Talking about failure, success, auditions, concerts, marks and everything that I wish didn’t define me

I don’t keep it much of a secret that I’ve suffered with performance anxiety for the whole of my life as a musician, just as most of us do. It comes in peaks and troughs as I feel my mind drifts between a space of acceptance and joy to a place of dread, judgment and fear. I want to look closer into why I feel so defined by playing well and why success, for me, is usually a personal affair.

 

There aren’t so many times in my life that I have found myself crying uncontrollably. This extreme physical reaction to sadness has really only occurred when I feel I have failed myself in a performance situation. Humiliation, perhaps a mark far below what I was hoping or feeling as though I have failed to impress others. It may be the shame of the suffering my anxiety has caused me, perhaps through memory lapses, tense body and a less than desirable sound. The absolute agony that is experienced when I feel I have not delivered for myself. My steadfastness towards a goal alongside the expectations of success have failed me. I have failed myself, my art, and music entirely is better off without me. I wish I hadn’t bothered trying.

 

Writing this is fascinating for me. It all looks very dramatic on paper, but in my head these are thoughts that I have truly believed about myself in the past. My successes cultivate great levels of self worth; my failures thrashing any sense of worth that was there. The reality remains that I absolutely will fail. I must fail to succeed. This truism is often thrown around but I think it’s important that I start to think about what it means to me. It is likely to be one the most important question that we ask ourselves. Who am I without my success? Without the self expectation? Without being prisoner to others’ expectations? Who would I be then?

 

First it the inevitable, I must fail. If I’m not failing, not risking failure it is likely that my success is also narrow minded. I don’t dare to go beyond my capabilities and so my capabilities remain limited. We limit ourselves through our fear and through our absolute repulsion to the emotions of failure, but what does the knowledge of how failure can change us for the better do for our performances? It says goodbye to the fear. Perhaps not the fear in the moment, fear of the unknown, but it takes away our fear of the fear. Our fear of who we are when we are vulnerable, when we feel we have let ourselves and everyone down. Knowing what failure can do for us should make us perversely excited to fail. It should make every performance and every outcome an adventure. How amazing that we do what we do and how amazing that we get to witness the ups and downs of our existence, just like everyone else.

 

We can take each performance just as it comes, living out whatever happens in the moment it happens. We need to look within to find a trust, a loving for the who we are aside from success and aside from failure and, even, aside from our art. It may surround a lot of our lives, but success and failure are tiny in comparison to everything else we are in the world. We are here to see and be seen, to experience the whole spectrum of emotion. I’m sure composers had and have an expectation for us to put ourselves on the line, just as they did. We will face criticism just as they did, but we are all connected by this same suffering and experience and not divided by it.

 

Remember your core values and then try and tell yourself that failure is a bad thing. If you have been courageous, open and expressive, any failure you experience is only going to enhance the way you experience success.

A Commitment to Sound 1- Motivated by What?

This series shows the ups and downs of me having made a commitment to sound. I have spent many years studying the cello, but very little time has been dedicated to the sound I create and how I create it. Because of this I want to make sound, and not success, my new obsession.

The aspect of this new venture that I am finding most challenging is that I am not always sure what sound I actually want to create. It’s very easy to tune out and get away with a very average sound, especially in the practice room.

I know that my ability to push for a great sound is there because as soon as I am under pressure my critical voice works overtime. It is in my cello lessons, or when someone is listening to me practice, that some of the greatest sound work is done. This is both because my teacher is always pushing for a wonderful sound, but also because suddenly I am being observed. When we start to work on the repertoire have bought I can’t help but hear all the unevenness, the intonation issues and the lumpy phrasing. I am suddenly very frustrated, hyper aware and am striving for better.

If only this constructive and critical voice were more present in my practice. I am happy with less in practice because there is no one watching me, and therefore (admittedly) no one to impress?! The sound commitment I have made is purely for a deeper connection with music through the sound I am creating. Through this I should be trying to impress myself with a wonderful sound and not only motivated towards it in the presence of others.

I have tried to take the music I am playing, maybe also the composer, and imagining them observing my practice. I am asking them questions about how their piece should sound, what type of vibrato to use and how to achieve this. The benefit of this is that the sound motivation has changed from being success and validation to being for the music itself and living up to the expectation the composers had of their piece.

