When You Judge Your Self-Worth by How You Perform

by Madeline Bruser

When I was 27, I traveled from California to Warsaw to play in the International Chopin Competition. Although I didn’t get past the first round, I played pretty well and learned important things about myself and my performing. It was also my first trip to Europe, and I met some great people and had many wonderful experiences. After leaving Warsaw, I spent five exciting days in London. It was a memorable two weeks.

But when I got back home and visited my parents for dinner, they didn’t ask about my trip. After sitting there in shock for a while, I finally asked them why, and my mother said, “We know it must have been a painful experience for you, and we didn’t want to make you talk about it.” It was as though the only thing they could imagine that would matter to me was if I had won a prize—if I had received external validation as a pianist and could use that to advance my career. I tried to tell them that I’d actually had a great time and benefitted from the experience, but they seemed unable to hear it. I felt sad and disappointed that I couldn’t share my experience with them.

My parents meant well, and they had invested a lot, both emotionally and financially, in my musical education since I was five years old. They knew I’d worked hard, and they wanted me to be happy and successful. But they didn’t realize that they had given me something more important than my musical education: a basic belief in the value of my own heart and mind, regardless of whether society recognizes who I am.

Our Achievement-Oriented Culture

We live in an achievement-oriented culture, and like most of us, my parents were caught in it. In addition to overestimating my abilities, they didn’t see that they, and my teachers, had already ignited in me a sense of internal recognition of who I was as a musician. My confidence was not shattered when I didn’t place in the competition. Rather, the experience gave me a clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses, which eventually led me to see that my particular path in the world did not fit the mold of the international star performer—not only because of how any judges or audiences reacted, but because of my own sense of not quite belonging in that place in the world.

Breaking Through

It was also part of a series of audition experiences that led me to seek greater wisdom and training, through mindfulness meditation, which resulted in a major breakthrough in my playing and teaching, and in my writing a book that has helped many musicians. Back then, neither my parents nor I could have imagined this wonderful fruition in my career.

Focusing Inward

We each have our own story, and I know from experience that winning a competition can feel great. Feedback from the world can mean a lot to us and can to guide us on our journey. But we also need a flame of inner wisdom to help light the way—to help us understand exactly how to interpret the feedback we get, and what to do about it.

Whether you are cut out for a major performing career or a less visible one, if you have felt continually frustrated in pursuing it, it can be helpful to look deeply into the root causes of the roadblocks you’re encountering. On the surface, you might see a hopeless picture for yourself. But there is always a deeper level of wisdom that you can gain about how your life is unfolding and how you can improve your situation.

Such wisdom may come from exploring technique and musicianship with a new teacher, or from exploring the territory of your own mind. These days there are many approaches to understanding and strengthening the mind, and pursuits like psychotherapy and meditation can be utterly transformative.

So much depends on how you habitually perceive yourself, your playing, and your possibilities, and on whether or not you can open your perceptions to include greater possibilities. Regardless of the fact that the world may not provide many opportunities to perform, it is up to you to create a fulfilling life and career.

The Roots of Our Confusion

Success as a musician comes from putting together so many things—including excellent  technique and musicianship and authentic confidence onstage, as well as an understanding of the nuts and bolts of crafting a career or running a business. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the psychological causes of failure and success.

Something happens to us growing up in this achievement-oriented culture that skews our idea of what personal and career fulfillment are about. Instead of focusing on gaining more confidence and insight through all of our experiences and on growing as an artist and person, we think things like, “If only I could win a major competition, I’d have plenty of concerts and could relax.” Or, “If I could just land a well-paying orchestra job, I could stop worrying about making a living.” Or, “If I could get onto the faculty of a good music school, I’d have the kind of students I want and could eventually get tenure.”

Goals like these can be inspiring. But in aiming for such outward success, we may fail to see a larger picture. We may not realize that the pressure and seduction of all those concert dates might adversely affect our playing or our personal life. Or that the orchestral job might end up draining our energy when a new conductor takes over and we aren’t happy playing his way. Or that politics and budget problems at the music school might become difficult and threaten our position there.

Performance-Based Self-Esteem in the Family

The roots of our confusion often go back to our childhoods. Many talented musicians grow up receiving a lot of attention for being gifted but not for being who they are as people. When parents and teachers focus narrowly on a child’s talent, they can become blind to the child’s need for human understanding and for unconditional love—a love that accommodates both their successes and their failures, their strengths and their weaknesses, their shining stage presence and their doubts and fears.

We often forget that although talented people may have extraordinary abilities, they are ordinary human beings like everyone else: They’re vulnerable. They need love, support, compassion, and wisdom to develop the courage to express themselves in the world.

Generally, we understand that ignoring a child’s talent and her longing for music lessons can damage her confidence and her chances for success. But making too big a deal out of a child’s talent can also have unfortunate consequences. Many highly accomplished musicians did not receive enough love and understanding early in life, and as a result are somewhat lost in their personal lives. I have seen some of them eventually find more of a balance between personal and professional satisfaction, and when they do, their increased joy and freedom come through in their playing, which then garners more positive reactions from their audiences.

We may easily ascribe such an improvement to artistic maturity. But we may forget that the artist in us is fed not only by a deeper knowledge of the score but also by a deeper knowledge of ourselves. As we grow inside, our ability to connect with a composer’s heart and mind also grows.

What Happens If You Cut Yourself Down

Often when a musician grows up in an achievement-oriented family and culture, they view every performance they give as an indicator of their self-worth. If they play up to their own highest standards, they feel great about themselves. If they don’t, they become depressed. “You’re only as good as your last performance,” the saying goes.

They can’t even celebrate a great success onstage for more than a short time before they start worrying about measuring up the next time.

The famous actor Rex Harrison was once asked how many times in his decades-long career he was totally happy with a performance. He immediately replied, “Seventeen.” He had kept track of those stellar moments that he felt most proud of, and he had counted only 17 times—out of the thousands of times he’d been onstage—as his best acting. That is a very small percentage. And I imagine that most fine performers might come up with a similar percentage. No one can be beyond-belief phenomenal very many times. And yet so many of us tend to berate ourselves 99.9 percent of the time for whatever faults we find in our performances.

I remember doing this when I was 25. I had played a duo recital with a wonderful cellist in Berkeley, and it was recorded for radio broadcast. When I heard the tape a few days later, all I could focus on was the five mistakes I heard in my playing. My joy over the concert diminished immediately. But a week or so later, I listened to the tape again and was surprised to discover that I was really happy with my performance. It was warm, expressive, and refined. Whew! Now I could think better of myself. I could be happy again. Clearly, both times I listened to the tape, I was caught in judging my own worth by how well I thought I’d performed.

Self-Worth Is Our Birthright

When we nitpick and suffer like this over our faults, we are unaware of a fundamental fact about our worthiness as human beings: We are worthy to be on this planet simply because we are on it. Nothing we do—no matter how great or how terrible it may be—can alter this fundamental worthiness that we always have. When we forget that we’re worthy—or if we’ve never received the message in the first place—we work against ourselves: Every small mistake makes us shrink and hide. We lose heart, and our life force weakens. Our playing thus becomes less vibrant, so our career possibilities diminish. We create a downward spiral and head toward failure.

The Real Top Prize

It’s great to be ambitious and to have high standards and big goals. But we need to think more about the most important goal: a deeply rewarding life in which we fulfill our true musical and personal potential. If, instead of getting caught in self-denigration every time you meet with an imperfection or failing in your musical endeavors, you choose to learn and grow from your experience, you will create an upward spiral in your playing and career.

How can you do this?

You can start by finding the courage to face painful feelings of embarrassment or shame about things you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Letting yourself fully feel the pain can help it dissolve, and you can come through feeling good about yourself for bravely facing negative emotions and for freeing yourself from them. This can be a truly empowering experience that can add to your confidence as a person and performer.

If you feel you can’t accomplish this kind of inner work on your own, I encourage you to seek support from a trusted friend, coach, or therapist. Life is too short to be spent mired in negativity. We owe it to ourselves to move forward through difficult experiences so we can fulfill our gifts and give them to others. It is always well worth the effort.

As you gain more strength and vitality from working through negative feelings or beliefs about yourself, that new positive energy will come through in your playing and bring you closer to the success you want and deserve.

But What If the World Really Doesn’t See?

It’s true that many wonderful artists, including musicians, just don’t get much recognition for who they are. Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest painters in history, sold only one painting in his lifetime. The magnificent paintings of Vermeer were forgotten for two hundred years after he died, until people recognized their greatness again. And, like that of many other great composers, Beethoven’s music often met with extreme negative reactions from critics, such as the one who said he was “deficient in esthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty.”

It takes a very courageous and confident person indeed to be self-possessed in the face of such blindness or deafness from others

Determination and Openness

How do you know whether your career frustrations are due to your own failings or to the world’s failure to see your excellence? Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it takes great persistence and intelligence to stay with what you’re doing and to question it from many angles.

Research has shown that the single most important factor in success is determination. And very few of the world’s most successful people have made it to the top without going through painful lessons and serious soul-searching. We each have to make sense of our own life, follow our own intuition, and find the help we need from others to navigate the twisting road to genuine success. We have to read the road signs, keep our highest ideals in mind, and not give up when we feel lost or when the going gets rough.

Part of determination is a willingness to continually look deeper for the causes of our frustration—to ask ourselves hard questions about what we truly want, to get advice from those who have already traveled a tough road and succeeded, and to be as open-minded as we can in looking at possible missing pieces in the puzzle of our particular situation.

Some Key Questions

This is a very tall order. For now, here are a few questions to help illuminate your path:

  1. What are your particular gifts or strengths?
  2. How sure are you that your technique is as efficient and reliable as it could be?
  3. How much faith do you have in your ability to make sense out of complicated pieces of music and to play them with conviction?
  4. Do you have a deep confidence in your communicative power as a musician and person that gives you the courage you need to perform under pressure without taking a pill?
  5. If you want to improve in any of the above areas, do you have the support and help you need?
  6. If not, are you willing to look for it, and do you know where to look?

These are big questions, and they may require a lot of thought and bring up many emotions and further questions. But I hope that in formulating your answers you will gain insight into yourself and your musical journey that can lead you away from self-judgment and toward a more courageous and fulfilling musical life

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are ready to really go forward with what  you want as a musician, I invite you to attend the Art of Practicing Insitute’s upcoming summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians, from July 22 to 29. We have room for one more performing participant, and there is also room for non-performing participants, who can opt to work with one of the teachers-in-training. This program provides amazing practical tools for taking your playing to a new level, in the company of a fantastic community of supportive, non-judgmental musicians. Not sure if it’s right for you? Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Q & A of the Month

I’m a conservatory student, and I’m not expecting to make much of a living performing. I know I’ll have to make most of my income from teaching, but I don’t want to just teach little kids. Do you have any advice for how to become successful teaching interesting adults who have some real ability?

The best I can do is to describe my own experience. I taught my first student when I was 19, and at a certain point in my 20’s I realized that since teaching was my main source of income, I needed to learn to enjoy it as much as I could.

First of all, I recommend that you choose a place to live that you feel happy in. I had a few teenage piano students while I was studying at Juilliard, but I officially opened my teaching studio in Berkeley, California, where I’d always wanted to live. I liked the atmosphere of the university community, with intelligent people and interesting activities, and I’d always loved the physical beauty of the place. It was a great choice, because I also had a lot of performing opportunities there. And many of my students were university students, who were quite wonderful.

By making friends with other teachers who referred students to me, advertising on university bulletin boards, and becoming somewhat known as a performer, I was able to attract a variety of fine students. Also, however, since I’m a relaxed and person who genuinely likes people, teaching has always been a natural fit for me.

The real turning point came in my late 20s, when two things happened that really woke me up to the great possibilities for fulfillment that teaching offers. One of these things was reading Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in teaching any subject. Until reading it, I had no idea that every student already comes in with so much wisdom of their own, and that if you talk less and listen more, to their ideas and interests, the whole learning experience becomes creative and exciting. I feel incredibly lucky to be a teacher.

The second thing that revolutionized my teaching experience was discovering mindfulness meditation. Practicing became a shockingly rich and powerful experience, which opened up both my playing and my teaching into a whole new world of musical possibilities. It’s tremendously gratifying to see how beautifully people can really play.

When I moved back to New York at 30, I brought those two new aspects of my teaching with me, and things developed organically, as they continue to do. Giving seminars on the Art of Practicing, and later writing the book, became the beginning of a whole new level of teaching activity.

You have to trust that your particular interests will lead you to the kind of teaching career that suits you. The most important thing is to go as deeply as you can into your musical devotion, and to put artistry and humanness above any commercial focus. Then you will bring something of true value to students, and they will recognize it and want to excel.

