Training the Mind of Confidence

Dear readers of Fearless Performing E-zine,

I wrote this article four years ago when my heart had broken open at the thought of my daughter eventually moving away from home. Now she’s actually doing it, moving 3,000 miles away to go to the art college of her dreams, and the message of heartbrokenness as a source of human power and confidence feels even stronger to me.

As you read the article, I hope you will reflect on moments in your own life that have opened your heart to the breaking point and that you will gain a clearer idea of how the intense heart energy that is within you can strengthen and support you in your journey as a performer and person.

Warmly,
Madeline

_______________________

Training the Mind of Confidence

(Originally published July, 2012)

I recently took my daughter to the airport, to see her off to Colorado, where she was visiting a friend. Although I had taken her to the airport several times, this was the first time that I didn’t accompany her all the way to the gate; I said goodbye at the security line, and she went through security without me. She got herself to the plane on her own. Immediately, the thought came: Not too long from now she’ll be leaving us forever—leaving home, to live her own separate life. Tears came. Was it that long ago that we flew with her to California for the first time, when she was just a year old, and she got scared looking out the window seeing how far away the ground was? Will the 18 years of having her as this amazing guest in our home really be over not too long from now?

I sat by a window and watched planes come and go, waiting for hers to take off. My love for my daughter, the joy of being her mother, and the sadness of knowing she’ll be gone in a few years, filled me up and left me uninterested in reading the book I had brought with me. I was just a person with a heart, sitting there and feeling it.

The Golden Key

I tell this simple story because this experience, of feeling our heart, is an essential and often overlooked step in gaining confidence in ourselves, both as human beings and as performers. Although this soft, tender place in us may seem unrelated to the dazzling confidence we see in a great performer, it is, in fact, the very essence of our communicative power. When we believe in the power of an open heart, with all its vulnerability, and we treat our heart with care and intelligence, it becomes stronger. We can then harness its power so that it radiates and shines. It takes courage, but when the heart’s power shines full force, its magnetism is unrivaled. And confidence is just there.

How We Lose Power

Because we often don’t believe that this soft place in ourselves contains great power, we  don’t pay attention to it during practicing. We sometimes ignore our heart and catch ourselves going through the motions of practicing without letting ourselves respond deeply to all the sounds we’re making. Or we practice like machines, repeating passages joylessly to ensure as much technical perfection as possible. Or we find ourselves struggling to make an emotional connection to the music—trying too hard to express ourselves or to bring out certain notes, or certain qualities, in a phrase or piece. And for many of us, voices in our head sometimes tell us to hurry up and push ourselves, which makes us tense and inhibits musical flow.

Such practicing does the opposite of what we need for gaining confidence in performance. It trains us to lose touch with who we are—with the humanness that connects us to music and to other people. It derails us from our communicative power, preventing us from developing conviction and confidence in what we have to offer.

Beyond the Music and the Moves

Practicing is a process of getting familiar with a piece and with the movements we use to play it. We need to develop physical ease—to be comfortable in our body, to feel that our body knows the piece and that we can rely on that. We also need to know it with our ears—to hear it clearly and thoroughly, and to respond to those sounds internally and to become familiar with that emotional content of the music and how it’s organized. These are daunting demands in themselves.

But we also need to train the mind for performance—to help it become strong and reliable. So many musicians, who have trained themselves to master a piece, say that they nevertheless lack mental strength to feel confident onstage.

Gaining Access to the Power

The key is to use the mind to pay attention to the heart. Then both our mind and our heart will get stronger, and we will be more ready for that vulnerable moment when we’re facing an audience.

In previous articles, I mentioned the benefits of connecting with the heart—in relaxing about making mistakes, in knowing your limitations, and in letting go of struggle and discovering simplicity. I will also soon be offering an audio exercise online for developing communicative power and confidence in performance. Here, in this article, I offer you a simple and far-reaching method for connecting to the heart at any time, in any situation. If you make a daily practice of opening up in this way, it can have great impact on the music you make.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Let’s say you’re caught up in practicing and getting frustrated. Or your mind keeps wandering, losing focus.

Just pick a thought to reflect on for a minute—something that touches your heart and reminds you of what really matters in life. It could be something like the story I related about taking my daughter to the airport—something that easily brings up feelings of love, joy, or sadness. It could be taking a moment to appreciate the opportunity you have to make music—to remember that not everyone has this opportunity. Or you could reflect on a sad story you read about in the news or on something sad that happened to a friend.

I recommend trying it right now. Just stop and close your eyes for a minute, and reflect on something that touches your heart. Notice what happens inside you.

Most people say they feel a warmth inside of them from doing this simple exercise. This is because the exercise goes straight to the point—it gets you where you live.

Experiment

How does this lead to confidence in performance?

I encourage you to experiment. Try it every day, for a few weeks or months, and see what happens. Do it before you practice your instrument. Try it again when you lose focus. Do it anytime during the day when you want to get off the fast track, recharge, and remember what really matters in your life. It will help you see your practicing as a golden opportunity to connect to yourself. And it will connect you to music on a new level.

We definitely need to learn the music and the moves as well as possible, and to develop great coordination and a great ear. But in addition, the more heart we bring to our daily practicing, the more prepared we will be for our moment in the spotlight, when our heart is beating louder than usual. As we get more familiar with feeling tender and vulnerable, we gradually become comfortable with this experience and are less thrown by it onstage. And all of our warmth and openness will infuse our performance and communicate to our audience.

This is confidence in performance.

I invite you to send in any questions or comments you might have about this rich and rewarding process.

And I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to feel your confidence soar, we still have one space open in The Art of Practicing Institute’s transformative summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance. I invite you to dive in and discover who you are as a musician on a whole new level. Let it change your life!

Q&A of the Month

I’ve found the mindfulness techniques in The Art of Practicing very rewarding and enjoyable, and I’m sorry that I can’t attend your summer program until next year. I feel that this approach will definitely improve my playing in the long run. However, I don’t know how this approach can work when I have to learn or memorize music quickly to meet professional demands. I’m in the middle of working toward my master’s degree in violin performance, and I want to play music because I love it and not just because I want to succeed, but it seems like the people who have the most freedom to eschew the traditional model of musical “success” (winning competitions, selling concert tickets, and getting good reviews) are those who have already achieved that kind of success and are ready to move on to something more fulfilling. I’m actually less concerned about fear while performing, and more concerned that my desire to share something I love won’t come across because of technical details. What are your thoughts on how conventional success at competitions and other judged performances play into a joyful and generous approach to music-making? I don’t feel comfortable approaching the beginning of my career having completely turned away from tangible achievements that I can put on a resume. 

Thank you for this wonderful question. First of all, professional musicians need to acquire a reliable instrumental technique when they’re young. I’ve been told that by age 30, all the technique you acquire will be completely natural, and after that, you can still acquire a lot of technique but it won’t be quite as natural. So in your teens and 20s, it’s normal to be focusing a lot on developing your technique.

At the same time, the sooner you can also begin to train your mind and heart in your practicing, the more efficient your practicing will be, including all the work you do to improve your technique. So practicing mindfulness meditation, even for 10 minutes a day, can gradually open and sharpen your awareness of the endless details involved with practicing and bring your technique to a more refined level.

Meeting professional deadlines is a necessary skill in itself. But often, to meet a deadline, we end up doing less than our best work simply because there isn’t enough time. Mindfulness practice can strengthen your intuitive intelligence, which can help you choose which deadlines to go for and which not to. Everyone I know who has established a regular practice of mindfulness meditation finds that a lot of questions and choices solve themselves, because as their intuition opens up they often just know what to do next.

Mindfulness practice also opens the heart so that you become less hard on yourself and can simply learn from the mistakes you make instead of judging yourself harshly for making a decision that didn’t work out so well. In fact, if you are doing what’s necessary to meet a deadline and are fully aware that you would practice in more depth if you had the time, you can congratulate yourself on taking care of business and then go back to really enjoying your practicing and exploring the music the next time you have the chance. That way you are being conscious and responsible to yourself as well as to your commitments to others. And hopefully, as you continue to grow, more and more of your practicing will be on a satisfying level, so that you can really become the artist you are meant to be.

The basic point of the Art of Practicing is to gradually cultivate your natural intuition, awareness, and sensitivity with music, and those powers tend to spread into the rest of your life. You can really trust the organic process that happens as you follow your intuition more and more. Although you may feel very new to this approach, you can begin to play it by ear with how you practice as you move through the stages of your career.

So go ahead and really focus on developing your technique now, while you really need to. At the same time, if you gradually go deeper into training your mind and heart, not only will your technique benefit from your stronger connection with your body and with your musicality, but your career will benefit from your deepening connection with your artistic and professional desires.

It’s important to realize that your particular journey with music is unique to you. No one can really tell you what to do. So the more you follow your intuition about what to do when, the more your intuition will shine out and come through in your playing, in the form of warmth and brilliance.

