September 25, 2012
At seventeen, I arrived at music school at Indiana University, full of ambition and excited about being surrounded by musicians and about studying with my new teacher, Menahem Pressler. The music building at the school is round, and before school even started, I began walking through the circular hallways looking for an empty practice room. As I literally walked around in circles, countless times, hearing dozens of pianists practicing away, I was sure that they were all better than I was.
At the time of my first lesson, Pressler was away on a concert tour, and his assistant met with me and assigned a set of exercises for finger independence, which Pressler wanted all of his new students to practice. I practiced those exercises intensely, five or six hours a day, during my first week of school. And in my panic about measuring up to the competition and pleasing my new teacher, I lost six pounds. I also came down with a cold. On top of that, I got my first case of poison ivy while walking in the woods on campus. I was a wreck, and I called my parents for sympathy.
A day or so later, the phone rang in my dorm room. “Madeline? It’s Mr. Pressler. How are you?” I was shocked to hear from him. “Fine,” I managed to say. “Your father tells me you’re not so fine,” he said. In a kind voice, he asked me to come to meet him that week, for the first time. I still get tears in my eyes remembering how relieved I was that he cared.
That phone call was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Pressler is an amazing pianist, and he opened me up to a whole new world of sound and possibilities with the piano. But his kindness and warmth were equally important to me, and I worked for him as I did for no other teacher. He was direct but gentle with his critical comments, and he taught me to value imagination and creativity in my practicing. My time in the practice room became infused with curiosity and openness. It was about exploring music, the piano, and my artistic nature— not about proving anything to anybody, or struggling to get somewhere. (Or practicing finger exercises five hours a day.) Everything opened up inside me.
The Shift Toward Overwhelm
I feel very fortunate that I had those two years at Indiana, focusing on being an artist and enjoying practicing, before I hit New York City and started studying at Juilliard. From my perspective now, those two years, far removed from the stress of urban life and heavy professional demands, were like an extended summer, in which I had space to relax and to develop as I needed to.
As summer turns to fall right now, I’m aware of how the relaxation of summer is already giving way to the demands of a tighter schedule, increased activity all around me, and the challenges of bringing new projects to fruition. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed in the fall season, and to lose the spaciousness and freedom we typically have in summer. As inspired as we may be about new projects, new people, and the new concert season and academic year, we get anxious and feel more stressed in the midst of it all. We know it’s time to get down to work.
But it’s possible to get down to work in a spacious way. And it’s essential.
Balancing Abundance with Space
Like the abundant fall season, we musicians are rich in our gifts—abundant in a variety of colorful emotional energies and in our responsiveness to sound. We are so lucky to have these gifts.
But to come fully alive, our gifts need to breathe. When we give ourselves enough space to breathe, we have room inside of us to both receive and recreate all the richness in the music we play or sing—to respond fully to what we hear so that we can transmit it to others.
In a previous article, Getting Intimate with Greatness, I wrote about how to relate to the myriad of sounds in the music we practice, so that all of them can vibrantly flow through us. But there is an even more basic step we need to take. This step is to establish an initial spaciousness and openness to music before you even begin to practice.
To do this, simply sit still and take a moment to breathe and to feel your own presence, physically and mentally, before you engage with your instrument. In other words, before connecting with music, you need to connect with yourself—your living, breathing self.
You can think of yourself as a living, open vessel, with energy constantly flowing in from the world around you through your senses, mixing with your own energies, and then radiating and flowing outward to the environment and to others through the communicative energy in your speech, in the music you make, and in your presence.
When we are already filled up with stress and sensory overload, our system is clogged. Musical sounds have very little room inside of us to play, dance, flow, and make their magic. But if we can de-stress and unwind, our body and mind can open, and we can receive and enjoy new sensory abundance, so that it can flow through us freely and reach others.
