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This post was inspired by a coaching session. I have asked for and received the permission of the client to blog about it. The name I use herein is fictitious. Although the client is a musician, I invite you to consider your own craft or passion as you read about his discoveries.

One of my favorite coaching experiences is coaching a musician, in person, at their instrument (or with it, as a singer might be.) It’s not always possible to do this though when your clients live all over the US, Canada and Europe. I discovered that there is much we can do to create in-the-body and in-the-moment experiences for our clients even over the phone. Here’s an example of that.

Recently, while coaching a long standing client, whom I’ll call Tom, we got into a perennial discussion around readiness, or lack thereof, for an upcoming recital. As a university professor, Tom’s schedule is full and practice all too often takes a back seat to administrative duties.

His goal in the conversation was discover how he might “bring peace to chaos.”

We explored preparedness. Tom feels he needs to be extra prepared for concerts. What rattles him about performance deadlines and not feeling well enough prepared is that he experiences some measure of performance anxiety which impedes his ability to read the score. So, even if the score is there for memory slips, he can’t rely upon being able to see it.

[ I am all too familiar with this experience. Why we are expected not to have to see when we are in fight or flight mode is beyond me and I know it’s caused by the blood being pumped toward the torso that causes this effect.]

While describing his experience, Tom came up with this metaphor:

“I feel like I’m spinning in a blender, trying to focus but in a soup of chaos.”

I asked him, “Do you have a piano there?” He said “yes.” So I asked him to put down the phone and go over and play part of the piece for about 1 minute and to do so as if he were spinning in a blender. I wanted to bring the experience home to him in the current moment. I could hear him playing.

When he came back to the phone, we discussed what happened for him and what he noticed as he played “in a blender.” It was helpful to him to recreate the experience while not actually in rehearsal or on stage. In this way, he could bring more awareness to the process.

At one point, I asked “what do you need to create peace in the midst of the chaos of a spinning blender?”

He responded, “I need a minute to center myself.”

This was the off switch to his blender: “I need a minute.” It would become his private internal mantra.

As we explored how this would show up, he said that it meant he would deliberately allow himself the time to create the mental space he needs. He would allow himself to move a little more slowly before diving into playing. He would also allow himself more practice time in his schedule for any performance.

Tom needs to stand up for himself. He decided that if it’s about keeping himself peaceful inside, then his fears around disappointing others, making them wait, failing or playing miserably needed to take a backseat to creating peace within.

This peace within, in turn, creates peace in motion.

Tom said that standing up for himself also means not letting other people define him.

piano keyboard (c) March 2010 Kathy J Loh

So back to the keyboard he went. This time, I suggested he take his time, expand into the peace he wants to create (which I just now notice is a kind of double entendre for the piece he wants to create), and then play. He set down the phone and, after a pregnant pause, I heard him begin to play.

What he discovered in that second exercise was, in his own words “I need to take up space.”

We then compared actual performance with practice.

In practice, especially the early stages, we are listening with a critical ear, with curiosity, there is a sense of constant refinement and we are working individual measures and phrases at a time. We are getting the lay of the land and familiarizing the muscles with the routine; introducing them to nuances of expression. We move from shorter to longer arcs. I like to say, we are courting music at this point.

In performance, we are music’s only way to be heard. We are music’s instrument. Imagine you are music. You whisper into the ear of a composer who translates the whisperings into notes on paper. You then come fully alive through a skilled and talented musician like Tom. What do you care about?

I’m not so sure music cares about a bobble or dropped note when the arc is so much longer than that. In the same way that we can read this sentence:

Mry hd a lttl lmb

we hear the full message of music despite the occasional error. In fact, most audience members don’t miss a thing and only those with the most trained ear notice.

Let’s face it, we can assume a lot of forgiveness here. All too often, we assume none.

What music wants is to come alive.

It’s about the pure essence of the art and delivering the message sincerely, rather than being keenly focused on perfection of technique and score. And I say this as a composer who cares about every note I write. There’s a message in the music, that only music can express and it’s about that message, not perfection of each note.

I asked my client; “If you took out your ego’s ambition (which is also driving the fear of failure and concern for what others think) to be in the top tier of all pianists in the world, what would be the next tier?”

He replied: “All I have to do is be a seeker and co-create with music.”

Can you be a seeker and co-create with music and still reach the top tier?

If we are co-creating with music when performing, we are taking up space in a very special way. It’s not about our ego taking up the space. It’s about offering ourselves to the music, to the experience it will create for our listeners, in a way that requires that we command the space. In other words, we create a whole new wondrous space of music, sound, vibration, resonance, emotion, energy. We can’t create that space as magnificently when we are rigidly controlled and cautious.  It takes full on letting go, being a lover to music. It means not holding back, because music will meet you wherever you are from tiny and constricted to the full expression of Beauty.

Please note, I am not making a case for sloppy musicianship. I am assuming that the co-creator in this scenario is someone who has dedicated many disciplined hours to their technical chops.

Co-creating with music means stepping up to ownership of the true skills that all those years of dedicated practice have delivered to us.

You ARE a musician. Stop waiting to become one or receive some seal of approval. From this point on, it’s all play.  Proving, deserving, or earning are not needed. We don’t know what we can truly do until we stretch into it. The stretching will create learning and broaden our musical horizon. It will deepen our relationship with music, our instrument and ourselves.

Tom and I concluded the session by talking about what it means to claim ownership and to take up space as a performing musician, including the structures and accountability for that.

Tom offered that, as a “seeker and co-creator with music,” he thinks of practice time as sacred. It is not an after-thought or luxury on his schedule. He agreed to create that sacred practice space in his schedule and to hold boundaries with others around the use of his time.

From this perspective, saying “no” to others is honoring the sacred “yes” to music.

He also decided that, in rehearsal, he would arrive early and, as uncomfortable as it might be, he would take the time to make others wait while he centered himself before playing.  He also mentioned that ownership brings him the confidence he’s lusted after.

Ownership, being a co-creator with music, a seeker, a lover, creating sacred space for his passion, risking, stretching, taking up space; these are Tom’s off-switch to the chaos blender. He is now at choice. The switch is in his hands.

And now you, dear reader:

What passion awaits your loving, co-creation?

What will have you decide you have arrived and just dance with it, recognizing that there is always more to refine, explore and learn?

When is the more powerful yes the one that you say to yourself and your art (or even your life) than the yes that you say to the opinion of others?

I’m right there with you and taking a lot of my own medicine.

Copyright (c) March 2010, Kathy J Loh, All Rights Reserved

Looking to create a sense of peace and balance in the midst of chaos? You’ve come to the right place. I invite you to check out my website and set up a complimentary consultation with me to see if coaching is appropriate for your situation.

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