something we have to catch occasionally between phrases. But, there is hope! We have this incredible curved extra limb called a bow which, when connected through the arm to the expanding and contracting rib-cage, can express all the qualities that the breath has – tension, release, expansion, contraction, expression, inspiration, control, letting go, strong, weak – and of course on which the music is based. Rather than the effort involved in sustaining an even bow pressure or speed or contact point resulting from a thought about the music and having to control every millisecond, the breath becomes a sort of limousine in which we can ride, uniting the body, the instrument and the music. Playing becomes such a pleasure!

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Do you think Breathing Bow has relevance to other instrumentalists and how might it help them?

I call it the Breathing Bow, but of course it’s not just about the bow. There are so many aspects to this approach that can help performers on all instruments, though I have of course developed it on the cello so I can apply things more easily to that instrument. For example, on the cello, when one releases from an impulse and the elbow drops (as in the release after bouncing a ball) the bow naturally rides up towards the fingerboard which creates exactly the release in the sound that the music demands. However, for a violinist, this is the opposite. Releasing the elbow brings the bow nearer the bridge. I have worked with quite a few violinists and violists and they are helping me with this. But yes, I believe anyone can benefit. I get everyone I work with to watch Andras Schiff play the piano, for example (as well as watching Roger Federer play tennis), and I do think he could do a mean line in the Breathing Keyboard…

How does Breathing Bow help in performance and can it counter the effects of performance anxiety?

I love to think about developing stage presence as opposed to countering the effects of performance anxiety or dealing with stage fright. The language we use is already so negative and I think one of our largest obstacles is that negative thinking and the fact that the subject has been taboo (it’s changing now, happily). Another is that I believe we are taught and therefore we practice being constantly in control – of every split second of every note, or every bit of every phrase. What we do not practice and therefore that with which we are uncomfortable is the aspect of the movement and the music that we do not control. We call this being ‘out of control’ and it terrifies us. No wonder we fall apart on stage when we lose some of our ability to be in constant control. However, we do not need to be in control all the time! In fact, I would say we need to be in control more like 30% of the time. I try and show people how to practice that aspect of letting go, allowing what we have set in motion to live its own life without our constant interference, knowing when to rest and simply listen. This takes a different kind of practice which is very enjoyable, like practicing being on holiday! Developing a quiet non-judgemental mind and knowing how to come into the present moment is naturally a huge part of this, and I would say one of the best things to do before going on stage, rather than running up and down the instrument, is to meditate.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

When I was playing under Harnoncourt in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, I will never forget the experience of the 4th cello, the second oboe, the soloist, the person in the back row of the audience, the conductor, even the space itself, being an equal part of this magical moment-to-moment unfolding. I am still not sure how Harnoncourt created this other than by being a true ‘conductor’, but I know that a search for this humility, this sense of simplicity and common humanity is the most important thing for me. We get so knotted up in ‘my performance’ ‘my technique’ ‘my interpretation’, and that ‘my’ implies a ‘your’ which creates duality. Sometimes the ‘you’ is a voice with whom we are at war within ourselves. If we can find a way to open ourselves and allow the music to flow through us as it is in the present moment then we can be at peace in a non-dualistic world which, especially in this current climate, feels like an urgent need. We are so privileged as musicians to be able to share this. I would encourage all musicians do find whatever way they can to make music not with fear but with joy.

 

Ruth Phillips is running a Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshop in Cornwall from 21-24 November 2017 with Jane Fenton, and one in London on 21 January 2018 with Dale Culliford. For more information and booking, please contact Ruth Phillips at ruth@wintermane.com

Details can also be found on the London Cello Society website

http://www.londoncellos.org/cello-events/

Ruth runs Breathing Bow retreats from her home in Provence

http://thebreathingbow.com

 

Last weekend I performed at St John’s Smith Square, one of London’s premier music venues. This was part of their Music Marathon, 12 hours of continuous music making to coincide with the Open House London weekend. There was a great range of music and performers, a good-sized audience and a friendly atmosphere. I chose to perform, perhaps rather over-ambitiously, Schubert’s Sonata in A, D959, preceded by Britten’s Night Piece – a demanding programme of music lasting 45 minutes. I performed the Schubert Sonata 7 times last year (including the FTCL Diploma recital) but as any performer will tell you, each live performance reveals new or unexpected things about the music and you as a performer. I believe it is important to perform the music we study and play – not least because this wonderful music was written to be shared. Performing can take many forms – from informal playing at home with friends to a concert at a world-renowned concert hall – and each performance presents its own dificulties, stresses, pleasures and revelations.

