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 on 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 ‘conquer’ 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!’). 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 full of 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:
Most of us, surely, would love to feel all these things during a concert! 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, finding joy and presence during performance, but there are many other doorways. Alexander Technique, T’ai Chi and Feldenkrais, for example. Whatever discipline we choose, it seems that practicing the following things are key:
1.Power versus strength
Power and flexibility replace strain and effort when we work with core muscles and tension and release in an efficient way.
Becoming comfortable with an alert, relaxed state replaces fear of being ‘out of control’.
Becoming aware of thought in the form of planning, judging, remembering and commenting and how it can take us out of the present moment.
Through breath-work we practice the principles – inspiration and expression, tension and release, taking in and letting go, expansion and contraction – that connect us to music, to life, to ourselves and to one another.
The next Breathing Bow retreat will be held in Provence with Ruth Phillips and Jane Fenton. 16-20 October 2018.
Ruth Phillips was Born in London in 1964 and studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School with William Pleeth, and in Dusseldorf with Johannes Goritzki. In 1990, Ruth left a successful career with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe to continue her studies with Timothy Eddy at the State University of New York where she received her Masters’ degree in performance.
Described as a ‘consummate coach’, Ruth draws on her training as a Voice Movement Therapist, and on many years’ work with yoga, mindfulness, meditation and Non-Violent Communication. Her generous spirit and organic approach to playing has helped people all over the world suffering from tension and stage fright find presence, ease and inspiration. Ruth runs individual Breathing Bow retreats from her home in Provence and has run workshops at the European String Teacher’s Association conference, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music. With her colleagues, Alexander teacher and cellist Dale Culliford, and yoga teacher and cellist Jane Fenton, Ruth runs group Breathing Bow retreats throughout Europe.
Ruth has an active life as a solo, orchestral and chamber musician on both baroque and modern cellos. Passionate about all types of music, she enjoys regular collaborations with folk singers, The Brothers Gillespie, and the Indian cellist Saskia Rao. She is co-principal cellist of Opera Fuoco in Paris. Ruth’s writing on breath and performance has appeared in many publications including The Strad and BBC music magazines, and her book, ‘Cherries from Chauvet’s Orchard’ was shortlisted for the Guardian women’s memoir award. She was involved in John Beder’s 2016 documentary on stage fright, ‘Composed’, and her playing of Bach is featured on the soundtrack.