(This article was first published in Performing Beyond Fear e-zine in March 2013.)

By his third lesson with me, Michael, a gifted young pianist, had already begun to get familiar with the new physical approach I was teaching him. His hands were no longer tense, and he had freed up his wrists, arms, and shoulders a lot also. But when he finished playing his Bach prelude, he said he wasn’t satisfied with how his hands felt—he wanted his movements to feel more fluid. I knew that for his hands to move more fluidly, he needed to start focusing less on technique and more on the music. He had accomplished the first step—of acquiring basic, efficient coordination—and he was ready to refine his coordination by opening up more to the beauty and flow of the music. I also knew that by tuning in more to the sounds he was making, he would play with more sensitivity and expressiveness.

To help Michael relate more strongly to the music, I suggested that he sing the left hand part of the opening phrase while playing the right hand part. If you’ve ever tried doing this, you know it takes some effort; it requires you to fully hear two musical lines at the same time. But Michael has a well-developed ear, and he did it remarkably well. Next, I asked him to repeat the same process, but to pay close attention to each harmonic interval he played, and to notice how it affected him inside. He went more slowly this time, taking time to focus intently on each harmony. Finally, I asked him to just play the phrase with both hands and notice how it sounded. The music became vibrantly beautiful, and his face lit up in a dazzling smile. “It’s music!” he exclaimed in delight. I asked him if he could explain what he meant, but he was at a loss for words. “That’s all I can say. It’s music!” His joy and excitement touched me. It was as though he had just run into a long lost friend.

What Michael experienced at that moment was something that had only occasionally happened to him in the past. As he described it later, “I didn’t intellectualize about what I was playing. I just heard it. I felt it.” He got out of his head and in touch with his hearing on a deep level. For all the years and countless hours he had spent practicing, he had an unusual experience in that moment of the real, visceral power of making music. He had indeed run into a long lost friend.

Our Birthright as Musicians

All of us, as musicians, are born with a special ability to respond to sound. Our love for music is more intense than other people’s—so intense that we feel compelled to become intimate with music by producing the sound with our instrument and our own body. Yet, like Michael, in the innumerable hours we spend mastering our instrument and learning repertoire, we often lose our intense connection with music and start running on automatic pilot. We get caught up in trying to meet performance deadlines, or in pushing ourselves to play pieces at full tempo. Or we mindlessly run through a piece, thinking it sounds just fine and ignoring the fact that we actually feel no great joy in the act. And sometimes, as Michael later said about a lot of his previous practicing, we try to imitate what we’ve heard on recordings, forgetting that we can think and listen for ourselves—that we can make a genuine, personal connection to the music we’re playing and really release our vital, creative energies.

In short, although we work so hard practicing our instruments, we often don’t receive the tremendous nourishment that music can provide. And it’s often because we don’t take time to deeply drink in the sounds we’re producing. We put out more than we take in. In doing so, we neglect our needs as artists and as human beings—our need to engage fully with music and to truly express ourselves. As a result, quality suffers—the quality of our playing, and the quality of our musical lives.

To add insult to injury, we often assume that the reason we don’t feel satisfied with how we’re playing is that we’re still not working hard enough. Or that we’re not talented enough. Or both.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

How Practicing Really Works

Of all people, we musicians need to reclaim our birthright to enjoy music, as we’re making it. We need to enjoy it to the fullest extent possible. Of course, we need to work to develop technical ease, but if we want to have something truly wonderful to give to an audience, we also need to focus much more than we usually do on enjoying the miraculous reality of musical sounds

Michael’s hands did move much more fluidly when his ears were more engaged with the music he was playing. But more importantly, the sound he produced was vibrantly alive—it was infused with his personal energy. And even more important than both of these results, Michael learned a core lesson about being a true musician: he learned how to have such joyous experiences more often. He met the power of his own mind—the amazing power of paying full attention to music as he was making it.

Michael told me later that although he had had moments of vividly hearing music while practicing slowly in the past, he had never realized that slowness was a key to this experience. After that lesson, he deliberately practiced more slowly, and had repeated experiences of this intense connection with music. But then he often found himself reverting to his habit of playing fast, and stopped enjoying the music. “It’s a weird impetus to play fast,” he said. “It’s much more personal the other way.”

So How Do You Learn to Play Fast?

The real key to vivid engagement with music isn’t slowness. It’s attention. But most of us are so used to speeding through all of our activities, including our practicing, that we need to slow down a lot at first in order to discover the power of attention. As we develop our listening capacity much more, it operates fully at faster and faster speeds. In other words, practicing is as much about training our ears as it is about training our muscles.

The Surprising Ability of Your Own Mind

In last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space, I described the simple technique of mindfulness-awareness meditation, which allows your mind to slow down and settle into a natural clarity and receptiveness. Doing this technique for even a few minutes can help tremendously in clearing mental and emotional space for experiencing the pure joy of genuinely making music.

At the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program, and in our ongoing live online workshops, we do this kind of meditation regularly, in addition to other highly efficient practices to increase natural receptiveness and creativity for making music. I invite you to join us!

Musician, Heal Thyself

I also invite you to take a moment now to think about your relationship with music and with your instrument. Remember the first time you felt the desire to make music, and ask yourself how that desire has played out in your musical life. The next time you’re about to practice, stop for a minute. Look at your instrument (or if you’re a singer, visualize it), and reflect on how miraculous it is.

Who made it? How? What is it made of? Where did those materials come from? How many years of evolution went into the instrument that you are fortunate to possess right now?

Think further: Who wrote the music you’re about to play? When did they live? What did they go through to learn to write such music? How many years has it survived, with its meaning still intact?

And further: How do all the parts of your body contribute to the sound you produce with your instrument? How long has it taken you to learn to make those sounds as well as you can now? How many millennia of human evolution are behind the physical and mental capacities you were born with to make music?

Take at least a minute to reflect on all of these things.

Now. Pause for a moment. Listen to the silence. Feel the energy in your body as you’re about to make the first sound. Open your heart to the music, Then make that first sound.

How did you like it?

Can you imagine continuing to practice with this kind of connection to the music?

I hope that this simple exercise will help you discover that it really isn’t so hard to get back in touch with who you are as a musician, and with the amazing opportunity you have to practice your instrument. Enjoy it, while you can. As often and as fully as you can. You and your audience will benefit.

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to open up your playing on a new level and to find out how to become more of the musician you’re meant to be, I invite you to contact me with any questions you might have about the summer program, the live online workshops, or individual sessions in the Art of Practicing and Performing. I’ll be happy to help you decide if one of these options is right for you.