I came late to performing, having had a long break from the piano after university, and completed two performance diplomas in my late 40s. In order to do this, and because I had not had a formal musical training in conservatoire, I had to “learn” how to be a performer (mostly by teaching myself and talking to and observing professional musicians at work). The most significant thing I have learned is that one must be extremely well-prepared – and prepared for anything and everything that can happen, both within the music itself and all the things one cannot control. Even the best laid plans in practise can come awry in performance, for a variety of reasons. For this reason most professional performers (and serious amateurs too) will do a number of practise performances in less important venues before the most important concert in their diary (at the Wigmore Hall for example, reputedly one of the hardest places to perform in because of its famously knowledgeable and discerning audience). Each performance is part of the learning process and whatever happens in a performance should be seen as a point of reference for future practising and preparation (and a timely reminder that we can never truly say that a piece of music is “finished”).  For example, during my SJSS performance certain passages which had seemed pretty secure in practise came unstuck (noticeably to me, but probably not to the audience as I managed to improvise). It can be quite a jolt to discover that one’s careful practising may not have been quite as scrupulous as one thought. For this reason, I try not to spend too much time negatively reflecting on a performance which may not have gone as well as I’d hoped, preferring to note the areas which require improvement and incorporate these into my practising regime. Thus, through these marginal gains one can take the music to another or different level each time it is performed.

Performing is physically and mentally demanding. and an unusual level of mental concentration is required combined with physical stamina for the duration of the performance (and playing for 45 minutes continuously is hard work!). Interruptions to one’s focus, such as noises in the hall, an error or memory lapse, or negative self-talk, can throw a performance off track and one sometimes has to muster huge forces to bring one back to the task in hand. This is why we must practise so meticulously, to make the music as secure as possible, so that we don’t break down or stop in performance (something I have only witnessed once in a professional performance, though I have encountered numerous but tiny errors or memory slips).

In addition, the stress and anxiety of performing does not pass the moment one leaves the stage. It can take some hours for the body’s stress hormones to return to their normal levels, which can leave one feeling jittery, restless, irritable and sleepless – despite one feeling physically and mentally drained. I have found isotonic drinks such as Gatorade help alleviate the physical and emotional effects of performing (these products have been proven to offer enhanced recovery to patients undergoing complex surgery).

Finally, one should try not to negatively post-mortem a performance too much. It has happened, in the moment, and now it is over and one should look forward to the next opportunity to present one’s music in concert. Compliments and generous feedback from audience members, colleagues and friends can make a huge difference to one’s attitude to a performance and help maintain a positive mindset.

So what did I learn from performing at St John’s Smith Square? First, that meticulous preparation is crucial and constantly reminding oneself of this truth is so important. Secondly, that one should never become complacent in the face of this great music; remain humble and do not allow one’s ego to get in the way of the music. Thirdly, accept compliments and comments with courtesy and humility – these are almost always genuine and given generously. Lastly, I have huge respect for professional musicians who perform regularly – because it ain’t easy!

Guest article by Gregory Daubney, Msc, MBPsS and Dr Alison Daubney, PhD

One of the most enjoyable things about working as a psychologist is that we are never far away from the presence of our forefathers. The ghosts of Freud, Jung, Skinner and Pavlov (amongst others) hover around our every move whispering of the repressed and unconscious nature of human behaviour. That the past should be suggested as the greatest influencer of our future is as natural as night follows day. The mechanism of our individual history’s operation on the present is, quite rightly, shrouded in mystery and intrigue. However, this strait jacket of the past need not leave us feeling stuck in the present. The belief that a psychologist need not know the cause of an individual’s psychological problems is a strangely liberating (for both psychologist and client), if somewhat uncommon, approach to handling psychological skill development. So what alternatives to focussing on a problem can a music teacher who sees their students suffering from musical performance anxiety choose? Why not choose solutions? Solutions are everywhere. All around us, within us, permeating our environment and prevalent throughout our history. The problem is that we can become so fixated on the problem that we simply lose sight of our quest for a solution. As a professional collaboration between a performance psychologist and education expert, we have produced a free to download 52 page book rammed full of practical solutions and ideas to help teachers teach psychological skills to their students. The emphasis is on changing the focus from problems to solutions. So what does this mean in real life? Music teachers vary from person to person. And they should. They hold beliefs and prior experiences, which, in many ways, shape the person they are. They vary in their flexibility, creativity, capability and excitability, all of which blend together in a complex way to create the teacher they are. So when presented with a student who is very nervous about performing, they will approach this problem from very different angles. It should always be remembered that what one person may not view as a ‘performance’ is something that, in the mind of a student, may be an event provoking deep felt anxiety. Therefore, ignoring it and hoping it will go away, is seldom a good option. In our culture it is very easy to accept that until we know a cause we cannot provide a solution. Sometimes this is the right approach, but too frequently this line of thinking can inhibit effective action taking. By switching the focus to solutions, behaviour is encouraged not stifled and taking action itself is often very motivating.

