Rallentare

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Italy, and my mind is filled with images of the gorgeous countryside of the Val d’Orcia, in Tuscany. For many centuries, the Italian people have made a deep connection with the land, cultivating it with care and respect, living in harmony with it. As our car wound its way through the last 30 minutes of our drive from Rome to the farmhouse we stayed in near Montepulciano, it felt like a fairytale: Whichever way we turned and as far as the eye could see, in all directions, were gently rolling hills covered with blankets of wheat in varied shades of spring green, fields of yellow flowers, vineyards, orchards, tall cypress trees in single file here and there, and simple, terra-cotta roofed farmhouses where people lived their daily lives. I kept looking out the windows in disbelief – was this really the world? How could it be so beautiful?

When we arrived at Agriturismo Le Caggiole, the farmhouse I had wanted to stay in for 2 1/2 years, it was beyond anything I had imagined – a paradise, with stunning views of the countryside, exquisitely restored stone buildings, and the fantastic perfume of flowering trees and plants. A woman named Monica welcomed us at the reception desk more warmly than anyone had ever greeted us at a new place. As I sat outside on the terrace gazing at the hills with their vineyards and olive orchards, all my stress melted away. Somehow, we had entered Heaven.

During our six-day stay at Le Caggiole, we drove to many beautiful places in the area. Several times I saw a sign on the road that said “Rallentare” – which, as most musicians know, means “slow down.”

And I thought, if only we could slow down all the time – if only we could appreciate our lives, including the people and the music we love, as much as the Tuscan people have appreciated their lives in the country. Isn’t this the real answer to happiness?

Yes. It is.

I thought about how falling in love with the Val d’Orcia is like falling in love with a piece of music. You feel like you’ve never heard anything so beautiful, and you want to get as close to it as you can, to play the music yourself, to never let go of all that beauty.

And yet we do let go of it – countless times, when we get frustrated or impatient in our daily practicing. We often try to bend the music we love in a direction it doesn’t want to go in. Or we gloss over details, dimming the radiance of all that beauty. We tune out. Maybe because it’s so beautiful we can’t take it all in.

What Makes It Beautiful 

Looking at the countryside of the Val d’Orcia, with its occasional farmhouses planted among the fields, orchards, and vineyards, it’s easy to imagine that the people who settled there created these simple dwellings with a conscious intention not to disturb the environment but to cultivate the land with an appreciation of natural order and potential. Everything looks like it just belongs there – their agriculture is inviting, not strictly geometric or factory-like.

I was fortunate to have several conversations with the owner of Le Caggiole, a man named Giacomo, whose family has lived in the house for six generations. He showed me a framed page from a book, on the wall near the reception desk, describing the history of Le Caggiole, going back to the eighth century. He told me that he himself, along with some workers, had torn down the building we were staying in brick by brick, because it was so old it was falling apart, and rebuilt it brick by brick in its original form. A little while later, he came out to the terrace to show me on his iPhone an ancient painting of the very view that I was looking at. I felt honored that he was sharing how much the place meant to him.

Reflecting on Giacomo’s words now, I realize that his love for Le Caggiole is an inspiring example for all of us. As musicians, our work is to take apart the music we love and put it back together brick by brick. We need to appreciate every detail of it – how it is really put together – so that the people who listen to us play or sing this music experience it in its true form.

Your Golden Opportunity

I invite you to discover how much beauty you can create in music by slowing down with us at the Art of Practicing Institute’s weeklong summer program in July. Like the Val d’Orcia, no pictures or descriptions can really prepare you for how amazing the experience is. But through the meditation practices, discussion groups, and master class sessions, your mind will unwind and you’ll hear music and your own heart so vividly, entering a whole new world of appreciation.

Appreciation is the key to it all – to everything inside us and everything we are capable of creating. We need to appreciate ourselves for doing this incredible work of bringing music to life. And to remember that we do it from love.

I hope you will join us this summer, where we will shed so much new light on how to make music from the heart, how to rebuild pieces and phrases brick by brick, and who we really are as musicians. It’s a magical week, filled with the dazzling beauty of music and of the people who make it.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline

P.S. If the summer program sounds like a fairytale, I invite you to call or email me with any questions you might have.

P.P.S. And one more picture: Presque Isle State Park, on Lake Erie – the place we take a field trip to in the middle of the week of our program:

Q & A of the Month

I teach piano, and I don’t always succeed in communicating in the most helpful way with my students. Some of them have a lot of doubts and fears about their abilities even if they play quite well, and I find it hard to be sympathetic about their doubts and fears while still trying to encourage them about their progress and potential. How can I help them believe more in themselves? 

This is a beautiful question. In my experience, really hearing and understanding how a student feels – or for that matter, a friend or family member feels – is often easier said than done. You really have to feel your way with it and learn as you go.

Every day I find that I miss an aspect of something someone has said. I feel like I’m not quite tuned in to where their heart really is or to what they intended to convey. Or I discover that I don’t know the whole story behind their feelings, and that I’ve responded with inadequate information. And the people who are closest to me don’t always completely understand me either.

It can be very helpful for us as teachers to ask questions of a student when they express doubt or fear, to be sure that we understand. And we also need to be aware of our particular habitual tendencies in talking to students. Some of us tend to talk too much, not leaving them enough space to feel or express how they feel. Or we might jump to conclusions about what the student is trying to say. Other teachers may be afraid to reveal anything personal about themselves or their feelings, because they don’t want to come across as unprofessional, but they end up limiting the degree of personal connection with the student, which can make it harder for the student to open up and trust them.

For me, this whole endeavor of communicating well with students, and with people in general, is a lifelong practice. We are all such complex people, and human communication is loaded with endless subtleties and challenges.

At the same time, if you make a sincere effort to understand them, most people can feel how much you care and will allow for slight misunderstandings and keep trying to express how they feel. So the main point is to first let yourself feel how much you care about the student, and then, from that caring place, let them know you’re really trying to understand them by asking questions and responding with warmth. Once you’ve done that, if you feel the student is indulging too much in negative thinking, you could try pointing out specific things that you appreciate about their progress and potential. Let them know that they’re not alone – that others have had similar doubts and fears yet have succeeded in making their dreams come true as musicians. And ask them if they have questions about what you’re telling them.

Also, please feel free to invite them to join our Facebook group! It’s a safe place where musicians can share their doubts and fears, as well as their joys and inspirations, in facing this huge, human endeavor called making music.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in a future issue of Performing Beyond Fear.

Transforming Your Musical Life

(This article has been edited since its original publication in this e-zine in October 2015 under the title “Why I Teach”.)

People sometimes ask me why I gave up performing. And until now, I always said that I didn’t fully understand it. I knew I had dreamed of becoming a great pianist since I was five years old, and that I had followed that dream as far as it took me, into a rewarding performing career. And I knew that when I discovered a new physical approach to the piano that instantly improved my students’ playing, I switched my main career focus to teaching. I remember how my students’ faces lit up every day that week, as they suddenly heard themselves playing more beautifully. And I remember the moment at one of those lessons when I saw light bulbs flashing in my head and realized I had something really important to teach. The next thing I knew, I was canceling a concert I had scheduled in Chicago, I stopped pursuing concert dates altogether, and I was giving a lot of talks to musicians called The Art of Practicing.

All of this made a lot of sense to me. But recently, I decided to look back into my childhood to see if I could find any indication that teaching would eventually become my true calling. And I remembered that when I was 13, a magazine arrived at our house, in our sheltered, little, white suburb in California, and that the cover story of the magazine opened up a whole world for me that I had never heard of.

It was LIFE magazine – a wonderful, weekly publication that unfortunately no longer exists. On its cover was the sweet, smiling face of a 12-year-old boy named Flavio who lived in a shack with his parents and seven siblings in dire poverty in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Through the efforts of this journalist, money had been raised to bring him to the United States for medical treatment for a severe lung ailment – possibly tuberculosis – and to help create a better life for everyone in the slum he came from.

As a middle-class teenager in California, I had no idea that people lived anywhere in tiny shacks with dirt floors. The article mentioned that when a dog bit the leg of Flavio’s little brother, his mother grabbed a bottle of alcohol, poured it on his leg, and quickly went back to the rest of the miserable daily hardships of caring for her family.

Shocking photos accompanied this article, showing Flavio’s life in the filthy slum, in which, as his parents’ oldest child, he had to earn pennies to feed them their rice and beans every day because his father had injured his back and could earn only $20 a month. But on the magazine’s cover, Flavio wore clean, new pajamas, print on a white background, that were given to him at the hospital he was taken to in America. Just as I had suddenly become aware of a world like his, he had now been introduced to a world like mine. I was completely stunned by the contrast.

A New Dream
I wished that I could bring Flavio to the beautiful house I lived in with my family and show him all of our modern conveniences. So I pretended that he was there with me, and I walked through the rooms showing him everything I had previously taken for granted. “Look!” I said out loud. “These are called faucets. You just move the handle like this and fresh water comes out!” I went on to show him the stove, with its miraculous burners that turned on as easily as the faucets, and the big, shiny brown refrigerator, with so many kinds of delicious food in it. I imagined Flavio’s face lighting up with amazement and delight.

That day, I gave birth to a new dream. I dreamed I would someday introduce someone else to an easier and happier way of life, beyond anything they had ever known. I was excited for Flavio that he had come to America, and for the first time, I dreamed of one day adopting a baby and giving it a life it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Thirty-two years later my husband and I did adopt a baby, and she is now 20 and thriving. But I also realize now that my passion for teaching comes from this same place of wanting to see others enjoy things that I am fortunate to possess already. This desire has become the strongest motivating factor in my life.

I know I am extraordinarily fortunate to have received not only excellent piano training in my youth but also training in mindfulness-awareness meditation for many years from a true master teacher. And I feel even luckier that I have been able to blend these two incredible traditions, of Western music and Eastern meditation, into an approach to practice and performance that has helped many musicians discover a whole new world of possibilities.

When A Musician Breaks Through

So often, a musician who has been struggling for years to play with more ease, confidence, and brilliance suddenly discovers how to do it right in front of me. When that happens, a wave of warm energy spread through my entire body. That person may not feel as desperate in their struggle for musical fulfillment as Flavio and his family were in their struggle for a decent material existence. But they may still be suffering deeply – from debilitating stage fright, from practice-related tension or injury, or from intense frustration with their ability to express themselves freely through music. They may feel disheartened about their musical future, and they may wonder if they could ever come close to the kind of playing they admire in the greatest performers, the rare few who somehow shine brighter onstage than the rest.

The first time this musician works with me they may discover a simple, new physical or musical technique that works as easily as turning on a faucet and suddenly having cold or hot water run freely. Just as suddenly, their playing suddenly flows more easily than before. Their ease and confidence in practice and performance develop and deepen a lot over time, and if they continue with this new approach, they may actually begin to live in the new world of possibilities they discovered when they first tried it. When that happens, I feel enormous satisfaction – that I am fulfilling my true purpose, using all of my talents and training to help someone else become the musician they’re meant to be.

