The Space Around Me

I started Alexander Technique lessons three months ago. A couple of nasty car wrecks left me with a long-term neck and back discomfort that now bothers me more and more when I am practicing. I’m hoping to become more aware of how I create tension when I am at the harp, and to learn how to not do that.

My second Alexander lesson ended with my teacher working with me at the harp. With my neck, shoulders and ribcage loose and expanded, my arms felt like they were floating, my fingers were strong and free, and the sound that burst forth when I plucked the strings was full, rich and glorious – and different from anything I’d heard come from my harp. That was all the convincing I needed that I was on the right track.

Tonight’s lesson was different. No harp, just gentle upward strokes on my neck and head, then me walking back and forth across the length of the room. As I walked, my teacher asked me to be aware of the empty space above my head. “Now feel the space in front of you and behind you as you walk, feel it move across the room with you,” she said. “All this space is here for you. Being aware of it gives you room in which to move, and gives you freedom to relax, to open, to expand.”

What a concept! Despite what I am sure adds up to be hundreds of thousands of dollars of therapy, the idea that there is all this space around me, and that it is mine to move my body in, mine to use, mine to be in, still feels new, and breath-taking. Bourbon took up all the space in my childhood house. I grew up knowing there was no room for me, knowing that I needed to stay safely hidden away, taking up as little space as possible, hoping I would not be seen or heard when the nightly chaos began. I longed to be invisible. Staying silent, small, and unnoticed was as close to invisible as I could get. Much of my work with performance anxiety is about peeling away these layers of fear and substitute invisibility, and finding that I can be safe when I am seen and heard.

Tonight, walking across the room feeling the two feet of space above my head, I feel my neck and spine lengthen and relax. There’s no need to hold myself in. My shoulder blades slide down my back and my arms swing freely – there’s plenty of room around me. As each foot touches the floor it rolls easily from heel to toes. I feel as though I am gliding on smoothly oiled joints, instead of plodding across the room on my creaky oft-broken ankles and my cranky knees. My legs and hips are happy to hold me up and ask no help from my neck, which now only has to balance my head on its topmost vertebrae. Moving feels light, and spacious, and good.

Doing table work, my teacher gently reminds my hands of all the space that exists between the tendons and bones, and of all the movement that my fingers are capable of. After my lesson, again at my harp, my hands find the C-major chord and roll it perfectly without help from finger and thumb splints. My ring fingers stay rounded, instead of collapsing. How or why I don’t know, or don’t yet have words for. Perhaps fingers, too, find support and ease being enfolded in this new, expanded space around me? Each lesson leaves me “curiouser and curiouser.”

Tomorrow I shift to an entirely different space: the annual Southeastern Harp Weekend in Asheville, NC. The space around me will be filled with all things harp, and with people as silly-ga-ga about harps as I am, but will be quite deficient with wi-fi access. I’ll be back in Blogland with harp weekend stories next week.


Fearless On The Harp Bench

20130609-122719.jpgThe Hospice music ministry volunteer coordinator called at the end of March and asked if I would play my harp for their annual Service of Remembrance in early May. Play solo harp, that is. For the entire ceremony. By myself. I could distinctly hear the ghost of Nancy Reagan whispering in my ear, saying “Just say no.” But thanks to my Three Non-negotiable Decisions, what I heard myself say was “Of course. I’d love to. It would be a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.”

She asked me to play 20 minutes before the service started, approximately 20 minutes while people walked from their chairs to place a white rose in a wreath in memory of their loved ones, and another 15 to 20 minutes while people left the hospital’s labyrinth courtyard where the service would be held.

Thanks to the past months of playing at the hospital hospice unit, I had more than enough repertoire to play for an hour. I selected a medley of Celtic tunes for gathering music. I’d been working on a long piece with a soothing melody in the middle section. My teacher helped me figure out how to introduce and then loop that section so I could play it multiple times during the wreath ceremony. I wrote a bridge to another soothing tune that I could play until the last flower was placed. I selected four of the contemporary tunes I play on the unit for the closing music.

