Before moving to the article today, I’d like to share a video with you and to say something about what it means to me. Although some of you have already seen the video, I hope this opening note will add a little to your experience of it.
The video is very short, but It’s the first one I’ve created that points directly to what fearless performing really is. Everything I’ve written and every video I’ve made till now has really been about the one simple point that the musician in this video is making.
I’m also happy to finally be posting a video that features a non-pianist. I am very grateful to violist Nora Krohn for generously offering us her words and her playing. I hope you enjoy it, and the article that follows it.
With warm holiday wishes,
The Meaning of a Gift
By Madeline Bruser
At 14, I began feeling an intense desire to really develop as a pianist, and I asked my parents to find me a new piano teacher. My father remembered hearing about a master teacher named Alexander Libermann, who was considered one of the top three piano teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. Libermann had come to California from Russia, where he was greatly respected, and he was soaked in the esteemed tradition of Russian piano playing. When I began studying with him, I entered a new world. I instantly felt connected to something magical, yet very warm and human. It was the beginning of my adult awareness of what it meant to belong to the tradition of classical music.
At one of my first lessons, Libermann quoted the famous saying, “Noblesse oblige” (nobility comes with responsibility), and said that Franz Liszt modified it to “Genie oblige.” “I am not saying that you are a genius,” he told me, with a twinkle in his eye. But he went on to make the point that as a talented musician, I had an obligation to work hard to develop the ability I was born with. This message was one of the most valuable gifts that I have ever received. It told me that I belonged in this tradition, that I had a home in it. And I sensed that I would feel more at home in it as I developed the talent I had.
A Similar Gift of Wisdom
I received a similar gift of wise advice from my father, when my husband and I were planning to adopt a baby. We were at a family gathering, and I asked my relatives for some advice on parenting. My father’s words were the only ones that I still remember: “Just do your best—but make sure that it’s really your best.” And from the moment that our little newborn bundle was placed in my arms, I have felt the impact of my father’s words more and more deeply
The Gift of Humility
My life today is very much about using the gifts that I’ve been so lucky to receive in order to help other musicians. I wake up each day with this intention in mind, and it helps me face the many challenges that come up—everything from computer problems to the multiple problems that arise in students’ lessons—including technical, musical, and human ones. Joy and frustration alternate throughout the day, for both me and my students, as we appreciate solving one problem and then confront the next.
As my work gradually reaches more people, the challenge of increasing its reach brings further joy and frustration. I have an intense longing to help many more musicians who are struggling with tension, injuries, self-doubt, and stage fright, break through to the full, free expression of their musicality. This longing is like a river running through me, working its way past obstacles and softening everything in its path. This softening is the visceral experience of humility, the beautiful gift of becoming more gentle and relaxing more into being human.
The Gift of Connection
Recently I was humbled by a new effort I made to reach more musicians through an online fundraising campaign. As a newcomer to crowd funding, I forgot that such a campaign works best for just one project, not four or five, and I set a funding goal high enough to look unreachable, and perhaps off-putting, to many potential donors. By the middle of the second day of the campaign, we had raised only $220 toward our $200,000 goal. I became very discouraged—all that work for so little return. The bad cold I’d caught a couple of days earlier got even worse.
And then a $25 donation came in from someone I’d never heard of. When I thanked him by e-mail, he replied that he was studying with one of my students, and told me how much it meant to him. He even included photos of his piano and his teacher. I was so touched. Suddenly, I felt my body starting to recover from my miserable cold—I experienced the healing power of a kind and generous gift, and of the simple human connection that it created. So now the campaign had brought me the gifts of both humility and human connection.
The Gift in Using All of Our Gifts
The Art of Practicing Institute, newly renamed from its original name, Golden Key Music Institute, has a tagline now: Educating musicians to play from the heart. We say we’re helping musicians become who they’re meant to be. It sounds great—but how do you actually do it?
To become the musician we’re meant to be means that we have to use each aspect of our gift—our body, mind, heart, and sense perceptions—they way it is meant to be used. Learning to use our body in a natural and comfortable way, training our mind to awaken to its natural clarity and brilliance, encouraging our heart to open to its natural softness and depth, and developing our ear by focusing intently on every sound—this is the work that allows us to become the musician we’re meant to be. In working with all of these parts of ourselves, we are freeing all our faculties to operate to the maximum, so that we become totally filled with music. Then we can transmit its full power to our listeners.
