by Madeline Bruser

The music building at Indiana University was locked on Sunday mornings when I was a student. But of course we had to get in to practice! We were passionate, dedicated musicians! So we figured out a way. The building had a back door that could only be pushed opened from the inside with a metal bar. Once you left through that door, there was no handle or lever on the outside to get back in. So every Saturday night, one of us put a big piece of tape at the bottom of the door, going from the inside to the outside. On Sunday morning, all we had to do was lift the tape and pull the door open. The practice rooms were ours!

We took much glee in this activity, because we were standing up for ourselves as devoted, aspiring musicians. Nothing could stop us! And I am still proud to belong to this particular tribe of human beings – we have such deep love and thirst for our art, and we value our gifts and are committed to fulfilling them. All of this is wonderful and inspiring. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being altogether, with this built-in power we call our life force. This life force makes us want to keep growing and to connect with other people. We want to connect with the music people have written and with the people in our audience. And we know it takes a lot of practice on our instruments to make that connection happen, so we are deeply motivated to get into the practice room.

Appreciating Your Nature

It’s essential that you appreciate your own life force – this wonderful human energy at your core. It is your basic nature as a human being – you are alive and you want to connect with other people, with music, and with the entire sensory world. The more you can appreciate yourself on this fundamental level, the more you can release your life force so that it can work for you to create beautiful and fulfilling connections with music and with others.

Take a moment now to reflect on this amazing life power that you have within you. Can you feel it? If you can’t, is there something or someone you can think about – maybe a piece of music you love – that ignites your life energy? Stay with it for a moment. Recognize that this is your power. And realize that it’s always available to you.

How We Get Off Track

As wonderful and essential as this passionate energy is, we often get carried away with it when it comes to working with the seductive and demanding details in a piece of music. With our big appetite for musical beauty, we can easily get drawn into one pleasurable detail of a single morsel of beautiful music to the point where we become extreme perfectionists. We start pushing hard to have every note exactly in its place, at exactly the right time and volume, and with the perfect tone quality in relation to all the others. When you consider that a single piece of music can have many thousands of notes, this is pretty much expecting the impossible of ourselves. And yet we long for the impossible and often shoot for it at all costs. In fact, a lot of musicians’ injuries come from pushing hard for a perfect performance.

Finding Humility

A couple of years ago I attended a wonderful performance by a well-known string quartet in New York. The program included one of the profound late Beethoven quartets, and they played it magnificently. Since I knew one of the quartet members, whose playing really moved me, I went up to him after the concert and told him how amazed I was that they could play such profound music so extremely well. His response was the epitome of honesty and humility: “You always feel defeated.”

I’ve thought about his words many times since then. I don’t know about the “always” part, but I’ve often reflected on the fact that some of the best things in life, some of our deepest desires, pretty much guarantee a lot of failures mixed in with the celebrations and victories. You want a great marriage? Get ready for a lot of pain, missteps, and confusion alongside the joys and ecstasies, as you travel this amazingly rich and crazy path. You want to be a parent? Get ready for one of the toughest yet most deeply fulfilling journeys of your life. You want to play a great musical masterpiece? Expect to come up against your limitations over and over again, as you try to meet the mind of the genius who wrote it and to do justice to this powerful work of art. And if you actually make it to the peak of one musical mountain, expect that another mountain will appear after that one right in front of you .

But you can enjoy a great view from up there!

And in fact, you don’t have to wait till you reach the peak of Mount Everest to enjoy the view. Whatever journey you’re on, you can always look around and celebrate where you are, what you see, and how far you’ve come.

Relaxing with Perfectionism

The fact is that there is a constant succession of beautiful views available to us throughout the challenging journey of practicing a piece of music. Every sound and sensation offers us pleasure and delight all along the way. And the real secret of bringing your best to a piece of music is to learn how to take in all those pleasures and delights constantly throughout your practicing, to fully enjoy them regardless of your high standards for the end result. You can actually relax with your perfectionism not by giving up your desire to be great and to master the piece, but by continually shifting your focus from the glorious high goal to the gorgeous landscape that is always presenting itself. In other words, you can give your best to a piece of music by letting the music give you its best to you all the time.

How exactly do you do that?

Step 1: Appreciate Your Perfectionism AND the Twists and Turns

When my particular journey as a mother began and I started reading parenting books, once of the first helpful ideas I came across is that gifted children are typically perfectionists. Seeing early on that our daughter is gifted in many ways, we have tried to help her appreciate her beautiful high standards yet also to relax with projects she loves, and to develop a sense of humor about how things are going. She has gradually come to understand that creative projects take time and that there is an organic process to each one. Getting into that process – getting curious about the whole journey of creating something, no matter how confusing or frustrating it can sometimes be – is what makes the project enjoyable and rewarding all the way through. It can be endlessly fascinating, and we can learn so much from it. Being an artist, making art, is about so much more than the finished painting or performance that other people get to see or hear. It’s about reveling in the entire amazing, deeply human experience of making something with your own hands and with your whole heart.

