Coaching & Development, Human Performance, Performance | Dec 10, 2018
Professor Aaron Williamon explains how science blends seamlessly with art at the Royal College of Music.

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“What role does science have in creating great art?” It is a question that is asked continually by Aaron Williamon in his role as Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music and Director of its Centre for Performance Science [CPS].

By John Portch

The CPS was originally founded in 2000 at the Royal College of Music [RCM] and has since become an internationally distinctive centre for research, teaching and knowledge exchange in music performance science. Today it runs as a cross-institutional partnership between the RCM and Imperial College London. Its aim, as Williamon says, is to take specific elements of art to the next level. “Our aim is to create performers that are intersecting directly with the cutting edge of music and art,” he tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “In the Centre for Performance Science we really take the word ‘science’ in its broadest possible construct to look at knowledge and we try to set up research questions and use the best methods available to answer those specific questions.”

Williamon has invited us to the CPS to discuss how its efforts are supporting its students in their development and exploration of their potential.  The RCM, he tells us across the desk in his office, has endeavoured to take a holistic approach: “We’re increasingly seeing that we have to treat the study of music performance with regard to wide-ranging physical and psychological applications. Of course, when musicians are going out, they have to play lots of notes, sometimes really quickly, and they have to remember all of those notes because they’re often playing from memory; they have to engage with other people while they are doing that and come to some sort of shared artistic vision. Then they have to perform for audiences who may know the pieces they are playing or that may be totally new to those pieces but have certain expectations. So we have to take a holistic approach physically, mentally, socially to how we understand music.” He could be describing the world of an English Premier League academy or college football in the US, each of which exists within an environment of divergent hopes, expectations and fears before a ball is even kicked. For its part, classical music, as Williamon explains, is an environment where precision in performance is often valued over artistic risk. This perceived need for the note-perfect performance is a major cause of performance anxiety in musicians and burn-out is an ever-present risk in a field where artist should, in theory, be able to enjoy long and fruitful careers. As is increasingly the case in sport, there is a growing understanding that music conservatoires must prepare their graduates for the world beyond their doors. Williamon continues: “What we’re really trying to encourage is this notion of learning in the spotlight. We’re trying to make sure that they have the tools to tackle the attendant challenges in a healthy and constructive way. We ask: to what extent do mental and physical problems exist within education and within the profession? What are those problems? What are the possible causes? How can we support our students better in both addressing those problems and making sure they can prevent any problems arising so that they can continue to have long and productive careers?

“We want people to come in and not only perform but to reflect on what they did; and they need to be able to do that in situations that are not entirely charged by the emotions and the energy of the event itself. It’s good to be able to take a step back, look at the video of your performance and rather than jumping to all the things you did wrong, ask what you did right, maybe reframe that performance in a way that accentuates the good bits and then move on to the next performance.”



The role of the educator

The role of the teacher is fundamental. “It’s the music educator’s job to make sure that when our students are learning to perform, they have the skills to learn effectively, that they’re taught how to practice, that they’re taught the technical skills to do what they need to do on their instruments, that they’re taught aspects of how to express music in a way that corresponds to what they hope to achieve in their overall goals. But we also know that we have to give people career opportunities and career skills working as a self-employed person, to be able to network and make opportunities for themselves. Crucially, as part of that, it’s making sure they have a clear view of the importance of life skills that support them as well.” The internal drive of the student is fundamental to the whole process and echoes that of any athlete striving to make it at elite level. “Being a musician brings rewards and opportunities but what we find is that musicians take a lot of meaning and value out of what they do in spite of the occupational challenges that they face of relatively limited employment and difficult financial circumstances. It’s a tough environment but musicians are driven by the art they make. It can be a very rewarding career when you do that.”

The RCM’s goal is to help them do it in a constructive way. “At the same time, we have the responsibility to make sure we set up our students in ways that don’t allow them to push to an extent where they harm themselves. We want to give them holistic training that gives them insight into not only pushing themselves physically and mentally but to do so in a way that is constructive, positive and properly paced.”

Rollover Beethoven

Williamon and the RCM are trying to change notions of artistry, shifting from the idea of the gifted maverick to that of a person who has trained efficiently and effectively for those inspired moments in the spotlight. “Musicians think of themselves as artists but they are also people who have been working in a systematic fashion for a very long period of time – it takes a lot of direct and deliberate effort to work systematically towards those goals,” he observes. This is where neuroscience finds its entry point.

