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.

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

In Defense of Doing Things that Scare You

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.30.41 PMBy Nora Krohn

A few weeks ago, my husband and I played a show together in New York that I had plenty of reasons to be nervous about. For one thing, it had been a while since we’d played a formal concert as a duo–the previous year our free time had been consumed with planning our wedding, and the ongoing work of trying to build a teaching studio–so we felt a little rusty. Also, I was exhausted from driving 425 miles back to New York from the weeklong Art of Practicing Institute summer program the day before. In addition, the pieces we’d chosen to play were fairly virtuosic, and since we hadn’t rehearsed in over a week there was no telling what kind of shape they would be in. And the venue was a prominent space for very avant-garde, improvised music, and we didn’t know if anyone would appreciate the pieces on our program. To top it off, we were the closing set in a composer residency, where we would be premiering a new work by the composer. And did I mention that both my husband and the composer of the piece we were premiering are, like myself, also violists? Excellent violists?

Like I said, I had plenty of reasons to worry about what might happen, and how it would be received.

Choosing to Trust Myself

But earlier that week, I’d had some helpful preparation for this event when I attended the Art of Practicing Institute summer program for the fourth consecutive year. While every year had been quite different from the previous, this one was especially different: I was returning as an assistant teacher. When program founder Madeline Bruser initially invited me to teach, I was full of doubt. I was by far the youngest and least experienced teacher on the faculty, and I wasn’t sure I’d learned the principles well enough to teach them to someone else, let alone someone who didn’t play the same instrument as I did. I’d only recently begun to gain greater confidence as a performer, and I wondered if I would be able to set a courageous example in the closing concert. And I’d been through so much emotionally in previous years at the program, I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to attend to others who needed support.

In spite of my worry, I knew that Madeline had asked me to teach for a reason—she saw I was ready to grow even more. Going into the week, I decided that I wouldn’t try to force myself to be any different than I was. The purpose of my being there, I reminded myself, was not to prove I was worthy of praise, or show how much I knew already. The purpose was to learn more, and to share what I had learned for the benefit of others.

Surprisingly, it went pretty well. I managed to teach effectively, by relying on my own knowledge and instincts, asking for the student’s input, and accepting lots of guidance and feedback from other teachers. When internal emotional turmoil arose, I handled it skillfully, and it passed. When participants asked me questions about meditation or performing, I tried to answer fully and truthfully—offering whatever wisdom I may have had without obscuring the messy reality of my own situation. Something strange seemed to be happening: I was choosing to trust myself, and I wasn’t failing.

But Would It Hold Up?

Between the full daily schedule and my need for rest, I didn’t have luxurious amounts of time or energy for practicing. I knew the two movements of Schumann that I planned to play in the concert quite well, and since the pianist who would be accompanying me had learned them beautifully, there wasn’t a lot for us to do. In my three previous years of playing in the master classes, I had delved deeply into the nuances of my playing and my sometimes thorny relationship to performing, with a supportive audience witnessing my struggle and transformation. But this time, I was mostly witnessing others’ transformative experiences. In a way, it was was a relief to play a more supporting role, but also a little disorienting, and I didn’t know how I would fare playing in front of everyone for the first time on the last night of the program.

Inevitably, it all came down to trusting myself, again. I’ve come to see it as an act of will, a choice to stay open, ask my mind to relax, and let my intuition take over. [fear is an instinct too.] Doubtful thoughts tend to appear no matter how well I’ve prepared or what the circumstances are. But everything depends on how I respond to them: when I become involved with them, or linger over them, my mind contracts, I lose touch with the moment, and my playing falters. But when doubtful thoughts arise and I can acknowledge them and immediately come back to the moment, I sail through split-second lapses before they interrupt the flow. I am beginning to get a feel for this experience of riding the razor’s edge—and not falling off—but it’s still quite new. All week I wondered if during the concert a wave of anxiety would well up as it had so many times before, and if I would be ill-prepared to meet it.

But the main thing I felt instead, in the hours before the performance, was a very unfamiliar feeling: calm, steady, groundedness. There was no squeeze of anxiety, no burning shame about my faults or eagerness to strut my stuff. I felt almost empty. I wondered if my lack of fear or passion was downright disrespectful, a sign that I didn’t care enough, except that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Previously, I couldn’t control my fear; I could only accept it as it was. This time, I couldn’t control this strange, new sensation of inner calm.

