By Madeline Bruser
(This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue of Fearless Performing.)
Fear is a normal and natural reaction when we face a challenging situation that has both great personal meaning for us and an unpredictable outcome. Whether we are preparing for a performance, approaching an employer for a raise, or planning how to speak to a friend who has hurt our feelings, we feel vulnerable and uncertain. What if I don’t play well? What if my employer says no? What if my friend doesn’t understand?
All of these possible outcomes are painful. We could end up experiencing even more self-doubt, frustration, or hurt than before we took the risk. Yet when something really matters to us—the concert, our income, our friend—we have only two alternatives: either we find the courage to take that step into the unknown, or we let our fear prevent us from taking that step.
Postponing a scary risk, decision, or confrontation may provide temporary relief from our fear. And sometimes it might be appropriate to wait before taking action in a scary situation. But many people play it safe forever and give up on making their dreams come true because they haven’t been given the encouragement or skills they need to go forward and to succeed.
Parents or music teachers may have failed us by not expressing confidence in our abilities or by not teaching us the essentials of technique for our instrument. If we don’t understand that these people have not met our needs as aspiring musicians, we may blame ourselves for being insecure as performers, saying things like, “I should be able to do this. What’s wrong with me? I guess I just don’t have what it takes.” We may feel overwhelmed with hopelessness and frustration because we haven’t been taught how to master our instrument or how to triumph over stage fright.
There Is a Way
But as the movie ads often say, the human spirit can triumph. We can find a way through a dark and frustrating situation to the light and joy of experiencing our own power and confidence—if we receive the wisdom and encouragement we need.
Here are some steps to help you find your way.
Step One: Feel Your Longing Without Limiting It
The journey starts with not giving up—with admitting to ourselves that we still long for fulfillment. It starts with letting ourselves feel that longing.
Many people pursue their dreams to only a limited extent. In the name of being realistic, they may say things like, “I know I could maybe play better—I’m not perfect. But I like how I play. It’s good enough. It’s fine.” Meanwhile, deep down inside them, the full power of their musicality sits without moving, like an unwatered seed. It seems easier to let it sit there than to face the challenge of patiently cultivating it.
For cellist Vivien Mackie, accepting the status quo of her playing at a young age would have been easy. At 21, she had already been awarded many scholarships and prizes, and no one had even suggested that she could play on a whole new level—that is, until she went to take 10 lessons with Pablo Casals. At her first lesson with Casals, he told her, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” He then pointed out that every note she played was either flat or sharp.
For many musicians, such words might have been discouraging, But for Vivien, they were a relief. She had always sensed that something wasn’t right with her playing, but no one had yet said so. She stayed on past those 10 lessons with Casals for three years. It changed her life.
Listening to Yourself
Young Vivien Mackie apparently had a gift beyond that of the many older musicians who had found her playing to be without fault. She was exceptionally open to what Casals had to teach her, and was in fact the only student of his at the time who was able to fully absorb his teaching. I highly recommend her book about the experience, Just Play Naturally.
Whether your own gift is as great as Vivien Mackie’s or not, it’s important to listen to your own feelings and to seek the wisdom you need from a qualified teacher. It’s important to not give up on what you sense is within you, even if you haven’t yet met anyone else who can see it or who can identify what’s in the way of its full expression.
Accepting the Pain of Longing
It hurts to feel our longing for something more. But it’s a “good hurt”—because our longing is our deep heart energy. It’s where all our humanness and potential resides. Without our longing, we have no dreams. We have nothing hopeful to look forward to.
The more we can let ourselves feel the soft, tender place of our longing, the more comfortable we can get with it, and the freer we become to act on its behalf—to take the next step toward fulfilling our heart’s desires.
What do you long for? Can you picture it in your mind’s eye? Take some time to let that image arise. Stay with it for a while. See what happens if you take a moment to reflect on it each day.
Step Two: Seek Support and Friendship
When we feel our longing, the next step is often to seek support from others—to confide in a friend, to look for a new teacher, or perhaps try out an idea we’ve heard about how to get past fear and self-doubt. The challenges we face in going after our heart’s desire can be daunting at times, and the understanding and encouragement we receive from others can be the water and sunlight we need to begin cultivating that tender seed we carry inside.
Step Three: Recognize Habits and Obstacles
In teaching my students, I help them notice specific physical, mental, and musical habits that are in their way—such as using an uncomfortable hand position, playing a passage faster than they can clearly observe how they’re playing it, or shaping a phrase according to an intellectual concept of it without taking time to feel the full effect of its changing harmonies.
All of us have such habits, and we need to recognize them and to replace them with more effective and enjoyable habits. Look for places in a piece where you feel uncomfortable, frustrated, or insecure. Ask yourself if the problem seems to be in your hands, your connection to the music, or your general state of mind. Explore different possibilities of movement (see the articles from January 2012, February 2012, October 2012, November 2013, October 2013, and November 2013 from this e-zine), apply listening techniques (see March 2012), or try letting go of mental tension by using a technique like mindfulness meditation (see September 2012) or tuning into your (see chapter 5 of The Art of Practicing). The techniques I’ll be teaching in the Free Teaching Calls, on March 10, April 28, and June 2, are also wonderful for getting into healthier habits with practicing and performing.
