by Madeline Bruser
As I write this, I’m getting ready to leave my home and family in New York City for the beautiful campus of Edinboro University, where I will direct the Art of Practicing Institute’s annual summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance. Musicians will arrive from several states and three countries to open up their music-making capacities, and at the end of the week we will celebrate their transformation in a closing concert for the public, followed by a night out at the historic Riverside Inn. It’s a completely amazing week, and I feel tremendous joy and gratitude for this unique opportunity to connect with a group of deeply motivated musicians, to help them heal from confusing and unhealthy musical experiences, and to bring out and expand on the incredible beauty and magic that we carry within us as musicians and human beings.
The program is extremely nourishing for all of us, and in this article I would like to give you some ideas, based on what happens there, for how you can nourish yourself as a musician wherever you live, focusing on three particular main aspects of the program: great people, deep work, and natural beauty.
I love people, and wonderful people come to this program. They bring a readiness for the kind of work we do, which makes teaching them enormously gratifying for me. I also feel so fortunate to have great assistant teachers supporting me in the training process, in which participants bravely let go of familiar but unhealthy habits in working with music and begin to try new, healthier approaches, some of which may be challenging at first. At each year’s program I get to witness the joy and power that each participant experiences as they discover a whole new level of engagement with music in the company of others who appreciate their efforts and the breakthroughs they are making. Friendships often form quickly in this situation, and many of them are lasting.
Is there a way you can find brave, motivated people like this at home?
I suggest that you look for musicians who seem more open and vulnerable than others. Strike up conversations with them, being as honest and genuine as you can, even if it feels scary. Little by little, reveal your own weaknesses and passions, and trust your intuition in asking them questions about their own experience with practice and performance and in the music world. Remember, no matter how much someone might cover up their fears, confusion, and insecurities, we’re all alike. We’re all vulnerable human beings at heart, and in fact, the reason we love music is that we are so vulnerable to its beauty and power.
Every morning at the summer program, we have a one-hour discussion group, in which people talk about whatever is coming up for them in the work we’re doing. You could consider starting a discussion group where you live, perhaps centered around my book, The Art of Practicing, which our summer program is based on. Since the book’s publication, I’ve heard of many college music teachers who have made it required reading for their classes, as well as groups of performers and teachers who have held discussions on the book. In general, I’ve recently been hearing a lot about people forming book clubs, which can be a great way to bring like-minded people together.
Deep Work with Music
As in the private lessons I teach at home and on Skype, we take time in the music workshops at Edinboro to go into depth and detail in working with music, and participants learn far-reaching concepts that they can apply to every piece they study. Although we also talk about music in traditional ways, looking at articulation, phrasing, structure, pedaling, and countless other aspects of a piece, we focus primarily on what makes the Art of Practicing unique – its fundamental and universal points that are often overlooked and that make all the difference in achieving a free and genuine performance.
How can you go more deeply into music in a similar way at home? The Art of Practicing can be a wonderful guide. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of practicing and gives you a lot of ideas to work with from moment to moment with your instrument. And the questions and answers, which appear at the end of most chapters, can add to your sense of musical community because they are taken from actual seminars with musicians who are a lot like you. You could then talk about your experience with this kind of practicing in discussions with other musicians.
Deep Inner Work
The deep work we do at the program also includes mindfulness meditation, Focusing, and the Fearless Performing Exercise. These are mental techniques that have direct visceral effects, and they are truly transformative for practicing and performing.
Meditation is a gentle process of gradually increasing your awareness of yourself and everything around you. Because of this gentleness, the practice opens up a space in which people feel safe to talk about what they are going through.
Since the publication of The Art of Practicing, meditation has become so popular that you can now find instruction in many types of meditation and in many different cities, as well as online. Look for a place that resonates with you. And if you’re interested in my particular meditation lineage, which is the one our program comes from, you might check out what is available in your area through Shambhala International.