I did feel a little more anxious right before I walked onstage, but the feeling of basic trust remained. It felt simple, direct, unadorned. I was standing on the earth, and there was no risk of falling off. I walked onstage, bowed, played the two movements without any mishaps, bowed again to warm applause, and left the stage. I had chosen to trust myself, radically, and the disaster I’d been fearing never materialized.

Trying It Out in the Real World

My experience playing at the closing concert of the summer program was still fresh in my mind when my husband and I were preparing to go onstage for our duo show back in New York. Again, I saw that my only choice was to trust my preparation and my instincts, and to do the best I could. And again, I found that in spite of my discomfort with some parts of the situation, I felt physically calm and grounded. As we played, I let go of all judgment and kept coming back to the present, over and over.

To my surprise, the show was great. We played with conviction, and the audience was full of enthusiasm and appreciation. I felt honored to have had such a rich experience in a culturally important space, and proud of my partnership with my husband. I couldn’t believe it had been so…simple.

In reflecting on all of this, I remembered a conversation I had about confidence with Madeline during our week together. I told her that I’d begun to see that, while confidence can be eroded through negative social conditioning, it can also be (re)learned through positive experiences with facing our fears. She quickly agreed—this route to confidence is a foundational premise of her teaching. But when I mused that perhaps some other performers are simply born confident, she gently corrected me. “Nora,” she said, “remember that every single human being is born a helpless baby. No one is born confident.”

Her words flipped a switch in my mind, and something new was illuminated.

Confidence = Trusting Yourself in the Face of Uncertainty

In the book Conquering Fear: Awakening the Heart of True Bravery, Chögyam Trungpa says, “Whenever there is doubt, that creates another step on your staircase. Doubt is telling you that you need to take another step. Each time there is an obstacle, go one step further, beyond that, step-by-step.”

No one is born fearless, but we can cultivate fearlessness–not through getting rid of fear, but meeting it and then going beyond it. What this summer’s experience clarified for me is that we can’t become fearless without going through fear: that’s like trying to swim across a river without getting wet. But each time we meet the fear of performing with the right kind of attitude and preparation, we grow a little bigger than the fear, and it controls us a little less than before. Eventually, we may have performances where the fear seems so diminished that it’s hardly there at all: but it’s not because we’ve made the fear smaller, it’s because we’ve gotten bigger.

When I first started learning the Schumann piece I performed this summer, over a year ago, I went step-by-step toward the confidence I wanted. I started by feeling and appreciating my enthusiasm for learning a new recital program of music I felt deeply connected to. I was mindful of recital dates I had scheduled, but instead of frantically trying to learn everything at tempo right away, I took my time. When tricky passages eluded my command, I examined them with a sense of curiosity rather than urgency—what makes this so difficult? What’s getting in the way of the flow here? What am I doing with my hands in this spot? What does this harmony sound like when I play the piano chord under it and sing my note? Gradually, I learned everything up to speed. When it was time to perform the pieces for the first time a few months later, my connection to the music was durable even though I felt nervous, because I had taken the time to learn the music deeply, and I had positive associations with it from the many pleasurable hours I’d spent working on it. As I had more chances to perform the pieces, I learned even more about them. And each time I met the fear of performing and stayed open, my sense of trust in my own command grew stronger. I was learning the music, and I was learning fearlessness at the same time.

As I’m discovering, the experience of learning a piece deeply can take months or years, but we can also relax and enjoy the process. Likewise, though the ascent from fear to fearlessness is a continuous journey—because life always seems to lead us to new challenges—we can celebrate this boundless opportunity to grow.

And, I now believe that climbing from self-doubt into confidence gets easier with practice. Although we can never predict what will happen in a performance, each time we make the trip, step-by-step, we know the way a little better for the next time.

Nora Krohn

P.S.  If you’re interested in trying out this path to self-trust in practicing and performing, I highly recommend that you check out The Art of Practicing Institute’s brand-new online community program, which you can find out more about here. A welcoming, nonjudgmental group like this can give you vital support in becoming the musician you want to be.

On Talent and True Teaching

by Madeline Bruser

“How talented am I?” “How well will I be able to play?” “How long will it take me?”

When a student asks me these questions, I hear their longing to fulfill themselves as a musician, along with their anxiety and fear that they may not be able to accomplish what they hope to. I may tell them that they have a lot of potential, great coordination, or a good ear, or that they are wonderfully musical or even extremely talented. But regardless of how I answer their questions, the most important thing to me is where their questions are coming from—why they care so much about their possibilities for making music. It is that caring place, the heart of the person, that will determine how receptive they are to my teaching, how intelligently they will be able to work, and how much they can learn and grow through their study with me.

