Genuine Stage Presence

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in February, 2013.)

I once attended a clarinet master class taught by Richard Stoltzman at the Manhattan School of Music. The audience had just filled the 400-seat hall when Mr. Stoltzman appeared onstage pulling a luggage cart, apparently either just arriving from the airport, or ready for a flight after the class. After we had greeted him with applause, and before he spoke a word, he simply stood and looked around, taking in the environment—the rows of people sitting on the ground level and up in the balcony, the lighting, the furniture on the stage, the quiet, the atmosphere. He seemed to be getting his bearings in the new surroundings he suddenly found himself in—a contrast to the street or the airport.

After we’d waited for what seemed like a full minute, he slowly began to speak and proceeded to teach the class with an arresting spaciousness, as well as with his characteristic brilliance and playfulness. His energy seemed to flow naturally from simply being open—from taking time to ground himself, to feel what it was like to be on that stage, in that hall, at that moment.

There are many ways a performer can make an entrance. Nightclub entertainers often bound onto the stage beaming big smiles, aiming to lift the spirits of their audience. Rock stars may saunter onstage, playing it cool or hot to appeal to their fans. And many fine classical artists approach center stage with glamorous elegance, radiating a warmth that fills the hall. All of these ways of meeting an audience can be fine, and even great.

But Mr. Stoltzman’s unhurried ordinariness on that afternoon as he faced us from the stage has stayed in my mind as a striking example of simple, uncontrived being. He let us see him in an almost private way in a public situation. His presence was strong in its bareness, its quietness, its intense realness. It gave us a glimpse of the receptiveness that lies underneath his colorful playing and personality. It was clear that this master class had nothing to do with the teacher’s ego. It was all about genuinely relating to his students and to his audience.

The Power of Being an Ordinary Person

It’s hard to describe a moment like that, when someone onstage is not putting on a show—when his ordinary presence strips away our preconceptions of who he is and reveals the unadorned person. It’s an intimate experience, and it opens us up to the music or teaching they are offering. Each of us at such a moment can connect with what is most genuine and unadorned in ourselves.

Mr. Stoltzman maintained his remarkable receptiveness throughout the class, taking time to tune in to the heart and mind of each student he worked with. Respectful and gentle, he listened to their words as well as to their playing, and gave them time to absorb what he was saying. He didn’t rush to give them solutions to problems; instead, he experimented with them, letting them try out ideas and see if they worked. I am still grateful for the example he set, of a great performer who didn’t try to call attention to himself. He didn’t need to. His humility and kindness were magnetic.

Getting Off the Fast Track

Although performers like Richards Stoltzman seem to be born with a natural gift for communicating through music and through their personal presence, all of us can develop our own communicative gifts to a much higher level than we usually think. I have seen many ordinary music students become magnetically present in performance through using their minds in a skillful way. It all begins with slowing down and tuning in to the present moment, just as Mr. Stoltzman did onstage that day.

Slowing down like that is unusual in our culture. We are so accustomed to speed—in school and work settings, on television, on the Internet, and in our own minds—that the very act of taking time to simply observe what’s happening often brings up guilt and self-judgment. We become suspicious of ourselves or of anyone else who seems to be wasting time by doing nothing.

Yet more and more articles have been appearing recently, in The New York Times and other publications, on the value of slowing down—of practicing mindfulness, taking short breaks in the work day, and going on vacation. Scientists have finally declared that the human mind works better when we don’t push it so hard, and that people are more productive and effective when they give themselves more of a chance to breathe.

Connecting with the Extra-ordinary

You can begin training yourself to be more present by periodically stopping in the middle of an activity and noticing what your five senses are perceiving. Right now, after you read this sentence, stop for a moment and notice what you are seeing, hearing, smelling tasting, and touching, and what it’s like to do that.

Does it feel good to stop and do this? What do you notice? Try it again, now, for another moment.

Can you picture yourself making a habit of interrupting your day to engage in this non-activity?

If you practice such awareness often, while sitting still, with nothing much happening around you, the most ordinary things begin to hold your interest more, and your awareness becomes very sharp, as though you were viewing the present moment through a magnifying glass. You experience a very focused, undistracted state of mind. This is the powerful practice called mindfulness. Anyone can do it.

Observing Your Own Mind

The most basic mindfulness practice is to notice your breathing while sitting still and upright. This technique is called mindfulness meditation, and it’s great to do it with your eyes open. That way you learn to handle being aware of your environment while your attention is primarily on one thing. This is amazing preparation for performance, when you experience a heightened awareness of the environment yet have to focus on what you’re doing—using your instrument to make music.

Placing your attention on your breathing helps your mind and body relax. And as your mind relaxes, you also become more aware of your state of mind. From moment to moment, you may be happy or sad, comfortable or uncomfortable, bored, distracted, restless, or freaked out. All kinds of thoughts may come and go, and you become an observer of your own mind.

Your mind may be full of many things—memories, plans, worries, and general mish-mash—and you may not enjoy all of them. But if you stay with it all, you will gain something valuable: a distance from all of these thoughts, and a stronger and stronger realization that they are just thoughts. They are not you. You are the person who is watching them.

Getting Out of Your Head 

I gave basic mindfulness instruction in a previous issues (see Grandma’s Recipe for Space in the article Creating Space for Music to Flow). And we do it regularly in our Live Online Workshops, as well as at our annual summer program. This simple technique helps you get out of your head and come back into your body and your sense perceptions—which is where you need to be most for making music. It also allows you to become a better observer of your own mind—to notice when you’re caught up in habitual thinking and to let go of your thoughts. And as your mind becomes more free of habitual thinking, it opens up and becomes be more creative as well as more receptive.

A Few Steps You Can Take

Whether you can participate in the call or not, here are a few steps you can try the next time you’re preparing to walk onstage:

1. As you’re anticipating the moment of your entrance, notice how you feel.

2. Know that the feelings you have are full of life energy, and that you can use that energy creatively in your performance. Appreciate this vibrant state, no matter how nervous or uncomfortable you may feel.

3. Remember it’s normal to be nervous before a performance, and that the most successful and famous musicians feel this way.

4. Appreciate your bravery in being willing to face your audience. Take time to extend warmth to yourself this way.

5. As you’re about to step onstage, take time to notice your physical sensations—your foot touching the floor, your clothes touching your skin, your body moving through space. Keep feeling your bravery and appreciating it.

6. As you enter the space of the stage, take time to notice the light, the people, their applause, the atmosphere, your excitement or nervousness.

7. As you sit or stand in position to perform, continue to notice the details of your sensory experience.

8. If you’re performing with others, take time to notice them and to feel your connection with them.

9. Take a moment to experience the silence before you begin.

10. Trust your intuition about  when to make your first sound.

11. Whatever happens, stay with the energy of the music, and of sharing it with other people.

12. Know that being perfect is not the point—in fact, it is your vulnerability and humanness that will connect you to your audience more than anything else can.

Performing is a special opportunity to experience that each ordinary moment and perception contains the power of the extraordinary. Trust that with practice, you can go deeper into this experience and discover more of what it means to be present and to let yourself be seen by your audience.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. We do two other powerful techniques in the Live Online Workshops and at our annual summer program, opening up great new energy for practicing and performing. I invite you to join us!

Q & A of the Month 

I’m studying with two different piano teachers at my conservatory, and their ideas sometimes conflict—particularly on technique. Although I value what each teacher is giving me, I get confused sometimes about which advice I should follow. Do you have any suggestions?

This is an interesting and timely question. Collaborative teaching has become more common recently, and it puts each person—both the teachers and the student—in a challenging situation.

First of all, it’s good that these two teachers are at the same school and are therefore aware that you are working with both of them. Hopefully, each of them appreciates that they can learn something from the situation just as you are learning from both of them. It’s a little like being a musician with an injury—they may have only one instrumental teacher, but they also have to listen to the advice of their doctor, their physical therapist, and maybe some books they’re reading, all at the same time, and decide which advice makes the most sense to them at any given moment in the recovery process.

The most important thing is for you to trust yourself. Listen to your body, trust your own intelligence, ask a lot of questions, and see what really makes the most sense for you. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that some teachers have very clear methods for helping their students develop, and a student may not always know the reason for a particular approach until weeks or months down the road, when they’ve worked with it enough to integrate it into their playing.

If you feel that you’re really being pulled in two different directions, do what you can to minimize the conflict. For instance, you could request different repertoire for a period of time and concentrate on pieces that create less confusion and conflict. Then go back to the other repertoire when your mind is clearer and see if you can understand the issues better and find new solutions.

Do be careful about your technique. If a passage feels tense or uncomfortable, explain the problem to one or both of your teachers and do everything you can to find a way to make it easier to play.

If one teacher is suggesting musical ideas that you really like but the other teacher doesn’t agree with them, talk to both teachers to try to understand their way of thinking. You can learn a lot this way, and it can help you practice more intelligently. It can also make you a better teacher yourself.

I myself never had more than one teacher at a time, but all of my teachers disagreed with each other on certain things. Each teacher was valuable in a different way, and the process of sorting out their conflicting ideas was extremely useful for me. It forced me to think for myself, and to delve deeply into many technical and musical issues. I think this is how the teaching and performing traditions evolve to a higher level.

At some point in your career, you may find yourself confronted with a choice of committing to one particular approach, in order to refine your technique or take your playing to a new level. Again, trust your instincts and feel your way into any new situation. Being skeptical is a sign of intelligence, and you can learn a lot from all of your experiences.

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

Your Heart Is In Your Hands: Zooming In on Physical Details

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in November 2012. It contains a video.)

I once zoomed in on Peter Serkin’s hands with binoculars from the balcony of Carnegie Hall. He was playing an extremely virtuosic contemporary piece that had his hands running all over the keyboard. I wanted to see one specific thing about how he used his hands, and if it was in agreement with how I play myself and how I teach.

I was looking to see if his fingers were up or down—that is, if the non-playing fingers were raised above the keys while other fingers were busy playing, or if they were simply resting on the keys until they needed to play.

As I expected, those fingers were down. How else could they be ready to play a split second later? And how else could his muscles be minimally engaged, to keep tension to a minimum, so that he could play so fast and so easily? It was beautiful to watch the effortless fluidity in his playing.

When we zoom in on a performer who has mastered their instrument, we gain inspiration for our own practicing. It shows us what is humanly possible, and how beautiful our technical equipment could be.

How to Zoom In on Your Own Hands

When you’re sitting at your instrument, you don’t need binoculars to zoom in on what your hands are doing. But it can be easy to miss crucial details and to not get where you want to go with your technique.

Zooming in effectively requires three things: inspiration, mental clarity, and facts.

Just as I was inspired watching Peter Serkin’s hands, I hope you find some inspiration in this close-up of my hands, playing the same section of Chopin that opened the October 2012 article:

You can see that in all the passage work, my fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing (except in two places, which I will explain later).

In addition to the inspiration you may gain from watching a video, or from zooming in with binoculars at a concert, let’s talk about the other two ingredients you can use to effectively zoom in on your own hands.

Give Your Mind a Chance

The first challenge in working with physical details while practicing is that there are so many other things going on. We get overwhelmed with the complexities of the music, with our emotional responses to it, and with our anxiety about meeting the deadline of a performance, lesson, or audition. In the middle of all that, it can be hard to even notice how your hands feel. In fact, many musicians get so caught up in practicing, and in pushing for results, that they don’t even realize how much tension is in their hands and arms until it builds to the point of injury.

So in order to begin working with your instrumental technique, you first need to clear your mind of other issues that are screaming for your attention. If you can manage to slow down the racing thoughts in your head, and ease up on your tendency to drive yourself too hard, you can gain enough presence of mind to clearly observe the delicate, precise movements of your hands, and you can find solutions to technical problems more quickly and easily. You can even notice how your sound quality improves as you train your hands to move in a freer, more refined way.

Grandma’s Recipe

Such presence of mind is also known as mindfulness. In the September 2012 issue, I described a simple technique for increasing your mindfulness, which I called “Grandma’s Recipe for Space.” Part of this recipe is called mindfulness of breathing, and doing it for even two minutes can make the difference between productive practicing and total frustration.