I’m glad you’d like to come to the summer program, and I’d be delighted to have you with us next year. During that powerful week you can meet other musicians who get what you’re talking about here, and who long for the same things you do. It is so helpful for all of us to have a community of like-minded people around us, supporting our deepest longings in the middle of the professional demands we face.

Meanwhile, please feel free to stay in touch and to join our Facebook community. And you’re always welcome to set up an online session with me, or with Tal Varon (talvaron@gmail.com) who is an amazing meditation teacher for musicians.

Enjoy your summer!

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

 

 

Nora Krohn on The Raw Wisdom of Anger

Dear subscribers,

It is my pleasure once again to publish a brilliant article by Nora Krohn – her eighth one in the last two years.

This time Nora looks directly at a topic that many of us, musicians and others, have trouble with – our anger. She explains that although anger can definitely be intense and destructive, there are ways to handle with real intelligence so that we actually create a healthier situation for everyone involved, and make better music.

I am particularly delighted that Nora has tackled this fearsome topic so fearlessly. May it benefit everyone who reads it.

With warm wishes,

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

The Raw Wisdom of Anger

by Nora Krohn

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.30.41 PMSeveral weeks ago, as many freelance musicians must do from time to time, I chose to play a gig that really frustrated me. It paid decently, wasn’t that far away, the orchestra sounded great, and the music was wonderful. The problem was the conductor: though he meant well, he had a maddening habit of stopping the orchestra every few seconds to make a correction or insist that the players weren’t following him. He sought to control every detail of the music, forcing the players to render his idiosyncratic interpretation of the piece or risk being called out as incompetent or inattentive.

Not wanting to appear rude or unprofessional, the musicians did the best they could to tamp down their frustration. They laughed it off, tried to stay positive, drifted into their own thoughts, or stopped caring about playing well. I tried to take it in stride at first, but eventually I found myself veering from mere annoyance to fury. In an attempt to buoy my spirits, I ate a whole box of chocolate chip cookies on the way home, but it didn’t help very much!

The worst part was that the conductor genuinely wanted the music to sound good and couldn’t understand how his lack of trust demeaned the musicians and squandered their talent and their sincere desire to make beautiful music together. As grateful as I was for the paycheck, after the second rehearsal I vowed never to play the gig again.

One morning midway through the week I sat down to meditate, feeling irritated at the prospect of enduring yet another rehearsal obeying this conductor’s abrasive commands.

I decided to try a guided meditation on anger. When I began, what I noticed most was a feeling of burning tightness around my throat. As I sat with it as instructed, I slowly felt the sensation move into my upper abdomen, and it started to feel less like anger and more like despair. And that’s when I understood what was fueling the intensity of my anger toward the conductor: I had such a wealth of things to express through the music, but I didn’t feel I had any space to express them. It made me remember lessons where I was so frustrated by my inability to play exquisitely that every critical comment from the teacher just shut me down.

The Root of Anger

Anger is a tricky emotion, and it shows up in many forms for artists: frustration with colleagues, or the way our career is going, or where we are with our playing. When handled badly, anger can be extremely destructive. But while we are often told not to take out our aggression on others directly, many of us haven’t been taught what to do next. And if we feel we must contain our anger or else risk alienating others, we often turn that aggression on ourselves by becoming perfectionists, or developing addictions or depression. Or, we unwittingly take it out on other people through being critical or controlling. Although we may realize that these patterns take a toll, it can be hard to manage them when we don’t acknowledge their source.

However, when anger is handled skillfully, it is energy that can be put to good use. First of all, anger can be a very clear communication about places in our lives that feel out of balance. Recognizing those places can lead to wise action, such as declining to work in conditions where we are being demeaned, or speaking up for ourselves or others in a way that promotes greater sanity and justice, or taking better care of ourselves. At the most basic level, we are angry and frustrated because we care deeply about music and have an intense need to express our truth. Figuring out how to manage this profound need is one of the great challenges of being an artist.

Embracing the Unacceptable

As aggravating as the situation was, my anger toward the controlling conductor was only part of the story. The frustration I felt, when transmuted through my meditation into a longing to communicate, led me to a deeper question: While I felt so stifled by this tyrannical conductor, was I really allowing myself to express everything fully when I did have the chance? In other situations where I had greater creative latitude, did I explode with freedom and expressive power?

While I felt I’d made tremendous progress in this regard, I saw that, strangely, the performing opportunities that offered me the greatest freedom also aroused the greatest apprehension. My fear was that in trying to let truth fly free I would do or say something through my playing that was unacceptable. And there are so many ways to feel unacceptable that are conditioned through our musical training, our upbringing, and our broader culture, that avoiding all of them while trying to be artistically free was impossible. No wonder I felt so frustrated and stuck.

Then I remembered a quote from Tara Brach, one of my favorite meditation teachers: “The limit to what we can accept is the limit of our freedom.”

And I finally saw something I’d been missing: that, far from being a way to prove to everyone how acceptable I was, music was my chance to say and be everything, including, and especially, what I felt was unacceptable.

Plenty of artists feel that their art is truly the only avenue for expressing what they fear is unacceptable; it is the only place they feel free to be fully themselves. But for me, this is such a radical shift that I am still letting myself absorb it. I ask myself, what is it that I most want and fear to say, and is there room for that in my playing? If you’re curious, I invite you to do the same. We owe ourselves, and each other, this measure of freedom.

Nora Krohn

P.S. from Madeline:
Nora will be at The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program this July for the fourth year in a row, this time as an Assistant Teacher. I am very inspired by her and by how enormously her playing and teaching have developed since I first met her. If you don’t know Nora yet, I’d love to introduce you to her at the program. We will all be getting much more familiar with all of the emotions and other ingredients that go into the making of a wonderful performance. If you have any questions about how what happens at this amazing program and how it works, please feel free to contact me. 

Q & A of the Month

My teacher at the conservatory wants me to learn a lot of new repertoire this summer so I can work on it in the fall with him and enter competitions. I’m glad he thinks highly of my ability, but some of the pieces he wants me to learn don’t excite me, and I don’t even know if I’m interested in entering some of these competitions. I’d really like to relax a little from all the pressure of the school year and then focus on practicing pieces I’ve been longing to learn. Do you have any suggestions for how I can handle this situation?

I certainly understand your desire to relax a little in the summer! We all need a change of pace after an intense year of work. And it’s also great that your teacher believes in you and has high hopes for you. Competitions can be great, providing wonderful experience, and winning a prize can do a lot for your confidence – and your resume. But you have to do them when the time is right.

Have you tried talking to your teacher about how you feel, and explaining it in terms of your long term goals? Expressing your appreciation for all he has already done for you would be a good first step. And you could tell him how much it means to you that he thinks you are worthy of these competitions. You might then say that you wish you could keep working at that intense level, but that you’re really tired and need a lighter load right now.

You could also tell him you’re very interested in some of the repertoire he’s suggested, but that you’d like to substitute some different pieces for his other suggestions.

Although some teachers might get upset if their students to disagree with them about what’s best for them, many teachers are genuinely interested in understanding their students’ needs and feelings and know that when a student is truly enthusiastic about learning a piece, they often end up playing it with special feeling, raising their chances of doing well with audiences and competition judges.

It’s important to remember that this is your education, and that you should have a say in it. Teachers are there to serve their students, and if they have different points of view, it’s ideal to talk it through and mutually agree on a compromise that meets both of their wishes.

I personally enjoy listening to what students want and encouraging them to follow their intuition, so that they grow in their own special way and develop increasing trust in themselves and in their ability to direct the course of their own lives.

We’re living in an age in which many people are questioning  conventional ideas about how to lead their lives – including whether or not they should attend college, get married, or work for someone other than themselves. More and more people are looking within themselves for the true answers to what they should do next with their lives, rather than to general guidelines they may have grown up with. Either way, there is no guarantee about where you will end up by following a particular path. So if you take a path that excites you and makes you happy, you are likely to awaken your own mind and feelings on a new level and may discover a whole new territory that no one else has discovered.

Competitions can be helpful for your career, but many people have become discouraged after entering lots of competitions and not getting the results they wanted. I think that just as some high school seniors choose to defer college for a year, you can always defer competitions for a year. A friend of mine cancelled his New York debut years ago because he didn’t feel ready, even though he was already 37. When he played it a year later, an agent noticed his great review in the New York Times and signed him on. He ended up playing at the Kennedy Center and other prestigious places, and making some recordings.

I’ve noticed recently that several successful soloists are taking extended breaks from performing in order to create more balance in their lives. I think this is great news. It’s so healthy to nourish yourself first, and then use that nourishment to make music.

It takes courage to stick to what you feel is right for you, especially since you can’t know where it will lead. But look for support from people who understand how you feel and who can help you understand yourself better.

Thank you for writing, and feel free to write again if you have more questions.

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

 

 

 

What’s Your Emotional Style of Struggle?

Dear Fearless Performing E-zine subscribers,

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fearless Performing E-zine, with the title Three Styles of Struggle. At that time, italy had just published my book, The Art of Practicing, and I really wanted to travel there. By the time you read this, I will actually finally be there, for the first time. My particular emotional style is flourishing.

