What Price Freedom?

By Madeline Bruser

(This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Fearless Performing.)

As the weather gets a little colder and we move closer to Halloween, I thought I’d show you a clip of my piano playing that spooks me a little.

What spooks me is how still I’m sitting while the music is flowing so freely. I know all the reasons for it—how the body works, why I’m sitting so still, and what is going on inside me—but there is always something mysterious about it for me.

Making music is a mysterious process—partly because we can’t see inside the body, where the musical impulse is coming from. We can’t see the liquids and tissues inside the body that are literally being moved by musical vibrations. We can’t see the emotional energies flowing through our system as we respond to the sounds that we love.

Changing Our Focus
Such stillness looks strange to us because in our culture, we are doers. We focus a lot on being active and accomplishing things. Of course, it’s good to get things done. But we overdo it a lot—we overwork, overexert, over-practice our instruments. Tension and injuries often result. And on the deepest human level, we often miss out on discovering our full expressive potential.

The culture has begun to change a little. Many musicians are getting help from bodywork specialists in the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, and other methods. And we have begun to learn about injury prevention and recovery. We still need more training in these areas.

We also need to focus much more on our experience of sound. This invisible aspect of our process is central to being a musician. As important as it is to master the outer body mechanics of using our instrument, the inside of the body—in our organs, nerves, and bloodstream—is where the music lives.

What It Takes
Chopin created an incredible challenge for any pianist who wants to master the Fantaisie-Impromptu, and it took tremendous work for me to become free with this complex little masterpiece. Although of course, the hands have to work completely efficiently and smoothly to negotiate this section at tempo, the biggest issue for me was to hear everything that’s happening in this intricate musical texture. While the right hand is playing scalar passages in sixteenth notes, the left hand is playing arpeggios in triplets.

In order to clearly hear both parts simultaneously, I spent countless hours at the piano playing one hand while singing the part of the other hand, going very slowly and gradually stretching my listening capacity. As I became conscious of the impact that each melodic and harmonic interval had on me, inside my body, whole phrases began to come to life and to flow naturally and easily from my fingers.

Nevertheless, every time I picked up the piece after a break from performing it, I found I had to do this work anew. I had to focus again on every interval and harmony in order to bring the music fully to life all over again—to keep it fluid and free. “Mastering” it once didn’t mean I’d permanently nailed it. It meant I continued to be its humble servant.

Shifting the Balance Between Active and Receptive
Listening with such focus takes effort, but this effort is not physical. In fact, if you’re busy moving your torso around a lot while you play, it’s hard to be aware of how the sound is affecting you inside. It’s like trying to appreciate what someone is saying while you are busy moving your body. It’s just easier to listen if you are more still.

But if you practice listening with great focus, your inner, receptive capacity will develop, and you’ll probably feel much less tendency to lean forward or sway around while playing. There’s just so much satisfaction in being deeply engaged with sound.

It is this inner satisfaction that explains how I could sit so still while playing so freely. Although I may appear detached and uninvolved in this performance, it felt like magic. I felt extremely alive inside, filled with the beauty of this amazing music, with waves of sound in all colors flooding my system. Because I wasn’t so caught up in being physically active, I could experience the joy of being deeply receptive.

How Listening Affects Coordination
In addition to the musical effect of such close listening, it’s important to understand that when you hear music clearly, your coordination improves. The reason lies in your nerve cells, also known as neurons.

Our movements depend on our motor neurons. These are the nerve cells that connect the brain to the muscles. But we also have sensory neurons, which connect the brain to our sense organs. What makes it all work together is a third kind of nerve cell—the inter neurons. These communicate between the other two types of neurons.

What this means is that when our muscles are more relaxed, we can hear better—the absence of unnecessary muscle tension reduces static in the nervous system, and it’s easier for the sensory neurons to do their job. By the same token, when we hear music more clearly, we also reduce static in the nervous system, so our muscles get clearer signals from the brain. Our coordination becomes more refined. This is why my listening work with the Fantaisie-Impromptu not only gave me a deeper connection to the music, but also resulted in my fingers working with more sensitivity and precision.

I find it very helpful and reassuring to have this knowledge about how the body and brain work. We are whole beings, and each part of us affects our other parts. So it’s understandable that we find practicing so challenging. We often try to improve our playing by focusing on one particular aspect of practicing—such as hand movement or dynamics—when what really helps may be something else, such as listening intently to each sound. We’re always feeling our way and learning as we go. It’s a creative process, and solutions to musical problems are often not where we expect them to be.

But in addition to this challenging aspect of practicing, we can also find great rewards in our work process. When we engage every part of ourselves in it, we learn so much. We are continually growing, which makes us feel alive and motivated to work further.

What IS Freedom?
Recently I received an interesting reaction to this video. A young pianist told me that although it was perhaps the most fluid piano playing he’d ever heard, he didn’t want to look like that when he played. It looked stiff and rigid to him—not free. It didn’t fit his concept of what making music should look like. I felt sad about his reaction—I know what he is missing in rejecting what he saw. Yet I also saw intelligence in what he said. He was afraid that if he gave up his familiar way of thinking, he would lose something he cherished—his freedom of expression.