Let’s take a look at how this might work in reality. A very useful question a music teacher could (and may already) ask a nervous student is: “As I watch you about to perform, what will you look like (that I can see) that will tell me you are ready, and looking forward to performing?” Here we can see that the music teacher has moved the focus of their student’s attention to a hypothetical future and away from the problem. The student is most likely to reply by giving a list of what they will look like (e.g. “I will be standing/sitting tall, my shoulders will be back, I will stride onto the stage, I will look up as I enter the performance arena”). This corresponds with one of our many short-term suggestions for handling performance anxiety – our suggestion of creating a body posture reminder sheet (strategy 6C, page 43 of our freely downloadable resource). This may help the student feel ready to perform in the future and is a solution that may help students in the moments immediately preceding a performance.

But the music teacher will not be finished there. Performance anxiety occurs over a much longer timeframe than just prior to performance. That is why, in addition to many practical strategies for use just prior to, during and after performing, our booklet also gives music teachers strategies for the week leading up to a performance, and in the longer term.

So, back to our teacher. The student may tell them one week prior to a performance that they are nervous and worried about performing next week. They may want to avoid the performance completely. There could be any number of reasons for this and it is likely that these will vary from student to student. So a further question the teacher may ask the student could be: “If you weren’t feeling nervous about this performance, what would you be doing in the week leading up to the performance?” Again, we can see a hypothetical future where the student has to think about a different future without the problem. The student may answer: “I would be happier, I would be looking forward to performing because I would be confident that I am going to play well.”

The teacher could then use one of our medium term strategies to help their student build confidence, such as our key strengths worksheet (strategy 2B, page 20) or our record and reflection of prior success and achievement (strategy 3B, page 21). These are immediately usable by the teacher and will help focus the student’s attention on things they do well thereby creating an atmosphere that promotes an excitement about performing.

But again, the teacher wouldn’t stop there! Finally, the teacher may turn their attention to their own teaching. They may ask themselves, “What would be different in my teaching practice if I tried to reduce the probability of performance anxiety having an impact?” They may answer: “I would set students challenging and differentiated goals that strongly emphasise the development my students make against themselves.” Using the flow charts within the booklet as a guide, the teacher could then select an appropriate long term strategy, such as strategy 6A (page 12) in our book with important recommendations for effectively setting goals with students. They can enhance this further by implementing our recommendations to address fear of failure using strategy 3A (page 9) or effective social comparison using strategy 4A (page10).

This type of solution-focussed reflection has the benefit of promoting action rather than merely thought about action. It is also highly motivating because it is achievable both by student and teacher. Finally, it removes the student and teacher from being stuck in a blame culture seeking reasons for experiences. It re-focuses attention on how progress can be made for both student and teacher.

There is often a requirement to work on handling musical performance anxiety in the future. We hope that through this article, it can be seen that progress is possible with a changed emphasis, leading to greater enjoyment of musical learning.

To find out more about how music teachers can help their students handle musical performance anxiety, download the free 52-page guide “Performance Anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers”. And why not book onto our next ISM full day workshop on 6 July 2017. It is only £45 for members and £55 for non-members, with a maximum of 14 people so we can work intensely for the whole day with plenty of opportunities to ask questions. Or for more information, contact us directly at greg@winningessence.com or contact the ISM directly on www.ism.org.

