Training the Mind of Confidence

Dear readers of Fearless Performing E-zine,

I wrote this article four years ago when my heart had broken open at the thought of my daughter eventually moving away from home. Now she’s actually doing it, moving 3,000 miles away to go to the art college of her dreams, and the message of heartbrokenness as a source of human power and confidence feels even stronger to me.

As you read the article, I hope you will reflect on moments in your own life that have opened your heart to the breaking point and that you will gain a clearer idea of how the intense heart energy that is within you can strengthen and support you in your journey as a performer and person.

Warmly,
Madeline

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Training the Mind of Confidence

(Originally published July, 2012)

I recently took my daughter to the airport, to see her off to Colorado, where she was visiting a friend. Although I had taken her to the airport several times, this was the first time that I didn’t accompany her all the way to the gate; I said goodbye at the security line, and she went through security without me. She got herself to the plane on her own. Immediately, the thought came: Not too long from now she’ll be leaving us forever—leaving home, to live her own separate life. Tears came. Was it that long ago that we flew with her to California for the first time, when she was just a year old, and she got scared looking out the window seeing how far away the ground was? Will the 18 years of having her as this amazing guest in our home really be over not too long from now?

I sat by a window and watched planes come and go, waiting for hers to take off. My love for my daughter, the joy of being her mother, and the sadness of knowing she’ll be gone in a few years, filled me up and left me uninterested in reading the book I had brought with me. I was just a person with a heart, sitting there and feeling it.

The Golden Key

I tell this simple story because this experience, of feeling our heart, is an essential and often overlooked step in gaining confidence in ourselves, both as human beings and as performers. Although this soft, tender place in us may seem unrelated to the dazzling confidence we see in a great performer, it is, in fact, the very essence of our communicative power. When we believe in the power of an open heart, with all its vulnerability, and we treat our heart with care and intelligence, it becomes stronger. We can then harness its power so that it radiates and shines. It takes courage, but when the heart’s power shines full force, its magnetism is unrivaled. And confidence is just there.

How We Lose Power

Because we often don’t believe that this soft place in ourselves contains great power, we  don’t pay attention to it during practicing. We sometimes ignore our heart and catch ourselves going through the motions of practicing without letting ourselves respond deeply to all the sounds we’re making. Or we practice like machines, repeating passages joylessly to ensure as much technical perfection as possible. Or we find ourselves struggling to make an emotional connection to the music—trying too hard to express ourselves or to bring out certain notes, or certain qualities, in a phrase or piece. And for many of us, voices in our head sometimes tell us to hurry up and push ourselves, which makes us tense and inhibits musical flow.

Such practicing does the opposite of what we need for gaining confidence in performance. It trains us to lose touch with who we are—with the humanness that connects us to music and to other people. It derails us from our communicative power, preventing us from developing conviction and confidence in what we have to offer.

Beyond the Music and the Moves

Practicing is a process of getting familiar with a piece and with the movements we use to play it. We need to develop physical ease—to be comfortable in our body, to feel that our body knows the piece and that we can rely on that. We also need to know it with our ears—to hear it clearly and thoroughly, and to respond to those sounds internally and to become familiar with that emotional content of the music and how it’s organized. These are daunting demands in themselves.

But we also need to train the mind for performance—to help it become strong and reliable. So many musicians, who have trained themselves to master a piece, say that they nevertheless lack mental strength to feel confident onstage.

Gaining Access to the Power

The key is to use the mind to pay attention to the heart. Then both our mind and our heart will get stronger, and we will be more ready for that vulnerable moment when we’re facing an audience.

In previous articles, I mentioned the benefits of connecting with the heart—in relaxing about making mistakes, in knowing your limitations, and in letting go of struggle and discovering simplicity. I will also soon be offering an audio exercise online for developing communicative power and confidence in performance. Here, in this article, I offer you a simple and far-reaching method for connecting to the heart at any time, in any situation. If you make a daily practice of opening up in this way, it can have great impact on the music you make.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Let’s say you’re caught up in practicing and getting frustrated. Or your mind keeps wandering, losing focus.

Just pick a thought to reflect on for a minute—something that touches your heart and reminds you of what really matters in life. It could be something like the story I related about taking my daughter to the airport—something that easily brings up feelings of love, joy, or sadness. It could be taking a moment to appreciate the opportunity you have to make music—to remember that not everyone has this opportunity. Or you could reflect on a sad story you read about in the news or on something sad that happened to a friend.

I recommend trying it right now. Just stop and close your eyes for a minute, and reflect on something that touches your heart. Notice what happens inside you.

Most people say they feel a warmth inside of them from doing this simple exercise. This is because the exercise goes straight to the point—it gets you where you live.

Experiment

How does this lead to confidence in performance?

