Guest post by Ruth Phillips

Many people ask me on Breathing Bow retreats if stage presence is something we can practice, if it is possible to find a way to be exactly where we are – in a concert hall with an audience right here and right now, about to share what we love?

I believe that the answer is yes.

Musicians’ preparation a concert day can range from taking beta blockers to eating bananas. However, as soon as we are on stage we feel fear. Fear of losing control or mental focus, and above all fear of judgement. Our muscles contract, our heart rate speeds up, we go blank, our bow shakes, we sweat….the list of symptoms for ‘stage fright’ is endless and for many of us, coping with them simply isn’t enough. Why would we want to play music if concerts were merely to be coped with not rejoiced in?

We fight or try to ‘get over’ the fear. We tell ourselves how foolish we are to feel it (‘There’s nothing to be frightened of!’), or we boost ourselves up with ‘positive’ thoughts – which are in fact just judgements (‘You’re wonderful!’ ‘No-one’s here to judge you’). Or we pretend (‘Imagine the public naked!/ that you are on a beautiful beach/that you are Steven Isserlis!’ ) We practice as much control as possible and cram our minds with thoughts.

But what if we were to stop fighting and actually listen to the fear?

Marshall Rosenberg, in his work on ‘Non-Violent Communication’, says that all humans share the same fundamental needs, and that every emotion is the expression of either a met (‘positive’ emotions) or an unmet (‘negative’ emotions) need. Through the ‘negative’ emotion of fear we could bring our attention to the unmet needs that we have as performers, a list of which would go something like this:

Stability

Ease

Efficacy

Space

Freedom

Peace.

Security

Connection

Spontaneity

Presence

Expression

Contribution

Most of us, surely, would love to feel all these things when we are on stage! So, how can we practice them, so that we are fulfilled not just in the practice room but also on stage?

Personally, it is through yoga and meditation that I have been liberated from the prison of fear and found joy and presence on stage, but there are many other doorways. Alexander Technique, T’ai Chi and Feldenkrais, for example. Whatever discipline we choose, it seems to me that practicing the following things are key:

1. Tensegrity (gravity and core muscles)

2. Non-doing.

3. Getting ourselves out of the way

4. Presence

5. Breath.

Tensegrity

Obviously, we need tension to move, even to sit, but we also need release. Life and music are a constant play between tension and release. The pull of a wave, a dominant chord resolving to the tonic, an in and an out-breath, an up and a down bow all express this perfect relationship, the word for which is Tensegrity.

Tens(ion) plus (int)egrity.

“Tensegrity is a structural principal of geometry where shapes benefit from strength and flexibility due to the push and pull of their parts.” – Will Nagel

By using our entire body as a biomechanical system – abandoning ourselves to gravity and having movement flow from our core through to our limbs – we can learn to play with stability, efficacy and ease.

“When the abandonment to gravity comes into action, resistance ceases, fear vanishes, order is regained, nature starts again to function in its natural rhythm and the body is able to blossom fully, allowing the river of life to flow freely through all parts.”

Awakening the spine…Vanda Scaravelli

A note on working with Gravity

It takes strength to hold a bow-arm from the string, and with added adrenalin this becomes even more challenging. Gripping harder we migrate to the tip of the bow to avoid confronting the weight. Practicing in a way that works with, rather than against gravity, however, we reorganize rather than withhold the weight. In forte, for example, the arm is aligned so that there are as few kinks as possible and the weight flows freely into the string. In pianissimo the elbow is low and the weight, unable to travel up the hill of the forearm just as water does not travel up a U-bend, rests at the elbow.

A note on working with the centre of gravity and our core muscles

Every form of skilled or powerful movement on terra firma illustrates that athletic movement works best when power flows freely through the core. – Terry Laughlin, Total Immersion Swimming

The terms can be vague and we often use them incorrectly. Some speak of muscles, some of bones and others of energy centres, but I think most traditions agree that the area around our centre of gravity is key to all movement. When we walk, for example, we move our centre of gravity forward, throwing ourselves off balance, and the released leg swings forward. The swing of the arm in bowing or shifting is no different, with movement happening through release and not tension.

