The Power of Being Ordinary

by Tracy Stuchbery

A performing experience I had recently as a choral conductor has led me down a path of pondering the ordinary. Strangely enough, the performance itself was, in a word, extraordinary. I have never felt more alive, more in command, more connected to the music in a performance than on that weekend. Yet when all was said and done, I came away with an overwhelming sense of my own very ordinary self.

I am an ordinary person. I came into this world the same way you did; an earthly mother and father, a messy birth.

I am nothing special. I am loved just as you are loved. I have thoughts, ideas and gifts. I am familiar with joy and sorrow.

I am on a journey through life. Along the way I have discovered things that I love and things that I enjoy doing, things that excite me and things that terrify me.

I am a musician. I can remember being small and wanting so badly to take piano lessons like my older sister and brother. I remember how excited and grown up I felt when it was finally my turn to sit on the bench with the teacher, Melissa. I remember the feeling of my feet dangling off the piano bench. I remember opening the bright orange beginner piano book and feeling so proud to learn to recognize and play Middle C. I remember struggling so hard on a piece called “Busy Little Bee” and when I had finally mastered it, announcing to my mother that it was my favorite. I remember her response; “Isn’t it interesting that the piece you struggled the most with is now your favorite?”  I learned something that day about process. I learned that the most fulfilling work we do always involves a struggle.

The choir I direct is called Musaic Vocal Ensemble. I have worked with this choir now for five years. This past December the choir was in fine form, well prepared and poised for its performances. Concert weekend arrived. The music was powerful, moving many to tears, and the audiences at both concerts erupted into a standing ovation. I stood in the middle of that tremendous outpouring of affection and felt grateful and satisfied. The love and delight of the audience as the applause and shouts of “bravo” continued was palpable. Clearly this performance had reached people at a very deep level.

Following the performances, comments from the audience and choir members alike were remarkable and heartfelt. “This choir just keeps getting better and better!” “That was stunning!” “Wow! I am going to cry. This is the best choir I have ever heard!” “The concert was a healing experience for me.”  “Your conducting is so inspiring!” My heart soared when I realized that we had succeeded in creating a space in which people could absorb and experience music at its most powerful. It is indeed a noble art form and one that I, like Beethoven, truly believe is capable of changing the world. My heart was full. You might expect that after such an experience I would feel truly great; like I had reached some sort of pinnacle in my career as a conductor. Instead, when I returned home, changed out of my special clothing and washed the make-up off my face, I was overwhelmed with a sense of how very ordinary I am.

Our Main Job as Performers
It seems to me that the primary role of the performer is to create spaciousness; space for the music to come to life and space for the listener to receive it. The performer becomes a vessel for musical expression, spontaneity and receptivity; at once fully in relationship with and separate from the music.

In order for a vessel to be effective it must first be emptied out. This is where the work is. The work of emptying oneself can be painful. It requires us to come face to face with all aspects of ourselves so that we can rid ourselves of those things that are no longer of use and are not life-giving. It is work that a musician is confronted with every time we pick up our instrument. We must make room for the music by recognizing that when our work isn’t going so well, it’s often because we’re caught up in a habitual concept of how the music should sound. We think the phrase should go “this way,” but the phrase fights back. We feel stiff, uncomfortable, or just frustrated. The music doesn’t flow freely. Once we recognize this state of affairs, we need a way of emptying ourselves of our habitual concepts and attitudes about the music.

The most effective tool I have found for the work of emptying myself of habitual concepts and attitudes is the practice of meditation. Seventeen years ago, my husband and I came to a crisis point in our relationship. We had a choice: call it quits or face the pain and dysfunction in the hopes that it would lead us to a new, healthier place. We had three children under the age of four. We were heartbroken to think that this family we had built would crumble. Deep within me was the memory of that young child whose favorite piece was the one she struggled the most to learn. We chose to work hard; to seek counseling; to give each other the space we needed to examine ourselves and our relationship. I remember thinking very clearly that our relationship was over. What we had had was over. What would it become? Neither of us knew. It was during this time that we both committed ourselves to a meditation practice that up until that point we had only dabbled in. As we both learned to let go of our habitual views of ourselves and of each other and live from our core selves, we discovered a deeper relationship than either of us ever could have imagined. Have you ever had an experience where you were able to let go of your expectations and ended up receiving so much more?

Meditation is simply the act of being present in the moment.  No expectations. No judgment. No control. It is a time to observe thoughts, emotions and sensations, without actively pursuing them. It is about opening up to new possibilities and new insights. It is a very refreshing experience to let go and surrender to whatever comes. When I practice it, I find I become more tuned to my own heartbeat, my core and to the very present moment. This serves me well when I am standing on the podium about to give the down beat to the start of a musical journey. I am open, ready to give and to receive.

The Power of Simple Presence
Madeline Bruser writes about presence in this way in her book The Art of Practicing: “Presence is the state of being fully present, of body, mind, heart and sense perceptions being completely engaged with the activity of the present moment. For a performer this means not only being engaged with the music but letting the energy of the audience affect you. In practicing, it means being at ease in your surroundings and being aware of each movement and each sound that you make.”

In practicing presence through any number of meditation techniques, we cultivate a state of balance. We balance the mind and body, ease and effort, giving and receiving, left and right sides of the body, light and dark, ordinary and extraordinary. It is state of freedom in which we can simply be ourselves, let ourselves express ourselves, and feel fully alive. This is what happened in my performance – I opened myself to something bigger than myself and let it move through me.

Try It
Anyone can cultivate their ability to have such experiences by deliberately practicing being present through meditation, and I encourage you to give it a try. There are many places you can go to learn to meditate and books you can read, but the best way I know of is to just sit – for 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes – and simply be. Sit comfortably upright and give your body a chance to catch up with your mind. Breathe. Let go. Rest in your ordinary, human self. Sit long enough to feel a shift in your state of mind – to feel more calm or settled than before.

If you sit simply like this a little each day, It will lead to extraordinary things – in your music making and in your life.

 

Nora Krohn on Self-Love

Dear readers,

This wonderful article by Nora Krohn was first published here on January 25, 2016. Her amazing heart and mind come through with fresh impact today, and I am honored to republish it.

I hope you enjoy it!

Madeline Bruser

On Self Love

By Nora Krohn

A few days ago I was grudgingly contemplating the prospect of writing a long-overdue post to my blog on the inner life of being a performing musician. I had a collection of unfinished articles that had begun with promising ideas, but then fizzled out once I felt the inspiration wane. After posting my inaugural article “On Jealousy and True Belonging,” in July 2014, I had received thousands of messages from musicians, both friends and strangers, who responded positively to its message about finding a sense of belonging no matter where we are in the world of music.

Some of the messages were heartfelt thanks from people who felt my words had reached them at a critical time. Others were full of good natured advice from older musicians. As I read these kind messages, something struck me about my writing, and it was so obvious I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it: I had been so focused on identifying and grappling with the obstacles to becoming a confident and fulfilled musician, and helping others do the same, that I had completely neglected to honor the immense changes I’ve experienced since writing that first article.

A couple of years ago I was having coffee with a violinist friend, talking about these very obstacles I’ve spent the last few years confronting and chronicling. She recounted something her therapist had said to her: “Artists, especially musicians, are so disciplined and ambitious. You’re always focused on how much farther you have to go up the mountain. When do you stop and admire the view, congratulate yourselves on how much you’ve climbed already?”

 

The Root of the Problem

When I first began to confront my fear of performing in a more direct way, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the process wasn’t just about changing my practice habits, or refining my technique, or getting more experience as a performer. Instead, it was about a much deeper issue that was directly influencing all of those things: my attitude toward myself. When musicians struggle with major roadblocks to playing and performing the way we want to, our relationship to ourselves is often the last place we look. Usually our musical education is focused on accumulating an intimate knowledge of our instrument and the musical tradition we follow through study with a respected teacher, practice, and performing experience. Through exposure to our teachers’ expertise, exploration with fellow students, and performing, we gain proficiency and confidence. For plenty of people, this model seems to work.

