A performing experience I had recently as a choral conductor has led me down a path of pondering the ordinary. Strangely enough, the performance itself was, in a word, extraordinary. I have never felt more alive, more in command, more connected to the music in a performance than on that weekend. Yet when all was said and done, I came away with an overwhelming sense of my own very ordinary self.
I am an ordinary person. I came into this world the same way you did; an earthly mother and father, a messy birth.
I am nothing special. I am loved just as you are loved. I have thoughts, ideas and gifts. I am familiar with joy and sorrow.
I am on a journey through life. Along the way I have discovered things that I love and things that I enjoy doing, things that excite me and things that terrify me.
I am a musician. I can remember being small and wanting so badly to take piano lessons like my older sister and brother. I remember how excited and grown up I felt when it was finally my turn to sit on the bench with the teacher, Melissa. I remember the feeling of my feet dangling off the piano bench. I remember opening the bright orange beginner piano book and feeling so proud to learn to recognize and play Middle C. I remember struggling so hard on a piece called “Busy Little Bee” and when I had finally mastered it, announcing to my mother that it was my favorite. I remember her response; “Isn’t it interesting that the piece you struggled the most with is now your favorite?” I learned something that day about process. I learned that the most fulfilling work we do always involves a struggle.
The choir I direct is called Musaic Vocal Ensemble. I have worked with this choir now for five years. This past December the choir was in fine form, well prepared and poised for its performances. Concert weekend arrived. The music was powerful, moving many to tears, and the audiences at both concerts erupted into a standing ovation. I stood in the middle of that tremendous outpouring of affection and felt grateful and satisfied. The love and delight of the audience as the applause and shouts of “bravo” continued was palpable. Clearly this performance had reached people at a very deep level.
Following the performances, comments from the audience and choir members alike were remarkable and heartfelt. “This choir just keeps getting better and better!” “That was stunning!” “Wow! I am going to cry. This is the best choir I have ever heard!” “The concert was a healing experience for me.” “Your conducting is so inspiring!” My heart soared when I realized that we had succeeded in creating a space in which people could absorb and experience music at its most powerful. It is indeed a noble art form and one that I, like Beethoven, truly believe is capable of changing the world. My heart was full. You might expect that after such an experience I would feel truly great; like I had reached some sort of pinnacle in my career as a conductor. Instead, when I returned home, changed out of my special clothing and washed the make-up off my face, I was overwhelmed with a sense of how very ordinary I am.
Our Main Job as Performers
It seems to me that the primary role of the performer is to create spaciousness; space for the music to come to life and space for the listener to receive it. The performer becomes a vessel for musical expression, spontaneity and receptivity; at once fully in relationship with and separate from the music.
In order for a vessel to be effective it must first be emptied out. This is where the work is. The work of emptying oneself can be painful. It requires us to come face to face with all aspects of ourselves so that we can rid ourselves of those things that are no longer of use and are not life-giving. It is work that a musician is confronted with every time we pick up our instrument. We must make room for the music by recognizing that when our work isn’t going so well, it’s often because we’re caught up in a habitual concept of how the music should sound. We think the phrase should go “this way,” but the phrase fights back. We feel stiff, uncomfortable, or just frustrated. The music doesn’t flow freely. Once we recognize this state of affairs, we need a way of emptying ourselves of our habitual concepts and attitudes about the music.
The most effective tool I have found for the work of emptying myself of habitual concepts and attitudes is the practice of meditation. Seventeen years ago, my husband and I came to a crisis point in our relationship. We had a choice: call it quits or face the pain and dysfunction in the hopes that it would lead us to a new, healthier place. We had three children under the age of four. We were heartbroken to think that this family we had built would crumble. Deep within me was the memory of that young child whose favorite piece was the one she struggled the most to learn. We chose to work hard; to seek counseling; to give each other the space we needed to examine ourselves and our relationship. I remember thinking very clearly that our relationship was over. What we had had was over. What would it become? Neither of us knew. It was during this time that we both committed ourselves to a meditation practice that up until that point we had only dabbled in. As we both learned to let go of our habitual views of ourselves and of each other and live from our core selves, we discovered a deeper relationship than either of us ever could have imagined. Have you ever had an experience where you were able to let go of your expectations and ended up receiving so much more?
Meditation is simply the act of being present in the moment. No expectations. No judgment. No control. It is a time to observe thoughts, emotions and sensations, without actively pursuing them. It is about opening up to new possibilities and new insights. It is a very refreshing experience to let go and surrender to whatever comes. When I practice it, I find I become more tuned to my own heartbeat, my core and to the very present moment. This serves me well when I am standing on the podium about to give the down beat to the start of a musical journey. I am open, ready to give and to receive.
The Power of Simple Presence
Madeline Bruser writes about presence in this way in her book The Art of Practicing: “Presence is the state of being fully present, of body, mind, heart and sense perceptions being completely engaged with the activity of the present moment. For a performer this means not only being engaged with the music but letting the energy of the audience affect you. In practicing, it means being at ease in your surroundings and being aware of each movement and each sound that you make.”
In practicing presence through any number of meditation techniques, we cultivate a state of balance. We balance the mind and body, ease and effort, giving and receiving, left and right sides of the body, light and dark, ordinary and extraordinary. It is state of freedom in which we can simply be ourselves, let ourselves express ourselves, and feel fully alive. This is what happened in my performance – I opened myself to something bigger than myself and let it move through me.
Anyone can cultivate their ability to have such experiences by deliberately practicing being present through meditation, and I encourage you to give it a try. There are many places you can go to learn to meditate and books you can read, but the best way I know of is to just sit – for 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes – and simply be. Sit comfortably upright and give your body a chance to catch up with your mind. Breathe. Let go. Rest in your ordinary, human self. Sit long enough to feel a shift in your state of mind – to feel more calm or settled than before.
If you sit simply like this a little each day, It will lead to extraordinary things – in your music making and in your life.