Dr Amy Kruse, Chief Scientist of Optios (formerly known as the Platypus Institute), a leading NeuroPerformance organisation in the United States, has done extensive research on the neuroscience of expertise within elite military teams and individuals. She comments: “The neuroscience of expertise, literally the science of how brains change as people develop mastery, absolutely supports the notion of deliberate practice as the fundamental building block of expert performance. Through deliberate practice the brain develops both new networks and astounding efficiency in those networks. This efficiency leads to the external observation that performance seems effortless – in reality, it was quite effortful at the beginning – but through practice becomes something that the brain can achieve with much less effort.”

At the RCM, this process drives their search for ever-improving performance. “It’s very much an empirical process and a lot of my colleagues have questions I would describe as empirically tractable,” says Williamon. “They have direct questions about how to be better and what we’re trying to do scientifically is come up with the best sort of design that can help test some of those ideas out.”

Through collaborations that see the RCM bring in a variety of musicians to work with its students, the Centre for Performance Science is able to answer those performance questions. “We come together to create and generate questions that we feel not only advance our understanding of human performance from a scientific perspective but also advance how people are able to perform and how we can coach the learning and execution of that. Historically, if you look at music, we have seen a constant redefinition of the upper limits of human intellectual and motor ability.” In the same way that 100m sprinter Luther Cary’s 1891 world record time of 10.8 seconds has been beaten by more than a second in the subsequent 130 years, Williamon asserts that renowned musicians from bygone eras would struggle to find work in the modern age. “We see the constant tackling of challenges that in one point in history would have been seen as quite impossible but are now commonplace. If you take the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major, when it was composed in 1878 it was considered unplayable, very difficult to get your fingers around the violin to do this piece in a convincing way: today it’s a standard piece in the repertoire and even young musicians making swift progress in training can play this piece in public.”

Interpersonal and environmental catalysts

Key to understanding this continual pushing of the limits is the sophisticated thinking that now exists around students and their ability to learn. “There’s no question that to become a great musician you do have to put in a lot of time, but in addition to good quality practice we also know there are ways in which people can be influenced on their trajectory towards expertise,” says Williamon. This leads us to a discussion of what he refers to as ‘interpersonal’ and ‘environmental’ catalysts. “Interpersonal catalysts are related to aspects of body size; they may have large hands – is that suitable for playing the piano? Is it suitable for other instruments and how do they map that into their instruments? Whether they have volitional control or an internal locus over managing a task and their attitudes towards learning and tackling challenges.

“In addition to these personal qualities, people are not making music in isolation, they’re doing it with other people, they’re observing their peers, they’re receiving teaching, they have inspiration from their parents and others – these are environmental catalysts that can come into play and shape how they progress, the extent to which they want to do that in training and also the extent to which they see the possibilities in their skills. Those catalysts might affect you in both positive and negative ways.” This has shaped the RCM’s approach to education. “When students come in they may have certain attitudes that might be unhelpful in terms of their health or we could bring back some aspects of technical skills so that they can create a better foundation for moving forward again. It depends on the individual student and the way that music education sector addresses this is through one-to-one teaching; most of the teaching we do is not classroom-based; it’s not even two or three students together. One student and one professor working for several hours within a team to build new pieces and repertoire; to make sure there’s a firm foundation on which people can interact with their instruments or sing.” There has also been a noted shift in the attitudes and expectations of students and, in the past 30 years, conservatoires have responded accordingly. “We’ve seen students that are more willing to engage directly with mental health support and it’s grown to an extent where they’re requesting services we may not have offered but they feel that we need to and we’re trying to respond in a proactive way. Through or curriculum we try to set in place opportunities that will help them; it’s also underpinned by our knowledge in research.”



The performance simulator

What does the RCM’s research tell them about physical and psychological performance stressors and how can students be supported in this regard? Inevitably, it starts with performance anxiety. “We are talking about event-specific anxiety across a specific activity and if you look across the profession there’s quite a high proportion of people who report severe and debilitating performance anxiety,” Williamon begins in explanation. “So what does that mean? It means they ruminate and worry about a performance for days or weeks in advance; they get to the day of the performance and they’re standing backstage and what we see at that point is a real shift in their physiological state. They’re highly aroused and on edge in terms of the stress they’re experiencing. Some people may interpret that as a signal that something may go wrong, they may fear the feeling, they may dread it. Other people, on the other hand, may take a positive attitude towards this as a signal they are ready to perform.

“We would say is that physiological change happens uniformly across most musicians, but the way you interpret that psychologically is critical to the outcome. We work with students to make sure they can experience these feelings of physiological change and interpret those in a way that enables them to be ready to go out, take the stage, and do what they’ve been training to do. Interestingly, when we monitor that physiological trajectory across a particular performance, we start to see there is a slight recovery from that high state, a settling down of physiological arousal and a delivery of what they can do in terms of expressing their skills and playing the music. Then, of course, we also want to look at how people recover from stress; can they recover quickly and get back to normal soon so that they can move onto the next stressful event in the most positive possible way.”

