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How to be present

Great stage actors have an aura of positive energy and openness that musicians can access, too. Acting coach Patsy Rodenburg tells Ariane Todes how

This article first appeared in The Strad, May 2012

Voice and acting coach Patsy Rodenburg has worked with some of the biggest names in theatre, film and TV, and for 26 years has run the voice department at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In her work with actors, and also with musicians, she helps them maximise their performing presence by training them to be aware of their body, how they breathe, use their voice, listen to others, and connect to their audience and fellow performers. Here she gives string players tips on staying centred, open and present, and offers some home truths about the classical music world.

Musical discipline I love working with musicians, because if you can find out what is going wrong, they know how to work on it. They understand what they have to do. They have worked from a young age, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day. To make an actor do even 20 minutes of work is like pushing them up Everest. Actors understand right-brain activity, but not that of the left brain, the sequential way of working on a problem and getting it right.

Breathing and body awareness String players forget how important their body and their breathing system are. If you’re breathing correctly, the breath is very low in the body, which takes pressure away from the shoulders. Anatomically, we’re not designed to have tension in our shoulders and upper chest. We’re supposed to be open, to swing. If you’re not breathing from the diaphragm you cannot connect to your emotions. There is also a connection between how a player breathes and the sound they make: you can hear the difference in quality when you take a proper breath while you’re playing.

I get quartets to breathe together. Rugby players get together before a match and connect so they play better together. Many musicians are scared of these techniques: they think they’re a bit airy-fairy. Actors understand them, though – they’re social animals. A great lead actor will knock on the door of every member of the company just before the play starts and have a conversation, just to reconnect for the next time they meet on stage. I get quartet players to sit forwards, breathe down, breathe with each other and then to start playing. Eventually a group that works together breathes together, but if you start like that you’re in sync immediately.

A four-year-old watching TV is perfectly positioned. But life gets to you and squashes you. If you watch great violinists, you see they are completely connected through their bodies and they’re breathing properly.

String players should stand like actors do. You shouldn’t be back on your heels, but forwards on the balls of your feet with your knees released. When you’re sitting, make sure you’re not slumped and that your feet are flat on the floor. If you’re practising incorrectly for hours every day, your body will eventually give up on you and you will start to get injured.

Staying fully present I’ve worked with young musicians who are clearly very good but have dreadful presence. It can make the difference between being a very good musician and being someone special. You should come on stage fully present before you play. As soon as the audience sees you it makes a judgement as to whether it wants to listen to you. Come on stage with that full presence, stop, take the audience in, and make contact with it. You shouldn’t do a generalised scan – that’s not authentic. It means you’ve been told to look out, but you are not fully present. If you play looking down at the floor, after a while the audience loses interest. It might be listening to your music, but it’s not fully connected to you.

I divide presence into three circles of energy. When you’re in the first circle, you’re very interested in yourself, so your energy is inward. This happens when you are practising something intensely, or pulling your energy inwards. The habits of string players tend to push them into this circle.

I call the second circle ‘full presence’. If someone were following you home with bad intent, you would become present: your antennae would come up. In this circle you connect to something beyond you. It could be your audience or another person on stage with you. We’re born present – children have presence. Unless an actor is fully present the audience doesn’t get the full power of the piece. Any great performer is always in the second circle.

The third circle is for people who push out their energy. Really bad acting is when people just shout without connecting. They are heard but no one listens to them – their energy is going out in a generalised push.

We’re living in a phase when life is stopping young people from being fully present. I have to teach them to be present with each other, that otherwise it’s rude. Being fully present is being gracious. It improves the music. If artists don’t have best practice with this, then what hope is there? The good ones have figured this out.

You spend years practising, but only by staying fully present can you excavate the wonder of music. You have to offer something emotionally, and until people get connected to themselves they’ve got nothing to offer. A great actor finds something new in a role every night and if you’re fully connected you should always find something new in music – you never get to the end of it.

The solitary nature of being in a rehearsal studio alone, working on one specific thing, obsessed by the craft of music, is necessary. However, it doesn’t help you feel connected when you play in a quartet or orchestra. Many musicians can play brilliantly, but don’t know how to be present with each other or with an audience.

Connecting with others Most great conductors are very present and this makes the orchestra become present. Orchestras will test a young conductor but the conductor has to take them on. I learnt a lot from stand-up comedians: if you have to deal with a heckler you do it in full second-circle presence. And that’s the same as a conductor holding their orchestra. If everyone becomes present with the conductor, they become present with each other and create better music. You can’t get a really fine orchestra where deputies are being pushed in and out, unless someone – the conductor – is asking them to come into presence.

