Stance and presence

Sometimes I think the hours we spend in the practice room are only half of what makes us successful performers. I don’t wish to minimize the importance of practice–after all, it’s a rare and lucky soul who can achieve greatness without putting in a lot of hours–but consider all the people who practise assiduously and still bomb when they get onstage. I’m sure most of us can think of a sad story of a conservatory classmate who practised 10 hours a day but never “made it” professionally because of a lack of confidence. There’s a reason most bookstores have a large section dedicated to self-help and motivational books. Confidence is a learned skill, and it’s not always easy to learn.

I’ve blogged before (here and here) about my use of self-help literature in the teaching studio. It’s so easy to retreat into the small and rarefied world of classical music that sometimes we forget that people in other fields can have a lot to teach us. But if we take a look at the wider world of performers–whether that’s motivational speakers, actors, or business leaders–it’s clear that everyone who has to perform for a living must find a way to cope with the physical and psychological demands of how to present their “act.” One of my teachers often quoted Stanislavski’s instructions for actors, reminding us that from the minute we walked out on the stage, we had to be “in character.” The rituals of bowing and applause; the (hopefully) graceful descent into the chair, the securing of the endpin into the floor. One of this teacher’s pet peeves was people tuning loudly and for a long time on stage. She made me get into the habit of tuning offstage, or, if I had to play with the piano, checking the tuning of the piano on a digital tuner, then tuning offstage to the tuner, so that nothing should disrupt the drama of the performance.

Another great acting coach, Patsy Rodenburg, shows in this article from The Strad the ways in which we can translate actors’ techniques into classical music. I was surprised and delighted that a teacher who doesn’t even play an instrument would talk to music students and chamber ensembles about breathing together. This is a thing I’ve worked on all my life, and constantly talk to students about, and which is often greeted with mystified expressions. (You don’t have to consult an acting coach to learn how to breathe better, by the way. You can just talk to a brass player.)

Rodenburg also introduces the idea of “presence,” which she divides into three “circles.” The inwards circle, symbolized by the practice room; the “full presence” one, where you connect completely with your audience; and the third, negative circle, where the performer “pushes out” his or her energy. In an interesting analogy with music, she describes the third circle as an actor shouting without truly connecting with an audience. Now that I think about it, I recall going to quite a few plays where some of the actors shouted without really projecting either their voice or their character. I remember being too distracted by the thought that they might damage their voices to enjoy the content of what they were saying. Perhaps that’s how the audience feels about us cellists when we “force” our sound, for fear of not projecting, or of being covered by other instruments?

The article concludes with some of the best advice I’ve heard for young musicians starting out in the profession:

It’s important that people should want to work with you. This means being open, generous and gracious. It’s obvious that if you audition for a job and you’re easier to work with than someone else, you’re going to get the job. Even the way you walk into a room is important — many signs are subliminal. If you walk into an audition room, put your coffee down and slump, you’re saying something about your own self-esteem and sending out a negative vibration. If you come in open and present, people are going to be more interested in you.

Rodenburg’s notions of stance and posture echo the words of quite a different kind of performance coach. In this TED talk, the Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy demonstrates that we can change the perceptions of others, and even our own perception of ourselves, through the mindful use of body language. I’ve always noticed the impression that body language creates in the workplace (consider the embittered, blasé musicians you sometimes meet, with their poor posture and slow movements that scream resentment and boredom, even when their words are polite). But I hadn’t considered that a confident, open stance not only gives a better impression, it actually changes your body chemistry! In Cuddy’s words, you don’t “fake it till you make it, you fake it till you are it.”

What a liberating thought! What if no one was doomed to be unconfident for life? What if we all imagined ourselves as actors on the stage as well as musicians, and used our bodies to convey generosity and grace and presence and confidence? If we treated every musical performance as a theatrical one too? If we came out of ourselves, opening ourselves up with the warmth and energy of leaders?

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