This video clip with me is from an interview I gave recently to this delightful young musician in the UK, Jake Jones. His questions were part of his research for his dissertation on “Equanimity, Mindset, and the Psychology of the Performer,” and it was a pleasure talking to him about what performing is about, and how we can best face the challenges of being onstage.
I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to talk about how we all need to appreciate the deep meaning of performing, along with the incredible challenge it holds for us. We’re really out there when we’re onstage—doing something that stretches our physical, mental, and emotional capacities to the limits. Problems arise constantly with practicing and performing, for multiple reasons: We can easily become so absorbed in the physical demands of executing complex and precise movements that we lose our ability to relax when practicing or performing. Or we fall into judging ourselves as “not good enough” to do justice to the work of a great composer. Or we simply haven’t learned how to find a core of emotional strength within ourselves that allows us to fully give our musical gifts to others.
Three Victory Stories
Here are three stories of musicians I know who found their way past such obstacles and were able to give generously to their audience. I hope these stories will give you ideas about how to rise to the occasion of performing—to face your fear and go beyond it.
Bob: Remembering Responsibility
Bob had never performed for more than a few hundred people, when he was suddenly invited to travel to a distant country to be a featured pianist and vocalist in a nationally televised concert with a star performer, for an audience of 5,000 people. At the time, he also had a full-time management position at a large company that was in crisis, and he had a small child at home. Between the demands of his job and his family, he’d had little time to practice during the weeks before the concert. He now had to quickly refocus his mind on this important event, and although he’d had little sleep, and he spent the long plane ride to the concert learning several pieces that he’d never seen before, by listening to a CD. When he arrived, he had just one day to rehearse with the band before the concert.
Bob knew that there might be people in the audience who were better pianists or singers than himself. But he also knew that his audience was suffering from a severe economic depression in their country, and that they needed this concert to take their minds off of their troubles. So he found a way to let go of his fear of being judged by his audience and to focus instead on using whatever abilities he had to make them happy. With cameras in his face and in the glare of bright lights, he managed to summon all his strength and to play with great energy and freedom, and the concert was a huge success.
Years later, during a lesson with me, Bob showed me the following list he wrote the day before the concert to help him stay focused on that higher purpose:
- Everyone is trusting me and giving me every opportunity to showcase myself.
- This is an important concert for George’s career.
- I’m making sacrifices to be here.
- Thousands of people are giving their time and money, looking forward to an enjoyable, exciting concert that will also be televised.
- This may also be important to my musical career.
- I will have a video of this performance to take home.
- Music is mysterious, powerful, and beautiful, and is worth giving every ounce of concentration and energy to.
Bob explained that a lot of his ability to focus on such positive motivations had come from a philosophy course he took in college, where he learned to examine the human tendency to define ourselves by how others view us, instead of using our own experience and perceptions to guide us through life. Many students take such courses, but Bob had the remarkable ability to apply what he learned directly to his own life—to question his behavior and that of others—which led him to accomplish some great things.
Sarah: Remembering Wise and Loving Friends
Sarah was preparing for a flute audition after returning from a weeklong summer program I’d taught. The program had given her new tools for opening up her playing and having the courage to be more genuine and vulnerable in performance, and to not worry so much about being note-perfect or in control. Although she was afraid of not measuring up to the jury’s objective standards at the audition, she decided to view the judges as human beings who would receive the gift of her playing, just as though it were a concert performance. A week before the audition, she posted the following words on our group Facebook page:
I thought about the audition committee, and of course immediately thought of how much I fear their judgment. But when I looked into my heart to see what it is I want to give them, I was overwhelmed to discover that I want them to believe that none of us is too damaged or jaded to be humbled by our intense love of life. I cried because I felt unworthy of offering this gift. I am hoping that sharing this here will help me find the courage to try, a little at a time.
We were all moved by Sarah’s bravery and generosity toward the critical audience she was about to face, and we posted responses, cheering her on. A week later, she posted the following:
Yesterday I played the audition. I thought of you all often during the process and felt your presence very strongly. Before each round, when my nerves were peaking and I felt overwhelmed by my habitual sense of “I can’t do this,” I saw each of your faces in turn and opened to the immeasurable love and wisdom I received from each of you. You helped me remember what is important and real, and of the courage we all have within us. You helped me remember music. And I won a job. Thank you all so much.
She later sent me the following in an e-mail:
The kind of preparation I engaged in during the weeks before the audition had a crucial impact on my ability to let go in the moment. I took a big step away from the hyper-critical, sterile sort of preparation that heavily informed my training, and instead did absolutely everything I could think of to remember that I was playing MUSIC. The turning point was when I felt burned out one day and didn’t feel like continuing, but in a gesture of friendly compromise to myself, I decided to listen to a recording of one of the orchestral pieces while studying the excerpt. I was totally enraptured by the music the same way I had been as a child and thought, “Well, if I’m supposed to give up this joy in order to be successful and ‘win’ this audition, then I don’t care about success.” It felt like discovering some big secret and also finding something that had always been inside me, at the same time.
Sarah set a shining example of what all of us are capable of with the right kind of support from others and a willingness to put the music and our audience first, over our self-consciousness.
David: Remembering Deep Love
I heard David for the first time in a chamber music concert at a major hall in New York City. I was deeply moved by his playing and went backstage afterwards to ask if I could interview him.
At the interview, he told me that in his early 20’s, when he was in a competition in Europe, he received the news that his dog had died. Stricken with grief, he decided to mentally dedicate his performance in the competition to his dog. He played his heart out, and he won First Prize. Because of the power of that experience, he has since dedicated every performance to someone he loves. No wonder I was so moved by his playing.
What Can We Learn from these Brave Musicians?
- There is something more important than fear. Your job is to get to that something.
- There are practical ways of using your mind to cut through the thicket of fear and find the treasure within you.
- Gathering support and inspiration from others is energizing and helpful—whether it’s great thinkers you’ve read, wonderful friends who support you, or a cherished loved one who opens you to your emotional depth and communicative power.
You Can Do It
I hope you’ve been as inspired as I have been by these three musicians. Although you may not yet feel ready to be as brave as they have been, you can get there by taking small steps. Try some of their ideas out in small performances. Gather supportive friends around you. Challenge some of the ideas you may have had about how you have to prepare for an audition or competition.
And as always, feel free to contact me for specific advice.
Here’s to more expressive performances!
P.S. If you’re ready to really dive into the practice of rising to the occasion of performing, please consider coming to the Art of Practicing Institute’s Summer Program, July 20 – 27. All the elements will be there—insightful teaching, mindfulness practices, and terrific group support – on the beautiful, green campus of Edinboro University.