Are You Ready to Discover Your New Possibilities?
If you’re ready to break through to a new level of performance, I invite you to join us this July for the Art of Practicing Institute’s unique and transformative summer program. Each participant contributes so much to this astonishing program and extraordinary community of musicians, and we’d love to have you join us. Amateurs and professionals are all welcome. It’s about being fully human in making music, and finding out what that longing inside of you can really lead to.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re wondering if the summer program is right for you, by all means, give me a call or send me an email. I’m happy to answer your questions. We want you to feel part of everything that happens during that incredible week.

 

Q & A of the Month

I’ve heard a lot about your approach, the Art of Practicing. Would you say it’s for everybody, or only for a certain kind of musician? 

Anyone who’s curious about working with this approach can benefit from it. Even applying one or two ideas from it can make your practicing easier and more enjoyable. But for some musicians, the approach resonates more deeply.

Generally, what motivates someone to learn more about it is some kind of dissatisfaction with their current experience of practice and performance – some physical discomfort with their instrument, a lack of confidence onstage, or a feeling of not being able to fully express themselves in making music. They feel like something is blocking their way, and they want to feel more free.

But even realizing that you want more freedom comes from having already had a glimpse of it, and from feeling the contrast between that glimpse and your usual experience with music. My own sense of the possibility of more freedom and confidence at the piano came after an unsuccessful audition. It somehow didn’t make sense to me that after so much work, for so many years at the piano, I still didn’t have the kind of confidence I wanted. I had seen performers who seemed to possess a whole different kind of ease and confidence onstage. And something told me that it must be possible for me to develop that too. But I was 29 before I fully recognized this deep longing in myself, as well as the deep faith that what I desired must actually be within my grasp.

For me, the road to this confidence began with mindfulness meditation, which I remembered had relaxed me when I first tried it a year earlier. This time, when I felt intense self-doubt at an important audition, I was finally ready to go back and try meditation again and to stick with it. And it ended up leading me to a feeling of being deeply at home onstage, to the kind of confidence I really wanted. The whole development of the Art of Practicing came from that experience of feeling at home in my own body and mind, in both practicing and performing.

You can’t really dive into something new if you’re not ready for the change it will bring. Meditation, and the Art of Practicing as well, changes your life. And like anything else, there is a time for it – a time when your body and mind say Yes. I have a wonderful student right now who read the book several years ago and only recently reread it and found it really had a lot of meaning for her. That’s when she was ready to contact me and start lessons.

So I would say, the best thing to do is to try it if you like, and to see where it takes you. Be true to yourself. That’s really what the Art of Practicing is about anyway.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Performing Beyond Fear..

Reconnecting with the Musician You Really Are

(This article was first published in Performing Beyond Fear e-zine in March 2013.)

By his third lesson with me, Michael, a gifted young pianist, had already begun to get familiar with the new physical approach I was teaching him. His hands were no longer tense, and he had freed up his wrists, arms, and shoulders a lot also. But when he finished playing his Bach prelude, he said he wasn’t satisfied with how his hands felt—he wanted his movements to feel more fluid. I knew that for his hands to move more fluidly, he needed to start focusing less on technique and more on the music. He had accomplished the first step—of acquiring basic, efficient coordination—and he was ready to refine his coordination by opening up more to the beauty and flow of the music. I also knew that by tuning in more to the sounds he was making, he would play with more sensitivity and expressiveness.

To help Michael relate more strongly to the music, I suggested that he sing the left hand part of the opening phrase while playing the right hand part. If you’ve ever tried doing this, you know it takes some effort; it requires you to fully hear two musical lines at the same time. But Michael has a well-developed ear, and he did it remarkably well. Next, I asked him to repeat the same process, but to pay close attention to each harmonic interval he played, and to notice how it affected him inside. He went more slowly this time, taking time to focus intently on each harmony. Finally, I asked him to just play the phrase with both hands and notice how it sounded. The music became vibrantly beautiful, and his face lit up in a dazzling smile. “It’s music!” he exclaimed in delight. I asked him if he could explain what he meant, but he was at a loss for words. “That’s all I can say. It’s music!” His joy and excitement touched me. It was as though he had just run into a long lost friend.

What Michael experienced at that moment was something that had only occasionally happened to him in the past. As he described it later, “I didn’t intellectualize about what I was playing. I just heard it. I felt it.” He got out of his head and in touch with his hearing on a deep level. For all the years and countless hours he had spent practicing, he had an unusual experience in that moment of the real, visceral power of making music. He had indeed run into a long lost friend.

Our Birthright as Musicians

All of us, as musicians, are born with a special ability to respond to sound. Our love for music is more intense than other people’s—so intense that we feel compelled to become intimate with music by producing the sound with our instrument and our own body. Yet, like Michael, in the innumerable hours we spend mastering our instrument and learning repertoire, we often lose our intense connection with music and start running on automatic pilot. We get caught up in trying to meet performance deadlines, or in pushing ourselves to play pieces at full tempo. Or we mindlessly run through a piece, thinking it sounds just fine and ignoring the fact that we actually feel no great joy in the act. And sometimes, as Michael later said about a lot of his previous practicing, we try to imitate what we’ve heard on recordings, forgetting that we can think and listen for ourselves—that we can make a genuine, personal connection to the music we’re playing and really release our vital, creative energies.

In short, although we work so hard practicing our instruments, we often don’t receive the tremendous nourishment that music can provide. And it’s often because we don’t take  time to deeply drink in the sounds we’re producing. We put out more than we take in. In doing so, we neglect our needs as artists and as human beings—our need to engage fully with music and to truly express ourselves. As a result, quality suffers—the quality of our playing, and the quality of our musical lives.

To add insult to injury, we often assume that the reason we don’t feel satisfied with how we’re playing is that we’re still not working hard enough. Or that we’re not talented enough. Or both.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

How Practicing Really Works

Of all people, we musicians need to reclaim our birthright to enjoy music, as we’re making it. We need to enjoy it to the fullest extent possible. Of course, we need to work to develop technical ease, but if we want to have something truly wonderful to give to an audience, we also need to focus much more than we usually do on enjoying the miraculous reality of musical sounds

Michael’s hands did move much more fluidly when his ears were more engaged with the music he was playing. But more importantly, the sound he produced was vibrantly alive—it was infused with his personal energy. And even more important than both of these results, Michael learned a core lesson about being a true musician: he learned how to have such joyous experiences more often. He met the power of his own mind—the amazing power of paying full attention to music as he was making it.

Michael told me later that although he had had moments of vividly hearing music while practicing slowly in the past, he had never realized that slowness was a key to this experience. After that lesson, he deliberately practiced more slowly, and had repeated experiences of this intense connection with music. But then he often found himself reverting to his habit of playing fast, and stopped enjoying the music. “It’s a weird impetus to play fast,” he said. “It’s much more personal the other way.”

So How Do You Learn to Play Fast?

The real key to vivid engagement with music isn’t slowness. It’s attention. But most of us are so used to speeding through all of our activities, including our practicing, that we need to slow down a lot at first in order to discover the power of attention. As we develop our listening capacity much more, it operates fully at faster and faster speeds. In other words, practicing is as much about training our ears as it is about training our muscles.

The Surprising Ability of Your Own Mind

In last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space, I described the simple technique of mindfulness-awareness meditation, which allows your mind to slow down and settle into a natural clarity and receptiveness. Doing this technique for even a few minutes can help tremendously in clearing mental and emotional space for experiencing the pure joy of genuinely making music.

At the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program, and in our ongoing live online workshops, we do this kind of meditation regularly, in addition to other highly efficient practices to increase natural receptiveness and creativity for making music. I invite you to join us!

Musician, Heal Thyself

I also invite you to take a moment now to think about your relationship with music and with your instrument. Remember the first time you felt the desire to make music, and ask yourself how that desire has played out in your musical life. The next time you’re about to practice, stop for a minute. Look at your instrument (or if you’re a singer, visualize it), and reflect on how miraculous it is.

Who made it? How? What is it made of? Where did those materials come from? How many years of evolution went into the instrument that you are fortunate to possess right now?

Think further: Who wrote the music you’re about to play? When did they live? What did they go through to learn to write such music? How many years has it survived, with its meaning still intact?

And further: How do all the parts of your body contribute to the sound you produce with your instrument? How long has it taken you to learn to make those sounds as well as you can now? How many millennia of human evolution are behind the physical and mental capacities you were born with to make music?

Take at least a minute to reflect on all of these things.

Now. Pause for a moment. Listen to the silence. Feel the energy in your body as you’re about to make the first sound. Open your heart to the music, Then make that first sound.

How did you like it?

Can you imagine continuing to practice with this kind of connection to the music?

I hope that this simple exercise will help you discover that it really isn’t so hard to get back in touch with who you are as a musician, and with the amazing opportunity you have to practice your instrument. Enjoy it, while you can. As often and as fully as you can. You and your audience will benefit.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to open up your playing on a new level and to find out how to become more of the musician you’re meant to be, I invite you to contact me with any questions you might have about the summer program, the live online workshops, or individual sessions in the Art of Practicing and Performing. I’ll be happy to help you decide if one of these options is right for you.

Q&A of the Month

I have trouble solving technical problems when I’m playing romantic music. I get so wrapped up in it emotionally that I typically don’t even realize my hands are tense till my teacher points it out. How can I practice romantic music and be more aware of my body at the same time?

This is a great question, one which many musicians grapple with.  Passion for romantic music is a great strength to have, but we also need to develop command of our passionate energy so that it doesn’t sweep us away into destructive habits. I think a lot of practice-related injuries develop from this particular issue.

Working with passionate energy is very challenging. It’s also one of the most important disciplines for a musician. We’re in love with music, and we have to continually expand our ability to relate to it with understanding and receptivity, rather than overwhelming it with our emotional intensity. It’s very much like loving another person.

Once we understand this fundamental issue, we can relax with our intensity and appreciate it as a good thing, yet also continually remind ourselves to pay closer attention to musical and technical details—because that’s where success and fulfillment lie. One surprisingly helpful thing is to begin every practice session with two minutes of just sitting still and noticing your breathing, as described in last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space. It clears your mind and slows down the nervous system so you can relate to the music from a less stressed place.

Sometimes playing a passage twice as slowly as you want to can reveal amazing things in the music and in your technical approach. Even if you  think this will be boring, applying your attention to what you’re doing can bring incredible awareness and joy, expanding the musical result.

It’s also essential to find out if your technical approach is completely efficient. If you have any questions at all about whether or not your coordination is totally natural, seek out the most expert advice you can find. Some teachers are known for this. And if you consult a technique expert, be sure to ask lots of questions and to trust your own experience with the techniques they show you.

You can’t really separate technique from music, and an interesting thing can happen if you forget about the music for a moment and deliberately focus on the mechanics of producing the sound: Very often, more music actually comes through, because your body moves more freely when you lighten up your approach.

