By Madeline Bruser

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

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

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

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

Each Performance Is an Opportunity

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

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

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

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

But Exactly How Do You Do That?

I’ve written a book, and many articles, about how to let go of tension and self-doubt and connect deeply with music in practice and performance. But on Monday, June 2, you will have the opportunity to learn a powerful exercise that is not in the book or the articles. It’s called the Fearless Performing Exercise, and I’ll be teaching it that evening in a live free teaching call at 8:00 pm Eastern Time. The exercise takes only seven minutes, but in that short time, it shifts your focus from self-consciousness to generosity—from worrying, “What will people think of me?” to thinking, “What can I give to them?” That energy of generosity can then come through in your performance, taking it to a new level of expressive freedom and power. You will even have 10 minutes on the call when we’ll mute everyone’s phone lines and you can try out the exercise and see how it affects your playing or singing.

Are You Skeptical?

It may be hard to believe that such a big shift could happen from doing such a brief exercise. But if you try it, you will see for yourself. If you can’t be with us for the call, you can receive the recording of it just by signing up. But if you are able to call in that night, we’ll be having a live Q & A, and you will be invited to contribute comments or questions.

All Are Welcome

Although this free call was originally intended just to give people a taste of what will happen at my upcoming summer program, I am now offering the Fearless Performing Exercise on this call to any musician who wants to learn how to transform stage fright into confidence and communicative power. Even non-musicians have asked me to teach them this exercise for use in situations where they are put on the spot, including giving speeches and taking tests or job interviews, and they’ve found it extremely helpful.

So if you are ready to learn how to rise to the occasion of performing, please feel free to join us on this call. You may also invite friends and colleagues.

Why Am I Extending this Open Invitation?

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

Creating a New Habit

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

I hope you can join us on June 2, so that I can share this teaching that is so close to my heart.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. The summer program is filling up, but we still have room for several nonperforming participants. So if you’re ready to dive into a big experience of your musical potential, I invite you to join us for a transformative week in Edinboro.

Q & A of the Month

My mother likes to be in the room with me when I’m practicing and make suggestions. It was OK when I was younger, but recently I asked her to leave me on my own, because I feel more free to try things my own way. She doesn’t really get it. What can I say to her to help her understand? 

Your mother probably has good intentions but doesn’t understand enough about what you need when you’re practicing.

I feel lucky that I didn’t have that experience growing up. There was just one occasion when my dad told me he’d noticed I made a lot of mistakes when I practiced, and he said he was going to stand outside the door and listen to see if I could play a certain passage three times in a row without making a mistake. I imagine he was tired of listening to the mistakes I made, and probably he thought it would be better if I was more careful during practicing. But I hated that experience, and whatever I said to him, he never did it again.

I would recommend that you tell your mother that you appreciate that she cares about your musical development, but that you accomplish more on your own. And see if your teacher can support you in this request and speak to your mother about it. It would give your mother a chance to express her concerns to the teacher, and if the two of them talk, your mother might come away with a better understanding of what your teacher is working on with you and why it’s best that you practice by yourself. It might also be helpful if the three of you have a conversation together. That way the teacher can get a clear picture of what’s going on with your practicing and can give well-informed advice.

A student of mine who teaches told me that he asked one of his young students to videotape her practicing so that he could see what she was doing. He found it extremely illuminating, and he was able to make very helpful suggestions directly to her, without parental intervention. It had a dramatic effect on her playing.

I think it’s generally best if parents don’t interfere with their children’s practicing. Although a child might learn something from a parent’s ideas, just having them in the room takes something away from the child—namely, the intensely personal nature of creative activity in practicing and making music. By the time a child is old enough to learn an instrument, he can usually remember what his teacher asked him to do and can do it pretty well without outside help. As soon as a parent takes control of her child’s practicing, the whole activity becomes less about the child’s own creative exploration and expression and more about what the parent thinks the child should be doing.

When I taught children a lot, occasionally a young child felt a little shy and wanted the parent to stay for the first lesson. But most children relish having the teacher to themselves. So although I have occasionally let parents stay for the first lesson if they wanted to, I’ve asked them to not be present at lessons after that. And as soon as the parent leaves the studio, the child opens up enormously and becomes more free to express herself.

All music students learn from experience, from trial and error, and hopefully, from having a good teacher. Much harm has been done to young music students in the name of “helping” them use their time efficiently in learning an instrument. Apart from horror stories like Beethoven’s father, who beat him when he made mistakes and locked him in the cellar if he didn’t like how he played, all kinds of more subtle violations of the needs of children have occurred, and it often leaves them angry because it takes the joy out of freely relating to music and to their instrument.

Music is so personal. If the child is motivated, he doesn’t need a parent to cheer him on or to make a lot of suggestions. What he does need is a strong, healthy relationship with his teacher, with real affection and trust, so he can develop naturally and with joy. 

As they say, it takes a village to raise a child, and I certainly prized the relationships I had with all my piano teachers growing up. It’s very special for a child to have one-on-one time with a caring, knowledgeable adult who is transmitting the wisdom of a great tradition for their benefit.

You could ask your mother to read my answer, if you like, and she is welcome to contact me if she has questions.