We musicians are born with the ability to receive immense joy from music. It moves us so much that we feel compelled to get as close to it as possible by actually making music – by producing the sounds with our instruments and our own bodies. And sometimes we feel ourselves overflowing with the energy in a piece of music, and we want to share it with others in performance.
Sadly, however, we often get caught in a less positive experience. Faced with the complex athletic and musical demands involved in mastering a piece, we find ourselves in a tangle of frustration. If a phrase or passage doesn’t go quite as we would like, we may start pushing ourselves to master it. We become fiercely determined to “nail” it. And before we know it, this intense determination creates tension in our body, limiting the amount of joy we can take in or transmit to others.
The names I use for my approach – including Performing Beyond Fear and the Art of Practicing – point to a way out of this joy-killing habit. Let’s look at what some of these potent words mean, and then at two basic steps you can take toward becoming a true artist in the practice room and a fearless performer onstage.
What Is Going “Beyond Fear” for a Musician?
Although we think of going beyond our fear primarily in terms of being onstage, it actually begins before we get there. A student of mine once described his practicing as a laboratory for working with fear. He realized that his habits of glossing over details in music, indulging his emotions at the piano, and pushing himself to reach his goals, were keeping him from delving deeper into his creative power – into who he truly is as a musician and artist. As we worked together and he gradually let go of his habits, he began to unmask the core of his heart while practicing and to connect with music on a whole new level. It was scary to be that vulnerable and open – he could feel he was entering unknown territory over and over – but he bravely opted for discovering the depths of himself instead of settling for his safe, habitual way of relating to music and the piano.
When you practice this way, you develop the habit of going beyond fear. This is a huge advantage when you walk onstage to perform.
What is Art in Practicing?
Art and performing beyond fear come together when you practice the way my student described. Being an artist means opening yourself to the full beauty and power of music, and to do that you have to open to the full beauty and power in yourself – to the deepest and most genuine place you can find in yourself. From there you can be truly free and spontaneous in practicing, rather than engaging in rote repetition of passages.
This is not always easy. To bring all of yourself to every moment of your practicing, you have to trust your body, your mind, and your sense perceptions from moment to moment, and to follow your intuition rather than relying on familiar concepts of how to play a phrase or how to create a particular musical effect. You have to constantly look within yourself to notice your genuine response to what you are hearing, rather than measuring your playing according to preformed concepts or the standards of others.
This means, for instance, that while you’re playing a phrase, you pay attention to the exact sensations occurring in your body – the sensations of touch and movement and of the sounds affecting you inside – and you literally feel your way toward an authentic connection with the music you’re making, instead of judging in your head how “good” your playing is.
It’s challenging to practice this way because you are a unique individual. You can never know where you’re headed on the path of becoming the artist and person you’re meant to be. There is no map. All you can do is trust yourself and feel your way from one moment to the next. This is called being creative!
Although it can be scary to be the pioneer in your own journey and to forge ahead without a map, you don’t need to despair. Others have faced their own mapless pursuit of authentic musicianship and artistry, and they can provide valuable guidance for you on your own journey.
Here are two steps gleaned from my particular mapless search toward going beyond fear in the practice room and onstage. Of course, these two steps are hardly a complete recipe! But if you follow them, you can begin to open up a whole world of rich, genuine musical experience in practice and performance.
Step One: Sympathize With Yourself
The first step is to muster some sympathy for yourself for facing the reality of being a musician. It is so much harder than most people think.
Scientists consider playing a musical instrument the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in. It is, in fact, so complex that images of classical musicians’ brains stand out as the only brain images that are clearly recognizable as belonging to a distinct segment of the population. Coordinating two hands, maybe your feet or your mouth and jaw, your lungs and entire breathing mechanism, along with massive sensory input, refined intellectual concepts, and a vast range of emotional energies – what could possibly be more demanding? And then to do all that in front of an audience???
So give yourself a break. Appreciate how hard it is. There is a reason you are often frustrated and may even lose heart at times. In fact, give yourself frequent breaks. Don’t push yourself in the practice room. Notice when you’re getting tense, frustrated, or upset, and just stop. Stop and relax, for even a few seconds. Take a deep breath or two. Allow yourself to refresh your mind and spirit a little. You’ll bring much healthier energy to your practicing.
And while you’re at it, extend some real kindness to yourself. Remember that you have worked so hard for so long to become the musician you are now, and appreciate yourself for continuing to put in the effort, day after day. Appreciate your love for music and your dedication and bravery in pursuing this extremely difficult art. Give yourself an imaginary medal. You deserve it. Not because of your ego, but because of your strength of heart.
Step Two: Practice the Art of Receiving Beauty
Now that you have softened toward yourself, let yourself enjoy the music you are making.
I once read that a true musician is someone who is in love with the raw materials of music. Every melodic interval, every harmony, every rhythmic pattern, every silence in a piece of music is something to savor. All of it is music to our ears – if we can get off of our fast, self-deprecating, and self-denying track and just open ourselves to it.
So when you’re practicing, try listening in very slow motion. Take the liberty of effectively holding a magnifying glass over every sound in a phrase. Notice the amazing juxtaposition of notes, the constantly changing stream of colors that music is. The unbelievable range of human expression it contains. Come back to your senses by spending several seconds tasting each single sound.
And do this a lot. Take some time every day to fill your whole being with the sheer beauty of musical sounds.
Having let yourself receive the riches of sympathy and beauty, you now have more to give to others – in performing, in teaching, or just in being with other people. You have fed yourself healthy energy, and people will feel more comfortable around you, even warmed by your presence. Then you can receive something even more amazing – the deep fulfillment that comes with giving something to others from an open and joyous heart.
Music offers us a unique and special opportunity to connect with deep places in ourselves and in others. I vividly remember listening to records with a group of fellow Juilliard students decades ago at one of their apartments. We had just listened to one of the Brahms symphonies, and one of them said with an awestruck look on his face, “It’s like music touches nerves that nothing else can touch.”
We all need to remember what a powerful and essential healing force music has been since ancient times. Thousands of years ago, human beings gathered together to express deep emotion through music and to share it with each other. Today, we may come home after a long day and listen to music that melts away our stress or releases our pain. Or we may discover a new video online of one of our favorite performers and immediately share it with friends and family. And then there are times when we gather with a large group of people for a special concert to experience our shared humanity as a great artist creates magic from their own human heart onstage.
So for those of us who are lucky enough to actually be musicians, we owe it to ourselves to revel in the beauty of music as we magically make it ourselves. It can nourish us like nothing else quite can.
Oh, my fellow musicians. I so want you to take all of this to heart. You work so hard to make music. In the middle of your hard work, please remember what it’s for. Be your own true listener. Love your own musician’s heart, and feed it every time you practice. Take time to deeply receive the music you are making.