Backstage Vol. 4: Performance - Interview with Sylvain Bergeron

The past few weeks I've talked about music off the performance stage, but today, with my guest Sylvain Bergeron we're going to delve into this critical aspect of our lives - the show itself.

Sylvain Bergeron is an outstanding lutenist living in Montreal, and my instructor at McGill on lutes and baroque guitar. For those of you who are not performing artists, this can shed some light on what it's like on stage, and what this career is like, and for those of you who do perform Sylvain has a lot of experience and a great approach to being on stage.


Can you tell us a bit about your career as a performing artist? 

Well, it all started when I was around 22, I was in Quebec city just starting on the classical guitar, coming from the folk guitar tradition. Through my older brother’s collection of albums, I fell in love with a Troubadour disc by Studio der Fruneh Musik on Telefunken; the sound of the instruments, the freedom in the preludes, it all pleased me a lot and I decided to switch to the lute. I joined a group called Ensemble Anonymus which became very successful, and I toured with that group for about 10 years. I later moved to Montreal, learned baroque music and instruments, and have played with many groups for many years. 

You’ve had a long performance career that has taken you all over the world, are there any performances that have stood out to you? 

I remember memorable tours in South America, beautiful concert halls in Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, excellent audiences, food and wine in Europe, turista in Mexico,  awesome people and beaches in Brazil... but my best memory was waking up on the Pacific Coast on Vancouver Island, having a morning walk near Tofino... So beautiful! Unfortunately, there was a school show at 9:00 in Ucluelet, so we could not stay long! 

When I see you perform I am always struck by how poised you are on stage, is there a way you developed this calmness? 

There's 3 things; first I  don’t get nervous easily and when I am, know how to handle it (breathing). Second, I consider that people come to hear you play, not to see you suffer from anxiety, so I do my best to reflect a serene mood. Third, for playing the lute you need to be relaxed, a bit like the harp. That is different for trumpet, violin or piano I suppose. 

Do you have any backstage rituals? 

I'm a bit obsessed with tuning, so do a lot of backstage tuning (never on stage). I also do a bit of massage/warming on both hands (specially the left). If I feel a bit of nervousness coming, I chase it with slow and deep breaths and concentration. 

How can an audience effect performance? 

A lot! A receptive and attentive audience (in a good acoustic) is ideal and really helps the performer. Otherwise, it takes a lot of effort from the artist to get through. Still, it is important to avoid showing any form of impatience. You never know who's in the hall, you should always make as if it were your last performance (ouch!). 

Here is a question I know many learning musicians and performers have. How do you approach practicing for a performance? It’s one thing to practice alone and prepare a part, but to play what you have prepared in front of an audience can be a very different experience. Do you have any thought on this? 

First, you have to be extremely well prepared. Not just repeating each pieces over and over but carefully working every detail, slowly, until it's sounds as you want. Then, you go to organizing the program, grouping pieces, tempo, timing, etc. You need to organize all this in your mind until it's crystal clear before trying to share it with public. The rest is a matter of self-conditioning; you tell yourself how much the audience wants to hear you play, love the instrument, the music, etc. All positive, no negative! Of course, it helps to talk a bit to the audience. 

You have performed a lot as both a soloist and as an ensemble musician, how have you found these experiences differ? 

I'm primarily an ensemble musician who happens to like playing solo as well, which happens now more and more often. I really think my ensemble experience helps me to play solo; shaping phrases and nuances as if an ensemble were playing, considering each part I play, individual instruments, etc. On the other hand, sound and technique is different; obviously, when you play solo, you're more exposed. The good news is that, when something's wrong, you're the only one to blame! 

You are one of the founding members and artistic directors of La compagnie Musicale la Nef. What role does planning programming and performances for this group play in your career? 

La Nef is 25 years now and is able to live by itself. I'm very proud of that. In the last 8 years or so, I've been slowly retiring, keeping only some touring programs and specific projects. This is a normal situation; the time and energy you put in when you start a group changes through the years. I've been away quite often in the last 10 years,and my teaching is taking more of my time (which I like). 

What is it about performing that makes you keep doing it? How is it fulfilling to you? 

Mastering an instrument like the lute (or the lutes, I should say) takes forever. The more I play, the more I get closer to what I want, but it's not quite there yet, so I should continue! 

Are there any projects that you are working on now which we can see soon? 

In solo, I'm working on a new CD project of Late Renaissance Fantasias. As an ensemble musician, I'm looking forward to some awesome programs coming soon: Dido and Aeneas, Ode to Saint-Cecilia, The Return of Ulysses, etc 

Bonus question. What music that you would take with you to a desert island? 

4 Bach Orchestral Suites, Jethro Tull, The Doors and Genesis.


My hope is that from hearing Sylvain's perspective you might be inspired to perform and be authentic about *yourself*. This is something critical that I draw from his understanding; that as an individual your audiences are coming to see *you* because you are capable of communicatoing something that no one else can. Along the same vain, to understand that you are fully responsible for your own performance allows us to take ownership of every moment on stage. I think this is important to being genuine on stage. When we prepare, we go through the composers markings or discuss ideas with a group, or as historical performers we practice historically informed techniques, but when we get on stage it's important to take whatever we have assimilated into ourselves and just be ourselves; that's what the audience is there for afterall.

But what if you're not why they're there? What if you are playing for a public or school event where in some way your audience is obligated to see your program, whether they know and like you or not? In this case having a grasp of yourself, and what that means when you're onstage is even more important! People are often skeptical, especially of something they are unfamiliar with or claim not to like, so if you don't appear to be all there, able to direct yourself, your intentions then there's a good chance you'll lose your audience.

Of course we performers are always learning from our experiences, shaping our personal expression on stage and learning practical things to help us succeed. 

What are some of your thoughts about performance? From the audience perspective, from the artists perspective? Feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

You can learn more about Sylvain on his website

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