Fearlessness in the Face of Judgment

by Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

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

Putting the Human Element First

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

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

Bob: Remembering Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Remembering Wise and Loving Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: Remembering Deep Love

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

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

What Can We Learn from these Brave Musicians?

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

Let’s Skip to the Coda

One final note:

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

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

You Can Do It

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

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

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

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

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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