On the other hand, playing extremely slowly and noticing how each sound affects you inside can work a profound change in your practicing. It can help you work less hard, because you become more receptive and less active. This listening technique is described in Chapter 10 of my book, The Art of Practicing.

The best advice might be to try practicing everything more slowly for a week or more. Just give your body and mind a chance to operate with more physical comfort. Then, when you go back to playing faster, try to make comfort your top priority, and really focus on that. Whenever you realize that you’re less than completely comfortable, slow down and try to notice exactly where the discomfort is. See if you can let go of the tension in that part of your body. In this way you can take care of your body, just as you take care of the instrument you play. Remember that your body is an instrument—a precious one.

You’re welcome to set up a free consultation with me, in person or online, to get my feedback on your technical issues and to talk about next steps that are right for you.

 

Grandma’s Recipe for Space

(This article has been edited since it was first published in September, 2012 under the title of “Creating Space for Music to Flow.”)

At seventeen, I arrived at music school at Indiana University, full of ambition and excited about being surrounded by musicians and about studying with my new teacher, Menahem Pressler. The music building at the school was round, and before school even started, I began walking through the circular hallways looking for an empty practice room. As I literally walked around in circles, countless times, hearing dozens of pianists practicing away, I was sure that they were all better than I was.

At the time of my first lesson, Pressler was away on a concert tour, and his assistant met with me and assigned a set of exercises for finger independence, which Pressler wanted all of his new students to practice. I practiced those exercises intensely, five or six hours a day, during my first week of school. And in my panic about measuring up to the competition and pleasing my new teacher, I lost six pounds. I also came down with a cold. On top of that, I got my first case of poison ivy while walking in the woods on campus. I was a wreck, and I called my parents for sympathy.

A day or so later, the phone rang in my dorm room. “Madeline? It’s Mr. Pressler. How are you?” I was shocked to hear from him. “Fine,” I managed to say. “Your father tells me you’re not so fine,” he said. In a kind voice, he asked me to come to meet him that week, for the first time. I still get tears in my eyes remembering how relieved I was that he cared.

That phone call was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Pressler is an amazing pianist, and he opened me up to a whole new world of sound and possibilities with the piano. But his kindness and warmth were equally important to me, and I worked for him as I did for no other teacher. He was direct but gentle with his critical comments, and he taught me to value imagination and creativity in my practicing. My time in the practice room became infused with curiosity and openness. It was about exploring music, the piano, and my artistic nature— not about proving anything to anybody, or struggling to get somewhere. (Or practicing finger exercises five hours a day.) Everything opened up inside me.

The Shift Toward Overwhelm

I feel very fortunate that I had those two years at Indiana, focusing on being an artist and enjoying practicing, before I hit New York City and started studying at Juilliard. From my perspective now, those two years, far removed from the stress of urban life and heavy professional demands, were like an extended summer, in which I had space to relax and to develop as I needed to.

In the middle of February, with all the challenges that winter creates in our lives, summer feels far away. We are typically inundated with work, and we feel the pressure to bring many projects to fruition. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and to lose the spaciousness and freedom we typically have in summer.

But it’s possible even in winter to approach the demands of our work in a spacious way. And it’s essential.

Balancing Heaviness with Lightness

Each season has its qualities, and the darkness of winter brings a sense of seriousness and depth—we may find ourselves going inward more and being more reflective. At the same time, we may feel more pressure to develop our musical gifts and to meet deadlines with performances, auditions, or school jury exams. Such pressure can cause us to lose touch with the pure joy of making music.

It’s important to remember that in order to come fully alive, our musical gifts need to breathe. When we take more time to relax and breathe, our mind and body can work with more ease. We discover room inside of ourselves to both receive and recreate the infinite variety of energies in music—to respond in a full-bodied, open hearted way to what we hear, so that we can transmit it to others.

In a previous article, Getting Intimate with Greatness, I wrote about how to relate to the myriad of sounds in the music we practice, so that all of them can vibrantly flow through us. But there is an even more basic step we need to take. This step is to establish an initial spaciousness and openness to music before you even begin to practice.

To do this, simply sit still and take a moment to breathe and to feel your own presence, physically and mentally, before you engage with your instrument. In other words, before connecting with music, you need to connect with yourself—your living, breathing self.

You can think of yourself as a living, open vessel, with energy constantly flowing in from the world around you through your senses, mixing with your own energies, and then radiating and flowing outward to the environment and to others through the communicative energy in your speech, in the music you make, and in your presence.

When we are already filled up with stress and sensory overload, our system is clogged. Musical sounds have very little room inside of us to play, dance, flow, and make their magic. But if we can de-stress and unwind, our body and mind can open, and we can receive and enjoy new sensory abundance, so that it can flow through us freely and reach others.

Grandma’s Recipe 

Maybe you remember visiting your grandma as a child, and enjoying a level of relaxation that your parents didn’t have, because they were so busy making a living and running the household. Or maybe you remember a favorite vacation spot and how it felt to breathe fresh air and not worry about the usual things you have to do. When you came home from your time at Grandma’s or on vacation, you had new energy for life; you felt refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of school, practicing, or taking care of business.

Until the avalanche hit—the inevitable demands of work and life. Then your system started to feel the strain and to shut down and close off. Your vessel became too full.

To help you find that mental space again, here is Grandma’s recipe for creating space in your practicing:

1. Remember that refreshing time, the feeling of being able to breathe.

2. Take at least two minutes to do nothing but breathe. Just sit comfortably upright and notice your breathing. In, out—in, out. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. Being upright helps you be both alert and relaxed, as you need to be for making music. It also allows your lungs to fully expand with breath, which nourishes your entire system. Keep your eyes open, gazing somewhat downward, without trying to focus them on anything. This will keep you aware of your environment yet also focused on your breathing.

3. Then notice how you feel different—perhaps more calm or awake—or maybe you realize how tired you are.

4. Gently begin to practice your instrument, noticing how the first few sounds affect you. See if you can notice each sound coming into your body and changing you inside. This is what music does when you’re open to it.

5. Continue practicing with this awareness—of sounds and inner sensations, as well as the sensations of touch and movement.

6. Notice when you begin to lose this awareness.

7. Stop.

8. Take one to three deep breaths and begin the process again—or if you prefer, go back to step 2.

After your practice session, reflect on what happened and what it means to you.

Surprise!

In case you didn’t realize it, Grandma’s recipe is 2500 years old—it’s the recipe for what is called mindfulness. It begins with mindfulness meditation—with awareness of your breathing—and it continues with mindfulness of sounds and sensations.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. But it’s much more than just being careful and minding your p’s and q’s. Mindfulness is really the innate capacity of your mind to be aware of whatever is happening in the present moment. And the recipe above is a basic method for cultivating that capacity, by deliberately paying attention to something—in this case, your breathing, and then the sounds and sensations you’re experiencing. This simple act actually changes your brain each time you do it. The more you do it, the more you build the habit of noticing what’s happening in your daily experience—the sounds and sensations of practicing, the atmosphere in the room, the energy in your body in different situations that arise. Your nervous system actually changes, and you become less driven by habit and more aware of the present moment and its possibilities. You wake up to vivid reality and become more of yourself. More sensitive, more musical, more artistic.

All kinds of people have been using mindfulness techniques in recent years, including athletic teams, cancer patients, doctors, and business leaders. They do it because it gives them more access to their mental power and frees them from problematic levels of tension and stress. It also brings out their receptivity to people they’re working with, and it opens their minds to creative solutions they hadn’t noticed before.

And it has begun to make its way into the lives of musicians, who are overwhelmed with the demands of playing their instruments, job stress, and performance anxiety. I’ve been doing it for 40 years and have watched many musicians discover their true capabilities through regularly practicing this simple discipline.

If you’re concerned that adding this additional activity to your day will be too much, know that even ten minutes a day can make your practice time more efficient. So it actually saves you time.

Taking Care of the Vessel

Music demands so much of us—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Taking time to breathe is a way of taking care of ourselves in the midst of these demands so that more of our gifts can shine through in the music we make—more vitality, more richness and depth. More beauty.

Try it, and discover for yourself how giving yourself space to breathe can open up your playing or singing.

If you’re interested in pursuing meditation but don’t live near me, I’d be happy to hear from you and to recommend places where you can learn and practice this mind-opening technique.

And if you really want to treat yourself to a fantastic experience of spaciousness with music, consider registering for the Art of Practicing institute’s summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance, where you will meet other wonderful people who are ready to breathe more easily and make music more freely.

I’d love to have you with us.

And I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. You can also apply to be on the waiting list as a Master Class participant at this year’s summer program. If you’re not sure the program is for you, feel free to schedule a free consultation.

Q & A of the Month

What is the best way to gain strength and independence in my left hand at the piano? I have worked on Hanon’s exercises and scales for at least four months now, and I am still having trouble feeling fluent with my left hand. When I am playing a descending scale, my left hand seems to lack accuracy and stability. Do you have any suggestions?

Everyone’s left hand is less adept than their right on the piano. Most piano music has a lot more notes in the right hand part, so the right hand gets more practice. Also, the ear naturally hears the higher parts in a piece more easily than lower ones—which is why most melodies are written on top. What this means is that we’re less conscious of what our left hand is doing, so that our coordination doesn’t usually develop as well with that hand.

Coordination involves the brain, which is affected very much your level of aural and emotional engagement with what you’re doing. I don’t think you need to do Hanon exercises, unless you enjoy the sound of them. Actual music is best most of the time, and you can isolate certain passages and work specifically on the difficult parts of them, as if they were exercises. These snippets of actual music are more interesting than Hanon exercises—more musical. Scales can be helpful if you play them with a lot of awareness of how they sound and of how your hand feels. Just remember that it’s this awareness that improves coordination. If you just push through scales or pieces—more out of a big effort to improve than out of enjoying the sounds and sensations—your coordination will suffer. Try singing the scale first, in a musical way, and then imitating that musicality in your playing of it.

Along with these issues, you need to know how to use your hand with minimum tension—by sitting at the right height and distance, for optimum finger and arm leverage, and by letting the fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing. And it’s essential to not try to get a big sound with the fingers alone, but to rely on the arm for this purpose, and to know how to use the arm efficiently and effectively.

It’s always best to go slowly enough to play with ease, comfort, and accuracy. If you play faster than you comfortably can, it’s counterproductive. You have to trust that fluency and speed will come from doing what you can, not from pushing beyond that and overloading your playing mechanism with excessive demands. That only creates excessive tension, which can lead to inaccuracy.

See if you can get into how good it feels to move your hands slowly and comfortably, not trying for a big sound. Great technique develops from that foundation.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Performing Beyond Fear.

 

 

 

 

 

The Freedom to Make Mistakes

(This article was originally published June 25, 2012.)

