The concert pianist cuts a romantic, almost mysterious image: alone on the stage with only a shiny black minotaur of a concert grand for company, the pianist exists in a place other than ours, elevated – both physically and metaphorically – before us. We invest special heroic qualities in the pianist, knowing that he/she must convey supreme mastery and complete oneness with the music by playing from memory. Pianists are like Himalayan adventurers, scaling the highest peaks without a safety net: Triumph or fail, they do so in the very public sphere of the concert hall.

A concert is not called a “performance” – and its participants “performers” – for nothing. Like an actor inhabiting a character created by a playwright, so the musician takes on a special role for the duration of the concert. Like actors, they also wear special clothes for the occasion, which further defines their role, and the occasion occurs in a special building, often in darkness or semi-darkness. Thus the concert becomes an experience outside the realm of daily existence – for audience and performer.

Every physical act you do when you’re on stage is part of the drama of the performance. Playing a concert is theater. It’s one of the reasons I think we should have a different costume for playing a concert, as opposed to listening to a concert. It doesn’t have to be tails, but I think we need to emphasize that this is something that’s not of the everyday.

– Stephen Hough, concert pianist (from an interview with Pacific Standard

Milton Court, London after a concert by America pianist Jeremy Denk
The mystique of the performance begins as the house lights dim, the unspoken signal to the audience to fall silent. A palpable sense of expectancy permeates the concert hall, and the shared adventure of the performance begins as soon as the pianist crosses the stage. The applause, the audience’s way of greeting the performer, and, in return, a bow, the performer’s way of acknowledging the audience. There is no enmity: for the next few hours we are, to quote British pianist Stephen Hough, “all friends”, sharing in the experience, our many differences forgotten for the duration of the concert.

The moments before the performance begins resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, a performance cannot be withdrawn. Silent, poised at the piano, at that moment the pianist has complete control over our reactions:

I sit down, and I don’t move a muscle. I create a sense of emptiness within myself, and in my head I count up to thirty, very slowly. This causes panic in the audience: ‘What’s happening? Is he ill?’. Then and only then I play the G [of Liszt’s Sonata]. In this way, the note sounds totally unexpected, but in an intentional way. Clearly, there’s a sort of theatricality about this, but the theatrical element seems to me very important in music. It’s essential if you want to create a feeling of unexpectedness….

The unexpected, the unforeseen – it’s this that creates an impression

– Sviatoslav Richter (from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon)

The best performers (and I don’t necessarily mean the most famous or technically assured) are the ones who take us into their confidence, creating an unspoken mutual connection through music. They weave stories for us, create magic, transport us to another place and allow us to forget ourselves and the tedious minutiae of our daily lives.

The pianist’s mystique and the ritual of the concert create a unique connection in time and place between the performer, the music and the audience.

Today, when presenting classical music seems to be all about “accessibility”, the mystique of performance can be lost in the desire to “connect” with the audience “extra-musically”, so to speak, by talking to the audience, for example, to break down barriers. It’s great to enjoy classical music in a more relaxed setting; it’s interesting when the performers introduce the programme, discuss their particular connection to the music, or why they selected it. This can work especially well in smaller venues where the audience and performer are in close proximity. But talking to the audience pre-concert in a big hall is problematic without proper amplification, and the big venues almost naturally lend themselves to a more formal, mystical concert experience. And I think audiences like performers to actively create a sense of mystique – because we know we are mere mortals in the face of such superhuman ability.

