I played concerts for many years and loved it with all my being. Every performance was an opportunity to give my best and to shine in a very special and meaningful way. Now I perform as a teacher instead, giving seminars and other public presentations, and I get just as nervous and anxious before some of these events as I did before walking onstage to play a recital or a concerto with an orchestra.
Any kind of performance can be scary. It’s always a new audience, a new day in your life, a new level of challenge with the kind of repertoire or material you’re presenting – it’s a new you, daring to find out what exactly will come out of your mouth or your instrument, this time.
Maybe the stakes are really high this time. Or maybe you just really want to open your heart, this particular time, and give it everything you have, no matter who happens to be there. I’ve talked to famous musicians who sometimes get just as nervous facing an elementary school audience as they do performing at Carnegie Hall.
It isn’t just about the piece of music. It’s about this energy in your body – this life in you that needs to happen – in concert with other human beings. The life in you needs to be shared.
Is anything more beautiful or important than sharing our life, our aliveness, with other people?
We shake inside before a performance because we feel so alive – we feel this all-powerful thing called life surging through our system. And it can feel glorious, terrifying, liberating, overwhelming, and all of these at once.
But sometimes it’s much harder than it should be
Expressing yourself at an important moment – when you really care, when you feel this deep desire to share yourself, or when you need a job and you have to show the audition panel that you deserve it – is always a huge challenge. But sometimes this challenge is made even more intense because of extreme circumstances.
Recent articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times have been revealing some of these extreme circumstances, which have been going on for many years: in particular, sexual harassment and sexual abuse – of orchestra members by conductors and colleagues, of ballerinas by their ballet masters and male colleagues, and elsewhere. Some of the details are shocking. It’s hard to comprehend how these sensitive artists manage to perform when their emotional and physical safety is threatened or taken away. Undoubtedly most cannot perform at their best in these circumstances. And offstage they are also suffering a great deal.
Other Kinds of Abuse
Many other stories of abuse come out at music lessons, when students feel safe to talk about what has happened to them. “My previous teacher yelled at me a lot.“ “My parents forced me to practice three hours a day.“ “My parents beat me if I made a mistake in a recital.“ “People at school told me my performance was great, and then I found out they said bad things behind my back.“ “My teacher told me I wasn’t talented and should just give up.“
All kinds of abuse are heaped on top of the vulnerable heart of a person who just wants to make music. To do something beautiful and good.
Our society has begun to face the facts of abuse, and people are gradually starting to heal from it. That is deeply good and necessary, both for those who have been abused and for all of us who benefit from their healed, beautiful presence. Whether it’s onstage or in our personal, everyday relationships, we all need to be around people who radiate joy.
And we definitely need performers who feel safe and free to express themselves from the heart. They heal us when their music making touches our own vulnerable, battered hearts. This whole world needs healing.
An important part of my job as a teacher is to help musicians heal so they can give their gifts to the world.
Playing a musical instrument is one of the biggest challenges there is. We have to train our body, mind, ears, and emotions to function on an extremely high level, and we spend a lot of time talking about all this training. But the need for personal safety is even more important – for our full freedom of expression and for our health and wellbeing as performing artists.
A private lesson with a kind, understanding teacher can provide safety. But often, the experience of finding safety in a community of musicians can go even further.
Much of our difficulty in handling harmful situations is made worse than it needs to be by having grown up in families that failed to provide enough warmth, understanding, protection, and safety. If we are lucky enough to find a group of people who can be like a family – who can provide us with the understanding and kindness we need – we can heal from hurts in our past. We all need friends.
I feel incredibly lucky to have such a community – to actually lead the community of the Art of Practicing Institute in the programs I teach. Hearing one person‘s story helps all of us feel our own humanness more, and we all get stronger in our fundamental belief in the power of the human heart. Knowing that others have experienced similar vulnerability and pain can be a relief from loneliness and despair, and it renews our faith in ourselves and others.
We need this kind of community. We need a place where we can be ourselves and feel at home. We need a safe place from which to go bravely out into the world and spread joy and beauty. We need each other, as companions on the scary, beautiful, and amazing journey of being performing musicians. There’s safety in numbers when the people you’re with are willing to be real and to share their hearts.
I invite you to join our community – by trying out our live online workshops. In addition to a short, powerful mental practice and a master class session, each workshop includes a half-hour discussion period, when people talk about anything they want. Often, these conversations are about personal issues that get in the way of performance. And typically, people feel much better from speaking about their experiences, being heard, and sometimes getting practical advice. The musicians in this group are kind and welcoming. And you are free to watch first before saying or playing anything!
So I invite you to just step your toe in, and see what it’s like when your fellow musicians drop their barriers and make friends with each other. Believe me – no matter how accomplished they may be, they’re all just people like you.
I’m offering a special deal on these workshops for people who are not familiar with our special community of musicians: You can join us for two free sessions if you contact me by October 31. Then if you’d like to continue, you’re welcome to. Also all sessions are recorded, so if you can’t make a session, you can always watch it later.
I’d love to have you with us.
I wish you much joy and success.
Q & A of the Month
You talk about using mindfulness meditation to relax your mind before practicing, but I feel like I have so much to accomplish at the piano every day that I just have to get right to it instead of stopping to meditate first. Shouldn’t I take advantage of that good motivation and energy right away, instead of calming it down?
Thanks for this great question!
The passion to practice is fantastic. We need it. But meditation doesn’t really “calm down” your good energy. It relaxes and settles the nervous static within your body and mind – the excess energy that actually gets in the way of your deepest musicality, so you can actually express yourself more fully.
Music lives in the body. Most of the time, we’re not fully engaging our feeling capacity or our perceptions. We walk into a room without noticing the atmosphere in it. We enter a conversation without observing how others are feeling. Or we charge into our practicing without being aware of sensations inside us. So we miss out on a bigger experience that we could be having. And we bring less of our true selves to the situation.
Meditation is a way to get more in touch with your true self. And in my experience, even two minutes of it completely alters how a student plays at their lesson. They may come into the room with all the energy of their day still rattling around inside them, and if they start playing right away, I take in all that rattling energy along with the music they’re playing. But then if they sit still and let themselves just breathe for two minutes, when they play again, the rattling is gone, the person is more fully there, and the music comes through from a deeper place. It can be dramatically different.
Sometimes students choose to do the Performing Beyond Fear exercise instead, which takes about 6 minutes. That can be amazing, because it brings out their deep communicative energy, the really powerful passion that lies just underneath our speediness – under our “gung ho” energy, or our somewhat mindless, “Let’s dive in!” attitude. And it’s not less joyful – it’s more joyful, because we’re free of the tension that often occurs when we’re in the sway of intense emotion.
I recommend that you try one of these mental techniques a few times and record your playing before and after. Or have someone in the room with you to describe to you how it sounds different after doing the technique. When you actually experience it for yourself like this it can be very surprising.