I am a fairly accomplished cellist, after years of study and working. But what does it take to go beyond this level, beyond the accomplished musician? I can develop my playing both in interpretational freedom and sound wise, but also on a deeper level how I think of playing to a more intuitive and not cognitive approach. A more embodied approach to playing, with more focus on presence. I believe this has given me the opportunity to lift my performance.
Being in the process, at the same time as reflecting upon the work I do, has been very important for the development of me as a performer through this four-year project period. In the moment of action, I am in a pre-reflective state of consciousness. What I aim for when I try to deconstruct Stanislaw’s teaching is to try to understand what happens in this state, and how to get there, through a reflective understanding. This development is not a linear process, if I had drawn a graphic view it would probably be going both up and down, but with a general upwards tendency.
In the view of development of the work I have done together with Stanislaw it is interesting to compare two concert performances from video recordings with the Grenager Solo Suite (see: http://www.makingsense.no/?p=539). The first was the premiere of this commissioned work in the church “Vår Frue”, May 2012, and the second in Kammersalen, NTNU, in April 2014, just after starting the project period. In 2012 I had already started working on presence with Stanislaw, through a more embodied performing.
When I analyze the two different performances, the impression of the first concert is surprisingly positive. I have a good balance, and a feeling of swing in the music. The body is relaxed and it looks as if the music is easy to play, I’m enjoying myself. The point of contact is there, activated in the body, but it is maybe not varied enough. I can see that I sometimes think a bit too much sideways with my bow, but without keeping the point of contact enough. The type of contact is not varied enough even though of course I use dynamics.
My reflection notes I have from Stanislaw’s comments just before the concert shows that this is also the aspect we were working on:
15 May 2012: Even when you want a quick movement of the bow, do not lose the point of contact in the body. Imagine the weight and the energy before you play. Practice being aware of the energy in tension and release for every phrase. The arpeggio chords at the start: keep the lines and show every note in the chords going up and down. Every tone has its own expression, do not play monotonously. Again, the body is in charge of the contact between bow and body. The hands are not steering, focus on embodying. You turn off from time to time, watch out! And think delicate otherwise it is too coarse. Give your hands the best situation for achieving what you want. The inner activity of the body is always changing, it’s not constant. If you are not active enough, the arms take over. Concentrate and listen for the quality of the contact of the bow with the string, the music with the body. When there are big leaps, just feel this contact, do not be afraid. Build the timing, let the energy build until it feels like the right moment for playing, for releasing tension. If you feel a stronger contact in your body it will be easier, and remember it has a delicate quality. And let the energy of the music build up before the tone before you release at the right moment. Wait for the body to be present, and the tension build up. Tempo, phrasing and energy decide over the rhythm. This creates a better timing. The body and the hands must cooperate giving the hands the best possible situation. The hands are easily activated too much, then the body isn’t strong enough, the arms should be relaxed and soft. Let the body take responsibility for the sound and the lines and the dynamic.
In the concert in 2014 I think I was a bit hung-up in trying to prove the rhetoric possibilities of the music, this being my first concert as a research fellow. In the video I see clearly how my whole body is tense, I do not have a good contact with the string – it is often more forced sound than open and free sound (the sound quality of the videos are not good, so it is unfair to judge by that, but still I see the tendencies). Tensing up and letting the arms take control of the playing also has an impact on the intonation. In tremolo, I end up «on top of the string», without a good contact with the core of the tone. In the 2012 concert I am better centered, in 2014 I start fighting with the instrument to get through and muscles take over steering the performance. I remember my arms were hurting and very tired at the end. In 2014 I think I should have dared to trust Stanislaw’s focus more. One of my other supervisors, Carl Haakon Waadeland, said he understood what I meant by rhetoric interpretation, or music-as-speech, after having heard the concert, so at least I got that through after all. He did not agree that it was an unsuccessful concert, but I know I could have played so much better if I had focused more on the balance, centering and contact.
This concert, and analyzing the differences, made me realize how free I can be when trusting this «new-way» of focusing, and I see very clearly the limitations I give myself when not using it. Then I also watched the video of the recording session of the same work from December 2015 (see: http://www.makingsense.no/?p=230), where I am both combining varied contact with the bow and the body, as well as balancing and feeling the swing. This shows how delving into Stanislaw’s teachings has created an ongoing development through the project.