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

Nourishing the Roots of Genuine Success

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published April 25, 2014.)

I prepared my Juilliard audition with a family friend in California named Elise Belenky who had studied in Paris long ago with the great pianist Alfred Cortot. For 10 days, I lived in Mrs. Belenky’s house and practiced, and she gave me three lessons a day. At the end of the 10 days, before my parents came to drive me to the airport to fly to New York for the audition, Mrs. Belenky gave me a memorable piece of advice: “When you go to the audition,” she said, “if anyone asks if you’re nervous, say ‘no.’”

On the afternoon of my audition, as I was waiting my turn in the hall, another pianist looked at me and asked, “Are you nervous?” “No,” I said calmly. I went in, played the pieces I’d prepared, and within a few days received the news that I’d been awarded a scholarship to attend the school.

Was I nervous for that audition? Of course I was—because it mattered, and because I’d worked hard. But Mrs. Belenky’s advice was an important lesson in self-respect: precisely because I was vulnerable, I needed to protect that vulnerability with clear boundaries, and to talk about it only with people I knew and trusted. Then I could stay focused on what I had to do: I could channel my vulnerability into the music I loved.

Music Frees Us to Open Up

Sharing our vulnerability through music may feel just as scary as revealing it to a stranger in conversation. But there is a difference: regardless of how competitive or judgmental our listeners might be, we know that music has the power to connect one human heart to another. We know that if we are brave enough to expose our vulnerable heart in a performance, we can succeed with that performance—we can touch our audience.

The Need for a Home

In order to develop such bravery, we need true friends and supporters. We need a place where we feel safe and can receive warmth and encouragement to believe in the power and importance of our vulnerability. A place where we can feel at home.

For some lucky people, that safe, warm place is the home they grew up in, with nurturing parents who loved and appreciated them. Others may travel a long path, through dark and difficult times, to eventually find that deeply needed experience of being at home with themselves and others. And for many of us, the search for home takes us through a series of teachers, friends, and environments that each bring us closer to feeling at home in the world.

When I actually began school at Juilliard, I was lucky to find good friends with whom I could relax and be myself, and share my abundant 19-year-old feelings about music and life. Those friendships carried me through all the competitiveness and self-doubt that I also experienced at school. Each friend was a haven and a joy—someone I could laugh with, let go with, and trust with my passionate, confused, and tender heart. We were all in the same boat, and it was a good ride.

But after I left school, I had more growing to do. And 44 years later, I am still growing. I’ve learned in all this time that the search for home is really a search within ourselves, through thickets and brambles of thorny messages and habitual behaviors that we can gradually cut through, until the heart in the middle of us gets used to being more visible and palpable. We say, “Home is where the heart is.” But it is equally true that the heart is our home. It is our heart that connects us to everything in our life.

Living our life from our heart—personally, artistically, and professionally—and staying true to our heart, even if others don’t understand what we’re doing, is at the core of what I consider genuine success.

Changing Views of Success

When I was in my 20s, I thought success meant touring the world as a concert pianist and having a manager. Success was something “out there,” someplace to get to by fitting myself into some kind of slot that I thought the world had in it. If I could just get my playing to a certain level, I would fit into the slot labeled “Touring Concert Artist,” and my life would be all set.

What I didn’t realize in my 20s is that life doesn’t work that way. Life is what we’re made of, and we’re made to grow from what we start out with. An audition, a school, a concert circuit, a recording contract—all of those are simply external phenomena that have meaning only because of how we relate to them. And this relating has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves—with whether we feel confident or not, happy or not, or like we belong or not with those external things. There is no school that offers a degree in confidence, happiness, or a sense of belonging. And yet these are the signs of true success. They grow from the inside, and are nurtured by the people and experiences we are lucky enough to find as we pursue whatever elusive external goals come into view.

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of books, articles, and Facebook posts on the subject of success. Many people in our culture seem to be disillusioned with previous notions of success and are trying to redefine it. We’ve become less interested in climbing a professional ladder into a predefined future, and more interested in looking within ourselves and nurturing ourselves so that we can grow into who we’re actually meant to be. Success for many of us today seems to be about tuning in to our deep wishes and finding a way to make them come true.

Coming Home to Ourselves

Many music schools now offer courses that reflect musicians’ growing interest in getting to the roots of successful performance. Students sometimes study the Alexander Technique, performance enhancement, or injury prevention—all of which increase their awareness of how their minds and bodies work best. It is my conviction that as these subjects of mind and body awareness are taught in greater depth, musicians will gradually learn to feel more at home in their own minds and bodies, and thus more at home onstage and in their lives.

In becoming more aware of how we feel, what we think, and what we perceive, we are getting to know who we are. And the more we do that, the closer we get to becoming the mature musician and person we are meant to be.

Our Need to Receive

Each person’s journey toward maturity is unique, and no one can find their way simply by following the same route as someone else. What does help is a lot of encouragement from others.

Think of a moment when someone responded to how you played or sang with an encouraging comment, or even a look, that went straight to your heart. This is the crucial experience of being seen and heard for who you are. It can make all the difference at certain times in your life.

In contrast, if no one ever appreciates how we play, how can we believe in our future as a musician? At the very least, we have to be able to imagine that one day, someone will show appreciation for what we offer—that someone will give us some warmth in return.

Knowing that we need and deserve such appreciation is at the root of genuine success. Every time we do anything to nourish ourselves and to honor our musical aliveness–studying with a good teacher, seeking support from a friend, or playing or listening to music we love—we are feeding and strengthening our life force. Even sitting alone and thinking about our love for music and for life opens us up to the joy that is always accessible underneath whatever worries, confusion, or self-doubt that we might have.

Each of us can be likened to a plant—full of life and responding naturally to water and sunlight, kindness and care. If we stay open to such beneficial elements and influences, we can’t help but grow. Most of the time this growth may happen so slowly and gradually that it isn’t visible on the outside. But nonetheless, if we tune in to our own energy, we can feel life flowing through us. We can feel our energy expanding as it receives attention from ourselves and others. And the more we let ourselves soak up the waters of kindness, joy, and appreciation, the more these beneficial qualities keep coming in and nourishing our system.

When We Forget to Open and Connect

In today’s computerized world, it’s easy to forget our need for such nourishment. American society in particular has long been dominated by a strong work ethic, in which the healthy, life-giving energies of sensuality, sexuality, and creativity have been repressed in the service of accomplishing, achieving, and measuring up to someone else’s standards of how we should look, feel, think, or behave. We are lured now more than ever by the images we see in print and online, and we make less and less time for face-to-face interaction with people we love and enjoy. We listen more and more to recordings, and watch videos, of performances, rather than participating as audience members at live concerts.

As magical and wonderful as our computers may be, our deepest need—for human connection—gets buried in our frenzy of clicking on links to this or that piece of information, or to endless streams of electronic sounds and imagery. We increasingly isolate ourselves from actual human contact that could nourish us on a deep, essential level.

Some Suggestions for Reconnecting

Swimming upstream in this disconnected culture takes motivation, but more and more people are doing it, and the tide has begun to turn. You can create a rich, rewarding, and successful musical life for yourself.

Here are some ideas for increasing your connection to yourself, to music, and to others. 

  1. Do something by yourself every day to deliberately slow down, such as taking a couple of deep breaths, meditating, or walking away from your work and just looking out the window.
  2. When you practice your instrument, luxuriate in each single sound in playing a phrase.
  3. When you talk to a friend, listen inside yourself for how you’re feeling, and also try to sense how they’re feeling.
  4. Spend time in nature—or at least look at pictures of it (ideally, not on a screen).
  5. Pet a dog or cat. Watch them sleep. Look into their eyes.
  6. Find a concert to go to that really interests you. Take a friend, or go alone. If you find yourself having judgmental thoughts, let them go and look for something you can appreciate about the music or the performance.
  7. Stop in the middle of an activity one or more times a day, and notice how you feel, just being alive in that moment.
  8. Take a moment every day to reflect on the wisdom and joy you have received from others.
  9. Read an inspiring book or poem.
  10. If you feel good about a performance you give, or even part of it, celebrate it. If you wish you’d played better, take time to feel that—and talk to a trusted friend or teacher about it to learn how you might be able to play better next time.
  11. Stay off the Internet for 24 hours once a week.
  12. Take a moment to appreciate your own bravery in facing or completing a challenging activity.
  13. Write down your feelings about these things as a way of connecting more consciously to yourself.

Above all, be a true friend to yourself and listen over and over to what your heart is asking of you and to what it wants from others. Do your best to give it what it longs for.

What About Worldly Success?

Does all this meaningful connection have a bearing on worldly success? I can speak best from my own experience.

I have always followed my heart in my musical career, and each step I’ve taken has led to further success–albeit, with many ups and downs. I chose repertoire I wanted to play, and I studied with teachers I wanted to work with. I played chamber music with people I clicked with, and I pursued meditation to help me feel more relaxed and confident onstage. I gave seminars and wrote a book because I wanted to share what I’d learned with other musicians.

As a result, I feel extremely lucky to make my living teaching the way I do and seeing my students become happier people and more wonderful—and more successful—performers and teachers themselves. And I’ve met many other wonderful musician colleagues along the way. The whole journey has been a process of growth and enrichment, and it still continues. So whether I look back, or forward, or I’m just focused on this moment, writing this article right now, it all feels joyful and successful.

It’s not that I never feel stress. I definitely do, often. And it’s not that I haven’t had setbacks or low periods. I definitely have. But I’ve been able to use the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’ve been lucky enough to find support and encouragement from many people. This is why I’m encouraging you to do the same.

I believe you can do it too.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to receive the most fantastic nourishment I know of for your genuine musical success, I invite you to attend The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. Some wonderful people are coming, and we still have two spots open for performing participants, and spots for non-performing participants too. I’d love to see you there.

Q & A of the Month

I have a really busy schedule, between going to school and teaching a few piano students, and I don’t have as much time to practice as I want. I get frustrated trying to do everything I want with a piece in the limited time I have. Do you have any suggestions?

The most important thing about practicing is your state of mind. Even if you have only a short time to work on a particular piece, spend the first few minutes of the session clearing your mind and tuning in to your heart. Basic mindfulness practice is extremely helpful, and you can read about it in my article titled Creating Space for Music to Flow. This technique is also described in Chapter 4 of The Art of Practicing. And Chapter 5 describes how you can tune into your heart.

Another mental practice that would be great for you is to take a minute before you practice, and whenever you start to feel frustrated mid-session, to simply remind yourself how great it is that you care so much and that you want more time. Extending warmth to yourself that way can open you up to the music more and help dissolve some of the tension you may be feeling in being so frustrated.

You may also find times during your day when you can’t use your instrument but could practice a little in your head—such as when you’re waiting for a train or bus, or riding on one.

Some people discover that if they get up even a little earlier every day to fit in a bit more practicing, they look forward to it so much that they feel wide awake for it and it improves their mood for the rest of the day.

If you’d like to go further, I recommend learning the Performing Beyond Fear exercise, which is a quick and powerful way to connect with your deepest musicality. You could do this at an online or in-person session with me.

A fantastic way to learn all of these approaches, and more, would be to come to The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. This relaxed yet intensive week transforms practicing and performing for everyone who attends.

Finally, think about how you can create a better schedule for  yourself, perhaps when you’re done with school. If you really believe in what you want, you can make it happen. A career or business coach could be very helpful. Eventually, the better you get at practicing, the better you’ll become as a teacher. Then you may be able to raise your fees and have more time to practice.

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


Nora Krohn on The Transformative Power of Caring

Dear Subscribers,

I am so pleased to publish Nora Krohn’s 12th article here. It is one of her very best, and so needed in today’s music world.


Madeline Bruser
Editor, Fearless Performing E-zine

The Transformative Power of Caring

by Nora Krohn

A number of years ago a conductor I knew from a handful of previous engagements invited me to be a guest principal for a concert with a chamber orchestra in Europe. When I arrived at the first rehearsal, exhausted from the trip, I was feeling a little apprehensive at the prospect of leading such a formidable ensemble as a guest—I had prepared well, but I’d never played with the orchestra and was the sole American flown halfway across the world to fill out and lead the ranks of more local players. After glancing around the rehearsal room at the other musicians taking out their instruments, tuning, and warming up on tricky passages, my eyes drifted to the principal viola stand, where I saw my would-be stand partner intently marking something in the part. I strode over to the stand and turned to her with a smile. Her eyes stayed locked on the music as she continued making notes with her pencil. Hoping her avoidance of eye contact was merely dedication to her task, I decided to let her finish, and meanwhile took out my viola and bow. When she finally put down her pencil and looked up, I extended my hand to her in greeting: “Hi, I’m Nora, it’s so nice to meet you,” I said brightly, eager to forge a smooth working relationship for the week ahead. Her feelings on the subject became decidedly clear when she responded with a flat, “Hello” and immediately turned to speak to one of her colleagues. I awkwardly lowered my hand back down and fixed my eyes on the music stand, my longing for a warm reception punctured by her acute lack of enthusiasm.