So the next time you’re feeling frustrated during practicing, I encourage you to stop practicing for a minute or two and to try Grandma’s Recipe: Just sit comfortably upright and take two minutes to do two simple things: 1) breathe, and 2), notice your breathing. Try it even if you’re skeptical. If you’re like everyone else I know who’s tried it, you’ll come back feeling more clear-headed and ready to practice with more focus and enjoyment.

Know the Facts

In addition to inspiration and mental clarity, it helps to have some solid, scientific facts to encourage you in your pursuit of this technical mastery and beauty. For now, we’ll look at one basic fact of how your hands work.

Your hands are obviously of major importance in your instrumental technique. Even if you are not a pianist, looking at these two photos of my hand can help you understand something crucial about how to use your hands.

In the first photo, you see my third finger putting down a key while the other four fingers are relaxed and resting on the keys.

This is the way Peter Serkin’s hands looked through my binoculars. And it’s also how my hands look in the video.

In the second photo, you also see the third finger playing a key, but this time, other fingers are raised above the keys.

The problem here is that when your fingers are raised above the keys, you’re using muscles to hold them up. Those muscles are in the topside of your forearm. And the muscles that bend your fingers, to play, are in the underside of your forearm. So if you bend and lift at the same time, as in the second picture above, you are contracting both sets of muscles in your forearm simultaneously and creating unnecessary tension. Doctors call this co-contraction.

That extra tension is enough to create a constriction in your forearm, which inhibits both speed and expressiveness. And it happens to be the single most common cause of injuries among pianists.

Putting the Ingredients Together

Nearly every new student who walks into my studio for the first time has this habit of keeping their fingers raised above the keys, to at least some extent. Many of them know it’s not a good habit—and have even had teachers who advised against it—but they don’t know how to change their habit. Others were instructed to raise their fingers as a kind of calisthenics for the hand—an approach that doctors agree is destructive and potentially injurious.

A habit is like a code in the spinal cord. In order to change that code, you need to put your brain in charge and deliberately do something differently, repeatedly. Even ten minutes of slowly and carefully making sure that your fingers are down will make it more automatic—you will already begin to feel that the old habit is starting to weaken, and the newer one is starting to take hold.

Most people who have never taken the time to focus like that are surprised by how much mental energy it takes. Often I ask them how their hand feels after a few minutes of playing in the new position, and they answer that they are so busy focusing on doing it the new way that they don’t even notice how different the physical sensation is. But usually they quickly realize that it feels better, and they describe it as “more relaxed,” “less strained.” “Easier.”

So acquiring physical ease takes mental work.

The Mental Key

The key is to follow the idea of the mindfulness of breathing technique: For every single thing you do, you actually do two things: First, you put down a key. Second, you check the other four fingers to make sure they are resting on the keys instead of being raised above them.

This is mindfulness in action. You are exercising the specific natural capacity of your brain called mindfulness. And each time you exercise it—each time you complete these two steps of moving a finger and checking the rest of your fingers—you are strengthening that part of your brain. Scientists have even located this part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex—behind your forehead. And they have observed that as people practice mindfulness, the cells in this part of the brain multiply, strengthening this natural mental capacity.


As you practice using your hand this way, remember that the fingers are not designed for power. The arm is designed for power, and the fingers are designed for sensitivity, precision, and refined control. So don’t try to get a big sound. In fact, even if a finger isn’t yet strong enough to produce any sound, just put the key down with minimum effort. Don’t force anything—you will gain strength within a short time.

Mom’s Recipe

I’m not a grandma yet, but I am a mom. So we could call my method for training your fingers to rest on the keys “Mom’s Recipe for a Tension-Free Hand.” Here is what you do:

1. Play one note with minimum effort.

2. Say “check,” to yourself, as you remember to check each of the other four fingers to make sure that they are relaxed and resting on the keys.

3. Relax your mind along with your hand. Don’t think about the next note.

4. Repeat these steps for each note you play.

It helps enormously if a teacher guides you through these steps during one or more lessons and catches where little things are obstructing your progress: If your wrist height changes too much, your knuckles collapse, your shoulders hunch or roll forward, or your hand remains in a stretched position longer than necessary, it can hamper the process. And most people need someone else there to catch the times when their focus slips and they fail to notice that a finger is working too hard, is unnaturally curled or straight, or is sticking up in the air.

But if you follow this recipe for ten minutes at a time over the course of a week, playing with one hand at a time, and without playing anything else during that week, you can succeed in changing your habit of raising your fingers above the keys—at least 95% of that habit will be gone, and your hand will work with wonderful new ease and efficiency. Even one or two ten-minute sessions a day can be enough to accomplish this goal in a week’s time.

Of course, there are other factors that come into play—like adjusting the bench to the right height so that you have optimum leverage with your fingers and arm. And aligning your torso and arms for maximum efficiency. But that would take too many paragraphs right now. If you’re interested, you can read all about it in the chapter called “Basic Mechanics” in my book, The Art of Practicing.

What About That Left Thumb?

Aha! You caught it! Yes, my left thumb is momentarily above the keys in this video when my fifth finger is playing the bass notes. That’s because I’m using a particular arm movement to bring out the bass line and to create momentum in negotiating the arpeggios, and the angle of my arm in this movement results in my thumb leaving the surface of the keys. But the thumb is still relaxed, just hanging from my hand instead of sticking out or up.

And That Place Where Your Right Hand Hits Keys from the Air?

That’s something called forearm rotation. Too much to go into here, but basically, in this case, it allows you to momentarily throw your hand to the side, which gives you enough arm power to bring out certain notes in certain kinds of patterns.

It may all sound very complex, and it is. But once you know how the different hand and arm movements work together, and you get used to doing them, it feels simple and natural.

Mindfulness Brings Heartfulness

The word mindfulness may sound very cerebral, and you may think that practicing with this kind of attention to detail will take you away from your heart connection to the music and to your instrument. But the opposite is true.

When we clear our mind and take time to focus on one detail at a time, something magical happens. Our heart opens. We start to develop a new appreciation of each small thing we’re doing and experiencing. Practicing is indeed extremely complicated. But when we slow down and deal with one thing at a time, it becomes a series of simple moments. These moments gradually come together into complete phrases, and finally into a whole piece that has integrity and beauty, and that flows freely and naturally.

An Invitation

I invite you to come home to the natural clarity of your mind and perceptions, and to the natural warmth of your heart, by practicing with mindfulness. Practicing doesn’t have to be a struggle or a chore. If you understand the facts about how your hands work best, you can master the details of using them by slowing down enough to notice their amazing ability to move gracefully and to touch your instrument with ease, sensitivity, and love.

It’s worth the time it takes.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you want to be sure that you’re using your hands just right at the piano, I invite you to arrange a lesson, in person or on Skype, or to contact me for a free consultation.

Q & A of the Month 

I tried sitting more still at the piano as you suggested in your last article, and I don’t see how you can avoid leaning forward. It feels like the music is making me lean forward, and that it’s necessary. How do you manage to not lean? Isn’t it maybe good for some people and not for others? 

This is a really intelligent question, and I appreciate that you’re skeptical. I was skeptical myself for many years, and resisted someone’s advice to change how I use my body at the piano. But then my playing changed, and I found that I could express myself more when I move less.

Using your body this way is something you have to be open to and ready for. There are a number of physical things you have to focus on to make the change work. You need to be aware of the physical feedback from the instrument when you’re upright. There’s an equal and opposite reaction from the piano when you spring forward from your fingertips with your arm. You can feel three contact points—your fingertips, your seat, and your feet—and in between, the energy is flowing back and forth and ricocheting from those points. It takes some guidance to experience this, but there is a diagram in my book, with arrows showing how the different physical forces work.

With everyone I’ve taught who feels they “need” to lean forward, it’s almost always because of a deeply ingrained habit, rather than a real need. The exception is when your hands have to play at an extreme end of the keyboard and you can’t reach the keys without leaning slightly toward them.

How I “manage” to not lean forward is a question that goes quite deep. It’s clear to me that the change in my posture was a direct result of seven years of mindfulness meditation practice. In that practice, you sit upright and still, no matter what is going on inside you emotionally. Storms and waves of passion and panic may all be flooding your system, but you just sit there. You learn to accommodate a lot of energy without reacting so much to it. You actually feel your emotions even more strongly than before, but you get used to handling it all.

This is an amazing discipline for a musician, because our job is to allow powerful musical energy to flow through us to our listeners. The more our habitual reactions are in charge, the less power we have to transmit the music to an audience. If we are bound up in habitual tension, we squeeze some of the life out of the music instead of opening fully to it and giving it to others.

All that said, it doesn’t mean that you have to practice meditation to find this kind of stillness. Doing the kind of mindful listening work I describe in Chapter 10 of my book helps tremendously in gradually changing the habit of overexerting physically. You become more receptive, so you automatically become less active. It’s all about that balance between being active and receptive. Usually we’re overly active and not sufficiently receptive.

Changing your approach definitely requires guidance from a teacher. A movement teacher, such as a teacher of the Alexander Technique or a Feldenkrais teacher, can be extremely helpful. A qualified piano teacher could help you further.

It’s a profound thing to experience, and a big thing to accomplish. I encourage you to keep working in that direction and see what happens. You’re of course welcome to try a lesson on Skype or in person with me, or with another teacher of the Art of Practicing.

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

Bounce, Land, Spring, Slide: The Feel of Healthy Technique

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published in October 2013. It contains a video.)

I am passionate about piano technique. Great technique feels like play—free, comfortable, and easy. Natural. From what I have heard, this idea applies to technique for all instruments. And it’s essential for fearless performing.

When students first learn to do something effortlessly with their instrument, they often say, “It feels like I’m not doing anything.” They can’t quite comprehend that it takes so little physical effort to have power and expressiveness in playing or singing.

At the same time, the mental effort required to learn a new technical approach can be considerable. In fact, often, when I ask a student how a new hand or arm movement feels, they say, “I can’t tell. I’m just concentrating so hard.” Then maybe after another minute, the coordination starts to come more easily and they begin to perceive that the new movement is physically much easier—lighter, freer, and more comfortable.

Here is a one-minute video showing some of the arm movements that I teach. The first clip, taken by my student Barry at one of his lessons, shows my hands demonstrating the movements for a few bars of Bach’s Little Prelude in C minor. The second clip shows my former student Amy using these basic movements, in combination with other arm movements, in her performance of the Gavotte from Bach’s French Suite in G at the wonderful recital she gave in New York before moving back to the west coast.

Notice the verbs I use in the minilesson to describe these movements: bounce, land, spring. And in addition, you can see that my hands are also sliding—forward and back on the keys, in and out of the keyboard. When Amy combines all of these movements in her performance, along with a few other ones, she is clearly enjoying herself. In fact, if you look closely, she even smiles once for a second.

That’s because these movements feel good, especially when music is flowing through your body. It is supposed to feel good to play your instrument, or to sing.

So Why Do People Complain About Practicing?

Practicing becomes drudgery when we lose the sense of play. Let’s look at three of the reasons that we lose this sense of play.

First, many musicians have not learned a completely efficient physical approach to their instrument. There is a tremendous amount of information to absorb in order to master the body mechanics of any instrument, and it can be difficult to find someone who can teach you all of it.

Although natural technique looks simple and effortless, it is also endlessly complex. I am always learning more about it. For instance, the sliding motion you see my hands make in this video is something I wasn’t aware of doing until a few years ago, when I was demonstrating at the piano for a student and he said, “You’re sliding!” Wow. What a great discovery.

I’ve since realized that sliding is often part of the natural follow-through that happens when your arm is moving freely. It’s similar to a tennis player’s arm continuing to move forward after the ball has left the racket.

Many teachers are so natural in their physical approach that they are similarly unaware of some of the details of what they are doing. Teaching is a tremendous opportunity for us to discover essential facts about how we play and to transmit them to others.

The Mindset

A second reason we lose the sense of play in practicing is that we think practicing is supposed to be hard. People say that it is, and we aren’t taught that it doesn’t have to be. So we push our bodies and minds, and practicing starts to feel unpleasant.

Real discipline isn’t about pushing ourselves. It’s about learning to continually let go of pushing ourselves and finding ways to do things comfortably and naturally.

This doesn’t mean that we never get frustrated. But if we monitor our frustration—if we are aware of it—we have the option of stopping what we’re doing, taking a moment to relax our mind and body, and then taking a fresh start. This is one of the essentials of productive practicing.

