Presence on Stage (Part 1 – Introduction) – 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 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 wall between stage and pit is just one of those that can exist between people, even playing the same music in the same place at the same time. However, thanks to Covid 19, a chink appeared in that wall last night, and through it the twain did most certainly meet.
In the recent and fascinating discussion on the benefits of yoga for musicians on The Exhale, someone asked the question ‘What about Pilates for strengthening the core?’ and, in his answer, my wise yoga teacher, Peter Blackaby, confirmed my hunch that isolating any muscle group or body part, even ‘the core’, to make a movement is counter-productive to flow and energy.
“I knew there was no way I could practice the amount I needed and not just completely destroy my body. I wondered how other people did it. It never occurred to me in college that it was something I could learn”
A desire to make music from the inside-out is growing. I often wonder if it is a reaction to the virtual outside-in world in which so many of us artists find ourselves, and the human and spiritual meaning we long to bring back to the act of making music.