NEWS: Rachmaninov Preludes CD awarded a Deutscher Schallplattenpreis22 September 2009
Ravel in Manchester - more on performance anxiety03 September 2009
I rarely get nervous for concerts but one exception was a recent performance of Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit' and 'La Valse' at the Chetham's piano summer school. I'd played the works for the first time two days previously and had not been very happy with how they had gone. Now I had to face the fear of embarrassing myself in front of people like Bernard Roberts and Peter Donohoe, not to mention a whole room full of piano students. It was made worse by the fact that I'd not been able to practise at full strength for a while - I'd been plagued by minor muscle strains for weeks - and so I didn't feel completely prepared. The unpleasant novelty of being nervous about a concert gave me a lot to think about, and made me realise how unhelpful nerves can be: I started to imagine disastrous mishaps, and lost the unquestioning trust I normally have in my abilities. Nevertheless, when I finally came to perform I felt once again as I normally do - relaxed and excited to be on stage. So what changed in the interim? I'll come to that in a moment.
A common view among musicians is that nerves are inevitable and even useful up to a point. But why should they be inevitable? If you can play something well in your practice room, why not on stage? My experience is that the more relaxed I am on stage, the better I play, and I can honestly say that before most concerts I have no nerves at all, only excitement. This issue comes into sharp relief when we think about the very widespread fear of public speaking; in some surveys it comes out as the number one fear, ahead even of death. That tells us something very important about how irrational we can be when it comes to being isolated in front of a group. What possible harm can come to us? If we speak easily to individuals every day, why should we suddenly become tongue-tied giving a speech? Clearly, a speech needs structure and concision - there is a certain skill involved there. But that doesn't explain why the thought of it should induce panic. Somehow, we perceive a level of threat which is completely illusory, and our audience can seem to become a pack of wild animals waiting to devour us. This is a fascinating question to ponder - what is going on in our brains? Surely some kind of ancient memories are being evoked, whether from early childhood or from our evolutionary past. If anyone can suggest further reading on this, I'd be very interested. The important point is to realise that our rational thinking gets hijacked by our 'fight or flight' response, and that our perception of risk becomes seriously warped.
I think this is a helpful context for thinking about musical performance. If it is common to panic at the thought of simply talking to a group, it should not come as a surprise that something as physically complex as playing a musical instrument could create at least as much fear. Anecdotally, I know of several very eminent musicians who suffer greatly from performance anxiety, and my suspicion is that there are virtually no performers who do not struggle with it from time to time. While one can certainly talk about various rational fears - playing wrong notes, not conveying the feeling of a piece, disappointing oneself/one's teacher/one's friends, damaging one's career and so on - I think the reality is that often these fears get confused with the much stronger, 'fight or flight' kind of fear. Certainly, that was my experience before the concert in Manchester. I thought I was worried about appearing rather foolish to people I respected, but I came to realise it was a much more visceral feeling than that, a feeling of profound threat. Once I understood that, it became easier to deal with. I don't think this kind of irrational fear can be reasoned with; I had tried telling myself that I could play these pieces pretty well but that made no difference to my anxiety. What helped me was examining the fear as calmly as I could, noting its irrationality, and placing it alongside what I knew to be the truth of the situation - that the fear didn't reflect reality, that the audience were not 'wild animals', and that I was capable of performing well. This is a process which needs patience and curiosity, but in holding these contradictory positions together in my mind I found the fear gradually dissipating and, in the end, disappearing altogether. I regained that sense of trust in my abilities and in the audience's receptiveness, and the concert ended up being deeply satisfying, an outcome almost unimaginable to me 24 hours before. I found the whole experience a salutory lesson in how much more control we have over our minds than we sometimes think, and how needless nerves can be.
There's one other thing which I think is worth mentioning - a Buddhist meditation practice called the 'Metta Bhavana' (the links on the left of the page take you through it) which explores our feelings towards ourselves and others. I'm not Buddhist but I think this practice is a very useful antidote to performance anxiety because it emphasises our common humanity and strikes at the illusion that the performer is different from the audience. That means you have to give up a sense of specialness as a performer, but it also means you no longer see the audience as a hostile mob. In the end, I think both changes are extremely helpful.
