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.

Feeling Safe to Perform

I played concerts for many years and loved it with all my being. Every performance was an opportunity to give my best and to shine in a very special and meaningful way. Now I perform as a teacher instead, giving seminars and other public presentations, and I get just as nervous and anxious before some of these events as I did before walking onstage to play a recital or a concerto with an orchestra.

Any kind of performance can be scary. It’s always a new audience, a new day in your life, a new level of challenge with the kind of repertoire or material you’re presenting – it’s a new you, daring to find out what exactly will come out of your mouth or your instrument, this time.

Maybe the stakes are really high this time. Or maybe you just really want to open your heart, this particular time, and give it everything you have, no matter who happens to be there. I’ve talked to famous musicians who sometimes get just as nervous facing an elementary school audience as they do performing at Carnegie Hall.

It isn’t just about the piece of music. It’s about this energy in your body – this life in you that needs to happen – in concert with other human beings. The life in you needs to be shared.

Is anything more beautiful or important than sharing our life, our aliveness, with other people?

We shake inside before a performance because we feel so alive – we feel  this all-powerful thing called life surging through our system. And it can feel glorious, terrifying, liberating, overwhelming, and all of these at once.

But sometimes it’s much harder than it should be

Expressing yourself at an important moment – when you really care, when you feel this deep desire to share yourself, or when you need a job and you have to show the audition panel that you deserve it – is always a huge challenge. But sometimes this challenge is made even more intense because of extreme circumstances.

Recent articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times have been revealing some of these extreme circumstances, which have been going on for many years: in particular, sexual harassment and sexual abuse – of orchestra members by conductors and colleagues, of ballerinas by their ballet masters and male colleagues, and elsewhere. Some of the details are shocking. It’s hard to comprehend how these sensitive artists manage to perform when their emotional and physical safety is threatened or taken away. Undoubtedly most cannot perform at their best in these circumstances. And offstage they are also suffering a great deal.

Other Kinds of Abuse

Many other stories of abuse come out at music lessons, when students feel safe to talk about what has happened to them. “My previous teacher yelled at me a lot.“ “My parents forced me to practice three hours a day.“ “My parents beat me if I made a mistake in a recital.“ “People at school told me my performance was great, and then I found out they said bad things behind my back.“ “My teacher told me I wasn’t talented and should just give up.“

All kinds of abuse are heaped on top of the vulnerable heart of a person who just wants to make music. To do something beautiful and good.

Our society has begun to face the facts of abuse, and people are gradually starting to heal from it. That is deeply good and necessary, both for those who have been abused and for all of us who benefit from their healed, beautiful presence. Whether it’s onstage or in our personal, everyday relationships, we all need to be around people who radiate joy.

And we definitely need performers who feel safe and free to express themselves from the heart. They heal us when their music making touches our own vulnerable, battered hearts. This whole world needs healing.

An important part of my job as a teacher is to help musicians heal so they can give their gifts to the world.

Finding Safety

Playing a musical instrument is one of the biggest challenges there is. We have to train our body, mind, ears, and emotions to function on an extremely high level, and we spend a lot of time talking about all this training. But the need for personal safety is even more important – for our full freedom of expression and for our health and wellbeing as performing artists.

A private lesson with a kind, understanding teacher can provide safety. But often, the experience of finding safety in a community of musicians can go even further.

Much of our difficulty in handling harmful situations is made worse than it needs to be by having grown up in families that failed to provide enough warmth, understanding, protection, and safety. If we are lucky enough to find a group of people who can be like a family – who can provide us with the understanding and kindness we need – we can heal from hurts in our past. We all need friends.

I feel incredibly lucky to have such a community – to actually lead the community of the Art of Practicing Institute in the programs I teach.  Hearing one person‘s story helps all of us feel our own humanness more, and we all get stronger in our fundamental belief in the power of the human heart. Knowing that others have experienced similar vulnerability and pain can be a relief from loneliness and despair, and it renews our faith in ourselves and others.

We need this kind of community. We need a place where we can be ourselves and feel at home. We need a safe place from which to go bravely out into the world and spread joy and beauty. We need each other, as companions on the scary, beautiful, and amazing journey of being performing musicians. There’s safety in numbers when the people you’re with are willing to be real and to share their hearts.

An Invitation

I invite you to join our community – by trying out our live online workshops. In addition to a short, powerful mental practice and a master class session, each workshop includes a half-hour discussion period, when people talk about anything they want. Often, these conversations are about personal issues that get in the way of performance. And typically, people feel much better from speaking about their experiences, being heard, and sometimes getting practical advice. The musicians in this group are kind and welcoming. And you are free to watch first before saying or playing anything!

So I invite you to just step your toe in, and see what it’s like when your fellow musicians drop their barriers and make friends with each other. Believe me – no matter how accomplished they may be, they’re all just people like you.

I’m offering a special deal on these workshops for people who are not familiar with our special community of musicians: You can join us for two free sessions if you contact me by October 31. Then if you’d like to continue, you’re welcome to. Also all sessions are recorded, so if you can’t make a session, you can always watch it later.

I’d love to have you with us.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

 

Q & A of the Month

You talk about using mindfulness meditation to relax your mind before practicing, but I feel like I have so much to accomplish at the piano every day that I just have to get right to it instead of stopping to meditate first. Shouldn’t I take advantage of that good motivation and energy right away, instead of calming it down?

Thanks for this great question!

The passion to practice is fantastic. We need it. But meditation doesn’t really “calm down” your good energy. It relaxes and settles the nervous static within your body and mind – the excess energy that actually gets in the way of your deepest musicality, so you can actually express yourself more fully.

Music lives in the body. Most of the time, we’re not fully engaging our feeling capacity or our perceptions. We walk into a room without noticing the atmosphere in it. We enter a conversation without observing how others are feeling. Or we charge into our practicing without being aware of sensations inside us. So we miss out on a bigger experience that we could be having. And we bring less of our true selves to the situation.

Meditation is a way to get more in touch with your true self. And in my experience, even two minutes of it completely alters how a student plays at their lesson. They may come into the room with all the energy of their day still rattling around inside them, and if they start playing right away, I take in all that rattling energy along with the music they’re playing. But then if they sit still and let themselves just breathe for two minutes, when they play again, the rattling is gone, the person is more fully there, and the music comes through from a deeper place. It can be dramatically different.

Sometimes students choose to do the Performing Beyond Fear exercise instead, which takes about 6 minutes. That can be amazing, because it brings out their deep communicative energy, the really powerful passion that lies just underneath our speediness – under our “gung ho” energy, or our somewhat mindless, “Let’s dive in!” attitude. And it’s not less joyful – it’s more joyful, because we’re free of the tension that often occurs when we’re in the sway of intense emotion.

I recommend that you try one of these mental techniques a few times and record your playing before and after. Or have someone in the room with you to describe to you how it sounds different after doing the technique. When you actually experience it for yourself like this it can be very surprising.

