Nourishing the Roots of Genuine Success

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published April 25, 2014.)

I prepared my Juilliard audition with a family friend in California named Elise Belenky who had studied in Paris long ago with the great pianist Alfred Cortot. For 10 days, I lived in Mrs. Belenky’s house and practiced, and she gave me three lessons a day. At the end of the 10 days, before my parents came to drive me to the airport to fly to New York for the audition, Mrs. Belenky gave me a memorable piece of advice: “When you go to the audition,” she said, “if anyone asks if you’re nervous, say ‘no.’”

On the afternoon of my audition, as I was waiting my turn in the hall, another pianist looked at me and asked, “Are you nervous?” “No,” I said calmly. I went in, played the pieces I’d prepared, and within a few days received the news that I’d been awarded a scholarship to attend the school.

Was I nervous for that audition? Of course I was—because it mattered, and because I’d worked hard. But Mrs. Belenky’s advice was an important lesson in self-respect: precisely because I was vulnerable, I needed to protect that vulnerability with clear boundaries, and to talk about it only with people I knew and trusted. Then I could stay focused on what I had to do: I could channel my vulnerability into the music I loved.

Music Frees Us to Open Up

Sharing our vulnerability through music may feel just as scary as revealing it to a stranger in conversation. But there is a difference: regardless of how competitive or judgmental our listeners might be, we know that music has the power to connect one human heart to another. We know that if we are brave enough to expose our vulnerable heart in a performance, we can succeed with that performance—we can touch our audience.

The Need for a Home

In order to develop such bravery, we need true friends and supporters. We need a place where we feel safe and can receive warmth and encouragement to believe in the power and importance of our vulnerability. A place where we can feel at home.

For some lucky people, that safe, warm place is the home they grew up in, with nurturing parents who loved and appreciated them. Others may travel a long path, through dark and difficult times, to eventually find that deeply needed experience of being at home with themselves and others. And for many of us, the search for home takes us through a series of teachers, friends, and environments that each bring us closer to feeling at home in the world.

When I actually began school at Juilliard, I was lucky to find good friends with whom I could relax and be myself, and share my abundant 19-year-old feelings about music and life. Those friendships carried me through all the competitiveness and self-doubt that I also experienced at school. Each friend was a haven and a joy—someone I could laugh with, let go with, and trust with my passionate, confused, and tender heart. We were all in the same boat, and it was a good ride.

But after I left school, I had more growing to do. And 44 years later, I am still growing. I’ve learned in all this time that the search for home is really a search within ourselves, through thickets and brambles of thorny messages and habitual behaviors that we can gradually cut through, until the heart in the middle of us gets used to being more visible and palpable. We say, “Home is where the heart is.” But it is equally true that the heart is our home. It is our heart that connects us to everything in our life.

Living our life from our heart—personally, artistically, and professionally—and staying true to our heart, even if others don’t understand what we’re doing, is at the core of what I consider genuine success.

Changing Views of Success

When I was in my 20s, I thought success meant touring the world as a concert pianist and having a manager. Success was something “out there,” someplace to get to by fitting myself into some kind of slot that I thought the world had in it. If I could just get my playing to a certain level, I would fit into the slot labeled “Touring Concert Artist,” and my life would be all set.

What I didn’t realize in my 20s is that life doesn’t work that way. Life is what we’re made of, and we’re made to grow from what we start out with. An audition, a school, a concert circuit, a recording contract—all of those are simply external phenomena that have meaning only because of how we relate to them. And this relating has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves—with whether we feel confident or not, happy or not, or like we belong or not with those external things. There is no school that offers a degree in confidence, happiness, or a sense of belonging. And yet these are the signs of true success. They grow from the inside, and are nurtured by the people and experiences we are lucky enough to find as we pursue whatever elusive external goals come into view.