When I was 29 and preparing to move back to New York from California, I decided to raise money for the venture by playing a series of recitals called Concerts à la Mode. I rented the Berkeley Piano Club and solicited contributions of desserts from friends and local bakeries, which we served after each performance. The series consisted of three different programs, performed two weeks apart within the month of July. I had never performed that much repertoire within so short a time, but I wanted to try it.

After a critic gave the second concert a good review in the San Francisco Chronicle, the final performance, an all-Chopin recital, was sold out. But I didn’t have enough time to prepare. I still remember the feeling of being up there in the light onstage and playing through the entire program in a state of panic, mixed with sheer chutzpah. Two of my parents’ friends left immediately afterward, apparently to avoid the embarrassment of having to talk about my performance. I made a lot of money that night, which helped with my move to New York. But more importantly, I learned something from that concert. I was careful after that to give myself more time to prepare performances, and to not bite off more repertoire than I could chew.

Permission to Fail

Performing is always a risk, and especially when we’re young, we need to take risks and to make mistakes, in order to find out what works for us. No advice from others can substitute for firsthand knowledge.

I’m sure my parents were uncomfortable that evening at the Berkeley Piano Club. But I have fond memories of them giving me lots of room to make mistakes growing up. I always had the feeling that they loved me and knew I had to find things out for myself. Looking back, I can see that my parents’ attitude toward my mistakes was one of their biggest gifts to me. They gave me permission to fail. And they trusted that I would eventually succeed by learning from my own experience.

Childhood Mistakes

My parents had been watching me make mistakes since I was very small. When I was six, I thought that getting dressed for school took too much time every morning. So I decided I would solve that problem by putting on my school dress at night and sleeping in it. When I came down to breakfast the next morning in a very wrinkled dress, my mother said, “What did you do, sleep in your dress?” “No,” I lied. But I knew she was onto me. I also knew she was too amused to get angry with me. And of course, I learned that my idea of sleeping in my dress didn’t work out.

Our Adult Standards

My mother may have thought I was cute for sleeping in my dress, and even for lying about it, but when we are adults, our audience may not think it’s cute if we show up in a wrinkled concert gown and give them an unprepared performance. In fact, when the stakes are high, we expect ourselves to be prepared to the max, and we often slip into harsh self-judgment if our performance doesn’t live up to our high standards.

But the fact is, mistakes don’t stop at age 18 or 21. We keep growing throughout adulthood, and a lot of that growth happens through learning from the mistakes we make.

How can we bring some of the lightness and humor that comes with recalling our childhood mistakes into our serious lives as adult musicians? How can we develop a healthy perspective on our mistakes in the professional arena?

Occupational Hazards

A good first step is to acknowledge the extreme challenge of being a performing musician. Scientists have said that playing a musical instrument is the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in. This statement makes total sense to us. In practicing our instrument, we face enormous athletic demands along with the equally huge task of hearing all the sounds we’re producing, plus handling the emotional responses to the music that are flooding our system. On top of all this, when we perform, we add stage fright to the mix, challenging our capacities to the limit.

Friendliness Toward Ourselves

It can be very helpful to take a moment to appreciate this mind-boggling challenge, and to appreciate how brave we are in taking it on. This simple acknowledgment of our valiant efforts can help us breathe a little easier as we go about our practicing and performing lives—we can relax and accept the fact that making mistakes is inevitable.

We make so many different kinds of mistakes. We play wrong notes. We have memory lapses. We misjudge how much preparation time we need. We over-practice to the point of exhaustion, leaving us with no energy to give an inspired performance. And we make faux pas in communicating with people in our profession whose trust we value. Mistakes are human, and no one escapes making them.

However, we do have a choice about how we handle our minds when we do something we’re not proud of. Do we judge ourselves? Do we pretend it didn’t happen? Or do we look straight at our pain with a sympathetic attitude toward ourselves and try to learn from what we’ve done?

The Crucial, Often Overlooked Point

The most helpful thing I know of in facing a mistake is to realize that the reason we feel bad about it is that we care. We care about how we participate in society as performers and as human beings. We want to give our best, and to have a rewarding experience onstage and in our lives. This heart of caring is always there, underneath our feelings of guilt or embarrassment. And making contact with this caring place in ourselves can soften us  and dissolve a lot of our self-judgment and anxiety.

Overcoming Negative Conditioning

Perhaps people in your past have judged you harshly for your failings, and you have difficulty getting past their judgments. It’s easy to lose faith in yourself when others have treated you badly—in fact, many musicians suffer from debilitating stage fright that stems from their experience with abusive parents or teachers.

Nevertheless, if you take some time to look deeply into yourself, past the judgments of others, and even past the pain you have suffered, you can find within you the desire to do well and to fulfill your potential. That desire is so good. It is the most basic and human thing in you. Take a moment to appreciate it and to feel how strong it is. It will help you realize that it is fundamentally because you are good, and because you care, that you feel bad when you fail or make a mistake.

Start With Small Steps

Although this caring place in us is tender and soft, it contains great power. As soon as we contact it we feel nourished and strengthened by it—we recognize it as healthy and full of positive energy. If we can make a habit of appreciating our caring intentions, we can increase our strength and positive energy for performance.

Start with small steps. The next time you find yourself judging yourself for making a mistake in practicing, remind yourself that you just want to do well, to make music and express yourself. Give yourself that moment to relax and appreciate yourself, and watch what happens inside you. Then start again and see how that positive energy affects your playing or singing.

Carrying Your Heart Onstage

Each time you remember to appreciate your own goodness you are encouraging it to shine. When it’s time to perform, you can let it illuminate the space for everyone present.

To do that, take a moment before walking onstage to appreciate your own bravery. Just stop and notice your fear, and then extend warmth to yourself by remembering how brave you are to go out there. This warmth will naturally flow into the music you make, and your audience will feel it.

A pianist once called me from the West Coast to ask for advice a few days before she was going to play a big concerto with an orchestra. I recommended that she take a moment to appreciate her own bravery right before walking onstage. She called me later to tell me that people swarmed up to her after her performance and said they’d never heard anything like it—they were so moved by her playing. Because she opened her heart to herself, her heart came through in her performance.

Performing Beyond Fear Begins at Home

So the next time you catch yourself feeling bad about a mistake you’ve made or a challenge you’re facing with a piece of music, stop to appreciate how much you care. If you make a habit of opening your heart in this way while you’re alone and feeling safe, your courage will grow, and it will be easier to risk opening your heart onstage. That is performing beyond fear..

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S.  If you’re ready to let go of mistakes more and discover more of what’s on the other side of self-judgment, I warmly invite you to come to the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program and become part of our amazingly supportive community of musicians. It’s a safe and welcoming place where you can be open and have fun with the whole process of getting past fear and discovering freedom. If you’re not sure if the program is for you, feel free to contact me for free consultation about it.

Q & A of the Month

I tried what you suggested in a previous article—tuning into the feelings of disappointment, uncertainty, and longing—and it did help me play better. But I don’t think I felt confident doing that. How do we get from feeling lost and uncertain to feeling confident?

Confidence comes from getting so familiar with feeling shaky and uncertain that you begin to feel real power in that energy. It’s a person’s vulnerability that always moves us in a performance. It catches our heart. Each time you accept and face these feelings you’re manifesting courage; you’re not turning away from the energy within you, but you’re allowing it to flow.

I suggest that when you try this technique again, you notice the quality of the energy in your body. You may label the feeling as “disappointment,” “longing,” or “uncertainty.” But these feelings have very potent visceral energy. It’s when we shut them out that our energy stops flowing.

The more you get familiar with the free flow of this kind of energy, the more power you will find in it. Then you develop a very real and deep confidence—the confidence to be completely yourself.

Unwrapping Your Gift

Dear Subscribers to Performing Beyond Fear E-zine,

I have a gift for you today that comes straight from my heart. It’s a free listen to the first 20 minutes of the Art of Practicing institute’s new audio release, the Performing Beyond Fear exercise.

I developed this exercise to help musicians cut through stage fright and bring out their deep communicative power. In just seven minutes, it transforms your music making, both onstage and off.

It’s true that we need a reliable technique and a thorough knowledge of the music we’re playing to feel confident about performing. But it’s our state of mind that makes the difference between a good performance and a truly great one.

So I invite you to try Performing Beyond Fear—in the practice room first, and then before going onstage—and see what happens. There is powerful human energy inside of you, waiting to shine out and reach the hearts of everyone who hears you.

Click on the CD image above to open your gift.

With warmest holiday wishes,
Madeline

Madeline Bruser
Artistic Director of the Art of Practicing Institute
Editor of Performing Beyond Fear E-zine

Unwrapping Your Gift

(This article has been edited since it first appeared in this e-zine on December 25, 2012.)

Although I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, I’ve always felt the spirit of the season and have been moved by how this particular day transforms so many people. Their joy in giving and receiving gifts, in expressing love, generosity, and appreciation, is beautiful and contagious.

The anticipation and planning of this special holiday remind me of the ritual of giving a concert performance: We plan and prepare, with excitement and care, and then the moment comes when we give our gift to our audience. It can be a wonderful and powerful experience.

But usually, giving our gifts onstage is a lot harder than buying a present, wrapping it up, and putting it under someone’s tree or into their hands. It involves complex and demanding preparation, and even if we’ve learned the music extremely well, we may nevertheless lack confidence at the crucial moment of performance.

Often, the reason we lack confidence onstage is that we’ve never fully discovered the gift we have inside of us. We’ve carried it with us all our lives, and we’ve perceived it to a degree, but we’ve never fully unwrapped it and seen how beautiful it really is.

When we don’t fully unwrap the gift we carry inside us, it can feel like a burden. We sense that it’s there, and we want it to just leap out of us and victoriously take the stage. But we feel frustrated because we don’t know how to make that happen.

Some of us do unwrap our gift when we’re alone, practicing our instrument—music flies out of us, and our heart soars. But when an audience is watching us, we somehow hold back or clam up, and people never get to see or hear what we’d hoped to share with them. Only part of it comes through.

My Gifts to You

My first gift to you today is the free 20-minute taste of the Performing Beyond Fear exercise, which was recorded live at the 2017 summer program. If those 20 minutes inspire you to purchase all four tracks, you will not only actually experience this amazingly transformative, short exercise, but it will take you right into the world of our summer program—especially in the wonderful Question and Answer session with the participants in the final track. And if you’re inspired by all that, I warmly invite you to take the plunge and join us at next year’s program.

My second gift for you today is to fill in the picture of the summer program a little more.

The program happens on the beautiful campus of Edinboro University, in Erie, Pennsylvania, and it’s called Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians. It will take place July 21 — 28, 2018.

