Performing in Anticipation

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There’s a Jonathan Coe novel in which a character says something like, ‘I shall enjoy looking forward to that’.* The main protagonist is struck by the multiple layers of anticipation built into the statement - taking pleasure in anticipating the pleasure of anticipating something. This quote came to mind as I was noting the various types of future-orientation discussed at Karen O’Connor’s Performing On Your Mind workshop back in November.

The first was the envisioning process entailed in the general coaching strategy, asking performers to describe the kind of performance they would like to give. I have already discussed how this serves to focus attention on solutions rather than problems, but it’s interesting to note that it thereby gets the performer to construct an imagined future self who is fulfilling their present ambitions.

Second was mental rehearsal, which I have blogged about periodically in the past. Karen characterises this as ‘the capacity to represent stimuli not physically present’ and makes the point that this is a purposeful activity, and thus distinct from mere daydreaming. I’d be interested to see what kind of differences in neurological activity there are between these two related states - you’d hypothesise a difference in intensity perhaps. For, whilst I see the point of making the distinction for the purposes of taking control of your performance preparation, it does seem to me that these are two points along a continuum of processing imagined experience, rather than completely contrasting experiences.

I mention neurology in this context because Karen also shared details of a study involving MRI scans of the brain engaged in, respectively, listening to and imagining a piece of music. It showed that the same parts of the brain were engaged in both activities. Hence, contentions that the brain does not distinguish between fact and fiction which have hitherto looked like experientially plausible but unsupported assertions start to look much more supportable.

In some ways this is no surprise. Having learned about the function of mirror neurons, and the way that the brain joins in sympathetically on perceiving purposeful action, I find myself ready to assume that a similar process would occur in response to imagined actions. But it’s good to have some kind of validation in that assumption.

The third form of anticipation was planning for performance. I have discussed this process for choirs in terms of a written outline for the performance day, so that everyone knows what happens when, so as to minimise uncertainty, and to guard against the emotional contagion of one person’s fluster infecting the whole group.

Karen encourages the performers she coaches to plan the performance day in detail, including plans for mealtimes, logistical details, and also how they will use ‘spare’ time during the day. She also has a day-by-day count-down to the performance day, so people can plan out the milestones en route to the day itself.

This process helps performers structure their time so they feel in control of the process. It is the means by which they can plan for success, not least by placing their focus on what needs to be done. It manages their sense of readiness, helping measure out their mental engagement so that when they arrive on stage they feel prepared, but they haven’t been wound up and raring to go all day. I’m sure much of the effectiveness of this planning comes from the fact that it ensures that all that needs doing gets done. But I’m equally sure that it also comes from the sense of security you get from having a clear to-do list to follow.

Years ago I heard a paper on the philosophy of music presented by Bojan Bujic. I found much of it quite opaque - it was the kind of material where I really needed a sit down and a think at the end of each sentence - but I was quite struck by his evocation of the psychology of a phrase. He gave the sense of setting up a trajectory, which the listener could follow, anticipating where it would arrive, with the cadence at the place where the listener’s attention met the music again.

The processes of anticipation - envisioning, rehearsal, planning - set up this kind of experience in real life. The performer projects their imagination through time to an imagined future, and then measures out their preparation to meet their imagined selves at the performance. Done effectively, it feels cadential: there is a sense of closure, of culmination, of completion of an intention set in motion weeks or months in advance.

* I think it may be The Accidental Woman, but I could be wrong about that. Happy to recommend the book anyway, actually, but don’t want you disappointed if the quote is actually from a different one.

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