So stop for a moment and reflect on your gifts as a musician, and appreciate that your high standards and your longing to master your instrument and the music you love are a beautiful and powerful expressions of your life force and of your devotion to music.

Then, see if you can you remember a time when you were striving hard in one particular direction toward a particular technical or musical goal in your practicing and you somehow suddenly stumbled on a completely different and unexpected new way of getting closer to that goal? I remember times, for instance, when I felt increasingly frustrated with how my hands felt in a tough passage and then suddenly noticed something about the musical texture of the passage that inspired a whole new solution to the technical problem. I’ve always found such experiences of sudden insight in practicing to be exciting and inspiring, And they happen all the time in teaching too, when I’m trying different approaches to a musical or pianistic puzzle and suddenly find the missing piece.

Step 2. Enjoy Your Desire for More

The fuel we can rely on for such creative work is our perpetual desire for more – we always want more beauty, more joy, more self-expression. It’s important to realize that just feeling that desire is a pleasure in itself. The passion to make music, to get intimate with it by using our own body to make the sounds we love and to experience all these sounds moving through our system, is such a great gift in itself. Feeling that much love for music is a gift even apart from actually playing or singing it.

So while you are busy practicing, stop for just a moment to feel your beautiful, raw desire to make music. Can you feel it? This, again, is your life force running through you – the energy of communication and connection. Appreciate and enjoy this delicious power in yourself. It will open up more in response to your attention and its energy will help you make that connection in a bigger way.

Step 3. Practice Feeling More by Doing Less

Once you have connected with your life energy in this way, take a bath in some sounds and sensations. Pick a place you love in a piece you’re working on, drop your agenda, and just notice how it feels to make and hear a single sound, and then a series of sounds at a luxuriously slow pace.

Whether it’s your fingers or your mouth or both that are contacting your instrument, feel the sensations of touch and movement, and notice how they expand throughout your body. Notice how the resonance of each sound adds to that physical sensation, and how all of the sensations of sound, touch, and movement combine to create the musical bath that you are in.

If you find yourself enjoying this slow-motion, sensuous process but you start worrying that you won’t accomplish enough this way, challenge yourself a little. See if you can indulge in your bath just a little longer. Doesn’t it feel good to let those sounds melt into you? Don’t you want more of that?

It may be hard to relax your focus on goals and deadlines and to allow yourself this kind of pleasure in your everyday work with music. But continually making this choice to thoroughly enjoy this sensuous experience is very necessary – because for all of us, and especially for musicians, music is an essential food. The more you try practicing this way, the more you will want to continue it. And the more you continue, the more you’ll have to give when it’s time to perform. The best performers are those who revel in the sounds they/re making when they practice. Because they have filled themselves to overflowing with the beauty and joy of music, they bring a musical feast to their audience.

Here’s an Example

Let’s say you’re approaching a particular phrase with the aim of making every note shine as brilliantly as possible, so you try to make the brightest sound you can with each note or chord. But, surprise! The phrase doesn’t cooperate with your intention! It seems to have a mind of its own! You become frustrated and tense, and maybe you even start berating yourself for not getting the result you want, which only locks up your energy even more and drains your joy even further.

But if you can let go of your concept of the phrase and take a fresh look at it, stopping to notice exactly how each sound creates a different beautiful effect inside your body, and then notice how your body wants to move in playing the phrase, you might discover that the real brilliance you were aiming for comes from the range of exciting contrasts you end up creating by letting each sound speak to you and flow naturally through you and your instrument. Your playing can spontaneously become more vibrant as you respond to what you’re feeling, and the real power and beauty of the phrase can suddenly reveal itself.

How Will I Get Any Speed That Way?

If you have a deadline and are worried about getting the music up to speed, you may not have a lot of time to indulge in this kind of slow and creative practicing. So just do it a little every day, as much as you feel you have time for. Gradually, as you get used to taking a bath in sounds, your ears will get better at taking them in, and your body will become accustomed to moving more freely and spontaneously in response to inner sensations. You will gradually be able to handle more speed while still feeling exquisitely receptive to sounds and sensations.

What About the Negative Voices in Your Head?

