Fearlessness in the Face of Judgment

by Madeline Bruser

For many musicians, auditions and competitions bring up even more fear than concert performances. Knowing that they are being judged, and that part of their career and livelihood is at stake, adds to the already huge challenge of live performance.

Concerts may also bring up our fears of being judged. We fear that we’ll fall short in comparison to other performers. We fear that we won’t measure up to our last performance. We fear that we’ll have a memory lapse or otherwise fail to meet some standard of perfection that we think might matter more to our audience than what we have to say as an artist. 

These fears come from focusing more on what other people might think of us than on our deep desire to communicate through music—to actually give something meaningful to our listeners.

Putting the Human Element First

We need to remember that even an audience of official judges is an audience of human beings. Although auditions and competitions may feel artificial compared to concert performance—and you may often be asked to stop in playing the middle of one piece and switch to another one—you can still direct your performance straight to the hearts of your listeners. To do this, you have to get past your fear of being judged and get in touch with your deepest motivation to perform. Only then can you reach inside of yourself to the full beauty and power that you have to offer. Only then can you truly play your best.

Here are three stories that may inspire you in that direction.

Bob: Remembering Responsibility

Bob had never performed for more than a few hundred people, when he was suddenly invited to travel to a distant country to be a featured pianist and vocalist in a nationally televised concert with a star performer, for an audience of 5,000 people. At the time, he also had a full-time management position at a large company that was in crisis, and he had a small child at home. Between the demands of his job and his family, he’d had little time to practice during the weeks before the concert. He now had to quickly refocus his mind on this important event, and although he’d had little sleep, and he spent the long plane ride to the concert learning several pieces that he’d never seen before, by listening to a CD. When he arrived, he had just one day to rehearse with the band before the concert.

Bob knew that there might be people in the audience who were better pianists or singers than himself. But he also knew that his audience was suffering from a severe economic depression in their country, and that they needed this concert to take their minds off of their troubles. So he found a way to let go of his fear of being judged by his audience and to focus instead on using whatever abilities he had to make them happy. With cameras in his face and in the glare of bright lights, he managed to summon all his strength and to play with great energy and freedom, and the concert was a huge success.

Years later, during a lesson with me, Bob showed me the following list he wrote the day before that concert to help him stay focused on that higher purpose:

  • Everyone is trusting me and giving me every opportunity to showcase myself.
  • This is an important concert for George’s career.
  • I’m making sacrifices to be here.
  • Thousands of people are giving their time and money, looking forward to an enjoyable, exciting concert that will also be televised.
  • This may also be important to my musical career.
  • I will have a video of this performance to take home.
  • Music is mysterious, powerful, and beautiful, and is worth giving every ounce of concentration and energy to.

 

Bob explained that a lot of his ability to focus on such positive motivations had come from a philosophy course he took in college, where he learned to examine the human tendency to define ourselves by how others view us, instead of using our own experience and perceptions to guide us through life. Many students take such courses, but Bob had the remarkable ability to apply what he learned directly to his own life—to question his behavior and that of others, which led him to accomplish some great things.

Sarah: Remembering Wise and Loving Friends

Sarah was preparing for a flute audition after returning from a weeklong summer program I’d taught. The program had given her new tools for opening up her playing and having the courage to be more genuine and vulnerable in performance, and to not worry so much about being note-perfect or in control. Although she was afraid of not measuring up to the jury’s objective standards at the audition, she decided to view the judges as human beings who would receive the gift of her playing, just as though it were a concert performance. A week before the audition, she posted the following words on our group Facebook page:

I thought about the audition committee, and of course immediately thought of how much I fear their judgment. But when I looked into my heart to see what it is I want to give them, I was overwhelmed to discover that I want them to believe that none of us is too damaged or jaded to be humbled by our intense love of life. I cried because I felt unworthy of offering this gift. I am hoping that sharing this here will help me find the courage to try, a little at a time.

We were all moved by Sarah’s bravery and generosity toward the critical audience she was about to face, and we posted responses, cheering her on. A week later, she posted the following:

Yesterday I played the audition. I thought of you all often during the process and felt your presence very strongly. Before each round, when my nerves were peaking and I felt overwhelmed by my habitual sense of “I can’t do this,” I saw each of your faces in turn and opened to the immeasurable love and wisdom I received from each of you. You helped me remember what is important and real, and of the courage we all have within us. You helped me remember music. And I won a job. Thank you all so much.