Losing Touch

The other reason I’d like to mention now for why we lose the sense of play in our practicing is that, to different degrees, we tend to be out of touch with our bodies. We go through our daily lives consumed with worries, stress, and all kinds of mental distractions. We often have to relearn how to feel our own feelings and sensations, the way we could as young children.

One of the great benefits of studying an instrument is that, if you have a good teacher, you gradually become more aware of how your body feels in general. You learn to sense emotional and kinesthetic experience more keenly in your body, because you have to—in order to access musical energy and channel it into your instrument. Each movement of your playing mechanism connects you to an awareness of your whole body—how it is positioned, how the parts work together, and how the visceral experience of the music affects the mechanics of playing.

To learn the complex movements involved in making music, we need to watch and listen to someone play in addition to hearing or reading about the physical details of playing. We are creatures of sensation and sensory perception, and we instinctively absorb the lessons of touch and movement by seeing and hearing these things in action.

Developing an awareness of your body in making music can also be aided by many other physical experiences—disciplines such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, Body-Mind Centering, yoga, Dalcroze eurhythmics, and dance, as well as such healing modalities as Rosen Method body work, chakra work, meditation, and 5Rhythms, are some of a great variety of methods now available to help all of us become more vibrantly engaged in music and in our lives.

Go For It

I encourage you to explore your potential to let go of limiting physical habits in playing your instrument and to learn to move freely and easily in making music. When you notice during practicing that your body is not happy, just stop. Take a minute to breathe and relax. Then take a fresh look at the passage you are practicing, and see if you can make it easier somehow.

In my experience, there is always a way.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are wondering about how to play a particular passage more easily and are ready to receive help, I invite you to show me the problem on Skype or in person at a sample lesson.

Q & A of the Month
I’m recovering from a playing-related injury and sometimes get very discouraged. Things get better, and then worse again, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to really play. Is it typical for the recovery to go like this?

Setbacks are common with all kinds of injuries, including playing-related ones. It can take great patience sometimes, especially if you’ve had the injury for a long time. The longer you’ve had an injury, the longer it can take to heal.

The field of Performing Arts Medicine is still relatively new, and health professionals, as well as instrumental teachers, are learning new things all the time. No one can say what a particular musician’s course of recovery will be like. Generally, an injured musician needs a team of people. These definitely include an instrumental teacher who has experience helping musicians recover from injuries, and may also include a physician, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, or some kind of bodywork professional, such as a Feldenkrais practitioner. What matters most is that you remain true to yourself during the whole process, following your own intelligence each day.

So many factors combine in developing an injury and in recovering from one. Sometimes you just need to take time to feel your discouragement so that your emotions don’t get bottled up inside you. At other times, you might need to explore a new kind of bodywork or physical therapy. One of the most important factors is your trust in the people you choose to work with. Trust brings relaxation, both physical and mental. Some musicians have found psychotherapy very beneficial in recovering from an injury. Just having someone to talk to and to explore whatever psychological issues might come up can bring a deep sense of relief and relaxation and have a transformative effect.

Finally, as with other great challenges in life, we have to come to terms with the mystery in whatever situation we find ourselves in. We have to accept the fact that we can’t know or control things as much as we might like, and to learn to relax about that. This is the spiritual aspect of dealing with fear—the fear of not realizing our dreams, not fulfilling ourselves as musicians or artists or human beings. There’s a lot of magic in learning to accept what we can’t control. It’s an opportunity to open the heart and become a bigger artist and person. It’s the opposite of being so driven by ambition that our muscles actually tighten. Many injuries are directly related to this kind of excessive ambition and tension.

I wish I could give you a clear idea of what to expect on your journey of recovery. But your journey is unique to you, and it will bring you unexpected discoveries and rewards. It’s important to keep in mind that many musicians have enjoyable careers even if they don’t recover 100% from an injury. They still perform, but maybe they have to be a little more careful than other people about how they warm up or cool down after practicing or performing. Having an injury gives you a keen awareness of your body and what it needs at different times.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.

Handling Your Vulnerability as an Artist

Dear subscribers to Fearless Performing e-zine,

I’m delighted to share again Nora Krohn’s article “Handling Your Vulnerability as an Artist,” first published in Fearless Performing E-zine in August 2014.

Nora is currently completing her first book, You Already Are: A Musician’s Notes on Overcoming Fear and Waking Up to Love. 

Enjoy her article!


by Nora Krohn

A few years out of school, I happened to meet a prominent and well-connected freelance violinist. She was several years older than I was, very skilled and street-smart, and I asked her to lunch so that I could glean some useful career advice from her. After some pleasant small talk, I got to the pressing question: “How can I get more work in New York?”

She sighed, thought for a moment, and gave me the names of a few people to call. But she warned me that I wasn’t likely to get anywhere by asking other people for help—I just had to stick it out somehow until people got to know me. At the end of our meal, I thanked her and asked if she had any parting words of counsel. She looked me squarely in the face and said, “Just remember, no one is your friend. Act confident, and don’t open up to anyone. Go in every day with your armor on.” I was incredulous. I told her I thought there must be a way to avoid succumbing to such bitterness. “Nora, you can’t go around saying things like that,” she retorted, “People are going to think you’re some sort of princess.”

Vulnerability as a Liability

Although I was devastated by my colleague’s cynical admonition, I knew that her attitude must be concealing great pain, and I could relate. I’d often wondered if I was just too sensitive to handle the demands of being a performer—competition, scrutiny, and rejection all made me fall apart. When I was a child, music had been a refuge, but over time the emotional vulnerability that defined my relationship with it began to seem like a serious liability, and I strove to bury it under hard-bitten perfectionism.

I had always been attentive and diligent, but after hearing my colleague’s sobering advice, I became more cautious than ever. In some ways this strategy paid off—I arrived at every gig thoroughly prepared and developed a reputation for being reliable and hardworking. I projected cheerful confidence, was easy to get along with, and made everyone laugh. Slowly but surely, I started eking out a meager living as a violist.

Since my strategies for armoring myself against feeling or showing any vulnerability seemed to be working, I was afraid to give them up even though the space to be myself was eroding all around me. I couldn’t have fun playing anymore, because all of my effort was directed toward masking imperfections. I was convinced that if anyone knew how I really felt, or how I really played when I wasn’t trying to conceal all my rough edges, my career would be over. Eventually, I gave up on doing anything meaningful or positive with my talents, I just wanted to be utterly unobjectionable.

When I finally decided to check out Madeline Bruser’s summer program on Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance in 2013, I was well on my way to a freelance career in New York. So although I was desperate for something about my attitude toward performing to change, I was also terrified of facing how I felt. 

Vulnerability as an Asset

When I first arrived at the program, I still wanted to believe that I wouldn’t have to own up to my feelings. But the professional veneer I’d fabricated quickly imploded as other participants began to describe their deepest longings and self-doubts. I was stunned. I had never heard another musician admit to feeling vulnerable in such a public situation. But shock soon gave way to profound admiration for their courage and unvarnished generosity in speaking out. At last I’d found a place where I felt at home being honest with myself about what was really going on inside my head and heart.

The relief of recognition offered me a crucial sense of safety amongst utter strangers. I decided to honor other participants’ candor by being honest about my own struggle. Allowing myself to be exposed in the music workshops was even harder, because I couldn’t rely on my verbal eloquence to smooth over the embarrassment of feeling not in command of my instrument or of my state of mind as a performer. Through it all, my fellow participants responded not with repulsion, as I had expected, but with gratitude, respect, and tenderness. Learning to be honest with myself and my audience was hugely affirming, and I began to play with more depth and authority than ever before.

I learned something important that week: that openness to the full spectrum of our experience is the starting point for compelling and mature musicianship. Suffering and joy are equally endemic to the human condition, and sharing the full range of our emotions with our audiences, through our presence and through the music we make, is not a selfish act, but a generous one. If we allow our fear to shut down that generous impulse—whether or not we admit it to ourselves—we can’t express ourselves freely. I went deep into the notion of vulnerability as an asset in the ensuing year, with serious trepidation. But the results were substantial: I felt more contentment, I found the courage to perform as a soloist, and I won my first orchestra job. I wrote an article clothed in honesty that was read by thousands of people.

I was eager to return to the program this summer, pining for a refreshing boost of clarity and affirmation.

Losing My Way

Of course, expectations can be dangerous. My experience the year before had been fruitful, and I craved more of it, so I took a big step into my vulnerability in one of our discussion groups. My candid display of emotion moved many people, and some of them thanked me. But I wasn’t sure how some of the others felt. I thought they seemed put off by what I had to say, or that they didn’t understand it.  And that thought, coupled with my embarrassment, sent me back into feeling unfit for the act of performing. I knew my expression had been sincere, but I began to hate myself for being so dramatic and emotional, and for failing to feel the joy that others were feeling as performers.

I buckled under the confusion: In the previous year I’d clung to the mantra that vulnerability inevitably led to insight and empathy, but now I found myself being swallowed up by self-judgment for being so vulnerable in front of other people. Unsure of what to do, I tried to remain open to my feelings in spite of others’ apparent incomprehension, and to expose my tender heart through my playing. More affirming words came from many people, but in my fog of estrangement, I couldn’t take them in. I became very worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep it together for the recital at the end of the week.

Taking Shelter in Self-Compassion

Then one day, unable to face practicing, I went for a walk. I found a bench under a tree, sat down, and looked up through the leaves. A bolt of intuition flashed through my mind: in my longing to share myself with others, I had gone too far this time in laying myself bare. And what I needed now, instead of more self-exposure, was shelter for my tender, vulnerable heart. That simple realization shifted my entire inner landscape from panic to ease. I stopped seeing my sensitivity as a creeping liability or an onerous burden. Instead, I saw it as a gift that should be handled with wisdom and care.

Once I gave myself this space, I was free to express my feelings with greater poise. I performed with much more confidence in the final workshop and felt comfortable enough to perform on the recital. In fact, a few minutes before I went onstage to play the first movement of the E-flat major Brahms Sonata, I thought of it as a love song to myself, and an offering to the audience that we all be a little gentler with ourselves in our painful moments. I played with assurance and forgave the imperfections. Afterwards I felt enormous pride that I’d had the courage to be so kind to myself.

Respecting Your Vulnerability

I learned from these experiences that our vulnerability is indeed our greatest gift to our audience, but that because it is so precious, we need to develop great skill in handling it. If you value your vulnerability as an artist and person and are curious about how to work with it in a healthy way, here are some ideas:

1. Start by asking yourself how you feel about the idea of being vulnerable. Be honest about what you have to lose or gain from letting your guard down.

2. Experiment with feeling vulnerable in your practicing. Feel your desire to honor and embody the music, coupled with the inherent uncertainty of how it will all come out. Notice if anything in your body or mind shifts, and how it affects your playing.

3. If you feel ready, experiment lightly with feeling that vulnerability in rehearsal or performance, even for a few moments.

4. Seek out friends or colleagues who you can open up to, and share your experience with them.

5. If you’re feeling so raw and exposed that it’s impairing your ability to function as an artist, allow yourself to back away from your feelings until you feel safe again. Your artistry is important, but nothing is more important than your safety and well-being.

6. Regardless of where you are in the process of opening up to your true feelings, appreciate yourself for having them, and for having the courage to share yourself with your audience. Know that we all learn by trial and error how to be skillful with our vulnerability, and that simply burying it will not help you develop the artistic and human abilities you need for communicating powerfully with others.

7. Share and celebrate your discoveries and successes on your journey with people you know and trust. Be receptive to their encouragement and understanding.

At our post-concert party that night one of the participants gave each of us a precious homemade gift of a hand-painted Ukrainian Easter egg. One egg stood out to me: a deep blue background overlaid with chains of red and white hearts. Blooming out of the hearts were delicate red flowers, their faces opened to the sky.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 4.19.53 PMThis delicate and beautiful work of art reminded me that all of us have been blessed with a delicate and beautiful gift for appreciating the joy and sorrow of life, and that it is this gift that defines us as artists and as human beings. Here is my humble advice: treat your gift as you would treat that egg. Share it with others who can admire its heartrending beauty and the simple goodness underneath, but keep it safe.