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

When and How to Look For a Teacher

 

When I was 27 I realized I needed to find a way to enjoy teaching more, since it was my main source of income. I had always liked teaching, but practicing and performing were what I loved.

So I looked for books about how to teach. Luckily, someone recommended Freedom to Learn, by psychologist Carl Rogers.

The book was a revelation. Rogers described the teacher as a “facilitator of learning,“ saying that people naturally want to learn and mostly need to be encouraged to follow their own innate perceptions, responses, and curiosity. While a teacher possesses knowledge that a student needs, the wise teacher draws out the inner wisdom of each student, teaching them to teach themselves, by honoring who they are and what they already know. Such a teacher asks her student lots of questions: “What do you think?“ “How did it sound to you?“ “How did that feel?”

I underlined many passages in the book and put many asterisks in the margins. I even put circles around some of the asterisks. I was really excited to learn a whole new way to relate to my students.

But three weeks after I finished the book it dawned on me that I wasn’t applying anything I’d read to my teaching. This realization came in the middle of giving a lesson to a 17-year-old girl. I suddenly saw that I wasn’t enjoying the lesson, and I remembered, “Oh! Carl Rogers!“

So I asked my student, “What do you think? How was it?“ And out of her mouth came everything I had planned to tell her about how she had just played. She already knew. I would have wasted my breath.

But more importantly, I would have given her the impression that my thoughts were more important than hers. I would have put a lid on her intelligence instead of encouraging it and delighting in it. And I would have continued to lose opportunities, in every moment of my teaching, to discover the real mind and heart of each student and to engage in life-giving, creative dialogue with them in which both of us learn all the time.

As soon as I started teaching this new way, my life changed. I began to love teaching. And my students were learning more and having more fun at their lessons and in their practicing. They started thinking for themselves and taking charge of their own learning. They felt empowered.

It feels really great to work with empowered students. It’s a real, dynamic relationship.

Practicing From Natural Curiosity

Whether or not you’re teaching others, you can apply Rogers’ approach to your own practicing. You’ll find lots of ideas about how to do this in Chapter 7 of my book, The Art of Practicing. The chapter’s called “The Spark of Inquisitiveness.” And the basic idea is that if you simply listen inside yourself to what you’re most interested in looking at or working on, from moment to moment in your practice session, you’ll practice smarter, instead of harder. You’ll make more discoveries – because your mind is more open. So you’ll accomplish more and have more fun.

Practicing is a lot of work. But our work needs to be intelligent. And intelligence is something within us that needs to be developed, by really paying attention to it. This means paying attention not only to our thoughts, but also to our feelings, perceptions, and desires. All of it is part of our intelligence.

Think about it. You already know so much! You know what you think about how you’re playing. You know how it feels in your body. And if you keep paying attention to what you know, you can trust yourself and take the time you need to get the results you want. You can relax with the process.

How do you do that?

If you feel tense while you’re practicing, stop for half a minute. Relax. Breathe. Maybe get up and stretch. Treat yourself like a human being!

Maybe you’d like your hands to feel more comfortable in a certain passage. Take whatever time you need to look at it in detail. Play with one hand at a time and really look at each move you’re making. Notice exactly where the discomfort is, and see if you can let your muscles relax more or position your hand a little differently.

Or maybe you’d like to get a better sound. Try slowing down and noticing just one single sound as it comes from your instrument, letting go of whatever judgment might arise. Relax your whole body as you listen to it. Don’t even think about the next sound. Just relax where you are and see if there’s something about this sound that you can enjoy. Keep letting go of negative judgments and just listen. The more you let yourself relax, the better your sound can be.

When and How to Look for Help

If your practicing starts to open up that way, you can start to feel a lot better. But if you’re often feeling confused about how to get the results you want, remember that making music requires extremely adept use of your body, your mind, your emotions, and your hearing – all at once. And sometimes you might need to find a good teacher to help you practice and perform to the best of your ability.

Whether you want help with one particular aspect of your technique or you want to really transform your playing, look for someone you feel comfortable with. A person who makes you feel welcome and who inspires trust. You can feel it – you can tell if they really want to hear what you have to say and if they care about helping you.

Before having an actual lesson, ask a prospective teacher lots of questions. Sometimes simple questions will tell you the most: “How do you teach?” “What’s your physical approach to the instrument?”

Talking to the teacher in person can really help you sense if they’re right for you. So ask for a consultation, and go ahead and get specific with your questions if you want to: “Playing fast is hard for me. How could you help me with that?” “My arms get tight when I play octaves and chords. Would you be able to help me play them more easily?” “I have trouble playing in tune. How do you work with that?” “ I want to get a bigger sound when I sing. How do you help people with that?“

You might also want to know, “What are your ideas on practicing? How much should I practice?” Or, “Can you help me feel more confident when I perform?”

As you listen to how they answer your questions, trust how you feel in response. Do they sound like they know what they’re talking about? Does it make sense to you? Do you feel confident that they can help you with your problems?

If you think you could trust this teacher, try a single lesson first. Raise lots of questions at the lesson too. A question could be in the form of an observation, like “My thumb doesn’t feel comfortable when I move to this key.” Then see how the teacher responds. Does she look closely at what you’re doing with your hand and offer you a solution that helps your thumb feel more comfortable?

And notice if the teacher asks you questions during the lesson. Does she check to see how her suggestions are landing with you so that the two of you are in synch and it’s a joint learning process?  Or is she just telling you what to do throughout the whole lesson?

Then ask yourself: Do I feel better about how I’m playing after this lesson? Do I feel more encouraged now about my future as a musician? Am I looking forward to practicing and to my next lesson?

What We All Want

We all want to feel free and confident – as musicians and as people. So we need people with us in our journey who already have a good amount of freedom and confidence themselves. Look for a teacher with these qualities. When a teacher has personal confidence as well as conviction in their ability to help you become the musician you’re meant to be, they will be naturally friendly and have a sense of humor, along with the wisdom and clarity you need, so that you can relax, be yourself, and grow.

If you find such a teacher, you will want to practice. And you will know how.

And if you’re curious what it would be like to work with me? In person or online? I invite you to sign up for a free consultation. I love meeting new people – especially when they’re motivated to give themselves the best learning experience they can and become the best they can be at the piano.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

Q & A of the Month

In one of your videos with a student, you asked her to feel “rooted to the bench” and to “sit really down.” What was that about?

Being “rooted,” or physically grounded, has a big effect on any musician’s playing, or singing. In terms of reliability, which is the first ingredient of fearless performing, there’s nothing more reliable than the force of gravity—which we usually take for granted. If we actually focus on how gravity roots us to the ground, or to the bench—if we tune in to it—we have a great advantage. In her case, it helped her have more power and ease with her arms.

Athletes understand this principle. If you watch a boxer deliver a punch, you can see him push his feet and legs into the ground as he’s about to use his arm. You can understand this principle easily if you mimic that movement in the following way: Sit solidly upright and deliver a punch into the air, straight ahead of you. You will easily feel power in your arm. Then give up your solid, vertical position by hunching over, so that your weight is no longer sinking straight down into the seat, and try delivering the punch. Immediately you will notice that you lose power. You lose power because you literally lose your ground.

The extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was very striking in how she related to the force of gravity. One reviewer commented that she seemed to draw energy directly up from the ground when she sang. I perceived the same thing in her myself. Her feet were solidly planted on the floor, and the energy seemed to move powerfully upward straight through her body and out from her throat. It was glorious.

There’s nothing like this rootedness—not only for physical reliability, but also for confidence. It gives you a solid base from which to openly express yourself. My own playing, and that of my students, opened up enormously when I discovered this principle. Of course, you also need to use your hands and arms efficiently in order to make it all work.

Our ability to listen is also directly affected by this kind of physical groundedness. The stability allows you to be more receptive. So although you may be moving less, you can actually be more engaged with the music.

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

Receiving Nourishment and Support

As I write this, I’m about to leave my home in New York City for the beautiful campus of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, to teach the Art of Practicing Institute’s 6th annual summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance. Musicians from six countries are coming to open up their playing and singing, and we will celebrate their transformation at a closing concert for the public, followed by a special night out for ourselves.

It’s a totally amazing week, because we’re there to let go of habits that don’t serve us and to learn new, healthier ways to practice, perform, and live. No one is the same afterwards. We all leave the program feeling deeply nourished as musicians, performers, and human beings.

If you’re not coming to this program, I’d like to provide some ideas in this article, based on what happens there, for how you can nourish yourself as a musician wherever you live, focusing on three main elements of the program: nature, deep work, and supportive community.

Nature
After spending most of my year in New York City, the natural environment of the Edinboro campus is a wonderful breath of fresh air. It’s very green and spacious, and has a beautiful lake in the middle that we walk by every day on our way to and from the music buildings.

As human beings with demanding lives, we all need to refresh ourselves periodically – every day and every week and season of the year. So wherever you live, find some greenery, and ideally a stream, river, lake, or ocean to go with it. But even if you have only a potted plant or some flowers in your home, take time to gaze at these and drink in the beauty. Breathe deep, and exhale! Or just close your eyes and take time to imagine a beach, a forest, or a peaceful lake. Let yourself breathe and let your body relax.

Get Away

In the middle of summer program, everyone takes time off one evening to go to Presque Isle – a gorgeous state park on Lake Erie. That is, everyone except me; I catch up on rest that evening. But I’ve enjoyed seeing everyone come back looking happy and exhilarated.

Wherever you live, if you have the chance to get away to a special place once in a while, take it! I go on a meditation retreat in the country three times a year for a week, and the sheer contrast of this peaceful place makes it feel like I’ve been away from the city for a month. We need this kind of space in our lives, and the music we make when we come back can be so much more fresh and inspired.

Deep Work with Music

As in the private lessons I teach at my home studio and online, we take time in the master classes at Edinboro to go into depth and detail in working with music, and participants learn far-reaching concepts that they can apply to every piece they study. Although we also talk about music in traditional ways – looking at articulation, phrasing, structure, pedaling, and countless other aspects of a piece – we focus primarily on what makes the Art of Practicing unique: fundamental and universal points that are often overlooked in studying music and that can make all the difference in achieving a free and genuine performance.

How can you go more deeply into music in a similar way at home? The Art of Practicing can be a wonderful guide. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of practicing and gives you a lot of ideas to work with from moment to moment with your instrument. And the questions and answers, which appear at the end of most chapters, which can clarify these ideas.

Deep Inner Work

The deep work we do at the program also includes mindfulness meditation, Focusing, and the Performing Beyond Fear exercise. These are mental techniques that have direct visceral effects, and they are truly transformative for practicing and performing.
Meditation is a gentle process of gradually increasing your awareness of yourself and everything around you. Because of this gentleness, the practice opens up a space in which people feel safe to talk about what they are going through.

Since the publication of The Art of Practicing, mindfulness meditation has entered the mainstream of our culture, with 20 million Americans practicing it. You can now find instruction in many types of mindfulness, in many cities and online. Look for a place that resonates with you.

Another technique we learn and practice at the summer program is Focusing – spelled with a capital “F”. Focusing is a brilliant method for getting in touch with buried emotions and releasing them. It was developed by a psychologist named Eugene Gendlin as a way for people to heal from painful experiences. And it can also be used to become more aware of positive feelings and to let them spread further in your system, providing wonderful emotional and physical nourishment.

You can learn this simple technique from a book. Two excellent ones are The Power of Focusing, by Ann Weiser Cornell, and Your Body Knows the Answer, by David I. Rome. Focusing is a great practice for us, because emotions are our currency in making music, and we need access to them in order to express the huge range of human feelings in great music.

The third technique we do each day is the Performing Beyond Fear exercise, and an audio of the instruction I gave in this exercise at last summer’s program is now available online. It includes an introduction, guided instruction, and the live question and answer session with participants that followed.

Supportive Community

I love people, and wonderful people come to this program. They come because they’re motivated to go deep and to change their habits in order to become the musicians they’re meant to be. I also feel so fortunate to have great assistant teachers supporting me in the training process, in which participants bravely let go of familiar but unhealthy habits in working with music and begin to try new, healthier approaches, some of which may be challenging at first.

At each year’s program I get to witness the joy and power that each participant experiences as they discover a whole new level of engagement with music in the company of others who appreciate their efforts and the breakthroughs they are making. Friendships often form quickly in this situation, and many of them are lasting.

How can you find brave, motivated people like this at home?

Look for musicians who seem more open and vulnerable than others. Strike up conversations with them, being as honest and genuine as you can, even if it feels scary. Little by little, reveal your own weaknesses, insecurities, and passions, and trust your intuition in asking them questions about their own experience with practice and performance and in the music world.

Remember, no matter how much someone might cover up their fears, confusion, and insecurities, we’re all basically alike. We’re all vulnerable human beings at heart, and in fact, the reason we love music is that we are so vulnerable to its beauty and power.
Every morning at the summer program, we have a one-hour discussion group, in which people talk about whatever is coming up for them in the work we’re doing.

You could consider starting a discussion group where you live, perhaps centered around my book, The Art of Practicing. Since the book’s publication, I’ve heard of many college music teachers who have made it required reading for their classes, as well as groups of performers and teachers who have held discussions on the book. Many people also participate in book clubs, and sometimes this book is one they talk about. Such gatherings can be a great way to bring like-minded people together.

For further reading, here are two articles I’ve written on how to receive nourishment and support: Receive First, Then You Can Give, and Creating the Musical Community You Need.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline

 

Q & A of the Month

I have been performing in a string quartet regularly for the last couple of years, and some of the personal relationships between us have become difficult. Sometimes I feel like I can’t be free to make music with them because of the tension between us. Do you have any suggestions?

That’s a juicy situation.