The most startling thing can be meeting a concert pianist “off duty”, so to speak. Years ago, long before I started writing this blog, I interviewed a concert pianist at his fairly modest home in leafy suburbia. I have always been fascinated by pianists (still am, as this blog testifies!) and I had an overly romantic image of the “concert pianist” (this was some years before I took up the piano again and learnt how to be a performer myself, which gave me an understanding of what goes on on stage during a concert and the curious psychology of performance). The mystique was dispelled the moment the pianist answered in the door. I remember he was was wearing navy socks of the type one can buy in M&S, and his piano room was not some Lisztian salon, as I had imagined it might be, all crimson swags and a bust of the composer for inspiration, or an ascetic monkish cell, but a tidy “office” equipped with the tools of his trade – a grand piano and a career’s worth of scores neatly lining one wall. The virtuoso at home. This person had kids, and a friendly cat, a mortgage to pay and a car to service: in truth, he was disappointingly ordinary. I had imagined something, someone, more esoteric, and his very ordinariness was a shock – he regarded the fine art of creating beautiful music for others to enjoy as nothing more than something he did day to day, nine to five, just like any other job. In fact, most of the musicians I have met via this blog and my Meet the Artist series, and of course after concerts, are normal people – and they “normalise” the incredibly artistic and highly intellectual thing that they do on stage in order to function day to day and get their work (practising) done. Because for them, music is their job. But of course what marks them out is their ability to transform the normal into the beautiful, the transcendent, the magical……and if we want to preserve that mystique, maybe it is better we don’t meet our pianistic heroes and heroines.

…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius

Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!

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British pianist Stephen Hough in concert

The psychological and emotional reasons why musicians perform and why we feel a need to connect and communicate with audiences is a broad and complex subject. For many musicians, performing is their raison d’être – the need, the will to play, to perform for others, in public, sometimes so overwhelming that it engages them entirely, body and soul.

Perhaps the primary motivation is the desire to share one’s music with others: in discussing the question “Why Perform?” with musician friends and colleagues, the majority of respondents cited “sharing the music” as a significant motivator. Sharing music in concert celebrates common cultural values (identity, history) and performing can be regarded as a “cultural gift”, a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to listen to music. It brings pleasure to performer and to audience – both in terms of pure “entertainment” and also the pleasures of intellectual stimulation and challenge, or being emotionally moved. Alongside this, performing gives voice to the human condition and the meaning of life, and examines and confronts shared values in ways which transcend spoken language. Through sharing in a musical performance, we can celebrate togetherness and common purpose.

By performing the great works we share in something which is so much greater than ourselves, celebrating and appreciating brilliant human beings, like Mozart or Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler. Performing is a form of conservation or “curation”, by keeping these great works alive; it also looks after and inspires the next generation – musicians and concert goers.

On a more personal level performing satisfies an inner, more selfish need – the need to be valued and appreciated, the need to impress, to be loved even. It gives us something to live for and to work towards. Performing is a very special form of self-expression and fulfillment, creating experiences that only exist “in the moment” of the performance and then resonate in our individual and collective memories. A performance offers audience, and performer, a single, one-off interpretation of or “variation” on the piece, remembered and/or preserved only as that interpretation.

From a practical point of view, performing endorses and validates what we do in the practice room, and confirms that we have done our practising and preparation correctly. It holds the music up for scrutiny and offers insights about the music and the music-making process which simply cannot be obtained in the practice room, and keeps us in touch with that process from beginning to end. A successful performance demonstrates that we have practised deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand fully what is meant by “music making”. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”? 

Performances are unique occasions where we live in, and for, the moment. They should never be like rehearsals and for a succession of fleeting moments, the music lives beyond the written score. For those of us who perform, at whatever level, it is probably the most challenging, and satisfying, thing we will ever do.

making an audience feel something profound, moving or incredible never gets any less wonderful and it’s the best job in the worldHeather Bird, double bassist

 

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

 

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!

On practising and performing

As I prepare for a rather important concert, I’m struck yet again how as performing musicians we have to develop a split personality. This somewhat schizophrenic state (or states) of being has to do with our need to understand and appreciate the difference between practising and performing.