I hope you enjoy the video and article below!

Warmly,
Madeline

Three Styles of Struggle

by Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

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

Passione d’amore

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

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

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

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

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

Staying on the Ground

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

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

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

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

Sharpening Your Awareness

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

Here are a few guidelines:

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

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

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

Finding Your Heart

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

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

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

Mixing All the Ingredients

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

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

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

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to let go of some of your struggle to make music, I invite you to attend The Art of Practicing Institute’s amazing annual summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance,July 23 – 30. We have just 3 spots open for performing participants, and several for non-performing participants.

Q & A of the Month

Q & A of the Month

I read last month’s article on being ordinary, and I don’t really understand how you can feel ordinary when you have just given such a special performance. Isn’t performing supposed to be such a special thing we do? Aren’t we supposed to feel super special, before, during, and after performing?

Performing is a special situation. It’s an opportunity to share our innermost selves with an audience. Often we don’t even know these people, but here we are opening our heart and giving them everything we have. We’re trusting ourselves and trusting others, and we’re trusting that giving this performance is something worth doing. It takes great strength and courage to do this, because we can never know what will happen in a performance, no matter how well-prepared we might be.

The paradox of performing, which is the paradox of life itself, is that when we take the risk of being completely vulnerable and ordinary, of being nothing special, we expose the most tender part of ourselves—the place where we can easily feel self-doubt, uncertainty, and fear—yet in that very same, vulnerable place, our heart is beating so strongly, and it’s carrying the power of our full aliveness. So being vulnerable is the most powerful thing we can do onstage.

In our culture, we tend to view strong performers as very different from ourselves, as though they are people who don’t feel so vulnerable up there in the spotlight. But in interviewing dozens of performers, and in talking to all the performers I know, I have learned that everyone feels the heat of the spotlight. It’s normal to feel ordinary and vulnerable—to reveal all the things we so often try to cover up when we’re in the presence of other people.

Brené Brown describes this experience in what she calls the vulnerability paradox: “It’s the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me.” It comes down to the fact that we can’t connect to someone if we can’t see that they’re a real person, just as prone to fear and trembling as we are. Often a performer is literally shaking with panic onstage, but the audience doesn’t see it.

Many people get excited about going to a performance by a top-flight musician because they think they will see a human being play perfectly, beyond what is generally considered human. But what we remember most from a great performance is the opposite. We remember a performer for being completely daring onstage, opening his or her heart and holding nothing back. We recognize the power of real humanness—that this person has such an intense desire to communicate and to share their heart with us.

What Tracy described in her article last month is the wide open experience of letting music flow completely freely through you, and also what happens after you’ve opened to that full extent in a performance. You’ve just given everything you have to people, you’ve let it all happen, and when it’s over, you feel the huge power of music and of life itself, and you feel grateful to be part of it. It’s so humbling, and so powerful. That is our potential as human beings—that our genuine, ordinary selves are really powerful.

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

Tracy Stuchbery on The Power of Being Ordinary

Dear Fearless Performing subscribers,

Today I’m delighted to present another wonderful article by Tracy Stuchbery. A brilliant pianist and choral conductor in British Columbia, she writes here about the paradox of giving a great performance – and of truly shining in anything we do: when we are simply our unadorned selves, we connect powerfully to others.A highly experienced and gifted teacher,Tracy is currently training to join the faculty of The Art of Practicing Institute in 2017. She has been a great pleasure to have in my online studio and in our community, and I am excited to see her again at our upcoming summer program.Enjoy her beautiful article!Warmly,Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

The Power of Being Ordinary

By Tracy Stuchbery

A performing experience I had recently as a choral conductor has led me down a path of pondering the ordinary. Strangely enough, the performance itself was, in a word, extraordinary. I have never felt more alive, more in command, more connected to the music in a performance than on that weekend. Yet when all was said and done, I came away with an overwhelming sense of my own very ordinary self.

I am an ordinary person. I came into this world the same way you did; an earthly mother and father, a messy birth.

I am nothing special. I am loved just as you are loved. I have thoughts, ideas and gifts. I am familiar with joy and sorrow.

I am on a journey through life. Along the way I have discovered things that I love and things that I enjoy doing, things that excite me and things that terrify me.

I am a musician. I can remember being small and wanting so badly to take piano lessons like my older sister and brother. I remember how excited and grown up I felt when it was finally my turn to sit on the bench with the teacher, Melissa. I remember the feeling of my feet dangling off the piano bench. I remember opening the bright orange beginner piano book and feeling so proud to learn to recognize and play Middle C. I remember struggling so hard on a piece called “Busy Little Bee” and when I had finally mastered it, announcing to my mother that it was my favorite. I remember her response; “Isn’t it interesting that the piece you struggled the most with is now your favorite?”  I learned something that day about process. I learned that the most fulfilling work we do always involves a struggle.

The choir I direct is called Musaic Vocal Ensemble. I have worked with this choir now for five years. This past December the choir was in fine form, well prepared and poised for its performances. Concert weekend arrived. The music was powerful, moving many to tears, and the audiences at both concerts erupted into a standing ovation. I stood in the middle of that tremendous outpouring of affection and felt grateful and satisfied. The love and delight of the audience as the applause and shouts of “bravo” continued was palpable. Clearly this performance had reached people at a very deep level. Following the performances, comments from the audience and choir members alike were remarkable and heartfelt. “This choir just keeps getting better and better!” “That was stunning!” “Wow! I am going to cry. This is the best choir I have ever heard!” “The concert was a healing experience for me.”  “Your conducting is so inspiring!” My heart soared when I realized that we had succeeded in creating a space in which people could absorb and experience music at its most powerful. It is indeed a noble art form and one that I, like Beethoven, truly believe is capable of changing the world. My heart was full. You might expect that after such an experience I would feel truly great; like I had reached some sort of pinnacle in my career as a conductor. Instead, when I returned home, changed out of my special clothing and washed the make-up off my face, I was overwhelmed with a sense of how very ordinary I am.

Our Main Job as Performers
It seems to me that the primary role of the performer is to create spaciousness; space for the music to come to life and space for the listener to receive it. The performer becomes a vessel for musical expression, spontaneity and receptivity; at once fully in relationship with and separate from the music.

In order for a vessel to be effective it must first be emptied out. This is where the work is. The work of emptying oneself can be painful. It requires us to come face to face with all aspects of ourselves so that we can rid ourselves of those things that are no longer of use and are not life-giving. It is work that a musician is confronted with every time we pick up our instrument. We must make room for the music by recognizing that when our work isn’t going so well, it’s often because we’re caught up in a habitual concept of how the music should sound. We think the phrase should go “this way,” but the phrase fights back. We feel stiff, uncomfortable, or just frustrated. The music doesn’t flow freely. Once we recognize this state of affairs, we need a way of emptying ourselves of our habitual concepts and attitudes about the music.

The most effective tool I have found for the work of emptying myself of habitual concepts and attitudes is the practice of meditation. Seventeen years ago, my husband and I came to a crisis point in our relationship. We had a choice: call it quits or face the pain and dysfunction in the hopes that it would lead us to a new, healthier place. We had three children under the age of four. We were heartbroken to think that this family we had built would crumble. Deep within me was the memory of that young child whose favorite piece was the one she struggled the most to learn. We chose to work hard; to seek counseling; to give each other the space we needed to examine ourselves and our relationship. I remember thinking very clearly that our relationship was over. What we had had was over. What would it become? Neither of us knew. It was during this time that we both committed ourselves to a meditation practice that up until that point we had only dabbled in. As we both learned to let go of our habitual views of ourselves and of each other and live from our core selves, we discovered a deeper relationship than either of us ever could have imagined. Have you ever had an experience where you were able to let go of your expectations and ended up receiving so much more?

Meditation is simply the act of being present in the moment.  No expectations. No judgment. No control. It is a time to observe thoughts, emotions and sensations, without actively pursuing them. It is about opening up to new possibilities and new insights. It is a very refreshing experience to let go and surrender to whatever comes. When I practice it, I find I become more tuned to my own heartbeat, my core and to the very present moment. This serves me well when I am standing on the podium about to give the down beat to the start of a musical journey. I am open, ready to give and to receive.

The Power of Simple Presence
Madeline Bruser writes about presence in this way in her book The Art of Practicing: “Presence is the state of being fully present, of body, mind, heart and sense perceptions being completely engaged with the activity of the present moment. For a performer this means not only being engaged with the music but letting the energy of the audience affect you. In practicing, it means being at ease in your surroundings and being aware of each movement and each sound that you make.”

In practicing presence through any number of meditation techniques, we cultivate a state of balance. We balance the mind and body, ease and effort, giving and receiving, left and right sides of the body, light and dark, ordinary and extraordinary. It is state of freedom in which we can simply be ourselves, let ourselves express ourselves, and feel fully alive. This is what happened in my performance – I opened myself to something bigger than myself and let it move through me.

