I took advantage of the latest lockdown to connect with Richard Marshall, principal cornet of the famous Black Dyke Brass Band, and one of the finest cornet players of his generation. The focus of our discussion was performance.
Natacha : What does the term « perform » mean to you ?
Richard : I think performance is a way for me to reflect the time I spent practicing on my instrument, behind the scenes. Since I was a child, I’ve been devoted to my instrument, the cornet. As such, the purpose of performance, in my view, rests in expressing to the audience what I actually do, what I’ve worked hard on for some many years. And this is precisely an element I convey to my students : being conscious of the reason behind all their hard work.
I believe every musician should strive to play his instrument at a high level during each practice session in order to avoid stagnation. I think that any top level musician will always put in that extra effort which will generally enhance their on and off-stage performance. With this in mind, I believe it is essential for any musician to set high standards for themselves as it is precisely practice which enables performance.
Furthermore, I believe it is essential to focus on the mental aspect of our performance during practice, rather than on the physical side.
More generally, I believe it is essential to set high standards for ourselves in everyday life.
Natacha : What do you mean by « setting very high standards » ?
Richard: I am referring to “setting high standards” ahead of a performance, whether for an audition or a competition. More specifically, my approach to having this sort of mindset consists inmentally preparing myself ahead of upcoming concerts or competitions with the brass, weeks and months in advance and practicing enough so that the whole of any performance goes as planned. This level of preparation provides me with a sense of control whilst also enhancing my general level of performance.
There is a notable difference between practicing in your own home compared to performing in front of a band.
When performing,musicians should not worry about what the audience is thinking but rather be 100% focused on their own performance.
I always keep my mother’s saying in mind : «You should always strive to do your best, but also bear in mind you can only do what you are capable of doing. You can‘t expect something more, you can’t be Superman every night ».
More generally, I love my job, as well as the way I experience and practice it. I also enjoy teaching what I know. And I strive to maintain this level of high performance in every other aspect of my life.
Natacha : What processes do you follow to perform effectively?
Richard : I always aim to think positively during all performances. I believe that negative thoughts have the power to hinder performance and thus cause negative results. Instead, I try to focus on things that make me happy.
With this in mind, I often write my two daughters’ initials on my musical scores, Bella and Esme (B&E), as it causes me to feel great each time I read those two letters, whilst also helping me stay relaxed. Thanks to them, I am able to enter the stage with a smile on my face as well as experience less negative thoughts as I perform.
I’m a big believer in Benjamin Franklin’s old saying : « By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail ». As discussed when you last came to Manchester, don’t expect a great performance if you didn’t prepare yourself enough ahead.
For example, ahead of Black Dyke competitions or major events, I will tend to practice wearing my Black Dyke on-stage uniform as soon as I work on my cornet, in order to minimise any perceived differences in the way I experience practice and on-stage performance. As such, I believe that performance in an environment that feels familiar and somewhat natural can be determinant.
I have actually worn this uniform hundreds of times, and it makes me feel very proud each time !
Overall, the most honest answer I can give you is that I’m always prepared for what I’m going to do, in order to be able to perform at my best. But, opening a sheet music and starting worrying about a particular section of the performance is normal ! We’ve all done it Natacha !
Natacha : You mentioned Black Dyke, are there any anecdotes you would like to share in relation to your preparation as part of this brass?
Black Dyke is a brass band conducted by Nicholas Childs who always ensured we never went to a concert, a competition, or a performance without being 100% prepared. During 15 years I have been principal cornet with the band, we’ve never performed on stage underprepared or feeling that things could go unplanned.
You might recall the level of preparation we had before performing on-stage when you met the brass musicians in Manchester : we were ready before we even started playing, focused on our respective tasks. And fortunately, this is still the case : Nick systematically requires the band’s performance « behind the stage » to be satisfactory.
If you take a look at one of Nick Childs’ sheet music, you will see annotations everywhere as all essential information are recorded in anticipation of on-stage performances.
Ahead of competitions, Nick takes the notion of performance very seriously and as such, is very attentive towards his musicians. More pointedly, he will ensure that they will not play as much on their instrument during the week preceding a concert as he is conscious of a very important fact thanks to his thorough experience as a euphonium musician : we need to have our lip muscles in good shape in order to perform well on our instrument.
Nick trains us to perform at a high-level whilst taking into consideration the fact that we can sometimes be tired after practice. He understands musicians and wants what is best for them. He is aware of the fact that we have to feel particularly “fresh” in order to be ready to perform well.
When you are fresh you don’t need to think, you are ready to perform. It has to do with not feeding your negativity, not practicing what is not good for you.