It can be hard to allow yourself this much freedom and pleasure in practicing if you’ve received a lot of negative messages about yourself and your music making. Because the demands on musicians are so extreme, requiring such a high level of functioning of our body, mind, emotions, and sense perceptions, they can not only drive us crazy sometimes, but they can freak out people around us.

Everyone – parents, teachers, colleagues, audition judges, and others – seems susceptible to the doubts and fears that can arise when we even think about trying to meet such huge demands, and one of the most common reactions to these doubts and fears is to panic and dish out destructive criticism. Parents and teachers may push us too hard and lose patience even when we’re trying our best to do well. Colleagues may take out their insecurities on us by indulging in nasty or bullying behavior toward us. Judges at competitions may make unkind remarks to contestants. Some judges even attack each other for having different opinions about who should win the competition and why. In this extraordinarily competitive environment, is it any wonder that so many musicians are terrified to perform without taking a beta blocker?

Because making music is both so demanding and so intimate an activity, we shouldn’t underestimate our need for strong support when we’re growing up and trying to become the musician we’re meant to be. If you still feel the effects of someone being insensitive or mean to you around your music making – if their negative comments still appear in your head and get in the way of your practicing and performing – seek out the kind of positive feedback and genuine understanding that you really need. The right music teacher, psychotherapist, or friend can make a huge difference in tipping the scales toward a healthy enjoyment of practice and performance by helping you gain genuine self-respect and self-appreciation.

I Invite You to Join Our New Online Community!

Having a whole community of people like this can be even better. Surrounding yourself with other people who are on the same journey and who understand the challenges you’re facing can provide tremendous relief and encouragement. For that reason, I invite you to participate in the online community of The Art of Practicing Institute by joining our new Facebook group! Here you can connect with musicians who have already delved deeply into a lot of the ideas in this e-zine and in my book, The Art of Practicing. These are wonderful human beings who are either on our faculty or have actually worked with us in private lessons and in our summer program. And we already have a lot of new members who want to connect with them and with people like you. So please check us out and feel free to post whatever thoughts, feelings, doubts, fears, questions, or concerns you might want to share about this huge, human endeavor we call making music. We’ve been there. We get it. And we’d love to have you with us.

I look forward to seeing your posts. We all have so much to gain from sharing our experience and from knowing that others are in the same beautiful, scary, amazing boat along with us.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you are in the New York area on Sunday, October 18, I’d love to see you at my seminar and demonstration lesson on The Art of Practicing: Unleashing Musicians’ Communicative Power at the Grinberg Classical Salon Series. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

Q & A of the Month

I teach piano, and I don’t always succeed in communicating in the most helpful way with my students. Some of them have a lot of doubts and fears about their abilities even if they play quite well, and I find it hard to be sympathetic about their doubts and fears while still trying to encourage them about their progress and potential. How can I help them believe more in themselves? 

This is a beautiful question. In my experience, really hearing and understanding how a student feels – or for that matter, a friend or family member feels – is often easier said than done. You really have to feel your way with it and learn as you go.

Every day I find that I miss an aspect of something someone has said. I feel like I’m not quite tuned in to where their heart really is or to what they intended to convey. Or I discover that I don’t know the whole story behind their feelings, and that I’ve responded with inadequate information. And the people who are closest to me don’t always completely understand me either.

It can be very helpful for us as teachers to ask questions of a student when they express doubt or fear, to be sure that we understand. And we also need to be aware of our particular habitual tendencies in talking to students. Some of us tend to talk too much, not leaving them enough space to feel or express how they feel. Or we might jump to conclusions about what the student is trying to say. Other teachers may be afraid to reveal anything personal about themselves or their feelings, because they don’t want to come across as unprofessional, but they end up limiting the degree of personal connection with the student, which can make it harder for the student to open up and trust them.

For me, this whole endeavor of communicating well with students, and with people in general, is a lifelong practice. We are all such complex people, and human communication is loaded with endless subtleties and challenges.

At the same time, if you make a sincere effort to understand them, most people can feel how much you care and will allow for slight misunderstandings and keep trying to express how they feel. So the main point is to first let yourself feel how much you care about the student, and then, from that caring place, let them know you’re really trying to understand them by asking questions and responding with warmth. Once you’ve done that, if you feel the student is indulging too much in negative thinking, you could try pointing out specific things that you appreciate about their progress and potential. Let them know that they’re not alone – that others have had similar doubts and fears yet have succeeded in making their dreams come true as musicians. And ask them if they have questions about what you’re telling them.

Also, please feel free to invite them to join our Facebook group! It’s a safe place where musicians can share their doubts and fears, as well as their joys and inspirations, in facing this huge, human endeavor called making music.

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