My gloomy reflections about our inauspicious start were interrupted by the arrival of the conductor, who set down his bag, greeted everyone, and took out his baton. The concertmaster stood up to tune the orchestra, and then we started in on the symphony. I tried to enjoy the rich sound of the ensemble, but the cheerful, sunny melody of the first movement was undercut by my growing preoccupation with my stand partner’s disconcerting behavior. She was a confident, beautiful player, but she made little effort to follow my cues, and chuckled to herself whenever I played a note slightly out of tune. At first I thought I might be paranoid, but as the rehearsal continued I noticed her groaning when the cellos weren’t quite together, and rolling her eyes in disgust when the first clarinet missed his entrance in a complex fugal passage. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the moment when she turned to me and said with a grimace, “Why are we doing this bowing? It’s terrible.” “Uh, well,” I mumbled, dumbfounded by her directness, “I guess because the first violins are doing it and I just thought that–” “You should tell them to change it.” Struggling to regain an air of authority, I stammered back, “Uh, oh, ok well I’ll speak to the concertmaster about it. Maybe he…” I drifted off when I could tell she wasn’t listening.

Tapping Into the Bedrock of Your Heart

By the end of the first rehearsal I felt like I needed a stiff drink, even though it was only 2:00 in the afternoon. Lunch with some colleagues brought glasses of strong local liquor and blithe reassurances that I was doing a fine job, but neither did much to soothe my uneasiness. I wandered back to my solitary hotel room in a downpour and braced myself for a week of discomfort. While I stared at the wall, hearing the rain drumming against the window, I felt tears sliding down my cheeks unbidden. “Great,” I thought, “here I am, supposed to be a leader, professional, unshakeable, and a little criticism from some grumpy person who doesn’t like me is making me fall apart.” I was berating myself for my lack of confidence and oversensitivity, telling myself I was a weak leader and a phony musician, when I remembered why the conductor had flown me to a foreign country to serve as principal of this orchestra in the first place. After our first time working together, where I’d been sitting in the back of the section, he’d approached me after the concert with a formal air and a kind smile. “You are…very special musician,” he’d said, in his halting English. “Great violist, very great…humanity. I hope very much we can work together once again.” He then bowed his respect and bade me good night.

With the warmth of that memory resonating throughout my body, I turned it like a lens back to the current situation with my disapproving stand partner. Filtered through the conductor’s kind words, the aching sensation in my chest revealed that there was something deeper at work than my desire to be liked and approved of, my intention to do a good job and be seen as capable and confident. Underneath the pain caused by perceived criticism and rejection was a vast, profound sense of caring, of having a heart that longed to give and receive, to serve the world. And I saw that that simple caring was powerful, resilient, and enduring, because it was the true bedrock of who I was, not the insecure person grasping for the comfort of others’ esteem. That’s what the conductor had seen in me—my care for the music and for the whole of the ensemble, regardless of where I sat or who was watching. When I realized that, the quality of my tears turned from self-pity to an awed, tender gratitude.

Over the course of the week I realized that any attempts to be collegial with my stand partner would be futile, and I stopped trying to get her to like or respect me. Besides, the section needed me to lead with enthusiasm, not melt into a puddle of self-doubt. Once I stopped fixating on her comments and demeanor and claimed my musical space, she softened toward me ever so slightly. In a quiet moment she revealed the ways she felt stifled in her life and career that caused her frustration and regret, which made me feel more sympathetic toward her. She even complimented me on my solo in the concert. But in the end what really mattered was not that I’d won her over in some small respect, but that in the midst of grave doubts I had been able to witness the goodness of my own heart and the sincerity of my desire to serve the music, and in so doing I’d found confidence to command the situation authentically.

When Others See Your Powerful Heart, Even if You Don’t

As I write, I am reminded of another moment of tension with a colleague that taught me about the power of my own caring to transcend a difficult situation, in this case one of my own making. About a year out of school, I auditioned for the assistant principal position in a small regional orchestra. I’d been occupying the seat as a substitute for the entire season and thought I was a shoo-in for the job, but in spite of my high hopes I got very nervous for the audition and didn’t play well. It was a small audition, but since my foothold in the working world of music was tenuous and I’d cast the job as a very big deal in my mind, I was devastated when I lost. When I learned who had gotten the position, my embarrassment and envy pushed me into writing him off as an arrogant jerk, even though I’d never even met him.

A few months after the audition I was relieved when I was invited to sub with the orchestra again. When I got my music in the mail I started preparing diligently as always. Even though I would be relegated to the back of the section, my dismay over losing the audition wasn’t an excuse to sacrifice my commitment to doing my best. When I arrived at the first rehearsal, bruised ego in tow, I was surprised to see that the principal violist wasn’t there, and in her place sat the young man who’d beaten me out for the assistant principal job. Confused, I checked the seating chart and saw I would be sitting assistant principal, my old seat. Right next to the very person I loathed most in the world at that moment.

I dragged myself toward the chair in disgust and trepidation. When I sat down, he introduced himself with an outstretched hand and a friendly expression, which I returned mechanically–despite my inner turmoil, I didn’t want to appear surly or unprofessional. And I especially didn’t want him to know how nervous I was that he’d think I wasn’t very good. So I was surprised when he turned to me midway through the rehearsal and said, “Wow, you sound really great, I’m so glad I’m sitting with you.” Before I could absorb this astonishing kindness, he continued with an unexpected and congenial offer: “I just wrote a viola quartet that I’ll be performing in a couple of months—I’m wondering if you’d like to play it with me and a couple of other people.” I’m not sure if it registered on my face, but his graciousness shocked me. Out of hurt that I’d lost the audition, I’d been consumed with rancor and resentment toward this person, and yet he was responding not with aggression, but with humble generosity.

Letting Your Care Transcend and Transform

Years later, when I asked him what he’d thought about me during our first rehearsal together, I’d expected him to say he’d been turned off by my frostiness. But I was wrong: “No, I don’t remember you being hostile at all,” he said, shaking his head. “What impressed me most was how professional and prepared you were, even though was supposed to be the one leading. It made me respect you. I didn’t even know you, but I could tell you really cared about the music, and it made me want to do a better job.”

Investing your heart in what you do can leave you more vulnerable to worry that you are falling short, and less defended when others don’t appreciate you or your work. We often confuse that vulnerability with weakness, when in reality it is not weakness at all, but tremendous power. Living in recognition of your own heart, and the way it expresses itself through what you do, is a beacon that lights your way through the world for yourself and others, especially in moments when conflict and confusion loom. It can also be a light that illuminates and transforms the darker places in ourselves, with stunning consequences. My envy had twisted me into making the young man who beat me out for that assistant principal job my mortal enemy, until my care for the music broke through the armor of my antagonism and betrayed the raw goodness of my heart for him to see. In turn, his willingness to see the light I was not seeing in myself transformed my bitterness into tenderness: seven years ago, I saw that man as my adversary; now, he is my husband.


Editor’s note: The kind of caring Nora writes about here abounds at The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. We’d love to have you with us this summer, July 22 – 29.

Q & A of the Month

I’ve read in your book, and seen in some of your videos, that you recommend upright posture for playing the piano, as well as other instruments. But although some people seem to play very well that way, I can’t do it, and I don’t really understand what it’s about. To me, making music is all about expressing yourself, and you have to let yourself move however you feel the music. Is there something I’m missing here? Is there a way I could understand it better and actually experience what it’s about?

This is a great question—thank you for asking it.

Posture—how we sit, stand, and carry ourselves—says a lot about us, and our habits with it run deep. Having a comfortable, upright posture has a lot to do with trusting ourselves to be as we are and to say what we want to say without trying too hard to express ourselves. In making music, it involves letting your body fill up with the powerful energy of music without losing your seat of command—without dispersing your energy in unnecessary movements. It’s about being in charge instead of letting musical energy pull you around in different directions.

It can take years to develop this kind of command, but if you’ve seen and heard someone play or sing that way and you feel motivated to try to develop such command yourself, you could start by focusing on whatever aspect of this uplifted physical position interests you the most. The basic body mechanics alone are fascinating to look at. The book explains the mechanics—establishing a sense of rootedness to the bench or chair, or to the ground, from which your body can feel supported and move with power and ease. If you really focus on the sensations in your body, of being rooted to the ground while your arms are free to move, it can start to feel so good to be upright that you don’t want to hunch over or sway around a lot anymore.

Another approach is to think of yourself as a king or a queen on a throne. You have power in just being real, being yourself—a natural dignity that comes from occupying your particular space and knowing you have a right to be there. In fact, when you imagine yourself as a benevolent leader, you begin to feel you belong onstage, inspiring others with your presence, and that you don’t have to make yourself small in any way. This kind of physical and mental attitude can go a long way in giving you genuine confidence that has a real effect on the people around you.

Experimenting with posture can be instructive—when you hunch over it has a real effect on your state of mind, as well as on your physical power in using your instrument. Everything works better physically when you don’t constrict your body. If you make an audio or video of your playing or singing in different postures, you can discover how body use affects the music you make.

You can gain a lot of clarity on this issue by working with a teacher who understands the human habits involved with posture and movement. He or she can help you gradually shift from dispersing your energy to really standing in your power by relating consciously to gravity and to the freedom and power that can result from being firmly grounded.

One of the most striking discoveries in practicing upright posture is that by being more still, your body actually can contain more feeling. Just sit there; just stand there. Notice how the beautiful sounds coming from your instrument are physically affecting your body. Your whole body becomes a powerful instrument when you let it be, let it expand with musical sound.

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


Fearlessness in the Face of Judgment

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published September 25, 2013.)

For many musicians, auditions and competitions bring up even more fear than concert performances. Knowing that they are being judged, and that part of their career and livelihood is at stake, adds to the already huge challenge of live performance.

Concerts may also bring up our fears of being judged. We fear that we’ll fall short in comparison to other performers. We fear that we won’t measure up to our last performance. We fear that we’ll have a memory lapse or otherwise fail to meet some standard of perfection that we think might matter more to our audience than what we have to say as an artist.

These fears come from focusing more on what other people might think of us than on our deep desire to communicate through music—to actually give something meaningful to our listeners.

Putting the Human Element First

We need to remember that even an audience of official judges is an audience of human beings. Although auditions and competitions may feel artificial compared to concert performance—and you may often be asked to stop in playing the middle of one piece and switch to another one—you can still direct your performance straight to the hearts of your listeners. To do this, you have to get past your fear of being judged and get in touch with your deepest motivation to perform. Only then can you reach inside of yourself to the full beauty and power that you have to offer. Only then can you truly play your best.

Here are three stories that may inspire you in that direction.

Bob: Remembering Responsibility

Bob had never performed for more than a few hundred people, when he was suddenly invited to travel to a distant country to be a featured pianist and vocalist in a nationally televised concert with a star performer, for an audience of 5,000 people. At the time, he also had a full-time management position at a large company that was in crisis, and he had a small child at home. Between the demands of his job and his family, he’d had little time to practice during the weeks before the concert. He now had to quickly refocus his mind on this important event, and although he’d had little sleep, and he spent the long plane ride to the concert learning several pieces that he’d never seen before, by listening to a CD. When he arrived, he had just one day to rehearse with the band before the concert.

Bob knew that there might be people in the audience who were better pianists or singers than himself. But he also knew that his audience was suffering from a severe economic depression in their country, and that they needed this concert to take their minds off of their troubles. So he found a way to let go of his fear of being judged by his audience and to focus instead on using whatever abilities he had to make them happy. With cameras in his face and in the glare of bright lights, he managed to summon all his strength and to play with great energy and freedom, and the concert was a huge success.

Years later, during a lesson with me, Bob showed me the following list he wrote the day before that concert to help him stay focused on that higher purpose:

  • Everyone is trusting me and giving me every opportunity to showcase myself.
  • This is an important concert for George’s career.
  • I’m making sacrifices to be here.
  • Thousands of people are giving their time and money, looking forward to an enjoyable, exciting concert that will also be televised.
  • This may also be important to my musical career.
  • I will have a video of this performance to take home.
  • Music is mysterious, powerful, and beautiful, and is worth giving every ounce of concentration and energy to.

Bob explained that a lot of his ability to focus on such positive motivations had come from a philosophy course he took in college, where he learned to examine the human tendency to define ourselves by how others view us, instead of using our own experience and perceptions to guide us through life. Many students take such courses, but Bob had the remarkable ability to apply what he learned directly to his own life—to question his behavior and that of others, which led him to accomplish some great things.

