Flow Interview Lucy Hare – BBC Symphony Orchestra
Lucy Hare is a double bass player, sitting in the world of classical world music. She’s played for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Opera House Orchestra, the Tango Volcano, and the Oxford Concert Party.
She will share with us her group Flow experiences, how she connects with with her instrument and with the energy of the room and some of her tips that help her to get into this amazing state.
Cameron: I’m just going to ask you initially just to explain one or two Flow experiences, it can be either in training or performance, where you felt that you’ve hit that zone, you’ve hit that bubble, and you found a bit of freedom in that Flow space. So we’d love to hear where it was, when it was, and some of the characteristics that happened during that Flow experience.
Lucy: Okay. The one that comes to mind, because I’ve done so many different things with my playing obviously over the years, but one really comes to mind, which is a kind of group Flow in a way, but for me it was personal as well. It was at one of the Prom concerts, the London Prom Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, and we were playing Strauss’ Alpine Symphony which is a massive work, it has alpenhorns in it and cowbells and an orchestra of about 120 or something, it’s an incredible piece of music. It’s a great piece, it’s challenging but it’s playable for us, and there was a moment in the middle…
We were playing it with the most incredible conductor, which isn’t always the case, but this was a really wonderful, amazing Russian conductor, and there was a moment where the orchestra kind of felt we turned a corner, we all turned it together and there was this incredible moment of feeling as if the whole orchestra, so it’s 120 people, were on the point of their toes and turned this corner together. For me afterwards, it was just this fantastic point of being completely with the orchestra, with the other people, but also completely one with my instrument and my technique and the room. Everything just came together in that spot, that moment, that sort of sweet spot in a way. So that was a very memorable case of Flow for me.
Cameron: Wow – that sounds really fascinating! I talk a lot about jazz musicians finding Flow because of it being spontaneous and connecting with one another and feeding off one another, but it’s really interesting to hear that you found that collective, group experience where you were almost on a tipping point. Was that something that happened a flip of a coin, or was that something that progressed a processed slowly? Did you feel like you were feeding off others, or was it a case of you were in your Flow and you found other people in a similar space?
Lucy: Yeah, really good questions. I’m not sure what other people were doing, but I think if I had to choose one thing it would depend on really, it would really be the leadership we were getting at that moment, so the conductor, he took the time to let us turn that corner together. But I think it’s not as simple as that actually, I think it came from also the sort of micro details, where everybody being in control of their technique and their ability to manage that moment technically on whatever instrument they were playing, and all kind of taking that point of poise in a way.
(…) And with music things like your tuning of your instrument, so everybody probably was playing really well in tune, there’s a kind of resonance that happens when everyone plays together and well that you don’t get when… It can sound together but it doesn’t have that resonance if people aren’t really hitting that sweet spot in a way.
Cameron: It sounds like as everyone else is hitting their sweet spot and the notes are, dare I say, perfect. You feed off one another, you hear it and it helps you up your game, and you get to that base where performing in that higher state is easier. Is that correct?
Lucy: Yeah. I think… There is something about your antennae, about… You have to obviously take care of your own technique, and that takes years and years and years of work, and hours every day probably, but then there’s also something about your awareness about the person sitting next to you. We play in sections in an orchestra, so the section of eight double basses, then there’ll be the string section which is bigger again, so it kind of fans out, and then there’s the whole orchestra. So you have all these different levels of awareness, and if they all come together, so both intonations – the pitch, the tuning – but also the timing… Timing is such a fine art I think, and there’s no… I was going to say there’s no exact science to it, I bet there is [laughs], it appears a very mathematical thing, but I think it has something that’s much more magical than that actually. So I think all those things coming together. Yeah, so you have to kind of perfect what you’re doing, but it’s a greater thing that perfection I think.
Cameron: So practically speaking, when you’re in let’s say at that moment, the moment you’ve just explained… To me there’s a lot going on there: you got the notes in front of you, you got the conductor, you’ve got your instrument, you’ve got where your fingers are, you’ve got the audience around you, you’ve got colleagues. Where is your focus? What are you focus on and aware on? Is it a case of you are hyperaware of everything and you’re playing effortlessly? Or is it a case of you’re actually highly focused on one thing, which is your notes and your… Where is your focus and your awareness?
Lucy: That’s a really good question. I would be really interested to hear the answer to your question from a sportsperson who plays in a team as well. I think my focus has to be everywhere actually. I don’t know biologically if you can do that, but I think the micro stuff, so your own technique… your main focus has to already have been done on that, with your practice, your personal practice, then the rehearsals in the orchestra. (…). Maybe that’s partly what creates the moment of Flow is that you can lift it. It really feels like a moment of poise to me with the group thing, that you have that time of balance and you can go in any direction, and your concentration is wide as well as being very centred.
Cameron: Yeah. You’re describing the many paradoxes of Flow, where we feel out of control but completely in control, and action and awareness kind of merge, where you’re feeling intricately a part of every second that’s going on, but at the same time it’s almost as if someone else is doing the actions and performing for you. It is very much a paradoxical state, because biologically speaking the prefrontal cortex and the conscious mind is not really in charge of the functioning and the operation at that time, so they’re kind of the logical and critique side of our brains that wants to analyse that experience and understand what’s going on isn’t in the room. It’s the subconscious that’s working that experience. And then when we come back to experience it, we look at it from a conscious brain as we’re talking now and it tries to make sense of these things that would normally happen through the conscious brain. They feel and sound so paradoxical, but in the world of experiencing a moment and performing through the subconscious, it’s a very normal experience to be looking at the minutiae but also taking in the bigger picture.