Natacha : In your opinion, how much influence can a conductor have on a brass band ?
Richard : I think that a conductor has an enormous influence. There is a lot of mutual respect between the musicians and the conductor. As such, I believe it is important for a musician to tell himself that if he performs well, it will make his conductor happy in some way.
During a competition, we tend to switch from being very talkative to suddenly completely silent ; a funny process which is triggered by nervosity.
Why shouldn’t we however remain natural and simply talk to each other during those moments ? I usually speak with my sister who is also a principal cornet. I can’t precisely tell you what it is we actually talk about, as the idea is simply to communicate for our fears to express freely.
When Nick feels we are anxious in some way, he will speak openly about it during practices. Everyone feels some form of anxiety from time to time, and it is perfectly normal and natural.
In such cases, Nick simply tells us: “relax, and talk to each other!”. And the most important thing here is the mutual trust between us.
Natacha : In what ways do you personally consider communication essential?
Richard : Black Dyke is a very busy brass band, at least until COVID-19 arrived ! We attend rehearsals twice a week and we perform at concerts on most week-ends.
Nick is generally aware of the required conditions for musicians to play at their best, and areas they have relatively more difficulty to perform in. Considering this, he will always find a way for his musicians to feel at ease during competitions, through notably selecting a piece that will create a sense of comfort for his musicians. In that regard, he aims to remove any potential stress for his musicians. This is however not a process he follows each time, but he does strive to be attentive to our needs and reduce any anxiety ahead of competitions. And I believe this is an optimal way of addressing such stress.
Nick also spends a lot of his time speaking to his musicians, which I also believe is a great source of support to us.
I often work alongside brass bands or teachers ; and the one thing I keep advising on is that it is essential to focus on elements of our performance we are not fully comfortable with yet. We are not robots, we cannot perform perfectly all of the time and everyone has weaknesses. I am personally well aware of both my strengths and weaknesses, and I have worked a lot on the latter — an approach which has enabled me to develop a certain mental toughness.
Natacha : What is your own experience with stress ?
Richard : On a personal level, I’ve certainly found myself in situations I would never want to experience again. I will obviously not tell you everything about these events on camera! (laughing). It would be a lie to tell you I’ve never been through dark moments (13 or 14 years ago from now), but I never went through any similar experience since. I now feel much stronger.
I wasn’t having a great day then, I was overwhelmed by stress and things didn’t go well. I can only recall one thing after having arrived on stage : I told myself that I would never play the cornet ever again. Then two events occurred during that same day : 5 or 6 hours after this performance, I had to go back on stage and play a solo during the concert, on the same stage. And guess what? I’ve never performed so well during a solo.
The second thing that happened that day was…a beer that was waiting for me when I came off stage ! (Laughing).
Overall, I’ve been through tough moments and the only way for me to overcome those challenges was to share my experiences to people around me. We usually tend to keep moments of stress to ourselves which then become heavy weights on our shoulders.
Natacha : Thank you for your honesty, Richard ! So my last question would be : what experience are you most proud of ?
Richard : Edward Gregson’s concerto in Lille. I was quite proud of that performance, especially since being in a competition in the morning and having to perform this piece in the afternoon is not the most relaxing thing I know ! (Laughing – Edward Gregson’s concerto is a formidable piece for cornet players) But I loved this experience.
Actually Natacha, I’ve had many other great experiences : winning my first important competition when I joined Black Dyke. I’ve also performed with numerous great conductors, who all had different approaches.
I tend to go to each concert, practice and competition with a similar mindset : I always strive to perform at a high-level, and I manage to rehearse well — whatever the event I am preparing for. I simply always want to perform well.
There were times in my life when it was very difficult for me to stop playing. I have been used to play an hour daily, since I was 9 years old. As soon as I didn’t practice I felt bad and I felt I had to go and play.
This experience taught me a great lesson : the most important thing is what we practice and how. Duration isn’t that determinant. I tend to practice 2 to 3 times a day, for 20 to 30 minutes.
The way I usually realize that I have practiced enough is when my daughter tells me: “Dad, can you please stop playing? The sound of your music isn’t that great”.
I am proud of myself when I feel at ease during a performance. I simply need to breathe, play music and feel good. And if it sounds right, I am content. If arriving at this mindset requires some practice, I will put the work in order for everything to go well. Training consistently is very important in my view ; it represents an integral part of my preparation.
Thank you Richard, it was really kind of you to take the time to answer all my questions. I hope to see and hear from you soon !
Traduction : Paola Millet