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Finding emotional safety on stage

In the UK at the moment, we’re in the middle of a political crisis and a crisis in society in general. It’s been brought about by a referendum nearly three years ago in which we had a binary choice: to leave or remain in the EU. What has happened as a result of that vote has been extraordinary. Friendships have been lost, couples have come to blows, racist and violent attacks have increased exponentially and some politicians have even had death threats. And then there’s the ‘new’ form of abuse: cyber-bullying. It’s fear that is at the bottom of a person wanting to lash out with vitriol and it covers up a very human need to be heard and understood, to my mind at least. Attacking the ‘other’ and then being attacked back, makes a person vulnerable and even more fearful. What is so desperately needed is listening and cooperation.

But this blog is not a political commentary and I’m not even going to state my political views here. What the Brexit craziness has done for me, once I can step back from it and gain some much-needed perspective, is to give me insights into what we all need as human beings. I want to then translate this into what we need as musicians in order to be creative and expressive in performance.

Fear and anxiety in performance Fear can cripple musicians when they perform. It might be the fear of being judged by the audience, audition panel or colleagues; it may be the fear of being seen to be ‘less than’ in some way; it might be the memory of an overly critical teacher or conductor that can’t be shaken off. Whatever the cause, fear gets in the way of the musician performing at their peak: it disables rather than enables.

Cartoon of monster behind cellist

Emotional safety on stage What we need as musicians is to feel emotionally safe on stage. In all my travels nationally and internationally, this has been my predominant finding. It doesn’t matter what stage of ability or experience the musician is, whether they are students, amateurs or professionals, everyone has the same need to feel emotionally safe when they are performing in order to be free enough to be creative and expressive.

To feel emotionally safe on stage, certain things need to be in place: Good preparation: without good preparation (and that applies to the background preparation that enables improvisation too) a musician can feel exposed and vulnerable. Adrenalin can only enhance performing if the building blocks are in place, otherwise it can be destructive and potentially nerve wracking.

Experience of performing: knowing the difference between practising and performing is essential and getting familiar with all the different levels of stress from the practice room to the performing space.

Calming an overactive Inner Critic: our Inner Critic come first of all from outside us. If we’ve had bullying teachers, parents or just the culture, this can help our Inner Critic dig down deep inside us. That part of us needs emotional reassurance on a regular basis. It needs to know that we’re all right even if we don’t produce the standard of performing we want to. If this emotional reassurance is built in during our practice, it can have a positive knock-on effect in our performance.

Looking after our physical needs: making sure we have everything we need in terms of food, water, physical warm-ups, quiet to focus before we perform.

Getting into a good feeling space: if our basic physical and emotional needs are covered, then we have a much better chance of feeling good. Feeling good within ourselves means we feel free and this takes us from a place of surviving to thriving, somewhere creativity and expression have space to flourish.

Cartoon of happy cellist

In the many masterclasses I’ve given, a musician will be on stage performing and the fear may show through physical tension and anxiety. The simplest ways of helping them move through this is to encourage breathing, calming and relaxing tense muscles and emotional reassurance. Doing this in the performing space can be incredibly powerful. It is always so inspiring to hear from the audience how much more expressive a performer is when s/he is feeling more comfortable, more emotionally safe on stage.


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