We walk past this lake a few times a day, between the dorm and the music buildings, where we have practice rooms, a rehearsal hall, a recital hall, and an 800-seat concert hall. Daily sessions  in mindfulness techniques, as well as our morning discussion groups, happen in the spacious rehearsal hall, with windows looking out on green lawns and trees. After lunch, everyone has time to practice their instruments, applying the techniques taught in the daily master classes, in which we apply techniques of the Art of Practicing, begin mid-afternoon on the stage of the concert hall. One evening in the middle of the week, everyone is invited to ride to a gorgeous beach on Lake Erie before sunset. And on the last night of the program, participants are invited to play in a celebratory concert for the local community, followed by our own private party at a  restaurant. We end the program the following day with mindfulness practice and a discussion group in the morning, and the closing lunch in the dining hall.

The mornings mindfulness practices—including meditation, Performing Beyond Fear, and Focusing—are followed by an hour of group discussion, in which both faculty and participants speak openly about issues they experience in practice and performance. The atmosphere is noncompetitive, warm, and supportive, and people often stay in touch after the program.

We designed this unique, transformative program for musicians who feel ready to let go of unhelpful habits, and take their music making to a whole new level. If it sounds appealing but you aren’t sure if it’s right for you, I invite you to set up a free consultation with me to help you decide.

To tell the truth . . .

The program is a huge gift to me too. I’ve taught ten of these weeklong programs now, and the experience of seeing people open up their playing so much in that span of time is extraordinary. Discoveries happen every day, and people find out they can do things they never knew they could. It’s as rewarding for me as any performance I’ve ever given. I get to offer my gifts, and to see people take off and fly with what they receive. I often wonder how it is that I’m so lucky to be able to do this.

A Shining Example of Performing Beyond Fear 

Many musicians experience such extreme fear about performing that they view their audience as an enemy. The following story is an inspiring example of a brave musician who went beyond fear in front of an audience that was actually directing real hatred toward him.

In 1960, pianist Byron Janis was selected by the United States government to begin a cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, after years of intense animosity between the two countries. His first concert in Moscow followed the news that an American spy plane called the U2 had been deployed against the Soviet Union, which outraged the Soviet people. On the day of the concert, a man in the street recognized Janis and fired an imaginary machine gun at him, shouting, “Americanski, nyet!” When he walked onstage that night, many members of the audience greeted him by screaming, “U2! U2!” Their hatred was palpable, upsetting him intensely.

But somehow, as he sat at the piano and waited for them to quiet down, he found himself thinking, “I am not your enemy. I just ask you to listen to my music, which I want to play for you without rancor but with love.” From that place of love and courage, he gave his concert. At intermission, he received a long ovation, And at the end of the entire concert, people in the audience streamed toward the stage, some of them weeping. Deafening applause and cheering went on for 20 minutes, and one woman shouted, “You make us love America!”

It was Janis’s deep devotion to music and deep motivation to play from love that enabled him to rise above the hostility of his audience and to melt their hardened hearts. Although we may not feel up to meeting the kind of challenge he faced that night, we do share such devotion and motivation. Underneath our fear of performing, we always hold within us the power of our devotion to music and of our desire to share it with others.

I hope you will take heart from this story and at least consider the idea that you yourself are capable of finding a way to give joy to your audience, even though you may be quaking in fear. The Performing Beyond Fear exercise will help you do that.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

Q & A of the Month

I’ve seen some of your articles about mindfulness, and I understand that by paying attention to technical details I can practice more efficiently. But how can I get past the level of just paying attention to details and really become free and expressive with a piece so I can really perform it well?

Mindfulness does mean paying attention to details; you’re right. But as each of those details becomes clearer, you start noticing more details—you notice what else is going on around those details.

So let’s say you’re focusing on keeping your thumb relaxed while you’re using your other fingers. And you get to the point where your thumb stays relaxed without your focusing on it anymore. Then your mind is free to focus on the next thing. On the smallest level, it proceeds in that way, taking you into real ease in playing whole phrases and finally a whole piece.

At the same time, as your mind becomes clearer, you become more aware of when you need a break from such fine detailed work, and when you want to try another approach to a piece—such as letting yourself enjoy the quality of sound in certain chords, or going over parts of the piece that you’re already comfortable with in order to enjoy them and to take them to a new level of freedom and expressive depth.

The real point is that as you become more aware of the details, you naturally appreciate them more. So mindfulness includes noticing how the music makes you feel—which contributes to greater expressiveness. And it also includes noticing what you’re most interested in doing from one moment to the next, and if you need a break to get up and stretch or walk around or just rest.

Mindfulness basically gives you a chance to get to know your own mind and to trust it more and see where it can take you. Practicing mindfulness meditation trains your mind to be more awake and appreciative—more conscious of what’s going on—and that spills into your practicing.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

Genuine Stage Presence

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in February, 2013.)

I once attended a clarinet master class taught by Richard Stoltzman at the Manhattan School of Music. The audience had just filled the 400-seat hall when Mr. Stoltzman appeared onstage pulling a luggage cart, apparently either just arriving from the airport, or ready for a flight after the class. After we had greeted him with applause, and before he spoke a word, he simply stood and looked around, taking in the environment—the rows of people sitting on the ground level and up in the balcony, the lighting, the furniture on the stage, the quiet, the atmosphere. He seemed to be getting his bearings in the new surroundings he suddenly found himself in—a contrast to the street or the airport.

After we’d waited for what seemed like a full minute, he slowly began to speak and proceeded to teach the class with an arresting spaciousness, as well as with his characteristic brilliance and playfulness. His energy seemed to flow naturally from simply being open—from taking time to ground himself, to feel what it was like to be on that stage, in that hall, at that moment.

There are many ways a performer can make an entrance. Nightclub entertainers often bound onto the stage beaming big smiles, aiming to lift the spirits of their audience. Rock stars may saunter onstage, playing it cool or hot to appeal to their fans. And many fine classical artists approach center stage with glamorous elegance, radiating a warmth that fills the hall. All of these ways of meeting an audience can be fine, and even great.

But Mr. Stoltzman’s unhurried ordinariness on that afternoon as he faced us from the stage has stayed in my mind as a striking example of simple, uncontrived being. He let us see him in an almost private way in a public situation. His presence was strong in its bareness, its quietness, its intense realness. It gave us a glimpse of the receptiveness that lies underneath his colorful playing and personality. It was clear that this master class had nothing to do with the teacher’s ego. It was all about genuinely relating to his students and to his audience.

The Power of Being an Ordinary Person

It’s hard to describe a moment like that, when someone onstage is not putting on a show—when his ordinary presence strips away our preconceptions of who he is and reveals the unadorned person. It’s an intimate experience, and it opens us up to the music or teaching they are offering. Each of us at such a moment can connect with what is most genuine and unadorned in ourselves.

Mr. Stoltzman maintained his remarkable receptiveness throughout the class, taking time to tune in to the heart and mind of each student he worked with. Respectful and gentle, he listened to their words as well as to their playing, and gave them time to absorb what he was saying. He didn’t rush to give them solutions to problems; instead, he experimented with them, letting them try out ideas and see if they worked. I am still grateful for the example he set, of a great performer who didn’t try to call attention to himself. He didn’t need to. His humility and kindness were magnetic.

Getting Off the Fast Track

Although performers like Richards Stoltzman seem to be born with a natural gift for communicating through music and through their personal presence, all of us can develop our own communicative gifts to a much higher level than we usually think. I have seen many ordinary music students become magnetically present in performance through using their minds in a skillful way. It all begins with slowing down and tuning in to the present moment, just as Mr. Stoltzman did onstage that day.

Slowing down like that is unusual in our culture. We are so accustomed to speed—in school and work settings, on television, on the Internet, and in our own minds—that the very act of taking time to simply observe what’s happening often brings up guilt and self-judgment. We become suspicious of ourselves or of anyone else who seems to be wasting time by doing nothing.

Yet more and more articles have been appearing recently, in The New York Times and other publications, on the value of slowing down—of practicing mindfulness, taking short breaks in the work day, and going on vacation. Scientists have finally declared that the human mind works better when we don’t push it so hard, and that people are more productive and effective when they give themselves more of a chance to breathe.

Connecting with the Extra-ordinary

You can begin training yourself to be more present by periodically stopping in the middle of an activity and noticing what your five senses are perceiving. Right now, after you read this sentence, stop for a moment and notice what you are seeing, hearing, smelling tasting, and touching, and what it’s like to do that.

Does it feel good to stop and do this? What do you notice? Try it again, now, for another moment.

Can you picture yourself making a habit of interrupting your day to engage in this non-activity?

If you practice such awareness often, while sitting still, with nothing much happening around you, the most ordinary things begin to hold your interest more, and your awareness becomes very sharp, as though you were viewing the present moment through a magnifying glass. You experience a very focused, undistracted state of mind. This is the powerful practice called mindfulness. Anyone can do it.

Observing Your Own Mind

The most basic mindfulness practice is to notice your breathing while sitting still and upright. This technique is called mindfulness meditation, and it’s great to do it with your eyes open. That way you learn to handle being aware of your environment while your attention is primarily on one thing. This is amazing preparation for performance, when you experience a heightened awareness of the environment yet have to focus on what you’re doing—using your instrument to make music.

Placing your attention on your breathing helps your mind and body relax. And as your mind relaxes, you also become more aware of your state of mind. From moment to moment, you may be happy or sad, comfortable or uncomfortable, bored, distracted, restless, or freaked out. All kinds of thoughts may come and go, and you become an observer of your own mind.

Your mind may be full of many things—memories, plans, worries, and general mish-mash—and you may not enjoy all of them. But if you stay with it all, you will gain something valuable: a distance from all of these thoughts, and a stronger and stronger realization that they are just thoughts. They are not you. You are the person who is watching them.

Getting Out of Your Head 

I gave basic mindfulness instruction in a previous issues (see Grandma’s Recipe for Space in the article Creating Space for Music to Flow). And we do it regularly in our Live Online Workshops, as well as at our annual summer program. This simple technique helps you get out of your head and come back into your body and your sense perceptions—which is where you need to be most for making music. It also allows you to become a better observer of your own mind—to notice when you’re caught up in habitual thinking and to let go of your thoughts. And as your mind becomes more free of habitual thinking, it opens up and becomes be more creative as well as more receptive.

A Few Steps You Can Take

Whether you can participate in the call or not, here are a few steps you can try the next time you’re preparing to walk onstage:

1. As you’re anticipating the moment of your entrance, notice how you feel.

2. Know that the feelings you have are full of life energy, and that you can use that energy creatively in your performance. Appreciate this vibrant state, no matter how nervous or uncomfortable you may feel.

3. Remember it’s normal to be nervous before a performance, and that the most successful and famous musicians feel this way.

4. Appreciate your bravery in being willing to face your audience. Take time to extend warmth to yourself this way.

5. As you’re about to step onstage, take time to notice your physical sensations—your foot touching the floor, your clothes touching your skin, your body moving through space. Keep feeling your bravery and appreciating it.

6. As you enter the space of the stage, take time to notice the light, the people, their applause, the atmosphere, your excitement or nervousness.