The technique called Focusing is a brilliant method for getting in touch with buried emotions and releasing them. It was developed by a psychologist named Eugene Gendlin as a way for people to heal from painful experiences. You can learn this simple technique from a book. Two excellent ones are The Power of Focusing, by Ann Weiser Cornell, and Your Body Knows the Answer, by David I. Rome. Focusing is a great practice for us, because emotions are our currency in making music, and we need access to them in order to express the huge range of human feelings in great music.
The third technique we do each day is the Fearless Performing Exercise, and an audio of the instruction I gave in this exercise last summer will finally be made available for purchase later this year. It includes an introduction, guided instruction, and four questions and answers. If you’d like to learn this potent seven-minute technique before the audio comes out, you are welcome to contact me for a session in person or on Skype.
After spending most of my year in New York City, the natural environment of the Edinboro campus is a wonderful breath of fresh air. It’s very green and spacious, and has a beautiful lake in the middle that we walk by every day on our way to and from the music buildings.
We all need to refresh ourselves periodically – every day and every week and season of the year. So wherever you live, find some greenery, and ideally a stream, river, lake, or ocean to go with it. Stretch your legs, breathe deep, and exhale!
In the middle of the program, everyone takes time off one evening to go to Presque Isle – a gorgeous state park on Lake Erie. That is, everyone except me; I catch up on rest that evening. But I’ve enjoyed seeing everyone come back looking happy and exhilarated.
Wherever you live, if you have the chance to get away to a special place once in a while, take it! I go to a meditation center in Vermont three times a year for a week, and the sheer contrast of this peaceful place makes it feel like I’ve been away from the city for a month. We need this kind of space in our lives, and the music we make when we come back can be so much more fresh and inspired.
Q & A of the Month
I have been performing in a string quartet regularly for the last couple of years, and some of the personal relationships between us have become difficult. Sometimes I feel like I can’t be free to make music with them because of the tension between us. Do you have any suggestions?
That’s a juicy situation.
Making music with people is definitely an intimate activity, and all intimate relationships are challenging at times. Once you’ve committed to people like that, personal issues are bound to come up sooner or later. But if you can work through them, everyone can learn a lot, and the group can become stronger.
I remember once asking my mother, maybe when I was in my 20s, about how difficult it must be in a marriage after the honeymoon is over. Her answer was one of the most helpful things she ever said to me: “That’s the best part!” We don’t want to deal with pain and difficulty, but when you commit like that, it forces you to grow, and wonderful things can happen.
In my experience. often just when things are feeling unbearable in a relationship, if you can find a way to communicate effectively, you can get through to someone and turn everything around. And one of the main keys to doing that is taking full responsibility for your own part in the communication difficulties. It takes two to create conflict, and sometimes, it just takes one person to start turning things around. So I think that if you have enjoyed playing with this quartet and are motivated to make it work, there is probably a way.
These days there are so many books and professionals around to guide us through tough situations to a higher level of emotional intelligence in communicating with others and making decisions with them. I actually once conducted a two-hour session with a well-known quartet in a weekend retreat they had, to help them face the next level of challenge in their career. They invited me to lead them in meditation, and I added the Fearless Performing Exercise after that. The discussion that came out of it opened everyone up a lot, and gave them helpful insights into themselves and each other. From there, it was easier for them to discuss topics that brought up conflict between them. You could consider trying something like that with your group, if everyone is agreeable. It could even be done online.
For myself, facing such challenges with others always begins with spending time alone, writing and working through my own feelings, before attempting to get through to someone I’m frustrated with. And consistently, I’ve found that even if I’m dead set on the idea that everything is the other person’s fault, there is always a piece of work for me to do on myself before I am capable of speaking effectively to them.
So I would start with some self-reflection. If your frustration is at the point where you are feeling angry, get the anger out on your own, away from the people involved. Once you have recognized your feelings and expressed them in a harmless way, and you have developed some insight about how you have contributed to the tension in your relationships with each person, your mind will be clearer and more open to listening to their point of view. And from there a resolution can occur.
Who knows – maybe you will become so accomplished at this kind of thing that other ensembles will hire you to help them sort out their interpersonal issues!