Driving to the hospital on the morning of the service, I prayed for calm, and quiet and steady hands. I arrived early enough to sit in my car and meditate for 20 minutes. Following my breath, I found a place of alert and steady awareness, of easy breathing and quiet mind. I had plenty of time to load my harp and bench on my cart and walk slowly through the hospital corridors to the courtyard. I had plenty of time to set up and tune my harp, and to try the beginnings of several tunes, which warmed up my fingers and let me preview how the harp would sound in the brick-walled space. Hospice staff rehearsed the order of the ceremony, so I was clear on my cues to start and stop playing. The low gray clouds spitting rain finally lifted, and pale sunshine tried to warm my fingers. I peeled off my fingerless gloves and began to play.

On this morning I was blessed with an absence of fear. I was blessed with the focus of being of service to those who wished to remember their loved ones and ease their aching hearts. I was blessed with gratitude to be able to offer Music as a balm for healing. I was blessed with grace to play more smoothly and comfortably than I ever have before.

I had a few fumble-fingered moments, but on this morning I played through them without panic. A couple of weeks before the remembrance service I participated in Madeline Bruser’s second teaching call. That night’s exercise was to play a phrase extremely slowly, and let the sound enter my body without rushing to the next note – instead, to just let the next note emerge from the sound I was already feeling. The carryover from that exercise on this morning was trusting that the next note was on its way, was streaming towards me, was already present. I didn’t have to panic about finding it. I just had to pluck the string.

It really was a pleasure, and an honor, to play for the remembrance service. People stopped on their way out of the courtyard to thank me for playing, to say that the music was perfect for the ceremony. The hospice administrative staff offered enthusiastic thank you’s. But it was my friend and fellow hospice harp volunteer Dani who recognized what I had accomplished, saying “Today is a real milestone for you. You looked and sounded confident, and the music was beautiful. You would not have done this a year ago.”

Dani and I play together in the harp ensemble. She’s witnessed the fear freezing me, or making my hands shake so violently that I could not keep my fingers on my harp strings. She’s been recruited to be an “audience” at my lessons as I practiced breathing and moving forward playing a piece while my adrenal glands hijacked my hands and my memory.

During the worst of the performance anxiety, when I could not even play at my lessons without shaking from massive adrenaline overdoses, I told my teacher that I would not be doing this work, would not be persisting in staring down the terror, were it not for my completely unreasonable assurance that someday I would say, “Oh yes, I used to be bothered by performance anxiety, but not anymore.”

On this morning I took a leap into the reality where that is so, into the reality where I am fearless on the harp bench. Playing my harp without fear – it’s a blessing long sought, and an accomplishment dearly earned.

Sometimes I Get It: Playing Without Fear

I gave a friend my courage stone – a small polished piece of hematite etched with the word “courage” that’s been on my remembrance altar for almost 25 years.

She faced a major challenge, one that would require all of her intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources to get through. I wanted to give her something tangible to remind her that she had what it would take, a talisman to hold close when fear appeared. I left it for her with a note saying “You will have all you need.”

And I remembered when a different friend put the courage stone in my palm and gently closed my fingers around it. I was slogging through therapy, doubting that I would find the path through the darkness, doubting that I would survive to ever find joy. I needed all the courage I could muster.

I remembered those dark years, and the long-ago comfort of that stone in my pocket while on the way to the Consort dress rehearsal I was dreading. While wandering through the backstage hallways, I realized that if I thought of all the things that were truly frightening and truly life threatening that I survived, this or any dress rehearsal was not on that list. This wasn’t cancer, or my mother’s violence, or a head-on collision, or a nearly lethal viral infection. This was just playing music I practiced and played all semester with people I know and like. That’s all. Nothing hard, nothing threatening, nothing to dread.

