Interview with Madeline Bruser

by Dana Fleur

Who are the people who have meant the most to you in your musical education?

The first person I think of is Menahem Pressler, whom I studied with for two years at Indiana University. He has amazing ears for color and sound–an extraordinary sensitivity to musical poetry and nuance. He got me to listen like I had never listened before, and he also taught me how to touch the piano keys–he transmitted that by his example. The piano is a living thing in his hands, and he transmitted his exceptional passion for piano sound. Listening became an active practice for me when I was studying with him. He kept pointing out nuances I had missed. He also pointed me toward creativity as a performer–toward spontaneity. He had the ability to wait for the right moment to play a certain note, to tune in to one sound right through to the moment when the next one should come in and to know when that moment had come. Sound is like living magic to him.

While studying with Pressler I felt like I went from being a student to being an artist, who could discover magic in music on her own. I developed an intense relationship with sound and with the instrument. Pressler modeled artistic engagement with music and brought it out in me, so I discovered my own imagination and artistic responses. By the time I transferred to Juilliard, I felt I knew who I was as an artist. My Juilliard experience was mostly about discovering a whole world of young musicians like myself. I felt I’d found my musical family–colleagues I could share music with. That was an extremely important time in my life. It gave me a sense of belonging in the world.

Previous piano teachers got me ready for my conservatory study by giving me a solid foundation in technique and musical taste and style. They encouraged my natural rhythm and expressiveness and showed me shapes and architecture in music, cultivating my intelligence. Especially Alexander Libermann, whom I studied with in my teens, gave me a very strong foundation in technique and musicianship.

Of course, the first people who made an impact were my parents. They played music at home and took me to concerts, so from a very young age I was introduced to music as a basic part of life, like books or food. My father was actually an amazing amateur pianist, almost entirely self-taught. I remember him playing every morning and evening, while I was eating breakfast or falling asleep. He had a very gentle touch, which made a deep impression on me. When I asked for piano lessons, he made an effort to find me the best teacher.

I also feel very indebted to piano teachers I studied with later on: John Crown at the University of Southern California, Jeanne Stark-Iochmans in Berkeley, and Paul Hersh at the San Francisco Conservatory. I only had five lessons with John Crown before he developed a fatal disease. But in that short time he taught me something very important, which was to take my time and to put comfort first in learning a piece, before trying to achieve the full range of dynamics, as well as before trying to achieve speed. And Jeanne Stark-Iochmans and Paul Hersh, both of whom are tremendous musicians, gave me an understanding of crucial aspects of rhythm, things that make all the difference in creating a vital, cohesive performance of a piece.

All of these piano teachers were very warm and nurturing, which was so important to me as a young musician.

You’ve practiced mindfulness meditation since completing your masters degree studies in 1977. What exactly led you to meditation, and how has it changed you as a musician?

In my late twenties I felt something was missing from my playing, and I wanted to feel more relaxed and confident onstage. I remembered that meditation, which I had tried once for a couple of days, had had a relaxing effect, so I tried it again. And this time I stuck with it. It changed my whole life as a musician. It’s slowed down my mind and cleared it of a lot of extraneous thoughts so that I can be more open and receptive. I notice everything more clearly–the quality of sounds and sensations and how they affect me, the energy in my body while I’m playing, how my hands and arms are moving, my thoughts and feelings. And this increased openness also means I can be more creative–because there’s more space in my mind, more exchange can take place between me and the music, and between me and the listener as well. I’m more mentally and emotionally available and more ready to express myself and the composer’s intentions. I can go deeper into a piece, and music can flow through me more freely.

To begin that whole process I had to give in to my need for relaxation. I was tired of joyless, compulsive work at the piano, meeting deadlines for auditions and concerts. I needed freedom to find my natural inclinations, to discover who I really was as a pianist, artist, and person. At first I relaxed so much that I didn’t practice the piano at all. It took me two months to want to come back to it, and when I did I found myself working in a totally different way–really engaged in details, enjoying them very much, going slowly and absorbing the music much more deeply, responding more to every sound. I began teaching my students to do that too.

I also became more receptive to my students. Actually, Carl Rogers’s book Freedom to Learn had helped me do that a year or so earlier. That book taught me to dialogue with my students and to encourage them to develop their own intelligence, rather than just feeding them information and ideas. Reading it was part of my moving toward a more enjoyable experience with music as a piano teacher first, and then as a performer. I was wearing out a narrow way of life as a musician.

People who come to me for piano lessons or workshops are generally looking for the same thing–more enjoyment and a deeper connection to music and to themselves. They know that the extreme demands on us as musicians–to be high-level athletes at our instruments and coordinate body, mind, ears, and emotions to an extreme degree–can easily make us lose the joy that drew us to music in the first place. It’s similar to other highly demanding activities–raising a child, for instance. You have to pay attention to the child’s needs, not neglect your own needs, and balance out keeping the house stocked with food, maintaining a sane environment by resolving family conflicts and keeping clutter at bay, provide both the comfort of routine and the freedom of breaking routine at times, all the while making a living and keeping up with essential reading and social ties outside of the home. How does anyone do all this? You have to relax. That’s what makes it possible to focus on what needs to be done and on what needs your attention at any given moment.

