As I write this, I’m about to leave my home in New York City for the beautiful campus of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, to teach the Art of Practicing Institute’s 6th annual summer program, Mindfulness, Confidence & Performance. Musicians from six countries are coming to open up their playing and singing, and we will celebrate their transformation at a closing concert for the public, followed by a special night out for ourselves.
It’s a totally amazing week, because we’re there to let go of habits that don’t serve us and to learn new, healthier ways to practice, perform, and live. No one is the same afterwards. We all leave the program feeling deeply nourished as musicians, performers, and human beings.
If you’re not coming to this program, I’d like to provide some ideas in this article, based on what happens there, for how you can nourish yourself as a musician wherever you live, focusing on three main elements of the program: nature, deep work, and supportive community.
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.
As human beings with demanding lives, 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. But even if you have only a potted plant or some flowers in your home, take time to gaze at these and drink in the beauty. Breathe deep, and exhale! Or just close your eyes and take time to imagine a beach, a forest, or a peaceful lake. Let yourself breathe and let your body relax.
In the middle of summer 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 on a meditation retreat in the country 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.
Deep Work with Music
As in the private lessons I teach at my home studio and online, we take time in the master classes 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: fundamental and universal points that are often overlooked in studying music and that can 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, which can clarify these ideas.
Deep Inner Work
The deep work we do at the program also includes mindfulness meditation, Focusing, and the Performing Beyond Fear 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, mindfulness meditation has entered the mainstream of our culture, with 20 million Americans practicing it. You can now find instruction in many types of mindfulness, in many cities and online. Look for a place that resonates with you.
Another technique we learn and practice at the summer program is Focusing – spelled with a capital “F”. 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. And it can also be used to become more aware of positive feelings and to let them spread further in your system, providing wonderful emotional and physical nourishment.
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 Performing Beyond Fear exercise, and an audio of the instruction I gave in this exercise at last summer’s program is now available online. It includes an introduction, guided instruction, and the live question and answer session with participants that followed.
I love people, and wonderful people come to this program. They come because they’re motivated to go deep and to change their habits in order to become the musicians they’re meant to be. 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.
How can you find brave, motivated people like this at home?
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, insecurities, 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 basically 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. 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. Many people also participate in book clubs, and sometimes this book is one they talk about. Such gatherings can be a great way to bring like-minded people together.
I wish you much joy and success.
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 Performing Beyond Fear 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, using video conferencing through zoom.com.
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’ve 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!