For others, the fear of performing goes beyond garden-variety nerves that can be managed with adequate preparation and experience, and reassuring words from teachers and friends. After years of dedicated study, I eventually realized that my efforts to be a confident and effective performer were just fussing around the edges of a major problem: if I didn’t approve of myself, how could I ever become truly at home giving myself to an audience?

As discouraging as it was to realize how much havoc my attitude toward myself was wreaking on my performing, it was also a relief to understand why after so many years of refining my technique and getting more experience as a performer, I felt no more confident than before.

What Next?

Even after I became aware that self-love was not part of my vocabulary or experience, I had no idea how to change that. I tried meditation, therapy, and affirmations, and It all helped. But the words “self-love” and “self-worth” remained benign yet remote concepts. Then, about a year ago, I encountered a style of meditation called lovingkindness meditation that helped me start chipping away at the self-contempt that undermined my sense of worthiness as a performer. I knew I was on the right track when doing the practice produced a tangible physical and emotional effect—I was starting to experience giving kindness to myself, not just thinking about it. I continued to struggle with my demons, but I felt I had my stronger, kinder, wiser self alongside me.

One night while I was out of town for an orchestra gig, a couple of months after discovering lovingkindness meditation, I tried a practice advocated by one of my favorite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, in which I imagined I had only one year to live, then six months, then one month, then one day, then only one minute, and asked myself how I would wish to spend my remaining time. In doing this powerful practice, I realized that one thing meant far more to me than anything else: Love. And by not loving myself, not only was I hindering myself as a performer, but I was in a very real sense cutting myself off from the most vital source of well-being. When I finally understood how much my feelings of inadequacy had taken from me, it filled me with a sense of urgency and resolve. As my friend and former mentor Madeline Bruser writes in her brilliant book, The Art of Practicing, “We have one lifetime in which to express ourselves and connect to others. A performance is in that sense a microcosm of life: We have one chance, and we want to give it everything we have.”

A Resting Place

Last summer, on the day of the closing concert at Madeline’s summer program, I was walking to lunch by the quiet lake on campus, mulling over my performance later that day and my career in general. I’d had a great week—affirming masterclasses, deep conversations with wonderful, like-minded musicians, and fun rehearsals with the pianist I was working with. During one master class, I remarked, a little bewildered, “For the first time in my life, I feel like nothing is wrong. I have something to say, and you want to hear it, and I’m saying it.” I burst out laughing. Everyone applauded.

Walking around campus that day, enjoying the warmth of the August sunshine, these words came to me: “Whatever I set out to do, I’ve done it.” I knew immediately what it meant—and what it didn’t. It didn’t mean there was no further progress to be made in my playing, or no career ambitions. It simply meant that I could stop trying so hard to meet my own internal standards of being an adequate performer, because I had already met them. Not by practicing harder or getting better gigs, but by learning to approve of myself. And in that moment, something lifted. That night I felt more free and at ease onstage than ever. And in the months since I have found more ease, confidence, and enjoyment than I ever thought possible when I started this journey.

Change is Possible

What helped me enormously was hearing accounts of people, artists and non-artists, who had radically changed their outlook through a consistent practice of cultivating self-approval. I had always looked at confident performers onstage, and thought, “Well, they were just born confident and talented. I’m not like that. I can work twice as hard as anyone and still blow it.” If you often have similar thoughts, know this: lack of confidence as a performer is not a life sentence. Confronting the reasons behind it requires tremendous courage and a persistent discipline of kindness. But my view is that if you are deeply drawn to being a performer, even if you don’t know why, then the greater the obstacles you face, the more you have to gain from meeting them.

Of course, learning to love and approve of ourselves is far from a one-shot deal. Old habits die hard—doubt creeps in before an important performance, envy of our colleagues gets the better of us, self-recrimination for a mistake drowns out the audience’s enthusiastic applause. But just because we are temporarily separated from the wisdom we uncover doesn’t mean it disappears. Self-approval, and organic confidence, are acquired, not inherited traits. And no matter where you are on the path of becoming the performer you want to be, please don’t wait until you’ve summitted the mountain to turn around and admire the view gained by your sincere effort, and to appreciate yourself for being willing to work for it. The love you bear for yourself will be the best companion on your climb.

Decluttering Your Practicing

We’ve had a spectacular spring in New York, unlike any I can remember – intoxicating flowering trees followed by the unbelievable boldness of green everywhere, magically invading the masses of gray city buildings. Seeing this vibrant display of natural beauty, I can breathe more freely, and I feel more human. It’s a huge infusion of life-giving energy.

Seeing this renewed world around me, I became inspired to do lots of spring-cleaning in my apartment. I cleared out stuff from corners that I don’t need. Washed windows. Gave away clothes I never wear. Scraped grunge off of the stove. Organized documents on my computer into folders. Dumped countless miscellaneous papers. Every time another area of the house was decluttered and cleaned up I felt uplifted – I could enjoy living here much more, and I could move forward with more energy with work projects and with life in general.

In practicing our instrument we accumulate another kind of clutter that gets in the way of fully enjoying ourselves. This clutter appears if the form of three types of habits that work against us: physical habits, mental habits, and musical habits. Let’s take one example of each of these types of habits and look at how we can clean up that habit, so we can enjoy practicing more and get better results.

Physical Habits

        
Before                                         After

Many instrumentalists, including pianists, have a habit of holding their fingers above the keys when they’re not using them to play. This takes extra muscular effort from your forearm, which means you have unnecessary tension in your hand and forearm, obstructing the free flow of energy through your arm into the instrument. This tension inhibits both speed and expressiveness – you have less access to muscular power as well as to your natural sensitivity. This habit also makes it harder to play fast. If you think of tensing up your body and trying to run, you’ll get the idea – you can’t go fast when your body is tense. In fact, this habit works against your physical abilities so much that it is the cause of 9 out of 10 injuries among pianists.

How do you break a habit like this?

A physical habit is like a code in your spinal cord. To change the code, you have to put your brain in charge and deliberately do something different, repeatedly. That means going really slowly – slowly enough that your brain has a chance to give a your fingers the new message: “stay down.”

Let’s break this process of changing the code in your spinal cord down into steps:

  1. Select a passage that ideally requires you to use only one finger at a time to play (playing more than one key at a time is more difficult).
  2. Memorize a bar or a few notes so you can look at your hand while you play.
  3. Play the first note, focusing on letting your non-playing fingers relax and rest on the keys.
  4. Don’t try to get a big sound – even no sound at all is fine for now. What matters is that you’re developing control of the muscles that operate your hand.
  5. Stop and be sure that all the fingers that are not playing are resting on the keys.
  6. After you’ve played the first note this way, proceed to the second one.

This may seem very time-consuming and like a lot of picky little steps. But because you’re really paying attention, you’re actually rapidly creating new neuropathways. So even after ten minutes, the new habit starts to form – you don’t have to think so much to keep the fingers down. They learn.

After ten minutes of this kind of practicing, stop practicing for at least ten more minutes, so that your brain can rest from the intense focus. You can do several ten- minute sessions like this a day if you want. But even if you do it only a couple of times, within a week you will likely be amazed at how much easier it is to control your hand.

Mental Habits

In our fast-paced world, we get used to “having it now.” Ordering a product on Amazon that arrives the next day. Texting a friend and knowing they’ll get your message within an instant. Snapping photos with your phone and immediately sharing them with hundreds of people on Facebook.

But practicing music is an art that requires a lot of patience and skill – including the skill of self-awareness. Self-awareness here means recognizing when you’re into destructive habits – like pushing yourself hard, berating yourself when you feel frustrated, or rushing through a difficult passage because it’s “good enough,” instead of taking the time to really explore the technical and musical issues in it. Or simply not noticing that you feel tense and frustrated until you suddenly realize that your arm hurts a lot.