7. As you sit or stand in position to perform, continue to notice the details of your sensory experience.

8. If you’re performing with others, take time to notice them and to feel your connection with them.

9. Take a moment to experience the silence before you begin.

10. Trust your intuition about  when to make your first sound.

11. Whatever happens, stay with the energy of the music, and of sharing it with other people.

12. Know that being perfect is not the point—in fact, it is your vulnerability and humanness that will connect you to your audience more than anything else can.

Performing is a special opportunity to experience that each ordinary moment and perception contains the power of the extraordinary. Trust that with practice, you can go deeper into this experience and discover more of what it means to be present and to let yourself be seen by your audience.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. We do two other powerful techniques in the Live Online Workshops and at our annual summer program, opening up great new energy for practicing and performing. I invite you to join us!

Q & A of the Month 

I’m studying with two different piano teachers at my conservatory, and their ideas sometimes conflict—particularly on technique. Although I value what each teacher is giving me, I get confused sometimes about which advice I should follow. Do you have any suggestions?

This is an interesting and timely question. Collaborative teaching has become more common recently, and it puts each person—both the teachers and the student—in a challenging situation.

First of all, it’s good that these two teachers are at the same school and are therefore aware that you are working with both of them. Hopefully, each of them appreciates that they can learn something from the situation just as you are learning from both of them. It’s a little like being a musician with an injury—they may have only one instrumental teacher, but they also have to listen to the advice of their doctor, their physical therapist, and maybe some books they’re reading, all at the same time, and decide which advice makes the most sense to them at any given moment in the recovery process.

The most important thing is for you to trust yourself. Listen to your body, trust your own intelligence, ask a lot of questions, and see what really makes the most sense for you. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that some teachers have very clear methods for helping their students develop, and a student may not always know the reason for a particular approach until weeks or months down the road, when they’ve worked with it enough to integrate it into their playing.

If you feel that you’re really being pulled in two different directions, do what you can to minimize the conflict. For instance, you could request different repertoire for a period of time and concentrate on pieces that create less confusion and conflict. Then go back to the other repertoire when your mind is clearer and see if you can understand the issues better and find new solutions.

Do be careful about your technique. If a passage feels tense or uncomfortable, explain the problem to one or both of your teachers and do everything you can to find a way to make it easier to play.

If one teacher is suggesting musical ideas that you really like but the other teacher doesn’t agree with them, talk to both teachers to try to understand their way of thinking. You can learn a lot this way, and it can help you practice more intelligently. It can also make you a better teacher yourself.

I myself never had more than one teacher at a time, but all of my teachers disagreed with each other on certain things. Each teacher was valuable in a different way, and the process of sorting out their conflicting ideas was extremely useful for me. It forced me to think for myself, and to delve deeply into many technical and musical issues. I think this is how the teaching and performing traditions evolve to a higher level.

At some point in your career, you may find yourself confronted with a choice of committing to one particular approach, in order to refine your technique or take your playing to a new level. Again, trust your instincts and feel your way into any new situation. Being skeptical is a sign of intelligence, and you can learn a lot from all of your experiences.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

Your Heart Is In Your Hands: Zooming In on Physical Details

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in November 2012. It contains a video.)

I once zoomed in on Peter Serkin’s hands with binoculars from the balcony of Carnegie Hall. He was playing an extremely virtuosic contemporary piece that had his hands running all over the keyboard. I wanted to see one specific thing about how he used his hands, and if it was in agreement with how I play myself and how I teach.

I was looking to see if his fingers were up or down—that is, if the non-playing fingers were raised above the keys while other fingers were busy playing, or if they were simply resting on the keys until they needed to play.

As I expected, those fingers were down. How else could they be ready to play a split second later? And how else could his muscles be minimally engaged, to keep tension to a minimum, so that he could play so fast and so easily? It was beautiful to watch the effortless fluidity in his playing.

When we zoom in on a performer who has mastered their instrument, we gain inspiration for our own practicing. It shows us what is humanly possible, and how beautiful our technical equipment could be.

How to Zoom In on Your Own Hands

When you’re sitting at your instrument, you don’t need binoculars to zoom in on what your hands are doing. But it can be easy to miss crucial details and to not get where you want to go with your technique.

Zooming in effectively requires three things: inspiration, mental clarity, and facts.

Just as I was inspired watching Peter Serkin’s hands, I hope you find some inspiration in this close-up of my hands, playing the same section of Chopin that opened the October 2012 article:

You can see that in all the passage work, my fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing (except in two places, which I will explain later).

In addition to the inspiration you may gain from watching a video, or from zooming in with binoculars at a concert, let’s talk about the other two ingredients you can use to effectively zoom in on your own hands.

Give Your Mind a Chance

The first challenge in working with physical details while practicing is that there are so many other things going on. We get overwhelmed with the complexities of the music, with our emotional responses to it, and with our anxiety about meeting the deadline of a performance, lesson, or audition. In the middle of all that, it can be hard to even notice how your hands feel. In fact, many musicians get so caught up in practicing, and in pushing for results, that they don’t even realize how much tension is in their hands and arms until it builds to the point of injury.

So in order to begin working with your instrumental technique, you first need to clear your mind of other issues that are screaming for your attention. If you can manage to slow down the racing thoughts in your head, and ease up on your tendency to drive yourself too hard, you can gain enough presence of mind to clearly observe the delicate, precise movements of your hands, and you can find solutions to technical problems more quickly and easily. You can even notice how your sound quality improves as you train your hands to move in a freer, more refined way.

Grandma’s Recipe

Such presence of mind is also known as mindfulness. In the September 2012 issue, I described a simple technique for increasing your mindfulness, which I called “Grandma’s Recipe for Space.” Part of this recipe is called mindfulness of breathing, and doing it for even two minutes can make the difference between productive practicing and total frustration.

So the next time you’re feeling frustrated during practicing, I encourage you to stop practicing for a minute or two and to try Grandma’s Recipe: Just sit comfortably upright and take two minutes to do two simple things: 1) breathe, and 2), notice your breathing. Try it even if you’re skeptical. If you’re like everyone else I know who’s tried it, you’ll come back feeling more clear-headed and ready to practice with more focus and enjoyment.

Know the Facts

In addition to inspiration and mental clarity, it helps to have some solid, scientific facts to encourage you in your pursuit of this technical mastery and beauty. For now, we’ll look at one basic fact of how your hands work.

Your hands are obviously of major importance in your instrumental technique. Even if you are not a pianist, looking at these two photos of my hand can help you understand something crucial about how to use your hands.

In the first photo, you see my third finger putting down a key while the other four fingers are relaxed and resting on the keys.

This is the way Peter Serkin’s hands looked through my binoculars. And it’s also how my hands look in the video.

In the second photo, you also see the third finger playing a key, but this time, other fingers are raised above the keys.

The problem here is that when your fingers are raised above the keys, you’re using muscles to hold them up. Those muscles are in the topside of your forearm. And the muscles that bend your fingers, to play, are in the underside of your forearm. So if you bend and lift at the same time, as in the second picture above, you are contracting both sets of muscles in your forearm simultaneously and creating unnecessary tension. Doctors call this co-contraction.

That extra tension is enough to create a constriction in your forearm, which inhibits both speed and expressiveness. And it happens to be the single most common cause of injuries among pianists.

Putting the Ingredients Together

Nearly every new student who walks into my studio for the first time has this habit of keeping their fingers raised above the keys, to at least some extent. Many of them know it’s not a good habit—and have even had teachers who advised against it—but they don’t know how to change their habit. Others were instructed to raise their fingers as a kind of calisthenics for the hand—an approach that doctors agree is destructive and potentially injurious.

A habit is like a code in the spinal cord. In order to change that code, you need to put your brain in charge and deliberately do something differently, repeatedly. Even ten minutes of slowly and carefully making sure that your fingers are down will make it more automatic—you will already begin to feel that the old habit is starting to weaken, and the newer one is starting to take hold.

Most people who have never taken the time to focus like that are surprised by how much mental energy it takes. Often I ask them how their hand feels after a few minutes of playing in the new position, and they answer that they are so busy focusing on doing it the new way that they don’t even notice how different the physical sensation is. But usually they quickly realize that it feels better, and they describe it as “more relaxed,” “less strained.” “Easier.”

So acquiring physical ease takes mental work.

The Mental Key

The key is to follow the idea of the mindfulness of breathing technique: For every single thing you do, you actually do two things: First, you put down a key. Second, you check the other four fingers to make sure they are resting on the keys instead of being raised above them.

This is mindfulness in action. You are exercising the specific natural capacity of your brain called mindfulness. And each time you exercise it—each time you complete these two steps of moving a finger and checking the rest of your fingers—you are strengthening that part of your brain. Scientists have even located this part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex—behind your forehead. And they have observed that as people practice mindfulness, the cells in this part of the brain multiply, strengthening this natural mental capacity.

Caveat

As you practice using your hand this way, remember that the fingers are not designed for power. The arm is designed for power, and the fingers are designed for sensitivity, precision, and refined control. So don’t try to get a big sound. In fact, even if a finger isn’t yet strong enough to produce any sound, just put the key down with minimum effort. Don’t force anything—you will gain strength within a short time.

Mom’s Recipe

I’m not a grandma yet, but I am a mom. So we could call my method for training your fingers to rest on the keys “Mom’s Recipe for a Tension-Free Hand.” Here is what you do:

1. Play one note with minimum effort.

2. Say “check,” to yourself, as you remember to check each of the other four fingers to make sure that they are relaxed and resting on the keys.

3. Relax your mind along with your hand. Don’t think about the next note.

4. Repeat these steps for each note you play.

It helps enormously if a teacher guides you through these steps during one or more lessons and catches where little things are obstructing your progress: If your wrist height changes too much, your knuckles collapse, your shoulders hunch or roll forward, or your hand remains in a stretched position longer than necessary, it can hamper the process. And most people need someone else there to catch the times when their focus slips and they fail to notice that a finger is working too hard, is unnaturally curled or straight, or is sticking up in the air.

But if you follow this recipe for ten minutes at a time over the course of a week, playing with one hand at a time, and without playing anything else during that week, you can succeed in changing your habit of raising your fingers above the keys—at least 95% of that habit will be gone, and your hand will work with wonderful new ease and efficiency. Even one or two ten-minute sessions a day can be enough to accomplish this goal in a week’s time.

Of course, there are other factors that come into play—like adjusting the bench to the right height so that you have optimum leverage with your fingers and arm. And aligning your torso and arms for maximum efficiency. But that would take too many paragraphs right now. If you’re interested, you can read all about it in the chapter called “Basic Mechanics” in my book, The Art of Practicing.

What About That Left Thumb?

Aha! You caught it! Yes, my left thumb is momentarily above the keys in this video when my fifth finger is playing the bass notes. That’s because I’m using a particular arm movement to bring out the bass line and to create momentum in negotiating the arpeggios, and the angle of my arm in this movement results in my thumb leaving the surface of the keys. But the thumb is still relaxed, just hanging from my hand instead of sticking out or up.