Some orchestral players have an attitude of, ‘I just go in, play and leave.’ I don’t think that’s very satisfactory for them, but more importantly it doesn’t help the music or the audience. I brought one of the greatest living musical theatre composers to the Guildhall School and he was very moved by the young orchestra in the pit. He told me, ‘If only West End orchestras could be so present. But they’re not listening, they’re not connected and they’re bored, and my music suffers.’

You always have to respect each other when you work. The rehearsal room has to be a safe place. If you’re doing something that is dangerous – trying to change the way you’re playing something – and there are people in the room who aren’t respecting that, then it’s very hard to progress.

A lot of musical training is based on cruelty but I don’t think anything can be taught through unkindness. You’ve got to talk to students, to stay with them, and not just make some clever put-down. You have to have compassion and to understand fear: every great artist is fearful. Say something positive before you talk about the negative, and help students out of their problem, otherwise there’s no hope. You have to guide them towards finding the solution. That’s what good teaching is. It’s not sitting on high, telling students they’re rubbish. How does that help?

In the music world there isn’t room for hundreds of top soloists, so there’s a sense that wastage is justified. I don’t think it is. Part of the problem with burnout is that players are not given any time to reflect, to be present with themselves. They’re on a plane to the next city on their schedule rather than taking time out to make their connection to their work enjoyable again. People who burn out are involved in a group activity, playing with others, but they’re always alone. They need the orchestra, they need the conductor, but they feel under pressure and isolated. I’m not saying you should go and drink with your colleagues, but aligning yourself to become connected with them can be very gratifying.

Preparing to perform Musicians understand routine much better than actors, because they’ve had routines from a young age. Ritual and routine are critical in order to focus one’s energy before performing. Everyone has their own routine, but a good warm-up includes a preparation of the body, breath, mind and heart. There’s also an intellectual element, which might be as simple as thinking, ‘This is a very important story to tell.’ It’s about focus. All great art is about making order from chaos. Going on stage is nerve-racking and you have to have some routines.

It’s been said that someone going on stage for press night undergoes the same stress as someone suffering a major car accident. It’s a massive blow to the body in terms of the adrenaline. When you’re about to perform you have to stay centred and not allow your shoulders or upper chest to tighten. It’s important to keep your breath low down in the body. One acting trick if you’re nervous is to give yourself a hug. Part of stage fright is the body going into panic mode, when the frontal lobe of the brain begins to fuzz over. If you take in oxygen you have a chance to think again. Another trick is to push against a wall, without tightening your shoulders, putting one foot in front of the other, and to breathe. This gets you calm. If you watch someone failing in their performance, you’ll either see them stop breathing, or sigh, or gasp. As soon as you see them quietly getting the breath in you know they’ve got a chance.

Before an audition, spend time centring yourself. Give yourself time out for your work to distil, even if it’s just five minutes. Lie on the floor, get your breath down and connect in that way again. You’ve done the work, so take the worry away from yourself and focus on wanting to play to somebody else. You’re playing for a reason: to give others joy.

In performance I’ve never met a great performer who has ever played anything perfectly. We’re driving young people to an idea of perfection that doesn’t exist. What makes music exciting is a human being expressing something at a very high level.

You can’t control whether an audience likes you or not. However, you can control whether you’re playing to the highest level of your humanity. Some people won’t like it and some will. You can only try to be your best and be open about it.

Auditions It’s important that people should want to work with you. This means being open, generous and gracious. It’s obvious that if you audition for a job and you’re easier to work with than someone else, you’re going to get the job. Even the way you walk into a room is important — many signs are subliminal. If you walk into an audition room, put your coffee down and slump, you’re saying something about your own self-esteem and sending out a negative vibration. If you come in open and present, people are going to be more interested in you.

Appearance In the theatre, and increasingly in the music world, we look at people’s physical beauty rather than what they’ve got to offer as a human being. This is ridiculous — if someone plays superbly, does it matter what they look like? And when the celebrity demands about such things as weight start destroying the artistry, you wonder if everyone has gone mad. I tell young actors that in order to play a major role they have to eat. You cannot survive three hours on stage without eating.

Keeping perspective At its highest level, the music world encourages conceitedness. It’s very tempting to be like that, but it’s not necessary. I tell my students to have someone around them who will say ‘no’, someone to tell them the truth.

Conclusion To communicate effectively, performers must be fully present and always operate in the second circle of energy, says Patsy Rodenburg. You know when you are in the second circle when you:

  • Feel centred and alert

  • Feel your body belongs to you

  • Feel the earth through your feet

  • Feel your breathing is easy and complete

  • Know you reach people and they hear you when you speak

  • Notice details in others — their eyes, their moods, their anxieties

  • Are curious about a new idea — not judgemental

  • Hear clearly

  • Acknowledge the feelings of others

  • See, hear, smell, touch something new, which focuses this energy in the whole of you

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