Phoebe Haines, Mezzo Soprano, and Fellow at the Guildhall School, discusses the power of shared reflection within a community of practice… Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Self-Reflective Practices and the ‘Magic’ of Mentoring
Whether we are aware of it or not, I believe that all musicians seek a ‘magical principle’ to adhere to in our practice. Whether this be perfect technique, a flawless legato, dramatic integrity, or simply a golden number of practice hours each day, we are all seeking a holy grail on which to pin our hopes of perfection. In conservatoires and beyond, we are surrounded by all sorts of incredible role-models who are hopefully able to help us achieve those coveted and elusive goals within the industry and within the music itself. But as a classical musician the person we refer to the most by far, with whom we have the most communication on a daily basis… is ourselves.
Sat within the four walls of a practice room (and our minds), the daily life of a classical musician can be solitary at best, and downright isolating at worst. One of the things I admire most about Guildhall is its recognition of the importance of creative reflection, through a variety of techniques and initiatives. Their introduction of a Mindfulness course few years ago shows a huge degree of progressive thinking, and genuine care for its students’ wellbeing. The uptake of this course, originally implemented at the suggestion of composer and pianist Rolf Hind, has led to a variety of creative and reflective avenues for students, from regular group sessions, even to an eagerly-awaited Mindfulness Opera “Lost in Thought”, taking place at LSO St. Luke’s later this year.
In my personal practice, I have found Mindfulness techniques to be an endless wealth of consolation, allowing for a greater sense of focus and calm. For me, one other very happy outcome of Guildhall’s insistence upon reflection has come about in the last few months, through my work as a Fellow of the School. In this role, I hold group and individual tutorials with Masters students as they prepare self-reflective accounts within a Critique of Professional Practice module. This module is designed to offer students an outlet to reflect on their practice methods and achievements over the course of the term or the year. In my sessions I work with students, acting as an extra set of eyes and ears when it comes to their Self-Reflective Essays. I basically act as a springboard for some of their ideas, and in this role I feel very privileged to be able to offer a small amount of perspective, if nothing else. The main two points that have struck me about these sessions, and the subjects examined in them, are the following: that self-reflection is essential, but can sometimes be isolating, and consequently that reflection can sometimes be best achieved in the presence of and with others.
Personal Reflection: Another Solitary Pursuit
Personal reflection, when realized in as unpressurised and non-judgmental of an environment as possible, is endlessly useful for musicians. So much of our day as musicians is spent in a room, working like a dog, self-critiquing to the point of exhaustion much of the time. Within this framework it is very easy to become introspective in all the wrong ways, and feelings of illegitimacy and inadequacy can become rife.
I have found that one of the most effective techniques to mollify feelings of uncertainty and illegitimacy in performing is, sometimes, simply to perform – to perform repeatedly, robustly, and in a number of different situations. But this isn’t always possible, and it certainly isn’t a foolproof panacea for everyone. When I then stumbled upon the idea of ‘authenticity’ in Peter Kivy’s book of the same name, the central concept of his book could not have rang more true to me. He notes that,
‘The highest praise one can bestow nowadays on a musical performance in influential circles, is to say it was ‘authentic’… ‘Authentic’ then has become… a synonym for ‘good’, while seeming to confer on a performance some magical property that it did not have before.’ (Kivy, 1995, p.1) (Emphasis my own)
This notion of the ‘magical property’ stuck with me, and I wondered whether there could be more inventive implications of self-reflection to explore.
A ‘Magic Principle’, and how it might be applied
In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell claimed that he had discovered a ‘magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours’ (Gladwell, 2008). Yet again, this idea of a ‘magic principle’ emerges. I had always found this theorem somewhat suspect, as all musicians know the evils of ‘bad’ practicing; the old adage (oft attributed to writer Alexander Liberman) that ‘practice makes permanent’ (not perfect) always sprung to mind. I was refreshed then to read an article recently by K Anders Ericsson (one of Gladwell’s research colleagues) in which it is implied that there is another vital element required in the acquisition of excellence in all fields. Ericsson does not disagree that practice is essential, but he posits that this can only occur in a room with another person, namely a teacher, or some other professional that can give you specific and dedicated feedback (Ericsson, 2008, pp.988 – 994).
It seems then that it’s not just practice, but ‘dedicated and intensive honing of skills’ (Szalavitz, 2013), in a critical environment, that counts. It occurred to me that some of the most useful and fulfilling moments of reflection I have had lately have been in my sessions with students. These haven’t necessarily been moments of personal reflection of course, but moments of ‘commune’, I suppose, in which a particular musical problem has been discussed and maybe somewhat dispelled through collaborative thought.
Another thought that has always occurred to me about teaching and mentoring is that it is a hugely valuable practice for any musician. What better way to access and understand your skill-base on a daily basis than to assist others? There is very little margin for error when there is an eager student sat in front of you with pen and paper, taking down notes and depending on you for a level of expertise and clarity in your expression.
I came upon another nugget of wisdom by Ericsson which states with greater eloquence my thoughts above:
‘Many of the mechanisms of superior expert performance serve the dual purpose of mediating experts’ current performance and of allowing continued improvement of this performance in response to informative feedback during practice activities.’ (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996, pp.273 – 305) (Emphasis my own)
It seems to me that an excellent practice activity then is reflection, and encouraging reflection in others. What better way of achieving the type of ‘informative feedback’ we need than during reflective discussions with our peers? We realize that we all come across the same stumbling blocks, and encounter the same feelings of self-doubt. This recognition of our similarities is not only comforting, but allows for creative problem-solving using our best resource: the combined outlook of several minds. What better way to solve problems than with the breadth of experience that comes from the cumulative perspective of several musicians? If it were simply a case of bringing together a ‘magic number’ of hours of practice, then a group environment would be an ideal forum for reflection, where the combined number of practice hours would certainly be in the tens of thousands.
I believe that any performative art-form relies on the connections which performers build with others; whether that be the audience or their fellow performer, it is this vital ingredient of communication which drives us all to play, surely? I think that the very lifeblood of classical music is, basically, communication – and so I truly believe that this idea of communing and reflecting with other musical minds is absolutely essential. Whether as a teacher or student (and really these roles are pretty flexible, for all musicians), I have found that these sorts of reflective conversations have been my ‘magic principle’ this year.
Ericsson, K Anders (2008) Academic Emergency Medicine, Vol. 15, Issue 11, pages 988–994, November 2008, ‘Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview’
Ericsson, K Anders; Lehmann, AC (1996) ‘Expert and exceptional performance: evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints’, Annual Review of Psychology, 1996 Issue, pp. 273-305
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success (Penguin, London)
Kivy, Peter (1995) Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Cornell, New York)
Szalavitz, Maia (2013) ‘10,000 Hours May Not Make a Master After All’, Time Magazine Online, http://healthland.time.com/2013/05/20/10000-hours-may-not-make-a-master-after-all/ (05.02.2015)
Before earning her MMus at the Guildhall, Phoebe Haines completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge. Alongside her current duties as a Fellow, she is also an Opera Works Trainee at the English National Opera. In 2014, she was both a Britten-Pears Young Artist and a Salzburg Festival Young Artist, making her main-stage debut at the Salzburg Festival in Der Rosenkavalier with the Wiener Philharmoniker.