Grandma’s Recipe for Space
Maybe you remember visiting your grandma as a child, and enjoying a level of relaxation that your parents didn’t have, because they were so busy making a living and running the household. Or maybe you remember a favorite vacation spot and how it felt to breathe fresh air and not worry about the usual things you have to do. When you came home from your time at Grandma’s or on vacation, you had new energy for life; you felt refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of school, practicing, or taking care of business.
Until the avalanche hit—the inevitable demands of work and life. Then your system started to feel the strain and to shut down and close off. Your vessel became too full.
To help you find that mental space again, here is Grandma’s recipe for creating space in your practicing:
1. Remember that refreshing time, the feeling of being able to breathe.
2. Take at least two minutes to do nothing but breathe. Just sit comfortably upright and notice your breathing. In, out—in, out. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. Being upright helps you be both alert and relaxed, as you need to be for making music. It also allows your lungs to fully expand with breath, which nourishes your entire system. Keep your eyes open, gazing somewhat downward, without trying to focus them on anything. This will keep you aware of your environment yet also focused on your breathing.
3. Then notice how you feel different—perhaps more calm or awake—or maybe you realize how tired you are.
4. Gently begin to practice your instrument, noticing how the first few sounds affect you. See if you can notice each sound coming into your body and changing you inside. This is what music does when you’re open to it.
5. Continue practicing with this awareness—of sounds and inner sensations, as well as the sensations of touch and movement.
6. Notice when you begin to lose this awareness.
8. Take one to three deep breaths and begin the process again—or if you prefer, go back to step 2.
After your practice session, reflect on what happened and what it means to you.
In case you didn’t realize it, Grandma’s recipe is 2500 years old—it’s the recipe for what is called mindfulness. It begins with mindfulness meditation—with awareness of your breathing—and it continues with mindfulness of sounds and sensations.
Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. But it’s much more than just being careful and minding your p’s and q’s. Mindfulness is really the innate capacity of your mind to be aware of whatever is happening in the present moment. And the recipe above is a basic method for cultivating that capacity, by deliberately paying attention to something—in this case, your breathing, and then the sounds and sensations you’re experiencing. This simple act actually changes your brain each time you do it. The more you do it, the more you build the habit of noticing what’s happening in your daily experience—the sounds and sensations of practicing, the atmosphere in the room, the energy in your body in different situations that arise. Your nervous system actually changes, and you become less driven by habit and more aware of the present moment and its possibilities. You wake up to vivid reality and become more of yourself. More sensitive, more musical, more artistic.
All kinds of people have been using mindfulness techniques in recent years, including athletic teams, cancer patients, doctors, and business leaders. They do it because it gives them more access to their mental power and frees them from problematic levels of tension and stress. It also brings out their receptivity to people they’re working with, and it opens their minds to creative solutions they hadn’t noticed before.
And it has begun to make its way into the lives of musicians, who are overwhelmed with the demands of playing their instruments, job stress, and performance anxiety. I’ve been doing it for 35 years and have watched many musicians discover their true capabilities through regularly practicing this simple discipline.
If you’re concerned that adding this additional activity to your day will be too much, know that even ten minutes a day can make your practice time more efficient. So it actually saves you time.
Taking Care of the Vessel
Music demands so much of us—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Taking time to breathe is a way of taking care of ourselves in the midst of these demands so that more of our gifts can shine through in the music we make—more vitality, more richness and depth. More beauty.
Try it, and discover for yourself how giving yourself space to breathe can open up your playing or singing. If you live in the New York area, you are welcome to sign up for my new monthly meditation class.
If you’re interested in pursuing meditation but don’t live near me, I’d be happy to hear from you and to recommend other options for learning and practicing this mind-opening technique. In any case, feel free to send in a question related to this practice, for possible inclusion in next month’s issue.
I wish you much joy and success in making music.
P.S. The meditation class for musicians will meet on the first Tuesday of every month. Space is limited. Reserve your spot now for the class on October 2nd at 8 pm.
P.P.S. If you’d like to find out more about how you can practice with more awareness, ease, and enjoyment, schedule a free consultation.