Music students learn stage skills with help of noisy virtual audiences created by computer
Virtual reality technology has long been used to train doctors and athletes, and even to help people overcome fears of flying or heights. Now the same techniques are being used to prepare musicians for their big nights on stage.
Called a performance simulator, it was developed by the Royal College of Music in London in collaboration with a Swiss conservatoire, and includes realistic backstage and on-stage areas, with authentic signage and lighting. An interactive life-size virtual audience projected on to a large screen features individuals who will sway slightly in their seats, close their eyes or fidget.
Aaron Williamon, professor of performance science at the Royal College, said that the high costs of hiring concert venues meant musicians had few opportunities to develop performance skills .“They are learning all too late – or not at all – how to manage performance stress and the demands of their audiences,” he said.
Last week a student violinist, Miriam Bergset, tried out the simulator under the guidance of Royal College professor Madeleine Mitchell, in a small room at the top of the college’s South Kensington HQ which has been transformed into a virtual concert-hall.
A large screen is attached to a nearby computer. Images and sounds were being manipulated by Mats Küssner, the Royal College’s’s research associate in performance science, who demonstrated how he could press buttons to produce coughs and sneezes, as well as different levels of reaction, from polite applause to cheers.
Stage curtains and spotlights enhanced the life-like environment.
On a screen shot of the virtual auditorium, rows of empty seats were gradually filled by a murmuring audience who clapped as the musician emerged with her violin to perform the adagio from JS Bach’s G minor sonata. The virtual response was enthusiastic applause.
Bergset said: “It felt completely different from playing in a rehearsal room. With the concert audience – even though it’s virtual – it feels as if you’re giving more back There is this exchange with an audience … It adds inspiration to get into the performance mode.”
According to Mitchell – a concert violinist who has performed with the Royal Philharmonic and other London orchestras – “Practising is a very private thing. You don’t want anyone else to hear. But [with] the performance … you want to have the feeling of giving to the audience, and then [have] something coming back.”
Performances are recorded. Only when watching the footage did one student realise that she had forgotten to take a bow. “It’s the sort of thing you can’t cover in a one-to-one lesson,” said Mitchell, who uses the simulator to offer coaching tips on public performance
Psychological and physiological responses, such as breathing and heart rates, are also being studied scientifically. The data reveals “very definite comparable levels” of stress and anxiety between live and virtual performances.
The simulator’s range extends to a virtual reality “audition”, complete with panel of three stern-looking judges behind a table, all staring out and making notes. Expressions range from appreciative smiles and nods to frowns, folded arms and shakes of the head; judges may even talk to one another.
“Please start whenever you are ready”, an “auditioning” musician is told on entering the room. Afterwards, they may face a non-committal “thank you” or a disappointed sigh, followed by “thank you for coming”. For a really poor performance there is also the nuclear option of “Thank you, I think we’ve heard enough”.
Bergset graduates this summer and is auditioning for various orchestras. Practising on the virtual reality version did feel, she said, “a bit intimidating”.
Williamon said: “It’s not that we’re looking specifically to torture our students. But we want to get them prepared for the different eventualities and to give them a space in which they can experiment, but with very little risk involved.”
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