By Madeline Bruser
A young pianist once told me how he had practiced for his jury exam at music school. The exam was scheduled for nine o’clock in the morning. Being very nervous, he decided that the best way to prepare would be to practice all night. That way, he figured, he would feel as secure as possible. To keep himself awake, he periodically ate coffee grounds from a spoon. When 9 a.m. came, he walked in, sat at the piano in front of the jury, and found that he couldn’t play a note. His body and mind were completely wrecked.
Now, compare this story to an opposite one, told to me by a piano professor at a university. When he was a student, he once practiced very hard for his teacher’s weekly performance class but then didn’t play well in the class. Since all that practicing hadn’t helped him perform well, he decided that for the following week’s class he wouldn’t practice at all. After a week’s rest from the piano, he felt relaxed and played wonderfully in the class, stunning his teacher and fellow students.
What can we conclude from these two stories?
Certainly, we need to relax and get our rest. But we all know what would have happened to the second pianist if he had continued to go week after week without practicing—stiff fingers, confused mind, faulty memory . . .
So how can we find a balance between these two extremes? How can we develop reliability and freedom at the same time?
Would a week’s vacation from the piano work for you, if you were performing difficult repertoire at an important venue, with a critic in the audience? What kind of preparation would work best for you then? And how would you know?
What does it mean to prepare for a moment in which everything is unpredictable?
Driven by Fear
Although practicing all night is a very extreme form of pushing yourself, most of us have experienced the futility of lesser forms of overworking or pushing ourselves to gain a sense of control. We may over-practice a particular passage, try to play fast before we’re ready, or clench our muscles in an effort to force expressiveness into a phrase. Even if we recognize that these habits create tension that obstructs the free flow of the music, we may not know how to free ourselves from our habits.
We also may not realize that there’s an underlying fear, a lack of trust operating with these habits. Our effort to exert control over ourselves and over the music we practice often stems from a fear of being inadequate—we’re afraid that if we just relax and work at our own pace and in a more natural way, we’ll never develop the ease and mastery we long for—or at least, not in time for our deadline.
Preparing for the Hot Seat
Like the pianist who pulled the all-nighter, we may think that pushing ourselves hard will make us extra-ready for our big moment onstage. But actually, if we make a habit of pushing and tightening, we set ourselves up to deliver a pushed and tight performance. A lot of the beauty and joy we’d hoped to transmit to our audience gets buried under our habitual tension and stress.
When we leave the practice room and enter the spotlight onstage, we still may cling to our habits, but we discover that something much bigger than us is running the show. That something is the intense, living energy of the present moment. Since we can’t stop in the middle as we did during practice, we need to accept and flow with whatever is happening—including surprising new things in our performance, the atmosphere around us, and the rawness of our nerves. We may have had all kinds of plans for our performance, but these plans may be overwhelmed by the power of the situation.
What we really need to do to prepare for this spot-lit moment is to push ourselves less in practicing—to notice when we’re getting tense, and then to let go and enjoy every move we’re making and every sound we’re hearing. To experience a state of flow. The more we can get used to this experience in practicing, the more we’ll be ready to let it happen when we’re out there in the hot seat onstage.
What IS Flow?
People have said a lot about the state of flow. Letting go—being spontaneous and in the moment—sounds wonderful. And it is.
But it doesn’t always feel wonderful. It can feel scary, confusing, and disorienting. If we’re not really used to it, it can throw us, and we can lose our confidence.
We need to understand what this famous state of flow really is.
Flow is very different from getting caught up in the passionate or powerful energy in music and getting carried away to the point of losing your balance. When you’re in a state of flow you feel effortlessly in command. No matter how fast, intense, or complex the music is, you have a certain sense of ease and natural awareness. Everything is in synch. Rather than feeling rushed, you feel like time has stopped. You are fully present. Everything is flowing easily through you, transforming your body and mind. The audience feels it when that happens, and you feel connected to them through the music.
Sometimes when we let go and flow in the moment, our emotional experience is very mixed. We may become so vulnerable through letting go that we don’t even realize that our performance is deeply moving. It takes true courage to perform in this way—feeling raw and open, not knowing if your performance is good or not, if anyone likes the product of your vulnerability.
Yet regardless of what we think about this experience of flow, we have to practice trusting it. It’s all we really have that’s genuine. It’s the only place from which we’re free to be human and to express the best that’s in us. It’s the only place where we’re not run by our ego, but by our pure love for the music and for sharing it with an audience. Where we’re willing to take a chance.
So how can we get used to this state? How can we encourage it in our practicing and performing, and how can we learn to live with the fear and trembling it sometimes brings up in us? Beyond that, how can we learn to celebrate it for both the challenge and the freedom it creates?