Working on developing this type of presence focuses a lot on finding the right awareness, and an important part of the work I have done is in a mental shift of this awareness in performing. I shift from a more controlled cognitive playing to trust my intuition and embodied affects more. The consciousness is too slow in the moment of creating music; intuition and feelings are much more varied and quick and give many more possibilities for expression. The temperament of the music demands a quick reaction in and from the body, and if I am tense and stiff everything is too slow. I use my intuition, sensitivity and kinesthetic sense, and try to let the body be in charge without trying to control with my consciousness. The sensing body and sub-consciousness has to understand what the consciousness wants, through use of the body. I need to use the consciousness to understand, but then automatize and encode the subconsciousness. The conscious mind wants to learn rules, the intuition understands immediately.
In some of my reflection notes from 2013 to 2017 I have written about this shift of awareness and the work on developing presence:
December 2013: The consciousness is disturbing me, I try to control too much. I have tried to be conscious about thinking too much, to notice how the change feels when the body is playing, and when I lose it. Then it is easier to change.
January 2014: I try to understand both cognitively, and physically – to try and recreate this feeling when I am on my own practicing or playing. It is all connected, I need to find the right balance and concentration. I need to understand, at the same time I try to give up control and consciousness steering and play from intuition and embodied sensitivity.
I can understand it cognitively, but it does not work without the embodied understanding as well. The whole mechanism needs to understand. When I know how it should feel, then it’s easier to find again. The sound comes from me and my intuition knows better than my mind and my arms. I have to decide before I play how I want the tone to be, and how much contact this needs. And the changes must be able to happen quickly, everything steered by the body’s sensitivity, leaving the consciousness to observe.
These reflections refer to a change of habit, or neuroplasticity, which I will return to in the paragraph on Stanislaw’s teaching. Letting go of the conscious control is also a demanding issue, and I have to trust the embodiment I am working on.
March 2014: I get hung up on realizing his advice – the energy coming from inside – it feels like I play timidly and small to manage – it becomes weak. I try to trust that these are steps on the way to something better, but it is difficult being patient. When the music says forte, it seems like my body does not trust itself, my arms activate all power of muscles available. How can I avoid it? I have to redirect the energy, keep trying and keep growing the force form inside of me and out through the instrument. I must be patient!
In the notes I remark how I see from time to time how my playing is changing, and I try to incorporate this work in concerts at the same time as letting go and concentrating mostly on feeling the music:
September 2014: Thinking back on the process of performing the Khipukamayuk, I find there was a big development between each orchestra rehearsal. It was tough working with Stanislaw and his honesty, but it pushes me to try and understand what he is asking for. It is psychologically tough. When he came to the rehearsal I got almost a hang-up thinking about balancing and playing with the body, instead of focusing on the musical expression. He understood and that’s why he stayed away from the concert. I appreciated it, because it made me feel free and independent in the concert. Maybe it’ll get easier with him present when I feel more confident.
April 2016: When I practice, my concentration is to messy. I have to work only mentally, without the instrument. I lose courage of how difficult this is. I have to stop myself when I notice tension, but sometimes I do not notice in the moment. If I focus wrong – I start a sound and then I keep it. But that is not enough – it has to develop, and change all the time – inside and between. But I have a better control and I am freer and more relaxed. When I focus on feeling the tone in my body, and feeling the line, then I manage to keep the relaxed and free tone.
May 2016: I understand the difference he talks about, when I am not enough present in the moment the tone is dull. I notice how my consciousness sneak into the arms and start taking initiative. Playing large intervals jumping around disturb me. I try to think of the next note when I am in the one before. I have to find the right feeling. Sometimes I lose concentration because I am busy thinking about managing a shift. It is a special type of concentration. When I turn it on everything works, but sometimes it just switches off without me noticing. I have to keep activating it. Make sure I keep it, then the rest is easy.
In the process leading up to the premiere of the Marmæle concerto I have daily meetings with Stanislaw and he keeps pushing me from day to day. I understand easier what is not working, and I can develop my performance from one day to the other.