What is it like introducing students to a more receptive approach to practicing?

I have to be very receptive to them to feel out what they already understand about their work process and performance level, and where they have questions or are open to new understanding. What’s wonderful is that no two students are alike each individual is unique and different. So I am always learning new ways of teaching while I’m giving piano lessons, just by observing my students and spontaneously meeting their minds as well as I can. I find it very creative and joyful.

It’s very interesting to integrate the whole rich tradition we’ve inherited as musicians with the particular approach I’ve developed, which focuses a lot on listening and on efficient body mechanics. What I’m really helping people do is to rebalance being physically active, which you obviously have to do to play an instrument, with being receptive to the music as you play it to become an open channel for the music. Sometimes a student can accomplish that by applying a certain rhythmic approach, which is part of what I learned as a music student. Or, as they get closer to a really free experience in playing a particular passage through using mindful listening techniques, I may find myself suggesting visual images to help them understand the music. Using imagery is a big part of traditional music study. Images can speak directly to the student and allow their hands to somehow turn the images into musical effects. Countless elements work together in piano lessons and in the creative process of learning a piece.

The challenge for students, as well as for professional musicians, is to pay meticulous attention to technical and musical details. That’s where our resistance becomes apparent–we all have our ways of ignoring details in music, just as in living our lives, and my job is to notice a student’s blind spots and to help them understand what they’re missing, while conveying complete faith in their ability to get it –to see where they’ve glossed over notes or overexerted in some way, and to develop a more complete connection to the score. Often a physical habit is part of the problem, and then I show them an easier way of using their hands and arms or, if necessary, break the passage down into the smallest physical components, showing them how the movements fit with the musical gestures and flow. It’s like teaching them a new language–they absorb it both by osmosis and by careful analysis, until eventually they can just speak it, they can just do it. Then I encourage them to go out and teach it themselves, because their piano lessons are helping them become good piano teachers.

So you are training teachers as well as performers?

Some students have a special appreciation of the process and are able to articulate it in a clear and artistically meaningful way. When I see this gift for teaching I invite them to participate in piano teachers workshops, at my studio in New York City, where they learn by doing and by watching each other teach. They take turns playing the roles of student and teacher in mock piano lessons and receive feedback from me and from the group. I also give piano teachers workshops at music schools.

How does your approach work with less advanced students?

Less advanced students can often learn a new approach more easily, because they have fewer habits to overcome. I’ve actually taught a lot of beginners, who have the benefit of learning to use their body efficiently right from the start. And I’ve benefited from teaching them, because in teaching the approach from square one I’ve learned a lot about how it works. That way, when someone comes in to retrain, it’s easier for me to analyze exactly where a problem is in how they’re using their hands. This has been particularly useful in retraining pianists with practice-related injuries–they have to slow everything down to a beginner’s level to relearn how to use their hands and arms.

We’re all beginners in a way anyway–the demands of learning a piece of music are so great that we’re continually confronted with our own lack of understanding, and we have to figure out new technical and musical solutions every day.

Do you encourage your students to practice mindfulness meditation?

Only if they express interest. What does happen often is that as a student absorbs the approach, it affects their life to some extent they naturally start slowing down and appreciating details in their lives too; they relax and become more aware of what’s around them because their minds have been trained somewhat through practicing music that way. Then they may or may not gravitate toward learning to meditate. But I never push anyone in that direction. If they do express interest in meditation during their piano lessons, the focus is on how meditation can be helpful to them in practice and performance.

Why did you give up performing?

While connecting so much with music I was also connecting to my whole life more. Professionally, the key moment came when I discovered a new posture at the piano–which came directly from meditation practice, from sitting still and upright for a set period of time every day, no matter what emotions were going through my body. That discipline, after eight years, resulted in my being able to maintain simple, upright posture at the piano too, no matter how emotional the music was. I was able to just let the music flow through me without reacting against it or manipulating it. It just happened that way; I just found myself playing that way. Then in teaching piano lessons, I had my students try this posture, and they all played 100 percent better on the spot. And that was like light bulbs going off in my head–I suddenly realized that I had something important to teach, and that became more exciting to me than performing.

At the same time, I needed to develop my personal life more and felt I had to make up for a lot of lost time. And I discovered that I liked to write. I’ve kept the feeling of being a performer in giving seminars, which are like performances for me. Many people think performing music is so special that they don’t understand how anyone could ever give it up. Yes, it was extremely special for me; it was all I ever wanted to do. But then I found myself falling in love with teaching and writing books. It seems to be what I was meant to do, and it’s been a whole new world.

So you’ve written more than one book?

I’m writing a second book now, on developing freedom and confidence in performance. It’s been wonderful to put together an approach to performance that is informed not only by my own experience as a performer and meditator but also by a lot of interviews I’ve done with actors, dancers, and musicians. What I’m teaching and writing about isn’t exclusive to the experience of meditators; it’s universal experience that performers share. There is collective wisdom about how to rise above performance anxiety and shine in the spotlight. This is very exciting to me, and I hope it will benefit performers.