And That Place Where Your Right Hand Hits Keys from the Air?

That’s something called forearm rotation. Too much to go into here, but basically, in this case, it allows you to momentarily throw your hand to the side, which gives you enough arm power to bring out certain notes in certain kinds of patterns.

It may all sound very complex, and it is. But once you know how the different hand and arm movements work together, and you get used to doing them, it feels simple and natural.

Mindfulness Brings Heartfulness

The word mindfulness may sound very cerebral, and you may think that practicing with this kind of attention to detail will take you away from your heart connection to the music and to your instrument. But the opposite is true.

When we clear our mind and take time to focus on one detail at a time, something magical happens. Our heart opens. We start to develop a new appreciation of each small thing we’re doing and experiencing. Practicing is indeed extremely complicated. But when we slow down and deal with one thing at a time, it becomes a series of simple moments. These moments gradually come together into complete phrases, and finally into a whole piece that has integrity and beauty, and that flows freely and naturally.

An Invitation

I invite you to come home to the natural clarity of your mind and perceptions, and to the natural warmth of your heart, by practicing with mindfulness. Practicing doesn’t have to be a struggle or a chore. If you understand the facts about how your hands work best, you can master the details of using them by slowing down enough to notice their amazing ability to move gracefully and to touch your instrument with ease, sensitivity, and love.

It’s worth the time it takes.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you want to be sure that you’re using your hands just right at the piano, I invite you to arrange a lesson, in person or on Skype, or to contact me for a free consultation.

Q & A of the Month 

I tried sitting more still at the piano as you suggested in your last article, and I don’t see how you can avoid leaning forward. It feels like the music is making me lean forward, and that it’s necessary. How do you manage to not lean? Isn’t it maybe good for some people and not for others? 

This is a really intelligent question, and I appreciate that you’re skeptical. I was skeptical myself for many years, and resisted someone’s advice to change how I use my body at the piano. But then my playing changed, and I found that I could express myself more when I move less.

Using your body this way is something you have to be open to and ready for. There are a number of physical things you have to focus on to make the change work. You need to be aware of the physical feedback from the instrument when you’re upright. There’s an equal and opposite reaction from the piano when you spring forward from your fingertips with your arm. You can feel three contact points—your fingertips, your seat, and your feet—and in between, the energy is flowing back and forth and ricocheting from those points. It takes some guidance to experience this, but there is a diagram in my book, with arrows showing how the different physical forces work.

With everyone I’ve taught who feels they “need” to lean forward, it’s almost always because of a deeply ingrained habit, rather than a real need. The exception is when your hands have to play at an extreme end of the keyboard and you can’t reach the keys without leaning slightly toward them.

How I “manage” to not lean forward is a question that goes quite deep. It’s clear to me that the change in my posture was a direct result of seven years of mindfulness meditation practice. In that practice, you sit upright and still, no matter what is going on inside you emotionally. Storms and waves of passion and panic may all be flooding your system, but you just sit there. You learn to accommodate a lot of energy without reacting so much to it. You actually feel your emotions even more strongly than before, but you get used to handling it all.

This is an amazing discipline for a musician, because our job is to allow powerful musical energy to flow through us to our listeners. The more our habitual reactions are in charge, the less power we have to transmit the music to an audience. If we are bound up in habitual tension, we squeeze some of the life out of the music instead of opening fully to it and giving it to others.

All that said, it doesn’t mean that you have to practice meditation to find this kind of stillness. Doing the kind of mindful listening work I describe in Chapter 10 of my book helps tremendously in gradually changing the habit of overexerting physically. You become more receptive, so you automatically become less active. It’s all about that balance between being active and receptive. Usually we’re overly active and not sufficiently receptive.

Changing your approach definitely requires guidance from a teacher. A movement teacher, such as a teacher of the Alexander Technique or a Feldenkrais teacher, can be extremely helpful. A qualified piano teacher could help you further.

It’s a profound thing to experience, and a big thing to accomplish. I encourage you to keep working in that direction and see what happens. You’re of course welcome to try a lesson on Skype or in person with me, or with another teacher of the Art of Practicing.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

Bounce, Land, Spring, Slide: The Feel of Healthy Technique

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in October 2013. It contains a video.)

I am passionate about piano technique. Great technique feels like play—free, comfortable, and easy. Natural. From what I have heard, this idea applies to technique for all instruments. And it’s essential for fearless performing.

When students first learn to do something effortlessly with their instrument, they often say, “It feels like I’m not doing anything.” They can’t quite comprehend that it takes so little physical effort to have power and expressiveness in playing or singing.

At the same time, the mental effort required to learn a new technical approach can be considerable. In fact, often, when I ask a student how a new hand or arm movement feels, they say, “I can’t tell. I’m just concentrating so hard.” Then maybe after another minute, the coordination starts to come more easily and they begin to perceive that the new movement is physically much easier—lighter, freer, and more comfortable.

Here is a one-minute video showing some of the arm movements that I teach. The first clip, taken by my student Barry at one of his lessons, shows my hands demonstrating the movements for a few bars of Bach’s Little Prelude in C minor. The second clip shows my former student Amy using these basic movements, in combination with other arm movements, in her performance of the Gavotte from Bach’s French Suite in G at the wonderful recital she gave in New York before moving back to the west coast.

Notice the verbs I use in the minilesson to describe these movements: bounce, land, spring. And in addition, you can see that my hands are also sliding—forward and back on the keys, in and out of the keyboard. When Amy combines all of these movements in her performance, along with a few other ones, she is clearly enjoying herself. In fact, if you look closely, she even smiles once for a second.

That’s because these movements feel good, especially when music is flowing through your body. It is supposed to feel good to play your instrument, or to sing.

So Why Do People Complain About Practicing?

Practicing becomes drudgery when we lose the sense of play. Let’s look at three of the reasons that we lose this sense of play.

First, many musicians have not learned a completely efficient physical approach to their instrument. There is a tremendous amount of information to absorb in order to master the body mechanics of any instrument, and it can be difficult to find someone who can teach you all of it.

Although natural technique looks simple and effortless, it is also endlessly complex. I am always learning more about it. For instance, the sliding motion you see my hands make in this video is something I wasn’t aware of doing until a few years ago, when I was demonstrating at the piano for a student and he said, “You’re sliding!” Wow. What a great discovery.

I’ve since realized that sliding is often part of the natural follow-through that happens when your arm is moving freely. It’s similar to a tennis player’s arm continuing to move forward after the ball has left the racket.

Many teachers are so natural in their physical approach that they are similarly unaware of some of the details of what they are doing. Teaching is a tremendous opportunity for us to discover essential facts about how we play and to transmit them to others.

The Mindset

A second reason we lose the sense of play in practicing is that we think practicing is supposed to be hard. People say that it is, and we aren’t taught that it doesn’t have to be. So we push our bodies and minds, and practicing starts to feel unpleasant.

Real discipline isn’t about pushing ourselves. It’s about learning to continually let go of pushing ourselves and finding ways to do things comfortably and naturally.

This doesn’t mean that we never get frustrated. But if we monitor our frustration—if we are aware of it—we have the option of stopping what we’re doing, taking a moment to relax our mind and body, and then taking a fresh start. This is one of the essentials of productive practicing.

Losing Touch

The other reason I’d like to mention now for why we lose the sense of play in our practicing is that, to different degrees, we tend to be out of touch with our bodies. We go through our daily lives consumed with worries, stress, and all kinds of mental distractions. We often have to relearn how to feel our own feelings and sensations, the way we could as young children.

One of the great benefits of studying an instrument is that, if you have a good teacher, you gradually become more aware of how your body feels in general. You learn to sense emotional and kinesthetic experience more keenly in your body, because you have to—in order to access musical energy and channel it into your instrument. Each movement of your playing mechanism connects you to an awareness of your whole body—how it is positioned, how the parts work together, and how the visceral experience of the music affects the mechanics of playing.

To learn the complex movements involved in making music, we need to watch and listen to someone play in addition to hearing or reading about the physical details of playing. We are creatures of sensation and sensory perception, and we instinctively absorb the lessons of touch and movement by seeing and hearing these things in action.

Developing an awareness of your body in making music can also be aided by many other physical experiences—disciplines such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, Body-Mind Centering, yoga, Dalcroze eurhythmics, and dance, as well as such healing modalities as Rosen Method body work, chakra work, meditation, and 5Rhythms, are some of a great variety of methods now available to help all of us become more vibrantly engaged in music and in our lives.

Go For It

I encourage you to explore your potential to let go of limiting physical habits in playing your instrument and to learn to move freely and easily in making music. When you notice during practicing that your body is not happy, just stop. Take a minute to breathe and relax. Then take a fresh look at the passage you are practicing, and see if you can make it easier somehow.

In my experience, there is always a way.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are wondering about how to play a particular passage more easily and are ready to receive help, I invite you to show me the problem on Skype or in person at a sample lesson.

Q & A of the Month
I’m recovering from a playing-related injury and sometimes get very discouraged. Things get better, and then worse again, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to really play. Is it typical for the recovery to go like this?

Setbacks are common with all kinds of injuries, including playing-related ones. It can take great patience sometimes, especially if you’ve had the injury for a long time. The longer you’ve had an injury, the longer it can take to heal.

The field of Performing Arts Medicine is still relatively new, and health professionals, as well as instrumental teachers, are learning new things all the time. No one can say what a particular musician’s course of recovery will be like. Generally, an injured musician needs a team of people. These definitely include an instrumental teacher who has experience helping musicians recover from injuries, and may also include a physician, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, or some kind of bodywork professional, such as a Feldenkrais practitioner. What matters most is that you remain true to yourself during the whole process, following your own intelligence each day.

So many factors combine in developing an injury and in recovering from one. Sometimes you just need to take time to feel your discouragement so that your emotions don’t get bottled up inside you. At other times, you might need to explore a new kind of bodywork or physical therapy. One of the most important factors is your trust in the people you choose to work with. Trust brings relaxation, both physical and mental. Some musicians have found psychotherapy very beneficial in recovering from an injury. Just having someone to talk to and to explore whatever psychological issues might come up can bring a deep sense of relief and relaxation and have a transformative effect.

Finally, as with other great challenges in life, we have to come to terms with the mystery in whatever situation we find ourselves in. We have to accept the fact that we can’t know or control things as much as we might like, and to learn to relax about that. This is the spiritual aspect of dealing with fear—the fear of not realizing our dreams, not fulfilling ourselves as musicians or artists or human beings. There’s a lot of magic in learning to accept what we can’t control. It’s an opportunity to open the heart and become a bigger artist and person. It’s the opposite of being so driven by ambition that our muscles actually tighten. Many injuries are directly related to this kind of excessive ambition and tension.