I played the entire rehearsal without fear, without dreading some future moment when I might screw up, without arming myself with strategies for managing the shaking hands, twisting stomach and racing thoughts of performance anxiety. What a joy to just play, to feel confident, to revel in the sounds of the different instruments coming together, to feel the music fill the recital hall. What a delight to enjoy the rehearsal and to have fun playing!

A week later, I had just as much fun playing in our concert. By remembering the past, there was nothing to fear in the present. By giving away courage, I had all I would ever need.

The Yawning Gulf Between Where I Am and Where I Want To Be

I really thought I was making progress on sight-reading. I can use music notation to learn a tune that I didn’t hear first, which I never thought would be possible. Even though I have to work through it measure by measure, with a lot of patience and a lot of slow practice, I can learn to play it. In the early music ensembles I can keep up with what and where I am supposed to be playing even when my fingers aren’t grabbing the notes on the recorder. Now that I am not panicking every time I miss a note, my eyes can move forward and I can get back in and play without getting totally lost. And over the holidays I discovered that I could slowly sight-read and sight-play most of one of my Celtic tune books, as well as sight-play some of the simple Christmas carol arrangements published in The Folk Harp Journal.

So, I really thought I was getting somewhere with the reading. And I thought that I would be ready for this spring’s “boot camp” harp ensemble class, even knowing that most of the class would be spent sight-reading.

Last Monday’s class proved otherwise. Our teacher excerpted several measures from classical harp pieces, changed the time signatures, and created fingering exercises which we were to sight-read and play. There was nothing that sounded familiar, nor any tonal patterns that my ears could grab hold of to help my eyes make sense of the notes. With my auditory system useless, my visual processing system failed. I could not see any recognizable patterns of notes that could tell me where on the strings my fingers should be. There I was, playing my own discordant solos as other class members plucked their way through the exercises in melodious unison.

During a break in playing I tried writing in note names and drawing circles around familiar note patterns, but even with notes, triads and scales identified, the tempo was too fast for me to shift from one little bit of what I could understand and play, to the next little bit. The notes once again were incomprehensible spots on a piece of paper. The sight-reading door in my brain that I thought was finally propped open a bit, slammed shut.

Being with others who sight-read easily is like being with people at an ice cream parlor who know how to whip up fabulous hot fudge sundaes and banana splits and parfaits. They walk inside with confidence, grab their scoops, and fill their bowls with delicious creations that I am never going to taste. After the holidays, I was excited that I could tiptoe into the ice cream parlor and dish myself up a scoop of vanilla. But now I am back on the sidewalk, nose pressed against the window looking in, with all that is inside inaccessible once again.

Five days later, that door in my brain is still shut tight. I’m working on new pieces for a harp chapter concert a month from now. I asked for the easy-peasy harp parts, the ones that the beginning students will play, since I’ll have to use the music to perform them. There’s just no time for my usual strategy: learn how to play and then memorize the tunes, so I don’t need the stinkin’ music.

Today the sight of the black concert notebook on my music stand makes me cry. Tension spreads down my arms and into my hands as I open it. The chords of the Pachelbel Canon might as well be bowling balls stacked on top of each other, for all the sense I can make of them. I feel my brain shut down, feel the “road closed” sign for the route from my eyes to my visual cortex start flashing. There’s no point in working on this music today. I wonder if there will be any point in working on it tomorrow. My only hope for the concert may be to hide behind a row of pedal harps, where my one-handed playing of the simple, repetitive bass melody can’t be seen.

I still struggle so to feel anything resembling confidence about playing the harp. I’ve no natural agility or coordination that allows my hands to dance upon the harp strings. Every finger motion is won with hours of drills and exercises to program the move into my muscles. Every movement of my right and left hand is choreographed and practiced so that the music flows between them. Every note I see and comprehend requires a circuitous route from eye to brain and internal naming, and then to my hand and my finger on the correct harp string.

It’s hard to remember and hard to believe that not being able to sight-read doesn’t mean that I am not able to play the harp, doesn’t mean that I am not able to create music. It’s hard to remember and hard to believe, living in a world that expects music to be something written and read, that music is sound and vibration, beauty and feeling, not notation, not black dots splattered on a ladder on a piece of paper.

