by Madeline Bruser
When Johann Sebastian Bach was 20 years old, he walked 250 miles to hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Two centuries later, when my parents were in their twenties, they drove many miles to see Artur Schnabel play Mozart’s last piano concerto. And when I myself was 20, I was one of many Juilliard students who got up before dawn one cold morning in New York to stand in line for hours at Carnegie Hall, waiting patiently for the box office to open so we wouldn’t miss out on getting tickets to see pianist Vladimir Horowitz appear onstage for his first local recital in several years.
Today, we may rush to buy tickets online to attend a special concert near our home, or we may casually visit YouTube, where in five minutes we can compare six different performers’ approaches to the same piece of music. But although times have certainly changed—and we may take for granted how easy it is now to hear great music—our passion for music remains essentially unchanged from that of past generations. We still seek out the best performances, and we view our time spent listening to them as quality time.
Unfortunately, many of us can’t say the same for the time we spend practicing our instruments. We often spend this substantial and important part of every day feeling tense, anxious, bored, frustrated, or resigned to dull repetitions of passages. And we have become so habituated to this experience that we may forget what it was once like to really make music in a practice session. The honeymoon is clearly over. In fact, it is long past.
But as with our most important personal relationships, finding joy and resolving problems after the honeymoon is over have a lot to do with paying attention—with really listening to the music we’re practicing (or to the person we’re talking to) and with really listening to our own feelings in the process.
As a musician—as well as a wife and mother—I find these challenges intense, to say the least. Great music is as complicated as any human being. It demands our full intelligence and sensitivity. Yet it also provides tremendous returns if we can give it its due.
So how do we do that?
A Crucial and Often Overlooked Step
In my experience, one of the most important and frequently overlooked steps in practicing is to notice our own discomfort. Although we may be caught up in the intensity of the music and may feel that our passion and hard work will lead us toward mastering a piece, we can’t actually get there if we are unaware that our hands are tense or that our breathing is shallow—or that we’re just frustrated with how we’re playing. Our tension and frustration do not go away simply because we fail to notice them; they stay with us, constricting our bodies and limiting our freedom of movement and of expression.
Our job as performers is to transmit music to others. To do this, we must free ourselves of physical and emotional blocks that are in the way. And the first step toward that freedom is to notice when we are blocked—to notice how stuck or uncomfortable we sometimes feel.
Noticing how we feel can be difficult. Many of us were brought up to suppress our feelings to suit the demands of other people. Having been judged or ignored by parents, teachers, or others during crucial developmental years, we automatically ignore our feelings in the practice room. And it is no wonder that we’re afraid to reveal our feelings in performance as well. As a result, many musicians don’t realize that their arms are tense until they develop an incapacitating injury. And most are so uncomfortable with their emotional vulnerability onstage that they rely on pills to handle the physical symptoms of stage fright.
But Don’t Despair
One key to getting past this blindness to our own feelings is to take a few minutes to establish relative ease and comfort before practicing. Then you are much ore likely to notice when you do not feel comfortable and at ease.
Relaxation techniques can be extremely helpful, creating a calm, alert state in a minute or two. Consider learning mindfulness meditation. This is a highly efficient way to create basic ease and comfort of body and mind.
Then, as you practice, look for when that feeling of ease and comfort disappears. Feel the discomfort completely, and let it dissipate before you continue. It might take two seconds, or you might feel the need to repeat a minute or two of mindfulness meditation. The important thing is to bring your best to whatever practicing you do—to fully enjoy the music and to be highly aware of your physical and mental state, so that you are in charge of the quality of your practice time. You really can assure that the work you do is effective and fulfilling.
If Tension and Frustration Persist
Sometimes tension and frustration are ongoing—particularly if you aren’t using your body efficiently with your instrument, or if you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety about your work or your life. Here are two things to keep in mind:
1. Some musicians have chosen to take off long periods of time from practicing. Peter Serkin made this choice early in his career. I made the same choice after I first learned mindfulness meditation and discovered that a whole new level of relaxation was possible. If you long for such a break, find a time when you can take it. Staying on the treadmill for fear of not knowing how to handle your freedom will not bring you intelligent, enjoyable practicing or confident performing. Coming back to practicing after a vacation from it can be a huge eye opener.
2. A wise guide—in the form of an instrumental teacher, mentor, performance coach, psychotherapist, or meditation instructor—can be invaluable.