And know above all that it belongs to you.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

When I was in my 20s I had a little stage fright, but I thought it would get better as I gained more performing experience. Now, 20 years later, my stage fright has gotten so bad that I sometimes take beta blockers before performing. Why would it get worse instead of better? And what advice do you have?

I’ve talked to other performers who have had the same experience.

Although not everyone experiences what you describe, it’s important to understand that the fear of performing goes very deep. As deep as the human heart. In my experience, and from what others tell me, when we’re really growing as people, we become more aware of our feelings, including our fears, the older we get. Also, as your career develops, you may feel you have more at stake, which could make your fear increase.

When fear or other feelings surface in a strong way, it’s an opportunity to address them as we haven’t before. It may not be fun, but as you work your way through your feelings, you can become stronger and feel less overwhelmed by them.

When we’re young we can’t know what it will be like to be older. I often think of how I really have no idea how my life will be even a year from now. So 20 years is a very long time.

You know, we typically start studying an instrument at a young age, and all we know is that we love it, that it brings us joy, or that it provides a special space where we can express our feelings. Then we find out how much work it takes to really play well, to master the instrument and really know music. And then we find out what performing is like—whether it’s exhilarating or terrifying or a combination of the two. We just can’t know all of these things ahead of time. We can’t see our future clearly.

Because the desire to perform comes from a very deep place in ourselves, becoming comfortable with it requires that we get to know ourselves as well as we can. We can spend our whole life getting to know who we are in greater depth. And life changes us in unpredictable ways. So it’s important for a performer to have at least one wise person they can talk to—whether it’s a teacher, a therapist, or a friend or relative. So many of the issues around performing go back to our childhoods, and it an be like an archeological dig to get to the root of certain fears and other feelings, so that we can rise above our fears and attain true confidence.

The good news is that you don’t have to stop performing to continue on your inner journey. In fact, each performance provides valuable feedback on how you’re doing. No one has it 100% together. We’re all learning all the time.

If you haven’t seen my article On Taking Drugs for Stage Fright, it would be good to read it now. I’ve seen many performers go off of beta blockers, but it’s something you have to be ready to work toward. When people are ready, and they have the right guidance and support, they can triumph over stage fright and transform it into fearlessness.

Also, I strongly encourage you to check out the API Live Online Workshops. We work with these issues a lot in these sessions using practical mental and musical techniques. It’s helped everyone so much. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about these workshops.

Madeline Bruser

Submit a question for possible inclusion in a future issue of Fearless Performing e-zine

Balancing Masculine and Feminine Approaches to Confidence

By Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published February 25, 2014.)

Psychologists have recently been studying what makes high-level musicians excel and have discovered that it has something to do with “mindful” or “deliberate” practicing for just a few hours a day, as opposed to many hours of “mindless” practicing on autopilot. They’ve written about the laser-like attention required to analyze the exact problems in a phrase or passage, and they recommend using practice time to focus intently on solving such problems, rather than repeating a passage over and over without a clear understanding of the issues involved.

Certainly, as a teacher, I know that the ability to precisely pinpoint a technical or musical issue is essential for productive practicing. In fact, the more I teach, the more detailed and exact my instructions become. Technical mastery of your instrument and a comprehensive understanding of the score are essential to confidence in performance.

But there is another side to effective practicing. In addition to sharp mental acuity and deliberateness, we also need great softness and relaxation—a heart to go with the intellect. Without such softness and relaxation, we can lose touch with our humanity. We can get so hung up on perfecting and controlling every move and sound we make that we bury the very essence of our talent—our deep receptivity to music and our love for it.

We could view these two complementary qualities—sharpness and softness—as the masculine and feminine parts of our musical nature. Music itself is constantly expressing these two fundamental types of energy. It continually mixes the elements of rhythmic and lyric, forceful and tender, driving and spacious, explosive and yielding. And it is the artful combination of these two basic aspects of music that gives it its dynamism and power.

Connecting Mind and Heart

I was delighted to read that “mindful” practicing has been recognized as effective and important. My book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, published in 1997, predates the current widespread interest in mindfulness in our society and is filled with mindfulness and awareness techniques for musicians. I have also written a number of articles about mindfulness for musicians, including a chapter called “Making Music” in The Mindfulness Revolution, published in 2011, and I teach a summer program, as well as workshops at schools, called Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance. I am very much a part of the mindfulness movement.

But I advise musicians and others not to think of mindfulness as a heavy-handed tool for solving problems or a scalpel for performing surgery on tough musical passages. The word “mindfulness” essentially means an awareness of both the details and the atmosphere of present-moment reality. Properly understood and practiced, it is very much about opening the heart as well as sharpening the mind. It is a discipline that includes both precision and gentleness, and it cultivates these complementary qualities that are natural in us as human beings.

What We Really Want

Traditionally in Asia, where mindfulness disciplines originated, when a person speaks about the mind, they point to their heart. Yet in today’s frequent, enthusiastic discussions about mindfulness, people talk mostly about its beneficial effects on the brain. That is the organ that we Westerners usually associate with the word “mind.” Nevertheless, neuroscientists are increasingly referring to the effects of mindfulness training on the core of what makes us truly human: our ability to empathize with others and to participate in life with warmth and compassion.

These are obviously the qualities that most contribute to a deeply engaging and meaningful musical performance. When we attend a concert, we want to be moved by music, to feel our heart, our aliveness—to connect to the performer, the composer, and our fellow audience members on a visceral level. Every time we buy a ticket to a performance we are hoping for at least a moment of this powerful experience of our shared humanity. And when it happens, we may tell others about it for years afterward. (“Did you hear his Mozart G major at Avery Fisher Hall?!” I recently enthused to a fellow musician, referring to a particularly memorable performance of that concerto by pianist Peter Serkin.)

How to Get There

This kind of music making starts with clearing your mind and opening your heart in the practice room. Rather than setting a primary goal of “nailing” the performance, make it your aim to bring all of yourself to the work you are doing—including not only strong mental focus but tremendous openness and relaxation. The more you can relax and let go of unnecessary mental and physical tension, the freer your mind and body will actually be to operate optimally, and the better you will be able to listen to the music and to your own ideas and feelings.

This is easier said than done, because we have so many habits of straining and struggling, and so many things to be mindful of when we’re practicing: notes, sounds, body movements and sensations, phrasing, musical architecture, and stylistic traditions. The key to mindful practicing is to be aware not only of these technical and musical demands, but also of the accumulation of mental and physical tension that gets in the way of fully expressing ourselves and of transmitting the depth of the composer’s intentions.

For now, I’d like to offer you three simple but far-reaching approaches to clearing your mind and opening your heart in the practice room.

One: Tune In to Expressive Impulses

I recently coached a string player who was having intonation problems. Although I often work with intonation issues by having the player focus on the harmonic implications in a line, I sensed in this case that the main issue was that she was not letting go and freely expressing herself. She had been working so much as an orchestral player that she had forgotten how to be free—how to play from the heart and not worry about following a conductor’s stick. As soon as she began allowing her natural impulses to come out, her intonation improved dramatically. Her body was free to move, and she became naturally precise.

Similar experiences happen to us in everyday life. We may often feel tense or bottled up, but when we are with someone who appreciates who we really are, our heart opens, and the full range of our natural intelligence and emotional colors emerges.

The next time you find yourself struggling for accuracy or perfect phrasing, consider the possibility that you are inhibiting your natural musical impulses. Without worrying that your playing will be too slow, or too wild and unacceptable by the standards of the musical tradition, just notice how you feel inside about the music and how your energy wants to move through you. The result may feel a little out of control and may sound a little crazy, but it may also be so full of life that if you keep working with it and gradually tuning in to your desire for a satisfying sound, elegant lines, or rich harmonic inflections, your body may gradually find a natural freedom and precision.

Two: Relax with Doubts, Fears, and Confusion

Our state of mind creates so many of our problems in life, including in our practicing. Sometimes we feel at ease and do good work, and sometimes we feel anxious and tense and our work suffers along with us. Real mindfulness in practicing has to include the totality of what we’re doing. We can’t ignore our mental and emotional discomfort; we actually have to work with it, process it, and transform our state of mind on the spot while practicing.

To encourage expressive freedom, we need to recognize and let go of perfectionism and tension in practicing and to relax with both our psychological and our musical experience—including the pain of not yet solving a problem, the longing to be free, and the doubt we feel about our ability, as well as the achingly beautiful sounds that a great genius has given us and the pleasure of moving our body as we make those sounds.

As with the previous suggestion of tuning into expressive impulses, we need to first recognize that we are struggling, and then let go of the struggle. In this case, the approach is to take a moment to relax with the the painful feelings and let them permeate your system. It may hurt a little, but if you take just a moment longer and extend sympathy to yourself, the pain may begin to dissolve. It’s similar to how a good friend can sometimes help you feel better when you’re stressed out, just through their kind and sympathetic presence. Once the pain has dissolved and you’re in a more relaxed state, you can take a fresh start.

Sometimes, however, if the pain doesn’t dissolve so quickly–if you feel really heartbroken–you can just let that feeling pour into the music. Like the string player named David that I wrote about in an ian earlier article, some musicians give their most powerful performances when their heart just breaks open.

When you work in this more open and human way, you are not only practicing notes and phrases, but you are also cultivating an open heart. You are practicing being an artist.

Three: Clear Your Mind Before You Practice

This last approach can be the most helpful of all, because it trains your mind to continually recognize when you are tense or confused, in any situation, and to come back to a state of natural ease. It is so effective in increasing focus and creativity that major corporations—including Google, Facebook, and eBay—are now making it a part of the daily schedules of their employees. This is the simple practice of mindfulness meditation, which is now practiced by 20 million Americans.

Scientific American magazine, in an article called “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” cites meditation and nature walks, along with naps and a full night’s sleep, as valuable parts of the lives of exceptional artists and athletes. When you consider that scientists have recognized that practicing music is the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in, it logically follows that regularly giving your mind a break is a powerful key to high-quality practicing. In the break that meditation provides, your mind has time to process some of the overload of information that has been hitting it all day so that you can unwind and really use your mind effectively.

In contrast to the frenzied, 24/7 approach that many musicians take with practicing, research reveals that top performers are markedly more relaxed than “average” performers. They typically get an hour more of sleep every night, and they also balance work time with leisure time, rather than practicing a lot throughout the entire day. This kind of balance allows the brain, and the whole person, to recharge and be ready for focused, insightful, and enjoyable work. As you probably know from your own experiences with taking vacations, when your mind is refreshed it can analyze technical and musical problems more efficiently and come up with effective solutions more easily. A session of mindfulness meditation is like a mini-vacation from stress and tension.

Natural Mindfulness

You will find basic mindfulness instructions in my article Creating Space for Music to Flow, as well as in Chapter Four of The Art of Practicing. The main thing to remember is to go easy with it. Our minds can be like children—wild and chaotic, and needing gentle discipline. If we treat our mind harshly, judging it for wandering and being confused, we may succeed in “whipping it into shape” somewhat, but we will also inhibit its natural brilliance. It’s better to accept its chaotic aspects and to gradually encourage it to settle down and become clearer and stronger. This is mindfulness with heart.

In healthy mindfulness practice, you relax with your mind as it is, letting yourself be human, so that your human beauty and natural playfulness and coordination can come out. By slowing down and attuning yourself little by little to the movements and sounds you make, letting yourself enjoy them, and not worrying about doing it right or getting a particular result, you encourage your body to gradually relax into its natural coordination and precision. You also encourage your heart to open further and further to the music you love.

Why It Works

The reason that this more balanced and human practice of mindfulness leads to confidence in performance is that instead of struggling for results, you are simply returning over and over to what is naturally always within you. Emotional sensitivity, joy in movement, and keen appreciation of details are all part of your innate makeup. Mindfulness simply trains you to tune into these abilities. It introduces you to yourself so that you discover who you really are.

As you gradually uncover your natural musical precision and warmth, your confidence gradually grows stronger until it eventually become unshakeable. You may still feel scared to walk onstage, but as you are walking you will know, from the inside out, that the abilities you carry with you are real.