How can you change this kind of habit? You can’t see it, like fingers that are up in the air. What do you actually do to change a mental habit that is working against your enjoyment and progress?

Here’s an example of how to do this:

  1. Take a couple minutes to declutter your mind before you practice by sitting quietly and taking some deep breaths, or by focusing on your natural breathing.
  2. Take another minute to reflect on why you’re practicing – not because you have a concert or lesson soon, but because you’re a musician! You love music! You want to enjoy it and share it with other people. You want to express yourself and be who you’re meant to be. Take a minute to reflect on that.
  3. Ask yourself what part of what piece you want to look at first.
  4. Pay attention to how your body feels and then do what’s comfortable. You’ll progress faster that way than if you push your body to do something it’s not ready to do.
  5. Notice when you start feeling less comfortable. Slow down or take a break to reset your nervous system and get a fresh start.
  6. If you realize that the more you’re practicing the worse it’s getting, just stop and take a longer break.
  7. At any time, you can always go back to step 1 and declutter your mind again. Open the mental windows and let in some fresh air!
Musical Habits
Musical habits include not listening intently to the sounds we’re producing, and not creating well-shaped, coherent phrases. Often, we don’t realize we’re engaged in these habits – but we can feel that the music isn’t flowing easily.Let’s take the example of not listening intently to the sounds you’re making. What does that mean?Musicians often think they’re listening fully when they’re actually just glossing over the notes and the changes of harmony. If you think you’re listening with 100% attention but the music isn’t responding to your efforts, consider that you might benefit by applying a specific listening technique. For now, I recommend this one:
  1. Declutter your mind for a minute or two, as described in the previous instructions for breaking mental habits.
  2. Take a phrase that you feel basically comfortable with technically but that isn’t sounding free or fluid.
  3. Forget all about speed or rhythm. Just focus on sound for now.
  4. Play a single sound and see if you can feel a response in your body, especially in the front of your torso, where your vital organs are. This may take several seconds, and several tries. You’ll know you’re getting somewhere when you feel an emotional response to the sound that you don’t remember having before.
  5. Take time to let that emotional response run through you – it’s a gift. It’s what your receive as a result of taking the time to really give the sound your full attention.
  6. Continue playing each subsequent sound the same way. Drop any musical agenda – just let yourself be with that sound and soak it up.
  7. When you get to the end of the phrase, play the phrase again several times, each time picking up speed a tiny bit while making sure you’re deep into the sound, bathing in its particular quality and beauty.
  8. After maybe 20 times through, start letting the rhythm re-enter more, until the phrase is back in tempo.
  9. Notice if the music flows more easily, now that you’ve let go of your habitual way of playing the phrase.

As you get used to this deep-level listening, your ears will gradually open more and you’ll be able to hear music this fully at faster speeds. This is real ear training – training your ears and your whole system to operate the way they’re meant to, so that you become the musician you’re meant to be.

If you have any questions after trying these decluttering techniques, I’d love to hear from you! You can ask in the comments below or write me an email. It’s my passion to help musicians streamline their practicing and soar in performance.

Here’s to more expressiveness in your performances!

Madeline

 

How to Realize Your Dream

I woke up Saturday morning after dreaming I had discovered a whole new place at the south end of Manhattan, where people lived on quiet streets near a wide, curved beach that looked out on a vast expanse of water, no land in sight. It was spacious and peaceful, and yet right here as part of our chaotic city.

I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this place before. I had a sense of caution as a city dweller—I didn’t know how safe it was to be walking around on the empty streets I found there.  Nevertheless, I was so happy to find that this open space was right here in New York, where I live. When I woke up from this dream I felt deeply rested and refreshed, completely positive about the days ahead of me.

We do dream about places like that. And we seek them out for our vacations. Some people even live in such places. We all need the inspiration and refreshment of wide open space and clear air, peace and quiet.

The dream carried the message that such a place is actually accessible in my own mind and heart every day—I just have to remember that I carry it within me, and that I can always find ways to let go of tension, worry, and stress. In the middle of chaos, I can stop for a minute, take a deep breath or two, and let my mind and body relax.

Really?
OK. It’s true that sometimes it can take a while to relax in this way. Life is definitely very challenging at times. But we can still make it a practice to recognize when we feel tense, sympathize with ourselves for how difficult that is, and take time to breathe. In tough situations, we might need to take a walk, or talk to a friend or therapist who gives us additional sympathy and understanding, or fresh insight into our situation, in order to attain some peace of mind. And if our problem runs deep, we might even need to do some specific healing work.

But in any case, we have a fundamental ability to relax our mind and to open up to a fresh perception of our experience. And we may also realize that this kind of openness and freshness are the source of creativity and of high quality work.

What This Means for Musicians
So in our work as musicians, how can we relax and open up more often? How can we feel a fresh sense of inspiration when we’re tense and frustrated during practicing a piece and are a million miles away from the moment when we first fell in love with it?

Let’s look at some of what’s standing in our way.

The Speed Trap
I recently worked with an ensemble to help them bring more vitality to their playing. Although the piece was marked Molto allegro, I had them relax the tempo a little and focus on the interplay between notes and rests, so they could feel the lightness and playfulness of the music more. Then I helped them use basic principles of rhythmic organization in one section to make the music move forward with more energy. Within a short time, their playing really started to perk up.

But the violinist, who was new to my teaching, commented that it was getting too slow. I explained to him that we were engaging in a process—that when we let go of our concepts and look at a piece of music from different angles, we can discover things we couldn’t hear before. We have to dismantle it so that it can then come together with its full, living energy.

As I continued to work with the group, their playing became more and more energized. Then we ran out of time. I wished I had been able to help the violinist appreciate the transformation he had accomplished in the session more. But the other players, and everyone observing them work, really appreciated how the music had come to life.

Gaining Admission to the World of Your Own Hidden Abilities
The many rests that Beethoven had  written in that playful section of music were an opportunity for the ensemble members to let themselves breathe, and to breathe life into the piece. But as often happens when musicians are caught up in their ideas of how a piece should go, they needed a new perspective in order to take advantage of that opportunity to lighten up and play with more joy and vitality.

It takes training, and a willingness to look beyond our habits, to find the magic that lies within the music that’s in front of us. But it’s always there, waiting for us to discover it. And finding our way to it is what the Art of Practicing is about.

I encourage you to look further into this approach. Here are some suggestions for how to go about this.

1. Read The Art of Practicing—or if you’ve already read it, try reading parts of it again. Then spend some time not practicing in your usual way, but instead, just experiment with one of the practical—yet magical— techniques described in the book. Chapter 11 in particular delves into the whole amazing subject of rhythmic organization, which is what I was helping the ensemble work with in the story I related above.

2. Try practicing a frustrating section much slower than you feel like practicing it—in fact, twice as slow is often a good idea. And use that slowness as an opportunity to notice how the sounds are affecting you. And how your body is feeling. If you notice tension somewhere in your body, breathe into that place and see if you can release some of the tension.

3. Seek guidance from a teacher who is trained in the Art of Practicing. This simply makes sense—you can get only so much from a book! You need someone who has experience with the approach to actually watch and hear you play, to help you recognize what habits are standing in your way, and to show you how to get past these habits and attain a more musical result with less effort.

And if you study online, you can learn this approach from just about anywhere in the world!

The teachers on the faculty of the Art of Practicing Institute have all had significant training in teaching this approach.

4. If you really want to grow and make it fun, join our wonderful, supportive community of open minded musicians by coming to our summer program this July, or by participating in our Live Online Workshops.

Are you willing to make your dream come true?
Beyond these four suggestions, the first and most important thing is to ask yourself if you really believe you can make music the way you want to. And if you’re willing to try. The goal may look distant—maybe even impossible to reach. But many musicians have already gone further than they thought possible by learning this approach. So you too can reach a new place of free musical expression.