Try It
Anyone can cultivate their ability to have such experiences by deliberately practicing being present through meditation, and I encourage you to give it a try. There are many places you can go to learn to meditate and books you can read, but the best way I know of is to just sit – for 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes – and simply be. Sit comfortably upright and give your body a chance to catch up with your mind. Breathe. Let go. Rest in your ordinary, human self. Sit long enough to feel a shift in your state of mind – to feel more calm or settled than before.

If you sit simply like this a little each day, It will lead to extraordinary things – in your music making and in your life.

Q & A of the Month

I’ve been using some of your techniques for a couple of years, and I play with a lot less tension now, just from participating in your conference calls and reading your book and articles. My playing is more pure now. But I find that in becoming more aware of sounds and sensations, I’ve had to deconstruct my playing and that I’ve lost fluency in a way. I’ve been putting my playing back together slowly, and I feel like I don’t know how to play now. Do other people experience this? Is it normal?

You’ve described exactly what happens when we enter into a new approach that goes to the root of our particular problems with music. We have to take everything apart and look at things in a new way. After seeing the large picture in a particular way before, we now find ourselves seeing countless small details with completely new eyes and ears. It’s like a whole new dimension opens up.

It’s important to realize that it takes time to make such a genuine change in something as big as making music. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you can work regularly with a teacher of this approach, you can begin to feel settled in it within several weeks. And if you pursue regular study for a couple of years longer, it can become enormously fulfilling. However, it’s fantastic that you’ve made such a wonderful start, and that you see so much benefit even though you haven’t yet arrived at a place of great fulfillment with it.

Practicing is a process of going back and forth between seeing the forest and seeing the trees. And sometimes we even have to look at specific leaves on those trees. Right now, you have become so much more aware of the trees and the leaves that you’ve lost some of your perception of the whole forest. But it will come back. It has to – because the forest is made out of trees.

People who embark on other kinds of transformative journeys – such as bodywork, psychotherapy, meditation, or all kinds of growth experiences that are now available – experience this same kind of thing. Their life as they have know it is dissolving and becoming something different. It’s called growing. Being alive. Really living your life and pursuing the depth of who you are. It can be shocking to discover a whole world of possibilities that you never know existed. But the journey itself, as well as its fruition, are inherent in the seed of your initial desire to change. It’s a very daring and creative experience to listen to that desire and to really go for what you want.

It would be great for you to have more musicians around you who are also experiencing this transition into a new approach. It takes courage to set out on a new path, not knowing where it will lead. It’s always helpful and comforting to hear from others that they are experiencing similar things, and to share your questions, concerns, struggles, and joys along this path.

I am beginning to organize some online group sessions for people to experience this work together and to talk about the process. It’s wonderful and brave of you to do so much on your own, but can be much easier and more fun with a community around you.

Of course, if you can come to our summer program, that is a fantastic opportunity to experience such community face to face. The daily discussion groups, as well as frequent music workshop sessions, allow for great change within a short time. Maybe you could join us this July, or in some summer in the future.

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

Nora Krohn: On Jealousy and True Belonging

Dear subscribers,

Today I’m delighted to bring back Nora Krohn‘s very first article for Fearless Performing, On Jealousy and True Belonging, which circulated to  over 10,000 people in 65 countries. Clearly, this is a popular subject! And clearly, Nora’s words on it meant a lot to a lot of people.

Nora is a rare individual who goes for the gold in herself, no matter what it takes. Since writing this article, she has found so much more of the sense of belonging that she was looking for back then, just by having the courage to be herself. I’ve been privileged to watch her grow enormously as a person, performer, and teacher since that time. She recently co-founded the New York String Studio, where she teaches both violin and viola. This summer, she will join the faculty of The Art of Practicing Institute, as an assistant teacher, at our fourth annual summer program. And if you’re in New York tomorrow night, I recommend catching her faculty recital at Turtle Bay Music School.

I hope you enjoy this great article.

Warmly,

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

On Jealousy and True Belonging

by Nora Krohn

Several years ago I was confiding in a friend, an accomplished cellist, my persistent feelings of self-doubt as a violist. This friend attended one of the top conservatories in the world on full scholarship, went to the best summer festivals, had been a member of an acclaimed chamber ensemble, and was touring and recording with a high-profile artist. Naturally, I felt envious.I told him that I thought that my late start and undistinguished early training had shut me out of the storied institutions where the “real” art must be happening. If only I had gone to a top-notch school, or a major festival, then surely I would feel like an artist, that I had a place in our majestic tradition. “Of course, I’m sure you wouldn’t understand,” I said, “since you’ve been so successful.” I expected him to offer me some cheerful platitudes about my playing and my prospects.

Instead, he shook his head, pointed at his heart and said, “But Nora, I don’t feel like I belong either. I feel like an outsider, too.”

The Myth of Earning Self-Worth
It took me quite a while to find the wisdom in my colleague’s remark. At first, it was too much to fathom, so I disregarded it as his isolated experience. After all, how could my gifted peers suffer from insecurity or dissatisfaction? Didn’t their achievements fill them with enormous self-assurance and joy? I figured once I racked up some more accomplishments I would feel worthy and happy, too. I would know for sure that I had found my rightful place in the world. Why else could I be working so hard?

But it wasn’t so. In the ensuing years I made considerable progress in my playing and my career. But the more I accomplished, and the more real connections I made in the music scene, the more excluded I felt from it. And all the time, I felt envious of my talented colleagues because I imagined their success erased all of their self-doubt and fulfilled their need to belong.

For many of us, it isn’t obvious how to nourish a feeling of belonging, especially if such nourishment hasn’t been modeled for us by our families or teachers. Moreover, the conventional view of being a musician is often framed in terms of zero-sum competition for inclusion, particularly with the emphasis on winning auditions and competitions. The current state of the arts in our economy makes matters even worse—we feel like we need to edge out someone else just to have a space for ourselves. I felt envious of my accomplished colleague because I thought that his success left less room for mine.

The truth is, we are all born with an equal and inalienable right to belong, and if we tune into our most heartfelt desires, we will end up in the right place.

But first we need to let go of some of our habitual ideas about where our worthiness comes from.

Belonging as Your True Self
In the midst of writing this article, I had a painful and revelatory experience. I was passed over for a lucrative and career-boosting gig, and it felt personal. I felt lost for a couple of weeks, and even wondered how I could write something insightful about belonging when I felt so much on the outside. But even amid all of the difficult feelings, I knew there was a powerful lesson for me, and for anyone who struggles with feelings of jealousy and unworthiness.

First of all, I knew I needed help. I sought out friends, family, and colleagues I could trust, explained the situation and how it made me feel. I got a lot of advice, some helpful and some not, but it all gave me a bigger perspective. I saw that my lack of confidence in myself had influenced the situation—people could sense it in me, and they were less drawn to me than to players with more confidence. That realization hurt, but it made me feel like less of a victim.

Next, I spent a long time thinking about the gig itself. What were my motivations for having it? If I really wanted to pursue something similar, how could I do it? I took some long walks and did a lot of sitting meditation, and just let the sadness, anger, and longing flow through me. In the end, I saw that this job I missed out on wouldn’t bring me any closer to my deepest ambitions as a musician. Most of all, I saw that the affirmation of being chosen for the job wouldn’t give me the fulfillment I sought if my heart wasn’t in it.

The Power of Letting Go
I mentally congratulated the colleague who got the job, and, instead of feeling diminished, I felt empowered. I saw how writing this article could help me move past feelings that had kept me stuck for a long time. Once I began to let go of my sadness, new ideas started to flood my system. Projects that had seemed like distant possibilities came to the foreground of my mind, and I took steps toward making them happen. My previously sparse social schedule became filled with coffee dates with artists who I thought could give me advice on how to make my own path. Most of all, I began to see that my vulnerability and self-doubt, which I always thought separated me from other people, were actually powerful forces that connected me to other people who feel the same way.

I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where I’d like to end up as an artist, or how I will get there. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is that when we embrace who we are at heart, we belong exactly where we are in that moment, and that’s a great place to start.

Steps to Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
If you seek a greater sense of belonging in the musical world, here are a few practical suggestions:

1. When a situation arises that brings up feelings of jealousy, disappointment, or longing for fulfillment, allow yourself to feel them instead of pushing them aside or covering them over. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to understanding them and changing your outlook.

2. Explore the origins of your feelings in a gentle and probing way. See if you can own them fully, even though they are painful, and take healthy responsibility for your own reaction to the situation.

3. Know that at the root of your feelings is your natural human vulnerability, which you can celebrate as a way to connect with other people.

4. Seek out the company of people you trust. Just hearing how much they value you as a musician and person can make a big difference. They may also have fresh ideas on your situation that can awaken your own insight about what to do.

5. Take some time to remember why you became a musician, and ask yourself how you can bring your musical activities into alignment with your most genuine aspirations

In just a few days I will be returning to Madeline Bruser’s transformational summer program, “Mindfulness, Confidence, and Performance.” I am looking forward to a week of contemplation, community, and keen, heartfelt musicianship. I’d like to leave you with a story from last year’s program.