Gaspard de la nuit - believe the hype01 September 2009
It's a while since I've written because I've been completely taken up with preparing Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit' and 'La Valse', which I finally performed last week after many months of work. Gaspard is one of those works which is sometimes referred to as 'the hardest piece ever written' in piano folklore. Other favoured contendors for the title are Rachmaninov's 3rd piano concerto and Balakirev's Islamey. Then we move into the super-virtuosity of Alkan and the brain-twisting complexities of Sorabji's 'Opus Clavicembalisticum'. Of course, there can be no decisive winner in this contest - every pianist has different strengths and weaknesses. A friend from school, David Horne, could play repeated octaves faster than the devil himself and could rattle off Islamey without much trouble; learning that would probably land me in the sanitorium. But I remember him asking me how I made a particular sound on the piano and no amount of demonstrating could help him grasp it. When I initially looked at Gaspard, I thought it would suit me quite well - it is very much focussed on effects of sonority - and while I certainly found it taxing to learn, it was only two weeks before the performances that I started to appreciate quite what a challenge it is.
Learning a new piece is an unpredictable process - sometimes the work proceeds very quickly at the beginning then more slowly later. Sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes it's all slow or all quick. But in my experience there's always a final 'hump' to get over, when I can just about play the piece at speed but it feels a bit awkward and uncomfortable. Normally this only takes a few days at most to overcome but with Gaspard it took weeks (and even now I'm not quite 'over the hump'). Scarbo, the 3rd movement, has the most fearsome reputation, and indeed it goes by so quickly with so few regular patterns that it is as much a challenge for the concentration as the fingers. But to me even worse is the first movement, Ondine, which is essentially a very simple piece: a long, hypnotic melody with shimmering accompaniment. Ravel's depiction of the water nymph trying to seduce a mortal man is an astounding achievement, both in its musical effect and its imaginitive exploration of piano technique. Unfortunately for the performer, technical feats which would be rather tricky at a moderate volume here become appallingly difficult because they have to be played almost inaudibly but absolutely evenly. I think this might be the cruelest piece I've ever played because the amazing atmosphere Ravel creates can be broken in a moment if there is a brief lapse of control; it's as if someone gives you a priceless Ming vase then tells you to carry it across black ice wearing slippery shoes. The strange thing is, Ravel was a mediocre pianist at best (there are a couple of recordings of him playing), and I struggle to understand how a composer of such limited pianistic ability was able to create a work which explores the possibilities of the piano in such a prodigiously creative fashion.
So, how were the performances? Well, frankly I felt a bit daunted in the first concert, aware of the scale of the challenge, and I wasn't satisfied with the results. That made me very nervous thinking about the second concert which was at a piano summer school at Chetham's school, Manchester - so many pianists listening! More on that in the next entry, because there's a lot to say about it. But, suffice it to say, after this second performance I was starting to feel like this could be an enormously satisfying piece to perform.