Feel free to contact me, or any of our faculty members, if you’d like to know more about how the Art of Practicing might help you make the music you long to make. Whoever you are, we’re here to serve you, and it’s the uniqueness of every individual musician that makes the work interesting and exciting for us.

Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!

Madeline

P.S. Deep down, what is your real desire as a musician? What do you dream of when you let yourself get truly inspired about possibilities for yourself, even if they seem impossible? If you’d like to have a conversation about those possibilities and how you could make them realities, please let me know. I’d be delighted to talk to you.

Q & A of the Month

You’ve written a lot about how important it is to have a supportive community of musicians. I do have a couple of musician friends who encourage me and don’t judge me. Is there more to it than that?  

It’s wonderful that you have a couple of friends like that. That kind of acceptance and warmth is so necessary for us as artists and human beings.

It can be even more wonderful to have a whole community of musician friends who are willing to be vulnerable along with you in going through a powerful new learning process in which everyone grows and changes, becoming more of who they really want to be as artists and people. This is what happens in our community at the Art of Practicing Institute—at the summer program and in the live online workshops. We feel we’re in a culture of genuineness—that we have a safe place where we can really open up, let go of habits that aren’t serving us, and take brave steps forward into unfamiliar territory.

Feeling safe and welcome like this cultivates trust in yourself. It helps you relax and let go of your familiar approaches to practicing and performing, so you can discover happier and more exciting ways of being a musician. Then you start believing more in your musical future.

So first you need the community to support you in your learning process. And then you need them to celebrate with you, each step of the way, as your playing opens up more, and as you begin to feel more free and confident in making music.

Many people come into this community having had painful experiences among other musicians, sometimes including their teachers. They’re looking for something different—for an approach that doesn’t focus primarily on getting results, like learning a lot of repertoire or winning a competition, but that provides an authentic process and leads to real breakthroughs. People find out they can play better than they realized.

It’s both exciting and calming to freely explore music with other people as we do. We’re all learning together, and it’s very creative and personal. It’s similar to traveling with friends—you’re going to this wonderful new place and sharing new experiences with like-minded people.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be pretty challenging to try a new approach to practicing and performing, or even to working out a single passage in a piece of music. But as you start to get the hang of it, it becomes fun, and extremely interesting.

When you go to a foreign country, you need to learn at least some of the language. But the main thing you learn is that the people in that new place are human beings just like you. So you discover new ways of doing things, but at the same time, you experience a wonderful sense of shared humanness that is very uplifting. It warms your heart. It strengthens your belief in humanity and your trust in your ability to feel at home in the world.

We each need different things to feel at home. For me personally, and for the musicians in our community, the particular culture that has developed from sharing this magical yet practical process of working with music with open-minded musicians is glorious. We feel so lucky.

 

Do Less, Feel More

“150 minutes a week!“ the doctor said. “It’s very important.“ He was talking about how much aerobic exercise I need to get.

So I committed to five vigorous, 30-minute walks a week in Riverside Park. It seemed easy enough—I love the park, and it’s just a block away from my apartment. And for a musician, who practiced a regular number of hours per day for decades, I understood immediately:  regular exercise is essential.

But recently one day, I just didn’t feel like walking vigorously. My whole body wanted to go slow and to just enjoy the beauty of my surroundings, to feel the earth under my feet and the breath enlivening my body.

Watching the sunlight sparkle on the Hudson River through zillions of bare branches that would soon be covered in fluttering green, I reflected on the abundant joys of my life—and on the fact that this life is getting closer to its end. Several of the big zero birthdays are behind me, and this month, for the first time, I felt the power of going past the zero, to 71—I am actually in my 70s now. And it really feels different.

Granted, I’m a young 71. On a good day I look younger. And my spirit remains joyful, youthful. But at this point in my life, I have less energy and more love. More appreciation of the precious people in my life, the beautiful place I live in, and just what it means to be alive.

Why am I writing about this? To tell you, from a different perspective, how important and magical it is to do less—less than you think you have to. To be less busy. Because when you do less, you can feel more.

That’s how to be fully alive, and fully musical. When you do less and feel more you get much more out of your practice time with your instrument. You can go deeper. You can listen beneath the surface.

We’ve been given magnificent riches, from the greatest musical beings of all time. When you put your hands on your instrument, you can let yourself feel deeper. You can feel the  energy of the person who wrote the music, living and breathing in your fingertips. You don’t have to settle for less, in your rush to do your 150 minutes, or your three hours. You can use every moment to take in what is—amazingly—yours.

Here are a few steps to get you there.

Step 1: Create a “blank page.“

When you’re about to practice your instrument, take a moment to do nothing. Nothing except notice your body and how it’s feeling. I don’t think Beethoven rushed home with his groceries, put them on the table, wrote a short email (OK, a letter) to someone, and then immediately, with the same pen that he was using to write the letter, started writing a piano sonata. Chances are, he stopped first. He stopped and let an opening occur in his mind. He trusted that his mind had something to say and he listened for it.

So just stop. Just sit or stand there with your instrument, and in your still body feel life living in you and urging you to connect with music. The music has to come from somewhere open, not just from whatever energy is leftover from your shopping trip.

So just sit or stand there and let yourself take a couple of deep breaths, and feel the breath running through your body from head to toe. Notice how your whole body feels. This is your life! Life is filling you up, right now. When you feel the life in the stillness in you, you will realize that it’s not so still. Your body is actually pulsating—everything is moving inside all the time.

Step 2: Feel your heart. 

From this still, alive place, reflect on something that touches your heart. It can be anything. It can be the instrument you are with, and what it means to you. It can be the room you are in and how the light comes in through the window or shines from the lamp. The sound of birds chirping outside. A photograph of someone you love sitting nearby. The beautiful fabric on a chair. The unbelievable sensory world that is yours, right now.

Step 3: Make your first move from your heart.

As you play or sing the first note of music for the day or the session, let the energy of your appreciative heart come through in the sound. How miraculous this opportunity is— to make music! You know how. Enjoy every move and every sound. Notice what it feels like. Every move and every sound feels different. Exactly how does it feel?

Step 4: If you lose your inspiration, just stop and start again. 

We all go back and forth from appreciating what we have to taking it for granted. But we always have the opportunity to stop again. Breathe again. Feel our heart again. And make music again. So when you lose your inspiration, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. It means you have another opportunity to get it back

Music is always there. The magic in our world is always there. Everything is always waiting for us to just notice how beautiful it is and to let our hearts sing.

So please, revere your own musical nature. You’re a musician. Give yourself the opportunity, over and over, to connect with the music you love.

This is called practicing.

Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. Magic really happens at the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program, where we have time to stop and get a whole new perspective on practice and performance. If you think you even might be interested in coming to this one-of-a-kind, transformative program, please feel free to contact me with questions. It really could change your life.

 

What Is Performing About?

This video clip with me is from an interview I gave recently to this delightful young musician in the UK, Jake Jones. His questions were part of his research for his dissertation on “Equanimity, Mindset, and the Psychology of the Performer,” and it was a pleasure talking to him about what performing is about, and how we can best face the challenges of being onstage.

I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to talk about how we all need to appreciate the deep meaning of performing, along with the incredible challenge it holds for us. We’re really out there when we’re onstage—doing something that stretches our physical, mental, and emotional capacities to the limits. Problems arise constantly with practicing and performing, for multiple reasons: We can easily become so absorbed in the physical demands of executing complex and precise movements that we lose our ability to relax when practicing or performing. Or we fall into judging ourselves as “not good enough” to do justice to the work of a great composer. Or we simply haven’t learned how to find a core of emotional strength within ourselves that allows us to fully give our musical gifts to others.

Three Victory Stories

Here are three stories of musicians I know who found their way past such obstacles and were able to give generously to their audience (I published these previously in an article titled Fearlessness in the Face of Judgment.) I hope these stories will give you ideas about how to rise to the occasion of performing—to face your fear and go beyond it.

