(This article has been edited since it was first published in September, 2012 under the title of “Creating Space for Music to Flow.”)
At seventeen, I arrived at music school at Indiana University, full of ambition and excited about being surrounded by musicians and about studying with my new teacher, Menahem Pressler. The music building at the school was round, and before school even started, I began walking through the circular hallways looking for an empty practice room. As I literally walked around in circles, countless times, hearing dozens of pianists practicing away, I was sure that they were all better than I was.
At the time of my first lesson, Pressler was away on a concert tour, and his assistant met with me and assigned a set of exercises for finger independence, which Pressler wanted all of his new students to practice. I practiced those exercises intensely, five or six hours a day, during my first week of school. And in my panic about measuring up to the competition and pleasing my new teacher, I lost six pounds. I also came down with a cold. On top of that, I got my first case of poison ivy while walking in the woods on campus. I was a wreck, and I called my parents for sympathy.
A day or so later, the phone rang in my dorm room. “Madeline? It’s Mr. Pressler. How are you?” I was shocked to hear from him. “Fine,” I managed to say. “Your father tells me you’re not so fine,” he said. In a kind voice, he asked me to come to meet him that week, for the first time. I still get tears in my eyes remembering how relieved I was that he cared.
That phone call was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Pressler is an amazing pianist, and he opened me up to a whole new world of sound and possibilities with the piano. But his kindness and warmth were equally important to me, and I worked for him as I did for no other teacher. He was direct but gentle with his critical comments, and he taught me to value imagination and creativity in my practicing. My time in the practice room became infused with curiosity and openness. It was about exploring music, the piano, and my artistic nature— not about proving anything to anybody, or struggling to get somewhere. (Or practicing finger exercises five hours a day.) Everything opened up inside me.
The Shift Toward Overwhelm
I feel very fortunate that I had those two years at Indiana, focusing on being an artist and enjoying practicing, before I hit New York City and started studying at Juilliard. From my perspective now, those two years, far removed from the stress of urban life and heavy professional demands, were like an extended summer, in which I had space to relax and to develop as I needed to.
In the middle of February, with all the challenges that winter creates in our lives, summer feels far away. We are typically inundated with work, and we feel the pressure to bring many projects to fruition. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and to lose the spaciousness and freedom we typically have in summer.
But it’s possible even in winter to approach the demands of our work in a spacious way. And it’s essential.
Balancing Heaviness with Lightness
Each season has its qualities, and the darkness of winter brings a sense of seriousness and depth—we may find ourselves going inward more and being more reflective. At the same time, we may feel more pressure to develop our musical gifts and to meet deadlines with performances, auditions, or school jury exams. Such pressure can cause us to lose touch with the pure joy of making music.
It’s important to remember that in order to come fully alive, our musical gifts need to breathe. When we take more time to relax and breathe, our mind and body can work with more ease. We discover room inside of ourselves to both receive and recreate the infinite variety of energies in music—to respond in a full-bodied, open hearted way to what we hear, so that we can transmit it to others.
In a previous article, Getting Intimate with Greatness, I wrote about how to relate to the myriad of sounds in the music we practice, so that all of them can vibrantly flow through us. But there is an even more basic step we need to take. This step is to establish an initial spaciousness and openness to music before you even begin to practice.
To do this, simply sit still and take a moment to breathe and to feel your own presence, physically and mentally, before you engage with your instrument. In other words, before connecting with music, you need to connect with yourself—your living, breathing self.
You can think of yourself as a living, open vessel, with energy constantly flowing in from the world around you through your senses, mixing with your own energies, and then radiating and flowing outward to the environment and to others through the communicative energy in your speech, in the music you make, and in your presence.
When we are already filled up with stress and sensory overload, our system is clogged. Musical sounds have very little room inside of us to play, dance, flow, and make their magic. But if we can de-stress and unwind, our body and mind can open, and we can receive and enjoy new sensory abundance, so that it can flow through us freely and reach others.
Maybe you remember visiting your grandma as a child, and enjoying a level of relaxation that your parents didn’t have, because they were so busy making a living and running the household. Or maybe you remember a favorite vacation spot and how it felt to breathe fresh air and not worry about the usual things you have to do. When you came home from your time at Grandma’s or on vacation, you had new energy for life; you felt refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of school, practicing, or taking care of business.
Until the avalanche hit—the inevitable demands of work and life. Then your system started to feel the strain and to shut down and close off. Your vessel became too full.
To help you find that mental space again, here is Grandma’s recipe for creating space in your practicing:
1. Remember that refreshing time, the feeling of being able to breathe.
2. Take at least two minutes to do nothing but breathe. Just sit comfortably upright and notice your breathing. In, out—in, out. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. Being upright helps you be both alert and relaxed, as you need to be for making music. It also allows your lungs to fully expand with breath, which nourishes your entire system. Keep your eyes open, gazing somewhat downward, without trying to focus them on anything. This will keep you aware of your environment yet also focused on your breathing.