Musician, Love Thyself
In this driven, competitive, scared profession we need to remember that we’re human. We need to treat ourselves well by minimizing tension and discomfort during practicing, and to understand that if such tension and discomfort become habitual, they will inevitably carry over into our performing. We may think that the only way to master extremely challenging music is to drive ourselves to work as hard as we can. But when we relax our effort a little, we have the chance to discover that less work can bring better results and more confidence.
Genuine confidence grows naturally. It develops from repeatedly taking the chance to trust the small voice inside of yourself that contains deep intelligence. This voice may sometimes say, “I’m tired,” or, “I’m not enjoying this.” If you listen to this voice, it will gain courage and grow stronger and wiser. In fact, it can become your biggest ally.
You might hear this voice say, “I need a break,” or “Let me breathe for a minute.” It may also say, “I want time to just feel how sad I am about not getting this phrase to flow smoothly.”
Or it may say, “I don’t know how I feel. I need time to find out what I feel—to get back in touch with myself. What is my body telling me now about how this phrase is flowing? Am I enjoying it? Do I feel free or tentative as I play it?” Then you might find yourself thinking, “My stomach feels tense. Something is wrong. Maybe I’d feel better if I slow down and let myself linger on every sound for a while. I want to really nourish myself with these sounds.”
As we continue to pay attention to the small voice inside ourselves, it responds to our attention by growing stronger and clearer. Eventually, it becomes the voice of conviction, giving us confidence to be more creative in our practicing and to reveal who we really are in performance, and in our lives.
You may think such confidence is impossible. But try listening to your inner voice during every practice session. Deliberately stop periodically to ask yourself how your body is feeling—notice the sensations in the muscles you use to play your instrument, and the visceral sensations that arise as you work with different sections and pieces of music. It is as important to practice tuning in to your inner voice as it is to physically practice your instrument. If you do it every day, week after week, year after year, you can discover tremendous power in this voice that is always within you, waiting to be heard.
Let’s Set Things Right
We work so hard to do justice to the music we love—studying scores deeply and practicing long hours day after day. This is good, but we need to do more justice to ourselves—by getting to know our own feelings deeply, and by letting ourselves breathe during those long hours of practice.
The music, and our audience, can only benefit.
I wish you much joy and success with making music.
P.S. If you are ready to receive help with the kind of process I’ve described in this article, I invite you to join one of The Art of Practicing Institute’s new Online Video Groups, where you can drink in the support and encouragement of other participants and of our faculty. Or consider scheduling a free consultation, lesson, or Skype session with me.
Q & A of the Month
My teacher has good musical ideas, which I value a lot in the lessons. But he typically asks me to make so many changes during lessons that I can’t do them all as fast as he wants. Then I get so stressed that my hands even tense up, and I find it very hard to concentrate. What do you suggest?
Many music teachers have good intentions with their students in asking them to improve a variety of aspects of their playing at each lesson, but the missing ingredient is a receptivity to how much the student can process at one time. I frequently teach students who are recovering from the effects of such misguided teaching, and it can take a while for them to relax about their lessons and not view every lesson as a performance for the teacher.
Lessons are for the student’s benefit. As a student, your primary responsibility is to yourself, not to your teacher. And the teacher’s primary responsibility is to you as well. Their job is to help you grow and to become everything you’re capable of as a musician.
If you think your teacher might be a little open to hearing what you need at lessons, you could certainly try speaking up. Perhaps the next time you find a lesson moving too fast for you, you could say something like, “You know, Mr. Jones, I really value my lessons with you. You’re a wonderful musician, and you’ve helped me understand music on a new level. But I often need more time to absorb your ideas during lessons. Just as I need to practice slowly in order to improve certain sections, I also need to move a little more slowly in the lessons sometimes so that I can think about what you’re saying and apply it. Right now is one of those times. Could I please take a minute to work with this one idea you’ve suggested before we move on to the next one?”
If your teacher responds by slowing down to a more comfortable speed for you, that would be great for both of you. He could learn a lot too, about teaching in a more human and creative way. But if he objects to your request and says he expects you to keep up with the pace he requires, it would be best to look for another teacher.
Music uses every part of us. We need teachers who relate to us as whole people. Don’t give up n finding a teacher who can understand your needs and can treat you with complet respect and care. This is your right, and it is necessary for your growth and development as a musician and person.