Genuine Stage Presence

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in February, 2013.)

I once attended a clarinet master class taught by Richard Stoltzman at the Manhattan School of Music. The audience had just filled the 400-seat hall when Mr. Stoltzman appeared onstage pulling a luggage cart, apparently either just arriving from the airport, or ready for a flight after the class. After we had greeted him with applause, and before he spoke a word, he simply stood and looked around, taking in the environment—the rows of people sitting on the ground level and up in the balcony, the lighting, the furniture on the stage, the quiet, the atmosphere. He seemed to be getting his bearings in the new surroundings he suddenly found himself in—a contrast to the street or the airport.

After we’d waited for what seemed like a full minute, he slowly began to speak and proceeded to teach the class with an arresting spaciousness, as well as with his characteristic brilliance and playfulness. His energy seemed to flow naturally from simply being open—from taking time to ground himself, to feel what it was like to be on that stage, in that hall, at that moment.

There are many ways a performer can make an entrance. Nightclub entertainers often bound onto the stage beaming big smiles, aiming to lift the spirits of their audience. Rock stars may saunter onstage, playing it cool or hot to appeal to their fans. And many fine classical artists approach center stage with glamorous elegance, radiating a warmth that fills the hall. All of these ways of meeting an audience can be fine, and even great.

But Mr. Stoltzman’s unhurried ordinariness on that afternoon as he faced us from the stage has stayed in my mind as a striking example of simple, uncontrived being. He let us see him in an almost private way in a public situation. His presence was strong in its bareness, its quietness, its intense realness. It gave us a glimpse of the receptiveness that lies underneath his colorful playing and personality. It was clear that this master class had nothing to do with the teacher’s ego. It was all about genuinely relating to his students and to his audience.

The Power of Being an Ordinary Person

It’s hard to describe a moment like that, when someone onstage is not putting on a show—when his ordinary presence strips away our preconceptions of who he is and reveals the unadorned person. It’s an intimate experience, and it opens us up to the music or teaching they are offering. Each of us at such a moment can connect with what is most genuine and unadorned in ourselves.

Mr. Stoltzman maintained his remarkable receptiveness throughout the class, taking time to tune in to the heart and mind of each student he worked with. Respectful and gentle, he listened to their words as well as to their playing, and gave them time to absorb what he was saying. He didn’t rush to give them solutions to problems; instead, he experimented with them, letting them try out ideas and see if they worked. I am still grateful for the example he set, of a great performer who didn’t try to call attention to himself. He didn’t need to. His humility and kindness were magnetic.

Getting Off the Fast Track

Although performers like Richards Stoltzman seem to be born with a natural gift for communicating through music and through their personal presence, all of us can develop our own communicative gifts to a much higher level than we usually think. I have seen many ordinary music students become magnetically present in performance through using their minds in a skillful way. It all begins with slowing down and tuning in to the present moment, just as Mr. Stoltzman did onstage that day.

Slowing down like that is unusual in our culture. We are so accustomed to speed—in school and work settings, on television, on the Internet, and in our own minds—that the very act of taking time to simply observe what’s happening often brings up guilt and self-judgment. We become suspicious of ourselves or of anyone else who seems to be wasting time by doing nothing.

Yet more and more articles have been appearing recently, in The New York Times and other publications, on the value of slowing down—of practicing mindfulness, taking short breaks in the work day, and going on vacation. Scientists have finally declared that the human mind works better when we don’t push it so hard, and that people are more productive and effective when they give themselves more of a chance to breathe.

Connecting with the Extra-ordinary

You can begin training yourself to be more present by periodically stopping in the middle of an activity and noticing what your five senses are perceiving. Right now, after you read this sentence, stop for a moment and notice what you are seeing, hearing, smelling tasting, and touching, and what it’s like to do that.

Does it feel good to stop and do this? What do you notice? Try it again, now, for another moment.

Can you picture yourself making a habit of interrupting your day to engage in this non-activity?

If you practice such awareness often, while sitting still, with nothing much happening around you, the most ordinary things begin to hold your interest more, and your awareness becomes very sharp, as though you were viewing the present moment through a magnifying glass. You experience a very focused, undistracted state of mind. This is the powerful practice called mindfulness. Anyone can do it.

Observing Your Own Mind

The most basic mindfulness practice is to notice your breathing while sitting still and upright. This technique is called mindfulness meditation, and it’s great to do it with your eyes open. That way you learn to handle being aware of your environment while your attention is primarily on one thing. This is amazing preparation for performance, when you experience a heightened awareness of the environment yet have to focus on what you’re doing—using your instrument to make music.

Placing your attention on your breathing helps your mind and body relax. And as your mind relaxes, you also become more aware of your state of mind. From moment to moment, you may be happy or sad, comfortable or uncomfortable, bored, distracted, restless, or freaked out. All kinds of thoughts may come and go, and you become an observer of your own mind.

Your mind may be full of many things—memories, plans, worries, and general mish-mash—and you may not enjoy all of them. But if you stay with it all, you will gain something valuable: a distance from all of these thoughts, and a stronger and stronger realization that they are just thoughts. They are not you. You are the person who is watching them.

Getting Out of Your Head 

I gave basic mindfulness instruction in a previous issues (see Grandma’s Recipe for Space in the article Creating Space for Music to Flow). And we do it regularly in our Live Online Workshops, as well as at our annual summer program. This simple technique helps you get out of your head and come back into your body and your sense perceptions—which is where you need to be most for making music. It also allows you to become a better observer of your own mind—to notice when you’re caught up in habitual thinking and to let go of your thoughts. And as your mind becomes more free of habitual thinking, it opens up and becomes be more creative as well as more receptive.

A Few Steps You Can Take

Whether you can participate in the call or not, here are a few steps you can try the next time you’re preparing to walk onstage:

1. As you’re anticipating the moment of your entrance, notice how you feel.

2. Know that the feelings you have are full of life energy, and that you can use that energy creatively in your performance. Appreciate this vibrant state, no matter how nervous or uncomfortable you may feel.

3. Remember it’s normal to be nervous before a performance, and that the most successful and famous musicians feel this way.

4. Appreciate your bravery in being willing to face your audience. Take time to extend warmth to yourself this way.

5. As you’re about to step onstage, take time to notice your physical sensations—your foot touching the floor, your clothes touching your skin, your body moving through space. Keep feeling your bravery and appreciating it.

6. As you enter the space of the stage, take time to notice the light, the people, their applause, the atmosphere, your excitement or nervousness.

7. As you sit or stand in position to perform, continue to notice the details of your sensory experience.

8. If you’re performing with others, take time to notice them and to feel your connection with them.

9. Take a moment to experience the silence before you begin.

10. Trust your intuition about  when to make your first sound.

11. Whatever happens, stay with the energy of the music, and of sharing it with other people.

12. Know that being perfect is not the point—in fact, it is your vulnerability and humanness that will connect you to your audience more than anything else can.

Performing is a special opportunity to experience that each ordinary moment and perception contains the power of the extraordinary. Trust that with practice, you can go deeper into this experience and discover more of what it means to be present and to let yourself be seen by your audience.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. We do two other powerful techniques in the Live Online Workshops and at our annual summer program, opening up great new energy for practicing and performing. I invite you to join us!

Q & A of the Month 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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