May 2016: Six days before the Marmæle premiere I have worked on placing everything in the embodied feeling and to create enough sound, at the same time thinking of the line. But I have to keep working on more contrasting dynamics in the body. I have gone to watch the orchestra and feel the nerves raging, just to get used to the feeling. I try to use the nervousness and create energy from it. I have also worked on giving myself affirmations. But I feel like I lose energy when I try to be relaxed all the time. And I am afraid to become slow and unrhythmical in relation to the orchestra. But of course, I know they will follow me. And I am afraid of not using the body, and getting stiff. I feel it is working better now, so I must have practiced in the right way. I see that I need more sound but I do not want to compensate by activating the arms too much. It is easier to create more energy in the concert situation, but I have to be able to practice with the same energy. It is so hard to shift the forte into being created by the center of me and not just activating all my muscles to play loud. My intellect understands Stanislaw’s point, but my subconsciousness is not really trusting me – as if the mind is trying to trick the body. But if I can build this energy more from within. When I compare this last working period with the one before Asheim’s cello stories, it has been a better process this time. I understand more and I realize faster what to do to create the stronger feeling of presence. I have also decided that nervousness is only energy, and nothing scary.
May 2016: Three days before the concert I practice playing only long notes, to connect the concentration and focus to the body. Before the bow shifting I keep the focus on centering, so the arm does not disturb. But I can feel how I lose the awareness in the body when I try to play with maximum intensity in the high registers on the cello. I try to get the right sensation even before I play the first tone. When I panic in the top registers I strangle the sound with too much bow contact. I have to be careful with the amount of contact needed. I have a tendency to stop myself and I forget to breath because I try so hard. I try to feel the energy in my body, and also an active sound quality.
May 2016: At the last rehearsal with the orchestra before the concert, the volume was much better and I could have a bit more fun instead of just constantly working hard on creating more sound. I missed a few runs, but I was mostly concentrated on feeling and I knew this wouldn’t happen in the concert. Stanislaw did not comment much, just reminded me of the most important principles, and most importantly, find your energy.
October 2016: Concentrate on the contact, from the very first moment. It is a special type of concentration. When I turn it on everything works, but sometimes it just switches off without me noticing. I have to keep activating it. Make sure I keep it, then the rest is easy. Stanislaw said today:
Today’s button is CONTACT. Do not lose it unnecessarily. You have to have a precise feeling of what you are going to. Let the body take responsibility of more or less energy and dynamics, feel it. You should practice just finding the feeling! And keep it delicate. It is positive what you do, but you must take care all the time.
March 2017: I have to remember to keep it expressive! If I think too much technically I lose expression. I wonder if I am not using enough energy? The bow kind of gets stuck. I have to keep the intensity, while I am relaxed in my arms. I struggle in finding the right feeling again. Stanislaw keeps trying to give me new images or coded words. I work so hard I do not notice that I have lost my point of balance. Only the start of the tone is articulated, the rest is sound. I have to TALK the notes. But I worry that the line is too small phrases if I think so detailed? When I manage to feel in my body, the line is somehow better, even though I do not try to make a constant line with sound. Start each tone, then enjoy until the next. Keep it delicate and use my temperament. Activate the inner intensity, do not let the body sleep. I find the right feeling and I recognize it when it is there. I have to play with an impulse and then just let the tone live on from there.
October 2017: I work on embodying the rhythm, imagining the feel of the pendulum inside me. I still need to be aware of being patient with the timing and not rush. When I feel the sound in the body it opens up. If I use the body, but the arms are stiff, it does not help. The arms need to feel relaxed. I concentrate on the quality of sound, and the contact between the body and the bow.
November 2017: Preparing for my final artistic presentation. I have been working on trying to feel the rhythm in my body, and also to concentrate on feeling the contact and sound in my body, and balancing. Stanislaw says well done, the timing is good, and the body takes responsibility in the right way. Now this is good, he will not say anything more. It is my music and up to me to perform and feel the music in the performance how I want it. I should just do everything I do, a bit more, and use my musicality. Remember to stay within the atmosphere I create in the music. And always feel and use the correct energy, fitting with this atmosphere. I have to focus on feeling the music embodied with Cello stories, and make sure I do not disturb with my arms. Then the music talks like I were an actor.
Some issues keep coming up, but this is a natural process as I develop, and every time I understand more even though it might seem like it is just repeated. Through focusing on balancing, sound quality, keeping presence and finding a feeling of flow, it also takes away some of the stage fright and gives me more room to be attentive to the music and to feel freedom of expression. This work on developing presence is a part of a lifelong learning process, and I experience a gradual change in my understanding and in my performance.