The Gift of Courage

Please enjoy this article I published in December 2015.

As a piano teacher, I often reflect on the courage it takes to be a musician. Whether we are learning a challenging piece of music, performing from memory, or making time in our busy schedules to pursue music lessons, it takes courage to accomplish our goals. I see this every day in the piano studio, and my heart fills with joy when a student breaks through a technical difficulty or discovers a new freedom in their body and plays more expressively. I appreciate the efforts they make to play their music well. And in those tender moments, I remember my piano teachers and their many courageous efforts to guide me through similar challenges. In this way, I see courage as a gift that can be cultivated and passed on to the next generation.

Courage by Example
My mother was my first piano teacher, and she was also the one who first taught me about courage. I'm sure as a single mother of three young children she had plenty of fears, but she was fearless in approaching her challenges and finding solutions. l will never forget the story of her bargaining with a prospective employer to let her work for free just for the chance to prove her abilities. They did give her a chance, and in a very short time she was running the accounting department for five companies. Over the years, I've witnessed my mother endure a lot of challenge and hardship, and at the young age of 70 she continues to move towards her challenges with courage.

Who are the people who come to your mind when you think of courage?
What are some courageous actions that have touched your heart?

Taking Time to Practice Courage
My piano teacher, Madeline Bruser, helped me connect more deeply to my courage through a contemplative practice. During a lesson when, despite many hours of practice, I still felt something was missing in my playing, Madeline asked me to do the Performing Beyond Fear exercise she had taught me. I began by reflecting on the inspiration I get from my favorite composer, Robert Schumann. As I contemplated Schumann's hard work, his challenges, and his physical limitations at the piano, I began to feel the pain and sadness of my own struggles and limitations. Like a little boy with a cast on his leg looking out the window at his friends playing on a warm summer day, I felt a raw longing and sadness. With those tender feelings I began to reflect on my efforts at the piano. I thought about the many hours of practice and my repeating, experimenting, and trying to play the way I know I'm capable of. The tenderness began to open up into a warm feeling of appreciation, and I smiled as I began to notice and feel my courageousness. Right there in Madeline's studio I felt and connected to a genuine appreciation for myself and my work. When I shared my feelings with Madeline, she thanked me and asked me to play again. From the first touch to the last note, I played the piano with effortless freedom and rich musical expression. I turned to Madeline, my teary eyes filled with gratitude for the extraordinary gift she had given me, and we laughed. Did I play every note correctly? I don't think so. But not only did I genuinely enjoy my playing, I also discovered a deep connection to my teacher's gifts, my own gifts, and an appreciation of my unique role in teaching these gifts to others.

If you can take a moment now, I invite you to close your eyes and reflect on your efforts with your instrument or voice. What feelings come up when you contemplate your hard work? How might people benefit from the work you do?

The Courage to Face Fear and Self-Doubt
Sometimes we feel fear and doubt when leading up to performances, big decisions, or life changes. Feelings of fear can be paralyzing and debilitating, and in our attempt to be free from these feelings we can sometimes cause ourselves harm. Some musicians deal with performance anxiety by over practicing which can lead to stress, fatigue, and in extreme cases even injury. Stage fright can be so overwhelming that some musicians even rely on drugs like beta blockers to get through their performance. And besides physical harm, sometimes our fears and doubts can cause us to feel disconnected from our instrument or voice, lose interest in the music we once loved, and even stop playing altogether. It's heartbreaking to not be able to play our instrument or engage in the activities we enjoy. And while we all face these ups and downs in music making, you should know there are healthy and reliable alternatives to overcoming fear and self-doubt. Having the right tools and a caring, skillful teacher can help.

My teacher's unique approach to music making taught me new physical and mental habits that have helped me play with greater freedom and ease. And her Performing Beyond Fear exercise continues to help me connect to my heart and play more expressively. In fact, the exercise also helped me deal with some difficult emotions leading up to this article. Initially, I sat paralyzed with fear in front of my computer not knowing what to write. I was afraid of making a fool of myself, and it was painful to admit I was feeling embarrassed and incompetent as a writer. I could have given up and justified it by saying, "Well, it's not that important." But I had been given a gift. And having the right tools, I closed my eyes and did the Performing Beyond Fear exercise. I reflected again on the courage of Robert Schumann, my mother, and Madeline. I connected to the feelings in my heart and my strong desire to help musicians achieve their goals. I felt the courage in my efforts and the joy of sharing with others....and I opened my eyes and began to write.

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I wish to give my heartfelt gratitude to my mother and to my teacher Madeline for their generous contributions to me. I am the musician and teacher I am today because of their courageous efforts.

Thank you for reading this article. I hope these words might be useful to you in some way.

If you are ready to connect more deeply to your unique gifts and explore how I might be able to help you, I invite you to schedule a free consultation with me in my Brooklyn Heights studio or online via Skype or FaceTime.

May all your efforts be filled with joy

Louis Yungling