Handling Your Vulnerability as an Artist

Dear subscribers to Fearless Performing e-zine,

I’m delighted to share again Nora Krohn’s article “Handling Your Vulnerability as an Artist,” first published in Fearless Performing E-zine in August 2014.

Nora is currently completing her first book, You Already Are: A Musician’s Notes on Overcoming Fear and Waking Up to Love. 

Enjoy her article!

Warmly,
Madeline

by Nora Krohn

A few years out of school, I happened to meet a prominent and well-connected freelance violinist. She was several years older than I was, very skilled and street-smart, and I asked her to lunch so that I could glean some useful career advice from her. After some pleasant small talk, I got to the pressing question: “How can I get more work in New York?”

She sighed, thought for a moment, and gave me the names of a few people to call. But she warned me that I wasn’t likely to get anywhere by asking other people for help—I just had to stick it out somehow until people got to know me. At the end of our meal, I thanked her and asked if she had any parting words of counsel. She looked me squarely in the face and said, “Just remember, no one is your friend. Act confident, and don’t open up to anyone. Go in every day with your armor on.” I was incredulous. I told her I thought there must be a way to avoid succumbing to such bitterness. “Nora, you can’t go around saying things like that,” she retorted, “People are going to think you’re some sort of princess.”

Vulnerability as a Liability

Although I was devastated by my colleague’s cynical admonition, I knew that her attitude must be concealing great pain, and I could relate. I’d often wondered if I was just too sensitive to handle the demands of being a performer—competition, scrutiny, and rejection all made me fall apart. When I was a child, music had been a refuge, but over time the emotional vulnerability that defined my relationship with it began to seem like a serious liability, and I strove to bury it under hard-bitten perfectionism.

I had always been attentive and diligent, but after hearing my colleague’s sobering advice, I became more cautious than ever. In some ways this strategy paid off—I arrived at every gig thoroughly prepared and developed a reputation for being reliable and hardworking. I projected cheerful confidence, was easy to get along with, and made everyone laugh. Slowly but surely, I started eking out a meager living as a violist.

Since my strategies for armoring myself against feeling or showing any vulnerability seemed to be working, I was afraid to give them up even though the space to be myself was eroding all around me. I couldn’t have fun playing anymore, because all of my effort was directed toward masking imperfections. I was convinced that if anyone knew how I really felt, or how I really played when I wasn’t trying to conceal all my rough edges, my career would be over. Eventually, I gave up on doing anything meaningful or positive with my talents, I just wanted to be utterly unobjectionable.

When I finally decided to check out Madeline Bruser’s summer program on Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance in 2013, I was well on my way to a freelance career in New York. So although I was desperate for something about my attitude toward performing to change, I was also terrified of facing how I felt. 

Vulnerability as an Asset

When I first arrived at the program, I still wanted to believe that I wouldn’t have to own up to my feelings. But the professional veneer I’d fabricated quickly imploded as other participants began to describe their deepest longings and self-doubts. I was stunned. I had never heard another musician admit to feeling vulnerable in such a public situation. But shock soon gave way to profound admiration for their courage and unvarnished generosity in speaking out. At last I’d found a place where I felt at home being honest with myself about what was really going on inside my head and heart.

The relief of recognition offered me a crucial sense of safety amongst utter strangers. I decided to honor other participants’ candor by being honest about my own struggle. Allowing myself to be exposed in the music workshops was even harder, because I couldn’t rely on my verbal eloquence to smooth over the embarrassment of feeling not in command of my instrument or of my state of mind as a performer. Through it all, my fellow participants responded not with repulsion, as I had expected, but with gratitude, respect, and tenderness. Learning to be honest with myself and my audience was hugely affirming, and I began to play with more depth and authority than ever before.

I learned something important that week: that openness to the full spectrum of our experience is the starting point for compelling and mature musicianship. Suffering and joy are equally endemic to the human condition, and sharing the full range of our emotions with our audiences, through our presence and through the music we make, is not a selfish act, but a generous one. If we allow our fear to shut down that generous impulse—whether or not we admit it to ourselves—we can’t express ourselves freely. I went deep into the notion of vulnerability as an asset in the ensuing year, with serious trepidation. But the results were substantial: I felt more contentment, I found the courage to perform as a soloist, and I won my first orchestra job. I wrote an article clothed in honesty that was read by thousands of people.

I was eager to return to the program this summer, pining for a refreshing boost of clarity and affirmation.

Losing My Way

Of course, expectations can be dangerous. My experience the year before had been fruitful, and I craved more of it, so I took a big step into my vulnerability in one of our discussion groups. My candid display of emotion moved many people, and some of them thanked me. But I wasn’t sure how some of the others felt. I thought they seemed put off by what I had to say, or that they didn’t understand it.  And that thought, coupled with my embarrassment, sent me back into feeling unfit for the act of performing. I knew my expression had been sincere, but I began to hate myself for being so dramatic and emotional, and for failing to feel the joy that others were feeling as performers.

I buckled under the confusion: In the previous year I’d clung to the mantra that vulnerability inevitably led to insight and empathy, but now I found myself being swallowed up by self-judgment for being so vulnerable in front of other people. Unsure of what to do, I tried to remain open to my feelings in spite of others’ apparent incomprehension, and to expose my tender heart through my playing. More affirming words came from many people, but in my fog of estrangement, I couldn’t take them in. I became very worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep it together for the recital at the end of the week.

