Surely it's not supposed to be like this...

By Ruth_Phillips  -  15 September 2015

I was twenty-nine. I had thus far successfully navigated myself around a life as a professional musician without ever being heard, but there was no avoiding this one - my graduate recital in New York.  How was I going to do it? I felt completely alone and there was no-one to talk to. Having done my daily nine hours’ practice, I started to arrange things in my studio. 

I opened a book at a certain page, placed the Rachmaninov sonata on the music stand and put on ambient lighting. In other words, I prepared my studio in the manner in which I wanted it to be found after my death. I literally did not think I would live through the experience of playing solo on stage in a concert hall. 

Needless to say I did survive the recital, but with a question, which would not stop tugging at me: Surely it was not supposed to be like this?

If there is one thing in common with the people whom I now coach, it is that they all share this question: Surely it is not supposed to be like this? So terrifying, so painful, so distant, so tense, so embarrassing, so breathless, so overwhelming, so stressful…..

My personal journey with stage fright at a time in which it was taboo often felt like like groping in the dark. Via many a side road (including African drumming, yoga, musical therapy, voice-work, and improvisation) I eventually learned to experience and trust my body as my instrument, not the cello, and to love performing. Now, thankfully, doors are opening, the taboo has been lifted and we as teachers can approach this subject with our students as the simple thing I believe it is – an aspect of our profession which we can master.

I live in the middle of the Côtes du Rhône region of Provence and one of my students is a fine bio-dynamic wine maker. She turns up to her lessons with crushed grape skins under her nails, bubbling with the passion of her profession. Though she is fluid and energetic in her movement away from the cello, when seated with her instrument she is wooden, slow and sluggish. And she shakes with nerves. Over a year I help her strip away her constant judgment and replace it with a curiosity and observation, and dismantle the inorganic movements she has learned on the cello and replace them with organic ones. She says Bach is starting to get a look in.

Another student, one could say at the opposite end of the scale from one who claims to play the cello for pleasure, is ensconced in the hectic schedule of a big London orchestra. He is entering the profession at a high level and is already, in his mid twenties, stressed by the schedule and the demands, and sometimes paralyzed with fear.  He practices more and more but it just gets worse. One day he gets off the train at a venue, turns round and gets right back on again, so scared of the concert is he. Sensibly, he has decided to do something about it before either his body or mind crack under the pressure. The work we do over a week-long retreat is intense. We use the breath as a model for inspiration and expression, tension and release, and we draw on it to shape the movement of the bow. He learns how to practice letting go so that ‘being out of control’ is fun and not frightening. We look at where movements originate and how they spiral through us if we let them, and he leaves, I think, with an awareness that there can be space in his mind and body where there was stress and tension. Last I heard he was having tremendous fun both practicing and playing. 

Surely it is supposed to be like this?

Book your own online session with Ruth here

Ruth Phillips runs Breathing Bow retreats for cellists of all levels in the South of France and  will be giving a workshop entitled The Breathing Body, The Breathing Bow, in New Mills on November 27th. To find out more email

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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