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of books, articles, and Facebook posts on the subject of success. Many people in our culture seem to be disillusioned with previous notions of success and are trying to redefine it. We’ve become less interested in climbing a professional ladder into a predefined future, and more interested in looking within ourselves and nurturing ourselves so that we can grow into who we’re actually meant to be. Success for many of us today seems to be about tuning in to our deep wishes and finding a way to make them come true.

Coming Home to Ourselves

Many music schools now offer courses that reflect musicians’ growing interest in getting to the roots of successful performance. Students sometimes study the Alexander Technique, performance enhancement, or injury prevention—all of which increase their awareness of how their minds and bodies work best. It is my conviction that as these subjects of mind and body awareness are taught in greater depth, musicians will gradually learn to feel more at home in their own minds and bodies, and thus more at home onstage and in their lives.

In becoming more aware of how we feel, what we think, and what we perceive, we are getting to know who we are. And the more we do that, the closer we get to becoming the mature musician and person we are meant to be.

Our Need to Receive

Each person’s journey toward maturity is unique, and no one can find their way simply by following the same route as someone else. What does help is a lot of encouragement from others.

Think of a moment when someone responded to how you played or sang with an encouraging comment, or even a look, that went straight to your heart. This is the crucial experience of being seen and heard for who you are. It can make all the difference at certain times in your life.

In contrast, if no one ever appreciates how we play, how can we believe in our future as a musician? At the very least, we have to be able to imagine that one day, someone will show appreciation for what we offer—that someone will give us some warmth in return.

Knowing that we need and deserve such appreciation is at the root of genuine success. Every time we do anything to nourish ourselves and to honor our musical aliveness–studying with a good teacher, seeking support from a friend, or playing or listening to music we love—we are feeding and strengthening our life force. Even sitting alone and thinking about our love for music and for life opens us up to the joy that is always accessible underneath whatever worries, confusion, or self-doubt that we might have.

Each of us can be likened to a plant—full of life and responding naturally to water and sunlight, kindness and care. If we stay open to such beneficial elements and influences, we can’t help but grow. Most of the time this growth may happen so slowly and gradually that it isn’t visible on the outside. But nonetheless, if we tune in to our own energy, we can feel life flowing through us. We can feel our energy expanding as it receives attention from ourselves and others. And the more we let ourselves soak up the waters of kindness, joy, and appreciation, the more these beneficial qualities keep coming in and nourishing our system.

When We Forget to Open and Connect

In today’s computerized world, it’s easy to forget our need for such nourishment. American society in particular has long been dominated by a strong work ethic, in which the healthy, life-giving energies of sensuality, sexuality, and creativity have been repressed in the service of accomplishing, achieving, and measuring up to someone else’s standards of how we should look, feel, think, or behave. We are lured now more than ever by the images we see in print and online, and we make less and less time for face-to-face interaction with people we love and enjoy. We listen more and more to recordings, and watch videos, of performances, rather than participating as audience members at live concerts.

As magical and wonderful as our computers may be, our deepest need—for human connection—gets buried in our frenzy of clicking on links to this or that piece of information, or to endless streams of electronic sounds and imagery. We increasingly isolate ourselves from actual human contact that could nourish us on a deep, essential level.

Some Suggestions for Reconnecting

Swimming upstream in this disconnected culture takes motivation, but more and more people are doing it, and the tide has begun to turn. You can create a rich, rewarding, and successful musical life for yourself.

Here are some ideas for increasing your connection to yourself, to music, and to others. 

