When you think about your desire to make music, what kinds of images come to mind?

I see an underground source – a spring, a powerful current, or sometimes a volcano, its energy moving relentlessly to the surface, pouring out, and radiating everywhere, 360 degrees. It’s a force that runs through all of us, synced up with our blood flow, our heartbeat, and the repeating alternation of our inhale and exhale – the force of life.

Musical energy is so powerful, in fact, that we easily get caught up and carried away by it, very often not noticing all the details of what’s flowing through us – the bubbles in the river, the gentle rocking of the waves, the subtle vibrations in the tissues of our body. The mere thought of containing all that life, allowing it to flow through us, inspires awe. It’s humbling. In fact, even letting one single sound penetrate us to the core changes us. Taking in beauty and magic through music is one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings.

It’s also extremely challenging to make room in ourselves for all this beauty and magic – for the endless, magnificent range and richness of human feelings that music contains and evokes.

Feeding Our Core

We talk a lot about phrasing and structure as musicians, and of course these are very important in studying music. But first and foremost we need our pure, basic response to sound. When we start with a fundamental awareness and appreciation of each sound, we have the real stuff of musicality – our visceral connection to the raw materials of music, so we can breathe life into a piece of music. Fully connecting to the energy of every sound allows us perceive the patterns the sounds make and to find the natural shape of a phrase. From there, we can discover the story the music is telling or the picture that it evokes. We can hear the dialogue and laughter of delightful characters in a Mozart piano sonata. We can give in to the sheer romance in a Chopin concerto and enjoy how its tender lyricism suddenly erupts into ferocious passion. And we can be stunned by the incredible shifts of subtle and gorgeous colors in a piece by Ravel.

Music brings us the full, inexhaustible range of human feelings and experience. We are so lucky to have music on Planet Earth! And to be musicians!

Don’t we already appreciate sound when we’re practicing?

Actually, we often miss it.

We miss it when we get so carried away by our passion that we dive into a practice session without enough sensitivity. Or when we get frustrated and tense trying too hard to get our hands to work right, or to get a phrase to work – to make the music happen. At times like these it may seem that the more we practice, the worse it gets.

And often this happens because we’ve lost touch with our body and gotten stuck in our head. We’re busy thinking things like, “The phrase peaks on this note, and if I can just get it to diminuendo right here . . .without being too soft . . . and if I can bring out the A flat a little more…“

We do need to be conscious of such musical details. But we didn’t become musicians simply to be conscious of details. We because musicians because we feel these details with our whole being, and we want to get as close to them as we can by actually making the music ourselves, with our own body. Our deepest desire to make music comes from our heart, and from our whole body. That’s where music really lives.

And that’s where we need to feel it when we’re practicing, so that we know a piece of music with our whole body, and when the moment of performance arrives, we can trust our body and let it flow as it wants to – we can let our body sing and dance and make music in whatever way it wants to make it at that moment.

How Musicians Usually Relate to Their Bodies

Many people talk these days about wanting to be more in touch with their bodies – to reduce stress and listen to what their body needs – to get more rest, take more time off, and relax more in the middle of their demanding lives.

But as musicians, we tend to think of our body as this thing that executes all those complicated moves with our instruments. We spend decades training our hands, or our lips and breathing apparatus, to do amazing things. And we spend countless hours practicing to coordinate all these movements into what a piece of music requires.

It takes so much work to train the body in these extremely precise, complex, and often very quick movements, that we easily forget about the inner experience of our body – the visceral experience of feeling the music thoroughly, of knowing it deeply inside ourselves – of letting our organs expand and fill up with sound, and letting ourselves be literally moved inside by the music we’re playing.

So how can you be more in your body?

The main thing you can do to get more in touch with your body is to slow down
In fact, just stop – right now – and breathe. Don’t try to do anything. Can you feel your body right now? Can you take a deep breath and feel how good it is to let the air fill your torso? Take a minute to scan your whole body – how do your legs feel? Your feet and toes? What about your neck, shoulders, and arms? Your face? Can you relax and just enjoy being wherever you are right now and say yourself, “Wow – I’m alive – I have a body, full of good energy  – I can breathe – blood is flowing through me – I can feel and touch things – I can take in textures with my fingers, I can hear sounds around me and see light and shadow and color – I’m so lucky to be alive.”

When you do that – when you let go of all the thinking and just let yourself be, and feel – your heart starts to open up and you’re more ready to make music. Music can flow more naturally and easily through your system. You’re free to be more who you are.

How do you actually practice this way?

