During a festival in Luxembourg, I had the chance to meet Glenn, a talented Belgian musician,
currently principal euphonium at the Valaisia Brass Band (Switzerland). Glenn agreed that I record our conversation as he expressed his point of view on the stress musicians experience before going on stage.
Natacha : What is the level of stress you typically feel before a concert ?
Glenn : First off, I believe that stress increases as one gets older ; as a child, I played music in a more relaxed and spontaneous way. Moreover, I think stress occurs in situations where I lack in preparation. More specifically, I am now a teacher, a conductor, as well as a father to a one-month-baby girl, meaning all these responsibilities allow less time for me to prepare for concerts, compared to when I was a student. As a result, I play less by heart as I don’t have enough time to memorise everything I should, due to my busy schedule. Fortunately, we have a lot of rehearsals organised with the brass as we prepare for the Swiss Championship. Overall, if I’m well prepared, I don’t feel stressed because I know what I’m doing and how. I know when I breathe, how I breathe — it’s all up to me, it’s in my control. Things are different when I’m conducting as I don’t have control over other musicians’ performances. But as I talk to you, I realise that the times I played the least well were the times I was the least stressed. Stress comes with concentration, I think. Or vice-versa…
Natacha : You mentioned brass band, could you tell me more ? How is your preparation going ?
Glenn : With Valaisia, we are trained to perform individually ahead of the Championship, in front of our section’s leader or the conductor himself. This method allows us to experience pressure ahead of the actual performance in order to arrive better prepared on the D-Day.
Natacha : According to you, what is the main difference between your own individual work and group preparation ?
Glenn : Each of us do not react in the same way to external information. For instance, the Championship’s set piece composer included the term Ad Libitum in one of the sections and told me that I shouldn’t feel forced to play this part if I didn’t feel like it. However, I perceived this difficulty as a positive challenge; it is the part I ended up focusing on most during preparation, so I would then be able to assert : « Of course, I am capable of doing this ! ». As far as I’m concerned, I need these kind of obstacles, but I am also conscious that some people need to be uplifted by others in order to feel confident. Not everyone functions in the same way.
Each time Cory arrives on stage, all musicians show tremendous confidence. It is their conductor who gives them this level of trust in themselves, which I think is determinant.
Natacha : In what ways do you think a coach might be helpful to a brass band’s success ?
Glenn : A coach would be very helpful indeed. To begin with, I believe a coach would be able to build a valuable team spirit, as well as trust amongst each musicians. Following a European Championship, I was able to speak with Allan Withington who previously coached us. He told me then that, as soon as he saw us arrive on stage, he knew we wouldn’t win. And I think that this part of the performance, that is a brass band’s entry on stage, should be considered an essential part of any concert preparation.
Moreover, I believe that having an external perspective and feedback would be really useful since we, as musicians, are not able to observe our performances from afar, as well as our reactions to our own emotions or to the audience’s presence. Finally, a coach’s perspective would also enable us to gain insight on the type of preparation each musician requires in order to be able to perform under ideal conditions on the D-Day.
However, it seems that, nowadays, no one talks enough about stress, as well as musicians’ individual needs. With this in mind, I believe it would be a great opportunity to have the expertise of a coach, who would be able to shed light on the « non-verbal » side of musical performances.
Natacha : How do you personally manage your preparation before going on stage ?
Glenn : I like to mess around, have fun and tell jokes to relax myself before going on stage. I now realise how important this process is to me. Also, when I come on stage, I need to be aware that I know people in the audience and that I will be able to look at them when I arrive on stage. I also have specific habits which help me feel calm as well as enable me to deal with my emotions. For example, I wear my performance suit during concert rehearsals, as I perform differently according to what types of clothes I perform in. Furthermore, when I was young, I used to stand in front of a mirror, picturing myself carrying trophies ahead of competitions. I consider it essential to put myself in all of these conditions to be able to play at my best, as they all contribute to helping me stay focused.
Natacha : How do you deal with concerts or competitions which trigger more emotions than usual ?
Glenn : The day I was most stressed was the day of the European Championship in Utrecht (Netherlands). During the test piece, I was unusually conscious of the fact that we were being judged. Normally, I play music passionately and I’m not concerned about this aspect of contests. But at that time, I don’t know why, I kept telling myself that our performances’ were being compared to each other, as we were playing the same piece of music. As a result, I wasn’t focusing on the music itself but rather experiencing that moment as a proper competition, with less pleasure involved. At some point, I wasn’t feeling well and told the musicians I won’t be doing any more contests, and that I wanted to focus on concerts only. The following day, during our own choice piece, I did feet better, as I no longer had the sensation of being compared to others. I haven’t had this feeling since.
Natacha : Could you specify the type of physical sensations you experienced when you were not feeling well that day?
Glenn : I had stomach pain. I also felt nauseous, as if I had too much to drink. Obviously, I didn’t exactly find myself in a festive context then …(laughs).
Natacha : How did you manage to overcome these overwhelming feelings ?
Glenn : I stepped away from the brass and started doing some breathing exercices. When I feel stressed, I always have trouble breathing. I feel my heart beating way too fast. On this instance, I was able to reduce my heart rate, and feel better. I then joined the calmer team members which helped me to remain serene. However, I don’t want this happening to me again, eh! (laughs)
I think that, as we get older, we start to become aware of the impact the audience can have on us. More generally, I have come to realise that, with age, comes an increased awareness of various factors at stake when one performs on stage.
Natacha : Can you tell me more ?
Glenn : I started competing and performing on stage at a very young age. At around 17 or 18 years old, I was already teaching masterclasses to people sometimes more experienced than me. Looking back, it seems that older musicians in Belgium were not happy about the fact that I reached a good performance level, compared to my young age. I now live in Switzerland and I feel that, when I return to Belgium these days, people are much more eager to attend my concerts. It seems that it was necessary for me to leave and then return to the country, as an adult, to be recognised by others.
Natacha : According to you, at what age do you think a musician should be mentally prepared to go on stage to perform at auditions or contests ?
Glenn : In Switzerland, there are a lot of soloist contests taking place (slow melody, Swiss Championship, Valais Championship). We try to enroll students as much as possible and we realise that they experience high stress levels from an early age. As such, I believe that students must be aware of the impact of stress as early as possible in their carrier : if you arrive on stage with a good posture and an apparent self-confidence, the audience won’t listen to you in the same way. Attitude has an undeniable influence on your presence on stage and how you are perceived by others.
Natacha : Thank you, Glenn, for your time answering all of these questions with honesty.
Traduction : Paola Millet