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 the 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.

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.

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 brave 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.

Here’s to more expressive performances!

Madeline

P.S. If you’re ready to really dive into the practice of rising to the occasion of performing, please consider coming to the Art of Practicing Institute’s Summer Program, July 20 – 27. All the elements will be there—insightful teaching, mindfulness practices, and terrific group support – on the beautiful, green campus of Edinboro University.

The Power of Slowing Down

The pianist in a recent live online workshop was playing a piece by Schumann. All the notes were in place, and it was clear that he understood the flow of the music. His hands and arms were working beautifully. But I sensed that the energy in his lower torso was somehow blocked. He didn’t seem physically grounded―the music didn’t seem to penetrate him deeply.

The opening of the piece was written as a fast pattern of notes that could be broken down into block chords.  I asked him to play each chord and linger on it until he could feel the effect of that harmony in his abdomen. He played the first chord―a minor triad spread over two octaves. After a few seconds he played the second chord, a different minor triad. After listening a few seconds he said, “Oh, shit.“ The music was obviously starting to get to him in a bigger way.

Then he played the third chord in the same way, and the fourth. He was crying by now. He realized that he’d been so caught up in the speed and intense energy of the music that he hadn’t felt the powerful sadness that was part of it. He went back and played the opening as it was written―in the textured pattern―and now the music was clearly affecting his whole body. We all felt the transformation in his performance. His whole self was feeling and recreating the living energy of Robert Schumann.

A Non-Pianist Tries the Same Approach

A few days later a clarinetist came to my studio wanting help with performance anxiety. Because he seemed physically adept at the clarinet, and becaue I am not a clarinetist, I didn’t talk about details of his instrumental technique. But similarly to the pianist, he was clearly not feeling the effect of the sounds he was making. I gave him the same basic instructions I’d given the pianist. Since, unlike the pianist, he was new to this approach, and It took him several tries to go slowly enough and focus intently enough to notice the sound really affecting him inside his body. But with the first recognition of that experience, he too said, “Oh shit.“ And he too got tears in his eyes.

He proceeded to allow himself to take in every sound of this music he loved. Feeling penetrated to the core by its beauty, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. He remembered why he had become a musician in the first place.

How Does This Help Us Perform Beyond Fear?

We are all so busy, in our practicing and in our lives, that we rarely take the opportunity to do things slowly enough to notice how incredible every sensory experience can really be.

I knew that the performance anxiety of the clarinetist was in large part due to the fact that he was not connecting enough to the music himself, so the prospect of trying to connect to his audience with this music threw him into a panic.

I’ve written many articles about really listening to what we’re playing. And people sometimes wonder what this has to do with having confidence on stage. What does slow practice have to do with performing beyond fear? Isn’t performing beyond fear all about dashing out there and being heroic? Bold? Maybe even dare devil?

But the kind of daring we need on stage is the daring to be vulnerable and fully ourselves. And who we are, who these selves are, are musicians. People in love with music. And yet we routinely starve ourselves by not letting ourselves fully taste the beauty of the sounds we love.

We think that when we practice we have to try hard to accomplish things. We live our lives that way, rushing from one thing to another, just trying to get through our day and get things done. But in the process, we are constantly missing golden opportunities to receive the beauty that our eyes and ears are capable of perceiving and delivering to our hearts and to our whole being.

It’s true, we do have so many things to accomplish in every single day. But practicing music is a phenomenal opportunity to slow down and really relate to the magic and the power of every detail of the music―of our sensations of touch and movement, and also of the sensations that the sounds create inside our body.

The Forest and the Trees

Yes, we also need to relate to the phrases, to the structures and the architecture of a piece of music. And sometimes we can go ahead and step back from our magnifying glass, and look at the whole phrase, or section, or piece―we can appreciate the whole forest. But if we don’t also appreciate the miracle of every leaf on every tree in the forest, our performance becomes like a low-resolution photograph: People get a general idea of the piece, but the full power of it doesn’t come through.

Meeting the Challenge of Slowing Down

Because the pianist I mentioned at the beginning of the article had worked with me for a long time, it was pretty easy for him to get out of fast gear―to go extremely slowly and focus on the effect of the sound in his body. But for the clarinetist, it was his first time working with me, and he had never practiced like that before. He needed someone to guide him, to help him go even slower than he knew he needed to. Someone to say, “Hold on a minute―just stop―just notice―how is that sound making you feel inside? Don’t play the next note yet. Wait until you can really feel how this one is affecting you.”

Getting Past Self-Judgment

A violinist who had come to me a few days before the clarinetist also took a while to understand this approach. In his case, he found himself constantly judging his sound instead of just noticing the sound and what feelings it produced in his body. But once he was able to get past his self-judgment and really connect to the sound, his playing opened up. Without moving excessively, his body looked much more free and comfortable. It was a pleasure to watch him really making music.

Finding Ways to Take a Break

Whatever it takes, we all need a chance to slow down. Over the holidays, I luxuriated in a much needed 11-day rest. I caught up on sleep, did more meditation than usual, and just let myself enjoy the beauty of the room I was in. If I felt like reading, I read. If I felt like writing in my notebook, I did that. The point was that I was letting myself simply be. It was an incredibly restorative time.

Meditation teachers often use the analogy of a glass of water that has been stirred up to describe how our minds are when we are constantly in activity. When you put the glass down and let it just sit there, the water stops moving and becomes very clear. This is what happens to our minds, bodies, and perceptions when we get out of the fast lane and can enjoy the scenery around us―and the feelings we get from it.

An Easy Way to Set the Stage for Making Music

The approach I call the Art of Practicing begins with three preparatory steps that allow us to slow down and just be: Stretch, settle down in your environment, and tune in to your heart. What do these simple things have to do with learning to be confident on stage? A lot.

They help us unwind, so that more of our natural coordination, intelligence, and heart are available. Then the whole activity of making music reaches a new level. Our natural musicality and joy open up.

The next time you’re feeling frustrated during practicing, I encourage you to find a way to hit the reset button. Stop and pull the reins on yourself for a minute. Take time to appreciate that this is your body, moving and feeling things. Appreciate that you are actually hearing these beautiful sounds. Appreciate that you are lucky enough to be playing the music you love.

I’d love to hear about what happens for you, in the comments below.

Warm wishes for joy and success in making music.

Madeline

P.S.  If you really want to have an amazing time slowing down and discovering hidden treasures in music―and in yourself―come to our summer program! The power of a whole group of people doing this as the same time makes it much easier to make a real shift in your musical life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Deep Listening

 

Happy Holidays, dear subscribers!

I’d like to give you a special gift today from my former student Mary Duncan. In this article of hers from 2015, “The Gift of Deep Listening,” she offers a magical description of how we can listen with our whole hearts to every sound we make.

Mary performs and teaches in Minnesota, where she is warmly received by audiences and well-known for the star performances of her students in local competitions. From the first minute I watched her teach at the Art of Practicing Institute’s 2014 summer program, I saw that she is a seasoned, special, and brilliant teacher. She has great conviction and is enormously sensitive to her students.

I hope you enjoy her article.

Warmly,

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Performing Beyond Fear E-zine
Artistic Director of The Art of Practicing Institute

The Gift of Deep Listening

By Mary Duncan

I began studying piano with Madeline Bruser over two years ago. During that time I’ve worked hard and faced my fears and limitations, and have also discovered my joy, radiance, and brilliance as well. Today when I sit at the piano and play, I feel so different from when I first began the journey. I feel confident in my abilities, and much more relaxed. I listen with bigger ears. And I feel I understand the meaning of every note I play, and that I can translate that meaning into beautiful sound. My teaching has changed profoundly as well. I can appeal to each individual student’s desire to make music, and I can lead them forward according to their own perceptions of their playing.

In the light of these changes, it was interesting to recently discover some journal notes I wrote on Christmas Day, 2013, about this Art of Practicing process. The notes were titled, “What do I notice when I listen to myself play the piano?” They revealed something deep and elemental about this process. I offer them humbly as a holiday gift to you.

