Harmen, a talented artist, leaves the stage after leading the Buizingen Brass Band. With the same enthousiasm he demonstrated on stage, Harmen tells me about his experience as a cornet soloist.
Natacha : How do you feel before going on stage ?
Harmen : I’m a little bit nervous, but I think everyone is. At least, that’s my opinion ! But the feelings I experience are not particularly intense in my case. I like to refer to it as “positive nervousness” since I often manage to transform it into adrenaline. Moreover, I would say there is a lot of desire involved as I am determined to perform well during concerts during which I play as a soloist, or during times when I have to play solos. I can’t explain exactly how I do it, but I manage to be efficient and energised, whilst also focusing on my performance.
Things are different when I work from home. I lack that nervousness that allows me to be very efficient. Thanks to this feeling I have on stage – however one wants to call it – I feel more concentrated. I am able to get focused right away, whenever necessary. It is as if I know exactly what I need to do for concerts to go as planned.
During rehearsal before a concert, I sometimes even wonder what I’m going to eat for dinner ! (laughs)
Natacha : How did you develop the ability to focus on your performance, without experiencing any stress?
Harmen : I don’t know how to control it, I would say it is a natural ability. It has always been this way for me. When I was a child, I had 3 contests a year. Fortunately, I always had good results which gave me a lot of confidence. But it’s funny how these days, I feel a difference compared to before, which must be due to my age. As an adult, you feel like people perceive you as « a name on the podium », and as a result, everyone has expectations. Similarly, you realize you can’t impress them in the same way you used to as a child.
Natacha : How does the shift you are describing manifest during concerts ?
Harmen : It’s mostly physical. It happened 2 or 3 times. I mostly tremble, as if the adrenaline was concentrated in my whole body, especially in the muscles.
Natacha : How do you cope with such situations of stress ?
Harmen : I do stretching. This practice calms me instantly since the body can’t tremble when muscles are relaxed. Hence, my extensive sports practice helped me gain a certain understanding of the body which I have transferred to the music context.
Furthermore, as I evolve as a musician, I feel that I increasingly need to take care of myself to ensure I perform optimally on the day of the concert. In the past, there were instances during which I have had to push myself on both technical and physical levels to be able to finish a performance. It was as if I was in a hurry for the concert to end. This is a scary experience which I usually overcome by putting a stop to such negative thoughts when they arise.
Natacha : When I saw you perform on stage, I could feel your joy, your energy and at the same time, a certain calmness. How can you explain this ?
Harmen : I think that most musicians take themselves too seriously. It’s just music. It’s important to be able to put things into perspective and to remind ourselves that we are playing for an audience that really enjoys what we are presenting to them. As mentioned previously, people having expectations relating to our performance can definitely be pressurising. However, when such thoughts come to my mind, I personally tell myself: “Ok Harmen, stop ! This is just music !”
My education in music was very good. However, my parents are ashamed of my profession as a musician as they do not consider it a real job. They often tell people that I am a soldier, rather than a military musician. And this perspective actually helps me a lot, because it reminds me that music is not serious which, in turn, has a positive influence on my performance.
Natacha : You conducted the Brass Band Buizingen tonight on stage. The musicians looked excited and amazed by the performance. And just like you, they seemed to have this boundless energy. In what ways do you think you exert such a positive influence on them?
Harmen : Hmm… I don’t really know. I believe this dynamic comes naturally.
Seperately, in New Zealand, we have the equivalent of a mental coach, that is, a motivational coach. An old All Blacks rugby player came to help us one day. I have to say I was surprised. At first, I didn’t think it would be an efficient intervention. But when I saw how good of an impact it had on the musicians’ performance, I began to reflect on coaching. Since then, I’m more aware of what can happen in a band — for instance, certain people can display inappropriate behaviour under stress. It is precisely in such instances I think it would be helpful to have a coach. We are not taught to deal with such issues, as musicians or conductors.
Natacha : How do you approach conversations about stress and mental health, as a teacher ?
Harmen : I always discuss the topic of stress for 4 to 5 minutes with my students, as well as during masterclasses. I give them breathing or stretching exercices to promote well-being, calm and relaxation. In my view, stress is not bad until one feels its physical symptoms, which then becomes a problem. Moreover, I believe that being self-confident implies that an audience will not necessarily perceive one’s stress. It does work !
Furthermore, a mental coach can help us decrease our level of stress by helping us divert our attention from negative thoughts, to the task we are meant to tackle instead. Overall, what I tell my students is that anything that helps… helps. For instance, I used to attend drama and singing masterclasses. If it can help us to work on our mind, we should at least try. We must find the solution to our problem.
Natacha : Thank you for sharing your experience, Harmen. It was a pleasure spending this time with you !
Traduction Paola Millet