How do you conquer stage fright? Should you ever play for free? 12 classical professionals tackle the most frequently asked muso questions

If you're serious about making it in classical music there are lots of questions. Thanks to the online education initiative Musical Orbit, we've enlisted some of this country's top professional musicians to share their guidance and advice.

We know if you're starting out in classical music, there are a lot of questions, and it's often difficult to know who to ask. Musical Orbit is a website that offers online lessons, webinars and one-on-one tutoring with top principal players - and we thought we'd put a few of the most common FAQs to some of these world-leading musos.

How much practice a day do you recommend?

Juliette Bausor, principal flute Royal Northern Sinfonia and London Mozart Players, says:
"This is obviously dependent on how much time you have and what standard you are at, but I think the important factor is to try and ensure you practise every day. I would recommend at least an hour's daily practice for anyone of ABRSM grade 3-8 standard (to include some tone and technique work and then your set pieces, scales and studies) and for players of a higher level to be looking at around 3-4 hours minimum each day. However it's quality, not quantity, that is needed and so a couple of really good hours are worth a lot more than 8 hours with no concentration!"

How do you memorise a piece?

International concert pianist and chamber musician Simon Mulligan shares his memory secrets:
"So much music is a series of recognisable shapes. These would primarily include snippets of scales and arpeggios, which with any luck the composer has written comfortably to "fall under the fingers”, regardless of the instrument we play.  For myself at the piano, it always helps if the piece I’m memorising is by a composer whose motifs and patterns I’m already familiar with. I’ve found that a lot of memorising takes place while simply reading the score when away from the piano. As a result, I do a lot of practice while out and about, trying as best I can to hear the music in my head. Try using muscle memory to trigger finger movement without necessarily moving the hands, (too many weird looks on the bus otherwise!)"

If a young musician wants to become a professional, what's the most important thing to remember?

Clio Gould, leader of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, has this advice:
"Try to take up any professional opportunities which come your way, with an open mind and lots of enthusiasm, because they may lead to something exciting that you could not have foreseen. If you stick too rigidly to a plan, you might miss something that really could bear fruit…"

Should a young aspiring musician find a mentor to work with?

Mike Lovatt, principal trumpet of the wonderful John Wilson Orchestra, has this suggestion:
"An aspiring musician needs to have a direction, a path to be led along and above all to be inspired. A good mentor or teacher can do this and more. They can help to give a student the confidence and encouragement they need to develop."

What is the best food to bring to a practice session?

So what's on the menu for Vida Guitar Quartet member Mark Ashford?
"I want to say something nutritious and healthy like a banana or other fruit but in reality a nice packet of biscuits like fig rolls or custard creams is more up my street. If it were an ensemble session a big box of celebrations would be good especially if you'd just had a dispute about a tricky passage in the music. Home-made cakes are also a great bargaining tool!"

What’s the best first instrument for a child and what age should they start?

This time we hear from Rachel Masters, Principal Harp in the London Philharmonic Orchestra:
"In the first instance, I think a child should play the instrument they want... Don't offer them a clarinet if they want to play the cello! If they show obvious talent, then the piano is always good to progress onto, but many young kids have difficulty with 'playing hands together', so it's often not the best instrument to start on.

"Seven-ish is about as young as I would go, because by this time they have usually got to grips with reading words, and can latch on to reading music more easily. Also, by then, they can better understand the concept of time and will hopefully be able to set aside ten minutes a day to practise... Or not!"

LPO and Vladimir Jurowski









What are your top tips for dealing with stage fright?

Robin O’Neill, principal bassoon at the Philharmonia Orchestra, professor of bassoon at the Royal Academy of Music and professor of conducting at the Royal College of Music, has this advice to master your nerves:
"Preparation is the most important aspect of overcoming stage fright. Get to know as much about the music as you can. Who plays what and where? If you have solos, learn what the accompaniment is doing.

Learning difficult passages and solos from memory is essential. If you can play exposed and solo passages without the music it will give you a huge amount of extra confidence when you are on stage in the orchestra with the music.

Make sure you practise these difficult and exposed moments at a variety of speeds so that you can cope with the different approaches that conductors may take. Fast speeds are often a bit easier than moderate tempos that are "in the cracks". These need far more control. Very often it's the long notes particularly at the end of slow solos that test our technique, stamina and nerve so make sure you practise these as diligently as you practise fast passage work.

Remember that your colleagues want you to succeed. In concerts don't play 'for' the audience, play for and with your colleagues. That's where the best music making happens. Try never to make the same mistake twice. Never be routine and always respect the composer."


If you're a professional musician, how should you approach playing for free?

Alison Teale, oboe professor at Guildhall School of Music and principle cor anglais in a top London orchestra, says:
"In order to become a professional musician there are years of required practise and studying. The money one receives for a performance isn't just for a few hours' work in an evening, but also recognises the years of work put in to reach a professional standard as well as the preparation for the event itself.

Being a musician is a peculiar profession as many people play purely for their own enjoyment. I haven't come across anybody that does accountancy as a hobby so I understand that people find it hard to understand that being a musician is a job, albeit a very rewarding one.

When asked to play for free, could the same be said for the venue, the publicity or the multitude of services that go into creating an event?

I haven't always practised what I preach, but ensured that there is some intrinsic value to me in what I've agreed to play. For example donating my fee back, but insisting a fee is recognised and the audience informed.

I do find it difficult when asked to perform for free. Whilst my job is a pleasure, surely that shouldn't diminish its value?"


What is the most important thing you can do to look after your voice?

This is what you should do, according to international opera singer Victoria Simmonds:
"The most important thing you can do to look after your voice is to not let it get over tired - don't go out to noisy parties or stay up too late before performances, and make sure to have two non-singing days out of seven if you can."


Have you ever experienced any negative stereotyping?

Bob Smissen, principal viola, Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, says:
"No really negative stereotyping, maybe only the usual assumption that it must be wonderful doing something that you love for a living, and 97.6% of the time it is..."


What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Neil Percy is principal percussion in our Orchestra in the City of London, the London Symphony Orchestra. Here's his:

"This was a fantastic piece of advice that I was given as a student that I use often myself with my students at the Academy.

'Talent gets you so far... hard work can take you all the way!'

Nuff said."

How do you deal with nerves before an audition/exam?

Karen Stephenson, cellist in the Philharmonia Orchestra, gives her expert guidance:
"The first thing is to be fully prepared - as much practice as it takes! Try the 10 times rule, getting something right 10 times in a row - then your muscles will remember how to play even if your mind is in turmoil.

Eat well and try and exercise on the day, this gets rid of negative adrenalin.


Deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Above all, remember that the panel/audience want you to do well - and this is your chance to shine - they HAVE to sit and listen to you!"


And if you'd like more tip's from the pros, you can take a look at Musical Orbit's YouTube channel here.