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