Module 2 Input Weekend – Jayke Branson Thom, Leah Hausman and Olga Masleinnikova

Professional Development Session

Friday’s session was with the lovely Jayke Branson Thom (ENO’s Performance Psychologist

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve rolled my eyes on the odd occasion when reading about very well known singers who admit to having suffered from crippling nerves before performances (probably because that little green monster on my shoulder mumbles ‘she gets nerves AND sings like a goddess – I may as well give up now…’) BUT, Jayke’s session was a real revelation. For starters, I had absolutely no idea that Opera houses employ performance psychologists for their singers, and that their abilities also help musicians, actors, and sportsmen alike.

Understanding that habits which rear their ugly heads in stressful situations can be altered by trying to go back and locating the source (perhaps an early memory or negative experience), and creating positive associations, was valuable information as I’d pretty much resigned myself to believing that not much can be done to combat nerves. Singers use pictures, scenarios and even colours in order to bring out the emotion and sound from our voices. Jayke was able to demonstrate simple techniques we can use on a daily basis which, over time, we can implement in a range of different situations.

Little tips she suggested:

  • When practising, spend 20 minutes being in ‘the zone’ i.e working dramatically on your piece rather than spending the whole session on technical work. Take the risk of practising your performance, so you can learn how to switch on / switch off. This will also help you to make clear dramatic choices.
  • Practise to make things about the aria i.e Think -> Access -> Tell.
  • Suspend your belief of being judged in an audition, and create a ‘platform persona’ – walk into a room as who you want to be in 20 years time as if it’s a gala performance and you have nothing to prove.

Helping musicians identify why they react to certain things and providing them with nurturing tools is so important. I came away wondering why these sessions aren’t’ offered Day 1 at Music College…

The Weekend

As someone whose Monday – Thursday life in an office is rather predictable, I’ve found myself eagerly anticipating each ENO weekend and the new things I will discover not only about myself, but also about my classmates. Knowing that this one was to be primarily ‘movement’ based, I’ll admit that I had two contrasting mental pictures of what it would look like:

  • We’d all discover hidden dance talents and the class would resemble a scene out of Pineapple dance studios, OR
  • We’d be asked to imitate carrots and other such vegetables.

Leah Hausman (director, movement director and choreographer) put us through our paces with a series of physical warm ups inspired by Jacques Lecoq’s work to ensure that we were openly communicating with our bodies, and a range of floor routines (aka ‘The Spiral’) which ensured we focussed on our pelvic muscles. All helped create awareness as to how these muscles contribute to our singing and physicality.

The afternoon session involved 4 masks. We would each put on a mask (with our backs to everyone else), and as we turned around we had to imagine that this was the first time we’d seen the sea and the horizon. Those of us in the audience would openly discuss what we thought was the ‘story’ behind each individual character. The aim was that the neutral mask would aid awareness of any physical mannerisms, and for us to notice how these are emphasized to an audience when we’re unable to rely on the facial expressions to tell the story. This was a great way of discovering things we do subconsciously (such as the way we stand / hold our heads), and discover how this comes across to an audience.

Sunday morning came round quickly. Unfortunately, quickly can’t be used to describe the rate at which any us were able to move, and yet as if by some small miracle, we were still able to muster enough stretch and flex for our guest tutor that day – Olga Masleinnikova (choreologist, movement director and teacher: who uses combined dance-theatre techniques and Laban’s contemporary developments.

Olga dived straight in – making us move around the space at different tempi using all limbs at our disposal, all the while being acutely aware of the space we occupy. Attention was drawn to which parts of our body we were moving, how these parts are connected and how the speed at which we move can influence this connection. In groups we put together a small movement sequence in unison, using Laban dynamics we’d learnt during the day, such as Direct Vs Indirect, Strong Vs Light, Sudden Vs Sustained, Bound Vs Free etc.

It was without a doubt a lot of information to process over one weekend, but a real revelation to how flexible and responsive my body can be if I go about my movement with real intention. Olga advised we make a list of which areas of movement we find most difficult, those we relish, and that for 5 minutes a day we work on 1 particular area to improve our physical responses. I’m really looking forward to taking her up on this suggestion and seeing its effects.

As the afternoon came to a close we all crawled away into the darkness with our broken bodies in tow, yet with a positive outlook; with the tools we’ve learnt over the past 3 days, we can put ourselves back together in a way that will be so much more effective for our singing.

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