The RCM provides psychology services and covers mental and psychological skills in its curriculum, including visualisation skills and relaxation techniques. It also assesses physiological states through measuring levels of stress hormones in saliva samples, motion capture equipment, thermal imaging, wearable tech and surveys and questionnaires. This enables it is provide individual pathways for students. “We offer a range of support systems to try and optimise their interpretation of those signals and also how to optimise how they can practice performance; that they know what it’s like, they had that experience and they can learn from it rather than see it as a final product.” To this end, the introduction of the Centre for Performance Science’s performance simulator – a real-time platform-level distributed interactive simulation of the kind often found in the military – has been invaluable. In essence, it’s a backstage area with a spotlighted stage in front of a large screen that depicts an interactive, simulated audience or audition panel. This audience or panel will react as and students can be monitored across their simulated performance or audition. It was designed in partnership with Imperial College London’s Centre of Engagement and Simulation Science. It is an essential tool for the RCM, who cannot provide performance and recital opportunities to each of their 800 students despite their best efforts. “The first problem is frequency of exposure to performance,” says Williamon. “The second problem is that we don’t want them to focus too much on how their audiences are evaluating them. We want to give them the freedom to go into a space, experiment and practice performing without the risk of public appraisal.

“Considering those two problems, we were looking at how performers in other fields do this. At Imperial College they are training surgeons to look at their surgical skills and to be good surgeons before they hit an operating theatre for real. One way to do that is build elaborate surgical simulation suites that are very expensive to build and run, but we also have a colleague at Imperial who used the technique of distributed simulation, which is based on low-cost portable facilities that draw the surgical student into the mindset of performance by giving them certain environmental and procedural cues that allow them to think in performance mode. We neither have a lot of money nor space at the Royal College of Music and so what we’ve done is use the same principle to generate our performance simulator. What that means is that when students are signed up to use it they are shown to a green room which in any sort of concert hall is the space where an artist is able to unpack, get dressed, warm up, and get ready to perform. When they’re in the green room there is a backstage manager who will come and give them 30-minute, 15-minute and five-minute stage calls; and then they’ll take them to the backstage area – we replicate the whole procedure. They wait backstage until they’re given a signal to walk out onstage; they can hear the murmuring of the audience – this is all being moderated by the backstage manager who goes through a protocol of interacting with the front of house to make sure they’re ready for them to take to the stage. When the backstage manager confirms that it’s ready then the door opens, they’re given a signal to walk through, they walk out into a space where the spotlight hits them and the audience is applauding for them; it’s also an otherwise dark environment that reproduces the site of an actual performance.

“The virtual interactive audience responds, claps, coughs, sneezes; a phone might ring – everything that happens in real life. We control the audience depending on how difficult we want to make the performance or what we’re trying to rehearse. We have video cameras situated around the space pointed at the performer and the student can review those later with colleagues or just by themselves.” The same protocol exists with the audition simulation, with the panel instructing you when to start and then reacting accordingly to the student’s performance. “They have three different modes. They can like what you’re doing, they can be indifferent and they can be downright hostile.” The students have benefited immeasurably as tutors take a more individual, tailored approach. “Taking people through that process of performing and providing that chance for immediate feedback – we’re not trying to make life difficult for our musicians but give them a chance to see what it’s like when things are going well, when it’s not going well; also to help them develop strategies for dealing with situations that aren’t going well and helping them to reframe those moments. “When students are finished performing I mention they have access to the videos and we also provide coaching where we work with the students on very direct points about enhancing their performance. That might include presentational issues around taking command of the stage or looking as though they’re enjoying the performance; it might involve things that have to do with the musical or technical nature of the performance if we’ve brought in one of the instructional teachers to work directly with the students.” Given that students decide when and if to use the simulator, Performance asks how they tend to use the service. “Most work on very specific skills,” replies Williamon. “They may have an audition or an orchestra coming up, they may have a big recital, and we’ll work with them to decide how to change the audience during this time and by setting out deliberately to help them in a systematic way. We may throw in some surprises but we work with the student to see how they want to improve and we can best introduce challenges to test them at that.”



Like much of the Centre for Performance Science’s work it sounds like science servicing art and Williamon is quick to concur. “There is a high degree of subjectivity and with the arts we firmly embrace that; we can work with that to our advantage, we can rest assured that this allows us the freedom to have something new to say rather than having to say it like some person who has come before.”

Optios have teamed up with the Leaders Performance Institute to drive the growth of neuroscience in the sport and high performance space.

See also:

Summit Session: Learning & Thriving in the Spotlight

When the Arts Get Together in the Name of Wellbeing

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