Some of our habits are emotional. This video, which I first posted in May of 2012, humorously shows three common emotional attitudes toward the same bit of music, followed by an alternative approach that is more genuine and simple.
Such emotional distortions are universal—we all do them, to different degrees. But if we can practice recognizing them, with a kind attitude toward ourselves and a sense of humor, we can gradually learn to replace them with something more effective and fulfilling. The article that accompanied that video may be helpful to you, as well as Chapters 8 and 9 of The Art of Practicing.
Step Four: Seek Guidance
It’s best to find a teacher who can help you identify and change whatever habits are in your way. If you are fully confident in your instrumental technique and musicianship and can practice really well on your own, perhaps you still feel very troubled by stage fright and wonder if someone could help you with that. My free teaching call on The Fearless Performing Exercise, on June 2, is a great opportunity to learn how to work with stage fright in a new and powerful way.
Step Five: Seek Community
As a child, I thought that people pretty much stopped maturing when they reached the age of 25 or 30, and that no one needed much educating past high school and college. Since then, and in fact more and more as I get older, I’ve realized that our whole life is a vast opportunity for developing our full potential. We face endless challenges in relating to other people, developing a career, and fulfilling our artistic abilities, and the greatest rewards come as we grow older and wiser.
Such continual growth greatly benefits from having a community of people around us who understand the nature of the journey, and who are our fellow travelers. They can remind us and encourage us to keep going when the next obstacle presents itself. Their simple presence in our lives tells us that we are not alone in seeking higher levels of growth and deeper rewards.
If you believe that you’re still growing as a musician and are ready to receive guidance and support on your journey, I invite you to attend The Art of Practicing Institute’s extraordinary summer program, “Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance: A Transformative Program for Musicians,” where you will not only work with me and the terrific assistant teachers, but where you will become part of a growing community of musicians dedicated to fulfilling their talent to the fullest extent possible.
In workshop sessions with and without your instrument, you will learn far-reaching techniques that will take your playing or singing to a new level of expressive freedom and confidence. Some of last year’s wonderful participants will be returning, and we have room for you if you are ready to take this powerful step. It’s a safe, welcoming, nourishing, challenging, and amazing place to be.
Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have. I hope you will join us on the beautiful campus of Edinboro University for this extraordinary program.
I wish you much joy and success with making music.
P.S. If you’re curious about the summer program, please feel free to call or e-mail me with any questions. I would be happy to talk to you in person, on the phone, or on Skype.
Q & A of the Month
I’m intrigued by the posture you teach musicians, and I’ve noticed that certain artists, like Arthur Rubinstein and Artur Schnabel, also had upright posture at the piano. Would you advise that I model myself after them?
That would be a interesting experiment. Both Rubinstein and Schnabel usually played with deep expression and minimal movement. Although audiences are often impressed by an outward show of emotion in an artist’s body language, more people have begun to question the amount of body movement in musicians, particularly of the torso, in recent years.
Even if you look at certain non-classical artists–such as the Beatles, or Frank Sinatra, or Susan Boyle–a magnetic ease and confidence come through in the simple, elegant way they use their bodies onstage. You have the feeling that these people have nothing to prove and are just being natural and free when they perform.A young pianist once remarked to me that older pianists often move less when they play, but that it’s hard to control your energy enough to sit still when you’re young. I think there’s some truth in that–the hormones of a 20-year-old operate quite differently from those of a 60-year-old. At the same time, there are always musicians who are simply more grounded and mature than others their age. And of course, people have different personalities that come through in their physical behavior.
In terms of sheer body mechanics, upright posture is far more efficient, and this is why more and more musicians are learning the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, and other bodywork methods. We’re doing something extremely difficult physically, and we need all the efficiency we can get. But there is a deeper reason for sitting more still in making music. Beyond the efficient alignment of your bones and the play of physical forces, there is the visceral reality of what happens when the front of your torso is open and expansive instead of hunched up and constricted. Your vital musical energy is freer when you sit upright.
If you try to model yourself after a pianist you admire, you can learn a lot about yourself and your habits. What will make the difference is if you can really learn how to use your energy in a different way–to focus on the intensity of your energy when you contain your passion instead of reacting to it through excessive movement. So I would suggest that if you want to go in the direction of less movement and greater expressiveness, turn your attention inward to the organs in the torso, and notice if you are carrying any tension there. If you do feel tense somewhere in your torso, take a little time to let the tension dissolve before playing again. That way you will continually open yourself to the music and to your own deep feelings.
It’s also important to have expert guidance on body mechanics so that stillness doesn’t equate with lifelessness. You need to clearly understand and feel what happens in your arms, hands, shoulders, torso, legs, and feet as you sit relatively still while your arms and hands are moving freely. It may look like nothing is happening in the body of an artist who is sitting relatively still, but all kinds of energies are at play, because of the biomechanical forces as well as the rich emotions involved in making music.
I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Working with stillness and movement is an extremely interesting process.