 

Gregory Daubney (MSc MBPsS) has worked extensively across performance psychology domains since 2008, establishing Winning Essence in 2013. He has developed a thorough understanding of the psychological impact of performance on individuals and teams, with a particular interest and specialism in sport and other performance settings. Greg has also been involved in evaluating the psychological impacts of music-based interventions for young people in mental health settings. Greg’s work is informed by wide-ranging evidence and his workshops over several years have enabled him to successfully translate complex theoretical ideas into applied, practical strategies that performers at all levels can develop to achieve optimal performance. Greg regularly writes about the ways individuals and groups can successfully embed psychological skills in order to maintain a healthy approach to skill acquisition, development and performance improvement.

Dr Alison Daubney (PhD) works across music education in formal and non-formal settings. She is a qualified teacher and mentor, and has extensive experience working across all age phases from pre-school to postgraduate. As a researcher, Ally has led projects considering the health and wellbeing of young musicians in and out of school, including those in a diverse range of challenging circumstances and in mental health settings. Since 2009 Ally has worked extensively with the University of Cambridge International Examinations on international curriculum and assessment development. She works part-time as a freelance researcher, curriculum developer and trainer, complementing her work in music education at the University of Sussex. Ally has worked with the ISM on many aspects of music education since 2008 and regularly runs professional development courses on behalf of the ISM Trust for music teachers and practitioners working in a variety of settings.

Guest post by Christina Cooper

From the moment that I started playing, my heightened adrenaline had perceived ‘allegro con fuoco’ to mean ‘presto,’ almost without my permission. Almost immediately, the running thread of demi-semiquavers which underpin the melody throughout the entire piece threatened to unravel like a stitch that had been picked open. The panic inside my head was immense. I was picturing the whole thing falling apart and me running offstage in floods of tears, feeling like a complete failure. All this was happening whilst my fingers continued to hammer out those demi-semis like a runaway train. My subconscious was holding me hostage, and I had no conscious control of what I was doing. I just had to surrender to my unconscious mind whilst in a constant state of total panic, fearing the worst at any point. 

On of the reasons peformance anxiety hits so hard is because it threatens our identity. Are you more likely to say to somebody: ‘I play piano,’ or ‘I am a pianist?’ Certainly professionals will likely say the latter, and perhaps many amateurs too. Being a musician is something which becomes so bound up in your identity, especially if you choose to make a career out of it. We are all programmed to give ourselves an identity which often sums up our greatest purpose in life, whether as a lawyer, cleaner, tennis payer, housewife, banker, artist, musician, or other profession. So when we perform, we are not just playing our instrument, but being our instrument. When we perform we put our whole identity out there to be scrutinised. If we perform well, we might receive praise and money; if we do badly we may be criticised and may not be booked again. This can leave you feeling worthless, as though you have been rejected as a person, not just for your playing. Add to this, the social pressures of playing in orchestras and ensembles; whether you bought the teas for your section, whether you drank with your section, whether you asked too many questions in rehearsals, whether you showed too much personality, and the recipe for performance anxiety based on identity becomes magnified. Paradoxically, if you are an orchestral player, you have to lose your sense of identity in order to fit in, but in lots of ways it is your identity which you feel is being judged above everything else.

If you look hard, as I did, you might find some resources around which aim to help musicians to overcome their anxiety, and while these may work well for some, for others they merely take the edge off the nerves. For years none of these worked for me at all, until I stumbled across something called Cognitive Hypnotherapy. Within 6 months my performance anxiety was gone. I realised that this method is truly life-changing, and I decided to train in it. I now have my own therapy business in Performance Coaching for musicians, to help them to overcome their performance anxiety.

At the heart of Cognitive Hypnotherapy is the understanding that we are all different, and we each have our own model of the world which is completely unique to us. Another key element recognises that the functioning of our brain is far simpler than we think. What this means is that the reason for our performance anxiety could be linked back to one ‘small’ event which most likely happened early on in our childhood, such as having to stand up and sing in front of the class, and feeling humiliated when we couldn’t do it well. The key here is that as a child, it will have been a significant emotional event, as our thinking at this age is nominal: we only know whether something is good or bad. Our subconscious mind then documents this event, and looks for consequent events which may be similar, and tries to prevent us from making the same mistake again. So the more we perform, the more likely we are to have bad performances because the subconscious desperately tries to get us out of the situation by pumping adrenaline through our body. The more often we experience this the more our brain will then compute that ‘when I perform I will play badly’ and over time this leads to ‘I am a bad performer/pianist/violinist/musician, or ‘I cannot play without nerves,’ and consequently the anxiety often gets worse over time.