An Invitation

If you are ready to break through to a new level of confidence in performance, I invite you to apply to the API Online Video Groups. These 90-minute sessions take place live with musicians all over the world twice each month, and each session includes mindfulness practices, group discussion, and a 45-minute music workshop session with me for one of the participants. They are designed to guide you in the gentle, precise discipline of mindfulness, through practices with and without your instrument. You will learn about how to let your mind settle and become clearer, stronger, and more flexible, and to experience how that transforms your practicing. You will also benefit from the feedback of our faculty members, and from the supportive company of other participants.

If you’re considering joining us and aren’t sure if it’s right for you, please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.

Everything you do with music depends on how you choose to spend your time and energy. Mindfulness maximizes both, and I hope you will consider trying this gentle but powerful discipline. It can make all the difference.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser


Q & A of the Month

I recently left my flute teacher because I wanted to try a new approach. I was progressing well, but I wanted a change. Although I’m really enjoying working with the new teacher, I’m feeling again like something is missing, but I’m not sure what. Do you have any advice?

It depends on where you are in your development. If you are already very accomplished, you undoubtedly have a lot of your own ideas already, so maybe neither of these teachers  is able to satisfy your curiosity. If you are less developed, maybe neither teacher offers enough of what you need right now.

No teacher knows everything. You can learn a lot from many different people. But a teacher’s main job is to tune in to your needs and abilities as much as they can, and to leave you a lot of space to follow your own interests. It’s a relationship, with the balance constantly shifting between easily following the teacher’s suggestions at times and challenging their suggestions at other times, so that the teacher really gets to know you and can improvise on their basic approach as they work with you, and can learn from you as well.

Some students are afraid to speak up at lessons if they have their own ideas or they doubt the teacher’s methods. They’d rather just go along with things for a while, and then they might leave that teacher and try someone else without understanding quite what is motivating them. In that regard, the teacher-student relationship is somewhat like any other important relationship—between close friends or spouses. There are always going to be times when you don’t feel 100 percent at home with the person. Then you have to be honest with yourself and decide what to say to them about it or what to do next.

It comes down to really asking yourself what you want. Have you really learned what you wanted to learn from the first teacher? Or did you switch to another one because you weren’t that clear on what you wanted? Maybe you won’t know the answer to that question until you’ve spent more time with the new teacher.

I myself studied with several different teachers, and each one of them gave me something valuable—though some more than others. Ultimately, you have to become your own teacher, and the experience of working with a variety of teachers and approaches can be the biggest lesson of all.

At the same time, certain teachers are master teachers. If you find someone like that, it might well be best to stick with that person for quite a while.

Taking some time to quietly reflect on your experience and your aspirations is very important. Talking to wise friends can be very helpful. There is a lot to learn from this situation—about yourself and about what it means to study music.

You are welcome to set up a free consultation with me, in person or online, to discuss everything further.

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

When You Judge Your Self-Worth by How You Perform

by Madeline Bruser

When I was 27, I traveled from California to Warsaw to play in the International Chopin Competition. Although I didn’t get past the first round, I played pretty well and learned important things about myself and my performing. It was also my first trip to Europe, and I met some great people and had many wonderful experiences. After leaving Warsaw, I spent five exciting days in London. It was a memorable two weeks.

But when I got back home and visited my parents for dinner, they didn’t ask about my trip. After sitting there in shock for a while, I finally asked them why, and my mother said, “We know it must have been a painful experience for you, and we didn’t want to make you talk about it.” It was as though the only thing they could imagine that would matter to me was if I had won a prize—if I had received external validation as a pianist and could use that to advance my career. I tried to tell them that I’d actually had a great time and benefitted from the experience, but they seemed unable to hear it. I felt sad and disappointed that I couldn’t share my experience with them.

My parents meant well, and they had invested a lot, both emotionally and financially, in my musical education since I was five years old. They knew I’d worked hard, and they wanted me to be happy and successful. But they didn’t realize that they had given me something more important than my musical education: a basic belief in the value of my own heart and mind, regardless of whether society recognizes who I am.

Our Achievement-Oriented Culture

We live in an achievement-oriented culture, and like most of us, my parents were caught in it. In addition to overestimating my abilities, they didn’t see that they, and my teachers, had already ignited in me a sense of internal recognition of who I was as a musician. My confidence was not shattered when I didn’t place in the competition. Rather, the experience gave me a clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses, which eventually led me to see that my particular path in the world did not fit the mold of the international star performer—not only because of how any judges or audiences reacted, but because of my own sense of not quite belonging in that place in the world.

Breaking Through

It was also part of a series of audition experiences that led me to seek greater wisdom and training, through mindfulness meditation, which resulted in a major breakthrough in my playing and teaching, and in my writing a book that has helped many musicians. Back then, neither my parents nor I could have imagined this wonderful fruition in my career.

Focusing Inward

We each have our own story, and I know from experience that winning a competition can feel great. Feedback from the world can mean a lot to us and can to guide us on our journey. But we also need a flame of inner wisdom to help light the way—to help us understand exactly how to interpret the feedback we get, and what to do about it.

Whether you are cut out for a major performing career or a less visible one, if you have felt continually frustrated in pursuing it, it can be helpful to look deeply into the root causes of the roadblocks you’re encountering. On the surface, you might see a hopeless picture for yourself. But there is always a deeper level of wisdom that you can gain about how your life is unfolding and how you can improve your situation.

Such wisdom may come from exploring technique and musicianship with a new teacher, or from exploring the territory of your own mind. These days there are many approaches to understanding and strengthening the mind, and pursuits like psychotherapy and meditation can be utterly transformative.

So much depends on how you habitually perceive yourself, your playing, and your possibilities, and on whether or not you can open your perceptions to include greater possibilities. Regardless of the fact that the world may not provide many opportunities to perform, it is up to you to create a fulfilling life and career.

The Roots of Our Confusion

Success as a musician comes from putting together so many things—including excellent  technique and musicianship and authentic confidence onstage, as well as an understanding of the nuts and bolts of crafting a career or running a business. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the psychological causes of failure and success.

Something happens to us growing up in this achievement-oriented culture that skews our idea of what personal and career fulfillment are about. Instead of focusing on gaining more confidence and insight through all of our experiences and on growing as an artist and person, we think things like, “If only I could win a major competition, I’d have plenty of concerts and could relax.” Or, “If I could just land a well-paying orchestra job, I could stop worrying about making a living.” Or, “If I could get onto the faculty of a good music school, I’d have the kind of students I want and could eventually get tenure.”

Goals like these can be inspiring. But in aiming for such outward success, we may fail to see a larger picture. We may not realize that the pressure and seduction of all those concert dates might adversely affect our playing or our personal life. Or that the orchestral job might end up draining our energy when a new conductor takes over and we aren’t happy playing his way. Or that politics and budget problems at the music school might become difficult and threaten our position there.

Performance-Based Self-Esteem in the Family

The roots of our confusion often go back to our childhoods. Many talented musicians grow up receiving a lot of attention for being gifted but not for being who they are as people. When parents and teachers focus narrowly on a child’s talent, they can become blind to the child’s need for human understanding and for unconditional love—a love that accommodates both their successes and their failures, their strengths and their weaknesses, their shining stage presence and their doubts and fears.

We often forget that although talented people may have extraordinary abilities, they are ordinary human beings like everyone else: They’re vulnerable. They need love, support, compassion, and wisdom to develop the courage to express themselves in the world.

Generally, we understand that ignoring a child’s talent and her longing for music lessons can damage her confidence and her chances for success. But making too big a deal out of a child’s talent can also have unfortunate consequences. Many highly accomplished musicians did not receive enough love and understanding early in life, and as a result are somewhat lost in their personal lives. I have seen some of them eventually find more of a balance between personal and professional satisfaction, and when they do, their increased joy and freedom come through in their playing, which then garners more positive reactions from their audiences.

We may easily ascribe such an improvement to artistic maturity. But we may forget that the artist in us is fed not only by a deeper knowledge of the score but also by a deeper knowledge of ourselves. As we grow inside, our ability to connect with a composer’s heart and mind also grows.

What Happens If You Cut Yourself Down

Often when a musician grows up in an achievement-oriented family and culture, they view every performance they give as an indicator of their self-worth. If they play up to their own highest standards, they feel great about themselves. If they don’t, they become depressed. “You’re only as good as your last performance,” the saying goes.

They can’t even celebrate a great success onstage for more than a short time before they start worrying about measuring up the next time.

The famous actor Rex Harrison was once asked how many times in his decades-long career he was totally happy with a performance. He immediately replied, “Seventeen.” He had kept track of those stellar moments that he felt most proud of, and he had counted only 17 times—out of the thousands of times he’d been onstage—as his best acting. That is a very small percentage. And I imagine that most fine performers might come up with a similar percentage. No one can be beyond-belief phenomenal very many times. And yet so many of us tend to berate ourselves 99.9 percent of the time for whatever faults we find in our performances.

I remember doing this when I was 25. I had played a duo recital with a wonderful cellist in Berkeley, and it was recorded for radio broadcast. When I heard the tape a few days later, all I could focus on was the five mistakes I heard in my playing. My joy over the concert diminished immediately. But a week or so later, I listened to the tape again and was surprised to discover that I was really happy with my performance. It was warm, expressive, and refined. Whew! Now I could think better of myself. I could be happy again. Clearly, both times I listened to the tape, I was caught in judging my own worth by how well I thought I’d performed.

Self-Worth Is Our Birthright

When we nitpick and suffer like this over our faults, we are unaware of a fundamental fact about our worthiness as human beings: We are worthy to be on this planet simply because we are on it. Nothing we do—no matter how great or how terrible it may be—can alter this fundamental worthiness that we always have. When we forget that we’re worthy—or if we’ve never received the message in the first place—we work against ourselves: Every small mistake makes us shrink and hide. We lose heart, and our life force weakens. Our playing thus becomes less vibrant, so our career possibilities diminish. We create a downward spiral and head toward failure.

The Real Top Prize

It’s great to be ambitious and to have high standards and big goals. But we need to think more about the most important goal: a deeply rewarding life in which we fulfill our true musical and personal potential. If, instead of getting caught in self-denigration every time you meet with an imperfection or failing in your musical endeavors, you choose to learn and grow from your experience, you will create an upward spiral in your playing and career.

How can you do this?

You can start by finding the courage to face painful feelings of embarrassment or shame about things you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Letting yourself fully feel the pain can help it dissolve, and you can come through feeling good about yourself for bravely facing negative emotions and for freeing yourself from them. This can be a truly empowering experience that can add to your confidence as a person and performer.

If you feel you can’t accomplish this kind of inner work on your own, I encourage you to seek support from a trusted friend, coach, or therapist. Life is too short to be spent mired in negativity. We owe it to ourselves to move forward through difficult experiences so we can fulfill our gifts and give them to others. It is always well worth the effort.

As you gain more strength and vitality from working through negative feelings or beliefs about yourself, that new positive energy will come through in your playing and bring you closer to the success you want and deserve.

But What If the World Really Doesn’t See?

It’s true that many wonderful artists, including musicians, just don’t get much recognition for who they are. Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest painters in history, sold only one painting in his lifetime. The magnificent paintings of Vermeer were forgotten for two hundred years after he died, until people recognized their greatness again. And, like that of many other great composers, Beethoven’s music often met with extreme negative reactions from critics, such as the one who said he was “deficient in esthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty.”

It takes a very courageous and confident person indeed to be self-possessed in the face of such blindness or deafness from others

Determination and Openness

How do you know whether your career frustrations are due to your own failings or to the world’s failure to see your excellence? Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it takes great persistence and intelligence to stay with what you’re doing and to question it from many angles.

Research has shown that the single most important factor in success is determination. And very few of the world’s most successful people have made it to the top without going through painful lessons and serious soul-searching. We each have to make sense of our own life, follow our own intuition, and find the help we need from others to navigate the twisting road to genuine success. We have to read the road signs, keep our highest ideals in mind, and not give up when we feel lost or when the going gets rough.

Part of determination is a willingness to continually look deeper for the causes of our frustration—to ask ourselves hard questions about what we truly want, to get advice from those who have already traveled a tough road and succeeded, and to be as open-minded as we can in looking at possible missing pieces in the puzzle of our particular situation.

