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.
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.
Working consciously with the breath is powerful because we develop a felt sense deep inside the body of the mechanics of movement, of how muscle groups work perfectly together, especially when we change direction (up and down, left to right etc). This felt sense somehow manages to bypass our intellect, which can be a very helpful thing in our learning (or unlearning) process.
Injuries come not from tension, but from lack of life. They occur when things are static. If tension and release were in a healthy relationship, connected to the music and centrally generated in the body, I feel fairly certain there would be no injury.
Have you ever had the feeling when you are talking with someone that they are not listening at all but rather waiting for any cue to jump in with their own point of view? Or do you recognize that kind of non-listening in yourself? And do you sometimes mistake this kind of non-listening for listening when you practice and perform?
Have you ever wondered why so many jazz, world and folk musicians are so relaxed, so chilled? Why their phrases are so often like ripples made from a pebble dropped in water, their movements as natural as the bounces of a skipping stone? I think it is because they are allowing the music to follow its own destiny. Their mind is not constricted by thought and their body not brittle with commands and control. Rather than making the music, they are in a constant state of becoming it.