Committing to Real Change

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

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

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

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

It takes courage.

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

An Example of Ordinary Courage

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

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

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

The Moment of Crisis

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

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

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

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

What We Can Learn from Alan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Celebrate successes.

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

What API Can Offer You

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

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

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

See our faculty page.

2. Our inspiring Online Video Groups

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

3. Our amazing weeklong summer program:

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

July 22 – 29, 2017

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

Click for more information.

4. A free consultation with me

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

Contact me.

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

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

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

Q&A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Confidence Through Self-Awareness

by Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we do that?

A Crucial and Often Overlooked Step 

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

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

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

But Don’t Despair

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

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

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

If Tension and Frustration Persist

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

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

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

Musician, Love Thyself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Set Things Right

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

The music, and our audience, can only benefit.

I wish you much joy and success with making music.

Madeline Bruser

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

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being an Artist in Challenging Times

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by Nora Krohn

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

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

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

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

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

The Courage to Give

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

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

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

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

Facing Exhaustion and Doubt

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

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

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

Tapping Into the Reservoir of Goodness

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

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

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

 

Then he wants to use himself and things


So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.


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

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

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

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

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

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creating the Musical Community You Need

By Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

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

Yes, We Worked Too

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

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

A Few Things I’ve Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t have done it without them.

Creating Your Own Community

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

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

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

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

We Need Each Other

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

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

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

Some Steps You Can Take

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

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

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

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

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

Remember What’s Real

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

They’ll be glad you did.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

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

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Taking Drugs for Stage Fright

By Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

A Lot May Be at Stake

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

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

The Nature of Performance

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

What Has Happened to Us?

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

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

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

What IS Music Anyway?

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

It’s Not a Moral Issue

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

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

Becoming at Home with Who We Are

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

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

Being a Host Instead of a Guest

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

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

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

On Timing and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

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

Q&A of the Month

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

 

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

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

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

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.