She later sent me the following in an e-mail:

The kind of preparation I engaged in during the weeks before the audition had a crucial impact on my ability to let go in the moment. I took a big step away from the hyper-critical, sterile sort of preparation that heavily informed my training, and instead did absolutely everything I could think of to remember that I was playing MUSIC. The turning point was when I felt burned out one day and didn’t feel like continuing, but in a gesture of friendly compromise to myself, I decided to listen to a recording of one of the orchestral pieces while studying the excerpt. I was totally enraptured by the music the same way I had been as a child and thought, “Well, if I’m supposed to give up this joy in order to be successful and ‘win’ this audition, then I don’t care about success.” It felt like discovering some big secret and also finding something that had always been inside me, at the same time. 

Sarah set a shining example of what all of us are capable of with the right kind of support from others and a willingness to put the music and our audience first, over our self-consciousness. (And she did it without taking a beta blocker.)

David: Remembering Deep Love

I heard David for the first time in a chamber music concert at a major hall in New York City. I was deeply moved by his playing and went backstage afterwards to ask if I could interview him.

At the interview, he told me that in his early 20’s, when he was in a competition in Europe, he received the news that his dog had died. Stricken with grief, he decided to mentally dedicate his performance in the competition to his dog. He played his heart out, and he won First Prize. Because of the power of that experience, he has since dedicated every performance to someone he loves. No wonder I was so moved by his playing.

What Can We Learn from these Brave Musicians?

  1. There is something more important than fear. Your job is to get to that something.
  2. There are practical ways of using your mind to cut through the thicket of fear and find the treasure within you.
  3. Gathering support and inspiration from others is energizing and helpful—whether it’s great thinkers you’ve read, wonderful friends who support you, or a cherished loved one who opens you to your emotional depth and communicative power.

 

Let’s Skip to the Coda

One final note:

A common request from judges at auditions and competitions is for the musician to jump to the most technically demanding section of a piece—typically the flashy ending, or coda. But whether it’s virtuosity they’re asking you for or simply a different style or piece of music, it’s important to take time to mentally prepare for that new demand. Let your mind settle from the energy of the previous thing you played, and then come back to your heart. Reflect on the musical meaning of what you’re about to play. Take a minute to step out of your fear of facing the new demand, just as you did before you walked into the audition.

Remember that the judges need time to adjust too. Most people don’t want to suddenly bite into a thick steak (or coda) when they’ve just barely finished swallowing a luscious dessert (or lyrical section). Being true to your own needs and instincts by taking time to clear your musical palate will help you stay present and in command so that you can connect your listeners. 

You Can Do It

I hope you’ve been as inspired as I have been by these three musicians. Although you may not yet feel ready to be as fearless as they have been, you can get there by taking small steps. Try some of their ideas out in small performances. Gather supportive friends around you. Challenge some of the ideas you may have had about how you have to prepare for an audition or competition.

And as always, feel free to contact me for specific advice.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. On Monday night October 28 I’ll be giving a free seminar and demonstration on Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance in New York City. It’s a great opportunity to learn how to shed some of the attitudes that may have been holding you back and to discover new possibilities for yourself in auditions, competitions, and performances. I’d love to see you there.

Q & A of the Month

I graduated from music school in the spring, and although I’ve been enjoying my freedom, I’m also having a hard time adjusting to the “real world.” I have some piano students, and occasionally I have the chance to perform somewhere, but I can’t see how I’ll ever make a real living as a musician. Do you have any advice?

Wow. This is the big question we all face. While a few people leave school on a clear trajectory to a performing career, and some go on to get doctorates and then look for teaching positions on the college level, most of us have a lot of figuring out to do. I’ve received similar inquiries from students nearing graduation at major conservatories.

It definitely helps that your instrument is the piano, since so many people are interested in piano lessons. (I’ve never seen a flyer on the street, for instance, with “Oboe Lessons” headlined at the top.) But even if you build your teaching studio, you are still left with the dilemma of fulfilling yourself through performing.