In one of our amazing group discussions, I described how I saw the tradition of classical music as a vast, ornate building that I longed to enter but could not. I was drawn to its regal facade but felt that the luminous interior had no room for me. A wise friend in the group then turned to me and said, “What you don’t realize is that you’re already inside—you’re just in a different wing. You’re building your space around you.”

His comment helped me realize that in each performance, each lesson, and each moment, we are all adding our own bricks to that sublime architecture, simply by being alive and making music.

Let’s celebrate its grandeur.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

This idea of practicing being an art confuses me. How do you manage to make it an art when you have to spend so much time repeating the same things over and over to learn them?

Thanks for the great question.

Repetition is a feature in nature, and in all art. But there is a difference from rote repetition, which is mindless and mechanical, and artful repetition, which engages and nourishes the whole person. When we repeat a phrase or passage in practicing, we do so to master it, to make it part of ourselves so that it feels natural. We can do this by enjoying each repetition, so that our body opens up more each time we play or sing it, and so that we feel more and more at home with how we’re moving, what we’re expressing, and what we’re hearing,

Enjoying repetition in such a highly demanding physical, mental, emotional, and sensory activity requires tremendous curiosity. You have to be fascinated with every little detail of how the body works – to notice how the slightest change in how you use your hand, or in how you breathe, alters the quality of touch, movement, and sensation, and alters the musical result. The relationship between you, the music, and your instrument is so intimate that way.

If you get bored with repeating the same passage over and over, you need to ask yourself, “Am I really noticing how my whole body feels when I play this? Am I noticing how every sound affects me? Is there more I want to feel or express? Would I rather look at another passage, phrase, or piece right now? Do I need to take a break?” In other words, are you really engaged or just going through the motions?

It’s easy to go on autopilot with any repetitive activity. We do it all the time in our lives. For example, we easily make the same habitual assumptions in conversations with the same people, and we fail to notice that the person is not exactly the same as in our last conversation with them, and the situation is not exactly the same either. We need to catch ourselves in the act of our habitual behavior – in the act of practicing without an open mind or heart, or without deep physical enjoyment of what we’re doing. And there’s enormous artfulness involved in that – in honing our awareness of these very habits, which do not serve us well.

The core of the Art of Practicing is cultivating this kind of awareness. Constantly noticing if we are fully engaged or not, with each sound, each sensation, each facet of the music. It turns our conventional notion of discipline completely around; instead of pushing ourselves to get better and better, we practice noticing when we’re pushing ourselves too hard, and then applying different techniques to relax and to find an easier, more satisfying way of connecting with our body, the music, and our instrument. So it’s all about mindfulness – about developing greater and greater awareness of our own experience.

In order to make real change happen with practice and performance, you have to take apart what you’ve been doing and really look at it. Really get to know yourself as a musician, and ask yourself if something is missing in your playing or singing. Then you have to look into what that missing ingredient might be. So you have to find a teacher or colleague who can point out things that you may have not been aware of before.

All of us have our blind spots, as people and as musicians. We need each other to point them out, especially when we feel undeveloped or confused or lacking in the kind of confidence we want. Making music is extraordinarily complicated. But if we take the attitude that there is always something more to learn, we can constantly grow and discover new ways of doing things, so that we fulfill our gifts more and more throughout our musical lives.

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

Nora Krohn on Self-Love

Dear subscribers of Fearless Performing E-zine,

I am so glad to welcome another beautiful article from Nora Krohn in today’s issue. It has been a joy and privilege to watch Nora grow as a musician and person, to the point where this coming summer she is joining our faculty.In this seventh article of hers for Fearless Performing, Nora goes right to the heart of the matter in describing how self-love is at the core of confidence onstage.

Enjoy!

Warmly,

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

The Missing Ingredient: Self-Love

by Nora Krohn

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A few days ago I was grudgingly contemplating the prospect of writing a long-overdue post to my blog on the inner life of being a performing musician. I had a collection of unfinished articles that had begun with promising ideas, but then fizzled out once I felt the inspiration wane. After posting my inaugural article “On Jealousy and True Belonging,” in July 2014, I had received thousands of messages from musicians, both friends and strangers, who responded positively to its message about finding a sense of belonging no matter where we are in the world of music. Some of the messages were heartfelt thanks from people who felt my words had reached them at a critical time. Others were full of good-natured advice from older musicians. As I read these kind messages, something struck me about my writing, and it was so obvious I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it: I had been so focused on identifying and grappling with the obstacles to becoming a confident and fulfilled musician, and helping others do the same, that I had completely neglected to honor the immense changes I’ve experienced since writing that first article.

A couple of years ago I was having coffee with a violinist friend, talking about these very obstacles I’ve spent the last few years confronting and chronicling. She recounted something her therapist had said to her: “Artists, especially musicians, are so disciplined and ambitious. You’re always focused on how much farther you have to go up the mountain. When do you stop and admire the view, congratulate yourselves on how much you’ve climbed already?”

The Root of the Problem

When I first began to confront my fear of performing in a more direct way, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the process wasn’t just about changing my practice habits, or refining my technique, or getting more experience as a performer. Instead, it was about a much deeper issue that was directly influencing all of those things: my attitude toward myself. When musicians struggle with major roadblocks to playing and performing the way we want to, our relationship to ourselves is often the last place we look. Usually our musical education is focused on accumulating an intimate knowledge of our instrument and the musical tradition we follow through study with a respected teacher, practice, and performing experience. Through exposure to our teachers’ expertise, exploration with fellow students, and performing, we gain proficiency and confidence. For plenty of people, this model seems to work.

For others, the fear of performing goes beyond garden-variety nerves that can be managed with adequate preparation and experience, and reassuring words from teachers and friends. After years of dedicated study, I eventually realized that my efforts to be a confident and effective performer were just fussing around the edges of a major problem: if I didn’t approve of myself, how could I ever become truly at home giving myself to an audience?

As discouraging as it was to realize how much havoc my attitude toward myself was wreaking on my performing, it was also a relief to understand why after so many years of refining my technique and getting more experience as a performer, I felt no more confident than before.

What Next?

Even after I became aware that self-love was not part of my vocabulary or experience, I had no idea how to change that. I tried meditation, therapy, and affirmations, and It all helped. But the words “self-love” and “self-worth” remained benign yet remote concepts. Then, about a year ago, I encountered a style of meditation called lovingkindness meditation that helped me start chipping away at the self-contempt that undermined my sense of worthiness as a performer. I knew I was on the right track when doing the practice produced a tangible physical and emotional effect—I was starting to experience giving kindness to myself, not just thinking about it. I continued to struggle with my demons, but I felt I had my stronger, kinder, wiser self alongside me.

One night while I was out of town for an orchestra gig, a couple of months after discovering lovingkindness meditation, I tried a practice advocated by one of my favorite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, in which I imagined I had only one year to live, then six months, then one month, then one day, then only one minute, and asked myself how I would wish to spend my remaining time. In doing this powerful practice, I realized that one thing meant far more to me than anything else: Love. And by not loving myself, not only was I hindering myself as a performer, but I was in a very real sense cutting myself off from the most vital source of well-being. When I finally understood how much my feelings of inadequacy had taken from me, it filled me with a sense of urgency and resolve. As my mentor Madeline Bruser writes in her brilliant book, The Art of Practicing, “We have one lifetime in which to express ourselves and connect to others. A performance is in that sense a microcosm of life: We have one chance, and we want to give it everything we have.”

A Resting Place

Last summer, on the day of the closing concert at Madeline Bruser’s summer program, I was walking to lunch by the quiet lake on campus, mulling over my performance later that day and my career in general. I’d had a great week—affirming masterclasses, deep conversations with wonderful, like-minded musicians, and fun rehearsals with the pianist I was working with. During one master class, I remarked, a little bewildered, “For the first time in my life, I feel like nothing is wrong. I have something to say, and you want to hear it, and I’m saying it.” I burst out laughing. Everyone applauded.

Walking around campus that day, enjoying the warmth of the August sunshine, these words came to me: “Whatever I set out to do, I’ve done it.” I knew immediately what it meant—and what it didn’t. It didn’t mean there was no further progress to be made in my playing, or no career ambitions. It simply meant that I could stop trying so hard to meet my own internal standards of being an adequate performer, because I had already met them. Not by practicing harder or getting better gigs, but by learning to approve of myself. And in that moment, something lifted. That night I felt more free and at ease onstage than ever. And in the months since I have found more ease, confidence, and enjoyment than I ever thought possible when I started this journey.

Change is Possible

What helped me enormously was hearing accounts of people, artists and non-artists, who had radically changed their outlook through a consistent practice of cultivating self-approval. I had always looked at confident performers onstage, and thought, “Well, they were just born confident and talented. I’m not like that. I can work twice as hard as anyone and still blow it.” If you often have similar thoughts, know this: lack of confidence as a performer is not a life sentence. Confronting the reasons behind it requires tremendous courage and a persistent discipline of kindness. But my view is that if you are deeply drawn to being a performer, even if you don’t know why, then the greater the obstacles you face, the more you have to gain from meeting them.