The more I teach, the more I see that people are capable of incredible things when they are deeply motivated. Each student, whether amateur or professional, surprises me with how far they can go with their playing, and with who they become as a pianist. And all along the way, as their talent continues to develop, their playing keeps flowering in new and beautiful ways.

I have written many articles about practicing and performing. But I decided to write now about teaching, which has been my great passion for the last 30 years. So many musicians suffer from self-doubt, and even debilitating stage fright, because they have not received all of the support and guidance they need in playing their instrument.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Culture of Measurement

We live in a culture that doesn’t generally recognize how complex and challenging it is to master an instrument, or what is involved in teaching a musician to accomplish such mastery. We often focus more on how many hours someone practices than on the actual quality of their work, just as we tend to focus on measuring and evaluating people in general—in the school system, in the corporate world, and in the world of music education and competitions. But in the middle of all this measuring and judging, the most effective teachers know—whether they are teaching in an elementary school or in a music conservatory—that although students may benefit to an extent from meeting the challenge of the next test or jury exam, they can only fully thrive when a teacher sees and respects the wisdom and beauty within them and can guide them toward connecting with it and unleashing its power.

The Power of the Teacher-Student Relationship

Since childhood, I have been struck by the power of the relationships I had with my piano teachers. Other musicians have also told me about the enormous effect their teachers have had on them. When I was a conservatory graduate student and making my living primarily from teaching piano, I wanted to understand the nature of this relationship more, so I did an independent study project on the teacher-student relationship in the private music lesson. As part of the project, I read about 10 books on teaching, and I also circulated a survey among students and faculty to find out how much they understood about each other.

For the students, the survey included questions about how they felt during lessons, what they most wanted from their teacher, and what they considered to be the main responsibilities of a teacher and of a student. It also asked them to guess how teachers thought and felt on these subjects. For the teachers, the questions were reversed: they answered questions about their own feelings and thoughts on these subjects, and also about what they thought students felt in these areas.

Although I no longer have those surveys, I vividly remember learning one main thing from the completed surveys I received: With one exception, the teachers were not aware that the single thing students most wanted from them was to be understood as a person. This was more important to them than any specifically musical things they were learning.

Of course, every student is different, as is every teacher. And there are so many essential things that a music student needs from her instrumental teacher. I have spoken to musicians who simply craved knowledge and didn’t care if their teacher liked them or understood them as a person. But I have also found in my own teaching that the personal relationship I have with each student has a very significant impact on how well they are able to play.

What Are We Teaching?

Music is so deeply personal, and it involves all of ourselves—our, body, mind, heart, and sense perceptions. And it requires all of these to work in concert—which is an interesting word here. When a musician performs in a concert, they are connecting their own heart and mind with the heart and mind of the composer and audience. To do this, all of their faculties—body, mind, heart, emotion, ears, sense of touch—must operate together in a harmonious way. Teaching someone to do that also necessitates a complete, harmonious synthesizing of all of these elements during each lesson. So a teacher must know in depth how body, mind, heart, ears, and touch all work, and how they constantly affect each other.

Anyone who has spent much time practicing an instrument knows that you can’t really separate technique from music—that the way you move changes how your instrument sounds, and that conversely, if you don’t shape or organize a phrase to best effect, your body can feel somewhat awkward as it tries to flow along with the music you are making. In addition to developing this understanding, we also become familiar with another key experience: When a thoughtless teacher or other listener makes an unkind comment about our playing, we can easily become physically and emotionally tense, so that our expressive capacity suffers or even shuts down.

For a student to feel safe to fully express herself in a music lesson, she has to sense that her teacher is right there with her, hearing not only the sounds she is making but what she needs as a student and person from moment to moment. This is a tall order, and all teachers make mistakes. But if the quality of communication between teacher and student is open and trusting, and if the teacher is also highly knowledgeable in matters of technique and musicianship, the entire experience, for both the student and the teacher, can be extremely rewarding. For in giving a music lesson, we are putting together the components of being a real artist and human being—we are helping someone open up the treasure of their gift and to display it and offer it to others.

Teaching from the Heart

Teaching in this fully human way requires a whole new set of skills from what we are taught in school. The main skill we need to develop is receptivity. And it starts with being receptive to ourselves.

