By Brian Wise and Naomi Lewin, WQXR Hosts
Virtual reality technology has revolutionized the way pilots train for flight, soldiers prepare for battle and surgeons learn delicate procedures. So it might be inevitable that musicians entering the cutthroat classical music world would turn to high-tech virtual reality equipment. A team at the Royal College of Music in London and the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland has developed a performance simulator that's intended to mimic concert hall and audition conditions.
On this week's episode, we consider the potential of the Performance Simulator with two guests: Dr. Aaron Williamon, a professor of performance science at the Royal College of Music, who helped to develop the technology; and Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony and author of the blog Neo-Classical, where she's written about auditioning.
According to Williamon, the simulator is designed to help performers learn to cope with the heightened pressures of a stage environment: a musician appears before a life-sized video projection of an audience, which can be appreciative (clapping, smiling) or downright hostile (coughing, sneezing and even booing). The room is fitted out like a concert hall, with spotlights, curtains, a back-stage area and stage furniture. The virtual audience's response can be manipulated by a stage manager behind the scenes.
"Access to actual concert halls tends to be rare," noted Williamon. With the simulator, he says, "we've come up with one scenario that seems to be quite realistic."
But Mulcahy questions whether a performer can suspend disbelief and buy into the simulated environment. She says that the interaction between musicians – or auditioners – and audience is highly subtle and "the split-second timing of somebody's facial expression or how they perceive your playing can make or break you." Mulcahy adds that, for audition preparation, gathering friends to watch your performance is most effective.
Williamon believes the Performance Simulator can be one tool among many. "I'm not proposing that this is everybody's solution," he said. "We're doing a lot of basic research into the physiology and psychology of performance. We will continue to chip away at that. What we have at the moment is a training facility which we can experiment with."
Watch a video of the performance simulator here.