As a Cognitive Hypnotherapist I find that often at the core of a musician’s performance anxiety is a sense of low self-esteem. This is not surprising, due to the rigours of training from an early age, and always being told you can do better, being up against constant competition, being a perfectionist and always comparing yourself to others. Often it can develop from a demanding parent or teacher, making you believe that what you do is never good enough. Of course this then often becomes linked to your identity and not being good enough as a person.

In therapy, I connect with your model of the world and use this to speak directly to your subconscious in a special language it understands. This communication is incredibly powerful, and because the brain is plastic, it will respond by literally rewiring itself. In combination with specific techniques which incorporate neuroscience, CBT, traditional hypnotherapy, NLP, positive psychology and many other therapeutic/scientific fields, we work to reprogram your brain’s faulty wiring, create new positive pathways and reframe the negative to positive. The astounding thing about this is potentially how quickly this can happen. Sometimes in as little as 3 sessions, and certainly by 6, it is possible to make huge changes in relation to your performance anxiety, within the space of about 3-6 months. We aim to either overcome it completely, or reach a level which is manageable, and this entirely depends on the outcome you want. So to all my fellow musicians out there, I think I might know what you are going through, and if you need my help, please get in touch. You are far greater than your anxiety.


Christina Cooper is a cognitive hypnotherapist, and runs her own performance coaching practice based in Clerkenwell, Central London. Her therapy practice, Cognitive Harmony, specialises in helping musicians with performance anxiety. Alongside this she teaches piano and double bass privately in South-East London. She began her career as a professional orchestral double bass player, having studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Juilliard School in New York. During her freelance career she performed with many orchestras, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Opera North, English Touring Opera, English National Ballet and St.Petersburg Ballet. She recently hung up her bow to develop another burning passion in her life, the piano, and her second calling in life, to become a therapist. As a pianist, she has recently gained her LTCL in piano performance from Trinity College of Music, and performs regularly as a solo pianist in venues across London, including Southwark Cathedral, St.Paul’s Covent Garden, Citylit, and the 1901 Arts Club Waterloo.

 

 

 

 

‘Composed’ received its London premiere on 2 May 2017. The director is looking for futher London and UK screening opportunities – if you are interesting in hosting a screening, please get in touch via the contact page of this site

Performance Anxiety – for many musicians and performers it’s the fear which cannot, must not, speak its name, and together with injury and illness, it’s a major taboo. We don’t discuss anxiety because we’re not supposed to feel it. As highly trained individuals, musicians are supposed to sweep onto any stage, large or small, and perform with confidence, poise, and musical imagination, never betraying the slightest hint of nerves. As with injury, anxiety is often kept hidden and not discussed because sufferers fear (that word again) that admitting to it is a sign of weakness, technical or artistic, which may lead to loss of work and status, and the disapproval of colleagues, teachers, more senior musicians, critics and even audiences.

One of the crucial steps in coping with Performance Anxiety (and sufferers should not necessarily seek a “cure”) is accepting that it is something that happens to most performers, that it is normal, and that the physical symptoms are common to us all, driven by the body’s “flight or fight” response. ‘Composed’, an insightful new film by percussionist and film-maker John Beder, goes a long way in supporting this view, while opening up the discussion about performance anxiety in a sympathetic way.

Originally intended as a study of musicians’ use of beta blockers to subdue the symptoms of anxiety and how such drugs are perceived within the classical music community, ‘Composed’ takes a broad view, exploring the passion and motivation which drives people to become professional musicians, the root causes and symptoms of performance anxiety, the difference between practising and performing, music education, deep learning and proper preparation for auditions and performance, the fight or flight response, perfectionism and how hard musicians are on themselves. With contributions from musicians (soloists and orchestral players) and experts in the field of peak performance and performance anxiety, including Dr Noa Kageyama (creator of The Bulleproof Musician), Mike Cunningham (mind training coach), Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) and Professor Aaron Williamon (Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music), the film offers a sensitive and honest account of the exigencies of the profession.

symptoms
(source: ‘Composed’ website)

Rather than present dry advice and one-size-fits-all coping strategies, the first-hand accounts of musicians, teachers and practitioners offer insightful personal anecdotes and solutions. The film also touches on the competitive nature of the conservatoire system, the ruthlessness of the professional career and how musicians, who tend to forge friendships and communities with others in the profession, find themselves competing with friends and respected colleagues at auditions for orchestral positions or concert bookings which can set up feelings of “inner turmoil of wanting to encourage your friends while secretly hoping the panel will favor your performance”(John Beder, film-maker). Such feelings can lead to self-doubt and anxiety.