3. Then notice how you feel different—perhaps more calm or awake—or maybe you realize how tired you are.
4. Gently begin to practice your instrument, noticing how the first few sounds affect you. See if you can notice each sound coming into your body and changing you inside. This is what music does when you’re open to it.
5. Continue practicing with this awareness—of sounds and inner sensations, as well as the sensations of touch and movement.
6. Notice when you begin to lose this awareness.
8. Take one to three deep breaths and begin the process again—or if you prefer, go back to step 2.
After your practice session, reflect on what happened and what it means to you.
In case you didn’t realize it, Grandma’s recipe is 2500 years old—it’s the recipe for what is called mindfulness. It begins with mindfulness meditation—with awareness of your breathing—and it continues with mindfulness of sounds and sensations.
Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. But it’s much more than just being careful and minding your p’s and q’s. Mindfulness is really the innate capacity of your mind to be aware of whatever is happening in the present moment. And the recipe above is a basic method for cultivating that capacity, by deliberately paying attention to something—in this case, your breathing, and then the sounds and sensations you’re experiencing. This simple act actually changes your brain each time you do it. The more you do it, the more you build the habit of noticing what’s happening in your daily experience—the sounds and sensations of practicing, the atmosphere in the room, the energy in your body in different situations that arise. Your nervous system actually changes, and you become less driven by habit and more aware of the present moment and its possibilities. You wake up to vivid reality and become more of yourself. More sensitive, more musical, more artistic.
All kinds of people have been using mindfulness techniques in recent years, including athletic teams, cancer patients, doctors, and business leaders. They do it because it gives them more access to their mental power and frees them from problematic levels of tension and stress. It also brings out their receptivity to people they’re working with, and it opens their minds to creative solutions they hadn’t noticed before.
And it has begun to make its way into the lives of musicians, who are overwhelmed with the demands of playing their instruments, job stress, and performance anxiety. I’ve been doing it for 40 years and have watched many musicians discover their true capabilities through regularly practicing this simple discipline.
If you’re concerned that adding this additional activity to your day will be too much, know that even ten minutes a day can make your practice time more efficient. So it actually saves you time.
Taking Care of the Vessel
Music demands so much of us—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Taking time to breathe is a way of taking care of ourselves in the midst of these demands so that more of our gifts can shine through in the music we make—more vitality, more richness and depth. More beauty.
Try it, and discover for yourself how giving yourself space to breathe can open up your playing or singing.
If you’re interested in pursuing meditation but don’t live near me, I’d be happy to hear from you and to recommend places where you can learn and practice this mind-opening technique.
And if you really want to treat yourself to a fantastic experience of spaciousness with music, consider registering for the Art of Practicing institute’s summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance, where you will meet other wonderful people who are ready to breathe more easily and make music more freely.
And I wish you much joy and success.
Q & A of the Month
What is the best way to gain strength and independence in my left hand at the piano? I have worked on Hanon’s exercises and scales for at least four months now, and I am still having trouble feeling fluent with my left hand. When I am playing a descending scale, my left hand seems to lack accuracy and stability. Do you have any suggestions?
Everyone’s left hand is less adept than their right on the piano. Most piano music has a lot more notes in the right hand part, so the right hand gets more practice. Also, the ear naturally hears the higher parts in a piece more easily than lower ones—which is why most melodies are written on top. What this means is that we’re less conscious of what our left hand is doing, so that our coordination doesn’t usually develop as well with that hand.
Coordination involves the brain, which is affected very much your level of aural and emotional engagement with what you’re doing. I don’t think you need to do Hanon exercises, unless you enjoy the sound of them. Actual music is best most of the time, and you can isolate certain passages and work specifically on the difficult parts of them, as if they were exercises. These snippets of actual music are more interesting than Hanon exercises—more musical. Scales can be helpful if you play them with a lot of awareness of how they sound and of how your hand feels. Just remember that it’s this awareness that improves coordination. If you just push through scales or pieces—more out of a big effort to improve than out of enjoying the sounds and sensations—your coordination will suffer. Try singing the scale first, in a musical way, and then imitating that musicality in your playing of it.
Along with these issues, you need to know how to use your hand with minimum tension—by sitting at the right height and distance, for optimum finger and arm leverage, and by letting the fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing. And it’s essential to not try to get a big sound with the fingers alone, but to rely on the arm for this purpose, and to know how to use the arm efficiently and effectively.
It’s always best to go slowly enough to play with ease, comfort, and accuracy. If you play faster than you comfortably can, it’s counterproductive. You have to trust that fluency and speed will come from doing what you can, not from pushing beyond that and overloading your playing mechanism with excessive demands. That only creates excessive tension, which can lead to inaccuracy.
See if you can get into how good it feels to move your hands slowly and comfortably, not trying for a big sound. Great technique develops from that foundation.