Taking Shelter in Self-Compassion

Then one day, unable to face practicing, I went for a walk. I found a bench under a tree, sat down, and looked up through the leaves. A bolt of intuition flashed through my mind: in my longing to share myself with others, I had gone too far this time in laying myself bare. And what I needed now, instead of more self-exposure, was shelter for my tender, vulnerable heart. That simple realization shifted my entire inner landscape from panic to ease. I stopped seeing my sensitivity as a creeping liability or an onerous burden. Instead, I saw it as a gift that should be handled with wisdom and care.

Once I gave myself this space, I was free to express my feelings with greater poise. I performed with much more confidence in the final workshop and felt comfortable enough to perform on the recital. In fact, a few minutes before I went onstage to play the first movement of the E-flat major Brahms Sonata, I thought of it as a love song to myself, and an offering to the audience that we all be a little gentler with ourselves in our painful moments. I played with assurance and forgave the imperfections. Afterwards I felt enormous pride that I’d had the courage to be so kind to myself.

Respecting Your Vulnerability

I learned from these experiences that our vulnerability is indeed our greatest gift to our audience, but that because it is so precious, we need to develop great skill in handling it. If you value your vulnerability as an artist and person and are curious about how to work with it in a healthy way, here are some ideas:

1. Start by asking yourself how you feel about the idea of being vulnerable. Be honest about what you have to lose or gain from letting your guard down.

2. Experiment with feeling vulnerable in your practicing. Feel your desire to honor and embody the music, coupled with the inherent uncertainty of how it will all come out. Notice if anything in your body or mind shifts, and how it affects your playing.

3. If you feel ready, experiment lightly with feeling that vulnerability in rehearsal or performance, even for a few moments.

4. Seek out friends or colleagues who you can open up to, and share your experience with them.

5. If you’re feeling so raw and exposed that it’s impairing your ability to function as an artist, allow yourself to back away from your feelings until you feel safe again. Your artistry is important, but nothing is more important than your safety and well-being.

6. Regardless of where you are in the process of opening up to your true feelings, appreciate yourself for having them, and for having the courage to share yourself with your audience. Know that we all learn by trial and error how to be skillful with our vulnerability, and that simply burying it will not help you develop the artistic and human abilities you need for communicating powerfully with others.

7. Share and celebrate your discoveries and successes on your journey with people you know and trust. Be receptive to their encouragement and understanding.

At our post-concert party that night one of the participants gave each of us a precious homemade gift of a hand-painted Ukrainian Easter egg. One egg stood out to me: a deep blue background overlaid with chains of red and white hearts. Blooming out of the hearts were delicate red flowers, their faces opened to the sky.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.19.53 PMThis delicate and beautiful work of art reminded me that all of us have been blessed with a delicate and beautiful gift for appreciating the joy and sorrow of life, and that it is this gift that defines us as artists and as human beings. Here is my humble advice: treat your gift as you would treat that egg. Share it with others who can admire its heartrending beauty and the simple goodness underneath, but keep it safe.

And know above all that it belongs to you.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

When I was in my 20s I had a little stage fright, but I thought it would get better as I gained more performing experience. Now, 20 years later, my stage fright has gotten so bad that I sometimes take beta blockers before performing. Why would it get worse instead of better? And what advice do you have?

I’ve talked to other performers who have had the same experience.

Although not everyone experiences what you describe, it’s important to understand that the fear of performing goes very deep. As deep as the human heart. In my experience, and from what others tell me, when we’re really growing as people, we become more aware of our feelings, including our fears, the older we get. Also, as your career develops, you may feel you have more at stake, which could make your fear increase.

When fear or other feelings surface in a strong way, it’s an opportunity to address them as we haven’t before. It may not be fun, but as you work your way through your feelings, you can become stronger and feel less overwhelmed by them.

When we’re young we can’t know what it will be like to be older. I often think of how I really have no idea how my life will be even a year from now. So 20 years is a very long time.

You know, we typically start studying an instrument at a young age, and all we know is that we love it, that it brings us joy, or that it provides a special space where we can express our feelings. Then we find out how much work it takes to really play well, to master the instrument and really know music. And then we find out what performing is like—whether it’s exhilarating or terrifying or a combination of the two. We just can’t know all of these things ahead of time. We can’t see our future clearly.

Because the desire to perform comes from a very deep place in ourselves, becoming comfortable with it requires that we get to know ourselves as well as we can. We can spend our whole life getting to know who we are in greater depth. And life changes us in unpredictable ways. So it’s important for a performer to have at least one wise person they can talk to—whether it’s a teacher, a therapist, or a friend or relative. So many of the issues around performing go back to our childhoods, and it an be like an archeological dig to get to the root of certain fears and other feelings, so that we can rise above our fears and attain true confidence.

The good news is that you don’t have to stop performing to continue on your inner journey. In fact, each performance provides valuable feedback on how you’re doing. No one has it 100% together. We’re all learning all the time.

If you haven’t seen my article On Taking Drugs for Stage Fright, it would be good to read it now. I’ve seen many performers go off of beta blockers, but it’s something you have to be ready to work toward. When people are ready, and they have the right guidance and support, they can triumph over stage fright and transform it into fearlessness.

Also, I strongly encourage you to check out the API Live Online Workshops. We work with these issues a lot in these sessions using practical mental and musical techniques. It’s helped everyone so much. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about these workshops.

Madeline Bruser

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