Making music with people is definitely an intimate activity, and all intimate relationships are challenging at times. Once you’ve committed to people like that, personal issues are bound to come up sooner or later. But if you can work through them, everyone can learn a lot, and the group can become stronger.
I remember once asking my mother, maybe when I was in my 20s, about how difficult it must be in a marriage after the honeymoon is over. Her answer was one of the most helpful things she ever said to me: “That’s the best part!” We don’t want to deal with pain and difficulty, but when you commit like that, it forces you to grow, and wonderful things can happen.

In my experience. often just when things are feeling unbearable in a relationship, if you can find a way to communicate effectively, you can get through to someone and turn everything around. And one of the main keys to doing that is taking full responsibility for your own part in the communication difficulties. It takes two to create conflict, and sometimes, it just takes one person to start turning things around. So I think that if you have enjoyed playing with this quartet and are motivated to make it work, there is probably a way.

These days there are so many books and professionals around to guide us through tough situations to a higher level of emotional intelligence in communicating with others and making decisions with them. I actually once conducted a two-hour session with a well-known quartet in a weekend retreat they had, to help them face the next level of challenge in their career. They invited me to lead them in meditation, and I added the Performing Beyond Fear exercise after that. The discussion that came out of it opened everyone up a lot, and gave them helpful insights into themselves and each other. From there, it was easier for them to discuss topics that brought up conflict between them. You could consider trying something like that with your group, if everyone is agreeable. It could even be done online, using video conferencing through zoom.com.

For myself, facing such challenges with others always begins with spending time alone, writing and working through my own feelings, before attempting to get through to someone I’m frustrated with. And consistently, I’ve found that even if I’m dead set on the idea that everything is the other person’s fault, there is always a piece of work for me to do on myself before I am capable of speaking effectively to them.

So I would start with some self-reflection. If your frustration is at the point where you are feeling angry, get the anger out on your own, away from the people involved. Once you have recognized your feelings and expressed them in a harmless way, and you have developed some insight about how you’ve contributed to the tension in your relationships with each person, your mind will be clearer and more open to listening to their point of view. And from there a resolution can occur.

Who knows – maybe you will become so accomplished at this kind of thing that other ensembles will hire you to help them sort out their interpersonal issues!

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

Confidence Through Seeing Your Audience as Your Guests

(This article has been edited since it was first published in May, 2014.)

Recently my family and I had a very special houseguest named Victoria, who was visiting us for the first time from a distant country. We had been hoping for years that she could come, and we wanted her to feel welcome and at home, like a part of our family. As soon as I received the e-mail confirming her flight to New York, I began getting the apartment ready for this wonderful occasion. I had long postponed doing many things to uplift our home, and now I had a great opportunity to finally do them. I had a week for the whole project.

Each day I spent time de-cluttering rooms, ordering new things online, or shopping in neighborhood stores. As I made changes to each room, I often stood at its entrance to see how it felt to walk in. I wanted Victoria to be surrounded by beauty and spaciousness, so she could relax and enjoy herself. I also wanted her to get to know us better by experiencing our home environment.

On the day that Victoria arrived, I finished some last details—trimming straggly plants, replacing worn-out potholders, buying flowers and putting them in vases. After I put the dinner on the stove, Victoria came to our door, and our long-awaited visit began.

It was an amazing three days that we will long remember. And Victoria said the house felt wonderful. I knew that she would want to come back.

Each Performance Is an Opportunity

I tell this personal story because I believe that a musical performance can be given in the same spirit as the one with which we opened our home to Victoria. We don’t have to think of our audience as a bunch of outsiders marching into our space and judging us for our marred furniture or wrong notes. We can do the best with what we have, bringing it up to as high a level as we can in the time we have, and then let go and share it with the people who have made the effort to come hear us. Even if we don’t know them, isn’t it better to focus on the fact that they are our fellow human beings, with human hearts, so that we can enjoy sharing our humanity with them, instead of freaking out over what they might think of our imperfections?

​But What If I Won’t Be Ready?

It’s easy to lose sight of such a beautiful goal when you are working hard to solve technical and musical problems and worrying that your performance won’t be ready in time. But you can actually use those moments of struggle as reminders of your goal: As soon as you notice that you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of preparing a piece for performance, you can stop in your tracks and shift your focus. You can reflect on the opportunity you have to connect with music and to share it with others. This simple shift of focus can dissolve your anxiety, open your heart, and bring more joy into your practicing and performing.

“Easier said than done,” you might say. “I’m practicing for an audition, and I know those judges are going to be supercritical. It’s ridiculous to pretend I’m just going to share music with them.

It’s true that in high-pressure, competitive situations it’s easy to forget the whole point of making music. Yet you can still train yourself to let go of stress and to cultivate joy. And if you do, your audience, whether they are paid judges or paying ticket holders, will feel your heart intentions coming through in your performance.

But Exactly How Do You Do That?

I’ve written a book, and many articles, about how to let go of tension and self-doubt and connect deeply with music in practice and performance. And in December I released the audio of the Performing Beyond Fear exercise—a powerful, 7-minute exercise that actually shifts your focus from self-consciousness to generosity. From worrying, “What will people think of me?” to thinking, “What can I give to them?” That energy of generosity can then come through in your performance, taking it to a new level of expressive power and confidence.

This is what it means to see your audience as your guests. Because after all, just like with our guest Victoria, once your audience arrives, it is no longer about you. It is about sharing your performance with them.

Can a Seven-Minute Exercise Really Do the Trick? 

It may be hard to believe that such a big shift could happen from doing such a brief exercise. But if you try it, you will see for yourself. Even non-musicians have asked me to teach them this exercise for use in situations where they are put on the spot, including giving speeches and taking tests or job interviews, and they’ve found it tremendously helpful.

So if you’re ready to learn how to rise to the occasion of performing, check out the audio. You can hear the first 20 minutes for free and decide if you’d like to learn this amazing technique for getting past performance anxiety.

​We’re All Alike

All of us are basically the same. We each have a human heart from which we can connect with others in performance and uplift their lives. And we each have layers of habits that get in the way of doing that. No matter how stressed or out of touch you may feel at times, it can be surprisingly easy to rouse confidence and connect with music and with an audience from the depth of your communicative power.

Learning the Confidence Habit

My wish is that you could make the Performing Beyond Fear Exercise a regular practice in your life, as a way of encouraging warm, confident, human energy to flow through you and toward others, in performance and throughout your life. The whole point of music is to connect one human heart to another, or to many others. That is why I teach.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. The Art of Practicing Institute summer program is nearly full, but we still have room for a few general participants. So if you’re ready to dive into a big discovery of your musical potential, I invite you to join us on July 21 for a transformative week in Edinboro.

Q & A of the Month

How can I deal with performing when one or more individuals in my ensemble are very nervous? It can agitate me. I’ve read about how a wonderful master musician can inspire people in his ensemble to play their best simply through the warmth and generosity that he emanates. How can I learn to be like that?

Your questions show great intelligence and wonderful intentions.