Many pianists find teaching jobs at small music schools and supplement that income with private teaching, which usually pays more. Conservatory teachers also often take on private students. I’ve done some teaching at schools myself, starting with neighborhood music schools and later becoming an adjunct faculty member at college music departments. I find it a great combination, offering both freedom and some sense of a bigger community.

You have to work with both the external factors of income possibilities and the internal factors of your personal and musical growth. First, look into different avenues for promoting yourself in your particular location, by asking many people there for advice. Second, consider working with a business coach or advisor on how to set up your business on the practical level.

Third, and perhaps most important, keep your eye on your genuine interests. Do you really like teaching, or is it just something you’re doing to make a living? Are you performing repertoire you’re really excited about and scheduling concerts for yourself according to your natural learning process, or do you always feel driven to learn pieces in a hurry to meet someone else’s needs? Are you entering every competition there is, or are you more selective about what goals you commit your time and energy to? Do you feel your playing is already at the level it needs to be, or are you open to the idea of taking it to a new level?

One thing that helped my career, I think, is that after I left school I moved to Berkeley, California, where there was less competition for performing opportunities than in New York or Los Angeles, where I’d gone to school. This gave me the freedom to do quite a bit of performing and to really grow as an artist and performer. 

Another thing that made a big difference was that during my years in Berkeley, I realized that I had to find a way to enjoy teaching more, since it was my primary source of income. I was lucky to hear about a book called Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers, which revolutionized my teaching and made it really enjoyable and exciting. I highly recommend this eye-opening book, which encourages teachers to become “facilitators of learning” and to really help students to think for themselves, rather than to feed them your own ideas all the time.

And the biggie was discovering meditation practice at 29, which opened up everything in me and my playing. So much tension and stress fell away, and I was able to go deeply into music in a way I hadn’t known was possible. If you are drawn to exploring that (non)activity, it could be the most helpful thing of all, in helping you become more aware of both musical and career possibilities.

Finally, as a musician, you are naturally a creative person. These days, musicians are becoming very entrepreneurial about performing and are using the Internet in many ways to promote themselves. Finding a nourishing musical community of people to share ideas with is essential. (See the August 25 article in Fearless Performing.) The truer you are to yourself, the more likely you are to find people and resources around you that are in line with your values and longings and can help you get to where you want to go.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

 

 

On Taking Drugs for Stage Fright

By Madeline Bruser

In 2004, The New York Times reported that among classical musicians, the use of beta-blockers—drugs that reduce the physical symptoms of stage fright—had become “nearly ubiquitous.” The article mentioned that some music teachers even advise their students to take beta-blockers before important auditions or performances.

Although actors sometimes rely on beta-blockers when they have a particularly intense case of nerves, classical musicians depend on these drugs more than any other group of performers. Dancers can’t use beta-blockers because the drugs reduce the stamina they need for the enormous physical energy they expend.

But classical musicians face a unique set of problems. The music we play demands the utmost precision. If our finger moves an eighth of an inch in the wrong direction, people can tell that we’ve made a mistake. With audiences everywhere habituated to today’s doctored recordings, many musicians feel enormous pressure to measure up to the standards of these recordings by producing note-perfect live performances.

A Lot May Be at Stake

Musicians’ careers sometimes depend on meeting high objective standards. Orchestral players are often terrified of losing their jobs if they make small mistakes in a concert. And one judge at a prestigious international piano competition admitted to a performer who hadn’t made it to the finals that every contestant had played at such a high level that jurors started wishing that at least one pianist would disqualify himself by having a memory lapse. It would make it easier for the jury to decide on a winner.

In this climate of intense fear and competitiveness, it’s no wonder that so many performers have come to rely on beta-blockers to feel confident onstage. But is this really how it has to be?

The Nature of Performance

A musician friend of mine explained performers’ nerves like this: “If you’re a performer, your vulnerability is your product.” In other words, our job is to let ourselves be moved by the huge range of powerful energies in music so we can transmit them to our audience. But being that open means being willing to give up the idea of being in control. We may know a piece inside out, but at the moment of performance we have to let go and allow ourselves to be real and imperfect. Audiences don’t want to hear a well-oiled machine. They want to be touched and moved by the communicative power of a vulnerable, daring human being.

What Has Happened to Us?