Sarah: Remembering Wise and Loving Friends

Sarah was preparing for a flute audition after returning from a weeklong summer program I’d taught. The program had given her new tools for opening up her playing and having the courage to be more genuine and vulnerable in performance, and to not worry so much about being note-perfect or in control. Although she was afraid of not measuring up to the jury’s objective standards at the audition, she decided to view the judges as human beings who would receive the gift of her playing, just as though it were a concert performance. A week before the audition, she posted the following words on our group Facebook page:

I thought about the audition committee, and of course immediately thought of how much I fear their judgment. But when I looked into my heart to see what it is I want to give them, I was overwhelmed to discover that I want them to believe that none of us is too damaged or jaded to be humbled by our intense love of life. I cried because I felt unworthy of offering this gift. I am hoping that sharing this here will help me find the courage to try, a little at a time.

We were all moved by Sarah’s bravery and generosity toward the critical audience she was about to face, and we posted responses, cheering her on. A week later, she posted the following:

Yesterday I played the audition. I thought of you all often during the process and felt your presence very strongly. Before each round, when my nerves were peaking and I felt overwhelmed by my habitual sense of “I can’t do this,” I saw each of your faces in turn and opened to the immeasurable love and wisdom I received from each of you. You helped me remember what is important and real, and of the courage we all have within us. You helped me remember music. And I won a job. Thank you all so much.

She later sent me the following in an e-mail:

The kind of preparation I engaged in during the weeks before the audition had a crucial impact on my ability to let go in the moment. I took a big step away from the hyper-critical, sterile sort of preparation that heavily informed my training, and instead did absolutely everything I could think of to remember that I was playing MUSIC. The turning point was when I felt burned out one day and didn’t feel like continuing, but in a gesture of friendly compromise to myself, I decided to listen to a recording of one of the orchestral pieces while studying the excerpt. I was totally enraptured by the music the same way I had been as a child and thought, “Well, if I’m supposed to give up this joy in order to be successful and ‘win’ this audition, then I don’t care about success.” It felt like discovering some big secret and also finding something that had always been inside me, at the same time.

Sarah set a shining example of what all of us are capable of with the right kind of support from others and a willingness to put the music and our audience first, over our self-consciousness. (And she did it without taking a beta blocker.)

David: Remembering Deep Love

I heard David for the first time in a chamber music concert at a major hall in New York City. I was deeply moved by his playing and went backstage afterwards to ask if I could interview him.

At the interview, he told me that in his early 20’s, when he was in a competition in Europe, he received the news that his dog had died. Stricken with grief, he decided to mentally dedicate his performance in the competition to his dog. He played his heart out, and he won First Prize. Because of the power of that experience, he has since dedicated every performance to someone he loves. No wonder I was so moved by his playing.

What Can We Learn from these Brave Musicians?

  1. There is something more important than fear. Your job is to get to that something.
  2. There are practical ways of using your mind to cut through the thicket of fear and find the treasure within you.
  3. Gathering support and inspiration from others is energizing and helpful—whether it’s great thinkers you’ve read, wonderful friends who support you, or a cherished loved one who opens you to your emotional depth and communicative power.

Let’s Skip to the Coda

One final note:

A common request from judges at auditions and competitions is for the musician to jump to the most technically demanding section of a piece—typically the flashy ending, or coda. But whether it’s virtuosity they’re asking you for or simply a different style or piece of music, it’s important to take time to mentally prepare for that new demand. Let your mind settle from the energy of the previous thing you played, and then come back to your heart. Reflect on the musical meaning of what you’re about to play. Take a minute to step out of your fear of facing the new demand, just as you did before you walked into the audition.

Remember that the judges need time to adjust too. Most people don’t want to suddenly bite into a thick steak (or coda) when they’ve just barely finished swallowing a luscious dessert (or lyrical section). Being true to your own needs and instincts by taking time to clear your musical palate will help you stay present and in command so that you can connect your listeners.

You Can Do It

I hope you’ve been as inspired as I have been by these three musicians. Although you may not yet feel ready to be as fearless as they have been, you can get there by taking small steps. Try some of their ideas out in small performances. Gather supportive friends around you. Challenge some of the ideas you may have had about how you have to prepare for an audition or competition.

And as always, feel free to contact me for specific advice.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to break through to a whole new level of confidence in performance, The Art of Practicing Institute’s 5th Annual Summer Program is coming up and will provide fantastic support for your journey toward fearlessness. We’d love to have you join us! You can apply for one of four spots still open for performing participants, or you can simply register as a non-performing participant. If you’re not sure which level of participation is for you. please feel free to contact me.

Q & A of the Month

I graduated from music school in the spring, and although I’ve been enjoying my freedom, I’m also having a hard time adjusting to the “real world.” I have some piano students, and occasionally I have the chance to perform somewhere, but I can’t see how I’ll ever make a real living as a musician. Do you have any advice?

Wow. This is the big question we all face. While a few people leave school on a clear trajectory to a performing career, and some go on to get doctorates and then look for teaching positions on the college level, most of us have a lot of figuring out to do. I’ve received similar inquiries from students nearing graduation at major conservatories.

It definitely helps that your instrument is the piano, since so many people are interested in piano lessons. (I’ve never seen a flyer on the street, for instance, with “Oboe Lessons” headlined at the top.) But even if you build your teaching studio, you are still left with the dilemma of fulfilling yourself through performing.

Many pianists find teaching jobs at small music schools and supplement that income with private teaching, which usually pays more. Conservatory teachers also often take on private students. I’ve done some teaching at schools myself, starting with neighborhood music schools and later becoming an adjunct faculty member at college music departments. I find it a great combination, offering both freedom and some sense of a bigger community.

You have to work with both the external factors of income possibilities and the internal factors of your personal and musical growth. First, look into different avenues for promoting yourself in your particular location, by asking many people there for advice. Second, consider working with a business coach or advisor on how to set up your business on the practical level.

Third, and perhaps most important, keep your eye on your genuine interests. Do you really like teaching, or is it just something you’re doing to make a living? Are you performing repertoire you’re really excited about and scheduling concerts for yourself according to your natural learning process, or do you always feel driven to learn pieces in a hurry to meet someone else’s needs? Are you entering every competition there is, or are you more selective about what goals you commit your time and energy to? Do you feel your playing is already at the level it needs to be, or are you open to the idea of taking it to a new level?

One thing that helped my career, I think, is that after I left school I moved to Berkeley, California, where there was less competition for performing opportunities than in New York or Los Angeles, where I’d gone to school. This gave me the freedom to do quite a bit of performing and to really grow as an artist and performer.

Another thing that made a big difference was that during my years in Berkeley, I realized that I had to find a way to enjoy teaching more, since it was my primary source of income. I was lucky to hear about a book called Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers, which revolutionized my teaching and made it really enjoyable and exciting. I highly recommend this eye-opening book, which encourages teachers to become “facilitators of learning” and to really help students to think for themselves, rather than to feed them your own ideas all the time.

And the biggie was discovering meditation practice at 29, which opened up everything in me and my playing. So much tension and stress fell away, and I was able to go deeply into music in a way I hadn’t known was possible. If you are drawn to exploring that (non)activity, it could be the most helpful thing of all, in helping you become more aware of both musical and career possibilities.

Finally, as a musician, you are naturally a creative person. These days, musicians are becoming very entrepreneurial about performing and are using the Internet in many ways to promote themselves. Finding a nourishing musical community of people to share ideas with is essential. (See this article in Fearless Performing.) The truer you are to yourself, the more likely you are to find people and resources around you that are in line with your values and longings and can help you get to where you want to go.

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


Acceptance and Letting Go

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by Nora Krohn

A few years ago, while I was serving as the acting principal of the viola section of a regional orchestra, I played a concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that taught me something about letting go in performance and accepting the result. The orchestra had been looking to fill the position for several years, and I had been invited to sit in numerous times, never sure if I would be hired again, or for what chair, or who else they had in mind for the job. I tried to take each performance as seriously as a job interview: I had to demonstrate that I was competent and not afraid to take charge, even though I was a relative newcomer to the ensemble, much younger than the other players in the section, and had never held a permanent principal position in a professional orchestra.

After a short and intense week of rehearsals, I arrived at the concert exhausted from a full day of teaching. Several years of learning to juggle the demands of a musical career told me what I needed to do: I tried to set aside all of my distracted thoughts and channel whatever energy I had left into helping shape an effective rendition of this epic piece. I knew that I had to balance precision and self-awareness with falling into the flow of the music – there simply wasn’t room to doubt myself when the section was counting on me to be bold and in command in the moment. As the performance progressed, I relished the feeling of communion when I aligned myself with the momentum of the music and stepped into each phrase with the timing and energy required. When my mental and physical energy started to flag and I redoubled my conviction in response, I felt the shock wave of renewed enthusiasm reverberating throughout the players around me. We were all alive and playing legendary music, and life was great.

When Things Fell Apart

Things were going well until we arrived at a tricky passage in the trio of the second movement – a jaunty, metrically off-kilter horn solo with the strings trading dovetailing phrases of delicate scalar accompaniment. It had never felt really in sync during rehearsals—something about the way the parts fit together, in combination with the horn’s distance from the strings, made our connection seem a bit shaky. Then, in the concert, something strange happened. I thought I’d been listening and meticulously counting rests, and brought the viola section in on cue, but a few beats later it became clear that the orchestra was not together. There were a few bars of relative chaos, probably only a couple of seconds, but what felt like eternity, and then the conductor gave a decisive cue and we all found our way again. I felt shaken, like I’d plunged into a frigid lake where I’d expected to find solid ice under my feet instead. But after making another small mistake a few moments later, I realized that allowing my mind to dwell on whatever had happened would only cause more trouble, so I tried to come back to the task at hand.

At the end of the performance, the crowd gave us a standing ovation, and the conductor looked thrilled. After I’d packed up and was making my way to the stage door, I saw him waiting in the doorway saying goodbye to the members of the orchestra. I expected him to reproach me for my mistake, but to my surprise, he thanked me instead, with a big smile, squeezing my arm. I gave an awkward smile back, too confused to know how to respond to the warmth and gratitude that came through his voice and gestures. Looking down, I mumbled “Thanks,” and shuffled through the crowd and out the door.

As I walked to the car staring at my shoes, I thought, “Should I have apologized? Cracked a joke about messing up?” Then I heard my name called, took my gaze off the asphalt ground of the parking lot, and saw my stand partner getting into her car parked beside mine. “Ugh, that thing in the third movement,” I said, raising my mittened hand to my face in embarrassment. “Oh!” she said with a look of dismay, “I am so sorry about that!” I paused, puzzled. “Wait, what? That was my fault – I brought the section in early.” “What, really? I thought it was me.” Her expression momentarily crinkled in confusion, then she brightened. “But you know, I actually think he might have done something weird that confused both of us. And that thing with the horn was never really together, so who really knows? Anyway, great job! Have a good night!” She waved an untroubled goodbye and got into her car. Bewildered, I got into mine, started it up, and prepared for the hour-long drive home.

Looking for Blame

As I drove, my mind labored overtime to assign fault for the screw-up. Could it really have been her fault? Or his? I had been so sure of our entrance, and then so sure I had messed it up. But no one had said anything to me about it. And it was true that it had happened in a section of the piece that had never felt particularly solid to begin with. Would I ever know what had happened, or whose fault it was? How much did it matter anyway? Maybe they wouldn’t ever call me again . . . except that the conductor didn’t seem upset about it. My mind bounced from one possibility to another and back again.

Barreling down I-95 toward New York, I was jolted out of my inner turmoil when a car in my lane stopped precipitously and turned on its hazard lights. In the space of a moment, when I saw the lane next to me was clear, I swerved to avoid hitting the car, and silently offered thanks for the light traffic and my quick reflexes. After the adrenaline had subsided, I wondered why the driver had done that, and if they were in trouble. So I called 911 and explained what had happened, hung up, and immediately picked up the thread of my mental drama again. But after several more minutes of rumination it dawned on me – the person in that car might be fine, or they might be having a life-threatening medical emergency. It was possible that I had not only prevented an accident by driving skillfully, but that I’d also saved his or her life by calling 911. Having no evidence either way, I had chosen to write it off as no big deal. In contrast, even though I also didn’t know what had caused the screw-up at that spot in the Beethoven, I was choosing to blame myself, and to make it a very big deal. I was assuming the worst of myself and measuring the value of my contribution to the world accordingly.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Eventually I got tired of turning the story over in my mind. When no irate or pitying messages arrived from anyone in the orchestra, I realized I’d probably never know what happened, and that they’d probably all long forgotten about it. Gradually I let go of the whole thing.

