And breathe...

By Ruth_Phillips  -  02 October 2017

I am convinced that stage fright, or performance anxiety, is not a mysterious beast whom we have to conquer or slay, but rather a lack of embodied presence. Just as we acknowledge the fundamental importance of working on scales, an alert, easy awareness in the moment is something that can be practiced both mentally and physically, and that practice can, I believe, transform stage fright into stage presence.

I started the cello at the age of 4 and, from the age of 7, had to get up every morning to practice an hour before school. I was so uncomfortable in my body for so much of my childhood that I was unable to feel any connection to the instrument, and I remember these times as being excruciating. Later on, at the Yehudi Menuhin School, an awkward and somewhat overweight teenager who did no physical activity or sport, I tried to concentrate on the three and a half hours of practice I was supposed to do every day. The French word for practice – ‘répéter’ – comes to mind. My practice consisted of inching the metronome slowly upward from largo as I repeated series of notes, hoping that one day the notes would speed up.  At the age of seventeen I moved to Dusseldorf to study with Johannes Goritzki and spent my last three teenage years  doing more of this thing called ‘practicing’. Inspired by the dreamy sound and passionate imagery of my teacher, I tried to fix every split second of every note into a thing of beauty, creating ‘my interpretation’ of the music. My scores were illegible, so thick were they with the directions I gave myself. A page of the Debussy sonata from that time runs: “Near bridge. Near fingerboard. Julien Sorel. Ugh! OFF!  ON! Chinese. Sarcastic. Devil tries to be an expressive guitar. Go on! Get the bloody notes right! Moonlight. Loneliness. Not too much vib. Not too loud. Loud! VIB!! Just touch the fingerboard. Shh! he hasn’t made it yet. Shoots himself’. Bliss!”

To this day, I do not know how much those hours of practice served me. What I find myself asking often is: Where was my attention during that time? The answer is, more often than not – in my head. I was thinking about the music and thinking about technique, thinking about what it should or shouldn’t sound like, thinking about bow changes, shifts, pressure, speed, if my teacher or my mum would like it, the out of tune note in the bar before, the spiccato in next bar…. I wasn’t actually feeling anything, and my attention surely was not directed towards my body, or the present moment. It is no wonder that, though an accomplished cellist and a committed musician, I was unable to perform in public.

Two comments brought glimmers of enlightenment.

The first was whilst playing a Beethoven sonata in a masterclass for the great pianist Andras Schiff. I had labored especially hard over ‘my interpretation’ of the piece and, as I played the exposition, I sensed Schiff was listening with interest. However, on the repeat, after several bars he stopped me. ‘Once, I believe you.’ he said. ‘Twice, you are a liar!’. This experience, as I now see it, was an invitation (which took me the next two decades to take up) to come into the present moment.

The next experience was much later. I had been working professionally in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for six years. My instrument had been smashed on tour and consequently, without the thing behind which I was used to hiding, I was suffering a breakdown of confidence in the concerts. I decided to deal with my problems by going to the United States to study with Timothy Eddy. In my first lesson, when I finished playing, Tim said ‘Ruthie. Something inside of you has to move before you are moved to play’. This statement was, as I see it now, an invitation to become embodied.

Embodied Presence.

I have traveled, and indeed continue to travel on many paths towards becoming present on stage, and all these paths, though inspired by different musicians, natural phenomena, disciplines and cultures, have one thing in common. The Breath. ‘The Breathing Bow’ has arisen out of necessity for me. It has been my way of figuring out how to finally get on stage and enjoy sharing the music I love so much. For me, it has worked, not because it’s anything new but because it is based on organic principles that have existed since the beginning of time, since the first crest of a wave or falling of a leaf.

The Breathing Bow

Apart, of course, from all the wonderful musicians with whom I have had the privilege of working, the two biggest influences on the Breathing Bow are meditation and yoga. In meditation, the breath is used as an anchor to bring us back from our planning and evaluating, back to our bodies and into the present moment, creating a space in which to listen and respond. Through yoga we get in touch with the subtle movement of the spine through the wave of the breath. We stop pushing and pulling and learn, instead, to receive, expand and regenerate through the inhalation, and to let go, elongate and extend through the exhalation. When the expanding and contracting movement of the rib-cage is connected through the arm and hand to the bow (and indeed the fingerboard), the bow becomes another limb, full of life and nuance, through which we can express all the qualities that the breath and the music share – tension and release, expansion and contraction, expression and inspiration, control and letting go, strong and weak – a sort of limousine in which we can rest and enjoy the ride.

Here are a few pointers which, I hope, give an idea of the approach and the things on which I try to help clients focus their attention. The goal, in the end, is that each practice session, rather than achieving mastery of a single phrase or even piece, addresses and raises the awareness of the whole technique, the whole body and the whole musician.

  1. Feeling the breath: Bringing our attention to the breath and having an experiential understanding of how our body responds when we breathe brings a freedom and support that can inform our technique so that it corresponds with our musical intention.
  1. Feeling our musical intention from the inside out. Our desire to play originates in our heart or gut, or our feet, and it is helpful observe and respect the time it takes for that intention to travel through our torso, limbs and fingers and onto the string.
  1. Learning how to practice non-interference. Once we have made a gesture, setting a note or phrase in motion, we can allow that gesture to play itself out whilst we follow and listen. This state of non-doing is not the same as, but can be confused with, being ‘out of control’ and so it can initially cause a feeling of panic. This soon disappears with practice.
  1. Learning to listen to our inner voices: Recognizing judgement, and developing a kind interest in what’s going on. For example, if I say to myself: ‘That was out of tune’ there is no information which I can use. If I observe, however, that a note is flat, I can go back to the preparation of the shift and therefore change its length.
  1. How to generate movement from our core: Engaging the sitting bones and feet, transferring the weight from one side of the body so that it corresponds with the direction of the arm swing round the torso. In other words, learning how to use the big cogs to generate the movement of the smaller ones as we do so perfectly in daily life: walking, reaching, bouncing, stroking. If we listen to it, our body’s wisdom can show us the way to an effortless technique.

The next Breathing Bow retreat with Ruth Phillips and cellist and yoga teacher Jane Fenton will be held in Cornwall between November 21-24. Please contact Ruth for details

About Ruth_Phillips

Co principal cellist of Opera Fuoco, Ruth Phillips is the founder of The Breathing Bow – a holistic approach to the cello and performance coaching.

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