Ensemble playing can be very intense. Because it’s a form of intimate communication, it can feel like heaven or hell, or anything in between. Every little nuance can feel significant when we’re making music.

We each tend to bring out certain things in other people, and it’s important to seek ensemble partners who bring out your best. As in any other close relationship, it’s best to find people you naturally connect with, players who understand you well and play well with you with a minimum of verbal cues or conflict. And in performance, it’s best to play with people who are more or less your equals in knowing how to handle their nerves.

But it’s also important to be open to learning from others in an ensemble, so you can grow and become more adept at performing with others. We can sometimes learn a great deal from challenging situations, such as the one you describe. The more comfortable you become with yourself, the more skill you will develop in working with other people.

Pre-performance nerves are normal, so it’s essential to know how to work with your nervousness and rise above it. If you find that a particular member of your ensemble is so nervous in performance that she can’t relax into the music, you might suggest that she consult someone who specializes in helping musicians deal with stage fright. The Performing Beyond Fear exercise could be extremely helpful for someone like this.

You’re definitely on the right track when you refer to master musicians whose warmth and generosity have a positive impact on fellow performers. Such artists radiate these qualities to their audience as well. The Performing Beyond Fear Exercise is designed specifically to help you get past self-consciousness and develop this kind of warmth and generosity in performance. You might recommend to your ensemble partners that they listen to this audio. These qualities may actually be a lot more accessible to you than you think.

Rallentare

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Italy, and my mind is filled with images of the gorgeous countryside of the Val d’Orcia, in Tuscany. For many centuries, the Italian people have made a deep connection with the land, cultivating it with care and respect, living in harmony with it. As our car wound its way through the last 30 minutes of our drive from Rome to the farmhouse we stayed in near Montepulciano, it felt like a fairytale: Whichever way we turned and as far as the eye could see, in all directions, were gently rolling hills covered with blankets of wheat in varied shades of spring green, fields of yellow flowers, vineyards, orchards, tall cypress trees in single file here and there, and simple, terra-cotta roofed farmhouses where people lived their daily lives. I kept looking out the windows in disbelief – was this really the world? How could it be so beautiful?

When we arrived at Agriturismo Le Caggiole, the farmhouse I had wanted to stay in for 2 1/2 years, it was beyond anything I had imagined – a paradise, with stunning views of the countryside, exquisitely restored stone buildings, and the fantastic perfume of flowering trees and plants. A woman named Monica welcomed us at the reception desk more warmly than anyone had ever greeted us at a new place. As I sat outside on the terrace gazing at the hills with their vineyards and olive orchards, all my stress melted away. Somehow, we had entered Heaven.

During our six-day stay at Le Caggiole, we drove to many beautiful places in the area. Several times I saw a sign on the road that said “Rallentare” – which, as most musicians know, means “slow down.”

And I thought, if only we could slow down all the time – if only we could appreciate our lives, including the people and the music we love, as much as the Tuscan people have appreciated their lives in the country. Isn’t this the real answer to happiness?

Yes. It is.

I thought about how falling in love with the Val d’Orcia is like falling in love with a piece of music. You feel like you’ve never heard anything so beautiful, and you want to get as close to it as you can, to play the music yourself, to never let go of all that beauty.

And yet we do let go of it – countless times, when we get frustrated or impatient in our daily practicing. We often try to bend the music we love in a direction it doesn’t want to go in. Or we gloss over details, dimming the radiance of all that beauty. We tune out. Maybe because it’s so beautiful we can’t take it all in.

What Makes It Beautiful 

Looking at the countryside of the Val d’Orcia, with its occasional farmhouses planted among the fields, orchards, and vineyards, it’s easy to imagine that the people who settled there created these simple dwellings with a conscious intention not to disturb the environment but to cultivate the land with an appreciation of natural order and potential. Everything looks like it just belongs there – their agriculture is inviting, not strictly geometric or factory-like.

I was fortunate to have several conversations with the owner of Le Caggiole, a man named Giacomo, whose family has lived in the house for six generations. He showed me a framed page from a book, on the wall near the reception desk, describing the history of Le Caggiole, going back to the eighth century. He told me that he himself, along with some workers, had torn down the building we were staying in brick by brick, because it was so old it was falling apart, and rebuilt it brick by brick in its original form. A little while later, he came out to the terrace to show me on his iPhone an ancient painting of the very view that I was looking at. I felt honored that he was sharing how much the place meant to him.

Reflecting on Giacomo’s words now, I realize that his love for Le Caggiole is an inspiring example for all of us. As musicians, our work is to take apart the music we love and put it back together brick by brick. We need to appreciate every detail of it – how it is really put together – so that the people who listen to us play or sing this music experience it in its true form.

Your Golden Opportunity

I invite you to discover how much beauty you can create in music by slowing down with us at the Art of Practicing Institute’s weeklong summer program in July. Like the Val d’Orcia, no pictures or descriptions can really prepare you for how amazing the experience is. But through the meditation practices, discussion groups, and master class sessions, your mind will unwind and you’ll hear music and your own heart so vividly, entering a whole new world of appreciation.

Appreciation is the key to it all – to everything inside us and everything we are capable of creating. We need to appreciate ourselves for doing this incredible work of bringing music to life. And to remember that we do it from love.

I hope you will join us this summer, where we will shed so much new light on how to make music from the heart, how to rebuild pieces and phrases brick by brick, and who we really are as musicians. It’s a magical week, filled with the dazzling beauty of music and of the people who make it.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline

P.S. If the summer program sounds like a fairytale, I invite you to call or email me with any questions you might have.

P.P.S. And one more picture: Presque Isle State Park, on Lake Erie – the place we take a field trip to in the middle of the week of our program:

Q & A of the Month

I teach piano, and I don’t always succeed in communicating in the most helpful way with my students. Some of them have a lot of doubts and fears about their abilities even if they play quite well, and I find it hard to be sympathetic about their doubts and fears while still trying to encourage them about their progress and potential. How can I help them believe more in themselves? 

This is a beautiful question. In my experience, really hearing and understanding how a student feels – or for that matter, a friend or family member feels – is often easier said than done. You really have to feel your way with it and learn as you go.

Every day I find that I miss an aspect of something someone has said. I feel like I’m not quite tuned in to where their heart really is or to what they intended to convey. Or I discover that I don’t know the whole story behind their feelings, and that I’ve responded with inadequate information. And the people who are closest to me don’t always completely understand me either.

It can be very helpful for us as teachers to ask questions of a student when they express doubt or fear, to be sure that we understand. And we also need to be aware of our particular habitual tendencies in talking to students. Some of us tend to talk too much, not leaving them enough space to feel or express how they feel. Or we might jump to conclusions about what the student is trying to say. Other teachers may be afraid to reveal anything personal about themselves or their feelings, because they don’t want to come across as unprofessional, but they end up limiting the degree of personal connection with the student, which can make it harder for the student to open up and trust them.

For me, this whole endeavor of communicating well with students, and with people in general, is a lifelong practice. We are all such complex people, and human communication is loaded with endless subtleties and challenges.

