Do concert pianists need Olympian levels of fitness to cope with the strains of performance? Science is using Melvyn Tan to find out
Classical musicians have it easy, don't they? Sitting around all day, playing the music they love, flying around the world giving concerts to their joyous public, and generally having a ball.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. According to Aaron Williamon, professor of performance science at the Royal College of Music in London, if you compare music students and musicians with the rest of the population, they are more physically and mentally stressed, less healthy, more prone to anxiety – and more liable to "self-medicate" (with booze, caffeine and even drugs) to deal with all these things. "Whether that's a set of characteristics that makes them predisposed to a life in music," says Williamon, "or whether it's music that produces these effects, we don't know yet."
Musicians are like athletes, in other words, requiring bodies as highly trained as those of Olympians – and that's why Williamon is wiring up pianist Melvyn Tan at the Cheltenham festival this Sunday morning, measuring his heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and posture, to gauge the strains of a major recital. This is all done with a single device, a strap that goes around Tan's chest beneath his clothes, so the Pump Room in Cheltenham won't feel like a science lab. The results will be presented later in the day.
What does Williamon hope to find out? And what might Tan learn from being a concert-pianist guinea pig? "The question is how students can make the transition to the world stage," says Williamon. "We've already measured Melvyn playing the same pieces at his studio, a low-stress environment." The pieces are Bach's A minor English Suite and Variations for Judith, a new piece by a handful of composers commissioned by Judith Serota. "We saw his heart rate accelerating and his breathing slowing down, which is not a predictable response."
Usually, your breathing gets faster as your heart rate increases. It's a result that confirms something Tan felt about his own playing. "When I play something fast and difficult, you would think I would be stressed, but it's the reverse. You're so concentrated on playing the right notes, you tend not to be nervous. But when you've got something slow and emotional, that's when you feel more stressed. I always thought that instinctively. Now I know it for sure."
But do these results only apply to Tan? Can they tell us anything about the way musicians respond to stress in general? While Williamon accepts that every player reacts differently, there are patterns. "If you find somebody's physical response is a problem, you can work on getting them more physically fit; whereas if it's a psychological problem, you can give them cognitive therapies. But just because your heart rate goes high, that might not be a negative thing. It's just about how you deal with excitement."
There are plenty of examples of great performers not being able to cope with the rigours of performance. Vladimir Horowitz used to get so anxious, he sometimes had to be pushed on stage; Benjamin Britten's nerves often made him physically sick before a concert; and Yehudi Menuhin suffered from anxiety towards the end of his career. Even those who can deal with the pressure may let off steam afterwards in an unhealthy way. Tan studied at the Menuhin School in Surrey with Nigel Kennedy; he says he wouldn't be able to sustain the violinist's hard-partying after every gig. And 20 years ago, a study undertaken at the Wigmore Hall, London, suggested that beta-blockers, which many musicians take, might help with nerves but can lead to less expressive performances.
Williamon tells me about a very tense young cellist he has observed whose heart rate was around 170 beats per minute for an entire recital. This is the sort of exertion you'd expect from someone running a middle-distance race – but sustained for an hour. "He could get uptight very easily," says Williamon, "and it showed in the data."
While musicians may be pushing their bodies and their brains to extremes, few are taking enough care of them – or at least not in the way Olympians do. Tan started taking regular exercise to ensure he was fit enough for his job decades ago, but few students at the Royal College sign up for the free exercise sessions Williamon offers. It's the same in the profession at large: no musician wants to admit to weaknesses in their hearing or their mental or physical health. "Denial is a very useful strategy," says Williamon, who hopes to use his findings to persuade more musicians to shape up. "But it's a very sinister one, too."
• The Cheltenham festival's Musical Athletes weekend starts this Saturday. Melvyn Tan plays the Pump Room, Cheltenham Town Hall, at 11am on Sunday. Details: cheltenhamfestivals.com.
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