This story, about a student I taught many years ago, describes the kind of dramatic and frightening change that can be necessary in order to overcome performance anxiety.
Marie had serious problems with performance anxiety and was ready to try a new approach when she began studying with me. At her first lesson, I told her that we needed to start by eliminating excess tension in her playing so she could relax and rely on her body more in performance.
Her hands were very tense, and at that first lesson we looked at the smallest movements of her fingers to minimize her effort. She learned pretty quickly that day, but it was extremely different from anything she had tried before. She wasn’t at all sure that this strange approach was going to work. In fact, she told me years later that she went home after that lesson and thought, “Either Madeline is the greatest teacher, or she’s completely out of her mind. I wonder how she plays.“
That night, she dreamed she was being attacked by aliens from outer space who were going to reprogram her, and that I was one of them. She was scared!
As it turned out, she arrived a little early for her second lesson and heard someone playing Chopin through a window in my apartment building. She thought, “Oh! That’s how I’ve always wanted to play! I wonder if it’s Madeline.“
Within a few years, Marie became a wonderful, confident pianist. She studied with me for 16 years, until she moved across the country.
I can understand Marie’s initial resistance to my alien approach. It’s no joke when we feel we’ve run up against a wall with a problem and know that we have to try something different. Even if our familiar way isn’t working, it can be really scary to try something that feels foreign.
In fact, the first time a health professional suggested that I change my posture at the piano, in order to avoid getting an injury, I completely resisted her idea. Although I didn’t feel afraid of doing something new, I was arrogant. I told her she didn’t know what she was talking about, because she didn’t play the piano herself. It didn’t matter to me that she had just come back from a performing arts medicine conference, and that she was concerned about what could happen to me. I was incredibly lucky that I happened to spontaneously discover a new posture at the piano just a year later.
I tell this story because all of us are basically the same – we want to accomplish our desires without experiencing any extreme difficulty, without being challenged by entirely new ideas. We want to get to “there” by doing things similarly to how we’ve always done them.
But to live life fully and to fulfill our potential as an artist and musician, much more is required of us. Life and music are so much bigger than we are, infinitely complex and profound. So especially when we’re in a lot of pain about something – whether it’s a relationship, performance anxiety, or anything else – we need to be open to new ideas.
I was in pain at 29 over a failed audition, and it led me to start practicing mindfulness meditation, which changed not only my playing but my entire life. And I’m enjoying a great marriage now partly because I listened to the pain I was in years ago and found guidance from a terrific couples therapist.
Whatever your pain is, even if it’s more subtle than extreme, it’s there to tell you something. Listen to it with curiosity, and with the belief that your listening will lead you in a good direction. Make your own map to find the treasure within you by listening to what’s already there in you. And listen to the guides you find along the way.
Change is scary. But we need to embrace it and be brave. It’s amazing where we can go if we’re open to new things.
Here’s to more joyous performances!
P.S. If you’re curious about how to fulfill your dreams at the piano and you live in or near New York City, I’ll be introducing some terrific “alien” ideas this Thursday at Steinway Hall in my interactive workshop, Mindfulness for Pianists: Freeing Your Energy for Performance. You can learn more and register here.