At the same time, if you make a sincere effort to understand them, most people can feel how much you care and will allow for slight misunderstandings and keep trying to express how they feel. So the main point is to first let yourself feel how much you care about the student, and then, from that caring place, let them know you’re really trying to understand them by asking questions and responding with warmth. Once you’ve done that, if you feel the student is indulging too much in negative thinking, you could try pointing out specific things that you appreciate about their progress and potential. Let them know that they’re not alone – that others have had similar doubts and fears yet have succeeded in making their dreams come true as musicians. And ask them if they have questions about what you’re telling them.

Also, please feel free to invite them to join our Facebook group! It’s a safe place where musicians can share their doubts and fears, as well as their joys and inspirations, in facing this huge, human endeavor called making music.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in a future issue of Performing Beyond Fear.

Transforming Your Musical Life

(This article has been edited since its original publication in this e-zine in October 2015 under the title “Why I Teach”.)

People sometimes ask me why I gave up performing. And until now, I always said that I didn’t fully understand it. I knew I had dreamed of becoming a great pianist since I was five years old, and that I had followed that dream as far as it took me, into a rewarding performing career. And I knew that when I discovered a new physical approach to the piano that instantly improved my students’ playing, I switched my main career focus to teaching. I remember how my students’ faces lit up every day that week, as they suddenly heard themselves playing more beautifully. And I remember the moment at one of those lessons when I saw light bulbs flashing in my head and realized I had something really important to teach. The next thing I knew, I was canceling a concert I had scheduled in Chicago, I stopped pursuing concert dates altogether, and I was giving a lot of talks to musicians called The Art of Practicing.

All of this made a lot of sense to me. But recently, I decided to look back into my childhood to see if I could find any indication that teaching would eventually become my true calling. And I remembered that when I was 13, a magazine arrived at our house, in our sheltered, little, white suburb in California, and that the cover story of the magazine opened up a whole world for me that I had never heard of.

It was LIFE magazine – a wonderful, weekly publication that unfortunately no longer exists. On its cover was the sweet, smiling face of a 12-year-old boy named Flavio who lived in a shack with his parents and seven siblings in dire poverty in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Through the efforts of this journalist, money had been raised to bring him to the United States for medical treatment for a severe lung ailment – possibly tuberculosis – and to help create a better life for everyone in the slum he came from.

As a middle-class teenager in California, I had no idea that people lived anywhere in tiny shacks with dirt floors. The article mentioned that when a dog bit the leg of Flavio’s little brother, his mother grabbed a bottle of alcohol, poured it on his leg, and quickly went back to the rest of the miserable daily hardships of caring for her family.

Shocking photos accompanied this article, showing Flavio’s life in the filthy slum, in which, as his parents’ oldest child, he had to earn pennies to feed them their rice and beans every day because his father had injured his back and could earn only $20 a month. But on the magazine’s cover, Flavio wore clean, new pajamas, print on a white background, that were given to him at the hospital he was taken to in America. Just as I had suddenly become aware of a world like his, he had now been introduced to a world like mine. I was completely stunned by the contrast.

A New Dream
I wished that I could bring Flavio to the beautiful house I lived in with my family and show him all of our modern conveniences. So I pretended that he was there with me, and I walked through the rooms showing him everything I had previously taken for granted. “Look!” I said out loud. “These are called faucets. You just move the handle like this and fresh water comes out!” I went on to show him the stove, with its miraculous burners that turned on as easily as the faucets, and the big, shiny brown refrigerator, with so many kinds of delicious food in it. I imagined Flavio’s face lighting up with amazement and delight.

That day, I gave birth to a new dream. I dreamed I would someday introduce someone else to an easier and happier way of life, beyond anything they had ever known. I was excited for Flavio that he had come to America, and for the first time, I dreamed of one day adopting a baby and giving it a life it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Thirty-two years later my husband and I did adopt a baby, and she is now 20 and thriving. But I also realize now that my passion for teaching comes from this same place of wanting to see others enjoy things that I am fortunate to possess already. This desire has become the strongest motivating factor in my life.

I know I am extraordinarily fortunate to have received not only excellent piano training in my youth but also training in mindfulness-awareness meditation for many years from a true master teacher. And I feel even luckier that I have been able to blend these two incredible traditions, of Western music and Eastern meditation, into an approach to practice and performance that has helped many musicians discover a whole new world of possibilities.

When A Musician Breaks Through

So often, a musician who has been struggling for years to play with more ease, confidence, and brilliance suddenly discovers how to do it right in front of me. When that happens, a wave of warm energy spread through my entire body. That person may not feel as desperate in their struggle for musical fulfillment as Flavio and his family were in their struggle for a decent material existence. But they may still be suffering deeply – from debilitating stage fright, from practice-related tension or injury, or from intense frustration with their ability to express themselves freely through music. They may feel disheartened about their musical future, and they may wonder if they could ever come close to the kind of playing they admire in the greatest performers, the rare few who somehow shine brighter onstage than the rest.

The first time this musician works with me they may discover a simple, new physical or musical technique that works as easily as turning on a faucet and suddenly having cold or hot water run freely. Just as suddenly, their playing suddenly flows more easily than before. Their ease and confidence in practice and performance develop and deepen a lot over time, and if they continue with this new approach, they may actually begin to live in the new world of possibilities they discovered when they first tried it. When that happens, I feel enormous satisfaction – that I am fulfilling my true purpose, using all of my talents and training to help someone else become the musician they’re meant to be.

Are You Ready to Discover Your New Possibilities?
If you’re ready to break through to a new level of performance, I invite you to join us this July for the Art of Practicing Institute’s unique and transformative summer program. Each participant contributes so much to this astonishing program and extraordinary community of musicians, and we’d love to have you join us. Amateurs and professionals are all welcome. It’s about being fully human in making music, and finding out what that longing inside of you can really lead to.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re wondering if the summer program is right for you, by all means, give me a call or send me an email. I’m happy to answer your questions. We want you to feel part of everything that happens during that incredible week.

 

Q & A of the Month

I’ve heard a lot about your approach, the Art of Practicing. Would you say it’s for everybody, or only for a certain kind of musician? 

Anyone who’s curious about working with this approach can benefit from it. Even applying one or two ideas from it can make your practicing easier and more enjoyable. But for some musicians, the approach resonates more deeply.

Generally, what motivates someone to learn more about it is some kind of dissatisfaction with their current experience of practice and performance – some physical discomfort with their instrument, a lack of confidence onstage, or a feeling of not being able to fully express themselves in making music. They feel like something is blocking their way, and they want to feel more free.

But even realizing that you want more freedom comes from having already had a glimpse of it, and from feeling the contrast between that glimpse and your usual experience with music. My own sense of the possibility of more freedom and confidence at the piano came after an unsuccessful audition. It somehow didn’t make sense to me that after so much work, for so many years at the piano, I still didn’t have the kind of confidence I wanted. I had seen performers who seemed to possess a whole different kind of ease and confidence onstage. And something told me that it must be possible for me to develop that too. But I was 29 before I fully recognized this deep longing in myself, as well as the deep faith that what I desired must actually be within my grasp.

