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Moving through nerves in a safe public performing space

This last week I have been working back at the conservatoires again, for almost the first time since 2019. Something that had become so much of my normal working life for the greater part of 10 years, disappeared overnight in March 2020 as it did for so many people.

Royal Northern College of Music

I managed a few talks-masterclasses online – one for Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio, the other for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra among others – but nothing beats working in person. Thanks to the String Department of the Royal Northern College of Music for inviting me to visit.

Moving through nerves in a safe public performing space

Something that I noticed during these live sessions, and more keenly than before, was how essential it is to give performers the experience of managing their nerves in front of an audience which feels emotionally safe to them. If performers are tied up in knots with anxiety feeling they’re going to be judged harshly by the audience, there is no way they can play as they can when they’re on their own or in front of a supportive friend. But if they feel safe in the performing space along with encouragement and support, they’re more able to express themselves fully and true progress is made.

How transformations can happen

To create a safe space for performers is one of my main aims when facilitating a masterclass. My intention is to draw out the supportive side of the audience, a side that wants the performer to excel and play their best. And it really doesn’t take much encouragement. I’m sure that human beings in general want to be supportive and given the opportunity will do just that.

Incredible transformations can happen very, very fast when a performer feels this safe in the performing space. It’s a different way of thinking and feeling, which in turn will relax physical, mental and emotional tension - and it’s nothing to do with practice. Just this week, I had the privilege to experience a violinist with a shaky bow and wayward intonation play with a beautiful, un-pinched sound and much more accurate intonation, and a cellist, having exposed her vulnerability to her peers, play with much more freedom by feeling her fellow musicians’ support. All this within 15 minutes!

But it’s not just me that witnesses these transformations, it’s the audience too. For other musicians to see one of their peers expose their fears and anxieties and then change radically as a musician in front of them, can galvanise and inspire. After all, if they can do it, why can’t I?

Oxford Piano Weekends

One of the motivating factors behind setting up Oxford Piano Weekends was being able to facilitate these conditions within a small group. During the last weekend I ran, a couple of pianists played the same piece a number of times over, noticing how much freer they felt on each occasion. It was quite a revelation and wonderful for them to have the overwhelming support of the group feed that back to them as well.


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