Dear subscribers,

Today I’m delighted to bring back Nora Krohn‘s very first article for Fearless Performing, On Jealousy and True Belonging, which circulated to  over 10,000 people in 65 countries. Clearly, this is a popular subject! And clearly, Nora’s words on it meant a lot to a lot of people.

Nora is a rare individual who goes for the gold in herself, no matter what it takes. Since writing this article, she has found so much more of the sense of belonging that she was looking for back then, just by having the courage to be herself. I’ve been privileged to watch her grow enormously as a person, performer, and teacher since that time. She recently co-founded the New York String Studio, where she teaches both violin and viola. This summer, she will join the faculty of The Art of Practicing Institute, as an assistant teacher, at our fourth annual summer program. And if you’re in New York tomorrow night, I recommend catching her faculty recital at Turtle Bay Music School.

I hope you enjoy this great article.

Warmly,

Madeline Bruser
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute

On Jealousy and True Belonging

by Nora Krohn

Several years ago I was confiding in a friend, an accomplished cellist, my persistent feelings of self-doubt as a violist. This friend attended one of the top conservatories in the world on full scholarship, went to the best summer festivals, had been a member of an acclaimed chamber ensemble, and was touring and recording with a high-profile artist. Naturally, I felt envious.I told him that I thought that my late start and undistinguished early training had shut me out of the storied institutions where the “real” art must be happening. If only I had gone to a top-notch school, or a major festival, then surely I would feel like an artist, that I had a place in our majestic tradition. “Of course, I’m sure you wouldn’t understand,” I said, “since you’ve been so successful.” I expected him to offer me some cheerful platitudes about my playing and my prospects.

Instead, he shook his head, pointed at his heart and said, “But Nora, I don’t feel like I belong either. I feel like an outsider, too.”

The Myth of Earning Self-Worth
It took me quite a while to find the wisdom in my colleague’s remark. At first, it was too much to fathom, so I disregarded it as his isolated experience. After all, how could my gifted peers suffer from insecurity or dissatisfaction? Didn’t their achievements fill them with enormous self-assurance and joy? I figured once I racked up some more accomplishments I would feel worthy and happy, too. I would know for sure that I had found my rightful place in the world. Why else could I be working so hard?

But it wasn’t so. In the ensuing years I made considerable progress in my playing and my career. But the more I accomplished, and the more real connections I made in the music scene, the more excluded I felt from it. And all the time, I felt envious of my talented colleagues because I imagined their success erased all of their self-doubt and fulfilled their need to belong.

For many of us, it isn’t obvious how to nourish a feeling of belonging, especially if such nourishment hasn’t been modeled for us by our families or teachers. Moreover, the conventional view of being a musician is often framed in terms of zero-sum competition for inclusion, particularly with the emphasis on winning auditions and competitions. The current state of the arts in our economy makes matters even worse—we feel like we need to edge out someone else just to have a space for ourselves. I felt envious of my accomplished colleague because I thought that his success left less room for mine.

The truth is, we are all born with an equal and inalienable right to belong, and if we tune into our most heartfelt desires, we will end up in the right place.

But first we need to let go of some of our habitual ideas about where our worthiness comes from.

Belonging as Your True Self
In the midst of writing this article, I had a painful and revelatory experience. I was passed over for a lucrative and career-boosting gig, and it felt personal. I felt lost for a couple of weeks, and even wondered how I could write something insightful about belonging when I felt so much on the outside. But even amid all of the difficult feelings, I knew there was a powerful lesson for me, and for anyone who struggles with feelings of jealousy and unworthiness.

First of all, I knew I needed help. I sought out friends, family, and colleagues I could trust, explained the situation and how it made me feel. I got a lot of advice, some helpful and some not, but it all gave me a bigger perspective. I saw that my lack of confidence in myself had influenced the situation—people could sense it in me, and they were less drawn to me than to players with more confidence. That realization hurt, but it made me feel like less of a victim.

Next, I spent a long time thinking about the gig itself. What were my motivations for having it? If I really wanted to pursue something similar, how could I do it? I took some long walks and did a lot of sitting meditation, and just let the sadness, anger, and longing flow through me. In the end, I saw that this job I missed out on wouldn’t bring me any closer to my deepest ambitions as a musician. Most of all, I saw that the affirmation of being chosen for the job wouldn’t give me the fulfillment I sought if my heart wasn’t in it.

The Power of Letting Go
I mentally congratulated the colleague who got the job, and, instead of feeling diminished, I felt empowered. I saw how writing this article could help me move past feelings that had kept me stuck for a long time. Once I began to let go of my sadness, new ideas started to flood my system. Projects that had seemed like distant possibilities came to the foreground of my mind, and I took steps toward making them happen. My previously sparse social schedule became filled with coffee dates with artists who I thought could give me advice on how to make my own path. Most of all, I began to see that my vulnerability and self-doubt, which I always thought separated me from other people, were actually powerful forces that connected me to other people who feel the same way.