NEWS: Rachmaninov preludes and Britten concerto discs nominated for Gramophone Awards13 August 2009
Spannugen festival04 August 2009
Well, I'm rather late talking about this - almost a whole month late (I've been too preoccupied learning Ravel Gaspard and La Valse) - but I have to make some comments on this fantastic chamber music festival in the German village of Heimbach, run by Lars Vogt. I've been twice before, and every time it makes a great impression on me, both for the quality of music-making and the sheer fun of it. Lars is a very special guy and musician, and he tries to invite musicians who he feels are more interested in the music than their ego; he obviously has a good nose for it because the intensity of music-making is something I have very rarely experienced elsewhere. There is a concert every night for a week, and it's actually a slightly surreal experience because there are so many stupendous performances that you come to expect such quality as a matter of course. All the musicians and their family/friends eat together after the concerts and there is really a great atmosphere if you don't mind the frequent danger of being hit by sodden paper napkin projectiles. This all makes me reflect on two things. The quality of chamber music sky-rockets when you can have a laugh with your colleagues; and generally the most profound musicians I know are also the silliest. I can't recommend the festival highly enough if you fancy a summer music getaway. Unless you eat with the musicians, you have nothing to fear from wet napkins.... The website is www.spannugen.de
Stravinsky in Aldeburgh18 June 2009
I played for the first time Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments last week in Aldeburgh. I have difficulty getting on with some of Stravinsky's neoclassical works - to me they can be so abstract and 'unemotional' that I can't find a way in - but this concerto I'm coming to love. It's witty, touching, exuberant, and marvellously structured. There are also veiled military references (the work was written in 1920), which provide a fascinating counterbalance to the generally upbeat character. I had the good fortune to be performing with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, particularly given the challenge of performing a work of such precision in the sumptuously resonant acoustic of the Snape Maltings.
I find the first performance of a concerto a challenging task because there's no way to anticipate certain imponderables in the practise room. How easy is it to hear important orchestral detail on stage? How loud do I have to be to balance the orchestra? What are the important things to discuss with the conductor? Where is the orchestra likely to be dragging (almost never the opposite!)? And, simply, what does it feel like to play the work with the orchestra present? Also, a first performance of anything is invariably little more than a sketch of what one will in time bring to a work, because it takes many performances to find one's way into the emotional depths of a piece. To take an extreme example, the first time I played Messiaen's Vingt Regards (at two and a quarter hours length), it felt like a massive test of endurance. But over the years, the work has felt shorter and shorter in concert as I become more used to the scale of it, and now starting to perform the work feels a bit like settling into a comfy sofa. Strange analogy, maybe, but not far from the truth. So, returning to the Stravinsky, Jurowski was particularly helpful for this 'first performance': he conducted with complete assurance (it's a complex score), and brought strong ideas of his own which fleshed out a couple of areas where my own ideas were not fully formed. I keep getting the idea that the conductor acts a bit like a midwife in this kind of situation, but that means I'm comparing the challenge of a first performance with getting a baby out of one's belly, and that seems to slightly overstate the case....
New Zealand and Malaysia17 June 2009
Well, it's a while since I've written anything despite a pretty eventful few weeks. The reason is that I generally feel like I should have something of at least moderate interest to say - simply writing, "I went here, I played lovely concerts with this orchestra and conductor, I had beans for breakfast" etc. seems pretty pointless. Nevertheless, it has got to the point where I feel I should say hi, so to speak.
A couple of weeks ago I came back from a month's trip to New Zealand and Malaysia. I was quite stunned by the beauty of the former; I think it's the only place I've ever visited where I thought to myself, "I could really imagine living here". Of course that idea didn't survive more than a couple of seconds once I considered where I play most of my concerts, but I felt very much at home in the midst of this marvellous scenery and rather relaxed pace of life. I hear that people in Wellington complain they have a long commute to work if the drive takes 15 minutes! I was touring the north island with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Matthias Bamert, a really enjoyable collaboration for us all, I think. Then on to Kuala Lumpur to play Mozart with the Malaysian Philharmonic and Claus Peter Flor. I spent a lot of time looking at the Petronas Towers out of my hotel window. I just can't quite get it into my head that humans are capable of building something like this. If I think about it, actually, I'm amazed by most feats of engineering, despite my dad having been a civil engineer. Simply building a house seems to me an astounding technical achievement. I guess, like playing an instrument, it's just the convergence of a very large number of distinct skills, most of which I could readily understand if I took the time to explore, but for the Towers I can't quite shake a sense of amazement, as if it's akin to magic. How did we ever achieve this mastery over the world?