We have so many habits as teachers. We want to give our students lots of information and advice. We may say, “Play it this way,” and then play it for them, expecting them to copy what we do. Or we may instruct them to phrase it a certain way, finger it a certain way, pedal it a certain way, and feel it in a certain way—all without being the least bit aware that they may be feeling really vulnerable or confused—that they may need to tell us what’s going on with them, or what they understand already, before we open our mouth and tell them all of our ideas.

The more we can be aware of such habits in our teaching, the more options we have for genuinely connecting to each student in each moment, so that we can understand who they are, how they feel, what they know, and what they need from us. A lesson is like a piece of music in that way—it is a moving stream of human feelings and intelligence. To swim in that stream, we have to be aware of the current and to swim with it, not against it.

A student can only absorb what they are ready for. Our job as teachers is to sense what they are ready for, to ask them questions if we are unsure of where they’re at, and to do our best to open to them, person to person, explaining and exploring things in a way that works for them. We can only do this if we are willing to learn a great deal ourselves in the process. Ideally, we need to be able to really enjoy teaching as one of the most meaningful and creative activities we could engage in.

Drawing Out a Student

One of the books I read when I was doing my independent study project in graduate school on the teacher-student relationship was Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers. He describes the teacher as a “facilitator of learning.” And one of the first questions he recommends that a teacher asks a student is, “What do you think?” As soon as I started asking that question of my students, teaching became a completely different experience for me. I got to know who my students really were – what they thought, how they felt, and what they already knew. I discovered that a lot of what I had to tell them wasn’t necessary, because they had already perceived the same things that I had in their playing.

So many students are not used to teachers being curious about them in this way. And they may have grown up without their parents showing that kind of interest in them. They are sometimes hesitant or confused at first when they are given the opportunity to look into their own mind and to speak their mind. But this is the one thing that they need the most. In order to really learn something in your bones, to learn it in your heart for real, you need to be in touch with your heart. A teacher who encourages that self-awareness is going beyond simply feeding you ideas and information. He is helping you cultivate your own innate wisdom.

The Nature of Your Talent

Your talent lies in your heart. Being born with a natural coordination for your instrument is a great help. Having the abilities to learn music quickly, to memorize it, and to understand it intellectually, is definitely an asset if you want to be a professional musician. But the essence of your talent is your deep feeling for music. This is what will carry you through all the work it takes to become the musician you want to be. And this is what a teacher is most responsible for as he helps you develop the many skills you need.

If You Are a Student

Teachers are not all-knowing, divine beings. They need feedback from their students just as parents need feedback from their children. A child who is used to being respected by her parents may often say something like, “You don’t understand, mommy. This is what I really mean,” and then go on to surprise her mother with how much insight she actually has already. Students need the space to talk in a similar way to their teachers. If you sense that there is room for you to express yourself in such a way to your teacher, I encourage you to take full advantage of it. The more your teacher understands about how you think and feel—about the music or about their teaching, or about anything else related to your learning experience—the better equipped they are to guide you toward developing your full potential.

Asking questions when you don’t understand something your teacher advises, speaking up if your teacher is unkind or impatient, and in general, letting your teacher know what is going on with you in your practicing and in your lesson experience, is part of your responsibility as a student and musician. You and your teacher should function as a team, committed to your musical growth. If your teacher does not encourage this kind of healthy relationship, seriously consider looking for a new teacher.

If You Are a Teacher

The human heart is extremely powerful. It is also extremely delicate. At any moment, we have the power as teachers to either encourage our student’s heart to open or to frighten it into closing. The right word said at the right moment can create such a beautiful flowering in a student’s playing. Our primary job as teachers is to look for those words and those moments. If we listen with our whole heart to each moment of our interaction with a student—just as we listen with our whole heart to every sound of a beautiful performance—we can find those moments of beautiful connection with each student and help them connect with themselves.

There is no greater gift we can give them.

Teaching the Teachers

If you would like to develop these abilities as a teacher, I invite you to attend The Art of Practicing Institute’s Summer Program,or come for a free consultation. To find a teacher of the Art of Practicing in your area, you can check the Faculty page of the website for The Art of Practicing Institute.

Meanwhile, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to begin moving more in the direction of true teaching:

  1. Why am I teaching?
  2. What experience do I want my students to have?
  3. Do I have great confidence in my understanding of technique and musicianship and in my ability to communicate what I know?
  4. What kinds of questions can I ask students during lessons that will help them understand and express their own insights and feelings about the music and how they are playing it?
  5. Can I become more aware of things I do or say that interfere with the student’s self-awareness in lessons?
  6. How can I encourage self-awareness in practicing?
  7. In what ways can I convey my belief in the student’s intelligence and talent?