I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where I’d like to end up as an artist, or how I will get there. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is that when we embrace who we are at heart, we belong exactly where we are in that moment, and that’s a great place to start.

Steps to Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
If you seek a greater sense of belonging in the musical world, here are a few practical suggestions:

1. When a situation arises that brings up feelings of jealousy, disappointment, or longing for fulfillment, allow yourself to feel them instead of pushing them aside or covering them over. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step to understanding them and changing your outlook.

2. Explore the origins of your feelings in a gentle and probing way. See if you can own them fully, even though they are painful, and take healthy responsibility for your own reaction to the situation.

3. Know that at the root of your feelings is your natural human vulnerability, which you can celebrate as a way to connect with other people.

4. Seek out the company of people you trust. Just hearing how much they value you as a musician and person can make a big difference. They may also have fresh ideas on your situation that can awaken your own insight about what to do.

5. Take some time to remember why you became a musician, and ask yourself how you can bring your musical activities into alignment with your most genuine aspirations

In just a few days I will be returning to Madeline Bruser’s transformational summer program, “Mindfulness, Confidence, and Performance.” I am looking forward to a week of contemplation, community, and keen, heartfelt musicianship. I’d like to leave you with a story from last year’s program.

In one of our amazing group discussions, I described how I saw the tradition of classical music as a vast, ornate building that I longed to enter but could not. I was drawn to its regal facade but felt that the luminous interior had no room for me. A wise friend in the group then turned to me and said, “What you don’t realize is that you’re already inside—you’re just in a different wing. You’re building your space around you.”

His comment helped me realize that in each performance, each lesson, and each moment, we are all adding our own bricks to that sublime architecture, simply by being alive and making music.

Let’s celebrate its grandeur.

Nora Krohn

Q & A of the Month

This idea of practicing being an art confuses me. How do you manage to make it an art when you have to spend so much time repeating the same things over and over to learn them?

Thanks for the great question.

Repetition is a feature in nature, and in all art. But there is a difference from rote repetition, which is mindless and mechanical, and artful repetition, which engages and nourishes the whole person. When we repeat a phrase or passage in practicing, we do so to master it, to make it part of ourselves so that it feels natural. We can do this by enjoying each repetition, so that our body opens up more each time we play or sing it, and so that we feel more and more at home with how we’re moving, what we’re expressing, and what we’re hearing,

Enjoying repetition in such a highly demanding physical, mental, emotional, and sensory activity requires tremendous curiosity. You have to be fascinated with every little detail of how the body works – to notice how the slightest change in how you use your hand, or in how you breathe, alters the quality of touch, movement, and sensation, and alters the musical result. The relationship between you, the music, and your instrument is so intimate that way.

If you get bored with repeating the same passage over and over, you need to ask yourself, “Am I really noticing how my whole body feels when I play this? Am I noticing how every sound affects me? Is there more I want to feel or express? Would I rather look at another passage, phrase, or piece right now? Do I need to take a break?” In other words, are you really engaged or just going through the motions?

It’s easy to go on autopilot with any repetitive activity. We do it all the time in our lives. For example, we easily make the same habitual assumptions in conversations with the same people, and we fail to notice that the person is not exactly the same as in our last conversation with them, and the situation is not exactly the same either. We need to catch ourselves in the act of our habitual behavior – in the act of practicing without an open mind or heart, or without deep physical enjoyment of what we’re doing. And there’s enormous artfulness involved in that – in honing our awareness of these very habits, which do not serve us well.

The core of the Art of Practicing is cultivating this kind of awareness. Constantly noticing if we are fully engaged or not, with each sound, each sensation, each facet of the music. It turns our conventional notion of discipline completely around; instead of pushing ourselves to get better and better, we practice noticing when we’re pushing ourselves too hard, and then applying different techniques to relax and to find an easier, more satisfying way of connecting with our body, the music, and our instrument. So it’s all about mindfulness – about developing greater and greater awareness of our own experience.

In order to make real change happen with practice and performance, you have to take apart what you’ve been doing and really look at it. Really get to know yourself as a musician, and ask yourself if something is missing in your playing or singing. Then you have to look into what that missing ingredient might be. So you have to find a teacher or colleague who can point out things that you may have not been aware of before.

All of us have our blind spots, as people and as musicians. We need each other to point them out, especially when we feel undeveloped or confused or lacking in the kind of confidence we want. Making music is extraordinarily complicated. But if we take the attitude that there is always something more to learn, we can constantly grow and discover new ways of doing things, so that we fulfill our gifts more and more throughout our musical lives.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.