The great pianist Artur Schnabel was revered for his ability to deeply affect his audiences. And yet he sometimes completely lost his place in a performance. Once he stopped playing in the middle of a concerto and walked over to the conductor’s podium to check the score, so he could pick up where he’d left off and finish the performance. On another occasion, he stopped in the middle of a Beethoven sonata, got up, and announced to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot play this sonata tonight. I will play another Beethoven sonata which is just as beautiful.”

I’ve always loved listening to recordings by Schnabel and others of his generation, especially when I’m in the company of other musicians. It feels cleansing and nourishing for us to forget about current standards for a while and to share the simple humanness in these recordings; it somehow never seems to go out of style. When I did a book signing at the Juilliard Bookstore, I was happy to hear the store manager say that he thought the subtitle of my book, A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, would appeal to students at the school, because they preferred buying “historic” CDs, which were typically more emotionally affecting than the more “perfect” recordings of more contemporary classical performers.

Our technological era has trained our ears to expect extremely accurate performances that are free of the erratic or eccentric tendencies that some artists have been known for in the past. In this way, recordings have functioned like a mirror, in which we can notice our flaws. But although raising the bar in this regard may be fine to an extent, it goes too far if we are so afraid to be human that we freeze in panic about going onstage. I find it very sad that only a small minority of performers actually relish the opportunity to ride the waves of their wild, unpredictable humanness and to share this life-giving energy with others in performance.

What IS Music Anyway?

Music is made out of the amazingly varied and beautiful experiences of human beings—the forces of nature that travel through us as we navigate our lives. In music we can find the energy of all the elements—volcanoes, rushing rivers, floods, torrential rain, thunder, gentle breezes, sunlight sparkling in a fountain—in constant play. Every split-second this energy changes as it moves through our bodies and minds. And great music arranges all of these energies into magnificent forms that transform us when we hear them.

It’s Not a Moral Issue

Handling all that energy onstage, when everyone’s eyes and ears are on us, is a huge challenge. And the choice to take or not to take a beta-blocker is personal and individual. Many performers who take them do so because they have experienced psychological trauma, from harmful parents or teachers, which has severely damaged their confidence. It takes so much training, bravery, and support to develop confidence onstage that I would never be judgmental of a performer who feels they can’t perform without a beta-blocker.

But I would strongly recommend that they not give up on their ability to become confident without the drugs, and to seek training, guidance, and support from people who can really help—with instrumental technique, with artistic conviction, and with personal empowerment to give their gifts to others onstage. While I don’t know if every musician can learn to perform drug-free, I have seen so many recover from debilitating stage fright that I would encourage every musician to pursue this possibility wholeheartedly. Confidence in performance is our birthright. We are put on this planet partly to be a transmitter of musical magic. It is fundamental to who we are.

Becoming at Home with Who We Are

Learning to live in our own skin as musicians means getting used to having musical sound living in our bodies both when we’re practicing and when we’re performing. To do that, we first need to pay a lot of attention to our physical and emotional experience of sound when we practice—to become as familiar as possible with the infinite scope and beauty of musical sounds and how each one of them changes us inside, viscerally. We can’t accomplish this by joylessly practicing the same passages over and over. Instead, we need to let ourselves be touched over and over, by every sound and sensation we make. In this way we come to embody musical sound, so that we feel deeply at home with it.

We also have to become at home with the physical sensations of making music. With each movement of our hands or lips, each sensation of touching our instrument as we move our bodies to express the sounds inside of us, we must feel deeply comfortable and engaged. Otherwise, how can we expect to walk out onstage and feel comfortable there, when we have to relate to an audience in addition to relating to our instrument and the music?

Being a Host Instead of a Guest

Once our body, mind, and senses have thoroughly absorbed a piece of music, we have something genuine to offer our audience.

A wonderful violist told me that whenever he gives a concert, he arrives at the hall two hours before performance time. When I asked why he gets there so early, he explained that he wants to feel like a host instead of a guest. He wants to make sure he feels comfortable where he is so that he can extend himself in a spirit of generosity toward his audience.

It is our job as performers—to be so at home onstage that we feel ready to invite our audience into our world and to share our gifts with them.

On Timing and Safety

You may not feel ready to be a host yet. You can’t feel ready if you still need time to make yourself at home in your own practice room and your own mind. But don’t give up on who you are. You are meant to share your gifts, and you can find guidance to help you do that.