For me, the road to this confidence began with mindfulness meditation, which I remembered had relaxed me when I first tried it a year earlier. This time, when I felt intense self-doubt at an important audition, I was finally ready to go back and try meditation again and to stick with it. And it ended up leading me to a feeling of being deeply at home onstage, to the kind of confidence I really wanted. The whole development of the Art of Practicing came from that experience of feeling at home in my own body and mind, in both practicing and performing.

You can’t really dive into something new if you’re not ready for the change it will bring. Meditation, and the Art of Practicing as well, changes your life. And like anything else, there is a time for it – a time when your body and mind say Yes. I have a wonderful student right now who read the book several years ago and only recently reread it and found it really had a lot of meaning for her. That’s when she was ready to contact me and start lessons.

So I would say, the best thing to do is to try it if you like, and to see where it takes you. Be true to yourself. That’s really what the Art of Practicing is about anyway.

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

Reconnecting with the Musician You Really Are

(This article was first published in Performing Beyond Fear e-zine in March 2013.)

By his third lesson with me, Michael, a gifted young pianist, had already begun to get familiar with the new physical approach I was teaching him. His hands were no longer tense, and he had freed up his wrists, arms, and shoulders a lot also. But when he finished playing his Bach prelude, he said he wasn’t satisfied with how his hands felt—he wanted his movements to feel more fluid. I knew that for his hands to move more fluidly, he needed to start focusing less on technique and more on the music. He had accomplished the first step—of acquiring basic, efficient coordination—and he was ready to refine his coordination by opening up more to the beauty and flow of the music. I also knew that by tuning in more to the sounds he was making, he would play with more sensitivity and expressiveness.

To help Michael relate more strongly to the music, I suggested that he sing the left hand part of the opening phrase while playing the right hand part. If you’ve ever tried doing this, you know it takes some effort; it requires you to fully hear two musical lines at the same time. But Michael has a well-developed ear, and he did it remarkably well. Next, I asked him to repeat the same process, but to pay close attention to each harmonic interval he played, and to notice how it affected him inside. He went more slowly this time, taking time to focus intently on each harmony. Finally, I asked him to just play the phrase with both hands and notice how it sounded. The music became vibrantly beautiful, and his face lit up in a dazzling smile. “It’s music!” he exclaimed in delight. I asked him if he could explain what he meant, but he was at a loss for words. “That’s all I can say. It’s music!” His joy and excitement touched me. It was as though he had just run into a long lost friend.

What Michael experienced at that moment was something that had only occasionally happened to him in the past. As he described it later, “I didn’t intellectualize about what I was playing. I just heard it. I felt it.” He got out of his head and in touch with his hearing on a deep level. For all the years and countless hours he had spent practicing, he had an unusual experience in that moment of the real, visceral power of making music. He had indeed run into a long lost friend.

Our Birthright as Musicians

All of us, as musicians, are born with a special ability to respond to sound. Our love for music is more intense than other people’s—so intense that we feel compelled to become intimate with music by producing the sound with our instrument and our own body. Yet, like Michael, in the innumerable hours we spend mastering our instrument and learning repertoire, we often lose our intense connection with music and start running on automatic pilot. We get caught up in trying to meet performance deadlines, or in pushing ourselves to play pieces at full tempo. Or we mindlessly run through a piece, thinking it sounds just fine and ignoring the fact that we actually feel no great joy in the act. And sometimes, as Michael later said about a lot of his previous practicing, we try to imitate what we’ve heard on recordings, forgetting that we can think and listen for ourselves—that we can make a genuine, personal connection to the music we’re playing and really release our vital, creative energies.

In short, although we work so hard practicing our instruments, we often don’t receive the tremendous nourishment that music can provide. And it’s often because we don’t take  time to deeply drink in the sounds we’re producing. We put out more than we take in. In doing so, we neglect our needs as artists and as human beings—our need to engage fully with music and to truly express ourselves. As a result, quality suffers—the quality of our playing, and the quality of our musical lives.

To add insult to injury, we often assume that the reason we don’t feel satisfied with how we’re playing is that we’re still not working hard enough. Or that we’re not talented enough. Or both.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

How Practicing Really Works

Of all people, we musicians need to reclaim our birthright to enjoy music, as we’re making it. We need to enjoy it to the fullest extent possible. Of course, we need to work to develop technical ease, but if we want to have something truly wonderful to give to an audience, we also need to focus much more than we usually do on enjoying the miraculous reality of musical sounds

Michael’s hands did move much more fluidly when his ears were more engaged with the music he was playing. But more importantly, the sound he produced was vibrantly alive—it was infused with his personal energy. And even more important than both of these results, Michael learned a core lesson about being a true musician: he learned how to have such joyous experiences more often. He met the power of his own mind—the amazing power of paying full attention to music as he was making it.

Michael told me later that although he had had moments of vividly hearing music while practicing slowly in the past, he had never realized that slowness was a key to this experience. After that lesson, he deliberately practiced more slowly, and had repeated experiences of this intense connection with music. But then he often found himself reverting to his habit of playing fast, and stopped enjoying the music. “It’s a weird impetus to play fast,” he said. “It’s much more personal the other way.”

So How Do You Learn to Play Fast?

The real key to vivid engagement with music isn’t slowness. It’s attention. But most of us are so used to speeding through all of our activities, including our practicing, that we need to slow down a lot at first in order to discover the power of attention. As we develop our listening capacity much more, it operates fully at faster and faster speeds. In other words, practicing is as much about training our ears as it is about training our muscles.

The Surprising Ability of Your Own Mind

In last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space, I described the simple technique of mindfulness-awareness meditation, which allows your mind to slow down and settle into a natural clarity and receptiveness. Doing this technique for even a few minutes can help tremendously in clearing mental and emotional space for experiencing the pure joy of genuinely making music.

At the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program, and in our ongoing live online workshops, we do this kind of meditation regularly, in addition to other highly efficient practices to increase natural receptiveness and creativity for making music. I invite you to join us!

Musician, Heal Thyself

I also invite you to take a moment now to think about your relationship with music and with your instrument. Remember the first time you felt the desire to make music, and ask yourself how that desire has played out in your musical life. The next time you’re about to practice, stop for a minute. Look at your instrument (or if you’re a singer, visualize it), and reflect on how miraculous it is.

Who made it? How? What is it made of? Where did those materials come from? How many years of evolution went into the instrument that you are fortunate to possess right now?

Think further: Who wrote the music you’re about to play? When did they live? What did they go through to learn to write such music? How many years has it survived, with its meaning still intact?

And further: How do all the parts of your body contribute to the sound you produce with your instrument? How long has it taken you to learn to make those sounds as well as you can now? How many millennia of human evolution are behind the physical and mental capacities you were born with to make music?