Some Key Questions

This is a very tall order. For now, here are a few questions to help illuminate your path:

  1. What are your particular gifts or strengths?
  2. How sure are you that your technique is as efficient and reliable as it could be?
  3. How much faith do you have in your ability to make sense out of complicated pieces of music and to play them with conviction?
  4. Do you have a deep confidence in your communicative power as a musician and person that gives you the courage you need to perform under pressure without taking a pill?
  5. If you want to improve in any of the above areas, do you have the support and help you need?
  6. If not, are you willing to look for it, and do you know where to look?

These are big questions, and they may require a lot of thought and bring up many emotions and further questions. But I hope that in formulating your answers you will gain insight into yourself and your musical journey that can lead you away from self-judgment and toward a more courageous and fulfilling musical life

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are ready to really go forward with what  you want as a musician, I invite you to attend the Art of Practicing Insitute’s upcoming summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians, from July 22 to 29. We have room for one more performing participant, and there is also room for non-performing participants, who can opt to work with one of the teachers-in-training. This program provides amazing practical tools for taking your playing to a new level, in the company of a fantastic community of supportive, non-judgmental musicians. Not sure if it’s right for you? Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Q & A of the Month

I’m a conservatory student, and I’m not expecting to make much of a living performing. I know I’ll have to make most of my income from teaching, but I don’t want to just teach little kids. Do you have any advice for how to become successful teaching interesting adults who have some real ability?

The best I can do is to describe my own experience. I taught my first student when I was 19, and at a certain point in my 20’s I realized that since teaching was my main source of income, I needed to learn to enjoy it as much as I could.

First of all, I recommend that you choose a place to live that you feel happy in. I had a few teenage piano students while I was studying at Juilliard, but I officially opened my teaching studio in Berkeley, California, where I’d always wanted to live. I liked the atmosphere of the university community, with intelligent people and interesting activities, and I’d always loved the physical beauty of the place. It was a great choice, because I also had a lot of performing opportunities there. And many of my students were university students, who were quite wonderful.

By making friends with other teachers who referred students to me, advertising on university bulletin boards, and becoming somewhat known as a performer, I was able to attract a variety of fine students. Also, however, since I’m a relaxed and person who genuinely likes people, teaching has always been a natural fit for me.

The real turning point came in my late 20s, when two things happened that really woke me up to the great possibilities for fulfillment that teaching offers. One of these things was reading Freedom to Learn, by Carl Rogers. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in teaching any subject. Until reading it, I had no idea that every student already comes in with so much wisdom of their own, and that if you talk less and listen more, to their ideas and interests, the whole learning experience becomes creative and exciting. I feel incredibly lucky to be a teacher.

The second thing that revolutionized my teaching experience was discovering mindfulness meditation. Practicing became a shockingly rich and powerful experience, which opened up both my playing and my teaching into a whole new world of musical possibilities. It’s tremendously gratifying to see how beautifully people can really play.

When I moved back to New York at 30, I brought those two new aspects of my teaching with me, and things developed organically, as they continue to do. Giving seminars on the Art of Practicing, and later writing the book, became the beginning of a whole new level of teaching activity.

You have to trust that your particular interests will lead you to the kind of teaching career that suits you. The most important thing is to go as deeply as you can into your musical devotion, and to put artistry and humanness above any commercial focus. Then you will bring something of true value to students, and they will recognize it and want to excel.

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

Nourishing the Roots of Genuine Success

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published April 25, 2014.)

I prepared my Juilliard audition with a family friend in California named Elise Belenky who had studied in Paris long ago with the great pianist Alfred Cortot. For 10 days, I lived in Mrs. Belenky’s house and practiced, and she gave me three lessons a day. At the end of the 10 days, before my parents came to drive me to the airport to fly to New York for the audition, Mrs. Belenky gave me a memorable piece of advice: “When you go to the audition,” she said, “if anyone asks if you’re nervous, say ‘no.’”

On the afternoon of my audition, as I was waiting my turn in the hall, another pianist looked at me and asked, “Are you nervous?” “No,” I said calmly. I went in, played the pieces I’d prepared, and within a few days received the news that I’d been awarded a scholarship to attend the school.

Was I nervous for that audition? Of course I was—because it mattered, and because I’d worked hard. But Mrs. Belenky’s advice was an important lesson in self-respect: precisely because I was vulnerable, I needed to protect that vulnerability with clear boundaries, and to talk about it only with people I knew and trusted. Then I could stay focused on what I had to do: I could channel my vulnerability into the music I loved.

Music Frees Us to Open Up

Sharing our vulnerability through music may feel just as scary as revealing it to a stranger in conversation. But there is a difference: regardless of how competitive or judgmental our listeners might be, we know that music has the power to connect one human heart to another. We know that if we are brave enough to expose our vulnerable heart in a performance, we can succeed with that performance—we can touch our audience.

The Need for a Home

In order to develop such bravery, we need true friends and supporters. We need a place where we feel safe and can receive warmth and encouragement to believe in the power and importance of our vulnerability. A place where we can feel at home.

For some lucky people, that safe, warm place is the home they grew up in, with nurturing parents who loved and appreciated them. Others may travel a long path, through dark and difficult times, to eventually find that deeply needed experience of being at home with themselves and others. And for many of us, the search for home takes us through a series of teachers, friends, and environments that each bring us closer to feeling at home in the world.

When I actually began school at Juilliard, I was lucky to find good friends with whom I could relax and be myself, and share my abundant 19-year-old feelings about music and life. Those friendships carried me through all the competitiveness and self-doubt that I also experienced at school. Each friend was a haven and a joy—someone I could laugh with, let go with, and trust with my passionate, confused, and tender heart. We were all in the same boat, and it was a good ride.

But after I left school, I had more growing to do. And 44 years later, I am still growing. I’ve learned in all this time that the search for home is really a search within ourselves, through thickets and brambles of thorny messages and habitual behaviors that we can gradually cut through, until the heart in the middle of us gets used to being more visible and palpable. We say, “Home is where the heart is.” But it is equally true that the heart is our home. It is our heart that connects us to everything in our life.

Living our life from our heart—personally, artistically, and professionally—and staying true to our heart, even if others don’t understand what we’re doing, is at the core of what I consider genuine success.

Changing Views of Success

When I was in my 20s, I thought success meant touring the world as a concert pianist and having a manager. Success was something “out there,” someplace to get to by fitting myself into some kind of slot that I thought the world had in it. If I could just get my playing to a certain level, I would fit into the slot labeled “Touring Concert Artist,” and my life would be all set.

What I didn’t realize in my 20s is that life doesn’t work that way. Life is what we’re made of, and we’re made to grow from what we start out with. An audition, a school, a concert circuit, a recording contract—all of those are simply external phenomena that have meaning only because of how we relate to them. And this relating has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves—with whether we feel confident or not, happy or not, or like we belong or not with those external things. There is no school that offers a degree in confidence, happiness, or a sense of belonging. And yet these are the signs of true success. They grow from the inside, and are nurtured by the people and experiences we are lucky enough to find as we pursue whatever elusive external goals come into view.

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of books, articles, and Facebook posts on the subject of success. Many people in our culture seem to be disillusioned with previous notions of success and are trying to redefine it. We’ve become less interested in climbing a professional ladder into a predefined future, and more interested in looking within ourselves and nurturing ourselves so that we can grow into who we’re actually meant to be. Success for many of us today seems to be about tuning in to our deep wishes and finding a way to make them come true.

Coming Home to Ourselves

Many music schools now offer courses that reflect musicians’ growing interest in getting to the roots of successful performance. Students sometimes study the Alexander Technique, performance enhancement, or injury prevention—all of which increase their awareness of how their minds and bodies work best. It is my conviction that as these subjects of mind and body awareness are taught in greater depth, musicians will gradually learn to feel more at home in their own minds and bodies, and thus more at home onstage and in their lives.

In becoming more aware of how we feel, what we think, and what we perceive, we are getting to know who we are. And the more we do that, the closer we get to becoming the mature musician and person we are meant to be.

Our Need to Receive

Each person’s journey toward maturity is unique, and no one can find their way simply by following the same route as someone else. What does help is a lot of encouragement from others.

Think of a moment when someone responded to how you played or sang with an encouraging comment, or even a look, that went straight to your heart. This is the crucial experience of being seen and heard for who you are. It can make all the difference at certain times in your life.

In contrast, if no one ever appreciates how we play, how can we believe in our future as a musician? At the very least, we have to be able to imagine that one day, someone will show appreciation for what we offer—that someone will give us some warmth in return.

Knowing that we need and deserve such appreciation is at the root of genuine success. Every time we do anything to nourish ourselves and to honor our musical aliveness–studying with a good teacher, seeking support from a friend, or playing or listening to music we love—we are feeding and strengthening our life force. Even sitting alone and thinking about our love for music and for life opens us up to the joy that is always accessible underneath whatever worries, confusion, or self-doubt that we might have.

Each of us can be likened to a plant—full of life and responding naturally to water and sunlight, kindness and care. If we stay open to such beneficial elements and influences, we can’t help but grow. Most of the time this growth may happen so slowly and gradually that it isn’t visible on the outside. But nonetheless, if we tune in to our own energy, we can feel life flowing through us. We can feel our energy expanding as it receives attention from ourselves and others. And the more we let ourselves soak up the waters of kindness, joy, and appreciation, the more these beneficial qualities keep coming in and nourishing our system.

When We Forget to Open and Connect

In today’s computerized world, it’s easy to forget our need for such nourishment. American society in particular has long been dominated by a strong work ethic, in which the healthy, life-giving energies of sensuality, sexuality, and creativity have been repressed in the service of accomplishing, achieving, and measuring up to someone else’s standards of how we should look, feel, think, or behave. We are lured now more than ever by the images we see in print and online, and we make less and less time for face-to-face interaction with people we love and enjoy. We listen more and more to recordings, and watch videos, of performances, rather than participating as audience members at live concerts.

As magical and wonderful as our computers may be, our deepest need—for human connection—gets buried in our frenzy of clicking on links to this or that piece of information, or to endless streams of electronic sounds and imagery. We increasingly isolate ourselves from actual human contact that could nourish us on a deep, essential level.

Some Suggestions for Reconnecting

Swimming upstream in this disconnected culture takes motivation, but more and more people are doing it, and the tide has begun to turn. You can create a rich, rewarding, and successful musical life for yourself.

Here are some ideas for increasing your connection to yourself, to music, and to others. 

  1. Do something by yourself every day to deliberately slow down, such as taking a couple of deep breaths, meditating, or walking away from your work and just looking out the window.
  2. When you practice your instrument, luxuriate in each single sound in playing a phrase.
  3. When you talk to a friend, listen inside yourself for how you’re feeling, and also try to sense how they’re feeling.
  4. Spend time in nature—or at least look at pictures of it (ideally, not on a screen).
  5. Pet a dog or cat. Watch them sleep. Look into their eyes.
  6. Find a concert to go to that really interests you. Take a friend, or go alone. If you find yourself having judgmental thoughts, let them go and look for something you can appreciate about the music or the performance.
  7. Stop in the middle of an activity one or more times a day, and notice how you feel, just being alive in that moment.
  8. Take a moment every day to reflect on the wisdom and joy you have received from others.
  9. Read an inspiring book or poem.
  10. If you feel good about a performance you give, or even part of it, celebrate it. If you wish you’d played better, take time to feel that—and talk to a trusted friend or teacher about it to learn how you might be able to play better next time.
  11. Stay off the Internet for 24 hours once a week.
  12. Take a moment to appreciate your own bravery in facing or completing a challenging activity.
  13. Write down your feelings about these things as a way of connecting more consciously to yourself.

Above all, be a true friend to yourself and listen over and over to what your heart is asking of you and to what it wants from others. Do your best to give it what it longs for.

What About Worldly Success?

Does all this meaningful connection have a bearing on worldly success? I can speak best from my own experience.

I have always followed my heart in my musical career, and each step I’ve taken has led to further success–albeit, with many ups and downs. I chose repertoire I wanted to play, and I studied with teachers I wanted to work with. I played chamber music with people I clicked with, and I pursued meditation to help me feel more relaxed and confident onstage. I gave seminars and wrote a book because I wanted to share what I’d learned with other musicians.

As a result, I feel extremely lucky to make my living teaching the way I do and seeing my students become happier people and more wonderful—and more successful—performers and teachers themselves. And I’ve met many other wonderful musician colleagues along the way. The whole journey has been a process of growth and enrichment, and it still continues. So whether I look back, or forward, or I’m just focused on this moment, writing this article right now, it all feels joyful and successful.