It has also been interesting to record my practice and imagine teaching myself. As a response to recording, so much of the sound work I have done so far has been focused on releasing tension that is obstructing the freedom I am searching for. I often move a great deal when I play, especially when performing, but once relaxed I observe that the emotion in the sound is a result of freedom and not tension.

Sound is such a huge concept and highly personal also. It is proving a tough commitment to have made but one full of much more life and motivation.

A Commitment to Sound

It has been unnervingly easy to go about living, practicing and exploring music without really listening to what I create. I have become complacent, getting by with what is ‘good enough’ and what might sound impressive. My practice has become a frustrating mass of confusion towards a foggy goal of ‘perfect’. Unaware of what I want to achieve, hours per day has become a reassurance that I must be improving. I must be achieving things because I am working hard.

Practice is the bones of creating wonderful music, but what is the use of it if we don’t know what we want to hear? I was about to go to bed a few nights ago when suddenly I decided that I’d had enough of this mediocrity and the rut i’d got into. The many composers whose music I worship and study deserve better. I sat down and wrote ‘I have made a commitment to sound’ in my diary. I commitment not to 7+ hours a day of practice, not to the next award or to proving myself against other musicians. I have made a commitment to, well, the music really and a desire to play it as it needs to be heard.

A ‘nice enough’ sound is not enough to sustain me anymore. There’s no going back from here which is exciting. I am going to use my practice to explore sound and the spirit within the composers bursting to come out. Playing the cello isn’t a sport anymore, I am going to start listening and loving otherwise I see very little point.

I am going to use my blog to share my sound journey with short videos and a raw honesty of how I’m feeling and how my practice is going. I anticipate that this journey is not going to be quick, but with the sound and music now at the centre I am looking to a direction and greater understanding of music.

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A New Operatic Dogma- How Gluck changed the ‘ridiculous and wearisome’

Christoph_Willibald_Ritter_von_GluckOpera, Italian for ‘work’, is an art form over 400 years old. Inspired by mythology, history, folk stories and politics, composers have turned to writing operas as an outlet of creativity, but the stories behind opera’s broad and fascinating history are incredibly thought provoking in themselves.

The fifth week of our opera history course at the Royal College of Music has seen us studying the operas of Gluck, paying close attention to his reforms to the way opera was written and perceived by its audiences. Willibald Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is best known for is opera ‘Orpheo ed Euridice’, based on the ancient legend Orpheus and Euridice. I think it is important to remember that opera’s ‘purpose’ previous to Gluck had been rather light and fun entertainment. Of course, darker themes were addressed, but in general opera was, by and large, a social event accompanied by virtuosic and light music. Gluck made it known that he highly disregarded this ‘ridiculous and wearisome’ Italian opera. Gluck believed opera was ready for reform, and made it no secret that he was to lead this ‘stripping down’ of opera into something much simpler. Gluck believed that by ‘stifling the action with superfluidity of ornaments’ composers were taking music away from its ‘true office of serving poetry’. In order to serve the text, Gluck controversially removed virtuosic melismas, da capo arias and vocal improvisation, and instead increased the orchestra’s dramatic presence and gave it a greater role.

Although these reforms paved the way for the operas of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, I believe Gluck’s dogmatic views on the true purpose of music to be somewhat flawed. Gluck talks of the ‘true purpose’ of music being to serve the text. Perhaps in opera this holds more truth than symphonies based on stories or texts, though talking of music’s true purpose is not something that can be taken lightly. Music and its purpose has a highly personalised response from each person. Some people interpret music as a playful use of emotions, some see it as escapism, others as an academic and chemical process. For Gluck, its true purpose was to serve the text and through his musical reforms, he could bring the text out by keeping the musical interest out of the vocal line and putting it in the orchestra. A good example of this is Orfeo’s arioso “Che puro ciel”. Here the voice is reduced to the minor role of recit-style oration. Here it is the oboe that carries the main melody, supported by solos from the flute, cello, bassoon, and horn. There is also accompaniment from the strings (playing in triplets) and the continuo. This is thought to be the most complex orchestration that Gluck ever wrote.

Although, on the face of it, Gluck’s ideas for reform appear rather opinionated and controversial, we cannot deny that his opera style triggered a major shift in Operas style. An example of Gluck’s influence is the quotation in Mozart’s Don Giovanni of Gluck’s Alceste. Mozart used the same chord progression in the garden scene for the Commendatore speaking to Don Giovanni that Gluck used in his opera when the High Priest says Alceste will die if no one takes her place. The influence is unquestionable, and leads us to question whether Gluck’s philosophy behind music and opera, although seemingly narrow minded, holds a longevity to inspire and influence other great composers.