Sometime later I received a voicemail from the conductor: After several years of vacancy, they had decided to give me the principal position permanently. I called him back in shock. He said, “Oh, it was just so clear from the last concert. You were so in charge, you led the entire lower string section with such professionalism. It’s wonderful to have you.” I thanked him from my heart and hung up in a state of confused joy. And I got it – whatever mistakes I had or hadn’t made, in his eyes they hadn’t altered his view that I was fit to lead, because his view included everything about who I was and how I conducted myself as a musician, not just my fleeting errors. If I’d been tiptoeing through the piece, I might have helped to prevent or contain the momentary mess. But in such an overly cautious state, I might have missed the chance to unleash the authentic verve and confidence that had helped bring the music to life.

Relaxing Our Grip

Many of us have had the experience of relaxing our tight grip on ourselves, letting ourselves be more real in making music or in a conversation, and then having to deal with whatever unpredictable thing happens next. This experience of release often happens for me when I stop trying to control my physical movements or the shape of the music I’m playing and just allow myself to play spontaneously and unself-consciously. And I often see my students experimenting in the same way. In letting go like this, there may sometimes be more mistakes, or sometimes fewer. But invariably, the music is more interesting and alive, because there is more of us in it, however we are right now. And it usually means that any fleeting mistakes are far outweighed by the raw energy that comes through the whole thing. That doesn’t mean that mistakes won’t sometimes muck things up and cause us embarrassment, but it’s a risk we need to embrace with awareness, not avoid altogether. When we rein ourselves in in an effort to be correct above all else, we dial down our vitality, too.

Finding your Way to Letting Go

If you want to experiment with letting go more in the moment of performance and becoming more resilient when you fall short, here are a few ideas:


  1. You can start by letting go of regrets about the way things may have gone in the past. Consider the circumstances that contributed to the situation, many of which were totally outside your control. Can you be more forgiving toward yourself in light of them?
  1. Try being a little more free in your practicing, even if you worry your playing will be temporarily less accurate. Let your body move the way it wants to, and notice what happens. Do what feels fun. To take it a step further, play for a kind friend or trusted teacher and see if they notice a difference in your playing.
  1. Above all, remember that your deepest wish is to make beautiful music, to enjoy it, and to share it with others while you are on this earth. That knowledge will permeate your playing and sustain you over the long term, even when you feel lost or full of doubt. One of the definitions of the word “accept” is to “believe the goodness of something”: it is easier to let go when you believe in the inherent goodness of yourself and this life.

I think back to those moments leaving the Beethoven concert—the warm exchange with the conductor, the lonely, confused walk through the parking lot, the shakeup of my assumptions about what had gone wrong. You can choose to spend your life with your head down, watching for any cracks in the asphalt so you can avoid tripping over them. Or you can learn to walk with your head held high, observing the world around you with curiosity and appreciating your role in it. You might fall more often, especially at first, and it may hurt and you’ll be embarrassed. You might even take someone else down with you by accident and have to apologize. But you never know who will meet your gaze and remind you that your small slip-ups and fear of falling is not all they see in you.

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Committing to Real Change

(This article has been edited from its original publication on January 25, 2013.)

At the beginning of this new year, many of us have made commitments to ourselves, motivated and inspired by the idea that even in the midst of great upheaval in the world around us, we can let go of past behaviors, face diverse challenges, and take a step forward in our life. As we often do after celebrating the winter holidays and perhaps taking time off from work, we open our minds to tackling new projects and accomplishing new things, and many of us are inspired to make a difference in the lives of others.

Because we have all experienced disappointments in the past and feel uncertain about the future, this current time of renewed energy is vitally important. We need to remember that our lives are always full of possibilities, and that we can do a lot toward realizing our dreams and fulfilling our life’s purpose.

In reflecting on this time of inspiration, challenge, and commitment, I’ve thought a lot about what it takes to commit ourselves to something new. No matter how motivated we may be, we can never know exactly what we’re actually getting into. Whether it’s a marriage, a career path, studying a musical instrument, or speaking out in a more public way than we have before, we’re entering unknown territory, armed only with our passion, our curiosity, and whatever facts and support we can gather.

It takes courage.

We all need the examples of other brave people to encourage us in our own journey into unknown territory. Many of the people I’ve drawn encouragement from are great leaders and others who have overcome enormous obstacles, like  Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou, But often, ordinary people in ordinary work and life situations, have inspired me too. These ordinary people can be easier for us to relate to than major historic figures. When we look at their simpler, less spectacular acts of courage, we can understand what courage is and what it feels like, and appreciate ourselves for our own bravery in life. This appreciation of ourselves can go a long way in energizing us to continue our pursuits, leading us to accomplish more of what we long to accomplish.

An Example of Ordinary Courage

About 15 years ago I was inspired by a young pianist who signed up for a workshop series I was teaching. I’ll call him Alan.

Alan took this series on natural piano technique hoping to recover from a playing-related injury. He knew that if he didn’t recover, he couldn’t keep playing—his performing career, like that of so many injured musicians, would come to an early end. So with no way of knowing what the series would be like, or if it would help him recover, he broke through his initial resistance and registered for the five weeks of workshops and private lessons. It was a leap of faith.

After years of rigorous conservatory training, Alan was shocked when I asked him and the other workshop participants to practice no more than 10 minutes at a time, with only one hand at a time, during the first week of the series. Checking every little movement his fingers made seemed bizarre to him—he had to play so slowly that he had no experience of making any music, or of really playing the instrument. It was completely different from anything he’d ever done or ever heard of. But as he felt his hands gradually becoming more relaxed at the piano, he began to—somewhat—trust this new approach.

The Moment of Crisis

Everything went pretty well until around the middle of the five weeks, when Alan realized during a workshop that he could neither remember how to play the old way nor reliably play the new way. He felt completely unsure of himself and of where he was headed. He said he felt confused and scared, and he started to cry.

But as he heard encouraging words about his progress from me and from the other participants, he began to calm down. And as he saw the others improve while going through the same process that he was going through, he felt somewhat reassured. Finally, because he knew he couldn’t go back to his old way of playing, he felt he had no choice but to continue.

Gradually, Alan became more familiar with the new approach, and it started to feel more comfortable and reliable. By the end of the series, he had fully recovered from his injury and was playing freely, though slowly. Within a few more weeks, he gained speed as well.

Alan’s leap of faith, coupled with five weeks of brave and dedicated perseverance, had brought him to the victory he’d hoped for. In addition to recovering from his injury, he had acquired a new piano technique that would prevent him from being injured again, and that enabled him to play more freely and expressively than before.

What We Can Learn from Alan

I tell this story because it illustrates what it’s like to really keep a commitment to our own growth or to anything that’s important to us. No matter what joy or good intentions we might start out with in any big endeavor—whether it’s taking our technique to a new level,  getting married, or taking on a cause that’s bigger than ourselves—there will inevitably be times of great challenge, times when we may question if we have what it takes to see it through and to really succeed. While we can relax with the knowledge that we’re always growing, we can never know exactly what we’re growing into, how much work it will take, or what it will feel like to actually make a desired change.

We can learn a lot from Alan’s experience. If you’re facing a time of change and growth and you know that many challenges lie ahead of you, here are some things from Alan’s experience, and from my own, that you can remember on your journey.

1. Trust your motivation to change and keep it in mind.

2. Know that fear is inevitable when entering unknown territory.

3. Know that you contain the seeds of the growth and change you want to accomplish.

4. Appreciate yourself for having the inspiration to commit to change.

5. Seek out companions or allies on your journey, or reassurance from friends who have overcome obstacles in their efforts to make important changes in their work or life.

6. Find a guide, or guides, in the form of a teacher, mentor, or even a book, to keep you on course and informed of your progress.

7. Trust your own intelligence as you work with your guides.

8. Appreciate that in feeling afraid yet moving forward anyway, you are being brave. Take time to extend warmth to yourself as you appreciate your own bravery.

9. Realize that this bravery is making you a stronger person for future challenges you will face, perhaps including performing onstage.

10. Focus on the progress you’re making—maybe write down the small steps and signs along the way. Return to your allies and guides for support.

11. Celebrate successes.

12. Remember to relax and breathe all along the way, balancing being serious about your goal with taking pleasure in simple things around you in your daily life. Nourish yourself regularly with joyful and beautiful experiences.

What API Can Offer You

If you need support on your musical journey this coming year, The Art of Practicing Institute is happy to offer you these wonderful options:

1. A private session with me or one of our faculty members, in person or online

To help you play with greater expressive freedom. You can begin to release tension, recover from an injury, or free yourself from stage fright.

See our faculty page.

2. Our inspiring Online Video Groups

Join this fantastic community of musicians in five countries for our live sessions twice each month, including meditative practices, discussion, and music workshops.

3. Our amazing weeklong summer program:

Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians

July 22 – 29, 2017

This is a tremendous opportunity to receive guidance and support in a non-competitive environment. An extraordinary program offering challenges and solutions that bring lasting improvement and enrichment.

Click for more information.

4. A free consultation with me

To help you decide what option is best for you —in person, on the phone, or online.

Contact me.

Like you, I have made commitments to myself for this coming year. They include helping more musicians discover and fulfill their deepest expressive potential. I’ve had the great good fortune to discover that my own potential was far greater than I realized. My primary interest now is to pass on what I know to you, my fellow musicians.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. We’re now accepting applications for performing participants for our 2017 summer program, and you are also welcome to register as a non-performing participant.

Q&A of the Month

I’m curious about your own experience with some of the mindfulness techniques you teach. How did you discover these, and what was it like when you first tried them?

Wow. That’s a big question! But actually, learning the first one, mindfulness meditation, helped me discover the other two.

I discovered meditation through friends who were doing it. They weren’t musicians, but I sensed something about them that made me want to try it. They had a way of really listening in conversations, and they seemed to have a deep understanding of how their own minds worked. It was this quality of presence and depth that first drew me in—I wanted to experience more of that in myself. But then, when I actually tried meditation, I didn’t connect with it, so I didn’t continue after the first two days. It was only a year later, when I’d played an unsuccessful audition, that something told me meditation could help me become more relaxed and confident about performing. From that second time of trying it, I’ve stayed with it—which has been for 35 years. It immediately felt like coming home—to relax to a level that I had never experienced before. But many people find it much more challenging the first time, and then get used to it and find it transformative.

The second technique, body and sound awareness, just came naturally to me over the course of my experience with meditation. Meditation makes you much more aware of what you’re perceiving. So sounds and sensations became more vivid—which was a revelation during my practicing.  Music opened up before my eyes, and ears, without much effort on my part. I soon saw that I could lead other musicians toward that kind of awareness even if they didn’t meditate, by working directly with their experience with their instruments.

The Performing Beyond Fear Exercise came to me from a spiritual practice I’ve done for many years, in the buddhist and Shambhala traditions, in which we take a few minutes to reflect on our lineage—the teachers who have passed down the tradition of meditation. Because remembering them has great personal meaning, it opened my heart easily. I wanted musicians to have something similar, so I translated it into their terms. I also added the idea of reflecting on two other fundamentally important things that put us immediately in touch with the energy of our heart, our communicative power. When I first had this kind of experience myself it was pretty mind-blowing. An intense energy became available to me right away, which opened up all of my communication with other people enormously.

I invite you to learn all of these potent techniques, and more, at the API summer program, in a tremendously welcoming, non-competitive environment that has changed the lives of many musicians.

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

Building Confidence Through Self-Awareness

by Madeline Bruser

When Johann Sebastian Bach was 20 years old, he walked 250 miles to hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Two centuries later, when my parents were in their twenties, they drove many miles to see Artur Schnabel play Mozart’s last piano concerto. And when I myself was 20, I was one of many Juilliard students who got up before dawn one cold morning in New York to stand in line for hours at Carnegie Hall, waiting patiently for the box office to open so we wouldn’t miss out on getting tickets to see pianist Vladimir Horowitz appear onstage for his first local recital in several years.

Today, we may rush to buy tickets online to attend a special concert near our home, or we may casually visit YouTube, where in five minutes we can compare six different performers’ approaches to the same piece of music. But although times have certainly changed—and we may take for granted how easy it is now to hear great music—our passion for music remains essentially unchanged from that of past generations. We still seek out the best performances, and we view our time spent listening to them as quality time.

Unfortunately, many of us can’t say the same for the time we spend practicing our instruments. We often spend this substantial and important part of every day feeling tense, anxious, bored, frustrated, or resigned to dull repetitions of passages. And we have become so habituated to this experience that we may forget what it was once like to really make music in a practice session. The honeymoon is clearly over. In fact, it is long past.

But as with our most important personal relationships, finding joy and resolving problems after the honeymoon is over have a lot to do with paying attention—with really listening to the music we’re practicing (or to the person we’re talking to) and with really listening to our own feelings in the process.

