by Madeline Bruser

January 25, 2013

At the beginning of this new year, many of us have made commitments to ourselves, invigorated by the idea that we can let go of the past and start fresh. After celebrating the holiday season and perhaps taking time off from work, we feel more ready to tackle new projects and accomplish new things. This time of renewed inspiration is so important. No matter what disappointments we may have experienced in the past, we need to remember that our life is full of possibility, and that we can do a lot toward making our dreams come true.

In reflecting on this time of renewed inspiration and commitment, I found myself remembering a particular brave young pianist who signed up for a workshop series I taught several years ago. I’ll call him Alan.

Alan took this series on natural piano technique hoping to recover from a playing-related injury. He knew that if he didn’t recover, he couldn’t keep playing—his performing career, like that of so many injured musicians, would come an early end. With no way of knowing what the series would be like, or if it would help him recover, he broke through his initial resistance and registered for the five weeks of workshops and private lessons. It was a leap of faith.

And Then It Began

After years of rigorous conservatory training, Alan was shocked when I asked him and the other workshop participants to practice no more than 10 minutes at a time, with only one hand at a time, during the first week of the series. Checking every little movement his fingers made seemed bizarre to him—he had to play so slowly that he had no experience of making any music, or of really playing the instrument. It was completely different from anything he’d ever done or ever heard of. But as he felt his hands gradually becoming more relaxed at the piano, he began to—somewhat—trust this new approach.

The Moment of Crisis

Everything went pretty well until around the middle of the five weeks, when Alan realized during a workshop that he could neither remember how to play the old way nor reliably play the new way. He felt completely unsure of himself and of where he was headed. He said he felt confused and scared, and he started to cry.

But as he heard encouraging words about his progress from me and from the other participants, he began to calm down. And as he saw the others improve while going through the same process that he was going through, he felt somewhat reassured. Finally, because he knew he couldn’t go back to his old way of playing, he felt he had no choice but to continue.

Gradually, Alan became more familiar with the new approach, and it started to feel more comfortable and reliable. By the end of the series, he had fully recovered from his injury and was playing freely, though slowly. Within a few more weeks, he gained speed as well.

Alan’s leap of faith, coupled with five weeks of brave and dedicated perseverance, had brought him to the victory he’d hoped for. In addition to recovering from his injury, he had acquired a new piano technique that would prevent him from being injured again, and that enabled him to play more freely and expressively than before.

What We Can Learn from Alan

I tell this story because it illustrates what it’s like to really keep a commitment to our own growth or to anything that’s important to us. No matter what joy or good intentions we might start out with in any big endeavor—whether it’s learning difficult new repertoire, taking our technique to a new level, or perhaps something in our personal life, such as getting married—there will inevitably be times of great challenge, times when we may question if we have what it takes to see it through and to really succeed. While we can relax with the knowledge that we’re always growing, we can never know exactly what we’re growing into, or what it will feel like to actually make a desired change.

Alan’s bravery is an inspiring example for all of us, and we can learn a lot from his experience. So if you are facing a time of change and growth, and you know that many challenges lie ahead of you, here are some things from Alan’s experience, and from my own, that you can remember on your journey.

1. Keep your motivation to change in mind.

2. Know that fear is inevitable when entering unknown territory.

3. Also know that you contain the seeds of the growth you want to accomplish.

4. Appreciate yourself for having the inspiration and courage to commit to change.

5. Seek out companions or allies on your journey, or reassurance from friends who have overcome obstacles in their efforts to make important changes in their work or life.

6. Find a guide, or guides, in the form of a teacher, mentor, or even a book, to keep you on course and informed of your progress.

7. Trust your own intelligence as you work with that guide.

8. Appreciate that in feeling afraid yet moving forward anyway, you are being brave. Take time to extend warmth to yourself as you appreciate your own bravery.

9. Realize that this bravery is making you a stronger person for the future challenges you will face, including performing onstage.

10. Focus on the progress you’re making—maybe write down the small steps and signs along the way. Return to your allies and guides for support.

11. Celebrate successes.

12. Remember to relax and breathe all along the way, balancing being serious about your goal with taking pleasure in simple things around you in your daily life.