 

Our World From Up Here

Our world from up here

Vast scenes below then hypnotic

Sunsets far and wide

And warm until memories 

Like a canal flow gliding

Open to us and run free- 

Alive in the clouds but 

Below the moon still 

Glowing black like darkened

Emotion pouring to heal

And your voice to seal 

Echoed cries from their booming

Talking About Performance Anxiety

anxietyHaving started the cello much later to most other musicians, I found myself battling the fear of performing at the same time as facing an insecure self-image that often comes with being a 12 year old. I believe this made the issue far greater than it would’ve been, had I been performing at an earlier age. It has, nonetheless, forced me to address the way I deal with my anxiety on and off stage and encouraged me to read much more into the subject.

What is performance anxiety for you?

Performance anxiety for me is waking up on the day of a performance and being so terrified that you are unable to move. It is going over and over in your head all the possible worst-case scenarios and the consequences of performing badly. It’s being desperate to impress people and to receive reassurance that you’re doing OK. It’s trying to calm your breathing but you end up making it more rapid. Then it’s playing as though you have no connection between your mind and your arms and even less connection between your mind and your instrument. Performing feels like a mad free-for-all. Every man is for himself as I push through this Bach suite movement, making a hundred mistakes a minute working to the end. And then there’s after; the beating yourself up for being so anxious and losing security and control, feeling as though it was never all worth it and will never be again. But what is important to remember, though difficult to believe, is that these are all just thoughts.

We are not doomed. We deserve to play the way we dream about and share music with people on the the highest level that we a capable. We can hold ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time and we can find the benefits to this alongside. The philosopher Kierkegaard had an existentialist theory which I think can help us understand the way we perceive music in performance. His idea was that people need a deep satisfaction and relationship with themselves, the energy of the universe (God etc.) and the core of their being. It is only after that that they can enjoy the materials (aesthetic) and relationships on earth without depending on them. We are all guilty about having a huge desire to impress people, but the issue is that we make this the center of our thoughts around a performance and become greedy for praise and recognition. If we think about Kierkegaard’s theory, connect with ourselves through being mindful and agree that whether or not our performance goes well, we will still feel at one with ourselves (and music!), we suddenly see a performance completely differently. It’s purpose isn’t to satisfy our needs as individuals for recognition, it is for us to connect with the power music has and our ability to give this power to our audience as a gift. It is much less diabolical to hold this at the centre of our thinking. Then, be it praise, opportunity or reward, we can enjoy these parts to a performance without relying on them.

This theory is not so difficult to explain or understand, but how can it be applied? Many books have helped me shape a rusty but improving bank of coping strategies alongside experience and talking to different people about their opinions and experiences. The most important way to start is to talk about it. Just like any mental health issue (people dislike the terminology but it is what it is!) performance anxiety can be improved by talking to people. One of many reasons for this is it can make you feel much less alone- almost all musicians experience performance anxiety to some degree and certainly have a lot to say about it. Another reason for this is it can increase awareness of the issue of performance anxiety in the arts industry and encourage more people to talk about it. Certainly raising the issue with your teacher can hold enormous benefits, but anyone you trust can be a worthy listener.

But even once you’ve altered your mindset towards performing and you are happy that everything will be OK, how do you manage the sometimes inevitable symptoms that we experience before a performance? The most important thing to remember here is that we can still perform well when we are nervous. There is nothing stopping us even when feeling sick and shaky- we can concentrate and there is no reason the physical emotions should overpower us. It is easy to develop a ‘fear of the fear’ because we associate the physical sensations with a bad performance, but there’s no reason for us to. We are still in control. People often talk about being prepared as being a very important part of combating anxiety but I contrary this and say that practicing performing when you’re under-prepared is incredibly beneficial. Of course, the anxiety involved in this is great but it is likely that you will emerge feeling much better about the situation. The reason is that your confidence increases as your mind believes ‘well if I did that when I was so unprepared, I can do anything!’