Of course, learning to love and approve of ourselves is far from a one-shot deal. Old habits die hard—doubt creeps in before an important performance, envy of our colleagues gets the better of us, self-recrimination for a mistake drowns out the audience’s enthusiastic applause. But just because we are temporarily separated from the wisdom we uncover doesn’t mean it disappears. Self-approval, and organic confidence, are acquired, not inherited traits. And no matter where you are on the path of becoming the performer you want to be, please don’t wait until you’ve summited the mountain to turn around and admire the view gained by your sincere effort, and to appreciate yourself for being willing to work for it. The love you bear for yourself will be the best companion on your climb.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

My daughter is eleven and very serious about the piano. The Art of Practicing seems particularly suited to adults, who have enough sophistication and self-awareness to understand it well. How can it help someone as young as my daughter?

Actually, the Art of Practicing can go a long way in helping a child develop self-awareness, which can be amazing. And the earlier a musician learns a healthy approach to practicing and their instrument, the better off they are.

Between the ages of 10 and 16, the body is growing very fast, but the parts are growing at different rates. Bones might be growing faster than ligaments or muscles, for instance. So it’s a stage where kids can be awkward, and if they aren’t using their body efficiently, they can easily set themselves up for serious technical problems later on. So with the physical approach alone, it’s important to have a strong start.

An eleven year old can also begin to understand that it’s important to treat themselves well during practicing. Rather than having a parent or teacher pressure them into practicing  a certain way or for a certain number of hours every day, if the child learns to trust herself in practicing, to follow her natural interests and intelligence, she will develop a real foundation for lifelong enjoyment and confidence.

Part of the Art of Practicing approach is to draw out the student’s own awareness and perceptions of how they feel and sound when they’re practicing, so that they are not simply blindly following their teacher’s advice. A good teacher will encourage the student to notice all kinds of things about their practicing experience, and to think for themselves in making improvements in their playing. The teacher and the student need to work together in a joyful and creative way to bring out the very best in the student’s physical, mental, and emotional abilities.

People don’t forget their music teachers. If the experience is negative, it can have a long-lasting negative effect on the student’s confidence, and even in their interest in playing altogether. If the experience is positive, it can open up incredible things for them, both musically and personally, for the rest of their life.

Making music is extremely challenging in every way. It is worth taking quite a bit of time to choose an excellent teacher and approach for a student of any age.

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

This e-zine, the summer program, and so many other things would not have been possible without the support of the amazing Board of Directors of The Art of Practicing Institute. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to them all: Chair and Secretary Mary Duncan, Summer Program Administrator Daniel Burdick, Paul Walker, and Amy Lam.

 

 

A Gift from Mary Duncan

Happy Holidays, dear subscribers!

Today I have the special pleasure of introducing Mary Duncan, through her article “The Gift of Deep Listening.”

I met Mary when she attended the 2013 summer program of The Art of Practicing Institute. Since then, she has worked with me regularly on Skype, and she joined our faculty as an Assistant Teacher for the summer programs starting in 2014.

Mary is one of the kindest and dearest people I have ever known. She performs and teaches in Minnesota, where she is warmly received by audiences and well-known for the star performances of her students in local competitions. From the minute I started watching her teach in 2014, I saw that she is a seasoned, special, and brilliant teacher. She has great conviction and is enormously sensitive to her students.

Mary’s article here is deeply personal and intimate, telling her own experience of one of the listening techniques I teach. I find her description of it very touching, much like music itself. And I am grateful for her generosity in sharing it here.

I hope you enjoy it.

Warmly,

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

The Gift of Deep Listening 

by Mary Duncan

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 12.47.02 AMI began studying piano with Madeline Bruser over two years ago. During that time I’ve worked hard and faced my fears and limitations, and have also discovered my joy, radiance, and brilliance as well. Today when I sit at the piano and play, I feel so different from when I first began the journey. I feel confident in my abilities, and much more relaxed. I listen with bigger ears. And I feel I understand the meaning of every note I play, and that I can translate that meaning into beautiful sound. My teaching has changed profoundly as well. I can appeal to each individual student’s desire to make music, and I can lead them forward according to their own perceptions of their playing.

In the light of these changes, it was interesting to recently discover some journal notes I wrote two years ago about this Art of Practicing process. The notes were titled, “What do I notice when I listen to myself play the piano?” They revealed something deep and elemental about this process. I offer them humbly as a holiday gift to you.

Christmas Day, 2013: 
I had a lesson with Madeline Bruser yesterday, Christmas Eve, at 11 a.m. I played the Ocean Etude by Chopin, after practicing it the way she had asked me to in the weeks previous – singing the right hand part while playing the left hand part, and vice versa. After she heard it, she said I still needed to sound like I was really enjoying the music. So she gave me a new assignment for deep listening – something she describes in her book, The Art of Practicing. She said I had to immerse myself, bathe myself, in the sounds I was playing. This means proceeding note by note, with the damper pedal held as indicated in the score, going extremely slowly, and letting every sound wash through me, filling my body from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, letting it enter my heart and noticing how it all felt. Madeline had said that this listening technique would enable me to know the music at the cellular level, so I could really play from the heart.

Because it was Christmas Eve, and I had family celebrations in the afternoon and evening, it wasn’t until the next day, Christmas Day, that I had a chance to try this deep listening. But before I sat down to practice, while the light was still good, I went outside to shovel some snow and to walk. Out in the parking lot, with no traffic, no students, and the adjacent business closed, I was aware that I was alone on a Christmas Day. I longed, right then, for a close companion, so I asked the Divine to be my companion, and to go for a walk with me. I headed across the parking lot and walked down a quiet country road through the woods for 45 minutes, sometimes feeling a sense of close Divine companionship, and sometimes forgetting all about it.

When I got back home, I turned on National Public Radio and heard a piece on All Things Considered about ETA Hoffmann, the original author of the story of the Nutcracker. As a representative of the German Romantic school of literature, Hoffman often tried to explain how music affects us – he tried using words to explain the inexplicable. The radio show described how he had tried to explain Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, writing the very first review of this amazing work without ever hearing it, working only from the score.

I found that story inspiring, and soon after hearing it I finally I sat down at the piano to try the deep listening technique.

Here is what I noticed:

Within about 20 minutes of practicing this way, my body became very calm, and I felt physically touched by the music. A sensation of melting started first in my ears and proceeded to my heart area, where I experienced a dropping sensation. That led to a sensation behind my eyes that was almost like the feeling that comes before weeping. This sensation occurred every time I played a new sonority. And whenever I got to that point, I knew I had listened long enough. Then I was ready to move on to the next one.

In the process, I noticed new things about the harmonic writing of these pieces. Both composers chose a range of chord tones in the accompaniment that created a specific tonal impact: sometimes it struck me as dense, but mostly it felt transparent, with enough space between harmony tones for each note to have individual impact within the chord. And I realized that as I was listening to these harmonies pile up with the pedal engaged, my fingers seemed automatically capable of effortlessly voicing each harmony, which created a warm, shimmering effect.

Because this exercise was such a rich, personal, and powerful experience, I wondered if it were an answer to the request I’d made of the Divine to be my companion. The experience felt so private, as though I could never explain it or share it with anyone else. But now I wonder, If I can’t share it in words, can I share it in my playing?  Is this what Madeline means by playing “from the heart?”

Three Gifts

So, on that Christmas Day, that lonely Christmas Day, two years ago, I received three gifts. The gift I gave myself – the time and space to practice deep listening, the gift Madeline gave me – how to practice deep listening so that I could enjoy my music more, and the gift of being visited by the Divine, through sound.

I invite you to try this kind of deep listening yourself and see what gifts you receive.

With warm holiday wishes,

Mary Duncan

 

A New Voice: Tracy Stuchbery

This month I am delighted to introduce a special musician in the The Art of Practicing Institute community, Tracy Stuchbery. Tracy came to our summer program this year from Penticton, British Columbia, where she is on the piano faculty of the Penticton Academy of Music. She performs regularly as a piano soloist, accompanist, and choral conductor.

Tracy’s short article is designed to give you a fresh perspective on our approach to practice and performance—the perspective of a fine musician for whom the Art of Practicing is a new experience. I have tremendous admiration for Tracy, who has really taken these teachings to heart and has absorbed an enormous amount in a short time.

Tracy is currently training with me to become an assistant teacher at our summer program. She has a deep understanding of both music and human nature, and it has been an honor and pleasure to work with her. I hope you enjoy her beautiful article.

And I wish all of you a joyous Thanksgiving holiday!

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

Dissonance and Tenderness

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by Tracy Stuchbery

Every piano sold should come with the following warning sign. “Caution: Practicing Piano May Lead to Deep Insight.”

There is a popular poster in many elementary schools and libraries, titled: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Perhaps you have seen it? Share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, clean up your mess, etc. For years now I have been contemplating writing my own take on that poster and calling it: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned Sitting at the Piano.”

