When I was 27 I realized I needed to find a way to enjoy teaching more, since it was my main source of income. I had always liked teaching, but practicing and performing were what I loved.

So I looked for books about how to teach. Luckily, someone recommended Freedom to Learn, by psychologist Carl Rogers.

The book was a revelation. Rogers described the teacher as a “facilitator of learning,“ saying that people naturally want to learn and mostly need to be encouraged to follow their own innate perceptions, responses, and curiosity. While a teacher possesses knowledge that a student needs, the wise teacher draws out the inner wisdom of each student, teaching them to teach themselves, by honoring who they are and what they already know. Such a teacher asks her student lots of questions: “What do you think?“ “How did it sound to you?“ “How did that feel?”

I underlined many passages in the book and put many asterisks in the margins. I even put circles around some of the asterisks. I was really excited to learn a whole new way to relate to my students.

But three weeks after I finished the book it dawned on me that I wasn’t applying anything I’d read to my teaching. This realization came in the middle of giving a lesson to a 17-year-old girl. I suddenly saw that I wasn’t enjoying the lesson, and I remembered, “Oh! Carl Rogers!“

So I asked my student, “What do you think? How was it?“ And out of her mouth came everything I had planned to tell her about how she had just played. She already knew. I would have wasted my breath.

But more importantly, I would have given her the impression that my thoughts were more important than hers. I would have put a lid on her intelligence instead of encouraging it and delighting in it. And I would have continued to lose opportunities, in every moment of my teaching, to discover the real mind and heart of each student and to engage in life-giving, creative dialogue with them in which both of us learn all the time.

As soon as I started teaching this new way, my life changed. I began to love teaching. And my students were learning more and having more fun at their lessons and in their practicing. They started thinking for themselves and taking charge of their own learning. They felt empowered.

It feels really great to work with empowered students. It’s a real, dynamic relationship.

Practicing From Natural Curiosity

Whether or not you’re teaching others, you can apply Rogers’ approach to your own practicing. You’ll find lots of ideas about how to do this in Chapter 7 of my book, The Art of Practicing. The chapter’s called “The Spark of Inquisitiveness.” And the basic idea is that if you simply listen inside yourself to what you’re most interested in looking at or working on, from moment to moment in your practice session, you’ll practice smarter, instead of harder. You’ll make more discoveries – because your mind is more open. So you’ll accomplish more and have more fun.

Practicing is a lot of work. But our work needs to be intelligent. And intelligence is something within us that needs to be developed, by really paying attention to it. This means paying attention not only to our thoughts, but also to our feelings, perceptions, and desires. All of it is part of our intelligence.

Think about it. You already know so much! You know what you think about how you’re playing. You know how it feels in your body. And if you keep paying attention to what you know, you can trust yourself and take the time you need to get the results you want. You can relax with the process.

How do you do that?

If you feel tense while you’re practicing, stop for half a minute. Relax. Breathe. Maybe get up and stretch. Treat yourself like a human being!

Maybe you’d like your hands to feel more comfortable in a certain passage. Take whatever time you need to look at it in detail. Play with one hand at a time and really look at each move you’re making. Notice exactly where the discomfort is, and see if you can let your muscles relax more or position your hand a little differently.

Or maybe you’d like to get a better sound. Try slowing down and noticing just one single sound as it comes from your instrument, letting go of whatever judgment might arise. Relax your whole body as you listen to it. Don’t even think about the next sound. Just relax where you are and see if there’s something about this sound that you can enjoy. Keep letting go of negative judgments and just listen. The more you let yourself relax, the better your sound can be.

When and How to Look for Help

If your practicing starts to open up that way, you can start to feel a lot better. But if you’re often feeling confused about how to get the results you want, remember that making music requires extremely adept use of your body, your mind, your emotions, and your hearing – all at once. And sometimes you might need to find a good teacher to help you practice and perform to the best of your ability.