As a musician—as well as a wife and mother—I find these challenges intense, to say the least. Great music is as complicated as any human being. It demands our full intelligence and sensitivity. Yet it also provides tremendous returns if we can give it its due.

So how do we do that?

A Crucial and Often Overlooked Step 

In my experience, one of the most important and frequently overlooked steps in practicing is to notice our own discomfort. Although we may be caught up in the intensity of the music and may feel that our passion and hard work will lead us toward mastering a piece, we can’t actually get there if we are unaware that our hands are tense or that our breathing is shallow—or that we’re just frustrated with how we’re playing. Our tension and frustration do not go away simply because we fail to notice them; they stay with us, constricting our bodies and limiting our freedom of movement and of expression.

Our job as performers is to transmit music to others. To do this, we must free ourselves of physical and emotional blocks that are in the way. And the first step toward that freedom is to notice when we are blocked—to notice how stuck or uncomfortable we sometimes feel.

Noticing how we feel can be difficult. Many of us were brought up to suppress our feelings to suit the demands of other people. Having been judged or ignored by parents, teachers, or others during crucial developmental years, we automatically ignore our feelings in the practice room. And it is no wonder that we’re afraid to reveal our feelings in performance as well. As a result, many musicians don’t realize that their arms are tense until they develop an incapacitating injury. And most are so uncomfortable with their emotional vulnerability onstage that they rely on pills to handle the physical symptoms of stage fright.

But Don’t Despair

One key to getting past this blindness to our own feelings is to take a few minutes to establish relative ease and comfort before practicing. Then you are much ore likely to notice when you do not feel comfortable and at ease.

Relaxation techniques can be extremely helpful, creating a calm, alert state in a minute or two. Consider learning mindfulness meditation. This is a highly efficient way to create basic ease and comfort of body and mind.

Then, as you practice, look for when that feeling of ease and comfort disappears. Feel the discomfort completely, and let it dissipate before you continue. It might take two seconds, or you might feel the need to repeat a minute or two of mindfulness meditation. The important thing is to bring your best to whatever practicing you do—to fully enjoy the music and to be highly aware of your physical and mental state, so that you are in charge of the quality of your practice time. You really can assure that the work you do is effective and fulfilling.

If Tension and Frustration Persist

Sometimes tension and frustration are ongoing—particularly if you aren’t using your body efficiently with your instrument, or if you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety about your work or your life. Here are two things to keep in mind:

1. Some musicians have chosen to take off long periods of time from practicing. Peter Serkin made this choice early in his career. I made the same choice after I first learned mindfulness meditation and discovered that a whole new level of relaxation was possible. If you long for such a break, find a time when you can take it. Staying on the treadmill for fear of not knowing how to handle your freedom will not bring you intelligent, enjoyable practicing or confident performing. Coming back to practicing after a vacation from it can be a huge eye opener.

2. A wise guide—in the form of an instrumental teacher, mentor, performance coach, psychotherapist, or meditation instructor—can be invaluable.

Musician, Love Thyself

In this driven, competitive, scared profession we need to remember that we’re human. We need to treat ourselves well by minimizing tension and discomfort during practicing, and to understand that if such tension and discomfort become habitual, they will inevitably carry over into our performing. We may think that the only way to master extremely challenging music is to drive ourselves to work as hard as we can. But when we relax our effort a little, we have the chance to discover that less work can bring better results and more confidence.

Genuine confidence grows naturally. It develops from repeatedly taking the chance to trust the small voice inside of yourself that contains deep intelligence. This voice may sometimes say, “I’m tired,” or, “I’m not enjoying this.” If you listen to this voice, it will gain courage and grow stronger and wiser. In fact, it can become your biggest ally.

You might hear this voice say, “I need a break,” or “Let me breathe for a minute.” It may also say, “I want time to just feel how sad I am about not getting this phrase to flow smoothly.”

Or it may say, “I don’t know how I feel. I need time to find out what I feel—to get back in touch with myself. What is my body telling me now about how this phrase is flowing? Am I enjoying it? Do I feel free or tentative as I play it?” Then you might find yourself thinking, “My stomach feels tense. Something is wrong. Maybe I’d feel better if I slow down and let myself linger on every sound for a while. I want to really nourish myself with these sounds.”

As we continue to pay attention to the small voice inside ourselves, it responds to our attention by growing stronger and clearer. Eventually, it becomes the voice of conviction, giving us confidence to be more creative in our practicing and to reveal who we really are in performance, and in our lives.

You may think such confidence is impossible. But try listening to your inner voice during every practice session. Deliberately stop periodically to ask yourself how your body is feeling—notice the sensations in the muscles you use to play your instrument, and the visceral sensations that arise as you work with different sections and pieces of music. It is as important to practice tuning in to your inner voice as it is to physically practice your instrument. If you do it every day, week after week, year after year, you can discover tremendous power in this voice that is always within you, waiting to be heard.

Let’s Set Things Right

We work so hard to do justice to the music we love—studying scores deeply and practicing long hours day after day. This is good, but we need to do more justice to ourselves—by getting to know our own feelings deeply, and by letting ourselves breathe during those long hours of practice.

The music, and our audience, can only benefit.

I wish you much joy and success with making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are ready to receive help with the kind of process I’ve described in this article, I invite you to join one of The Art of Practicing Institute’s new Online Video Groups, where you can drink in the support and encouragement of other participants and of our faculty. Or consider scheduling a free consultation, lesson, or Skype session with me.

Q & A of the Month

My teacher has good musical ideas, which I value a lot in the lessons. But he typically asks me to make so many changes during lessons that I can’t do them all as fast as he wants. Then I get so stressed that my hands even tense up, and I find it very hard to concentrate. What do you suggest?

Many music teachers have good intentions with their students in asking them to improve a variety of aspects of their playing at each lesson, but the missing ingredient is a receptivity to how much the student can process at one time. I frequently teach students who are recovering from the effects of such misguided teaching, and it can take a while for them to relax about their lessons and not view every lesson as a performance for the teacher.

Lessons are for the student’s benefit. As a student, your primary responsibility is to yourself, not to your teacher. And the teacher’s primary responsibility is to you as well. Their job is to help you grow and to become everything you’re capable of as a musician.

If you think your teacher might be a little open to hearing what you need at lessons, you could certainly try speaking up. Perhaps the next time you find a lesson moving too fast for you, you could say something like, “You know, Mr. Jones, I really value my lessons with you. You’re a wonderful musician, and you’ve helped me understand music on a new level. But I often need more time to absorb your ideas during lessons. Just as I need to practice slowly in order to improve certain sections, I also need to move a little more slowly in the lessons sometimes so that I can think about what you’re saying and apply it. Right now is one of those times. Could I please take a minute to work with this one idea you’ve suggested before we move on to the next one?”

If your teacher responds by slowing down to a more comfortable speed for you, that would be great for both of you. He could learn a lot too, about teaching in a more human and creative way. But if he objects to your request and says he expects you to keep up with the pace he requires, it would be best to look for another teacher.

Music uses every part of us. We need teachers who relate to us as whole people. Don’t give up n finding a teacher who can understand your needs and can treat you with complet respect and care. This is your right, and it is necessary for your growth and development as a musician and person.

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

Being an Artist in Challenging Times

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by Nora Krohn

As I write this, I am recovering from a difficult week. November is a busy time for musicians, and after more than a year of paying intense attention to the swings of political drama in the American presidential election, I was eager to set aside the fear and disgust that the campaign had surfaced and put the daily distraction behind me. Furthermore, I was more than ready to elect the nation’s first woman president, a gesture of visibility and empowerment for women and girls worldwide and a sign of national progress toward gender parity.

I had a busy few days scheduled for the end of the week and knew I needed to prepare, but I was too nervous and excited on Monday, the day before the election, to focus deeply on the music. I put in the time, but my mind was elsewhere. On Election Day itself I waltzed out of the house in my pink coat on the way to the polls, cheered by the sight of New Yorkers of all stripes out to cast their votes. After lunch with a family friend at a Paraguayan restaurant, I went home and settled in to wait for the results to come in, refreshing various tabs in my internet browser every few minutes to check for news. Exit polls looked good: I anticipated an early evening Clinton win, plenty of time to sleep and awake energized and ready to dive into a five-day rush of rehearsals, concerts, and teaching.

So it was a rude awakening when the anxiety and revulsion I’d been keeping at bay for over a year went from a trickle to a torrent in a matter of minutes. Around 3 a.m., when the results were beyond all doubt, I tried to go to sleep, feeling sick to my stomach and too numb to do much besides tap out a quick “I love you” message to my family. When dawn broke and I hadn’t slept a wink I texted my pianist cancelling our rehearsal for that day. He quickly agreed: we both needed the day off to rest and recover. I wandered around the house like a ghost, read the news out of habit, and scrolled through Facebook. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be anger, confusion, finger-pointing, and despair. Picking up the viola was the furthest thing from my mind, and in the harsh light of this new reality, all of my creative endeavors seemed trivial and hollow. What did my writing or my concerts matter if millions of people, including myself and my colleagues, could lose the only health insurance we could afford? What if my students’ relatives were deported and their families were broken up? What if my LGBTQ friends’ marriages were annulled? What if my colleagues or neighbors were harassed for being Muslim, or black, or Latino? And what did it mean for me as a woman that my fellow Americans chose to elect a man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals?

While my mind raced, my body waded through an agonizing stupor. Anything I could say or do, through my music or otherwise, seemed hopelessly insufficient. And yet I knew that people would be coming to my concerts that weekend in deep need of community and beauty, and it was my job to deliver it.

So when I arrived at a rehearsal for a chamber music concert on Friday, three days after the election, I was feeling down, but eager to connect with the other musicians about how to ground our efforts in a sincere wish to uplift our audience. They greeted me with smiles and customary cheer, but when I brought up the election, I saw their faces fall, and I knew they were just as dejected as I was. “Should we say something before we play?” I asked. They looked confused and skeptical. “Like what?” My confidence in my own heart was shaken. “Uh, I don’t know, maybe we just dedicate this concert to peace and understanding for all people? I mean, isn’t that what art is for, isn’t that why humans invented it?” I could tell they weren’t convinced, and an awkward silence ensued. “OK, let’s play,” one of them sighed. I left the rehearsal feeling even more confused about what role music had in all of this, and how to meet the demands of being onstage when all I wanted to do was hide under a blanket.

The Courage to Give

When the day of the concert arrived, Sunday, I was exhausted from an intense day of teaching and an orchestra concert the previous evening. I still wasn’t sleeping well, and there was a constant squeeze of fear and sadness in my stomach, chest, and throat that made it hard to relax. In between scrambling to make up for the practice time I’d lost to despair earlier in the week, I’d been reaching out to support family, friends, and colleagues through email, on the phone, and on Facebook, taking political action, and engaging in difficult discussions with people who vehemently disagreed with my point of view. I still didn’t know if any of it made a difference or, God forbid, was making things worse.

As I prepared to step out onto the stage, I was feeling frail. I didn’t know the piece nearly as well as I was accustomed to for a chamber music concert, and I was feeling like a phony. One hundred people had gathered here to hear music that would lift their spirits, and it was my job to offer them joy, yet I was in need of a serious pick-me-up myself. It all seemed so banal and insignificant: the community hall with the little stage, the linoleum floors and fluorescent lights. Locals shuffling in with their walkers, dressed in their Sunday best. Even the viola just seemed like a piece of wood and metal, the sheet music a flimsy sheaf of paper. But when I sat down to play something changed: I knew I had been offered this space to perform because I had a job to do, and the audience sitting out there waiting for us to begin didn’t need to see yet another despondent person wallowing in her own powerlessness. I took a deep breath in and breathed out slowly before catching the pianist’s eye and launching into the playful opening gesture. Something familiar began to flow through my body, and I greeted it with grateful recognition: courage.

After the performance, many people came up to us to tell us how much they enjoyed the music. It felt good to see so many people smiling, and I was glad that my concerns about my preparation hadn’t derailed me. Maybe my colleagues were right, and our performance hadn’t changed the world much, if at all, but I felt we could be proud of our efforts. As my husband drifted into conversation with one of the concertgoers, I stood alone among the others milling about and enjoying refreshments. The door to the hall was open to the warm, sunny afternoon awaiting us outside. As I self-consciously clutched a plastic cup of apple juice, I noticed two older women standing a few feet away, with a small boy at their feet. It sounded like they were speaking Spanish, but I couldn’t hear well through the din of other conversations. One of the women was poring over the program while the little boy clung to the leg of her pants, and the other met my eyes with a smile.