Take at least a minute to reflect on all of these things.

Now. Pause for a moment. Listen to the silence. Feel the energy in your body as you’re about to make the first sound. Open your heart to the music, Then make that first sound.

How did you like it?

Can you imagine continuing to practice with this kind of connection to the music?

I hope that this simple exercise will help you discover that it really isn’t so hard to get back in touch with who you are as a musician, and with the amazing opportunity you have to practice your instrument. Enjoy it, while you can. As often and as fully as you can. You and your audience will benefit.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to open up your playing on a new level and to find out how to become more of the musician you’re meant to be, I invite you to contact me with any questions you might have about the summer program, the live online workshops, or individual sessions in the Art of Practicing and Performing. I’ll be happy to help you decide if one of these options is right for you.

Q&A of the Month

I have trouble solving technical problems when I’m playing romantic music. I get so wrapped up in it emotionally that I typically don’t even realize my hands are tense till my teacher points it out. How can I practice romantic music and be more aware of my body at the same time?

This is a great question, one which many musicians grapple with.  Passion for romantic music is a great strength to have, but we also need to develop command of our passionate energy so that it doesn’t sweep us away into destructive habits. I think a lot of practice-related injuries develop from this particular issue.

Working with passionate energy is very challenging. It’s also one of the most important disciplines for a musician. We’re in love with music, and we have to continually expand our ability to relate to it with understanding and receptivity, rather than overwhelming it with our emotional intensity. It’s very much like loving another person.

Once we understand this fundamental issue, we can relax with our intensity and appreciate it as a good thing, yet also continually remind ourselves to pay closer attention to musical and technical details—because that’s where success and fulfillment lie. One surprisingly helpful thing is to begin every practice session with two minutes of just sitting still and noticing your breathing, as described in last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space. It clears your mind and slows down the nervous system so you can relate to the music from a less stressed place.

Sometimes playing a passage twice as slowly as you want to can reveal amazing things in the music and in your technical approach. Even if you  think this will be boring, applying your attention to what you’re doing can bring incredible awareness and joy, expanding the musical result.

It’s also essential to find out if your technical approach is completely efficient. If you have any questions at all about whether or not your coordination is totally natural, seek out the most expert advice you can find. Some teachers are known for this. And if you consult a technique expert, be sure to ask lots of questions and to trust your own experience with the techniques they show you.

You can’t really separate technique from music, and an interesting thing can happen if you forget about the music for a moment and deliberately focus on the mechanics of producing the sound: Very often, more music actually comes through, because your body moves more freely when you lighten up your approach.

On the other hand, playing extremely slowly and noticing how each sound affects you inside can work a profound change in your practicing. It can help you work less hard, because you become more receptive and less active. This listening technique is described in Chapter 10 of my book, The Art of Practicing.

The best advice might be to try practicing everything more slowly for a week or more. Just give your body and mind a chance to operate with more physical comfort. Then, when you go back to playing faster, try to make comfort your top priority, and really focus on that. Whenever you realize that you’re less than completely comfortable, slow down and try to notice exactly where the discomfort is. See if you can let go of the tension in that part of your body. In this way you can take care of your body, just as you take care of the instrument you play. Remember that your body is an instrument—a precious one.

You’re welcome to set up a free consultation with me, in person or online, to get my feedback on your technical issues and to talk about next steps that are right for you.

 

Grandma’s Recipe for Space

(This article has been edited since it was first published in September, 2012 under the title of “Creating Space for Music to Flow.”)

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 was 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.

In the middle of February, with all the challenges that winter creates in our lives, summer feels far away. We are typically inundated with work, and we feel the pressure to bring many projects to fruition. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and to lose the spaciousness and freedom we typically have in summer.

But it’s possible even in winter to approach the demands of our work in a spacious way. And it’s essential.

Balancing Heaviness with Lightness

Each season has its qualities, and the darkness of winter brings a sense of seriousness and depth—we may find ourselves going inward more and being more reflective. At the same time, we may feel more pressure to develop our musical gifts and to meet deadlines with performances, auditions, or school jury exams. Such pressure can cause us to lose touch with the pure joy of making music.

It’s important to remember that in order to come fully alive, our musical gifts need to breathe. When we take more time to relax and breathe, our mind and body can work with more ease. We discover room inside of ourselves to both receive and recreate the infinite variety of energies in music—to respond in a full-bodied, open hearted way 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 

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.

7. Stop.

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.

Surprise!

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 40 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’re interested in pursuing meditation but don’t live near me, I’d be happy to hear from you and to recommend places where you can learn and practice this mind-opening technique.

And if you really want to treat yourself to a fantastic experience of spaciousness with music, consider registering for the Art of Practicing institute’s summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance, where you will meet other wonderful people who are ready to breathe more easily and make music more freely.

I’d love to have you with us.

And I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. You can also apply to be on the waiting list as a Master Class participant at this year’s summer program. If you’re not sure the program is for you, feel free to schedule a free consultation.

Q & A of the Month

What is the best way to gain strength and independence in my left hand at the piano? I have worked on Hanon’s exercises and scales for at least four months now, and I am still having trouble feeling fluent with my left hand. When I am playing a descending scale, my left hand seems to lack accuracy and stability. Do you have any suggestions?

Everyone’s left hand is less adept than their right on the piano. Most piano music has a lot more notes in the right hand part, so the right hand gets more practice. Also, the ear naturally hears the higher parts in a piece more easily than lower ones—which is why most melodies are written on top. What this means is that we’re less conscious of what our left hand is doing, so that our coordination doesn’t usually develop as well with that hand.

Coordination involves the brain, which is affected very much your level of aural and emotional engagement with what you’re doing. I don’t think you need to do Hanon exercises, unless you enjoy the sound of them. Actual music is best most of the time, and you can isolate certain passages and work specifically on the difficult parts of them, as if they were exercises. These snippets of actual music are more interesting than Hanon exercises—more musical. Scales can be helpful if you play them with a lot of awareness of how they sound and of how your hand feels. Just remember that it’s this awareness that improves coordination. If you just push through scales or pieces—more out of a big effort to improve than out of enjoying the sounds and sensations—your coordination will suffer. Try singing the scale first, in a musical way, and then imitating that musicality in your playing of it.

Along with these issues, you need to know how to use your hand with minimum tension—by sitting at the right height and distance, for optimum finger and arm leverage, and by letting the fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing. And it’s essential to not try to get a big sound with the fingers alone, but to rely on the arm for this purpose, and to know how to use the arm efficiently and effectively.

It’s always best to go slowly enough to play with ease, comfort, and accuracy. If you play faster than you comfortably can, it’s counterproductive. You have to trust that fluency and speed will come from doing what you can, not from pushing beyond that and overloading your playing mechanism with excessive demands. That only creates excessive tension, which can lead to inaccuracy.

See if you can get into how good it feels to move your hands slowly and comfortably, not trying for a big sound. Great technique develops from that foundation.

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