The most visible way in which we differentiate between practiser and performer is how we dress. We wear special clothes for concerts, often quite glamorous clothes that we would never wear in our everyday lives. These clothes do several things: they identify us and singly us out for the audience; and they serve to remind us that we have a special role to fulfill. In effect, our concert clothes become our “uniform”. In previous eras of concerts, it was very easy to identify the performer: men wore the traditional concert uniform of white tie and tails while women wore evening gowns, but today the concert dress code has become far more relaxed, to the extent that some musicians prefer to wear jeans and sneakers, perhaps thinking that this makes them more accessible to their audience by dressing in similar clothes. In fact, I am not sure audiences want performers to look like them: audiences want performers to look like performers as this enhances the sense of wonder and “other-worldness” of a live performance.

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The Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in the traditional male concert attire of white tie and tails

When I put on one of my concert outfits (I do not perform that frequently so I have only a couple of concert dresses, but these are worn only for concerts), I know I am stepping into a special role and with that comes a special mindset unique to the performer.

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Yuja Wang (photo: The Telegraph)

The British pianist Stephen Hough in a radio broadcast about the practice of practising points out that we “can’t wear both costumes at once” and emphasises the need to clearly differentiate between the work we do in the practise room and what we do on stage. In practise, we must be perfectionist – precise, focussed, thoughtful – while on stage we become “the bohemian artist” (Hough), living in the moment and creating music with spontaneity and imagination. To get to that point we have to put in many hours, days and months of meticulous work: it is the detailed perfectionist work that enables us to perform with freedom, and knowing we are well-prepared can result in a performance that is expressive, imaginative, emotional, and passionate. But if we take too many of the neuroses of the practise room into our performance, we may end up with a performance which can feel stilted, controlled and lacking in artistry, even if technically assured.

Of course, it is also important to practise being a performer. For those musicians who perform regularly, either solo or in ensemble, the process of preparation and act of performing becomes almost second-nature, and a busy diary ensures that programmes are stress-tested in a variety of venues before the most important concert (at, say, London’s Wigmore Hall, or Carnegie Hall in New York). For students, and for those of us who perform less frequently, we can practise engaging and utilising a performer’s mindset from the comfort of our music studios and practise rooms, or by giving house concerts or recitals in places which feel “safe” or non-threatening. We learn to play  “in the moment” and to skim over errors or slips (while making a mental note to fix these things at the next practise session). Sadly, I find many of my students obsess about “getting it right”, a habit which I suspect is encouraged by their schools and/or parents, and while I encourage them to be perfectionist and careful in their practising, when preparing for performance (whether an exam, audition or concert), an overly pedantic approach, whereby the student constantly stops to correct errors, can lead to playing which lacks fluency and interrupts the flow of the music. Learning to let go is also an important aspect of the art and craft of practising and a habit which, ultimately, should make us confident, creative performers.

Further reading

Stephen Hough on the fear of performance

Understanding and coping with the stress of performance

We all have a tendency to post-mortem our performance after a concert, audition, or exam, focusing on the negatives and the errors rather than the good things, and in the heightened state of sensitivity that often accompanies such occasions, small errors can become huge. Of course it is important to review what happened and to reflect upon it, for this informs our future practising, but dwelling too long on mistakes is not healthy as it can  negatively colour our attitude to our music making.

Wouldn’t it wonderful if we could see into the future and predict what is going to happen in a performance? To be able to look ahead and figure out all the things that could go wrong, and try to work out what you can do to prevent those things from happening. We might call this a “pre-mortem”.

The “pre-mortem” technique of risk assessment was devised by research psychologist Gary Klein who found that “prospective hindsight” – imagining that the event has already happened – increases and improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes. We can use this technique to help us prepare for stressful situations – such as performing – and a pre-mortem ahead of that potentially high-stress situation can ensure that rational thinking and reactions are available to you despite the inevitable physical and emotional side-effects of stress.

As musicians the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves is good preparation. This is not simply practising at the piano but also recording and filming ourselves, playing to other people (teachers, friends, colleagues), playing other pianos, giving practise performances ahead of the big day, visualising the performance and imagining the sounds of the music in our head before we play, recalling previous successful performances, and engaging in positive, affirmative and mindful thinking. This is the musician’s “prospective hindsight” toolbox.

