(This article has been edited from its original publication on January 25, 2013.)
At the beginning of this new year, many of us have made commitments to ourselves, motivated and inspired by the idea that even in the midst of great upheaval in the world around us, we can let go of past behaviors, face diverse challenges, and take a step forward in our life. As we often do after celebrating the winter holidays and perhaps taking time off from work, we open our minds to tackling new projects and accomplishing new things, and many of us are inspired to make a difference in the lives of others.
Because we have all experienced disappointments in the past and feel uncertain about the future, this current time of renewed energy is vitally important. We need to remember that our lives are always full of possibilities, and that we can do a lot toward realizing our dreams and fulfilling our life’s purpose.
In reflecting on this time of inspiration, challenge, and commitment, I’ve thought a lot about what it takes to commit ourselves to something new. No matter how motivated we may be, we can never know exactly what we’re actually getting into. Whether it’s a marriage, a career path, studying a musical instrument, or speaking out in a more public way than we have before, we’re entering unknown territory, armed only with our passion, our curiosity, and whatever facts and support we can gather.
It takes courage.
We all need the examples of other brave people to encourage us in our own journey into unknown territory. Many of the people I’ve drawn encouragement from are great leaders and others who have overcome enormous obstacles, like Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou, But often, ordinary people in ordinary work and life situations, have inspired me too. These ordinary people can be easier for us to relate to than major historic figures. When we look at their simpler, less spectacular acts of courage, we can understand what courage is and what it feels like, and appreciate ourselves for our own bravery in life. This appreciation of ourselves can go a long way in energizing us to continue our pursuits, leading us to accomplish more of what we long to accomplish.
An Example of Ordinary Courage
About 15 years ago I was inspired by a young pianist who signed up for a workshop series I was teaching. I’ll call him Alan.
Alan took this series on natural piano technique hoping to recover from a playing-related injury. He knew that if he didn’t recover, he couldn’t keep playing—his performing career, like that of so many injured musicians, would come to an early end. So with no way of knowing what the series would be like, or if it would help him recover, he broke through his initial resistance and registered for the five weeks of workshops and private lessons. It was a leap of faith.
After years of rigorous conservatory training, Alan was shocked when I asked him and the other workshop participants to practice no more than 10 minutes at a time, with only one hand at a time, during the first week of the series. Checking every little movement his fingers made seemed bizarre to him—he had to play so slowly that he had no experience of making any music, or of really playing the instrument. It was completely different from anything he’d ever done or ever heard of. But as he felt his hands gradually becoming more relaxed at the piano, he began to—somewhat—trust this new approach.
The Moment of Crisis
Everything went pretty well until around the middle of the five weeks, when Alan realized during a workshop that he could neither remember how to play the old way nor reliably play the new way. He felt completely unsure of himself and of where he was headed. He said he felt confused and scared, and he started to cry.
But as he heard encouraging words about his progress from me and from the other participants, he began to calm down. And as he saw the others improve while going through the same process that he was going through, he felt somewhat reassured. Finally, because he knew he couldn’t go back to his old way of playing, he felt he had no choice but to continue.
Gradually, Alan became more familiar with the new approach, and it started to feel more comfortable and reliable. By the end of the series, he had fully recovered from his injury and was playing freely, though slowly. Within a few more weeks, he gained speed as well.
Alan’s leap of faith, coupled with five weeks of brave and dedicated perseverance, had brought him to the victory he’d hoped for. In addition to recovering from his injury, he had acquired a new piano technique that would prevent him from being injured again, and that enabled him to play more freely and expressively than before.
What We Can Learn from Alan
I tell this story because it illustrates what it’s like to really keep a commitment to our own growth or to anything that’s important to us. No matter what joy or good intentions we might start out with in any big endeavor—whether it’s taking our technique to a new level, getting married, or taking on a cause that’s bigger than ourselves—there will inevitably be times of great challenge, times when we may question if we have what it takes to see it through and to really succeed. While we can relax with the knowledge that we’re always growing, we can never know exactly what we’re growing into, how much work it will take, or what it will feel like to actually make a desired change.
We can learn a lot from Alan’s experience. If you’re facing a time of change and growth and you know that many challenges lie ahead of you, here are some things from Alan’s experience, and from my own, that you can remember on your journey.
