This week I had the pleasure of taking part in the BBC Proms with the BBC Singers. This is the first Proms season that has welcomed the audience back into the Royal Albert Hall since the pandemic; a fitting re-opening to coincide with celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Hall itself.
I am still buzzing from the concert to an extent that I have not experienced for a long time. It really is a feeling of euphoria. There are many factors that contribute to this feeling that lingers blissfully in my mind; factors that are, in part, the continuation of my reflections on new perspectives as we learn to live in our world post-lockdown.
Where to start? Firstly, after 18 months of scant opportunities to make music, receiving the invitation to perform as a guest artist with the BBC Singers in their first prime-time slot in the BBC Proms in years is a great honour and a privilege. Secondly, I will be sharing the stage with a treasured friend and colleague the hugely talented viola da gamba player Liam Byrne. Joining us Tom Rogerson on synths, a composer/performer with huge experience as an improviser and jazz specialist and Delia Stevens, another trail-blazing percussion star. Our brief: to improvise a series of interludes to create a continuous sonic journey that encompasses vocal music from the 12th Century Hildegard von Bingen through the Renaissance polyphonic masterpieces of Byrd, Tallis and Josquin des Prez to the 21st century with four works written since 2015 including 3 world premieres: Birdchant by another old friend and colleague Bernard Hughes, A New Flame by the super talented Nico Muhly and Shiva Feshareki's Aetherworld for choir and turntables.
As the concert approached I admit that I started to get a little nervous. It's one thing to perform on the UK's biggest stage, something I've done many times before, but it's quite another to enter the rehearsal room with very few pages of practised music two days before the concert with the responsibility of 'making it up' as a quartet of soloists; two of whom you've never met!
I started my preparations by listening to the various choral pieces to get a flavour of the building blocks that form the framework for the programme. I even did some sketches for ideas of how to approach some of the challenges of modulation that we were tasked to achieve between pieces. There's only so much you can do of course, but with the knowledge that every famous jazz musician tireless maps different improvisational trajectories so that when the spotlight is on them everything flows as if by magic, this preparation was a well-trodden path towards success in the sphere of improv.
It's interesting though this phenomenon of nerves. Before the pandemic I find it hard to recall that last time I really felt properly nervous before a performance. I can recall countless times in my career spanning back to my youth; performing in the Concerto Final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition aged 18 with the National Youth Orchestra in the Barbican Hall with television cameras on booms whizzing around the auditorium in front of me springs immediately to mind. But with the passing years and hundreds of performances under my belt, performing is as natural as breathing. Amazing how just a short 'break' from this performing career can recalibrate the nervous system back to those teenage qualms.
I found myself turning to mindfulness as part of my preparations. It is important to state that I am a fair-weather mindfulness practitioner (or should that be foul-weather?). Although I have been promoting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation to my students as part of a healthy holistic approach to performance practice for a few years now. There is one particular Ted Talk that I share with students that is all about the benefits of a 5-minute mindfulness regimen. It's a perfect introduction for the young and restless, for whom mindfulness might be an alien practice. It's also ideal for the not-so-young with a stubbornly rooted physical approach to stress relief rather than a spiritual one. New perspectives call for new approaches right?! Time for the old dog to practise what it preaches....
So, I started introducing short bursts of mindfulness into my preparations. Usually at the moment when I could feel myself focussing in on the stress, the anxiety, the self doubt, the stomping demon making it impossible to switch off the moment my head hit the pillow to sleep! Revelation: it works! Just a short burst of guided meditation really made a huge difference as I moved towards the start of the rehearsal period for the concert, and indeed in the dressing room immediately before the show itself.
Once we were in rehearsal at the cavernous Watford Colisseum the anxiety melted away. Sure the mindfulness helped, but so did the other rigorous preparations that were more familiar from the time before Covid. The other amazing transformative element was the music itself and more specifically making music with such phenomenally talented artists as the BBC Singers, my fellow house band members Liam, Tom and Delia and the wonderful conductor Sofi Jeannin. I can safely say that these three days working together were joyous. It's rare to be in a rehearsal room where there is so much love, respect and passion. Everyone giving their best and striving to create something truly magical.
Once again I find myself reflecting on the whys and wherefores of this 'impression'. Is it a result of all these artists living through the pandemic with performance stricken from their lives emerging with more gratitude and revitalised? Is it a sign that my own creative juices were ebbing before the pandemic and I was now re-energised? Perhaps it's just the stars aligning to bring together the right people together with the right music at the right time!? Whatever the answer, I am grateful and thankful for the opportunity. I am proud of myself for tackling my own demons and navigating the day-to-day stress and in so doing enabling myself to produce the goods on the night, free of anxiety, present and alive to the joy of performing again.
Finally, a few words about something else that completes the picture: the after-show celebrations! This starts with a tsunami of relief and elation shared with all your fellow artists back stage. All the necessary pre-performance Covid protocols gleefully abandoned as we rush to embrace one another and head to the pub to celebrate. What a glorious feeling riding the wave post-concert with your newly acquired friends with the added stimulus of alcohol! I have missed that more than I dare admit. Not specifically the alcohol, although it was the first time I've stepped foot in a pub since before lockdown! But the connection, the communion: bringing music to life with a bunch of strangers and sharing it to another even bigger bunch of strangers, whilst simultaneously giving voice to the imaginations of ancient spirits and the living. Music is a powerful medicine. It soothes and heals so many wounds seen and unseen. Being immersed in the creation of that music is a gift for which I have a renewed appreciation. Is it weird to thank Covid for teaching me this lesson? For without the pandemic and the sense that for everyone on this planet time stood still, this euphoria might not be so keenly felt in me as it is right now. Whatever 'this feeling' is or isn't, what I know is that I have a new outlook, a new appreciation, a new perspective on who am I, what I have to give and where I find my joy.
Thank you BBC Singers, BBC Proms, thank you Liam, Tom, Delia, Kit, Sofi, Jonnie, Bernard, Nico, Roddie and Shiva for sharing your talents so open-heartedly. It was magic!