Managing our anxiety is another important aspect – and I refute anyone who says they do not feel nervous ahead of a performance, whether they are a world-class internationally-renowned musician or a young person taking Grade 5. Being nervous is normal; it is also a sign that you care about what you are doing. Understanding why we are nervous is also important: when asked, most people will respond that it is fear of making a mistake that fuels the anxiety.

Fundamentally, performance anxiety is fuelled by straightforward fear, and this is hard-wired into our physiology. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: when face-to-face with a predator, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode and releases stress hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol, which cause certain bodily systems to shut down (for example, the digestive system, the libido, and the immune system) to focus on supplying the brain and muscles with much-needed blood, glucose (sugars) and salts to enable the body to react immediately: stand and fight that sabre-toothed tiger or flee from it as quickly as possible. The physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweating, nausea, trembling – are entirely due to the release of stress hormones, and one’s anxiety can actually increase by worrying about these symptoms.

In a performance situation, the body reacts in exactly the same way as in the sabre-toothed tiger scenario, and the physical side-effects of stress hormones flooding the body can be extremely unsettling when we are trying to be as calm as possible in order to play accurately and well. Many of the techniques suggested for alleviating performance anxiety are to do with “kidding” one’s mental state – positive affirmation (“I can do it!”), Neuro-Linguistic Programming, mindfulness – which can distract one’s mind away from negative thoughts and damaging self-criticism. There are also some very useful physical strategies, including deep-breathing (Pilates-style thoracic breathing) and power poses, which have been proven to reduce cortisol and increase testosterone. In addition to the unpleasant physical symptoms before the performance, many of us also suffer afterwards due the depletion of sugars and salts during physical effort, and the effect of the stress hormones leaving the body and the body settling back into its normal state. frustrated-piano-teacherThese symptoms, which may linger for a good 24 hours post-performance, can include tiredness, grumpiness or depression, and physical aches and pains. Personally, I have found these symptoms more unpleasant than those of pre-performance anxiety. That is until a pianist friend of mine, who is a medic at a leading London teaching hospital, suggested I try using an isotonic sports drink before and after a performance.

Sports people use isotonic drinks, which contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar as in the human body, to help fuel the body when exercising, and to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates which are depleted during exercise. These drinks (the leading brands are Powerade and Gatorade) have also been proven to help patients recover more quickly after undergoing complex colorectal surgery (surgery which puts the body under significant stress) resulting in reduced morbidity rates. I used Powerade before and after a recent concert and took note of the effects. Certainly, I didn’t feel as physically or mentally tired after the performance (c45 minutes of continuous playing of advanced repertoire), and by continuing to drink Powerade on the drive home after the concert seemed to reduce the post-concert slump and the aches and pains I usually experience the day after. An understanding of what my body was undergoing physically before, during and after the performance certainly helped too, and I think if more musicians appreciated the physiological effects of stress they may be better equipped to cope with the psychological side effects too: it largely is not “all in the mind”, rather it is “all in the body”.

Until fairly recently, performance anxiety was a taboo subject for most musicians. To discuss it openly may betray a weakness which might lead to loss of work and by default income. Today many of the leading conservatoires and music colleges have courses, workshops and practitioners in place to help students understand and cope with performance anxiety: the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for example, offers a course in mindfulness for performers, while the Royal College of Music has a dedicated Centre for Performance Science. I believe that a better understanding of the physical effects of stress combined with a positive and sympathetic approach to the emotional and psychological effects will enable musicians to not only discuss performance anxiety more openly with teachers and colleagues, but also put in place effective personal strategies to enable them to play with confidence, fluency, expression and vibrant colour.

 

Further reading

How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed – TED talk by Dr Daniel Levitin

Your body language shapes who you are – TED talk by Amy Cuddy

Science finds new way to overcome your performance anxiety

 

(Header photo from livescience.com)