1. Trust your motivation to change and keep it in mind.
2. Know that fear is inevitable when entering unknown territory.
3. Know that you contain the seeds of the growth and change you want to accomplish.
4. Appreciate yourself for having the inspiration to commit to change.
5. Seek out companions or allies on your journey, or reassurance from friends who have overcome obstacles in their efforts to make important changes in their work or life.
6. Find a guide, or guides, in the form of a teacher, mentor, or even a book, to keep you on course and informed of your progress.
7. Trust your own intelligence as you work with your guides.
8. Appreciate that in feeling afraid yet moving forward anyway, you are being brave. Take time to extend warmth to yourself as you appreciate your own bravery.
9. Realize that this bravery is making you a stronger person for future challenges you will face, perhaps including performing onstage.
10. Focus on the progress you’re making—maybe write down the small steps and signs along the way. Return to your allies and guides for support.
11. Celebrate successes.
12. Remember to relax and breathe all along the way, balancing being serious about your goal with taking pleasure in simple things around you in your daily life. Nourish yourself regularly with joyful and beautiful experiences.
What API Can Offer You
If you need support on your musical journey this coming year, The Art of Practicing Institute is happy to offer you these wonderful options:
1. A private session with me or one of our faculty members, in person or online
To help you play with greater expressive freedom. You can begin to release tension, recover from an injury, or free yourself from stage fright.
2. Our inspiring Online Video Groups
Join this fantastic community of musicians in five countries for our live sessions twice each month, including meditative practices, discussion, and music workshops.
3. Our amazing weeklong summer program:
Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians
July 22 – 29, 2017
This is a tremendous opportunity to receive guidance and support in a non-competitive environment. An extraordinary program offering challenges and solutions that bring lasting improvement and enrichment.
4. A free consultation with me
To help you decide what option is best for you —in person, on the phone, or online.
Like you, I have made commitments to myself for this coming year. They include helping more musicians discover and fulfill their deepest expressive potential. I’ve had the great good fortune to discover that my own potential was far greater than I realized. My primary interest now is to pass on what I know to you, my fellow musicians.
I wish you much joy and success.
Q&A of the Month
I’m curious about your own experience with some of the mindfulness techniques you teach. How did you discover these, and what was it like when you first tried them?
Wow. That’s a big question! But actually, learning the first one, mindfulness meditation, helped me discover the other two.
I discovered meditation through friends who were doing it. They weren’t musicians, but I sensed something about them that made me want to try it. They had a way of really listening in conversations, and they seemed to have a deep understanding of how their own minds worked. It was this quality of presence and depth that first drew me in—I wanted to experience more of that in myself. But then, when I actually tried meditation, I didn’t connect with it, so I didn’t continue after the first two days. It was only a year later, when I’d played an unsuccessful audition, that something told me meditation could help me become more relaxed and confident about performing. From that second time of trying it, I’ve stayed with it—which has been for 35 years. It immediately felt like coming home—to relax to a level that I had never experienced before. But many people find it much more challenging the first time, and then get used to it and find it transformative.
The second technique, body and sound awareness, just came naturally to me over the course of my experience with meditation. Meditation makes you much more aware of what you’re perceiving. So sounds and sensations became more vivid—which was a revelation during my practicing. Music opened up before my eyes, and ears, without much effort on my part. I soon saw that I could lead other musicians toward that kind of awareness even if they didn’t meditate, by working directly with their experience with their instruments.
The Performing Beyond Fear Exercise came to me from a spiritual practice I’ve done for many years, in the buddhist and Shambhala traditions, in which we take a few minutes to reflect on our lineage—the teachers who have passed down the tradition of meditation. Because remembering them has great personal meaning, it opened my heart easily. I wanted musicians to have something similar, so I translated it into their terms. I also added the idea of reflecting on two other fundamentally important things that put us immediately in touch with the energy of our heart, our communicative power. When I first had this kind of experience myself it was pretty mind-blowing. An intense energy became available to me right away, which opened up all of my communication with other people enormously.
I invite you to learn all of these potent techniques, and more, at the API summer program, in a tremendously welcoming, non-competitive environment that has changed the lives of many musicians.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.