  1. Do something by yourself every day to deliberately slow down, such as taking a couple of deep breaths, meditating, or walking away from your work and just looking out the window.
  2. When you practice your instrument, luxuriate in each single sound in playing a phrase.
  3. When you talk to a friend, listen inside yourself for how you’re feeling, and also try to sense how they’re feeling.
  4. Spend time in nature—or at least look at pictures of it (ideally, not on a screen).
  5. Pet a dog or cat. Watch them sleep. Look into their eyes.
  6. Find a concert to go to that really interests you. Take a friend, or go alone. If you find yourself having judgmental thoughts, let them go and look for something you can appreciate about the music or the performance.
  7. Stop in the middle of an activity one or more times a day, and notice how you feel, just being alive in that moment.
  8. Take a moment every day to reflect on the wisdom and joy you have received from others.
  9. Read an inspiring book or poem.
  10. If you feel good about a performance you give, or even part of it, celebrate it. If you wish you’d played better, take time to feel that—and talk to a trusted friend or teacher about it to learn how you might be able to play better next time.
  11. Stay off the Internet for 24 hours once a week.
  12. Take a moment to appreciate your own bravery in facing or completing a challenging activity.
  13. Write down your feelings about these things as a way of connecting more consciously to yourself.

Above all, be a true friend to yourself and listen over and over to what your heart is asking of you and to what it wants from others. Do your best to give it what it longs for.

What About Worldly Success?

Does all this meaningful connection have a bearing on worldly success? I can speak best from my own experience.

I have always followed my heart in my musical career, and each step I’ve taken has led to further success–albeit, with many ups and downs. I chose repertoire I wanted to play, and I studied with teachers I wanted to work with. I played chamber music with people I clicked with, and I pursued meditation to help me feel more relaxed and confident onstage. I gave seminars and wrote a book because I wanted to share what I’d learned with other musicians.

As a result, I feel extremely lucky to make my living teaching the way I do and seeing my students become happier people and more wonderful—and more successful—performers and teachers themselves. And I’ve met many other wonderful musician colleagues along the way. The whole journey has been a process of growth and enrichment, and it still continues. So whether I look back, or forward, or I’m just focused on this moment, writing this article right now, it all feels joyful and successful.

It’s not that I never feel stress. I definitely do, often. And it’s not that I haven’t had setbacks or low periods. I definitely have. But I’ve been able to use the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’ve been lucky enough to find support and encouragement from many people. This is why I’m encouraging you to do the same.

I believe you can do it too.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to receive the most fantastic nourishment I know of for your genuine musical success, I invite you to attend The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. Some wonderful people are coming, and we still have two spots open for performing participants, and spots for non-performing participants too. I’d love to see you there.

Q & A of the Month

I have a really busy schedule, between going to school and teaching a few piano students, and I don’t have as much time to practice as I want. I get frustrated trying to do everything I want with a piece in the limited time I have. Do you have any suggestions?

The most important thing about practicing is your state of mind. Even if you have only a short time to work on a particular piece, spend the first few minutes of the session clearing your mind and tuning in to your heart. Basic mindfulness practice is extremely helpful, and you can read about it in my article titled Creating Space for Music to Flow. This technique is also described in Chapter 4 of The Art of Practicing. And Chapter 5 describes how you can tune into your heart.

Another mental practice that would be great for you is to take a minute before you practice, and whenever you start to feel frustrated mid-session, to simply remind yourself how great it is that you care so much and that you want more time. Extending warmth to yourself that way can open you up to the music more and help dissolve some of the tension you may be feeling in being so frustrated.

You may also find times during your day when you can’t use your instrument but could practice a little in your head—such as when you’re waiting for a train or bus, or riding on one.

Some people discover that if they get up even a little earlier every day to fit in a bit more practicing, they look forward to it so much that they feel wide awake for it and it improves their mood for the rest of the day.

If you’d like to go further, I recommend learning the Performing Beyond Fear exercise, which is a quick and powerful way to connect with your deepest musicality. You could do this at an online or in-person session with me.

A fantastic way to learn all of these approaches, and more, would be to come to The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. This relaxed yet intensive week transforms practicing and performing for everyone who attends.

Finally, think about how you can create a better schedule for  yourself, perhaps when you’re done with school. If you really believe in what you want, you can make it happen. A career or business coach could be very helpful. Eventually, the better you get at practicing, the better you’ll become as a teacher. Then you may be able to raise your fees and have more time to practice.

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