What I Can Offer You

If you need support on your musical journey this coming year, here are a few options I can offer you.

1. Three Free Teaching Calls

March 4 – Mindfulness Meditation for Musicians

“The change was gentle, gradual, and profound. It put me more in touch with my innermost artistic aspirations.”

Yegor Shevtsov, pianist, Faculty Manhattan School of Music Pre-College 

April 22 – Body and Sound Awareness (with instruments)

“This work has been a career- and life-changing experience. After playing for years successfully in Broadway shows and having just completed a Masters in woodwinds, I felt that I had come to a professional and personal impasse. This approach helped to unlock physical, mental, and emotional barriers and has brought joy back to my performing.”

Michel Gohler, Masters in Multiple Woodwinds, New Jersey City University

May 20 – The Fearless Performing Exercise (with or without instruments) 

“Doing this seven-minute technique before each performance quite honestly transformed my experience of performing. I actually found myself enjoying the moment, and feeling like I could lose my ego to some extent and just ‘give’ the music to the audience. It’s just turned my way of thinking around about what performance is actually about.”

Felicity Corrie, cellist, Cambridge University Alumna

Click for more information.

2. Two monthly classes 

Mindfulness Meditation for Musicians – first Tuesday of every month; next class February 5.

The Fearless Performing Exercise – first Thursday of every month; next class February 7.

Click for more information; scroll down.

3. Skype sessions or private sessions in person

To help you play with greater expressive freedom. Wonderful for working with tension, injuries, stage fright, and everything in between.

Click to contact me.

4. The weeklong summer program:

Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians

July 27 – August 3

This is a tremendous opportunity to receive guidance and support in a non-competitive environment. An extraordinary program offering challenges and solutions that bring lasting enrichment.

Click for more information.

5. A free consultation

In person or on the phone, to help you decide what option is best for you.

Click to contact me.

Like you, I have made commitments to myself for this coming year. They include helping more musicians discover and fulfill their deepest expressive potential. I’ve had the great good fortune to discover that my potential was far greater than I realized. My primary interest now is to pass on what I know to you, my fellow musicians.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you participate in the free calls you will receive a written description of each technique after each call to guide you in your practice of the techniques.

Q&A of the Month

I’m curious about your own experience with some of the techniques you described in last month’s article—the ones you’ll be teaching on the free calls coming up. How did you discover these, and what was it like when you first tried them?

Wow. That’s a big question! But actually, learning the first one, mindfulness meditation, helped me discover the other two.

I discovered meditation through friends who were doing it. They weren’t musicians, but I sensed something about them that made me want to try it. They had a way of really listening in conversations, and they seemed to have a deep understanding of how their own minds worked. It was this quality of presence and depth that first drew me in—I wanted to experience more of that in myself. But then, when I actually tried meditation, I didn’t connect with it, so I didn’t continue after the first two days. It was only a year later, when I’d played an unsuccessful audition, that something told me meditation could help me become more relaxed and confident about performing. From that second time of trying it, I’ve stayed with it—which has been for 35 years. It immediately felt like coming home—to relax to a level that I had never experienced before. But many people find it much more challenging the first time, and then get used to it and find it transformative.

The second technique, body and sound awareness, just came naturally to me over the course of my experience with meditation. Meditation makes you much more aware of what you’re perceiving. So sounds and sensations became more vivid—which was a revelation during my practicing.  Music opened up before my eyes, and ears, without much effort on my part. I soon saw that I could lead other musicians toward that kind of awareness even if they didn’t meditate, by working directly with their experience with their instruments.

The Fearless Performing Exercise came to me from a spiritual practice I’ve done for many years, in the buddhist and Shambhala traditions, in which we take a few minutes to reflect on our lineage—the teachers who have passed down the tradition of meditation. Because remembering them has great personal meaning, it opened my heart easily. I wanted musicians to have something similar, so I translated it into their terms. I also added the idea of reflecting on two other fundamentally important things that put us immediately in touch with the energy of our heart, our communicative power. When I first had this kind of experience myself it was pretty mind-blowing. An intense energy became available to me right away, which opened up all of my communication with other people enormously.

If you sign up for the free teaching calls, you can experience all of these techniques yourself.

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