If you ask yourself such questions throughout your teaching career, you will help each of your students develop into who they are meant to be.

You will also find out who you are meant to be as a teacher. And in my experience, that can be a most exciting revelation.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

Q & A of the Month

I have one more year left at my conservatory, and I’m really starting to panic about how to make money when I get out. I know I can at least get some piano students, but I feel like I’ll end up bored out of my mind teaching middling level students. And anyway, I really just want to perform. And that is so unbelievably competitive. What are your suggestions?

This seems to be the number one question for serious young musicians. In previous issues of this e-zine, I’ve described my own experience as an example of how to find your true place in the music profession. But I’d recommend that you start with asking yourself some penetrating questions.

These questions may not be easy to answer, or they may seem easier to answer than you think. But if you think beyond surface answers and really look within yourself for how you feel about these things, you may come to a new understanding of how to create the musical life you want.

Find a time to contemplate these questions when you can relax easily. It could also be helpful to actually write down your answers, so you can clearly formulate your thoughts.

First, why do you want to have a career in music?

What images and feelings arise when you imagine having the kind of performing career you dream of?

How much of your desire to fulfill yourself as a professional musician has to do with satisfying your ego, and how much has to do with connecting with something beyond your ego?

What is that something beyond your ego?

What do you want your audience to experience?

When you picture yourself teaching the kind of students you want to teach, what feelings and images arise in you?

What would you want to accomplish as a teacher?

What would you want your students to experience in their musical lives?

Do you have enough knowledge and wisdom about music, the piano, and the ins and outs of professional musical activities to know how to proceed toward the goal you most want?

If you don’t have enough knowledge and wisdom to do this, where can you get it?

I suggest that you allow a lot of time to contemplate these questions, You might even want to listen to a piece of music that touches your “soft spot” while you think of your answers—something slow, gentle, and poignant can work well.

Enjoy the process of answering these questions. And please feel free to contact me again if you’d like to discuss these questions further.

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

Training the Mind of Confidence

Dear readers of Fearless Performing E-zine,

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

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

Warmly,
Madeline

_______________________

Training the Mind of Confidence

(Originally published July, 2012)

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

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

The Golden Key

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

How We Lose Power

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

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

Beyond the Music and the Moves

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

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

Gaining Access to the Power

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

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

A Little Goes a Long Way

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

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

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

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

Experiment

How does this lead to confidence in performance?

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

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

This is confidence in performance.

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

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

Madeline Bruser

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

Q&A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy your summer!

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

 

 

Nora Krohn on The Raw Wisdom of Anger

Dear subscribers,

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

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

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

With warm wishes,

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

The Raw Wisdom of Anger

by Nora Krohn

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

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

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

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

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

The Root of Anger

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

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

Embracing the Unacceptable

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

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

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

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

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

Nora Krohn

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

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

What’s Your Emotional Style of Struggle?

Dear Fearless Performing E-zine subscribers,

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

I hope you enjoy the video and article below!

Warmly,
Madeline

Three Styles of Struggle

by Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

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

Passione d’amore

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

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

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

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

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

Staying on the Ground

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

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

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

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

Sharpening Your Awareness

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

Here are a few guidelines:

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

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

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

Finding Your Heart

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

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

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

Mixing All the Ingredients

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

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

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

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

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

Q & A of the Month

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracy Stuchbery on The Power of Being Ordinary

Dear Fearless Performing subscribers,

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

The Power of Being Ordinary

By Tracy Stuchbery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nora Krohn: On Jealousy and True Belonging

Dear subscribers,

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

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

I hope you enjoy this great article.

Warmly,

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

On Jealousy and True Belonging

by Nora Krohn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s celebrate its grandeur.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

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

Thanks for the great question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nora Krohn on Self-Love

Dear subscribers of Fearless Performing E-zine,

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

Enjoy!

Warmly,

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

The Missing Ingredient: Self-Love

by Nora Krohn

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

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

The Root of the Problem

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

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

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

What Next?

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

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

A Resting Place

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

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

Change is Possible

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

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

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Gift from Mary Duncan

Happy Holidays, dear subscribers!

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy it.

Warmly,

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

The Gift of Deep Listening 

by Mary Duncan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what I noticed:

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

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

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

Three Gifts

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

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

With warm holiday wishes,

Mary Duncan