Swine flu, the news, risk-assessment and performance anxiety01 May 2009
Is the feeling that the world is going slowly mad a sign of middle-age? If so, I'd better buy my slippers and pipe. I've just listened to a full 15 minutes of a 30 minute BBC news bulletin devoted to the terrifying threat (sic) that swine flu poses to the world. We had the worse case scenario explored in intimate detail with only a fleeting acknowledgement that this probably won't occur. Never mind that only one person outside of Mexico has died from the disease, or that the Mexican government recently downgraded the number of deaths conclusively linked to swine flu from 20 to 7, or that many thousands of people already die every year from flu and its complications. People with the virus seem to be recovering quickly? Well, one of the programme's guests warned us that the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 appeared relatively benign when it first appeared, only to end up killing tens of millions. In other words, everybody panic! In a rare missed trick, the newscasters neglected to warn us that a large asteroid hitting the planet would probably wipe out life as we know it. Increasingly the news seems to be an elaborate theatre in which distorted snippets of current events are used to terrify the wits out of us. The sad thing is, it must be what we want or else the news providers wouldn't find it a profitable angle to pursue.
A few months after 9/11, I remember seeing Dr Phil on American TV being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. (For those who don't know Dr Phil, he's a US talk show host who prides himself on his reason and empathic skills. Is it possible anyone doesn't know Oprah?) He said that given the terrorist danger the country faced at that time, he judged it was too risky to take his son to a football game. Oprah nodded sagely. And yet presumably, neither found it too risky to step into their car, despite 42,000 people being killed in car accidents in the US in 2001. I was amazed and disturbed that two of the most trusted personalities in America were publicly advocating such a paranoid response to terrorism.
Why do people take such irrational stances towards risk? On the one hand it's understandable - an unfamiliar risk is scarier than a familiar one because you don't know its extent, but that shouldn't stop adults being able to reflect on the risk and put it in a sensible perspective. Maybe the problem is that people who live in societies of greatly reduced risks (from death in childbirth, food shortage, waterborne disease etc.) can lose their tolerance to it. We imagine in fact that we are in control of our lives, immune from disaster, and so every little threat that emerges is intolerable. We are clearly not helped in this by a news system intent on fostering that paranoia in us. I went to see my financial adviser yesterday who surprised me by saying that the stock market had risen by about 25% in the last month. I listen to the news on the radio regularly as well as reading a couple of newspapers online, yet I didn't notice about this. After months of disastrous economic headlines it seems pretty dishonest that this information didn't make it into the news in any significant way.
Yesterday I held a seminar on performance anxiety at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance in Glasgow. Here again, the question of risk arises, and it's a thorny one. It is common for people to be nervous of performing, often very nervous. (I asked at the beginning if anyone didn't experience nerves - not one hand went up.) But what actually is the nature of the risk? What is the problem with playing badly? If you think about jobs with real pressure - deciding whether or not to go to war, performing brain surgery, being a firefighter - it is clear that nothing terrible can happen to a performer. Only our ego can be damaged, and what's so very bad about that? There is often a large disparity between the reality of the 'threat' and a performer's experience of it - the audience can be imagined as a very hostile, critical group when by and large they are simply there to enjoy themselves. Coming to grips with this disparity is a crucial part of developing as a performing musician.
Clearly there can be practical consequences to playing badly - in a competition, it can mean not advancing to the next round, in concert it can mean bad reviews, over a long period of time it can damage a career or prevent it from happening in the first place. And here there is a cruel irony - almost invariably the more relaxed you are about the quality of a performance, the better you play, but the more determined you are to play well, the more tense you get. So how do you foster that sense of relaxation, of 'not caring'? In the course of the discussion yesterday, a point came up which relates to the risk-phobia of our culture. No-one can create a career in music for themselves - there is so much luck involved. I suspect the terror of playing badly is often related to a fantasy that you are in control of your destiny, that your success or failure depends entirely on you: that way you don't have to accept the fact that many forces are outside of your control. The realisation that life can be unpredictable and unfair is a double-edged sword, both painful and freeing, and it can help a performer to forget about reaching for success and simply play for no other reason than the joy of experiencing and sharing music with others. In my opinion, this is when real music-making happens.
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