Making Friends with Fear
The first step is to begin to accept the fear and discomfort that often arise when you let go of control. If the pianist who practiced all night had instead been able to relax with his insecurity about his jury exam and to accept the fact that his performance might not be perfect, he might have been able to open up and express himself in front of the judges. Instead, his desperate search for security drove him to construct a kind of maximum-security prison, which gave him no space to be human and which destroyed his performance entirely.
Although his approach was completely extreme, it was really just an exaggerated form of his familiar habit of pushing himself too hard. And for all of us, even the most painful and uncomfortable habits often carry the false comfort of just being familiar. We may know such habits are not healthy for us, but we get trapped in this false sense of comfort. We get trapped in our “comfort zone,” a confining place that limits our possibilities.
It’s worthwhile to look into your habits and see where clinging to familiarity might actually be confining you to a somewhat narrow space in which your musicality can’t fully breathe.
Small Steps Further
In last month’s article I wrote about the first ingredient of fearless performing—reliability—and a little about flow, which is the second ingredient. The video showed how young pianist Phoebe Pan achieved both greater reliability and greater freedom by altering her physical approach (see the article and video below). In Phoebe’s case, adjusting her posture and increasing the flexibility of her shoulder allowed the music to flow more easily.
In the video directly following this paragraph, with my wonderful student Jad Bernardo, you will get a glimpse of how freeing up the hand and wrist can also create more musical flow.
I find it remarkable that Jad had the insight to recognize that gaining freedom can be both wonderful and frightening. Even in taking this small technical step, he was able to go beyond his particular comfort zone and experience more of what he is capable of in his playing. And he was able to accept his fear and familiarize himself with it, so that the next time he performed he felt more ready for the experience of letting go.
The Comfort Zone and “The Zone”
What athletes call “the zone” is actually a place of freedom that you can get to in performance by recognizing how your “comfort zone” of habits actually confines you, and by learning to step out of it. Each time you leave your comfort zone and enter a place of greater freedom, you get closer to being able to soar beyond your comfort zone. It can be surprising how a series of steps can lead directly to this experience of taking flight.
Phoebe’s reaction to “the zone” was equally as intelligent as Jad’s. Where he experienced fear, she experienced delight and amazement. Fear of flying, delight in flying—both are very human reactions to freedom and letting go.
How do you construct your comfort zone? What happens when you step out of it? Take a look at your particular habits and at how you feel when you break free of them.
It’s a great journey, being a performer. We have a remarkable opportunity to experience the challenge and the exhilaration of braving the unknown—of being fully human, and alive.
I wish you much joy and success in making music.
P.S. If you have a performance or audition coming up and you’re not a big fan of practicing all night, I invite you to sign up for my Performance Coaching Package. Scheduling is tailored to your situation, and the package is being offered for a limited time at reduced rates. To decide if this package is right for you, I invite you to come for a free consultation.
Q & A of the Month
In last month’s video with the student, you asked her to feel “rooted to the bench” and to “sit really down.” What was that about?
Being “rooted,” or physically grounded, has a big effect on any musician’s playing, or singing. In terms of reliability, which is the first ingredient of fearless performing, there’s nothing more reliable than the force of gravity—which we usually take for granted. If we actually focus on how gravity roots us to the ground, or to the bench—if we tune into it—we have a great advantage. In her case, it helped her have more power and ease with her arms.
Athletes understand this principle. If you watch a boxer deliver a punch, you can see him push his feet and legs into the ground as he’s about to use his arm. You can understand this principle easily if you mimic that movement in the following way: Sit solidly upright and deliver a punch into the air, straight ahead of you. You will easily feel power in your arm. Then give up your solid, vertical position by hunching over, so that your weight is no longer sinking straight down into the seat, and try delivering the punch. Immediately you will notice that you lose power. You lose power because you literally lose your ground.
The extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was very striking in this regard. One reviewer commented that she seemed to draw energy directly up from the ground when she sang. I perceived the same thing in her myself. Her feet were solidly planted on the floor, and the energy seemed to move powerfully upward straight through her body and out from her throat. It was glorious.
There’s nothing like this rootedness— not only for physical reliability, but also for confidence. It gives you a solid base from which to openly express yourself. My own playing, and that of my students, opened up enormously when I discovered this principle. Of course, you also need to use your hands and arms efficiently in order to make it all work.
In next month’s article I plan to get into listening, which is directly affected by this kind of physical groundedness. The stability allows you to be more receptive. So although you may be moving less, you can actually be more engaged with the music.