“Oh, that was wonderful!” she said, in an unplaceable accent. The other woman looked up from the program, “Oh yes, we really enjoyed it! And he did, too.” They both looked down at the little boy, who couldn’t seem to decide whether to continue burying his face in the fabric, finish the cookie clasped in his right hand, or join the conversation. I couldn’t believe such a small child had been able to sit through over an hour of classical music so patiently and quietly. “He loves music, he’s crazy about it. We bought him a ukelele and he’s trying to learn from watching YouTube videos. He’s three and a half.” At that, the boy cautiously looked up at me. “Did you like the concert? Would you like to do that, too someday?” He nodded and his face broke into a smile. “He really wants to play the piano, but I guess that would be complicated,” one of the women confided. “How much do lessons cost?” We continued our conversation, and I promised to try to help them find the resources to fan the flames of the boy’s eagerness. They thanked me, and as we were parting they nudged the boy, “Do you have anything you want to say to her?” He dropped his hand to his side solemnly, turned his face up toward me, and his eyes locked with mine. He cleared his throat and said, in a quiet clear voice, “That was very beautiful. Thank you.” I looked up at the women, “Just take him to as many concerts as you can.” We shared one last smile and said goodbye.

Facing Exhaustion and Doubt

When I got home and changed back into my pajamas, I was again pulled into the maelstrom of emotions and political discussion on Facebook. People on every side of every issue seemed to have a different explanation for the mess we’re in, a different path forward, a different constellation of guilt and blame. Everything was couched in an urgency that made me panic. I felt all of the pain behind people’s words in my body, even as I reprimanded myself for assuming I understood even a fraction of the fear and alienation of people who are far more marginalized than I am. And yet, those marginalized people, who had been personally shunned and disrespected, harassed and ignored, and far worse, had found a reason to keep on living. They had found joy in the face of broad, systemic, institutional indifference and hostility. They clearly understood something I was forgetting in this moment.

The day after the concert, my one day off before another round of orchestra rehearsals, I took one look at the music I needed to practice, all of those sixteenth notes, and sat down with a sigh. I found myself consumed with worry about the appropriateness of my actions. Was I doing enough? Was I doing the right things? Was I speaking up enough? Was I talking too much, not leaving enough space for others? Should I have said that thing to that friend? Did I hurt that colleague’s feelings? Was I just being another clueless, privileged white liberal? Was I making everything worse by getting mired in misery and clinging to anger and resistance? Would I be able to handle it if one of my friends called me out for an unwittingly insensitive remark or action?

It all felt so intense, and yet so familiar. And then I understood why: my attitude toward this challenging and complex situation was the same attitude with which I had approached music for the better part of two decades. I wanted so badly to get it right, because it meant so much to me, and I was terrified of making a mistake. I had already challenged this fear that very week by engaging more openly and honestly with people even when I thought there was a chance it would blow up in my face. But now I had to find the wherewithal, as a person of privilege, to shoulder personal responsibility for my role in perpetuating injustice. And I saw that my work transforming my relationship to music had a lot to teach me.

Tapping Into the Reservoir of Goodness

If I have learned only one thing from the past several years of artistically-motivated self-inquiry, it is this: I am good, because I am made of goodness, and so are you. Practicing is a chance to refine the way I bring that goodness out into the world, not a referendum on whether or not I’m good. In that sense, imperfections are not confirmations of deficiency, they are the teacher that helps us cultivate our service to the world. In contrast, when we do not see this goodness and are confronted with one of our mistakes, the resulting reaction is usually one of three things: despair, denial, or defensiveness. So, believing we are inherently good and whole just as we are is not a free pass to put anything less than our best work out into the world, including the work of just and loving action; it is the ground for that beauty, justice, and love to flower, even in the most challenging situations.

When I took out my viola to start practicing the music for this week’s orchestra concert, my eyes drifted toward the Czeslaw Milosz poem I’d tucked into my case just before leaving the house last Sunday. I’d slipped the slender piece of blue paper behind my bow almost without reading it, with the vague hope that seeing it right before I walked onstage would help me remember what was important. Now I felt drawn to it, and in all of a moment I knew why:

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.


Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Milosz had it right: we don’t have to understand, we have to trust ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect to perform, and we don’t have to be perfect to try to stand up for what is right. Mistakes are just a chance to clear up some of the cloudiness masking the stainless beauty and love that we are made of, and that our audiences and fellow humans long to feel connected to.

To be clear, we must keep our wits about us and be ready to act intelligently in justice and love, and that includes challenging discussion. But the healing of the world will not arise from people taking well-researched potshots from the defended fortresses of their ideology, just as an audience needing solace and hope is not served by the artist who walks onstage armored against the innate human vulnerability. It requires us to look inside and see what we, all of us, are made of. We can afford to be both humble and courageous when we know the source of our strength. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa, “You can do it, sweetheart.”

P.S. In challenging times, it’s especially important for musicians to find a sense of community and hopefulness. If you’re seeking more of that in your life, I highly recommend API’s summer program (I’m a 4-year alumna and assistant faculty member!) or the API Online Video Groups. Let’s lift each other up through music!

Q & A of the Month

I just switched teachers because my previous teacher was harshly critical, and I couldn’t relax enough to play well. But the new teacher, who gives me a lot of encouragement, often leaves me wanting more guidance. Do you have any ideas for how I can best work with this teacher?

Excellent question. It’s hard for a teacher to strike a perfect balance between too much criticism and not enough. Nevertheless, a good teacher will be sensitive to that issue and can apologize if they’re sometimes a little harsh or impatient, as well as look for real solutions to technical and musical problems during the lesson.

Part of your responsibility as a student is to become increasingly aware of exactly what is frustrating or confusing to you in studying a piece of music, and to tell your teacher about your experience with practicing it. It’s perfectly fine to speak up and tell your teacher that you’d like a particular kind of guidance or feedback, and to ask lots of questions about the music, technical issues, and how to practice effectively.

Each student is different, and ideally, a teacher learns from those differences. Try to approach each lesson as a creative endeavor between you and your teacher. Ask if you can experiment with different musical and technical ideas, and make it as much of a dialogue as you can, so that the teacher’s curiosity is piqued as much as your own.

If your teacher says you’re playing a piece just fine but you don’t think so, tell him or her what you think and why. Describe your experience, physically, mentally, and emotionally, in playing the piece, and ask for whatever ideas your teacher might have in response to your experience. I love it when students do that – it guides me toward giving them the help they need.

Some teachers try so hard to not discourage a student that they underestimate a student’s ability to absorb valuable feedback – they are afraid to set the bar too high for the student. This may be because they don’t quite know how to help the student raise the level of their playing. If you think that your teacher doesn’t know enough to help you play the way you want to, consider looking again for a different teacher. Or consult with someone new, or with musician friends.

The most important thing is to always trust yourself – trust how you feel, and communicate it as well as you can. It’s OK to raise the bar for your teacher too – to tell him or her that you heard about a particular approach and that you wonder what they think about it.

The best teachers know that if they really listen to their students – to what they think, feel, and want – they will have success in helping them grow into the musicians they’re meant to be. So don’t give away your power to a teacher or anyone else who doesn’t understand and appreciate your needs and feelings enough. Instead, empower yourself to look for people and experiences that will truly meet your need and desire to fulfill your talent as far as you can take it.

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


Creating the Musical Community You Need

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in August 2013, following the first annual summer program of The Art of Practicing Institute at Edinboro University.)

“How was it?” everyone asked, when I came back from teaching The Art of Practicing Institute’s first summer program a few weeks ago. I couldn’t describe it, so I said things like “Spectacular!” and “Amazing!” And then I tried to explain why: the great people, the way they transformed over the week, the beautiful green campus with a lake in the middle and wonderful music facilities. But as the program receded further into the past, the central theme that kept emerging for me was community. We became a community in which everyone felt safe to be themselves, as musicians and as people—with their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, convictions and insecurities.

Some participants said they felt they have to hide when they’re with colleagues at home—they don’t feel free to share their enthusiasm about music in an environment where everyone is talking only about how many concerts, auditions, or pieces they’re playing. They wished their fellow musicians would show their vulnerability more and communicate more of their deep feelings about music. Many said they felt hopeless and discouraged as performers—experiencing intense stage fright, painful practicing, and the pressure to play “perfectly” in order to keep their jobs and make a living. Some said they have trouble appreciating themselves for working hard, no matter how much they push themselves to practice more every day. And most of them expressed a longing to develop the kind of freedom and confidence they’d seen and heard in performers they admire.

With all of this openness and honesty, everyone began to relax and to find some comfort and nourishment in just being together. It was clear they were all in the same boat—a friendly environment they could grow and thrive in.

Yes, We Worked Too

Of course, everyone was also working hard—with mindfulness techniques all day, in music workshops and in the practice rooms, and in meditation sessions. And slowly, some wisdom began to grow from applying such healthy discipline—a discipline based not on pushing themselves but on continually relaxing that push and opening up both to the increased ease and beauty that resulted in their playing and to the increased emotional vulnerability that came  with it. So our community was definitely based in a mutual willingness to explore this particular approach to working with music.

But it was the shared humanity that made the work powerful. When people opened up about difficulties they encountered in the work, they were met with caring and understanding. And when they expressed joy and delight in new discoveries, everyone celebrated with them. This group support helped each participant to stick to the program and to gradually develop more confidence in themselves and in their playing. In fact, the group support was so strong that it has continued past the program, in our own private Facebook page, via e-mail and phone, and in plans for future work and get-togethers.

A Few Things I’ve Learned

You may already have such a nourishing musical community. If so, you are very lucky. But if you don’t, I’d like to offer some ideas on how to make it happen.

First, forming a truly supportive community takes time and self-reflection. It begins with being honest with yourself about what you long for and who your closest supporters are already. Here are some of the things I’ve done to form my own community.

A couple of years before the summer program, I wanted to expand my circle of support. I looked for people who shared my deepest values, and asked them to join me in my efforts to help musicians. I was lucky to find many people who contributed to the success of various projects, including the summer program: my amazing board of directors, my business coach, friends, and colleagues. Without that strong base of support, I couldn’t have created the summer program or the community that grew out of it.

Then I learned more about community during the program itself—including how essential it was for me as the program director to have close colleagues there with me. These were the assistant teachers—whom I chose because they too shared my deepest values.

One of these teachers doubled as our magnanimous administrative director. Just to give you an idea of how valuable a supportive colleague can be, here are a few of this person’s many gifts to us: He arranged for the program to happen at his university; he personally equipped our dorm rooms with linens, hangers, kleenex, and snacks; and he made sure that everyone’s special diets were accommodated. He also moved his office refrigerator into my room and brought me all the specific foods I requested, plus others he thought I’d like. And almost every day he’d say on the phone, “If you need anything, I’m just 20 minutes away.” He made it easy for me to focus on my job of teaching and leading the program. And his complete attentiveness to everyone’s needs made all of us feel at home and extremely well taken care of.

He and the other assistant teachers also provided further essential support. They guided participants in ways I hadn’t thought of. They gave me valuable feedback on my teaching. And they extended themselves as friends, sharing things about themselves and listening to me talk about my work and my life. I’d never experienced such willing and genuine support as a teacher. We were a team, and they infused me with increased enthusiasm and vitality every day.

I couldn’t have done it without them.

Creating Your Own Community

How can you find such supportive, wonderful people to make your own nourishing musical community? It begins with asking yourself some questions.

Who would you like in your ideal community? What qualities would they have? What would you like to share with them? Are you willing to risk opening up to any of your colleagues now and find out if they understand or share some of the experiences that are most meaningful to you?

Is there something you would like to make happen? More performances? A new ensemble? A working relationship with a coach or mentor? Who could you consult to make these things happen? What kind of support do you need?

What kind of musical life would really fulfill you? What is the first step you could take to make that life a reality?

We Need Each Other

Being a musician requires so much of us—tremendous work, training, and courage to put ourselves out there as performers and teachers. The culture often does not support us as we would like it to. Money can be hard to make. Concerts can be hard to come by. We struggle with tension, injuries, and stage fright. And we spend enormous amounts of time isolated in practice rooms. Our public knows little of what we go through—how hard it is to coordinate our body, mind, ears, and emotional energies into creating a beautiful, communicative performance, and then, on top of that, to deal with the business aspects of being a musician.

But we know, and in spite of the tough competition we may face with each other, we have so very much in common.

The main thing I learned at the summer program is how much we need each other as musicians. We are a tribe, and we can receive tremendous nourishment from simply sharing ourselves and our experiences with each other on a regular basis.

Some Steps You Can Take

In a healthy community, people appreciate each other and encourage each other’s growth. Here are some ideas to help you create the community you want.

1. Tell a colleague how much you’ve enjoyed a particular aspect of their playing—their special sound, the way a certain note or phrase in their performance really touched you—anything you genuinely feel. Ask them how they did it, or how they experienced what you heard.