It’s hard to remember that my ear and my heart love melody, that I learn a tune easily, that once I hear it, I remember it well. And it is hard to remember, in this midst of this latest failure, that there is a place for how I learn and how I play, even if no one is dishing up ice cream there.

Perfection – Not Required, And Not Possible, Anyway

It’s been a little over a year since my harp teacher baptized me into a life filled with new possibilities with the words “You do not have to play perfectly to be worthy to play.” The end-of-semester concerts I attended last month gave me many opportunities to observe performers playing imperfectly, while still creating beautiful music that the audience appreciated and enjoyed.

Voice students forgot words in the middle of their songs, and recovered by vocalizing to the tune until the lyrics reappeared in their brains. Guitar students played unplanned chords and missed strings with their fingers, but kept on playing with only their momentary wider eyes registering their surprise. Piano students lived through finger fumbles and memory slips. The Big Band ensemble had at least one enthusiastic player who, like me with my one-note solo in the recorder ensemble concert, started a number one measure before everyone else. The opera chorus missed some harmonizing pitches.  At one of the professional concerts I attended, a player did not get started with the rest of the ensemble. The group did a “do over” and started the piece again.

None of these “mistakes” diminished my enjoyment of the performances or the music. Hearing such beautiful music still filled me up. I was not any less appreciative, and I did not enjoy the concerts any less because the performances were not “note perfect.” If anything, witnessing the quiet courage and grace of the performers as they managed the unplanned moments of their performances made me feel more connected to them.

As my teacher told me so many months ago, making music is a human enterprise. We human beings are so rarely perfect in anything we do. We try our hardest to play our best, yet our fingers find different strings than the ones we know we are supposed to pluck. Our memories momentarily forget all knowledge of the piece we’ve played dozens of times before.  Our task is not to play perfectly – it is to connect with our audience and share our love for the music and the instrument we play. And for that, perfection is not required.

Community And Connection Vanquishes Performance Anxiety

There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
And BEING the noise.
Rumi, The Big Red Book, trans. Coleman Barks


The end of the semester at the community college means almost daily concerts and recitals. The opera company kicks off a week-long festival of music, art and literature with three performances of music by Gershwin and Bernstein. Students who study voice, composition, piano and guitar give recitals. There are three days of jazz concerts, and a lovely evening of Baroque music performed by the college’s Baroque Ensemble.  This year, music alumni performed at the annual concert honoring the founder of the Music Department. I played in the Early Music Consort concert in mid-April, in the middle of the Arts festival week. And the Recorder Ensemble finished out the semester’s performances with our concert last Tuesday.

The students giving recitals, the classes and ensembles giving concerts, and the students and instructors in the many audiences all seemed to come together to love and honor Music in her many forms, all seemed to gather Music up to share with audiences and with each other. The music department felt like a community joined together to celebrate Music’s existence and presence in our lives.

Being in the midst of this community of music-making somehow soothed my adrenal glands’ hair-trigger responses to performing. I felt a part of this giant celebration of Music. I didn’t frighten and distract myself with worries about whether I would play well, whether I’d make it through a tricky passage, whether I would totally mess up a piece. Missing a note would not separate me from this wave of creative energy, from this union of hearts and minds, spirits and bodies coming together to make Music, to create connection and share joy.

Both the Early Music Consort and the Recorder Ensemble concerts went pretty well. I missed some entrances and cutoffs, and played a confident one note solo when I started a piece a measure before everyone else. I embellished some of the melodies with new, creative dissonances. None of my mistakes proved fatal to me or to any of the pieces we played. Nor did I hear any groans from long-dead composers turning in their graves.

For the first time, I enjoyed the process of playing in a concert. Instead of feeling on trial and judged, I felt a part of the community that was creating and celebrating Music. I felt a part of giving the gift of these tunes and our playing to the audience and to each other. For the first time, the shaking felt like excitement, not fear, and the playing felt like joy.

