Do you just keep on practising your pieces and hope that you’ll be able to pull it off when it really matters? How do you create practice sessions that best resemble a real concert or audition situation where your heart is pounding and your mouth turns to sandpaper?
Professor Aaron Williamon and Terry Clark from the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London have been asking these questions since 2011. As part of their quest they have built a performance simulator. On 13 June 2017 Senior Researcher Johannes Lunde Hatfield and Associate Professor Guro Gravem Johansen from CEMPE visited the RCM to find out more about the simulator and see how it works.
Recreating performance situations
The simulator is used for performance research and for rehearsing performance situations. The idea is to recreate performance situations that are as realistic as possible, be it a chamber concert with an audience or an audition in front of a panel of judges. The simulator also has a heart rate monitor which allows the researchers to observe the performers’ stress levels. The researchers also monitor cortisol levels and skin moisture, and they perform physiological analyses of body movement.
In the tower
The RCM is an historic building dating from the late 19th century. The room that has been converted to a simulator sits on the sixth floor in the higher of the building’s two towers. Upon entering, you find yourself in a short corridor designed to resemble the backstage facilities of a performance venue. Two monitors show the performers what is happening inside the “concert hall” where they will be performing. Terry acts as stage manager and asks us to wait until the “hall” is ready. The backstage room has been decorated with items designed to invoke an authentic concert ambience, including the “Please be quiet during concert” sign on the fake door leading to the “stage”.
Simulating a panel of judges
Today Aaron and Terry are showing us how they simulate a panel of judges. On the monitor we can see three actors filmed while pretending to get ready to audition new candidates. Terry asks whether we are all set and opens the door. The performance space is a small cage measuring some 3 x 3 metres with a grand piano, a music stand, black curtains on the wall, stage lights, a video camera and microphones, a projector and a screen. As we are simulating an audition, a video is played showing the three actors as judges taking notes while listening to our performance. The video is not interactive, but the simulator offers a selection of three different judge responses depending on which reactions we want to test in the research subject or what the student in question wants to rehearse. In our case the judges are giving us an enthusiastic response. The second response mode is indifferent, while the third is negative with the judges “interrupting” the candidate after a short while. The three judges featuring in the video are projected to scale. They also make brief comments and change their facial expressions in a way that makes the situation almost authentic.
Ringing mobiles and coughing
Another simulation recreates a chamber concert situation. The “backstage” monitor shows the audience settling down, and Terry guides us to the simulator cage again. This time the concert audience is projected onto the screen, and they applaud and smile as we enter. A mobile phone goes off, and somebody coughs.
A “classical audience”
Much attention has been paid to adding both visual and auditory details in order to make the simulator authentic, but certain things are inevitably missing. Since the video is not interactive, the behaviour of the actors is the same as when the video was recorded. The audience members have also been videoed one by one, and some of the actors have been duplicated. This was done for practical reasons, but it does mean that the audience members do not interact with each other – something you would expect in an authentic concert situation.
When asked about the different social and cultural contexts that the simulator is capable of conveying, Aaron confirms that it is designed especially for classical music performances.
“Someone commented on all the grey hair among the audience. Well, that would be a typical feature of the classical audience, wouldn’t it? We have constructed a typical well-behaved, predictable classical audience.”
A good tool for classical musicians
The RCM simulator is therefore not yet particularly relevant for other genres or contexts than the rather conservative settings we find in classical music. The simulator is unable to recreate situations where there is more interaction between the musicians and between the musicians and audience and where that interaction has a greater impact on the outcome. Nonetheless, studies of the performers’ stress levels show that their physiological reactions before, during and after a performance in the simulator are very similar to those that they experience in real-life situations. We can therefore be relatively confident that the simulator is a useful tool for classical musicians when practising how to deal with performance anxiety.
NMH is looking to develop a similar simulator
As part of Johannes Lunde Hatfield’s new research project at CEMPE, there are plans for the NMH to develop new virtual reality (VR) technology. Johannes wants to look into using VR glasses in a laboratory setting and developing a projection simulator similar to that at the RCM. The idea is to test the technology already in use at the RCM and to experiment with more flexible VR solutions. Starting in the coming academic year, Johannes is planning to launch a pilot study to develop state-of-the-art software for use in a similar simulator to allow students and teachers to get as close as possible to an authentic performance situation. Following our visit to the RCM, Johannes has identified a number of new opportunities and potential for improving the technology for use in practice and performance situations.