If you don’t feel ready to seek help now, it’s important to accept yourself just as you are—to feel your fear and vulnerability. This is the experience of your tender heart, which is the most precious part of you. If you take time to feel this tender, scared place in yourself, you are already giving yourself some of the gentle attention you need to eventually overcome whatever obstacles are in your way. Just remember that you are not alone. Many performers share your fears. And help is available.

If you do feel ready to seek guidance toward freedom and confidence onstage, look for signs that the experience will be safe. Ask all the questions you need to ask of anyone you’re considering getting help from. Talk to more than one person if you’re curious about different perspectives and points of view.

The friendly-looking people you see in the right column of every issue of Fearless Performing are a few of the many people who have a lot to offer. Other music teachers, movement educators, arts medicine professionals, psychotherapists, and mindfulness teachers are also out there, ready to help. Look for a combination of wisdom, experience, kindness, and personal chemistry. Then trust your intuition and open yourself to the new world you hope to find.

It takes work to break through the obstacles to freedom. But with the right guidance, that work will feel natural, welcome, and exciting.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to take a big step toward being more at home onstage, my summer program is a great way to do it. You’ll have lots of guidance and support from me and from the assistant teachers, and a whole group of other willing participants to share the experience with. A safe and magical journey awaits you there.

Q&A of the Month

I play the flute. When I tried your Body and Sound Awareness technique, I closed my eyes the first few times to help me focus more on the body-sound connection. But then I was able to open my eyes and still keep the connection. Is opening your eyes for this exercise just a matter of practice? And how does that relate to performing? I like to play with my eyes closed, but when I see someone perform with their eyes open, I think it shows that they’re comfortable onstage, which is what I’m aiming for. What are you thoughts about that?

These are wonderful questions. With your high degree of awareness, you can make many useful discoveries about how to best practice and perform, which can keep your work fresh and exciting.

I agree that closing your eyes can make it easier to focus on sounds and sensations. This is why many blind musicians are known for being especially sensitive and expressive. At the same time, when we perform, our awareness needs to expand to include the audience and the environment, so that we can connect with them fully and really communicate. When we’re performing really well, our energy mixes with everyone else’s, creating a vibrant atmosphere in the hall. Whether you do that with your eyes open or closed, your whole system feels it when it happens.

It takes a lot to prepare a piece to the point of feeling comfortable performing it. When we practice, we have the luxury of taking our time, of focusing on one thing at a time so that we can absorb every detail and make it a part of us. We have room to try all kinds of approaches, and that helps us develop our unique creative intelligence. As we get closer to mastering a piece, the space we’re working in feels more intense—we have made so many choices already about how to play the piece that our perceptions become very sharp as we try to refine our performance. Although we never feel 100% prepared when we go onstage, the moment comes when we have to just let go. And if we’ve practiced with an open mind and heart, we can trust that we’ve taken the music in and that it will flow out of us in performance. It may not necessarily feel comfortable in the usual sense of the word. It feels very daring—we’re really on the spot. But you could describe it as becoming comfortable with that feeling of risk and uncertainty. We get used to riding the waves of the music and of the energy in ourselves and all around us.

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

Getting Intimate with Greatness

This article includes a video.

My mother-in-law gave us a book one Christmas that I have often brought into piano lessons to show my students. The book is titled Monet: Waterlilies, and in it are many fold-out reproductions of these extraordinary paintings. What is most special about this particular book is that several pages show a close-up of a detail from one of the paintings. Each time you zoom in on one of these details, you experience the shock of how gorgeous, vibrant, and powerful it is. Every juxtaposition of color, every texture, is completely brilliant and astonishing.

The reason I show this book to my students is that we, as musicians, have exactly this opportunity when we practice—to zoom in on details and revel in their beauty. And it is only when we revel in that beauty ourselves that we can reveal it to others in performance.

The Challenge of Listening

The best piece of musical advice I ever heard was from guitarist Oscar Ghiglia in a master class. He told the student, “You have to listen to every note with your whole heart.”