Christmas Day, 2013: 
I had a lesson with Madeline Bruser yesterday, Christmas Eve, at 11 a.m. I played the Ocean Etude by Chopin, after practicing it the way she had asked me to in the weeks previous – singing the right hand part while playing the left hand part, and vice versa. After she heard it, she said I still needed to sound like I was really enjoying the music. So she gave me a new assignment for deep listening – something she describes in her book, The Art of Practicing. She said I had to immerse myself, bathe myself, in the sounds I was playing. This means proceeding note by note, with the damper pedal held as indicated in the score, going extremely slowly, and letting every sound wash through me, filling my body from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, letting it enter my heart and noticing how it all felt. Madeline had said that this listening technique would enable me to know the music at the cellular level, so I could really play from the heart.

Because it was Christmas Eve, and I had family celebrations in the afternoon and evening, it wasn’t until the next day, Christmas Day, that I had a chance to try this deep listening. But before I sat down to practice, while the light was still good, I went outside to shovel some snow and to walk. Out in the parking lot, with no traffic, no students, and the adjacent business closed, I was aware that I was alone on a Christmas Day. I longed, right then, for a close companion, so I asked the Divine to be my companion, and to go for a walk with me. I headed across the parking lot and walked down a quiet country road through the woods for 45 minutes, sometimes feeling a sense of close Divine companionship, and sometimes forgetting all about it.

When I got back home, I turned on National Public Radio and heard a piece on All Things Considered about ETA Hoffmann, the original author of the story of the Nutcracker. As a representative of the German Romantic school of literature, Hoffman often tried to explain how music affects us – he tried using words to explain the inexplicable. The radio show described how he had tried to explain Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, writing the very first review of this amazing work without ever hearing it, working only from the score.

I found that story inspiring, and soon after hearing it I finally I sat down at the piano to try the deep listening technique.

Here is what I noticed:

Within about 20 minutes of practicing this way, my body became very calm, and I felt physically touched by the music. A sensation of melting started first in my ears and proceeded to my heart area, where I experienced a dropping sensation. That led to a sensation behind my eyes that was almost like the feeling that comes before weeping. This sensation occurred every time I played a new sonority. And whenever I got to that point, I knew I had listened long enough. Then I was ready to move on to the next one.

In the process, I noticed new things about the harmonic writing of these pieces. Both composers chose a range of chord tones in the accompaniment that created a specific tonal impact: sometimes it struck me as dense, but mostly it felt transparent, with enough space between harmony tones for each note to have individual impact within the chord. And I realized that as I was listening to these harmonies pile up with the pedal engaged, my fingers seemed automatically capable of effortlessly voicing each harmony, which created a warm, shimmering effect.

Because this exercise was such a rich, personal, and powerful experience, I wondered if it were an answer to the request I’d made of the Divine to be my companion. The experience felt so private, as though I could never explain it or share it with anyone else. But now I wonder, If I can’t share it in words, can I share it in my playing?  Is this what Madeline means by playing “from the heart?”

Three Gifts

So, on that Christmas Day, that lonely Christmas Day, two years ago, I received three gifts. The gift I gave myself – the time and space to practice deep listening, the gift Madeline gave me – how to practice deep listening so that I could enjoy my music more, and the gift of being visited by the Divine, through sound.

I invite you to try this kind of deep listening yourself and see what gifts you receive.

With warm holiday wishes,

Mary Duncan

Q & A of the Month

I’ve been trying to apply some of the ideas in your book, and I’m surprised how hard it can be to just notice how my hands and arms feel, or notice how sounds affect me. Why is this difficult, and how can I make it easier?

I love this question. We typically go through our lives all day, every day, without really being that aware of our own experience much of the time. It’s a habit we get into over the course of our life, especially if people around us haven’t encouraged us to pay attention to what we see, hear, or feel. This is how most of us grow up. We live in a culture dominated by speed and focused heavily on goals and measurable results, and it’s not so easy in the middle of all this to slow down and simply notice what’s happening.

But if you think back to a time in your childhood when an adult showed special appreciation of you, you can probably remember being keenly aware in that moment. It stopped you in your tracks. That’s because such a moment meant a lot to you, so it awakened your heart, mind, and perceptions all at once. This is the kind of acute awareness we need to cultivate in our practicing, and in our lives in general. And it does begin with an appreciation of who you are. You need to appreciate yourself in order to awaken your perceptions.

Most of us have way to much on our plates every day to enjoy a rich appreciation of ourselves from moment to moment. Countless things distract us from a full-bodied, clear-headed, open-hearted appreciation of ourselves and of what we are perceiving and doing. And music is particularly complicated! We have to use our bodies, ears, minds, and hearts with such ease and command in order to master a piece of music.

So I would start by taking a moment to appreciate yourself. Appreciate what you are up against in trying to cultivate more awareness of all those sounds and sensations in practicing. Appreciate your good intentions and that music demands a lot of all of us. If you actually take time to extend that kind of warmth to yourself, it can work wonders in relaxing your whole body and mind, and allowing you to more easily take in what you are doing. And realize that, like all of us, you will continually fall off of the horse of awareness, and that all you have to do is climb back on. With no self-criticism! This is just how the ride goes, especially when you’re first trying to get the hang of it. Or if you do find yourself criticizing yourself, keep letting go of that! You can actually do it. Just keep going.

This kind of gentle attitude toward yourself will then keep growing, and as you get more comfortable with yourself, your practicing will get easier.

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

First Receive, Then You Can Give

In this rich season of giving and receiving, with American Thanksgiving just past and winter gift-giving coming soon, I wanted to offer this special article again, on the nature of giving and receiving.

We musicians are born with the ability to receive immense joy from music. It moves us so much that we feel compelled to get as close to it as possible by actually making music – by producing the sounds with our instruments and our own bodies. And sometimes we feel ourselves overflowing with the energy in a piece of music, and we want to share it with others in performance.

Sadly, however, we often get caught in a less positive experience. Faced with the complex athletic and musical demands involved in mastering a piece, we find ourselves in a tangle of frustration. If a phrase or passage doesn’t go quite as we would like, we may start pushing ourselves to master it. We become fiercely determined to “nail” it. And before we know it, this intense determination creates tension in our body, limiting the amount of joy we can take in or transmit to others.

The names I use for my approach – including Performing Beyond Fear and the Art of Practicing – point to a way out of this joy-killing habit. Let’s look at what some of these potent words mean, and then at two basic steps you can take toward becoming a true artist in the practice room and a fearless performer onstage.

What Is Going “Beyond Fear” for a Musician?

Although we think of going beyond our fear primarily in terms of being onstage, it actually begins before we get there. A student of mine once described his practicing as a laboratory for working with fear. He realized that his habits of glossing over details in music, indulging his emotions at the piano, and pushing himself to reach his goals, were keeping him from delving deeper into his creative power – into who he truly is as a musician and artist. As we worked together and he gradually let go of his habits, he began to unmask the core of his heart while practicing and to connect with music on a whole new level. It was scary to be that vulnerable and open – he could feel he was entering unknown territory over and over – but he bravely opted for discovering the depths of himself instead of settling for his safe, habitual way of relating to music and the piano.

When you practice this way, you develop the habit of going beyond fear. This is a huge advantage when you walk onstage to perform.

What is Art in Practicing?

Art and performing beyond fear come together when you practice the way my student described. Being an artist means opening yourself to the full beauty and power of music, and to do that you have to open to the full beauty and power in yourself – to the deepest and most genuine place you can find in yourself. From there you can be truly free and spontaneous in practicing, rather than engaging in rote repetition of passages.

This is not always easy. To bring all of yourself to every moment of your practicing, you have to trust your body, your mind, and your sense perceptions from moment to moment, and to follow your intuition rather than relying on familiar concepts of how to play a phrase or how to create a particular musical effect. You have to constantly look within yourself to notice your genuine response to what you are hearing, rather than measuring your playing according to preformed concepts or the standards of others.