Appreciation Is the Key
The real meaning of the gifts we are given lies in our appreciation of them. The more we appreciate a gift, the more wisely and beautifully we are able to use it.
And appreciation is what my approach, the Art of Practicing, is all about. Even the three preparatory steps—stretching, settling in, and tuning into your heart—are incredibly potent. They take only a few minutes, but they clear space in your body, mind, and heart for music to touch you deeply while you’re practicing. They allow you to better appreciate every sound and sensation, which can transform frustrating or disengaged practicing into a pleasurable and creative experience.
These three preliminary steps alone can help you accomplish more than you might expect. In fact, the second one, “settling in,” is basically mindfulness meditation, which is where the entire approach came from. As soon as I started practicing meditation, my piano practicing went through a complete transformation. I already had the indispensable foundation of a strong piano technique and musicianship, but meditation increased my awareness and appreciation of everything in my life to an amazing degree, including sounds and sensations at the piano. My playing opened up way beyond anything I’d every experienced. And I became much more relaxed, which eventually resulted in a streamlined physical approach to the piano.
So simply by increasing my ability to appreciate what I was doing and perceiving at the piano, I was able to break through the wall I had hit in my performing. And this expanded appreciation continued and led to a transformation in my teaching, to seminars at schools, to a book that has been translated into other languages, to this e-zine, and to The Art of Practicing Institute. And all of that has resulted in many musicians finding relief and transformation in their own practicing, performing, and teaching.
That is the power of really appreciating the simple gifts of sounds, sensations, movements—whatever is happening in any given moment.
A Practical Gift for You
If you would like some clues to developing greater appreciation of the many gifts in your life, here are a few:
- When someone gives you a holiday gift, take a few seconds longer to really look at it, and to reflect on their kind intentions—even if it isn’t something you really want.
- Look up from your screen right now and take a moment to notice your surroundings. Remember that everything around you came through the efforts of yourself and others. Notice how the colors and light affect you.
- The next time you are practicing your instrument, play or sing just the first note, and stop to feel it resonating inside of your body. Really let it affect you. Then play or sing the next one and let yourself feel the difference inside you.
- Each day, spend at least a couple of minutes reflecting on your particular talents and the people who have nurtured them. See if that brief reflection changes your state of mind for your next activity.
- Appreciate your own appreciation of things—this is your innate goodness.
This article is my gift to you today. How lucky I am to have you to read it—to care, to appreciate it. Thank you for the gift of your kind attention and interest for the last two years of articles in this e-zine. I appreciate it so much.
I wish you much joy and success in making music.
P.S. If you’ve been enjoying this e-zine and would like to see what The Art of Practicing Institute is up to, I invite you to explore our campaign and to become part of the transformation we are bringing to the lives of musicians by spreading the word. If you are moved to make a tax-deductible gift of even $1, I would be delighted to receive it, to send you a personal thank you note, and to make that genuine connection with you.
Q & A of the Month
Trigger finger is often caused by overexerting the muscles that bend the fingers, to the point where the person is clenching and gripping, and doing this repeatedly. Without actually knowing more details or seeing the pianist who has this injury, I would recommend the approach I used with a student who came to me for help with trigger finger. It’s a combination of high quality deep massage of the muscles involved (for which they need a qualified health professional) and retraining their piano technique to include the following:
- Easing tension in the hand by adjusting the bench to the optimum height and distance for finger and arm leverage and for arm weight.
- Training the fingers to rest on the keys when they are not playing.
- Relying on the arm for power, rather than on the fingers, and training the arm to work with maximum ease through varying the initiation point of the movement, to include the movements I call springing, dropping, and rotation (these are described in my book).
- Easing up on muscular exertion by applying listening techniques, so that the one’s movements are informed by a highly sensitive and trained ear.
- Further loosening the physical approach by applying the basic principles of rhythmic grouping for momentum and fluidity.
- Relaxing the mind and body through mindfulness practice.
There are lots and lots of details to all of this, and the process takes time. But this is essentially the way I train pianists in general, and these are all important fundamental aspects of piano training—for releasing tension in general, for injury prevention and recovery, and for liberating the musician to express him or herself to the fullest. I hope it’s helpful to you.