This is easier said than done. We often get overwhelmed by the innumerable notes on a page of music and gloss over many of them instead of appreciating them to the fullest. We also often get caught in our concepts about the lines and textures we see on the page and about what shapes or colors they might imply. If we don’t listen really closely, from moment to moment with our whole heart, we can end up with a somewhat superficial performance.

Loving a piece of music is a lot like loving another person. No matter how strong our love may be, we tend to filter what we hear through our habitual ideas about what the other person—in this case, a composer—means to say. As we know from our personal relationships, we often think someone means one thing, when, in fact, he or she intends something quite different. It may only be after much confusion, arguing, and inquisitive conversation, that we finally discover what they have been trying to tell us.

Fortunately, when we feel at odds with a piece of music we’re living with, we can easily go back and re-examine the details of what we thought we heard. We may still experience great frustration with a musical phrase—we may even feel like giving up at times. But the answer often lies in just taking a fresh start and listening to it more closely. If we can manage to look past our frustration and focus intently on the exact sensory reality that is in front of us, with an open heart and mind, the true message in the music may reveal itself to us, and we can create a genuine performance.

The Magic of Slowing Down

To zoom in on the details, we need to slow down. We need to give ourselves time to take them in. This is much easier with music than with another person, because notes on a page will just sit there while we take all the time we need to absorb them, whereas another person might talk or yell faster than we can handle it.

But these notes have more power than we do. If we get frustrated or confused as we grapple with the complexity of a great piece of music, we can’t blame the music for the problems we’re having with it. We have to admit that it’s our own limitations that are preventing us from being in synch with it. We know we’re in the presence of genius, and we have no choice but to humbly find our way toward comprehending it.

At the same time, however, when we connect deeply to the power in a single sound or phrase, we exercise and develop the power of our own talent.

Intimacy with the Musical Fabric

A great performance is great through and through. The weave of the fabric itself—the horizontal lines and vertical sounds that work together to make it a piece—has complete integrity. Every fiber is alive with meaning.

But in our passion for music, we often rush into a beautiful phrase or passage without noticing many of the amazing details that make up this musical fabric. We may hear the seductive melody but not respond fully to all the harmonies that go with it. If we’re playing in an ensemble, we may hear our own part but not deeply feel all the changes from consonance to dissonance and back, as our own sounds blend with those of others. When this incomplete hearing happens, we disconnect from both the music and our own gift. We don’t come face to face with our full potential to meet the mind of greatness.

Fast Food Music

This tendency to disconnect from our own talent was strikingly obvious to me one day when I was coaching a string quartet. These four gifted musicians had learned a Brahms quartet in a week. As professional performers, they were used to working this fast, and they managed to negotiate all the notes at quite a clip. But the music rushed by without any sense of them hearing each other. Only when I asked them to listen to one sound at a time and really aim to be in tune with each other did they play in harmony and reveal some of the beauty that Brahms had created. Whereas their rushed performance of the entire movement had left me completely unmoved, each of those moments of true harmony was literally music to my ears, really nourishing me.

Choosing to Feast

It’s so tempting to rush through practicing or rehearsing when you have so many notes to handle. And you may have a deadline you’re working toward. Nevertheless, you can always choose to see a piece of music as a feast for your ears. The performance will go by quickly; you can use your practice time to savor every sound.

As often as you can, take the time to fill yourself up with the beauty and power of every sound. Open to it, drink it in, and notice how it feeds your system. Just as if you were standing close to a painting by Monet, notice all the juxtapositions of one harmonic color next to another. Allow yourself to be less active and more receptive.

The Hard Part

It sounds sumptuous, this feast—and it is. But as we turn our attention to each sound we discover not only the beauty and meaning in the music but also our difficulty in fully opening to it. As with the string quartet I coached, we too have to make an effort to take in all of the sounds we’re producing.

Cellist Vivien Mackie wrote of this effort in her wonderful book, Just Play Naturally. At 21, after winning many prizes, she went to take ten lessons with Pablo Casals. After she played for him for the first time, he said, “You do not know what you are doing.” They proceeded to work, and with each note she played he said either “Flat,” or “Sharp.” She had not realized that she had been playing out of tune.

Three months later, Mackie was still working with Casals, and she had covered only three lines of the Haydn Concerto. She wondered if she’d ever get anywhere at that pace. But she stayed on, and a year later she was zipping through the repertoire, because her ears had opened up enormously.