I wish I could give you a clear idea of what to expect on your journey of recovery. But your journey is unique to you, and it will bring you unexpected discoveries and rewards. It’s important to keep in mind that many musicians have enjoyable careers even if they don’t recover 100% from an injury. They still perform, but maybe they have to be a little more careful than other people about how they warm up or cool down after practicing or performing. Having an injury gives you a keen awareness of your body and what it needs at different times.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

Handling Your Vulnerability as an Artist

Dear subscribers to Fearless Performing e-zine,

I’m delighted to share again Nora Krohn’s article “Handling Your Vulnerability as an Artist,” first published in Fearless Performing E-zine in August 2014.

Nora is currently completing her first book, You Already Are: A Musician’s Notes on Overcoming Fear and Waking Up to Love. 

Enjoy her article!

Warmly,
Madeline

by Nora Krohn

A few years out of school, I happened to meet a prominent and well-connected freelance violinist. She was several years older than I was, very skilled and street-smart, and I asked her to lunch so that I could glean some useful career advice from her. After some pleasant small talk, I got to the pressing question: “How can I get more work in New York?”

She sighed, thought for a moment, and gave me the names of a few people to call. But she warned me that I wasn’t likely to get anywhere by asking other people for help—I just had to stick it out somehow until people got to know me. At the end of our meal, I thanked her and asked if she had any parting words of counsel. She looked me squarely in the face and said, “Just remember, no one is your friend. Act confident, and don’t open up to anyone. Go in every day with your armor on.” I was incredulous. I told her I thought there must be a way to avoid succumbing to such bitterness. “Nora, you can’t go around saying things like that,” she retorted, “People are going to think you’re some sort of princess.”

Vulnerability as a Liability

Although I was devastated by my colleague’s cynical admonition, I knew that her attitude must be concealing great pain, and I could relate. I’d often wondered if I was just too sensitive to handle the demands of being a performer—competition, scrutiny, and rejection all made me fall apart. When I was a child, music had been a refuge, but over time the emotional vulnerability that defined my relationship with it began to seem like a serious liability, and I strove to bury it under hard-bitten perfectionism.

I had always been attentive and diligent, but after hearing my colleague’s sobering advice, I became more cautious than ever. In some ways this strategy paid off—I arrived at every gig thoroughly prepared and developed a reputation for being reliable and hardworking. I projected cheerful confidence, was easy to get along with, and made everyone laugh. Slowly but surely, I started eking out a meager living as a violist.

Since my strategies for armoring myself against feeling or showing any vulnerability seemed to be working, I was afraid to give them up even though the space to be myself was eroding all around me. I couldn’t have fun playing anymore, because all of my effort was directed toward masking imperfections. I was convinced that if anyone knew how I really felt, or how I really played when I wasn’t trying to conceal all my rough edges, my career would be over. Eventually, I gave up on doing anything meaningful or positive with my talents, I just wanted to be utterly unobjectionable.

When I finally decided to check out Madeline Bruser’s summer program on Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance in 2013, I was well on my way to a freelance career in New York. So although I was desperate for something about my attitude toward performing to change, I was also terrified of facing how I felt. 

Vulnerability as an Asset

When I first arrived at the program, I still wanted to believe that I wouldn’t have to own up to my feelings. But the professional veneer I’d fabricated quickly imploded as other participants began to describe their deepest longings and self-doubts. I was stunned. I had never heard another musician admit to feeling vulnerable in such a public situation. But shock soon gave way to profound admiration for their courage and unvarnished generosity in speaking out. At last I’d found a place where I felt at home being honest with myself about what was really going on inside my head and heart.

The relief of recognition offered me a crucial sense of safety amongst utter strangers. I decided to honor other participants’ candor by being honest about my own struggle. Allowing myself to be exposed in the music workshops was even harder, because I couldn’t rely on my verbal eloquence to smooth over the embarrassment of feeling not in command of my instrument or of my state of mind as a performer. Through it all, my fellow participants responded not with repulsion, as I had expected, but with gratitude, respect, and tenderness. Learning to be honest with myself and my audience was hugely affirming, and I began to play with more depth and authority than ever before.

I learned something important that week: that openness to the full spectrum of our experience is the starting point for compelling and mature musicianship. Suffering and joy are equally endemic to the human condition, and sharing the full range of our emotions with our audiences, through our presence and through the music we make, is not a selfish act, but a generous one. If we allow our fear to shut down that generous impulse—whether or not we admit it to ourselves—we can’t express ourselves freely. I went deep into the notion of vulnerability as an asset in the ensuing year, with serious trepidation. But the results were substantial: I felt more contentment, I found the courage to perform as a soloist, and I won my first orchestra job. I wrote an article clothed in honesty that was read by thousands of people.

I was eager to return to the program this summer, pining for a refreshing boost of clarity and affirmation.

Losing My Way

Of course, expectations can be dangerous. My experience the year before had been fruitful, and I craved more of it, so I took a big step into my vulnerability in one of our discussion groups. My candid display of emotion moved many people, and some of them thanked me. But I wasn’t sure how some of the others felt. I thought they seemed put off by what I had to say, or that they didn’t understand it.  And that thought, coupled with my embarrassment, sent me back into feeling unfit for the act of performing. I knew my expression had been sincere, but I began to hate myself for being so dramatic and emotional, and for failing to feel the joy that others were feeling as performers.

I buckled under the confusion: In the previous year I’d clung to the mantra that vulnerability inevitably led to insight and empathy, but now I found myself being swallowed up by self-judgment for being so vulnerable in front of other people. Unsure of what to do, I tried to remain open to my feelings in spite of others’ apparent incomprehension, and to expose my tender heart through my playing. More affirming words came from many people, but in my fog of estrangement, I couldn’t take them in. I became very worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep it together for the recital at the end of the week.

Taking Shelter in Self-Compassion

Then one day, unable to face practicing, I went for a walk. I found a bench under a tree, sat down, and looked up through the leaves. A bolt of intuition flashed through my mind: in my longing to share myself with others, I had gone too far this time in laying myself bare. And what I needed now, instead of more self-exposure, was shelter for my tender, vulnerable heart. That simple realization shifted my entire inner landscape from panic to ease. I stopped seeing my sensitivity as a creeping liability or an onerous burden. Instead, I saw it as a gift that should be handled with wisdom and care.

Once I gave myself this space, I was free to express my feelings with greater poise. I performed with much more confidence in the final workshop and felt comfortable enough to perform on the recital. In fact, a few minutes before I went onstage to play the first movement of the E-flat major Brahms Sonata, I thought of it as a love song to myself, and an offering to the audience that we all be a little gentler with ourselves in our painful moments. I played with assurance and forgave the imperfections. Afterwards I felt enormous pride that I’d had the courage to be so kind to myself.

Respecting Your Vulnerability

I learned from these experiences that our vulnerability is indeed our greatest gift to our audience, but that because it is so precious, we need to develop great skill in handling it. If you value your vulnerability as an artist and person and are curious about how to work with it in a healthy way, here are some ideas:

1. Start by asking yourself how you feel about the idea of being vulnerable. Be honest about what you have to lose or gain from letting your guard down.

2. Experiment with feeling vulnerable in your practicing. Feel your desire to honor and embody the music, coupled with the inherent uncertainty of how it will all come out. Notice if anything in your body or mind shifts, and how it affects your playing.

3. If you feel ready, experiment lightly with feeling that vulnerability in rehearsal or performance, even for a few moments.

4. Seek out friends or colleagues who you can open up to, and share your experience with them.

5. If you’re feeling so raw and exposed that it’s impairing your ability to function as an artist, allow yourself to back away from your feelings until you feel safe again. Your artistry is important, but nothing is more important than your safety and well-being.

6. Regardless of where you are in the process of opening up to your true feelings, appreciate yourself for having them, and for having the courage to share yourself with your audience. Know that we all learn by trial and error how to be skillful with our vulnerability, and that simply burying it will not help you develop the artistic and human abilities you need for communicating powerfully with others.

7. Share and celebrate your discoveries and successes on your journey with people you know and trust. Be receptive to their encouragement and understanding.

At our post-concert party that night one of the participants gave each of us a precious homemade gift of a hand-painted Ukrainian Easter egg. One egg stood out to me: a deep blue background overlaid with chains of red and white hearts. Blooming out of the hearts were delicate red flowers, their faces opened to the sky.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.19.53 PMThis delicate and beautiful work of art reminded me that all of us have been blessed with a delicate and beautiful gift for appreciating the joy and sorrow of life, and that it is this gift that defines us as artists and as human beings. Here is my humble advice: treat your gift as you would treat that egg. Share it with others who can admire its heartrending beauty and the simple goodness underneath, but keep it safe.

And know above all that it belongs to you.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

When I was in my 20s I had a little stage fright, but I thought it would get better as I gained more performing experience. Now, 20 years later, my stage fright has gotten so bad that I sometimes take beta blockers before performing. Why would it get worse instead of better? And what advice do you have?

I’ve talked to other performers who have had the same experience.

Although not everyone experiences what you describe, it’s important to understand that the fear of performing goes very deep. As deep as the human heart. In my experience, and from what others tell me, when we’re really growing as people, we become more aware of our feelings, including our fears, the older we get. Also, as your career develops, you may feel you have more at stake, which could make your fear increase.

When fear or other feelings surface in a strong way, it’s an opportunity to address them as we haven’t before. It may not be fun, but as you work your way through your feelings, you can become stronger and feel less overwhelmed by them.

When we’re young we can’t know what it will be like to be older. I often think of how I really have no idea how my life will be even a year from now. So 20 years is a very long time.

You know, we typically start studying an instrument at a young age, and all we know is that we love it, that it brings us joy, or that it provides a special space where we can express our feelings. Then we find out how much work it takes to really play well, to master the instrument and really know music. And then we find out what performing is like—whether it’s exhilarating or terrifying or a combination of the two. We just can’t know all of these things ahead of time. We can’t see our future clearly.

Because the desire to perform comes from a very deep place in ourselves, becoming comfortable with it requires that we get to know ourselves as well as we can. We can spend our whole life getting to know who we are in greater depth. And life changes us in unpredictable ways. So it’s important for a performer to have at least one wise person they can talk to—whether it’s a teacher, a therapist, or a friend or relative. So many of the issues around performing go back to our childhoods, and it an be like an archeological dig to get to the root of certain fears and other feelings, so that we can rise above our fears and attain true confidence.

The good news is that you don’t have to stop performing to continue on your inner journey. In fact, each performance provides valuable feedback on how you’re doing. No one has it 100% together. We’re all learning all the time.

If you haven’t seen my article On Taking Drugs for Stage Fright, it would be good to read it now. I’ve seen many performers go off of beta blockers, but it’s something you have to be ready to work toward. When people are ready, and they have the right guidance and support, they can triumph over stage fright and transform it into fearlessness.

Also, I strongly encourage you to check out the API Live Online Workshops. We work with these issues a lot in these sessions using practical mental and musical techniques. It’s helped everyone so much. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about these workshops.

Madeline Bruser

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