It’s not that I never feel stress. I definitely do, often. And it’s not that I haven’t had setbacks or low periods. I definitely have. But I’ve been able to use the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’ve been lucky enough to find support and encouragement from many people. This is why I’m encouraging you to do the same.

I believe you can do it too.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to receive the most fantastic nourishment I know of for your genuine musical success, I invite you to attend The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. Some wonderful people are coming, and we still have two spots open for performing participants, and spots for non-performing participants too. I’d love to see you there.

Q & A of the Month

I have a really busy schedule, between going to school and teaching a few piano students, and I don’t have as much time to practice as I want. I get frustrated trying to do everything I want with a piece in the limited time I have. Do you have any suggestions?

The most important thing about practicing is your state of mind. Even if you have only a short time to work on a particular piece, spend the first few minutes of the session clearing your mind and tuning in to your heart. Basic mindfulness practice is extremely helpful, and you can read about it in my article titled Creating Space for Music to Flow. This technique is also described in Chapter 4 of The Art of Practicing. And Chapter 5 describes how you can tune into your heart.

Another mental practice that would be great for you is to take a minute before you practice, and whenever you start to feel frustrated mid-session, to simply remind yourself how great it is that you care so much and that you want more time. Extending warmth to yourself that way can open you up to the music more and help dissolve some of the tension you may be feeling in being so frustrated.

You may also find times during your day when you can’t use your instrument but could practice a little in your head—such as when you’re waiting for a train or bus, or riding on one.

Some people discover that if they get up even a little earlier every day to fit in a bit more practicing, they look forward to it so much that they feel wide awake for it and it improves their mood for the rest of the day.

If you’d like to go further, I recommend learning the Performing Beyond Fear exercise, which is a quick and powerful way to connect with your deepest musicality. You could do this at an online or in-person session with me.

A fantastic way to learn all of these approaches, and more, would be to come to The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. This relaxed yet intensive week transforms practicing and performing for everyone who attends.

Finally, think about how you can create a better schedule for  yourself, perhaps when you’re done with school. If you really believe in what you want, you can make it happen. A career or business coach could be very helpful. Eventually, the better you get at practicing, the better you’ll become as a teacher. Then you may be able to raise your fees and have more time to practice.

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


Nora Krohn on The Transformative Power of Caring

Dear Subscribers,

I am so pleased to publish Nora Krohn’s 12th article here. It is one of her very best, and so needed in today’s music world.


Madeline Bruser
Editor, Fearless Performing E-zine

The Transformative Power of Caring

by Nora Krohn

A number of years ago a conductor I knew from a handful of previous engagements invited me to be a guest principal for a concert with a chamber orchestra in Europe. When I arrived at the first rehearsal, exhausted from the trip, I was feeling a little apprehensive at the prospect of leading such a formidable ensemble as a guest—I had prepared well, but I’d never played with the orchestra and was the sole American flown halfway across the world to fill out and lead the ranks of more local players. After glancing around the rehearsal room at the other musicians taking out their instruments, tuning, and warming up on tricky passages, my eyes drifted to the principal viola stand, where I saw my would-be stand partner intently marking something in the part. I strode over to the stand and turned to her with a smile. Her eyes stayed locked on the music as she continued making notes with her pencil. Hoping her avoidance of eye contact was merely dedication to her task, I decided to let her finish, and meanwhile took out my viola and bow. When she finally put down her pencil and looked up, I extended my hand to her in greeting: “Hi, I’m Nora, it’s so nice to meet you,” I said brightly, eager to forge a smooth working relationship for the week ahead. Her feelings on the subject became decidedly clear when she responded with a flat, “Hello” and immediately turned to speak to one of her colleagues. I awkwardly lowered my hand back down and fixed my eyes on the music stand, my longing for a warm reception punctured by her acute lack of enthusiasm.

My gloomy reflections about our inauspicious start were interrupted by the arrival of the conductor, who set down his bag, greeted everyone, and took out his baton. The concertmaster stood up to tune the orchestra, and then we started in on the symphony. I tried to enjoy the rich sound of the ensemble, but the cheerful, sunny melody of the first movement was undercut by my growing preoccupation with my stand partner’s disconcerting behavior. She was a confident, beautiful player, but she made little effort to follow my cues, and chuckled to herself whenever I played a note slightly out of tune. At first I thought I might be paranoid, but as the rehearsal continued I noticed her groaning when the cellos weren’t quite together, and rolling her eyes in disgust when the first clarinet missed his entrance in a complex fugal passage. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the moment when she turned to me and said with a grimace, “Why are we doing this bowing? It’s terrible.” “Uh, well,” I mumbled, dumbfounded by her directness, “I guess because the first violins are doing it and I just thought that–” “You should tell them to change it.” Struggling to regain an air of authority, I stammered back, “Uh, oh, ok well I’ll speak to the concertmaster about it. Maybe he…” I drifted off when I could tell she wasn’t listening.

Tapping Into the Bedrock of Your Heart

By the end of the first rehearsal I felt like I needed a stiff drink, even though it was only 2:00 in the afternoon. Lunch with some colleagues brought glasses of strong local liquor and blithe reassurances that I was doing a fine job, but neither did much to soothe my uneasiness. I wandered back to my solitary hotel room in a downpour and braced myself for a week of discomfort. While I stared at the wall, hearing the rain drumming against the window, I felt tears sliding down my cheeks unbidden. “Great,” I thought, “here I am, supposed to be a leader, professional, unshakeable, and a little criticism from some grumpy person who doesn’t like me is making me fall apart.” I was berating myself for my lack of confidence and oversensitivity, telling myself I was a weak leader and a phony musician, when I remembered why the conductor had flown me to a foreign country to serve as principal of this orchestra in the first place. After our first time working together, where I’d been sitting in the back of the section, he’d approached me after the concert with a formal air and a kind smile. “You are…very special musician,” he’d said, in his halting English. “Great violist, very great…humanity. I hope very much we can work together once again.” He then bowed his respect and bade me good night.

With the warmth of that memory resonating throughout my body, I turned it like a lens back to the current situation with my disapproving stand partner. Filtered through the conductor’s kind words, the aching sensation in my chest revealed that there was something deeper at work than my desire to be liked and approved of, my intention to do a good job and be seen as capable and confident. Underneath the pain caused by perceived criticism and rejection was a vast, profound sense of caring, of having a heart that longed to give and receive, to serve the world. And I saw that that simple caring was powerful, resilient, and enduring, because it was the true bedrock of who I was, not the insecure person grasping for the comfort of others’ esteem. That’s what the conductor had seen in me—my care for the music and for the whole of the ensemble, regardless of where I sat or who was watching. When I realized that, the quality of my tears turned from self-pity to an awed, tender gratitude.

Over the course of the week I realized that any attempts to be collegial with my stand partner would be futile, and I stopped trying to get her to like or respect me. Besides, the section needed me to lead with enthusiasm, not melt into a puddle of self-doubt. Once I stopped fixating on her comments and demeanor and claimed my musical space, she softened toward me ever so slightly. In a quiet moment she revealed the ways she felt stifled in her life and career that caused her frustration and regret, which made me feel more sympathetic toward her. She even complimented me on my solo in the concert. But in the end what really mattered was not that I’d won her over in some small respect, but that in the midst of grave doubts I had been able to witness the goodness of my own heart and the sincerity of my desire to serve the music, and in so doing I’d found confidence to command the situation authentically.

When Others See Your Powerful Heart, Even if You Don’t

As I write, I am reminded of another moment of tension with a colleague that taught me about the power of my own caring to transcend a difficult situation, in this case one of my own making. About a year out of school, I auditioned for the assistant principal position in a small regional orchestra. I’d been occupying the seat as a substitute for the entire season and thought I was a shoo-in for the job, but in spite of my high hopes I got very nervous for the audition and didn’t play well. It was a small audition, but since my foothold in the working world of music was tenuous and I’d cast the job as a very big deal in my mind, I was devastated when I lost. When I learned who had gotten the position, my embarrassment and envy pushed me into writing him off as an arrogant jerk, even though I’d never even met him.

A few months after the audition I was relieved when I was invited to sub with the orchestra again. When I got my music in the mail I started preparing diligently as always. Even though I would be relegated to the back of the section, my dismay over losing the audition wasn’t an excuse to sacrifice my commitment to doing my best. When I arrived at the first rehearsal, bruised ego in tow, I was surprised to see that the principal violist wasn’t there, and in her place sat the young man who’d beaten me out for the assistant principal job. Confused, I checked the seating chart and saw I would be sitting assistant principal, my old seat. Right next to the very person I loathed most in the world at that moment.

I dragged myself toward the chair in disgust and trepidation. When I sat down, he introduced himself with an outstretched hand and a friendly expression, which I returned mechanically–despite my inner turmoil, I didn’t want to appear surly or unprofessional. And I especially didn’t want him to know how nervous I was that he’d think I wasn’t very good. So I was surprised when he turned to me midway through the rehearsal and said, “Wow, you sound really great, I’m so glad I’m sitting with you.” Before I could absorb this astonishing kindness, he continued with an unexpected and congenial offer: “I just wrote a viola quartet that I’ll be performing in a couple of months—I’m wondering if you’d like to play it with me and a couple of other people.” I’m not sure if it registered on my face, but his graciousness shocked me. Out of hurt that I’d lost the audition, I’d been consumed with rancor and resentment toward this person, and yet he was responding not with aggression, but with humble generosity.

Letting Your Care Transcend and Transform

Years later, when I asked him what he’d thought about me during our first rehearsal together, I’d expected him to say he’d been turned off by my frostiness. But I was wrong: “No, I don’t remember you being hostile at all,” he said, shaking his head. “What impressed me most was how professional and prepared you were, even though was supposed to be the one leading. It made me respect you. I didn’t even know you, but I could tell you really cared about the music, and it made me want to do a better job.”

Investing your heart in what you do can leave you more vulnerable to worry that you are falling short, and less defended when others don’t appreciate you or your work. We often confuse that vulnerability with weakness, when in reality it is not weakness at all, but tremendous power. Living in recognition of your own heart, and the way it expresses itself through what you do, is a beacon that lights your way through the world for yourself and others, especially in moments when conflict and confusion loom. It can also be a light that illuminates and transforms the darker places in ourselves, with stunning consequences. My envy had twisted me into making the young man who beat me out for that assistant principal job my mortal enemy, until my care for the music broke through the armor of my antagonism and betrayed the raw goodness of my heart for him to see. In turn, his willingness to see the light I was not seeing in myself transformed my bitterness into tenderness: seven years ago, I saw that man as my adversary; now, he is my husband.


Editor’s note: The kind of caring Nora writes about here abounds at The Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program. We’d love to have you with us this summer, July 22 – 29.

Q & A of the Month

I’ve read in your book, and seen in some of your videos, that you recommend upright posture for playing the piano, as well as other instruments. But although some people seem to play very well that way, I can’t do it, and I don’t really understand what it’s about. To me, making music is all about expressing yourself, and you have to let yourself move however you feel the music. Is there something I’m missing here? Is there a way I could understand it better and actually experience what it’s about?

This is a great question—thank you for asking it.

Posture—how we sit, stand, and carry ourselves—says a lot about us, and our habits with it run deep. Having a comfortable, upright posture has a lot to do with trusting ourselves to be as we are and to say what we want to say without trying too hard to express ourselves. In making music, it involves letting your body fill up with the powerful energy of music without losing your seat of command—without dispersing your energy in unnecessary movements. It’s about being in charge instead of letting musical energy pull you around in different directions.

It can take years to develop this kind of command, but if you’ve seen and heard someone play or sing that way and you feel motivated to try to develop such command yourself, you could start by focusing on whatever aspect of this uplifted physical position interests you the most. The basic body mechanics alone are fascinating to look at. The book explains the mechanics—establishing a sense of rootedness to the bench or chair, or to the ground, from which your body can feel supported and move with power and ease. If you really focus on the sensations in your body, of being rooted to the ground while your arms are free to move, it can start to feel so good to be upright that you don’t want to hunch over or sway around a lot anymore.

