The most memorable piano lesson I ever had was with Menahem Pressler, on the Ravel Concerto in G. I was playing the second movement, with its long, slow, beautiful line in the right hand. When I arrived at a particular note in that melody—an E following the C above it—I knew something special had happened. The E somehow fell from the C very spontaneously, with a soft, alive tone quality that I still remember. Pressler noticed it too. “Nice!” he said. “That was creative!” It was a wonderful example of his teaching. In the two years I studied with him, he always made it clear that his primary focus was on creating magic. He transmitted this both as a pianist and as a teacher, through an inspired openness to music, and through his intimate, sensuous relationship with the piano. And through this transmission, he taught me to be an artist. Not a finished product, but someone immersed in the artistic process—in the experience of connecting deeply with the beauty of musical sound, with the instrument, and with the hearts and minds of great composers. For this reason, although I had many other fine teachers, I have always considered Pressler the most important person in my musical lineage.
Your Own Lineage
Each of us has a powerful lineage as a musician. Some of the people in our lineage are not teachers but parents or others who encouraged us and helped us become the musician we are now. Composers, performers, particular concerts or recordings we remember, venues, and instrument makers, all are part of our lineage. Everything that has inspired us and contributed to our development is part of our lineage. We have a huge heritage.
We often take our heritage for granted and become disconnected from its power. Yet whenever we take a moment to reflect on what we’ve inherited as musicians, we are moved. The power of music, and of our rich tradition, instill deep appreciation in us. We may even feel reverence and awe.
This deep feeling we have for our lineage is precious. If we tap into it, it can help us let go of negative emotions we may be prey to—including self-doubt, stage fright, and depression. As soon as we stop and reflect on our lineage, we feel something shift inside us. We see ourselves as part of something bigger than we are. And it is, in fact, our connection with this larger reality that compels us to perform. We feel so much love and appreciation for the music we play or sing that we are willing to open up to the living flow of this music, and to give it to our audience.
We need to remember that we are so much more than our self-consciousness and self-judgment. We are part of a magnificent tradition, and we are its representatives to the public. We have every reason to be proud of that, and it can give us confidence as performers.
Although we of course need much more than an appreciation of our lineage to have confidence onstage—including a reliable technique and thorough knowledge of the music—true confidence cannot arise if we do not invite it by feeling a heart connection to our inheritance. For we are a living part of our lineage. We are part of its continuation. This means that in connecting with our lineage, we are connecting more deeply with ourselves.
So although we may have many thoughts about who we are or aren’t as performers—many doubts and judgments and concepts about ourselves—we need to realize that performing is not about those thoughts. It’s not about us. It’s about what we love.
Your Chance to Regain Your Connection
Connecting with your lineage is only the first of three steps in the Fearless Performing Exercise, which I will teach in the last of my three free teaching calls, on May 20th. Wherever you happen to be that day, at 8:00 pm Eastern Time, you will have a chance to learn this seven-minute exercise and to experience its power. Everyone on the call will be invited to play or sing a minute of music (with everyone’s sound muted). We will then do the exercise together, and then play the same minute of music, to experience how the exercise has transformed it.
As you will discover, this exercise connects you to your deepest communicative power. It gets you past self-consciousness and into your truest motivation to perform. It connects you with who you really are as a performer, underneath all the self-doubt and self-judgment. It brings out your very best. And it can be shocking to discover how powerful your best can be.
What Is Confidence, Anyway?
Confidence is not something we have to paint on, like make-up, before facing an audience. It is rather a deep self-knowing, an experience of being in direct contact with the core of who we are. We cannot really create it; we can only discover it within ourselves, by cutting through whatever is in the way. It is so intrinsic that it can never really be taken away, only buried or hurt by things that have happened to us. And we can recover it and cultivate it by making the effort to reconnect with the fundamental truth of who we are as performers.
Sometimes performers need the support of psychotherapy to get to that truth. Certainly all of us need the best teaching we can find to master our instrument and the music we are playing. But without the courage to break through to the deep core of our musicality, of our communicative power, we cannot be our most powerful selves onstage.
If You Can’t Join Us
If you can’t be with us for the call on May 20th, here are a few steps you can take to begin to access the living power of your musical lineage.
1. Think of someone who has meant a lot to you in your musical growth and development.
2. Reflect for a moment on what that person gave you as a musician and why they have been important to you.
3. Extend that moment of reflection long enough to feel a shift in your internal energy—an increase in warmth or a sense of being touched or moved.
4. Play or sing a phrase of music, drawing on that internal energy.
Our lineage is like a big, extended family; it is our tribe. It provides us with a sense of belonging, of having a home in the world. And the music we make is the language of our tribe.
When we go out onstage to perform, we need a way to feel at home there too. If we remember that performing is about transmitting the power of the magical language of our tribe, we can begin to find that sense of home onstage. And we can offer whatever we have to our guests in that home—to our audience.
I hope you’ll join us on May 20th to learn all three steps of the Fearless Performing Exercise, and to experience its power. I believe it will lead you to discover a more powerful performer in yourself, more comfortable in your own skin, and more confident in transmitting the magic of music.
I wish you much joy and success in making music.
P.S. If you’d like to immerse yourself in the process of connecting with your deepest musical potential, I invite you to come to my summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians, July 27 to August 3, in Erie, PA. Only two spaces are left for performing participants; 17 for non-performing participants. Some wonderful people will be there.
Q&A of the Month
How can I deal with performing when one or more individuals in my ensemble are very nervous? It can agitate me. I’ve read about how a wonderful master musician can inspire people in his ensemble to play their best simply through the warmth and generosity that he emanates. How can I learn to be like that?
Your questions show great intelligence and wonderful intentions.
Ensemble playing can be very intense. Because it’s a form of intimate communication, it can feel like heaven or hell, or anything in between. Every little nuance can feel significant when we’re making music.
We each tend to bring out certain things in other people, and it’s important to seek ensemble partners who bring out your best. As in any other close relationship, it’s best to find people you naturally connect with, players who understand you well and play well with you with a minimum of verbal cues or conflict. And in performance, it’s best to play with people who are more or less your equals in knowing how to handle their nerves.
But it’s also important to be open to learning from others in an ensemble, so you can grow and become more adept at performing with others. We can sometimes learn a great deal from challenging situations, such as the one you describe. The more comfortable you become with yourself, the more skill you will develop in working with other people.
It’s normal to be nervous about performing. So it’s essential to know how to work with your nervousness and rise above it. If you find that a particular member of your ensemble is so nervous in performance that she can’t relax into the music, you might suggest that she consult someone who specializes in helping musicians deal with stage fright. The Fearless Performing Exercise, which I’ll be teaching on the May 20th free teaching call, could be extremely helpful for someone like this.
You are definitely on the right track when you refer to master musicians whose warmth and generosity have a positive impact on fellow performers. Such artists radiate these qualities to their audience as well. The Fearless Performing Exercise is designed specifically to help you get past self-consciousness and develop this kind of warmth and generosity in performance. I hope you can join us on the call. These qualities may actually be a lot more accessible to you than you think.