She stayed for three years altogether and brought her transformed playing and her well-earned wisdom home to England, where she has continued to help other musicians discover their true potential.

The Courage to Meet Your Own Greatness

Vivien Mackie was an uncommonly open and aware young musician who recognized the value in what Casals offered her, even though many other musicians had already praised her highly. She made the brave choice of setting aside her professional success for a time and pursuing the fulfillment of her deepest musical potential.

In the video below, gifted pianist Phoebe Pan also courageously steps beyond her familiar way of playing and makes an effort to go deeper. Although it’s challenging for her to open her ears on a new level, her effort brings her greater expressive freedom.

I find it interesting that when Phoebe describes herself as being “in a box,” her body is moving a lot as she plays, seemingly expressing the kind of freedom she wants to have. Yet when she listens more and moves less, she obtains a more genuine freedom—an inner musical freedom that comes from giving herself time to more fully hear the sounds she is making. The “box” she was in before was made out of her habitual over-activity. When she learns to balance being active with being more receptive, she achieves the kind of musical freedom she wants.

Preparing to Share Your Gift

We get very involved with the athletics of practicing our instruments—the complex activity of using our bodies to produce sounds. We need to remember that our greatest gift as musicians is the gift for hearing and appreciating those sounds. If we can fully unwrap this immense and magical gift, we can then truly share it with others.

Each time you stretch your hearing beyond its habitual level, you are making more room inside yourself for the power of musical genius to flow through you. If you practice doing this when you are alone, you will be much more ready to let it happen in performance.

I wish you much joy and success with making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about how to develop greater expressive freedom through listening, read my book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart. Also, if you’d like to know how I could help you connect more to your own gift, you’re welcome to come for a free consultation.

The Three Ingredients of Fearless Performing

This article contains a second video, below.

I played my first full recital at 17. It took place in my parents’ living room, for about 30 of their friends, many of whom were musically knowledgeable. My piano teacher was also present, along with one of his top students. Two guests were very late, and while we waited for them to arrive I had to socialize with everyone, outside on the sundeck. While I made polite conversation, I agonized inside about whether I could get through the Beethoven Sonata, Opus 110, from memory, under all this pressure.

