Category Archives: reflective practice journal

Second Performance class with Hester- Academy open day: Brahms Sonata in Eb op 120 no. 2, 1st movement (Allegro Amabile)

This performance class showed me the importance of overcoming my nerves, as even though Hester and I performed exactly the same piece as before a couple of months ago in front of Peter and the strings students, I was more nervous and therefore was not as happy with how I played back in November. The problem with nerves that I find is that they’re almost completely random in how they strike- for example, when I played a concerto with orchestra last summer I was nervous but the exhilaration of the performance was such that I got over them very quickly, whereas during this small performance class which was effectively a showcase for new prospective students, I was pretty nervous throughout my performance for no good reason that I could work out. One thing may have been that I sat watching the 2 performances before mine and getting more nervous, whereas in a concert situation like the concerto, one just walks straight onto the platform without having to watch other performers (and subconsciously compare oneself to them, I guess!)

The devastating thing about nerves is that they can spoil a perfectly good, well prepared performance in all but the most self assured performer. I’m pretty sure that every famous performer you’ll see on the concert platform or on the TV has experienced them, and I know for a fact that so orchestral musicians seek help from their doctors for performance anxiety. Even Hester said she was nervous, and she has almost a lifetime of performance behind her, but she is now in her late eighties and when tired as she was then, she loses some of her co-ordination.

My nerves aren’t always as crippling, but here are some examples of the effects that my nerves can have:

  • Bow shake (when the bow wobbles when you draw it across the string)
  • Very tight and narrow vibrato
  • Sometimes, cold hands making it difficult to play
  • Dry mouth
  • Fixed expression on my face which I am self conscious of
  • Intonation problems and errors that I don’t usually make
  • A feeling of ‘I’ve got to get through this’ rather than concentrating on the music itself
  • Ultimately, frustration that I could have done better had I not been so nervous

The key thing, it seems, is not how to avoid becoming nervous in the first place, but how to control the nerves once you get them. But how? I guess it’s a mental thing, and you have to have a very strong inner voice telling you that you are going to be fine and play well. I know there are several books about this, such as ‘The inner game of music ‘ ( which I haven’t read- has anyone found these kind of books to be helpful?

Going back to the performance class itself, as it was an open day, there was no feedback from the audience, which would have been  nice to have. The only comments I got on my performance were from Robert himself. Famously noncommittal, he said to me afterwards, ‘That was very nice, thanks Jess.’

First performance class – Brahms Eb 1st movement with Hester

Overall, I was pretty pleased with how I played – a good thing was that I wasn’t too nervous when I started. Often nerves mean the start of my performance is rubbish then it slowly improves until I get rid of them- I wish I knew how to reliably control them! Hester commented afterwards that the start was lovely, as when I first played it with her she said I played it too slowly and it needed much more flow and momentum. A funny moment was when I announced the piece, saying ‘I’m going to play…’ and she whispered, ‘I hope you said “We’re going to play!”’

The main comments I had from Peter and the other masters students were:

  • It was a good performance but it was too self contained: it could have been more ‘open’ to the audience. I guess this means I was too self absorbed and not performing the piece to the audience enough. Does solving this mean exaggerating gestures, dynamics etc?
  • A greater contrast could have been made between the loud sections and the sotto voce sections, especially in the really huge bits
  • My vibrato needs to be more controlled as it accidentally emphasises unwanted notes (I am already aware of this and trying to work on it)
  • I made a comment about making more effort to phrase in Brahms’ ultra long lines, which some people agreed with and some said that they felt that I had achieved this
  • I felt I still need to have more dialogue and exchange with the piano, as it is after all a duo and not a solo with accompaniment. To do this, I will be looking more at the piano score so that I learn where I am in canon/duet with the piano and what it is playing throughout the movement.
  • Nice comments were made about my lovely tone and palette of colours – thank you!



Is there such a thing as negative or destructive practice?

By this I mean, is there such a thing as practice that, instead of improving an aspect of your playing or your ability to play a piece, it has the negative effects of decreasing your confidence, increasing frustration and the perceived effect of reversing improvement. I am sure we have all experienced this, on days where nothing seems to go right and we just can’t seem to do it, leaving us wondering whether we can actually play our instruments at all.

I had a day just like this a few days ago, and the frustration it caused was almost unbearable. I tried everything to dispell it – taking breaks, moving into a different room, listening to the piece instead, playing despite the feeling, but nothing worked. I got the feeling that I was actually harming my perception of my playing, so I stopped and decided to leave it for that day.

How much of a feeling like this is mental and how much is real? It’s hard to say for sure, as so much of playing music is a mental attitude and not in our physical playing. We had a seminar, given by Havilland Willshire, about differing attitudes to failure and motivation, and it turned out that those who viewed failure as just another learning experience were much more successful at overcoming obstacles than those who questioned their innate abilities as a result of failure. As musicians we are trained to judge other musicians’ performances quickly and sometimes harshly, but in order to survive in the professional world we need to be able to rely on ourselves for motivation, not what others think of us.

So I think that next time I experience frustration and feel I can’t play the viola, I’ll try and remember that failure is as important as success at building up the skills needed to be a musician (this may not help that much at the time, but in the long term it will hopefully make me better able to cope with the downs as well as the ups).

Reflective practice journal themes

‘Reflection is learning through experience… It is a complex activity that requires the individual to develop a set of skills required for problem solving’ (Jennifer Moon)


I have been struggling with how to start writing entries for my ‘Reflective Practice Journal’ (part of my ‘Integrative studies’ module – again, don’t ask), so I thought I would try and brainstorm a few ideas that would help me focus my thoughts:

  • How I practise (and how I should be practising!)
  • New ways of working/practising and learning to implement them so I get the best out of them
  • What I learn from lessons/rehearsals/masterclasses and how this will improve my playing
  • Reflections on life at music college (versus life at university)
  • Evaluation of performances
  • Problems with my playing and how to overcome them
  • Experiences of the profession eg gigs, side by side projects
  • Learning new techniques
  • New repertoire – background, why chosen, what recordings I listen to
  • General reflections on life as a musician or viola playing

Now, I suppose I have to start writing it….

Goals for my year at RSAMD

Since I have to write about these anyway for my ‘learning contract’ (don’t ask), I thought I might as well post them here. Surprisingly, it was more useful than I thought it would be, as it has helped me see what I want to get out of my year at RSAMD, which is quite a short time, so it will help me to focus on what I *want* to do rather than what I am *told* to do.

  • To become a more mature and professional musician, developing mastery over my instrument and increasing my skills of interpretation
  • To increase my repertoire as a musician, including solo, chamber and orchestral works and newer works
  • To improve my playing technically and musically, for example eliminating bad habits that have crept in during years without instruction, so that I become overall a better viola player
  • To spend a significant part of my time developing my skills as a chamber musician, through small group work including string quartets (perhaps focussing less on orchestral work to allow time for this)
  • To develop my confidence and professionalism in performance by taking part regularly in solo and chamber recitals, master classes and performance classes and other performance opportunities
  • To gain experience of a career as a professional musician through taking part in side by side and apprenticeship schemes and experiencing life at the Academy
  • To gain experience of teaching environments and the use of music in a wider context than I am familiar with in order to see whether I would be interested in teaching as a career option

Hmm, let’s see how many of these I can actually achieve….