Challenging Performance: The Book. 23.4 Using anxiety creatively

23.4 Using Anxiety Creatively

by Martin Lawrence

Musicians often feel the need to be someone else on stage. The whole musical training demands not only conformity to particular musical styles, but also to a stage etiquette that allows a certain amount of external emotion, but not too much, and for an orchestral player, none. Yet there is often a lot of emotion there. Such emotions may be a reaction to the music, but may also arise from anxiety about performing, often caused by the need to conform to performance norms. Performance anxiety is suffered, by some counts, by 70% of professional orchestral players (James, 1998).[1]

My doctoral research explored what might happen if performance anxiety is shown instead of hidden (Lawrence, 2020).[2] Could something authentic about what a performer is feeling be expressive for an audience, and could expressing it help the musician with their nerves?

The research concerned an idea that music performance anxiety might be considered not only a reaction to the pressure to conform, but also as a riposte to it, or (to put it another way) as the emergence of a ‘forbidden’ desire about performance: forbidden, that is, by teachers, or indeed by any of the other ‘gatekeepers’ referred to in this book. In my work with musicians this idea was borne out. Most had realisations about what sort of musician they wanted to be through expressing, rather than suppressing, their performance anxiety. Often these desires were contradictory to current performance norms.

For example, one of the participants had a severe physical shake when nervous. When this was encouraged, she had a realisation that she had always wanted to play with an extremely pronounced vibrato, but this had been forbidden by teachers. When she performed a piece to me with this vibrato, she felt an enormous sense of relief that she could play in a way that felt authentic to herself. The performance was unconventional in modern terms, but personally expressive and moving. Furthermore, when playing like this she felt no nerves and had no shake. There was no anxiety about needing to conform, she could just be herself.

As I continued with my research I began to love these transformations, and especially the performances that emerged that did not fit modern performance traditions and seemed so individually expressive. Could this be a way of opening up the Western classical tradition to new possibilities, as well as preventing the damage being done to musicians by the necessity to conform?

I gave a seminar in which I tried to show how this might be applied in my own performance. I performed a short piece, then wrote down on a whiteboard the feelings of anxiety that came up. I then performed the piece again, led by these symptoms. The intended piece became unrecognisable, but I was physically exhilarated and musically fulfilled in a way that rarely occurs in my ‘regular’ performances. Couldn’t music always feel this good? I was also struck by the utterly involved, even shocked, reaction of the audience, very unusual in classical performance. Couldn’t more performances get such a response?

A fellow student attending this seminar also pointed out that the writing down of my performance anxiety symptoms for all to see was itself a moving part of the occasion, revealing to the audience the private struggles of a musician playing such a “well-loved” instrument. It made theatrical the gap that often occurs between the genuine feelings of the performer and the feelings the music is supposed to evoke.

In this way, my research led me unexpectedly to new performance practices for classical music:

  1. Discovering the forbidden performing desires hidden in performance anxiety symptoms and following them even, or especially, if they are different from current norms.
  2. Allowing performance anxiety to lead, or partly lead, a performance.
  3. Consciously displaying the current feelings of a performer as part of a performance.

Included here are examples of each of these approaches.

The first shows part of another seminar, where I transform the performance anxiety symptom of shifting my weight onto one leg to the idea of not being square, being more dynamic and unbalanced, perhaps reckless, physically as well as musically. As it is an experiment, I become extremely unbalanced towards the end…

In the second I share responsibility for a performance between my normal performing self and what I call my ‘performance anxiety-self’, allowing them to take charge of alternate phrases in the slow movement of Mozart’s horn concerto K.417.

For the third example I perform an arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria, taking time in bars rest to speak my live performance anxiety. This is done through a looper so that all my anxieties pile up as the piece goes on, and are all that is left at the end. In the previous two examples, the piano player is Alex Metcalfe.

These practices may seem strange for a person who has been involved in historically informed performance (HIP) for more than thirty years. Shouldn’t I be doing what the composer wanted? But I was drawn to HIP at the beginning because these were new sounds. I was more interested in the iconoclasm of it rather than the authenticity. I enjoyed the cleanliness, the impact and the directness of expression that following this new set of rules gave. I still do. But these rules have become a new normal, with the practical advantage, as Dan Leech-Wilkinson says, that this leads to less, and therefore cheaper, rehearsal time. Inevitably, some of the earlier revelations have been watered down to make them more ‘acceptable’, but I still like the directors who don’t do this, for instance Roger Norrington with his insistence of no vibrato, even in Bruckner or Elgar. And Le Concert Spirituel, performing Handel’s Fireworks music with absolutely uncorrected trumpet and horn harmonics and at full blast.

Thrilling and anarchic! If I listen closely to my feelings, maybe there is a sense in which it is thrilling to listen-in to something like it may have sounded (and I know because I play the horn), but I am not really arguing for the correctness of these ideas or justifying them on those grounds. It’s just wonderful, and preferable to my taste to an older, more straight-laced style. What was also wonderful was the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr turning the tables and playing Bach and Purcell in arrangements by Stokowski, and in early 20th century style, at the Proms in 2019!

I still think there are more revelations to be had from studying old sources, but their value will be their newness and revelations of something not heard before in the score. This has always been my view about HIP. I do have colleagues who are concerned about ‘authenticity’ and ‘correct’ phrasing, but I often find that arguments concerning HIP are ‘straw man’ arguments, which raise all the problems about authenticity and what it means, the fact of improvisation in the 18th century, over-reverence to the letter of the score etc., when the interesting thing about it is what becomes possible, not what is forbidden. Leech-Wilkinson’s work implies that even more is possible, a liberating philosophy. Let’s do something striking, whether it is old or new! That’s why I am quite happy with ‘destroying’ Mozart’s horn concerto to produce something interesting. If you want to listen to all Mozart’s notes, I can recommend some really good recordings…

Continue to Chapter 24: ‘Reinterpreting opera: “Dido & Belinda”‘

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[1] James, I. (1998). Western Orchestral Musicians are Highly Stressed. Resonance; International Music Council 26, 19–20.

[2] Lawrence, Martin. (2020). Music Performance Anxiety as Hidden Desire and Emerging Self: the Development and Exploration of a Conceptual Lens for Performers and Practitioners. PhD thesis, City, University of London.

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