Somehow, I did get through it. Somehow the whole program went really well. And when it was over, we enjoyed a wonderful reception, with wine and great food.
About an hour after the last guests were gone, I went upstairs to my room and started screaming. My father, who was a pediatrician, came up and opened my door and said he’d seen this kind of thing in some women after they’ve had a baby. I was grateful that he had some understanding of what I’d been through, and I knew he was proud of me. I felt like I had accomplished a rite of passage.
After midnight, when everyone was asleep, I went downstairs in my pajamas and celebrated my victory by smoking a cigar. I felt great.
Mind-boggling Challenge
The huge challenge of performing does indeed put us through a lot. How DO we do it? All that practice, alone in a room, and then suddenly we’re out in front of people, and everyone is looking at us. We never know how we’ll do. We’re human. We can make any number of mistakes. Or we can simply fail to catch the spark of inspiration that could ignite our performance and connect us with our audience.
We have every reason to be scared before we perform. Scientists have stated that playing a musical instrument is the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in. The extreme physical precision require to negotiate a masterpiece, combined with the deep sensitivity involved in responding to every sound, and the intelligence it takes to organize all these sounds in a meaningful way—all of it boggles the mind.
And then all of those eyes and ears are on you when you present the music you’ve worked so hard on to an audience. In the practice room, you’ve repeated tough passages and elusive phrases countless times; now you have one chance—no matter what happens in any of those passages or phrases, you have to keep going.
What is it that makes some performers able to handle this pressure and rise to the occasion? How can we train ourselves to go beyond our fear and become fearless onstage? To find the confidence that we truly have something to offer our audience, and to joyfully give it?
Fearless Performing is my gift to you. I hope it will help you to not only give your own gifts but find out how deep and far-reaching those gifts are. For in developing the skill of fearless performing, you are developing what you already have within you.
The Small Voice
Even if stage fright is not a big issue for you, you may have another concern: You may sense that there’s more inside you than what comes out in performance and wonder if you could access it and communicate more powerfully with an audience. Listening to the small voice that says “maybe there’s more” can take as much courage as stepping onto a stage—because when you search for more within yourself, you enter unknown territory. You don’t know what the journey will be like, or if you’ll find the fulfillment you yearn for. And when you do break through to a new level of performance, you let go of familiar habits and old ways of seeing yourself. It can be disorienting.
This e-zine is designed to encourage you to listen to that small voice and to go for the breakthrough you long for. No matter where you are now, there are new discoveries you can make, and you may find yourself in territories you didn’t even know existed. That small voice might herald the emergence of a bigger voice, filled with the joy and confidence that come from expressing your musicality on a more powerful level.
What It Takes
As unattainable or mystifying as fearless performing may seem, I’ve come to see it as the result of mixing three basic ingredients: reliability, flow, and power. We need to rely on our abilities, we need to let go and flow in the moment, and we need access to our communicative power. The combination of these three ingredients will give you the balance you need when you’re out there in the hot seat, riding the unpredictable waves of your body, your mind, and the music.
The First Ingredient: Reliability
The short video that’s coming up in this article is designed to give you a glimpse of the first ingredient—reliability. In particular, it focuses on the first of two types of reliability: a reliable physical approach—what we usually call “technique.” The second aspect of reliability, intimate knowledge of the music you’re performing, will be the focus of a future video.
You Can’t Do Without It
Relying on your body to take you smoothly through a performance is absolutely essential. The nature of performing is that something bigger than you takes over. The energy of life itself floods your system, and all you can do is let go and let it happen. If your body is not thoroughly trained in all the intricate movements you have to make, it can trip you up. If your muscles tighten and the tension builds up in a particular passage, the body, and even the mind, can break down, and your performance can fall apart, or just fall short of what you want it to be.
Streamlining
How we go about achieving physical reliability is crucial. We often work against ourselves, pushing our body so hard for the results we want that we get tense and the passage gets worse instead of better. We need to mix in the second ingredient of fearless performing, flow, as we search for reliability with our body.
Very often, a musician’s physical approach is less efficient than it could be. Excess effort, excess movement, or a suboptimal position can easily create tension, which inhibits the free flow of the music. Streamlining your physical approach makes it more reliable.
In this short video, gifted young pianist Phoebe Pan plays a section of a Bach partita very musically, and then discovers that she can gain the ease and power she wants by streamlining her physical approach:
Getting Used to the State of Flow
Streamlining your movements, releasing tension, and letting your body flow will prepare you for the intense state of flow that happens in performance. The more familiar you are with letting the flow happen in practicing, the easier it will be to handle it onstage. Future videos will show how to create natural physical flow in a variety of musical contexts.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first article in Fearless Performing. And I wish you much joy and success in making music.
Madeline Bruser
P.S. If you’d like to see me teach Phoebe in person, I invite you to attend my master class on Fearless Performing on February 9, as part of the Golden Key Salon Series at Klavierhaus, in New York (reserve a seat). This will be Phoebe’s second session with me, and the class will include a question-and-answer session at the end, in which you’re welcome to participate.
You’re also welcome to check out my Technique Streamlining Package, or just come for a free consultation.

Q & A of the Month

 

Does your approach to performing apply to non-pianists?

Yes. The fundamental principles of efficient body movement that I recommend apply to all musicians. In writing my book, The Art of Practicing, I interviewed several teachers of other instruments, as well as health professionals who help retrain injured musicians. It was heartening to discover that they all agreed with the same basic principles I teach for using the body to best advantage. Also, preparing for performance encompasses much more than the physical aspect. How we listen, how we train our mind, and how we treat ourselves as human beings, are crucial issues for all of us. Many non-pianists have asked me to help them release tension and get more in touch with their deep musicality, and I’ve been able to do that using a combination of basic physical principles, listening techniques, and mental exercises.
How did you develop your understanding of fearless performing?
It comes from all of my experience studying, performing, and teaching music, as well as from the training I’ve done in mindfulness and other meditative disciplines, and from a lot of research. I’m working on a second book, about performing, for which I’ve interviewed about 50 performers, including actors, dancers, and musicians. This book will present an approach to training the mind for confidence onstage. And later this year I plan to release an audio of “The Fearless Performing ExerciseTM,” which I developed to help performers access their communicative power before facing an audience.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.