Three Styles of Struggle

I invite you to watch a short video illustrating the title of this article

Most of us recognize something of ourselves in these three modes of behavior, whether it’s with our instrument or in other activities. At times, we get carried away and spend a lot of energy making a big deal about things. At other times, we try to avoid getting involved with something, removing ourselves from it as though it didn’t matter to us. At still other times, we stiffen and use excessive force in an activity, or become defensive.

Our habitual behavior may not be as extreme as what we see in these video examples.  But whether our habits are obvious or subtle, we recognize them as common human tendencies. And hopefully, we are able to laugh at ourselves for being human in these ways.

For many of us, one of these three styles is dominant in our personality. Recently, I found myself deeply entrenched in my particular primary style.

Passione d’amore

On April 13 I went online to look for news of the Italian publication of my book, The Art of Practicing. I was excited when I found an Italian write-up of the book, and although I don’t know the language, I was eager to try to make sense of these few paragraphs. But before I could do so, my husband insisted on looking for something more on the computer. As I waited impatiently, he found what he was looking for: a picture of the book’s cover. I was thrilled. There it was, finally—a photo of the first European edition of this book that has meant so much to me. Although it had already been published in Korea and China, I was finally reaching people across the Atlantic with my passionate ideas for helping them become the musicians they long to be. And in what I consider the world’s most musical language.

Arriving at the beginning of spring after one of the most tiring winters I could remember, the news hit me with surprising intensity. I became ecstatic, and began trying to figure out how I could travel to Italy, where I have never been, to promote my book, and to meet the warm and generous Italian people that I have heard so much about all my life.

My longing to connect to this beautiful country and its culture began to consume much of my time and energy. I started studying Italian, and when five copies of the Italian edition arrived at my door, I launched into the amazing experience of reading my own book in this new language.

Before long, a musician wrote to me from Italy saying how happy she was to receive the book as a gift from a friend. Then a message from YouTube led me to an Italian channel featuring one of my teaching videos. My head and heart became full of excitement about Italy, and it was a challenge for me to remember that I am still here, living my everyday life in New York. I forgot to eat regularly, or to shop for food. Since I had no guarantee that a book tour in Italy would materialize, my excitement became painful. So much wanting and planning and uncertainty all at the same time was hard for me to handle. I had clearly fallen in love.

It’s great to fall in love. But when the object of your love is a whole country, that you’ve never seen and that is thousands of miles away, it can be problematic. I started feeling a strong need to chill out.

Staying on the Ground

One thing that helped to ground me in the middle of all this passion was the questions I began to have about what Italy and its people are really like. As with music, or anything else we love, it’s easy to project our own ideas onto the object of our passion, without really knowing it for what it is.

I began to wonder how a variety of Italians might speak the same language differently, and how certain universal human qualities manifest in their particular culture. And as I followed my curiosity, I found myself relaxing into the reassuring familiarity of not knowing—of being a novice at something.

I started listening to the language online and noticed subtleties in how Italians speak. The more inquisitive I became, the more my excitement relaxed into a deep joy that began nourishing me in daily life.

I also realized that arranging a trip would take time, and that I needed to go about it in a more relaxed way. I started remembering to eat regularly and to shop for food. I gradually regained my balance.

Sharpening Your Awareness

In making music, we could describe the three styles of struggle in terms of our attitude toward the expressive details in a piece: Either we get carried away by them, or we gloss over them, or we attack them. In order to drop these habits and connect genuinely to the music, we first need to recognize when we’re slipping into one of these three styles. This isn’t always easy. Our habits are so ingrained that we can’t always tell if we’re in their grip or not.

Here are a few guidelines:

Let’s say you’re wondering, “Am I simply expressing natural passion, or am I going overboard?” Look for a sense of equilibrium (as shown in the video clip of “simplicity”). In this case, love for the music is clearly present, but you keep your balance. You feel moved on the inside without exhibiting excessively on the outside.

With the next style, you may wonder, “Am I just being relaxed, or am I really avoiding the details?” Look for a feeling of engagement with the music. When you avoid getting involved, you feel disengaged; when you relate directly to the music, you feel engaged and connected.

And your question with the third style may be, “Am I playing with strong conviction, or am I using too much force and attacking the piece?” Look for a sense of relaxation. When you assert yourself in an authentic way, it comes with a sense of ease and natural expressive power, rather than from excessive muscular effort.

Finding Your Heart

When we start noticing these three styles of struggle, we often feel disappointed with ourselves, and at a loss for how to get past them. We long to drop these habits and to connect to the music in a simple, natural way.

Noticing these feelings—of disappointment, uncertainty, and longing—is actually the main key to coming home to genuine self-expression. Just by tuning into these vulnerable feelings, you are connecting to your heart. And from there, you can make music that really communicates.

Try it. Let yourself feel unsure of what to do next. Feel your desire to connect genuinely to the music. Then without trying to do anything special, just play from that vulnerable place, in a simple, ordinary way. Don’t think about how good it is, for now. Don’t evaluate it. What matters is that you’re getting more in touch with yourself and that you’re letting go of your struggle and making a fresh start.

Mixing All the Ingredients

Of course, to play or sing in an authentic way, you need the other ingredients of Fearless Performing, which I’ve written about a little in previous articles—a reliable physical approach, intimate knowledge of the music, and a sense of flow and freedom. But now, by connecting with your heart, you are mixing in the last main ingredient: access to your communicative power.

In a few months I will be offering an audio of a short mental exercise to access intense communicative power. For now, I encourage you to get curious about your habits, to have a sense of humor about them, and to listen closely to all the sounds that make up the fabric of the music you’re working with. Just as I began doing in studying Italian, go as far as you can beyond your first or second impressions of how each phrase should sound. Really listen to every interval, every line and harmony. Notice how they affect you. If you open to music this fully, it can flow into you and actually live inside of you. You will know when that happens. And it will be so satisfying that your old habits will begin to fall away more easily and more often.

Letting go of our habits requires awareness and focus, and is an ongoing process. But as we engage in this process, we find surprising new richness and depth in music. Each time we experience a true, unfettered connection with even a single phrase, we discover who we really are as musicians.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. I invite you to explore the habits you have at the piano in a gentle and illuminating way, through a free consultation or lesson with me.

Q & A of the Month

In your last article you described how an amateur had an amazing success in the professional concert world. But it took him 20 years of using your approach to get there. I’m a professional performer, and I can’t wait 20 years for some great success to finally happen. What advice do you have?

The pianist in that article felt he was experiencing real success every time he practiced—because he often felt a deep and satisfying connection to the music he was working on. This is the only way I know of to achieve bigger success in the long run. As a professional, you’ve already spent years developing your technique and musicianship, and if you really apply yourself, great things can happen in a relatively short time. But whatever level your playing is at, you can only access your deepest potential by going slow enough to make a strong, conscious connection to sounds and sensations while you’re practicing.

It can be hard to wait, especially since you can’t know what successes the future might hold for you, or when they might happen. But when you learn to find joy in the journey itself, it becomes an amazingly rewarding process, with many accomplishments worth celebrating along the way. You have to take the leap and try it in order to find out.