I encourage you to experiment. Try it every day, for a few weeks or months, and see what happens. Do it before you practice your instrument. Try it again when you lose focus. Do it anytime during the day when you want to get off the fast track, recharge, and remember what really matters in your life. It will help you see your practicing as a golden opportunity to connect to yourself. And it will connect you to music on a new level.

We definitely need to learn the music and the moves as well as possible, and to develop great coordination and a great ear. But in addition, the more heart we bring to our daily practicing, the more prepared we will be for our moment in the spotlight, when our heart is beating louder than usual. As we get more familiar with feeling tender and vulnerable, we gradually become comfortable with this experience and are less thrown by it onstage. And all of our warmth and openness will infuse our performance and communicate to our audience.

This is confidence in performance.

I invite you to send in any questions or comments you might have about this rich and rewarding process.

And I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to feel your confidence soar, we still have one space open in The Art of Practicing Institute’s transformative summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance. I invite you to dive in and discover who you are as a musician on a whole new level. Let it change your life!

Q&A of the Month

I’ve found the mindfulness techniques in The Art of Practicing very rewarding and enjoyable, and I’m sorry that I can’t attend your summer program until next year. I feel that this approach will definitely improve my playing in the long run. However, I don’t know how this approach can work when I have to learn or memorize music quickly to meet professional demands. I’m in the middle of working toward my master’s degree in violin performance, and I want to play music because I love it and not just because I want to succeed, but it seems like the people who have the most freedom to eschew the traditional model of musical “success” (winning competitions, selling concert tickets, and getting good reviews) are those who have already achieved that kind of success and are ready to move on to something more fulfilling. I’m actually less concerned about fear while performing, and more concerned that my desire to share something I love won’t come across because of technical details. What are your thoughts on how conventional success at competitions and other judged performances play into a joyful and generous approach to music-making? I don’t feel comfortable approaching the beginning of my career having completely turned away from tangible achievements that I can put on a resume. 

Thank you for this wonderful question. First of all, professional musicians need to acquire a reliable instrumental technique when they’re young. I’ve been told that by age 30, all the technique you acquire will be completely natural, and after that, you can still acquire a lot of technique but it won’t be quite as natural. So in your teens and 20s, it’s normal to be focusing a lot on developing your technique.

At the same time, the sooner you can also begin to train your mind and heart in your practicing, the more efficient your practicing will be, including all the work you do to improve your technique. So practicing mindfulness meditation, even for 10 minutes a day, can gradually open and sharpen your awareness of the endless details involved with practicing and bring your technique to a more refined level.

Meeting professional deadlines is a necessary skill in itself. But often, to meet a deadline, we end up doing less than our best work simply because there isn’t enough time. Mindfulness practice can strengthen your intuitive intelligence, which can help you choose which deadlines to go for and which not to. Everyone I know who has established a regular practice of mindfulness meditation finds that a lot of questions and choices solve themselves, because as their intuition opens up they often just know what to do next.

Mindfulness practice also opens the heart so that you become less hard on yourself and can simply learn from the mistakes you make instead of judging yourself harshly for making a decision that didn’t work out so well. In fact, if you are doing what’s necessary to meet a deadline and are fully aware that you would practice in more depth if you had the time, you can congratulate yourself on taking care of business and then go back to really enjoying your practicing and exploring the music the next time you have the chance. That way you are being conscious and responsible to yourself as well as to your commitments to others. And hopefully, as you continue to grow, more and more of your practicing will be on a satisfying level, so that you can really become the artist you are meant to be.

The basic point of the Art of Practicing is to gradually cultivate your natural intuition, awareness, and sensitivity with music, and those powers tend to spread into the rest of your life. You can really trust the organic process that happens as you follow your intuition more and more. Although you may feel very new to this approach, you can begin to play it by ear with how you practice as you move through the stages of your career.

So go ahead and really focus on developing your technique now, while you really need to. At the same time, if you gradually go deeper into training your mind and heart, not only will your technique benefit from your stronger connection with your body and with your musicality, but your career will benefit from your deepening connection with your artistic and professional desires.

It’s important to realize that your particular journey with music is unique to you. No one can really tell you what to do. So the more you follow your intuition about what to do when, the more your intuition will shine out and come through in your playing, in the form of warmth and brilliance.

I’m glad you’d like to come to the summer program, and I’d be delighted to have you with us next year. During that powerful week you can meet other musicians who get what you’re talking about here, and who long for the same things you do. It is so helpful for all of us to have a community of like-minded people around us, supporting our deepest longings in the middle of the professional demands we face.

Meanwhile, please feel free to stay in touch and to join our Facebook community. And you’re always welcome to set up an online session with me, or with Tal Varon (talvaron@gmail.com) who is an amazing meditation teacher for musicians.

Enjoy your summer!

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