Lucy: I had a look at your list, and one of the main things is about level of challenge actually. Certainly with playing the bass, if there’s a level of challenge that is strong but not overwhelming, that’s key for me personally. If the challenge is overwhelming, I’m kind of in my head, saying, “You need to do this, you need to play it this way, play it this way, you’ve got to prepare, you’ve got to get your elbow in the right place, your fingers have got to be strong, you’ve got to play this faster, you didn’t practice this enough!” the little voice on my shoulder is going 100 miles an hour. So if the challenge level is strong but manageable and I’ve done the pre-work, then that is very likely to lead to a sense of Flow I think for me personally, not necessarily the group thing. So that’s really important.
And also, the other thing is we do repeat performances quite a lot if we’re doing a show or dance work or something, so you might do 30 or 50 performances of exactly the same show and they want it the same every night (…) The danger there is that you get very bored, so then you have to crank up the challenge and obviously technically you can’t because it’s the same music. So I personally do that by imagining the situation to be more alarming or scary (…)That can sometimes give it a slightly different state of… Yeah, very different state to the one I described earlier, a different state of Flow, but it’s a kind of… It then frees me from the boredom of what’s happening, and the repetition becomes almost like a sort of meditation, focusing in on each part but also then again being able to lift your mind away from it to other things and see the bigger picture. (…)
Cameron: Yeah, absolutely. And the challenge-skill balance that you’ve just discussed is one of the primary dimensions of Flow, and the applied elements to Flow that the Flow Centre has come up with, one of the elements is sufficient challenge. Us as performers need to take responsibility and manage that, whether that’s in our mind or the environment or the context, or playing around with our equipment to make it a little bit more challenging or less challenging, familiarising ourselves with it before a performance so we’re not distracted by the nuances of a grip or this, that or the other, as I’m sure you do when you get a new piece of equipment.
So what leading up to a performance, either these performances or other performances that you’re thinking of… You’ve mentioned a couple of times you’re lifting your mind, almost stepping up a gear into Flow if you like, so you’re playing and the event is happening and then you move on. What, in your experience or opinion, helps that happen? So in terms of preparation leading up to the event, so the morning of, an hour before, and then during, how do you… What do you focus on? What rituals do you use? Any tips that you can share with others that you might have adopted over time?
Lucy: I think the preparation for me is all done in advance really, so the practice and the learning of the skills and the deepening of the skills, and that’s done, as I said, the day before, the week before, but 30 years before as well. So, with rituals… (…) I need to get my head backstage probably half an hour before a performance and keep it there in the interval, because if you come out it’s strange, it disrupts the bubble in a way that… that I inhabit anyway, I just talk about myself.
I think it’s probably quite common, but I only know for me, that you kind of inhabit this bubble during concert. And the minute it’s over, then it’s fine, you can do anything, but before it I need… In a way it’s a quiet space. It might not be quiet orally, but it’s a quiet space inside me. And often we put our instruments on the stage before the concert so they’re already on there, maybe from the rehearsal or something, but a lot of people have their instruments in their hand to warm up with backstage; we don’t have that luxury because our instruments are big. So it’s quite nice to make sure your hands are warm and clean and actually get them active… I’m sitting here while I’m talking to you, squeezing my hands. If you have a juggling ball or something, it’s quite nice to have that, or just need something with your hands. So they’re kind of physical preparations, and the mental one is more about staying in that bubble really.
(…) So I suppose for me physicality brings me into the moment, and then that is more likely to create a sense of flow.
Cameron: Thanks for that – really, really interesting. I know many people believe that’s the whole purpose of the body, to kind of anchor us to the moment. Our mind is always wanting to go into the future and the past, and it’s staying with that breath, or, as you said, feeling your feet on the floor and back against the chair can really kind of bring us back into that moment where we can stretch time, as opposed to running into the future or critiquing the past. We’re coming to an end now, but a little golden nugget for any young musicians out there in terms of what advice you could give to them towards finding Flow, not necessarily as a career but finding Flow in their music when they’re practicing, when they’re spending the hours at home, burning their fingers away, practicing? How could you kind of say, “Maybe try this and that might lead you to more Flow experiences.”?
Lucy: I think one of the things, which we haven’t actually talked about, is do something you love, and if that is playing your instrument, then do it; if it’s not, then maybe look at doing something else, or do it in a way that you can love it. I think really one of the key things is practice, getting the technical challenges really nailed down as soon as you can. To a musician this will make sense: if there’s a piece of music, don’t practice it from beginning to end. Look at the bits that are going to really challenge you and really focus on them, so that when it comes to it you know exactly what you’re doing with your fingers and you can lift your concentration to what else is going on. So focus on the bits that you don’t want to go anywhere near. I suppose that would be my key message.
Cameron: Perfect. Which leads me nicely to our closing question, which is for you what is you going beyond, what is a fear for you, either in your performance world or not in your performance world, where you feel is going beyond?
Lucy: I think for me just passion actually, to do something that I’m passionate about and that stretches me, and actually I love doing those two things usually so my bass playing is that, and a lot of other things I do in life are things that fit those two things. Yeah, so passion and stretch probably.
Cameron: Okay – thank you very much, Lucy! We’ve had a fantastic conversation looking at all sorts of topics, from collective Flow to the challenge-skill balance, to integrating training and ensuring the biology and the muscle memory is all there. Lots of really interesting points, and we’d love to get your opinions, any musicians out there, on Lucy’s comments, so please get in touch and we look forwards to speaking to you soon – thank you very much!
Click here to listen to the full interview
We would like to thank again Lucy Hare for sharing with us her story and I would recommend to go and see her in action and feel that group flow experience that she talks about.