This means, for instance, that while you’re playing a phrase, you pay attention to the exact sensations occurring in your body – the sensations of touch and movement and of the sounds affecting you inside – and you literally feel your way toward an authentic connection with the music you’re making, instead of judging in your head how “good” your playing is.

It’s challenging to practice this way because you are a unique individual. You can never know where you’re headed on the path of becoming the artist and person you’re meant to be. There is no map. All you can do is trust yourself and feel your way from one moment to the next. This is called being creative!

Although it can be scary to be the pioneer in your own journey and to forge ahead without a map, you don’t need to despair. Others have faced their own mapless pursuit of authentic musicianship and artistry, and they can provide valuable guidance for you on your own journey.

Here are two steps gleaned from my particular mapless search toward going beyond fear in the practice room and onstage. Of course, these two steps are hardly a complete recipe! But if you follow them, you can begin to open up a whole world of rich, genuine musical experience in practice and performance.

Step One: Sympathize With Yourself

The first step is to muster some sympathy for yourself for facing the reality of being a musician. It is so much harder than most people think.

Scientists consider playing a musical instrument the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in. It is, in fact, so complex that images of classical musicians’ brains stand out as the only brain images that are clearly recognizable as belonging to a distinct segment of the population. Coordinating two hands, maybe your feet or your mouth and jaw, your lungs and entire breathing mechanism, along with massive sensory input, refined intellectual concepts, and a vast range of emotional energies – what could possibly be more demanding? And then to do all that in front of an audience???

So give yourself a break. Appreciate how hard it is. There is a reason you are often frustrated and may even lose heart at times. In fact, give yourself frequent breaks. Don’t push yourself in the practice room. Notice when you’re getting tense, frustrated, or upset, and just stop. Stop and relax, for even a few seconds. Take a deep breath or two. Allow yourself to refresh your mind and spirit a little. You’ll bring much healthier energy to your practicing.

And while you’re at it, extend some real kindness to yourself. Remember that you have worked so hard for so long to become the musician you are now, and appreciate yourself for continuing to put in the effort, day after day. Appreciate your love for music and your dedication and bravery in pursuing this extremely difficult art. Give yourself an imaginary medal. You deserve it. Not because of your ego, but because of your strength of heart.

Step Two: Practice the Art of Receiving Beauty

Now that you have softened toward yourself, let yourself enjoy the music you are making.

I once read that a true musician is someone who is in love with the raw materials of music. Every melodic interval, every harmony, every rhythmic pattern, every silence in a piece of music is something to savor. All of it is music to our ears – if we can get off of our fast, self-deprecating, and self-denying track and just open ourselves to it.

So when you’re practicing, try listening in very slow motion. Take the liberty of effectively holding a magnifying glass over every sound in a phrase. Notice the amazing juxtaposition of notes, the constantly changing stream of colors that music is. The unbelievable range of human expression it contains. Come back to your senses by spending several seconds tasting each single sound.

And do this a lot. Take some time every day to fill your whole being with the sheer beauty of musical sounds.

And Then?

Having let yourself receive the riches of sympathy and beauty, you now have more to give to others – in performing, in teaching, or just in being with other people. You have fed yourself healthy energy, and people will feel more comfortable around you, even warmed by your presence. Then you can receive something even more amazing – the deep fulfillment that comes with giving something to others from an open and joyous heart.

Music offers us a unique and special opportunity to connect with deep places in ourselves and in others. I vividly remember listening to records with a group of fellow Juilliard students decades ago at one of their apartments. We had just listened to one of the Brahms symphonies, and one of them said with an awestruck look on his face, “It’s like music touches nerves that nothing else can touch.”

We all need to remember what a powerful and essential healing force music has been since ancient times. Thousands of years ago, human beings gathered together to express deep emotion through music and to share it with each other. Today, we may come home after a long day and listen to music that melts away our stress or releases our pain. Or we may discover a new video online of one of our favorite performers and immediately share it with friends and family. And then there are times when we gather with a large group of people for a special concert to experience our shared humanity as a great artist creates magic from their own human heart onstage.

So for those of us who are lucky enough to actually be musicians, we owe it to ourselves to revel in the beauty of music as we magically make it ourselves. It can nourish us like nothing else quite can.

Oh, my fellow musicians. I so want you to take all of this to heart. You work so hard to make music. In the middle of your hard work, please remember what it’s for. Be your own true listener. Love your own musician’s heart, and feed it every time you practice. Take time to deeply receive the music you are making.

It was written for you.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to receive a HUGE gift, join us this July at The Art of Practicing Institute’s unique and amazing weeklong summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance, July 20 to 27, on the beautiful campus of Edinboro University.

Q & A of the Month

I struggle with a very competitive nature. I am always comparing myself to others and find myself constantly feeling inadequate. How do I let go of comparing myself to others? Also, how do I keep it from discouraging me?

This is a great question—one that many people struggle with. I think all of us, to one degree or another, tend to compare ourselves to others in different areas of our life. We tend to judge ourselves. Even reflecting on how universal this tendency is can help you relax about it a little. Then it has less power over you.

One key to working with this tendency actually lies in the experience of feeling discouraged. When we feel discouraged, it contains sadness, which is a core feeling, a deep heart feeling. If you tune into that underlying, painful sadness—“I wish I felt better about myself; I feel hopeless”—you are touching something raw and vulnerable in yourself. Realize that this vulnerability is good. In fact, it’s the place where music can really touch you, and from which you can make music authentically and connect with other people. You can feel proud of yourself for being willing to feel it and admit it–that you are not hiding behind a false confidence as so many people do, pretending that they feel completely fantastic about themselves and that everything is hunky dory.

Once you’re in touch with that core of sadness, you can take a little time to let it flow through you, just like music flows through you. We need to give feelings plenty of space to flow through like that—to respect and value them, and to take care of ourselves that way. Otherwise they can just pile up and create blocks to our energy. If you open to it and let it flow through, you might then find yourself more open to music. People usually play better after taking some space for themselves.

The other very important thing to do is to seek guidance from a good teacher—to make sure that the way you’re practicing your instrument is really serving you and helping you play as well as you can. No one can do it alone, and in seeking help from someone else, you are honoring your own intelligence—it means you already have the wisdom to sense that you could benefit from some guidance. So you could take heart from that and follow your intelligence. In that way, your intelligence will keep developing.

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

 

 

 

Playing From Your Body

When you think about your desire to make music, what kinds of images come to mind?

I see an underground source – a spring, a powerful current, or sometimes a volcano, its energy moving relentlessly to the surface, pouring out, and radiating everywhere, 360 degrees. It’s a force that runs through all of us, synced up with our blood flow, our heartbeat, and the repeating alternation of our inhale and exhale – the force of life.

Musical energy is so powerful, in fact, that we easily get caught up and carried away by it, very often not noticing all the details of what’s flowing through us – the bubbles in the river, the gentle rocking of the waves, the subtle vibrations in the tissues of our body. The mere thought of containing all that life, allowing it to flow through us, inspires awe. It’s humbling. In fact, even letting one single sound penetrate us to the core changes us. Taking in beauty and magic through music is one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings.

It’s also extremely challenging to make room in ourselves for all this beauty and magic – for the endless, magnificent range and richness of human feelings that music contains and evokes.

Feeding Our Core

We talk a lot about phrasing and structure as musicians, and of course these are very important in studying music. But first and foremost we need our pure, basic response to sound. When we start with a fundamental awareness and appreciation of each sound, we have the real stuff of musicality – our visceral connection to the raw materials of music, so we can breathe life into a piece of music. Fully connecting to the energy of every sound allows us perceive the patterns the sounds make and to find the natural shape of a phrase. From there, we can discover the story the music is telling or the picture that it evokes. We can hear the dialogue and laughter of delightful characters in a Mozart piano sonata. We can give in to the sheer romance in a Chopin concerto and enjoy how its tender lyricism suddenly erupts into ferocious passion. And we can be stunned by the incredible shifts of subtle and gorgeous colors in a piece by Ravel.