Another approach is to think of yourself as a king or a queen on a throne. You have power in just being real, being yourself—a natural dignity that comes from occupying your particular space and knowing you have a right to be there. In fact, when you imagine yourself as a benevolent leader, you begin to feel you belong onstage, inspiring others with your presence, and that you don’t have to make yourself small in any way. This kind of physical and mental attitude can go a long way in giving you genuine confidence that has a real effect on the people around you.

Experimenting with posture can be instructive—when you hunch over it has a real effect on your state of mind, as well as on your physical power in using your instrument. Everything works better physically when you don’t constrict your body. If you make an audio or video of your playing or singing in different postures, you can discover how body use affects the music you make.

You can gain a lot of clarity on this issue by working with a teacher who understands the human habits involved with posture and movement. He or she can help you gradually shift from dispersing your energy to really standing in your power by relating consciously to gravity and to the freedom and power that can result from being firmly grounded.

One of the most striking discoveries in practicing upright posture is that by being more still, your body actually can contain more feeling. Just sit there; just stand there. Notice how the beautiful sounds coming from your instrument are physically affecting your body. Your whole body becomes a powerful instrument when you let it be, let it expand with musical sound.

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


Fearlessness in the Face of Judgment

by Madeline Bruser

(This article was originally published September 25, 2013.)

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

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

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

Putting the Human Element First

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

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

Bob: Remembering Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah: Remembering Wise and Loving Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: Remembering Deep Love

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

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

What Can We Learn from these Brave Musicians?

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

Let’s Skip to the Coda

One final note:

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

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

You Can Do It

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

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

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to break through to a whole new level of confidence in performance, The Art of Practicing Institute’s 5th Annual Summer Program is coming up and will provide fantastic support for your journey toward fearlessness. We’d love to have you join us! You can apply for one of four spots still open for performing participants, or you can simply register as a non-performing participant. If you’re not sure which level of participation is for you. please feel free to contact me.

Q & A of the Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Acceptance and Letting Go

DSC02424 copy

by Nora Krohn

A few years ago, while I was serving as the acting principal of the viola section of a regional orchestra, I played a concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that taught me something about letting go in performance and accepting the result. The orchestra had been looking to fill the position for several years, and I had been invited to sit in numerous times, never sure if I would be hired again, or for what chair, or who else they had in mind for the job. I tried to take each performance as seriously as a job interview: I had to demonstrate that I was competent and not afraid to take charge, even though I was a relative newcomer to the ensemble, much younger than the other players in the section, and had never held a permanent principal position in a professional orchestra.

After a short and intense week of rehearsals, I arrived at the concert exhausted from a full day of teaching. Several years of learning to juggle the demands of a musical career told me what I needed to do: I tried to set aside all of my distracted thoughts and channel whatever energy I had left into helping shape an effective rendition of this epic piece. I knew that I had to balance precision and self-awareness with falling into the flow of the music – there simply wasn’t room to doubt myself when the section was counting on me to be bold and in command in the moment. As the performance progressed, I relished the feeling of communion when I aligned myself with the momentum of the music and stepped into each phrase with the timing and energy required. When my mental and physical energy started to flag and I redoubled my conviction in response, I felt the shock wave of renewed enthusiasm reverberating throughout the players around me. We were all alive and playing legendary music, and life was great.

When Things Fell Apart

Things were going well until we arrived at a tricky passage in the trio of the second movement – a jaunty, metrically off-kilter horn solo with the strings trading dovetailing phrases of delicate scalar accompaniment. It had never felt really in sync during rehearsals—something about the way the parts fit together, in combination with the horn’s distance from the strings, made our connection seem a bit shaky. Then, in the concert, something strange happened. I thought I’d been listening and meticulously counting rests, and brought the viola section in on cue, but a few beats later it became clear that the orchestra was not together. There were a few bars of relative chaos, probably only a couple of seconds, but what felt like eternity, and then the conductor gave a decisive cue and we all found our way again. I felt shaken, like I’d plunged into a frigid lake where I’d expected to find solid ice under my feet instead. But after making another small mistake a few moments later, I realized that allowing my mind to dwell on whatever had happened would only cause more trouble, so I tried to come back to the task at hand.

At the end of the performance, the crowd gave us a standing ovation, and the conductor looked thrilled. After I’d packed up and was making my way to the stage door, I saw him waiting in the doorway saying goodbye to the members of the orchestra. I expected him to reproach me for my mistake, but to my surprise, he thanked me instead, with a big smile, squeezing my arm. I gave an awkward smile back, too confused to know how to respond to the warmth and gratitude that came through his voice and gestures. Looking down, I mumbled “Thanks,” and shuffled through the crowd and out the door.

As I walked to the car staring at my shoes, I thought, “Should I have apologized? Cracked a joke about messing up?” Then I heard my name called, took my gaze off the asphalt ground of the parking lot, and saw my stand partner getting into her car parked beside mine. “Ugh, that thing in the third movement,” I said, raising my mittened hand to my face in embarrassment. “Oh!” she said with a look of dismay, “I am so sorry about that!” I paused, puzzled. “Wait, what? That was my fault – I brought the section in early.” “What, really? I thought it was me.” Her expression momentarily crinkled in confusion, then she brightened. “But you know, I actually think he might have done something weird that confused both of us. And that thing with the horn was never really together, so who really knows? Anyway, great job! Have a good night!” She waved an untroubled goodbye and got into her car. Bewildered, I got into mine, started it up, and prepared for the hour-long drive home.

Looking for Blame

As I drove, my mind labored overtime to assign fault for the screw-up. Could it really have been her fault? Or his? I had been so sure of our entrance, and then so sure I had messed it up. But no one had said anything to me about it. And it was true that it had happened in a section of the piece that had never felt particularly solid to begin with. Would I ever know what had happened, or whose fault it was? How much did it matter anyway? Maybe they wouldn’t ever call me again . . . except that the conductor didn’t seem upset about it. My mind bounced from one possibility to another and back again.

Barreling down I-95 toward New York, I was jolted out of my inner turmoil when a car in my lane stopped precipitously and turned on its hazard lights. In the space of a moment, when I saw the lane next to me was clear, I swerved to avoid hitting the car, and silently offered thanks for the light traffic and my quick reflexes. After the adrenaline had subsided, I wondered why the driver had done that, and if they were in trouble. So I called 911 and explained what had happened, hung up, and immediately picked up the thread of my mental drama again. But after several more minutes of rumination it dawned on me – the person in that car might be fine, or they might be having a life-threatening medical emergency. It was possible that I had not only prevented an accident by driving skillfully, but that I’d also saved his or her life by calling 911. Having no evidence either way, I had chosen to write it off as no big deal. In contrast, even though I also didn’t know what had caused the screw-up at that spot in the Beethoven, I was choosing to blame myself, and to make it a very big deal. I was assuming the worst of myself and measuring the value of my contribution to the world accordingly.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Eventually I got tired of turning the story over in my mind. When no irate or pitying messages arrived from anyone in the orchestra, I realized I’d probably never know what happened, and that they’d probably all long forgotten about it. Gradually I let go of the whole thing.

Sometime later I received a voicemail from the conductor: After several years of vacancy, they had decided to give me the principal position permanently. I called him back in shock. He said, “Oh, it was just so clear from the last concert. You were so in charge, you led the entire lower string section with such professionalism. It’s wonderful to have you.” I thanked him from my heart and hung up in a state of confused joy. And I got it – whatever mistakes I had or hadn’t made, in his eyes they hadn’t altered his view that I was fit to lead, because his view included everything about who I was and how I conducted myself as a musician, not just my fleeting errors. If I’d been tiptoeing through the piece, I might have helped to prevent or contain the momentary mess. But in such an overly cautious state, I might have missed the chance to unleash the authentic verve and confidence that had helped bring the music to life.

Relaxing Our Grip

Many of us have had the experience of relaxing our tight grip on ourselves, letting ourselves be more real in making music or in a conversation, and then having to deal with whatever unpredictable thing happens next. This experience of release often happens for me when I stop trying to control my physical movements or the shape of the music I’m playing and just allow myself to play spontaneously and unself-consciously. And I often see my students experimenting in the same way. In letting go like this, there may sometimes be more mistakes, or sometimes fewer. But invariably, the music is more interesting and alive, because there is more of us in it, however we are right now. And it usually means that any fleeting mistakes are far outweighed by the raw energy that comes through the whole thing. That doesn’t mean that mistakes won’t sometimes muck things up and cause us embarrassment, but it’s a risk we need to embrace with awareness, not avoid altogether. When we rein ourselves in in an effort to be correct above all else, we dial down our vitality, too.

Finding your Way to Letting Go

If you want to experiment with letting go more in the moment of performance and becoming more resilient when you fall short, here are a few ideas:


  1. You can start by letting go of regrets about the way things may have gone in the past. Consider the circumstances that contributed to the situation, many of which were totally outside your control. Can you be more forgiving toward yourself in light of them?
  1. Try being a little more free in your practicing, even if you worry your playing will be temporarily less accurate. Let your body move the way it wants to, and notice what happens. Do what feels fun. To take it a step further, play for a kind friend or trusted teacher and see if they notice a difference in your playing.
  1. Above all, remember that your deepest wish is to make beautiful music, to enjoy it, and to share it with others while you are on this earth. That knowledge will permeate your playing and sustain you over the long term, even when you feel lost or full of doubt. One of the definitions of the word “accept” is to “believe the goodness of something”: it is easier to let go when you believe in the inherent goodness of yourself and this life.

I think back to those moments leaving the Beethoven concert—the warm exchange with the conductor, the lonely, confused walk through the parking lot, the shakeup of my assumptions about what had gone wrong. You can choose to spend your life with your head down, watching for any cracks in the asphalt so you can avoid tripping over them. Or you can learn to walk with your head held high, observing the world around you with curiosity and appreciating your role in it. You might fall more often, especially at first, and it may hurt and you’ll be embarrassed. You might even take someone else down with you by accident and have to apologize. But you never know who will meet your gaze and remind you that your small slip-ups and fear of falling is not all they see in you.

Q & A of the Month

I’m studying with two different piano teachers at my conservatory, and their ideas sometimes conflict—particularly on technique. Although I value what each teacher is giving me, I get confused sometimes about which advice I should follow. Do you have any suggestions?

This is an interesting and timely question. Collaborative teaching has become more common recently, and it puts each person—both the teachers and the student—in a challenging situation.

First of all, it’s good that these two teachers are at the same school and are therefore aware that you are working with both of them. Hopefully, each of them appreciates that they can learn something from the situation just as you are learning from both of them. It’s a little like being a musician with an injury—they may have only one instrumental teacher, but they also have to listen to the advice of their doctor, their physical therapist, and maybe some books they’re reading, all at the same time, and decide which advice makes the most sense to them at any given moment in the recovery process.

The most important thing is for you to trust yourself. Listen to your body, trust your own intelligence, ask a lot of questions, and see what really makes the most sense for you. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that some teachers have very clear methods for helping their students develop, and a student may not always know the reason for a particular approach until weeks or months down the road, when they’ve worked with it enough to integrate it into their playing.

If you feel that you’re really being pulled in two different directions, do what you can to minimize the conflict. For instance, you could request different repertoire for a period of time and concentrate on pieces that create less confusion and conflict. Then go back to the other repertoire when your mind is clearer and see if you can understand the issues better and find new solutions.

Do be careful about your technique. If a passage feels tense or uncomfortable, explain the problem to one or both of your teachers and do everything you can to find a way to make it easier to play.

If one teacher is suggesting musical ideas that you really like but the other teacher doesn’t agree with them, talk to both teachers to try to understand their way of thinking. You can learn a lot this way, and it can help you practice more intelligently. It can also make you a better teacher yourself.

I myself never had more than one teacher at a time, but all of my teachers disagreed with each other on certain things. Each teacher was valuable in a different way, and the process of sorting out their conflicting ideas was extremely useful for me. It forced me to think for myself, and to delve deeply into many technical and musical issues. I think this is how the teaching and performing traditions evolve to a higher level.

At some point in your career, you may find yourself confronted with a choice of committing to one particular approach, in order to refine your technique or take your playing to a new level. Again, trust your instincts and feel your way into any new situation. Being skeptical is a sign of intelligence, and you can learn a lot from all of your experiences.Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.