The final part to thinking and discovering more about performance anxiety is forgiving yourself for failure. You are on an incredible road, learning at every part of it and finding ways to manage anxiety is just a part of the bigger picture. It cannot be solved overnight, but you  will find that you become more and more aware of yourself and your purpose as a musician. These ideas I have shared are not an exhaustive list and I will collect many resources below for you to explore. What works for me may not work for you and I am a long way from an answer. I still can get cripplingly nervous but I try to distance myself from my thoughts and turn the focus for the music. I think to take any of this on board you must first ask yourself why. Why music and why love and why faith? The answer is purpose and if music gives you an enormous sense of purpose, you are not destined to sabotage your communication and expression and you will, in time, find a solution.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming” Soren Kierkegaard

Resources:

This is an amazing, short book complied by many famous classical musicians- great short term relief!  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Keeping-Your-Nerve-Confidence-Strategies/dp/0571519229/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095038&sr=8-1&keywords=keeping+your+nerve

For changing your perception:Life Is Not A Journey  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSSzYIqQsdw

A classic, but it really helped me to start thinking: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inner-Game-Music-Timothy-Gallwey/dp/1447291727/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095345&sr=8-1&keywords=the+inner+game+of+music

How do we feel inspired in the world at the moment? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tSBkT9AFWA

Fantastic book for liberally exploring faith https://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Faith-Margaret-Silf/dp/0232527946/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095497&sr=8-1&keywords=faith+margaret+silf

 

21/03/2017 Hattie Butterworth

 

 

Larsen Magnacore Cello String Review

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Strings are to a musician like ballet shoes are to a dancer. Just as each dancer is very different and requires different size and softness of shoes, every cello is vastly different and requires different strings to compliment the resonance of the instrument. My cello has an especially bright and powerful quality, especially on the A string, but it also has the tendency to sound brash. It also often has projection difficulties on the low strings, particularly in high positions. I knew more could be done to improve the sound and I started to think about trying new strings in order to address this issue.

With this in mind, I got in contact with Larsen some weeks ago, eager to try new strings on my cello. Having been a devotee to their standard cello strings for quite a while, I was hearing great things about their Magnacore strings and was desperate to give them a try. I’d been reassured how balanced the string sounds were across the cello and, knowing my cello was in desperate need of this balance, was excited to try them. Suffice it so say, I was not disappointed! I changed the A and D strings first and noticed an immediate increase in the sound quality. The strings needed virtually no playing in time and adapted to my cello immediately. A strings on my cello often have the tendency to sound increasingly ‘brash’ on my cello, but the Magnacore A string had a sweetness that I was convinced my cello wasn’t capable of producing. The D string matched the A both in resonance and quality of sound and was so buoyant to play. Finally I have found strings that create equal tones on both A and D, I have struggled for so long with a brash A string and a muted D string, thanks to these strings I feel my strings compliment each other and my playing.

I later replaced my G and C Spirocore strings with the Magnacore C and G and, once again, the effect was immediate. The strings were so much more responsive on my cello and the resonance was electric. I did find the strings to feel quite a bit stiffer and not entirely flexible under the fingers, though they tuned up easily and maintained tuning with no issues. In saying this, it was as I expected that the bottom two strings took a few days to play in and feel totally settled. This created an short period of discomfort, but it quickly subsided and, once settled, my cello produced resonant and expressive sonorities that were unprecedented but certainly welcome!

Proof of the strings’ transformation of my cello came about when I played the Bach Suite no.3 in my cello lesson last week. My Teacher immediately mention how much she thought my sound had improved. I mentioned that I’d recently changed my strings to Magnacore and she was fascinated at how much of a difference they had made to my sound in such a short space of time.

It’s such a joy and a blessing to find strings finally that work with my cello and not against it. I’ll certainly be using Magnacore again and will be intrigued to witness their longevity. They cannot come more highly recommended!

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Hattie Butterworth

Glass Half Gone

The World demands your deliberate artifice

But right in the now and hear

You’re Walking alone, along a lonely
Love burnt grey and dust of stars

Streaming ankle level and below

Beneath and between your fears own me
Dawn cracking down on a darkened day

Alive about a sunbeam, once in May

Living a lie, a dream, still lonely
Shipwrecked amongst the living

A breathing hollow and lifeless laughter

Piercing a cry of cold limbs, only
Ended right at the beginning

From A blackened senseless lying

And a deadened deafness, a restless dying

Tennis and musical injury- the injustice

  
Following a hectic final term at school, my return home last Friday was greeted with the excitement of both the women and men’s Wimbledon finals. Throughout the whole of the tournament this year, I couldn’t help but compare the lives of tennis players with our lives as musicians, and how tennis may be revealing the darker injustice in the musical industry.