The responsibility of teachers, mentors and institutions in supporting musicians is also explored. Until fairly recently, support for students suffering from performance anxiety was virtually non-existent in the conservatoire and music college system, except from a few enlightened tutors. Today, students have more resources at their disposal, including mindfulness and mind training, biofeedback, Alexander Technique, yoga and relaxation techniques, counsellors and hardware such as the Royal College of Music’s innovative performance simulator which allows students to perform before a virtual audience or audition panel.

There is also practical information about the physiological effects of beta blockers and commentaries by users, including a painfully honest account by a British cellist who also resorted to alcohol while still at music college to help her deal with debilitating performance anxiety.

It took John Beder two years to produce ‘Composed’. Originally, 61 musicians gave interviews for the documentary, though not all of them made the final cut, and Beder’s approaches to musicians were generally met with gratitude – “I wish we talked about this more” was a common response, proof that this is a subject musicians want to discuss in a more open forum. To hear musicians talk openly about their personal struggles, emotional limitations and coping mechanisms reminds us that we are very much not alone with our anxieties. The film is an empathetic and humane examination of the musician’s life and work, providing a greater understanding of the pressures, and pleasures, of the musical life, and is a potent reminder that musicians should “know themselves”, to appreciate their strengths and abilities, rather than continually comparing themselves to others. As such it makes an important and timely contribution to the study and understanding of performance anxiety.

“The film explores what without exception all of us, performers, have experienced and known well – first, love for our craft and stage, and then performance anxiety at the other end of this beautiful and exciting spectrum. Congratulations to the director John Beder and his team for completing this project and for inviting all of us to a meaningful and necessary conversation.”

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

John Beder is currently looking for UK venues for future screenings of ‘Composed’. If you would like to host a screening or suggest a venue please contact John via this site or via the Composed website

‘Composed’ trailer

cf3a43f548ef0b0425f8af95032b8849Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.

From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.

An example – the piano student who constantly self-criticises her own playing. The student in question is in her mid-teens, a bright, enthusiastic, engaged and confident young person who is not only a sensitive pianist but also a talented violinist and who is developing into an intelligent and expressive musician. Each lesson usually begins with the student playing one of the pieces or studies she is working on for her Grade 8 exam. She plays well, taking note of expression and tempo markings, dynamics, articulation, but almost every slip is met with profuse apologies or restarts, and as the music progresses, the errors increase. Her performance usually ends with her saying “I’m so sorry! That was awful! I played terribly today” – or words to that effect. Despite her teacher’s (me) reassurance that she played well, that there is noticeable improvement, etc., she continues to berate herself for her lack of ability. She recently performed in a school concert, playing with great poise and apparent confidence. Yet no sooner had she replaced her violin in its case, than the negative self-crticism and worrying about the quality of her performance began. Later, at the drinks reception following the concert, many members of staff and friends told her how beautifully she’d played, how much they had enjoyed her performance, but she continued to accentuate the negatives.

Sadly, this circle of negativity is not helping this student. She veers between believing she is a good musician (which she is) and that she is a terrible musician (which she isn’t). Because of the reiteration of negative messages, via her own inner critic and (I suspect) a parent with very high, or unrealistic, expectations, the circle continues, preventing her from becoming the poised and confident musician I believe she can be.

It upsets me to see my wonderful student struggling with so much negativity, much of which is self-generated (I’m no psychologist but I can guess at some of the roots of her issues because I recognise them from my own lack of confidence as a teenage pianist which I carried with me into adulthood). It’s quite clear, to me at least, that her negativity is self-perpetuating and in order for her to move forward the cycle needs to be broken. I am working with her to help her understand how to turn her negative thoughts into positive ones, using some of the techniques below.

Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”

  • Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
  • Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
  • Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
  • Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
  • If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
  • Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
  • Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
  • Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
  • Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
  • Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.

 

Further reading/resources

How Complaining Rewires your Brain for Negativity

The Perfect Wrong Note

Music from the Inside Out

How Positive Thinking Rewires Your Brain