An Occasional Series by Hattie Butterworth
19 year old cellist Harriet Butterworth is a recipient of many awards, such as the Bulmer Beckett Foundation Young Musician of the Year award, AYM award and EMI sound foundation bursary. Hattie is currently studying with Melissa Phelps at the Royal College of Music as a foundation scholar supported by a John Lewis award.
Hattie plays a Neuner and Hornsteiner cello circa. 1890
Talking About Performance Anxiety
Having 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”
This is an amazing, short book complied by many famous classical musicians- great short term relief!
For changing your perception:Life Is Not A Journey
A classic, but it really helped me to start thinking:
How do we feel inspired in the world at the moment?
Fantastic book for liberally exploring faith:
21/03/2017 Hattie Butterworth
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 existing G and C 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!