Music brings us the full, inexhaustible range of human feelings and experience. We are so lucky to have music on Planet Earth! And to be musicians!

Don’t we already appreciate sound when we’re practicing?

Actually, we often miss it.

We miss it when we get so carried away by our passion that we dive into a practice session without enough sensitivity. Or when we get frustrated and tense trying too hard to get our hands to work right, or to get a phrase to work – to make the music happen. At times like these it may seem that the more we practice, the worse it gets.

And often this happens because we’ve lost touch with our body and gotten stuck in our head. We’re busy thinking things like, “The phrase peaks on this note, and if I can just get it to diminuendo right here . . .without being too soft . . . and if I can bring out the A flat a little more…“

We do need to be conscious of such musical details. But we didn’t become musicians simply to be conscious of details. We because musicians because we feel these details with our whole being, and we want to get as close to them as we can by actually making the music ourselves, with our own body. Our deepest desire to make music comes from our heart, and from our whole body. That’s where music really lives.

And that’s where we need to feel it when we’re practicing, so that we know a piece of music with our whole body, and when the moment of performance arrives, we can trust our body and let it flow as it wants to – we can let our body sing and dance and make music in whatever way it wants to make it at that moment.

How Musicians Usually Relate to Their Bodies

Many people talk these days about wanting to be more in touch with their bodies – to reduce stress and listen to what their body needs – to get more rest, take more time off, and relax more in the middle of their demanding lives.

But as musicians, we tend to think of our body as this thing that executes all those complicated moves with our instruments. We spend decades training our hands, or our lips and breathing apparatus, to do amazing things. And we spend countless hours practicing to coordinate all these movements into what a piece of music requires.

It takes so much work to train the body in these extremely precise, complex, and often very quick movements, that we easily forget about the inner experience of our body – the visceral experience of feeling the music thoroughly, of knowing it deeply inside ourselves – of letting our organs expand and fill up with sound, and letting ourselves be literally moved inside by the music we’re playing.

So how can you be more in your body?

The main thing you can do to get more in touch with your body is to slow down
In fact, just stop – right now – and breathe. Don’t try to do anything. Can you feel your body right now? Can you take a deep breath and feel how good it is to let the air fill your torso? Take a minute to scan your whole body – how do your legs feel? Your feet and toes? What about your neck, shoulders, and arms? Your face? Can you relax and just enjoy being wherever you are right now and say yourself, “Wow – I’m alive – I have a body, full of good energy  – I can breathe – blood is flowing through me – I can feel and touch things – I can take in textures with my fingers, I can hear sounds around me and see light and shadow and color – I’m so lucky to be alive.”

When you do that – when you let go of all the thinking and just let yourself be, and feel – your heart starts to open up and you’re more ready to make music. Music can flow more naturally and easily through your system. You’re free to be more who you are.

How do you actually practice this way?

Here is a story I told in a book about the kind of breakthrough a musician can have through practicing this kind of simple, basic awareness of sound:

David came to my summer program in Vermont hoping to rediscover the joy he used to feel in playing the viola. Twenty years old and highly gifted, he attended an extremely competitive conservatory and grew up with a father who encouraged him to practice by constantly pushing him to work hard, play fast, and excel. Although David appreciated his father’s support, he longed to feel more independent of his influence. At his first session with me, he revealed to the group that his father had become very ill during the last year and could no longer provide support as he used to, and that he might even die within a few years. David felt torn. As much as he wanted to feel free of his father’s input, he also wanted desperately to make his father happy by practicing extremely hard. The conflict between these opposing desires had often paralyzed his inspiration, causing him to stop practicing for weeks at a time.

After listening to David’s story, I asked him to stand solidly upright, holding his viola in one hand, and to notice how his body felt from head to toe. He took a few moments to scan his body and feel his own presence in this way. I then asked him to place his viola in position and to play only the first note of his piece, noticing how that single sound affected him. He drew the bow across the string for several seconds, extending the note until he felt the power of that sound. His face showed great concentration, and the sound soon became intensely resonant and expressive. He went on in this manner, slowly playing each successive note. Gradually, he picked up speed while visibly maintaining intense concentration, rootedness to the ground, and connectedness to the viola. His sound was rich and vibrant, and his playing was full of longing, joy, and beauty. When he finished, his face broke into a radiant smile, and I had to brush away tears before I could speak. I turned and saw others crying too. David’s breakthrough had moved everyone in the room.

David found his creative power simply by opening to the energy within himself, bringing that energy into the playing of each note, and noticing how each sound affected him. Revealing his personal story and feelings in a friendly environment helped him relax. Taking time to sense the living quality of his solid, still, physical presence and to focus on the sensations within him enabled him to gather his deep emotional and visceral energy and to use it to play. His playing was thus informed by the fullness of his being.

The effort David made to play in this powerful way can be described as peaceful effort. Rather than battling with himself to pick up his instrument and practice, or struggling to “get it right” or make it expressive, he simply tuned into his body, his sensations, and the sound he was making, and let the music flow from within him.

What You Can Take Away From This Story

David’s story makes it clear that music lives in our body. We love it because it involves all of ourselves – to be sure, it involves our intellect, but fundamentally, it’s about sound, about vibrations that touch us inside our body, that literally move and affect the liquids and membranes of our body.

You can follow David’s example and give yourself the freedom – take the time –  to feel how every sound affects you inside.

When you practice like this, you come home. You come home to your own heart – the heart of a musician.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. I first told David’s story in a chapter called “Making Music,” which I contributed to The Mindfulness Revolution, published in 2011.

Q & A of the Month

My practicing and playing have improved a lot since reading your book and working with listening techniques in one of your workshops. But lately I feel like I am losing my way – practicing is getting more and more frustrating, and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. What advice do you have?

As far-reaching as these practice techniques may be, each person is engaged in a living process of recognizing and cultivating their own wisdom, which continues to develop throughout their life. A practice technique that works at one moment may not work the next, because there are so many changing facets in the practice process – endless physical details, countless sounds and shapes, and shades and subtleties of musical meaning. If music were not so infinitely complex, it wouldn’t hold our interest all the time as it does. I find it as rich and complex as life itself.

In terms of the specific techniques of the Art of Practicing, such as listening techniques, note grouping, and basic body mechanics, they are most powerful in combination – particularly with techniques that cultivate an open mind and heart, so that a deep experience of music and of the practicing experience can occur. Many of these techniques are also part of the Art of Practicing.

I think that the frustration you are having is something you could actually leverage to open up your musical energy. When we’re frustrated or confused, there’s a physical component to that experience – some kind of uncomfortable sensation inside the body. In our Live Online Workshops, as well as at our summer program, we sometimes do a wonderful technique called Focusing, which is not in my book, but which you can learn about in a book called Your Body Knows the Answer, by David I. Rome.

Being a musician is a continual process of discovery. In the formal technique called Focusing, people notice that when they pay close attention to uncomfortable feelings, like the frustration you refer to, the energy and sensation in their body begin to shift. By simply applying your awareness to what is happening in your mind and body, you are paying attention to yourself in the same way you would pay attention to a good friend who needs your support and understanding. They begin to feel different because you are listening to them and paying attention.

In my experience, giving your feelings this kind of attention is essential to turning difficult experiences into rewarding ones, and to opening up your playing, as well as your life.

Additionally, students who have worked with me over time, or with another teacher of the Art of Practicing, have been able to penetrate the practicing process more deeply and to arrive at a new level of artistry and understanding. It’s quite challenging for all of us to go deeper than we thought we could and to take our music making to a higher level. It takes time to change ingrained habits, and having a personal guide for twists and turns of the journey can make all the difference.