Another example of movement coming from our centre is the twist of the torso. The cello teacher, Steve Doane, talks about finding the horizontal axis of movement by sweeping one’s gaze from left to right as one crosses from the A to the C string or shifts up the fingerboard. This works because we do not shift our gaze just with our eyes or even just our head. There is corresponding shift – an imperceptible twist from left to right – at our centre. Doane says:

“This swing supports the shifting motion by communicating energy from the feet through the hips to the back and arms. It is an essential part of your dynamic cellistic balance.” -‘The Owl’ exercise – Cello Ergonomics

Initiating movement from our core does not mean hurling ourselves about. In fact, by making sure the big cogs power the little cogs, movement becomes more efficient. Just try the string crossing exercise with the opposite core movement – turning from right to left as you cross from A-C strings on the cello – and you will see how restricted your natural power and flow is.

Non-doing

“To relax is not to collapse….It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings.”- (Vanda Scaravelli – Awakening the Spine.)

The tennis player observes the ball as it leaves his racket and completes the trajectory he has sent it on. He is no longer ‘in control’ of the ball but rather relaxed, alert and watchful. Primed for the return. Once we have learned to initiate movement from our core, we must also practice this attitude on non-doing, in which we find space, peace and freedom.

A note on practicing non-doing

Working with the breath is a wonderful way to practice release and non-doing. Rather than controlling every millimeter of the stroke, the out-breath is used to lead the release of the bow, and the in-breath to lead the preparation. At the end of the out-breath there is a still point, just as there is in the arc of the bow, the arc of a phrase.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement.

And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. – TS Eliot

Getting ourselves out of the way

“When we relax about imperfection, we no longer lose our life moments in the pursuit of being different and in the fear of what is wrong.” – Tara Brach, meditation teacher

We fear that unless we inject every phrase with our ‘personality’, our ‘interpretation’ will be boring. However, when a musical line falls like an autumn leaf, or rises like an eagle soaring on a thermal, is this our personality? Or our interpretation? When we are able to get ourselves out of the way, there is no ‘I’ to judge or be judged. Because there is no judgement there is no duality, no perfection, no imperfection, no right, no wrong, no them (the audience) and us (the performer). Instead, there is security and connection.

Presence

“In order to really be, you have to be free from the thinking…”

“Non-thinking is an art and, like any art, it requires patience and practice.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh (Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise)

Thought is necessary. We need to think during our practice – about the composer’s life, the harmony, the metre, the structure – but thought in the form of planning, judging, remembering and commenting takes us out of the present moment, which inhibits our ability to listen. Observation, however, which we develop through meditation practice, focuses our attention on the present and brings spontaneity.

The Breath

“The bow must be a living thing at all times, and all living things need to breathe” – Steven Isserlis, cellist.

For me, the breath is the thing that binds all of this together. No-wonder it is at the root of so many spiritual practices! It is inspiration and expression, tension and release, taking in and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is not ‘ours’ though it passes through us, and it connects us with ourselves, our bodies and the audience. With all living things. The ocean breathes, trees breathe….It is everything we are and everything music is. When we are aligned and in harmony, we feel as if we are being breathed, just as we can, in performance, feel like the music is playing us. Only then we can find true expression and make a contribution.

 


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

Next retreat in Provence: 16 – 20 October 2018

What is Stage Presence and how do we practice it?

Autumn retreat in Provence with Ruth Phillips and Jane Fenton – October 16-20th   Exploring tension, release and space through yoga, breath and mindfulness. Held in a magnificent Provencal farmhouse, and catered by whole-food chef, Tara Lee Byrne. Open to all musicians – amateurs, students and professionals

Further information and booking thebreathingbow.com

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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