Much of my cello playing career so far has been enormously rewarding, but I did encounter a traumatic tendon injury for 6 months last year. I don’t feel it an exaggeration to admit that I felt very much alone during this time. This was not entirely out of the fault of my school, but largely because I felt injury wasn’t discussed or accepted within the school. Prior to my injury I had received little, if any, education about injuries and prevention, and had no idea who to talk to. So often I was made to feel I was letting people down, the fault being my own. This stemmed from being one of the only injured musicians in my school at the time. 

The isolation I encountered through my injury is far from the experiences of those in the sports world and tennis in particular. If a player has recovered from injury, many of the commentators and treat it as a tremendous act of resilience and bravery for them to be competing. They understand the impact of an injury and don’t ‘expect’ the player to return at full health straight away, because injuries are understood in the sports world. Sports people don’t fear them because they know they will have the support they need to recover. Why are musicians different? As well as physical injury, being unable to play and has a significant mental impact that needs treatment and support. Injury is a big deal because you lose your means of expression. Injured Musicians are left watching rehearsals, excluded from concerts and plagued with the fear of missing opportunities that their fitter fellow students will instead receive. I know my experiences aren’t rare and, although musical injuries are perhaps less common than those encountered by sports players, most musicians will experience an injury at some point in their career. 

It’s also interesting to question why injury happens in musicians and highlight another comparison between the sports and classical music industry. It is without a doubt that success in the classical music industry nowadays is based around perfection. We attend a concert expecting a certain standard. If a musician makes a name for themselves, they are expected to maintain this level throughout their career and at every concert they perform. The classic example of a ‘bad day’ was seen in Djokovic’s devastating 4th round loss in Wimbledon this year. Of course, many fans were disappointed, but the sports world as a whole appears much more understanding of failure. Djokovic has been so successful in his career that this one set back doesn’t fail him in our estimation. I’m not entirely certain whether the same would be true in the classical music industry. This fear of failure and constant search for perfection puts stress on the body for many people, and it is here that injury is likely to occur. It feels more often that our motives in practice are turned towards perfection, rather than the ability we have to communicate the inner soul of the composer. This can’t be healthy or rewarding in the long term.

Musicians are communicators, just as sports people are, and both, more importantly, are human. It appears that the sports world are much more in tune with this fact than the musical world and, as a result of this, the failings of the athletes are both respected and expected. Musicians are humans with human needs and functions. Although my injury turned into something positive in the end, it took a lot of pain, darkness and loneliness before I was able to release myself. We shouldn’t go at it alone and don’t deserve to.

 I can only hope we begin to learn from those in the sports world; an industry that is far closer to us than we may invisage. 

“Play it like something you hear down by the river”

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I believe it is now widely accepted, or at least should be, that the soul of great music and a great artist is not solely created in the practice room. We use the practice room as a place to learn how to interpret a composers emotions though our instruments. The practice room is used to iron out any technical faults that may come between ourselves and the composers music. It allows us to perform with as little of ourselves and technical issues and with as much of the composers emotions. Practice is a guidance tool to our music making and by no means the heart of it.

It is important to remember that these entities go hand in hand. In order to translate an emotion, or at least interpret it, we need to access a part of ourselves that has experienced life outside of the practice room. Our audience connect to the soul of our performance. If we are to encourage non-musicians into classical music, we need to ensure our music connects to them. Observing the way we go about our day-to-day life may be the first step. Observing and relating to what ‘ordinary’ people do could be the key to communicating classical music to them. This being said, it can also remind us not to lose touch of ourselves and of the real world. The practice room holds no value unless we enter with an intention of how we want to communicate and are prepared to experiment. Once the technical barriers are gone, or at least diminished, the world of expression is your oyster.

I suppose what I’m trying to puzzle out here is how we as young musicians can connect to real people outside the music bubble when we’re bombarded with the ‘practice’ mantra? The answer is that I don’t believe we can. Our inspiration is what creates great music. Translating what we see, hear and experience outside our practice is a life long exploration, but it is vital if we want our music to be universal.

Perhaps ‘fine artists’ are the lucky ones. They have a direct line between the images they see and the image they produce on paper, so are used to interpreting nature and ‘real life’. Musicians also need to connect this line. Although it may not be as direct and tangible, it is the most necessary part of our music making.