The more I practice, the more I perform, the more I study, and the more I teach, the more I have new and ever deepening insights. These insights are rooted in a physical awareness that invariably points to a deeper human truth. An example of this would be my recent experiences practicing the Chopin Nocturne in D flat, op.27 No.2.

Chopin’s music is achingly beautiful to me. The word “tenderness” comes to mind when I try to describe its unique quality. In working on this particular Nocturne, I’ve been practicing singing the left hand, without playing it. Those of you who are familiar with the piece will understand what a challenge this poses! You have to repeatedly transpose the octave and make leaps that, while incredibly pianistic, pose a considerable challenge to the voice. It’s remarkable how difficult it is to hear each note well enough to vocalize it, while on the piano, it’s very easy to play the notes without actually hearing them.

Once I have found the notes with my voice for a measure or two of the left hand, I then sing that part while playing the right hand. I rest on each note until I feel deeply connected to the sound and can clearly hear the relationship between the two lines. It’s slow work, but I feel like I am luxuriating in each sound.

This practice is one of many illuminating instructions that Madeline Bruser outlines in her teaching and in her book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart. Working with the Nocturne in this way, I was surprised to discover a huge number of dissonances in the piece. I wondered, how could a piece of such beauty contain so much dissonance? And how is it possible that we can listen to this piece, play this piece, and be so moved by its beauty without fully appreciating the sheer number of dissonances in any given measure? The contrast of these dissonances with the many consonant harmonies must be what creates the aching tenderness in this music.

Take a moment to reflect on some of the most tender and beautiful moments of your life, moments that have taken your breath away. Falling in love, the birth of a child, the wedding of a dear friend or relative, the gathering of family around the bedside of a dying loved one, the splendor of a Maple tree in October. Each of these events evokes tenderness, because it highlights the impermanence of life. Each of these events contains both longing and fulfillment, darkness and light. And it’s the balancing of the two that brings that aching, tender beauty.

If we consider that the dissonances in Chopin’s Nocturne resonate with pain and death, and that the consonances resonate with joy and life, then this music can reveal to us that dying is hidden within living. Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer of the 20th century, describe this as a “hidden wholeness.” And educator Parker J. Palmer elaborated on Merton’s concept: “In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of ‘hidden wholeness.’” This was my discovery in Chopin’s Nocturne—a great truth concealed in the music, waiting for me to discover it.

When I play this Nocturne now, fully aware of both the dissonance and consonance it contains, I feel I’m participating in this great paradox, of death hidden in life, which brings a powerful sense of wholeness that sustains life in me and in the world around me. And the music is more achingly beautiful than ever.

I invite you to contemplate what insight might be hiding in the music you’re working on right now. If you’re a pianist, you could try the singing technique described above. Or if you play another instrument and are practicing chamber music, try singing the part of another instrument that goes with it.

Be prepared for a revelation.

Tracy Stuchbery

Q & A of the Month

I have a new piano teacher who has helped me a lot by giving me finger exercises to strengthen certain muscles—especially those near the pinky finger. As a result my sound, facility, rhythm, etc.are all becoming much more assured. I know that you are generally not in favor of such exercises, but I don’t know if I could have gotten to where I am now without these exercises. How do you recommend achieving hand strength?

If you enjoy doing finger exercises, I see no problem. But I recommend doing them in a musical and enjoyable way.

It’s important to use each part of your body the way it is designed to be used. Your fingers are designed for precision, sensitivity, and refined control. And finger strength comes from moving your fingers a lot, which you can do in all kinds of pieces. But if you try to force your fingers to get strong, by playing loudly, it’s easy to overwork and to lose the sensitivity that the fingers are designed for. Since the arm is designed for power, you need to combine finger movement with appropriate arm movements to get power.

I have never come across finger exercises that are musical and enjoyable. What I do recommend are pieces like Chopin etudes, which are great compositions. Or if the etudes are too difficult, you could try working on the Chopin preludes, or on pieces like Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. These all provide excellent training in finger dexterity, strength, and speed, and the music is great.

Also, when you are learning any difficult passage in a piece of music, you need to take it apart and analyze exactly what and where the technical issues are. Often, when I take a close look at a tricky passage and try different technical approaches, I stumble on a solution by trial and error. And typically, the answer lies in some novel combination of finger and arm movement.

And sometimes when a passage feels awkward in the right hand, when I really examine it, I discover that it’s the left hand that isn’t working ideally. Once the left hand issues are straightened out, the right hand coordination can suddenly become smooth.

In my experience, piano music is loaded with all kinds of athletic demands and complicated technical problems. Simply by repeating a passage enough to acquire the ease you want, your fingers will get stronger and more dextrous.

What really counts is how curious and creative you are about technique—about solving problems and training your hand to do more and more intricate things. If you are truly fascinated by the process, you will end up repeating things so many times that your hands will get great training anyway. And instead of the repetition being boring, it will be full of interesting new discoveries. It will be fun.

If you find that doing finger exercises is really interesting and enjoyable, you will experience a kind of vitality that can feed your entire musical and creative experience during practicing, in addition to strengthening your fingers. But for me, such vitality is greatly increased by the joy of practicing real music.

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

 

Why I Teach

by Madeline Bruser

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.

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 17 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 magnificent traditions, of Western classical music and Eastern meditation, into an approach to practice and performance that has helped many people. When a musician who has been struggling for years to find an easier way to play her instrument suddenly discovers it right in front of me, I feel wonderful, warm energy spread through my body. She may not be as desperately in need of help with her playing as Flavio and his family were in need of help with their basic material existence. She may not be suffering from debilitating stage fright or from a practice-related injury. She may in fact already be quite accomplished on her instrument and enjoy performing. But she may also wonder if she could play better – if she could come closer to the kind of playing she admires in the greatest performers, those rare few who somehow shine brighter onstage than others do.

The first time this musician works with me she 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, her playing suddenly flows more easily than before. At the same time, ease and confidence in practice and performance develop and deepen a lot over time, and if she goes further with this new approach, she may actually begin to live in the new world of possibilities she discovered when she first tried it. When that happens, I feel an enormous sense of 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.

Whether you are an amateur or a professional, if you’re ready to open the door to new musical possibilities for yourself, I invite you to set up a free consultation with me, in person or on Skype. I’d love to hear about your particular dream as a musician, and to talk with you about how you could make that dream a reality.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you don’t live in or near New York but would like to take me up on my invitation, consultations and lessons on Skype – or Zoom or FaceTime – are very effective. Several pianists, and other musicians, have been working with me online for a long time. So don’t let distance stop you!

 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 Fearless Performing.

Passion, Pleasure, and Perfectionism

by Madeline Bruser

The music building at Indiana University was locked on Sunday mornings when I was a student. But of course we had to get in to practice! We were passionate, dedicated musicians! So we figured out a way. The building had a back door that could only be pushed opened from the inside with a metal bar. Once you left through that door, there was no handle or lever on the outside to get back in. So every Saturday night, one of us put a big piece of tape at the bottom of the door, going from the inside to the outside. On Sunday morning, all we had to do was lift the tape and pull the door open. The practice rooms were ours!

We took much glee in this activity, because we were standing up for ourselves as devoted, aspiring musicians. Nothing could stop us! And I am still proud to belong to this particular tribe of human beings – we have such deep love and thirst for our art, and we value our gifts and are committed to fulfilling them. All of this is wonderful and inspiring. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being altogether, with this built-in power we call our life force. This life force makes us want to keep growing and to connect with other people. We want to connect with the music people have written and with the people in our audience. And we know it takes a lot of practice on our instruments to make that connection happen, so we are deeply motivated to get into the practice room.

Appreciating Your Nature

It’s essential that you appreciate your own life force – this wonderful human energy at your core. It is your basic nature as a human being – you are alive and you want to connect with other people, with music, and with the entire sensory world. The more you can appreciate yourself on this fundamental level, the more you can release your life force so that it can work for you to create beautiful and fulfilling connections with music and with others.

Take a moment now to reflect on this amazing life power that you have within you. Can you feel it? If you can’t, is there something or someone you can think about – maybe a piece of music you love – that ignites your life energy? Stay with it for a moment. Recognize that this is your power. And realize that it’s always available to you.

How We Get Off Track

As wonderful and essential as this passionate energy is, we often get carried away with it when it comes to working with the seductive and demanding details in a piece of music. With our big appetite for musical beauty, we can easily get drawn into one pleasurable detail of a single morsel of beautiful music to the point where we become extreme perfectionists. We start pushing hard to have every note exactly in its place, at exactly the right time and volume, and with the perfect tone quality in relation to all the others. When you consider that a single piece of music can have many thousands of notes, this is pretty much expecting the impossible of ourselves. And yet we long for the impossible and often shoot for it at all costs. In fact, a lot of musicians’ injuries come from pushing hard for a perfect performance.

Finding Humility

A couple of years ago I attended a wonderful performance by a well-known string quartet in New York. The program included one of the profound late Beethoven quartets, and they played it magnificently. Since I knew one of the quartet members, whose playing really moved me, I went up to him after the concert and told him how amazed I was that they could play such profound music so extremely well. His response was the epitome of honesty and humility: “You always feel defeated.”