Here is a story I told in a book about the kind of breakthrough a musician can have through practicing this kind of simple, basic awareness of sound:

David came to my summer program in Vermont hoping to rediscover the joy he used to feel in playing the viola. Twenty years old and highly gifted, he attended an extremely competitive conservatory and grew up with a father who encouraged him to practice by constantly pushing him to work hard, play fast, and excel. Although David appreciated his father’s support, he longed to feel more independent of his influence. At his first session with me, he revealed to the group that his father had become very ill during the last year and could no longer provide support as he used to, and that he might even die within a few years. David felt torn. As much as he wanted to feel free of his father’s input, he also wanted desperately to make his father happy by practicing extremely hard. The conflict between these opposing desires had often paralyzed his inspiration, causing him to stop practicing for weeks at a time.

After listening to David’s story, I asked him to stand solidly upright, holding his viola in one hand, and to notice how his body felt from head to toe. He took a few moments to scan his body and feel his own presence in this way. I then asked him to place his viola in position and to play only the first note of his piece, noticing how that single sound affected him. He drew the bow across the string for several seconds, extending the note until he felt the power of that sound. His face showed great concentration, and the sound soon became intensely resonant and expressive. He went on in this manner, slowly playing each successive note. Gradually, he picked up speed while visibly maintaining intense concentration, rootedness to the ground, and connectedness to the viola. His sound was rich and vibrant, and his playing was full of longing, joy, and beauty. When he finished, his face broke into a radiant smile, and I had to brush away tears before I could speak. I turned and saw others crying too. David’s breakthrough had moved everyone in the room.

David found his creative power simply by opening to the energy within himself, bringing that energy into the playing of each note, and noticing how each sound affected him. Revealing his personal story and feelings in a friendly environment helped him relax. Taking time to sense the living quality of his solid, still, physical presence and to focus on the sensations within him enabled him to gather his deep emotional and visceral energy and to use it to play. His playing was thus informed by the fullness of his being.

The effort David made to play in this powerful way can be described as peaceful effort. Rather than battling with himself to pick up his instrument and practice, or struggling to “get it right” or make it expressive, he simply tuned into his body, his sensations, and the sound he was making, and let the music flow from within him.

What You Can Take Away From This Story

David’s story makes it clear that music lives in our body. We love it because it involves all of ourselves – to be sure, it involves our intellect, but fundamentally, it’s about sound, about vibrations that touch us inside our body, that literally move and affect the liquids and membranes of our body.

You can follow David’s example and give yourself the freedom – take the time –  to feel how every sound affects you inside.

When you practice like this, you come home. You come home to your own heart – the heart of a musician.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. I first told David’s story in a chapter called “Making Music,” which I contributed to The Mindfulness Revolution, published in 2011.

Q & A of the Month

My practicing and playing have improved a lot since reading your book and working with listening techniques in one of your workshops. But lately I feel like I am losing my way – practicing is getting more and more frustrating, and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. What advice do you have?

As far-reaching as these practice techniques may be, each person is engaged in a living process of recognizing and cultivating their own wisdom, which continues to develop throughout their life. A practice technique that works at one moment may not work the next, because there are so many changing facets in the practice process – endless physical details, countless sounds and shapes, and shades and subtleties of musical meaning. If music were not so infinitely complex, it wouldn’t hold our interest all the time as it does. I find it as rich and complex as life itself.

In terms of the specific techniques of the Art of Practicing, such as listening techniques, note grouping, and basic body mechanics, they are most powerful in combination – particularly with techniques that cultivate an open mind and heart, so that a deep experience of music and of the practicing experience can occur. Many of these techniques are also part of the Art of Practicing.

I think that the frustration you are having is something you could actually leverage to open up your musical energy. When we’re frustrated or confused, there’s a physical component to that experience – some kind of uncomfortable sensation inside the body. In our Live Online Workshops, as well as at our summer program, we sometimes do a wonderful technique called Focusing, which is not in my book, but which you can learn about in a book called Your Body Knows the Answer, by David I. Rome.

Being a musician is a continual process of discovery. In the formal technique called Focusing, people notice that when they pay close attention to uncomfortable feelings, like the frustration you refer to, the energy and sensation in their body begin to shift. By simply applying your awareness to what is happening in your mind and body, you are paying attention to yourself in the same way you would pay attention to a good friend who needs your support and understanding. They begin to feel different because you are listening to them and paying attention.

In my experience, giving your feelings this kind of attention is essential to turning difficult experiences into rewarding ones, and to opening up your playing, as well as your life.

Additionally, students who have worked with me over time, or with another teacher of the Art of Practicing, have been able to penetrate the practicing process more deeply and to arrive at a new level of artistry and understanding. It’s quite challenging for all of us to go deeper than we thought we could and to take our music making to a higher level. It takes time to change ingrained habits, and having a personal guide for twists and turns of the journey can make all the difference.