2. Ask yourself if there is a colleague you’d like to know better. Invite them to have coffee with you, and tell them something personal about yourself as a musician, such as, “I just discovered this __________________ (book, violinist on YouTube, new way of practicing octaves, whatever) that I’m excited about.” See if your enthusiasm brings out some of their own.

3. Admit to a colleague that you have stage fright, and mention that you’ve experimented with certain ideas for working with it. See if they open up at all about their own experience with stage fright.

4. Seek out like-minded musicians by attending seminars or workshops on practice or performance issues. An amazing thriving community is currently available to you through The Art of Practicing Institute’s new Online Video Groups. The musicians in these groups have been incredibly open and supportive of each other and have benefited enormously from the teaching and from each other’s kindness, intelligence, and humor. We have just 4 spots open in the Basic Group, and one person on the waiting list for a second Premium Group.

Remember What’s Real

Whatever you do, listen to what your heart desires from your fellow musicians, and don’t give up in your search for what you want. It may take a while to find it, but remember that deep down, perhaps under layers of jadedness, hurt, and cynicism, all musicians feel a powerful love for music and a longing to fulfill themselves musically and in a community. Look for those who appear more likely to reveal such feelings.

They’ll be glad you did.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to try out an experience with our thriving community, our Online Video Groups meet live twice a month. I warmly invite you to apply.

Q & A of the Month

I struggle with a very competitive nature. I am always comparing myself to others and find myself constantly feeling inadequate. How do I let go of comparing myself to others? Also, how do I keep it from discouraging me?

This is a great question—one that many people struggle with. I think all of us, to one degree or another, tend to compare ourselves to others in different areas of our life. We tend to judge ourselves. Even reflecting on how universal this tendency is can help you relax about it a little. Then it has less power over you.

One key to working with this tendency actually lies in the experience of feeling discouraged. When we feel discouraged, it contains sadness, which is a core feeling, a deep heart feeling. If you tune into that underlying, painful sadness—“I wish I felt better about myself; I feel hopeless”—you are touching something raw and vulnerable in yourself. Realize that this vulnerability is good. In fact, it’s the place where music can really touch you, and from which you can make music authentically and connect with other people. You can feel proud of yourself for being willing to feel it and admit it–that you are not hiding behind a false confidence as so many people do, pretending that they feel completely fantastic about themselves and that everything is hunky dory.

Once you’re in touch with that core of sadness, you can take a little time to let it flow through you, just like music flows through you. We need to give feelings plenty of space to flow through like that—to respect and value them, and to take care of ourselves that way. Otherwise they can just pile up and create blocks to our energy. If you open to it and let it flow through, you might then find yourself more open to music. People usually play better after taking some space for themselves.

Another very important thing to do is to seek guidance from a good teacher—to make sure that the way you’re practicing your instrument is really serving you and helping you play as well as you can. No one can do it alone, and in seeking help from someone else, you are honoring your own intelligence—it means you already have the wisdom to sense that you could benefit from some guidance. So you could take heart from that and follow your intelligence. In that way, your intelligence will keep developing.

Finally, it is invaluable to have a supportive community of other musicians who are brave enough to share their own vulnerability and who want to live in genuine collaboration with each other rather than intense competition. I invite you to consider joining one of The Art of Practicing Institute’s Online Video Groups, where you will find just this kind of welcoming community. It is tremendously energizing and encouraging to have such a community—and a lot of fun.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

On Taking Drugs for Stage Fright

By Madeline Bruser

In 2004, The New York Times reported that among classical musicians, the use of beta-blockers—drugs that reduce the physical symptoms of stage fright—had become “nearly ubiquitous.” The article mentioned that some music teachers even advise their students to take beta-blockers before important auditions or performances.

Although actors sometimes rely on beta-blockers when they have a particularly intense case of nerves, classical musicians depend on these drugs more than any other group of performers. Dancers can’t use beta-blockers because the drugs reduce the stamina they need for the enormous physical energy they expend.

But classical musicians face a unique set of problems. The music we play demands the utmost precision. If our finger moves an eighth of an inch in the wrong direction, people can tell that we’ve made a mistake. With audiences everywhere habituated to today’s doctored recordings, many musicians feel enormous pressure to measure up to the standards of these recordings by producing note-perfect live performances.

A Lot May Be at Stake

Musicians’ careers sometimes depend on meeting high objective standards. Orchestral players are often terrified of losing their jobs if they make small mistakes in a concert. And one judge at a prestigious international piano competition admitted to a performer who hadn’t made it to the finals that every contestant had played at such a high level that jurors started wishing that at least one pianist would disqualify himself by having a memory lapse. It would make it easier for the jury to decide on a winner.

In this climate of intense fear and competitiveness, it’s no wonder that so many performers have come to rely on beta-blockers to feel confident onstage. But is this really how it has to be?

The Nature of Performance

A musician friend of mine explained performers’ nerves like this: “If you’re a performer, your vulnerability is your product.” In other words, our job is to let ourselves be moved by the huge range of powerful energies in music so we can transmit them to our audience. But being that open means being willing to give up the idea of being in control. We may know a piece inside out, but at the moment of performance we have to let go and allow ourselves to be real and imperfect. Audiences don’t want to hear a well-oiled machine. They want to be touched and moved by the communicative power of a vulnerable, daring human being.

What Has Happened to Us?

The great pianist Artur Schnabel was revered for his ability to deeply affect his audiences. And yet he sometimes completely lost his place in a performance. Once he stopped playing in the middle of a concerto and walked over to the conductor’s podium to check the score, so he could pick up where he’d left off and finish the performance. On another occasion, he stopped in the middle of a Beethoven sonata, got up, and announced to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot play this sonata tonight. I will play another Beethoven sonata which is just as beautiful.”

I’ve always loved listening to recordings by Schnabel and others of his generation, especially when I’m in the company of other musicians. It feels cleansing and nourishing for us to forget about current standards for a while and to share the simple humanness in these recordings; it somehow never seems to go out of style. When I did a book signing at the Juilliard Bookstore, I was happy to hear the store manager say that he thought the subtitle of my book, A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, would appeal to students at the school, because they preferred buying “historic” CDs, which were typically more emotionally affecting than the more “perfect” recordings of more contemporary classical performers.

Our technological era has trained our ears to expect extremely accurate performances that are free of the erratic or eccentric tendencies that some artists have been known for in the past. In this way, recordings have functioned like a mirror, in which we can notice our flaws. But although raising the bar in this regard may be fine to an extent, it goes too far if we are so afraid to be human that we freeze in panic about going onstage. I find it very sad that only a small minority of performers actually relish the opportunity to ride the waves of their wild, unpredictable humanness and to share this life-giving energy with others in performance.

What IS Music Anyway?

Music is made out of the amazingly varied and beautiful experiences of human beings—the forces of nature that travel through us as we navigate our lives. In music we can find the energy of all the elements—volcanoes, rushing rivers, floods, torrential rain, thunder, gentle breezes, sunlight sparkling in a fountain—in constant play. Every split-second this energy changes as it moves through our bodies and minds. And great music arranges all of these energies into magnificent forms that transform us when we hear them.

It’s Not a Moral Issue

Handling all that energy onstage, when everyone’s eyes and ears are on us, is a huge challenge. And the choice to take or not to take a beta-blocker is personal and individual. Many performers who take them do so because they have experienced psychological trauma, from harmful parents or teachers, which has severely damaged their confidence. It takes so much training, bravery, and support to develop confidence onstage that I would never be judgmental of a performer who feels they can’t perform without a beta-blocker.

But I would strongly recommend that they not give up on their ability to become confident without the drugs, and to seek training, guidance, and support from people who can really help—with instrumental technique, with artistic conviction, and with personal empowerment to give their gifts to others onstage. While I don’t know if every musician can learn to perform drug-free, I have seen so many recover from debilitating stage fright that I would encourage every musician to pursue this possibility wholeheartedly. Confidence in performance is our birthright. We are put on this planet partly to be a transmitter of musical magic. It is fundamental to who we are.

Becoming at Home with Who We Are

Learning to live in our own skin as musicians means getting used to having musical sound living in our bodies both when we’re practicing and when we’re performing. To do that, we first need to pay a lot of attention to our physical and emotional experience of sound when we practice—to become as familiar as possible with the infinite scope and beauty of musical sounds and how each one of them changes us inside, viscerally. We can’t accomplish this by joylessly practicing the same passages over and over. Instead, we need to let ourselves be touched over and over, by every sound and sensation we make. In this way we come to embody musical sound, so that we feel deeply at home with it.

We also have to become at home with the physical sensations of making music. With each movement of our hands or lips, each sensation of touching our instrument as we move our bodies to express the sounds inside of us, we must feel deeply comfortable and engaged. Otherwise, how can we expect to walk out onstage and feel comfortable there, when we have to relate to an audience in addition to relating to our instrument and the music?

Being a Host Instead of a Guest

Once our body, mind, and senses have thoroughly absorbed a piece of music, we have something genuine to offer our audience.

A wonderful violist told me that whenever he gives a concert, he arrives at the hall two hours before performance time. When I asked why he gets there so early, he explained that he wants to feel like a host instead of a guest. He wants to make sure he feels comfortable where he is so that he can extend himself in a spirit of generosity toward his audience.

It is our job as performers—to be so at home onstage that we feel ready to invite our audience into our world and to share our gifts with them.

On Timing and Safety

You may not feel ready to be a host yet. You can’t feel ready if you still need time to make yourself at home in your own practice room and your own mind. But don’t give up on who you are. You are meant to share your gifts, and you can find guidance to help you do that.

If you don’t feel ready to seek help now, it’s important to accept yourself just as you are—to feel your fear and vulnerability. This is the experience of your tender heart, which is the most precious part of you. If you take time to feel this tender, scared place in yourself, you are already giving yourself some of the gentle attention you need to eventually overcome whatever obstacles are in your way. Just remember that you are not alone. Many performers share your fears. And help is available.

If you do feel ready to seek guidance toward freedom and confidence onstage, look for signs that the experience will be safe. Ask all the questions you need to ask of anyone you’re considering getting help from. Talk to more than one person if you’re curious about different perspectives and points of view.

The friendly-looking people you see in the right column of every issue of Fearless Performing are a few of the many people who have a lot to offer. Other music teachers, movement educators, arts medicine professionals, psychotherapists, and mindfulness teachers are also out there, ready to help. Look for a combination of wisdom, experience, kindness, and personal chemistry. Then trust your intuition and open yourself to the new world you hope to find.

It takes work to break through the obstacles to freedom. But with the right guidance, that work will feel natural, welcome, and exciting.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to take a wonderful step toward greater confidence as a musician, The Art of Practicing Institute’s brand new Online Video Groups are ready for you. We’re off to an exciting and fun start, with musicians from 5 countries and 4 continents. A safe and welcoming community awaits you there. Apply here.

Q&A of the Month

I play the flute. When I tried your Body and Sound Awareness technique, I closed my eyes the first few times to help me focus more on the body-sound connection. But then I was able to open my eyes and still keep the connection. Is opening your eyes for this exercise just a matter of practice? And how does that relate to performing? I like to play with my eyes closed, but when I see someone perform with their eyes open, I think it shows that they’re comfortable onstage, which is what I’m aiming for. What are you thoughts about that?


These are wonderful questions. With your high degree of awareness, you can make many useful discoveries about how to best practice and perform, which can keep your work fresh and exciting.

I agree that closing your eyes can make it easier to focus on sounds and sensations. This is why many blind musicians are known for being especially sensitive and expressive. At the same time, when we perform, our awareness needs to expand to include the audience and the environment, so that we can connect with them fully and really communicate. When we’re performing really well, our energy mixes with everyone else’s, creating a vibrant atmosphere in the hall. Whether you do that with your eyes open or closed, your whole system feels it when it happens.

It takes a lot to prepare a piece to the point of feeling comfortable performing it. When we practice, we have the luxury of taking our time, of focusing on one thing at a time so that we can absorb every detail and make it a part of us. We have room to try all kinds of approaches, and that helps us develop our unique creative intelligence. As we get closer to mastering a piece, the space we’re working in feels more intense—we have made so many choices already about how to play the piece that our perceptions become very sharp as we try to refine our performance. Although we never feel 100% prepared when we go onstage, the moment comes when we have to just let go. And if we’ve practiced with an open mind and heart, we can trust that we’ve taken the music in and that it will flow out of us in performance. It may not necessarily feel comfortable in the usual sense of the word. It feels very daring—we’re really on the spot. But you could describe it as becoming comfortable with that feeling of risk and uncertainty. We get used to riding the waves of the music and of the energy in ourselves and all around us.

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