I’ve thought about his words many times since then. I don’t know about the “always” part, but I’ve often reflected on the fact that some of the best things in life, some of our deepest desires, pretty much guarantee a lot of failures mixed in with the celebrations and victories. You want a great marriage? Get ready for a lot of pain, missteps, and confusion alongside the joys and ecstasies, as you travel this amazingly rich and crazy path. You want to be a parent? Get ready for one of the toughest yet most deeply fulfilling journeys of your life. You want to play a great musical masterpiece? Expect to come up against your limitations over and over again, as you try to meet the mind of the genius who wrote it and to do justice to this powerful work of art. And if you actually make it to the peak of one musical mountain, expect that another mountain will appear after that one right in front of you .

But you can enjoy a great view from up there!

And in fact, you don’t have to wait till you reach the peak of Mount Everest to enjoy the view. Whatever journey you’re on, you can always look around and celebrate where you are, what you see, and how far you’ve come.

Relaxing with Perfectionism

The fact is that there is a constant succession of beautiful views available to us throughout the challenging journey of practicing a piece of music. Every sound and sensation offers us pleasure and delight all along the way. And the real secret of bringing your best to a piece of music is to learn how to take in all those pleasures and delights constantly throughout your practicing, to fully enjoy them regardless of your high standards for the end result. You can actually relax with your perfectionism not by giving up your desire to be great and to master the piece, but by continually shifting your focus from the glorious high goal to the gorgeous landscape that is always presenting itself. In other words, you can give your best to a piece of music by letting the music give you its best to you all the time.

How exactly do you do that?

Step 1: Appreciate Your Perfectionism AND the Twists and Turns

When my particular journey as a mother began and I started reading parenting books, once of the first helpful ideas I came across is that gifted children are typically perfectionists. Seeing early on that our daughter is gifted in many ways, we have tried to help her appreciate her beautiful high standards yet also to relax with projects she loves, and to develop a sense of humor about how things are going. She has gradually come to understand that creative projects take time and that there is an organic process to each one. Getting into that process – getting curious about the whole journey of creating something, no matter how confusing or frustrating it can sometimes be – is what makes the project enjoyable and rewarding all the way through. It can be endlessly fascinating, and we can learn so much from it. Being an artist, making art, is about so much more than the finished painting or performance that other people get to see or hear. It’s about reveling in the entire amazing, deeply human experience of making something with your own hands and with your whole heart.

So stop for a moment and reflect on your gifts as a musician, and appreciate that your high standards and your longing to master your instrument and the music you love are a beautiful and powerful expressions of your life force and of your devotion to music.

Then, see if you can you remember a time when you were striving hard in one particular direction toward a particular technical or musical goal in your practicing and you somehow suddenly stumbled on a completely different and unexpected new way of getting closer to that goal? I remember times, for instance, when I felt increasingly frustrated with how my hands felt in a tough passage and then suddenly noticed something about the musical texture of the passage that inspired a whole new solution to the technical problem. I’ve always found such experiences of sudden insight in practicing to be exciting and inspiring, And they happen all the time in teaching too, when I’m trying different approaches to a musical or pianistic puzzle and suddenly find the missing piece.

Step 2. Enjoy Your Desire for More

The fuel we can rely on for such creative work is our perpetual desire for more – we always want more beauty, more joy, more self-expression. It’s important to realize that just feeling that desire is a pleasure in itself. The passion to make music, to get intimate with it by using our own body to make the sounds we love and to experience all these sounds moving through our system, is such a great gift in itself. Feeling that much love for music is a gift even apart from actually playing or singing it.

So while you are busy practicing, stop for just a moment to feel your beautiful, raw desire to make music. Can you feel it? This, again, is your life force running through you – the energy of communication and connection. Appreciate and enjoy this delicious power in yourself. It will open up more in response to your attention and its energy will help you make that connection in a bigger way.

Step 3. Practice Feeling More by Doing Less

Once you have connected with your life energy in this way, take a bath in some sounds and sensations. Pick a place you love in a piece you’re working on, drop your agenda, and just notice how it feels to make and hear a single sound, and then a series of sounds at a luxuriously slow pace.

Whether it’s your fingers or your mouth or both that are contacting your instrument, feel the sensations of touch and movement, and notice how they expand throughout your body. Notice how the resonance of each sound adds to that physical sensation, and how all of the sensations of sound, touch, and movement combine to create the musical bath that you are in.

If you find yourself enjoying this slow-motion, sensuous process but you start worrying that you won’t accomplish enough this way, challenge yourself a little. See if you can indulge in your bath just a little longer. Doesn’t it feel good to let those sounds melt into you? Don’t you want more of that?

It may be hard to relax your focus on goals and deadlines and to allow yourself this kind of pleasure in your everyday work with music. But continually making this choice to thoroughly enjoy this sensuous experience is very necessary – because for all of us, and especially for musicians, music is an essential food. The more you try practicing this way, the more you will want to continue it. And the more you continue, the more you’ll have to give when it’s time to perform. The best performers are those who revel in the sounds they/re making when they practice. Because they have filled themselves to overflowing with the beauty and joy of music, they bring a musical feast to their audience.

Here’s an Example

Let’s say you’re approaching a particular phrase with the aim of making every note shine as brilliantly as possible, so you try to make the brightest sound you can with each note or chord. But, surprise! The phrase doesn’t cooperate with your intention! It seems to have a mind of its own! You become frustrated and tense, and maybe you even start berating yourself for not getting the result you want, which only locks up your energy even more and drains your joy even further.

But if you can let go of your concept of the phrase and take a fresh look at it, stopping to notice exactly how each sound creates a different beautiful effect inside your body, and then notice how your body wants to move in playing the phrase, you might discover that the real brilliance you were aiming for comes from the range of exciting contrasts you end up creating by letting each sound speak to you and flow naturally through you and your instrument. Your playing can spontaneously become more vibrant as you respond to what you’re feeling, and the real power and beauty of the phrase can suddenly reveal itself.

How Will I Get Any Speed That Way?

If you have a deadline and are worried about getting the music up to speed, you may not have a lot of time to indulge in this kind of slow and creative practicing. So just do it a little every day, as much as you feel you have time for. Gradually, as you get used to taking a bath in sounds, your ears will get better at taking them in, and your body will become accustomed to moving more freely and spontaneously in response to inner sensations. You will gradually be able to handle more speed while still feeling exquisitely receptive to sounds and sensations.

What About the Negative Voices in Your Head?

It can be hard to allow yourself this much freedom and pleasure in practicing if you’ve received a lot of negative messages about yourself and your music making. Because the demands on musicians are so extreme, requiring such a high level of functioning of our body, mind, emotions, and sense perceptions, they can not only drive us crazy sometimes, but they can freak out people around us.

Everyone – parents, teachers, colleagues, audition judges, and others – seems susceptible to the doubts and fears that can arise when we even think about trying to meet such huge demands, and one of the most common reactions to these doubts and fears is to panic and dish out destructive criticism. Parents and teachers may push us too hard and lose patience even when we’re trying our best to do well. Colleagues may take out their insecurities on us by indulging in nasty or bullying behavior toward us. Judges at competitions may make unkind remarks to contestants. Some judges even attack each other for having different opinions about who should win the competition and why. In this extraordinarily competitive environment, is it any wonder that so many musicians are terrified to perform without taking a beta blocker?

Because making music is both so demanding and so intimate an activity, we shouldn’t underestimate our need for strong support when we’re growing up and trying to become the musician we’re meant to be. If you still feel the effects of someone being insensitive or mean to you around your music making – if their negative comments still appear in your head and get in the way of your practicing and performing – seek out the kind of positive feedback and genuine understanding that you really need. The right music teacher, psychotherapist, or friend can make a huge difference in tipping the scales toward a healthy enjoyment of practice and performance by helping you gain genuine self-respect and self-appreciation.

I Invite You to Join Our New Online Community!

Having a whole community of people like this can be even better. Surrounding yourself with other people who are on the same journey and who understand the challenges you’re facing can provide tremendous relief and encouragement. For that reason, I invite you to participate in the online community of The Art of Practicing Institute by joining our new Facebook group! Here you can connect with musicians who have already delved deeply into a lot of the ideas in this e-zine and in my book, The Art of Practicing. These are wonderful human beings who are either on our faculty or have actually worked with us in private lessons and in our summer program. And we already have a lot of new members who want to connect with them and with people like you. So please check us out and feel free to post whatever thoughts, feelings, doubts, fears, questions, or concerns you might want to share about this huge, human endeavor we call making music. We’ve been there. We get it. And we’d love to have you with us.

I look forward to seeing your posts. We all have so much to gain from sharing our experience and from knowing that others are in the same beautiful, scary, amazing boat along with us.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are in the New York area on Sunday, October 18, I’d love to see you at my seminar and demonstration lesson on The Art of Practicing: Unleashing Musicians’ Communicative Power at the Grinberg Classical Salon Series. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

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 next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.