I knew that his reaction came from the same place as my feeling of being spooked. Somehow, true freedom doesn’t always look the way we think it should look. Somehow, freedom often means giving up who we think we are in order to discover who we really are. Way, deep inside. Beyond trying. Beyond showing off. Beyond everything that isn’t completely genuine and unforced.

When we experience real freedom, our habitual self, our ego, disappears. We can become one with the music. We can fulfill our talent. The vastness and depth of great music can flow freely through us, unimpeded by blocks in our listening.

You know it when it happens, even if it’s just for a moment. And audiences know when a performer is engaged deeply like that. They can feel the music striking their hearts and minds as the composer intended. Everyone feels their humanness, together, when great music is given to them authentically, unfiltered by the performer’s habitual concepts.

Yes, it’s a lot of work for us. And we often have to give up what we think is freedom. But this work, this great discipline, is a route to true freedom—to discovering how well we can really play.

An Invitation
I invite you to take the opportunity to experience such freedom. Allow yourself the time to notice how every pitch and harmony in a phrase affects you inside. Go extremely slowly and give yourself the luxury of enjoying every sound you make. See what happens in a week’s time. You could jot down a few of your observations during the week as you discover what it’s like to expand your receptiveness—to become more deeply acquainted with your magical gift for responding to musical sounds.

This kind of practicing is very different from what most of us are used to. If you have any questions about the process, I’d be happy to hear from you. Please feel free to send in a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you want to learn simple and powerful techniques for connecting to the sounds you are making and achieving genuine conviction in practice and performance, and you missed buying a ticket to my teaching event this Sunday, you are welcome to contact me for a private session, in person or on Skype, or to schedule a free consultation.

Q & A of the Month

Since school started again this month I am feeling very stressed trying to practice a lot of repertoire and meet my teacher’s demands for playing in his weekly performance classes and preparing for upcoming competitions. I’ve lost a lot of the joy I had playing at festivals this summer, and I don’t feel motivated to do all this work. Can you give me any suggestions?

This is a very common complaint from music school students, and I always encourage students to speak up when they feel this way.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that the reason you are feeling overloaded is that you have a natural sense of what is right for you. Keep in mind that although a school has to have some kind of standards for students, one size does not fit all, and many students suffer from excessive work. Trust your feelings, and look for someone at the school—your instrumental teacher, another teacher, the dean, or the school psychologist—who can understand how you feel and perhaps take action to mitigate the situation for you.Although a school may mean well in asking students to accomplish so many things during the year, only each individual student can look into their own experience and inform key people at the school if the requirements are not working out well for them. Even talking to other students who feel similarly can at least help relieve some of the stress you are feeling.

Conservatories have changed quite a bit since I attended them, and I’ve noticed that they are often looking for new ways to help their students grow. When enough students show an interest in something like the Alexander Technique or help with injury recovery or stage fright, many schools have eventually taken notice and begun to institute new programs to respond to those interests. The administration needs students’ feedback in order to continually meet their needs.

So I would like to empower you, and all students, to assume responsibility for your own education, and to realize that the school is there to serve you. It may seem frightening to you to approach someone in a position of authority at your school, but even if you have had negative experiences with someone at the school, there is probably at least one person there who can appreciate the fact that you need something a little different from what you are currently offered. Teachers were once students, and some of them really sympathize.

Intrumental teachers often appreciate it when a student lets them know that they need different repertoire, less repertoire, or just to be heard and understood for the experiences they are having. Many teachers, however, are not as understanding of students’ needs, and have difficulty listening to students’ ideas about phrasing, technique, and other aspects of music they are studying. If you find yourself unable to get through to your teacher and continue to lose joy in your work, I recommend that you consider finding a new teacher who could work with you in a more understanding and helpful way.

One common scenario with students is that a teacher is not sufficiently aware of enough facts of instrumental technique and unwittingly leads them toward  a practice-related injury.  A teacher may insist, for example, that a student adopt a certain hand position even when the student complains that it hurts. Fortunately, since discussions of tension and injury have become more common among musicians, more teachers are willing to listen to their students’ complaints about fatigue or pain, and have referred them to medical specialists.

Joylessness is less understood and has certainly received less press than musicians’ injuries, but it is equally important. I feel strongly that a major key to increasing joy is to decrease speed and heighten awareness in the process of practicing. If you can manage to convince your teacher that you need a smaller work load, you will have more time to let yourself notice and appreciate each sound you make with your instrument, which will bring the joy right back.

No teacher knows everything, and I am always learning things from my students that prove helpful with other students. So by speaking up about anything that bothers you, you are actually giving your teacher the opportunity to grow. Keep this in mind, and give yourself credit for having your own wisdom within you that you can cultivate and trust.