Whether you want help with one particular aspect of your technique or you want to really transform your playing, look for someone you feel comfortable with. A person who makes you feel welcome and who inspires trust. You can feel it – you can tell if they really want to hear what you have to say and if they care about helping you.

Before having an actual lesson, ask a prospective teacher lots of questions. Sometimes simple questions will tell you the most: “How do you teach?” “What’s your physical approach to the instrument?”

Talking to the teacher in person can really help you sense if they’re right for you. So ask for a consultation, and go ahead and get specific with your questions if you want to: “Playing fast is hard for me. How could you help me with that?” “My arms get tight when I play octaves and chords. Would you be able to help me play them more easily?” “I have trouble playing in tune. How do you work with that?” “ I want to get a bigger sound when I sing. How do you help people with that?“

You might also want to know, “What are your ideas on practicing? How much should I practice?” Or, “Can you help me feel more confident when I perform?”

As you listen to how they answer your questions, trust how you feel in response. Do they sound like they know what they’re talking about? Does it make sense to you? Do you feel confident that they can help you with your problems?

If you think you could trust this teacher, try a single lesson first. Raise lots of questions at the lesson too. A question could be in the form of an observation, like “My thumb doesn’t feel comfortable when I move to this key.” Then see how the teacher responds. Does she look closely at what you’re doing with your hand and offer you a solution that helps your thumb feel more comfortable?

And notice if the teacher asks you questions during the lesson. Does she check to see how her suggestions are landing with you so that the two of you are in synch and it’s a joint learning process?  Or is she just telling you what to do throughout the whole lesson?

Then ask yourself: Do I feel better about how I’m playing after this lesson? Do I feel more encouraged now about my future as a musician? Am I looking forward to practicing and to my next lesson?

What We All Want

We all want to feel free and confident – as musicians and as people. So we need people with us in our journey who already have a good amount of freedom and confidence themselves. Look for a teacher with these qualities. When a teacher has personal confidence as well as conviction in their ability to help you become the musician you’re meant to be, they will be naturally friendly and have a sense of humor, along with the wisdom and clarity you need, so that you can relax, be yourself, and grow.

If you find such a teacher, you will want to practice. And you will know how.

And if you’re curious what it would be like to work with me? In person or online? I invite you to sign up for a free consultation. I love meeting new people – especially when they’re motivated to give themselves the best learning experience they can and become the best they can be at the piano.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

Q & A of the Month

In one of your videos with a student, you asked her to feel “rooted to the bench” and to “sit really down.” What was that about?

Being “rooted,” or physically grounded, has a big effect on any musician’s playing, or singing. In terms of reliability, which is the first ingredient of fearless performing, there’s nothing more reliable than the force of gravity—which we usually take for granted. If we actually focus on how gravity roots us to the ground, or to the bench—if we tune in to it—we have a great advantage. In her case, it helped her have more power and ease with her arms.

Athletes understand this principle. If you watch a boxer deliver a punch, you can see him push his feet and legs into the ground as he’s about to use his arm. You can understand this principle easily if you mimic that movement in the following way: Sit solidly upright and deliver a punch into the air, straight ahead of you. You will easily feel power in your arm. Then give up your solid, vertical position by hunching over, so that your weight is no longer sinking straight down into the seat, and try delivering the punch. Immediately you will notice that you lose power. You lose power because you literally lose your ground.

The extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was very striking in how she related to the force of gravity. One reviewer commented that she seemed to draw energy directly up from the ground when she sang. I perceived the same thing in her myself. Her feet were solidly planted on the floor, and the energy seemed to move powerfully upward straight through her body and out from her throat. It was glorious.

There’s nothing like this rootedness—not only for physical reliability, but also for confidence. It gives you a solid base from which to openly express yourself. My own playing, and that of my students, opened up enormously when I discovered this principle. Of course, you also need to use your hands and arms efficiently in order to make it all work.

Our ability to listen is also directly affected by this kind of physical groundedness. The stability allows you to be more receptive. So although you may be moving less, you can actually be more engaged with the music.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Performing Beyond Fear.