Performance Anxiety Meets My Three Non-Negotiable Decisions

I inherited my father’s gift for procrastination. In his mind, anything worth doing was worth putting off while he thought about all the reasons he didn’t want to do it, or didn’t have to do it, or what he wouldn’t like about doing it, or why he didn’t have to do it now.

To counteract my procrastination gene, I have to make decisions about what I am going to do that are totally non-negotiable. Those decisions are made, once and for all. I don’t need to waste time thinking about them. I don’t need to whine about not wanting to do them. I don’t need to debate whether or not I’m going to do them. The non-negotiable decisions are not open for further discussion – even if the discussion is entirely with myself, inside my own head.

The first non-negotiable decision is that I will walk my dog today. Whether it is raining or a beautiful sunny day, whether the temperature is a heavenly 70 degrees, a torrid 95, or a winter morning in the 20’s, I walk the dog. Despite snowstorms, heat waves and ozone alerts I walk the dog. Five minutes into the walk, I’m enjoying bird song, or the colors in the sky and trees, or the play of light and shadow on the sidewalk. I’m enjoying the pleasures of moving my body and feeling the pavement under my feet, and of seeing Charley relish our morning adventure.

I do give myself a pass on walking for lightning, for any form of ice falling from the sky, and for fever in either canine or human being. Being struck by lightning or hail stones, or falling on a street made slick by sleet or freezing rain is not required. Neither is crawling out of my sickbed when I am being colonized by the latest virus going around, or making Charley hit the streets if she is unwell.

The second non-negotiable decision is that I will practice harp today. I do not have to decide each morning if I am going to practice. The decision to show up on the harp bench and do the work is already made, whether I want to or feel like it, or not. Most mornings, after five minutes of warming up, I can’t imagine or remember why I thought I didn’t want to practice today. My reluctance drifts away with the sounds of the harp strings. My thoughts engage with the challenges of the tunes I’m learning, and I forget all the reasons why I didn’t want to practice.

If I am sick and unable to work, or if something is really hurting, I do take the day off to rest and recover. I’m not into making myself sicker or creating overuse injuries. But those days are rare.

Sometime between my dreadful first Audition and Evaluation performance in January and the second A&E performance a month later, I made a third non-negotiable decision: I am a musician, and I play music for others to listen to. I am going to perform.

With this decision made, it doesn’t matter if my hands shake or don’t shake. It doesn’t matter if I like how I feel performing or not. It doesn’t matter if I want to perform or not. I will do it. While the performance will be much more pleasant for me and for my audience if my hands can stay on the harp strings while I play, and if my demeanor exudes confidence and delight instead of dread, I will perform, either way.

I recognize that until I made this decision, I was not fully committed to slaying the performance anxiety dragon. After the harp ensemble concert last November, my first thoughts were, “I cannot stand how terrible I feel when I play in a concert. I cannot stand my racing heart, my nausea, my shaking hands, and my fear of being judged by all the people looking at me. I will quit the harp ensemble if this doesn’t get any better.”

On that Monday night, I forgot that my commitment to performing had to come first. I forgot this truth so eloquently written by Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

Concerning acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred.

Last week I played in the end-of-the-semester Early Music Consort concert. Yesterday I played in the Introduction to Early Music Performance class concert. All sorts of things occurred that made me, for the first time, enjoy the process of playing in a concert. More about that in my next post.

Slay The Dragon

I’ve been dancing with performance anxiety for a while now, particularly when I’m playing harp in a concert situation. The pounding heart, clenched stomach, shaking hands and tight chest I endured at the last harp ensemble concert was so painful that I seriously considered giving up playing with the group in order to avoid any future concerts.

But when I started writing my intentions for this year, the words “develop ease and comfort with performing” flowed out of my pen. My wiser self was not going to give up so easily. And as I considered what I would work on in this semester’s harp lessons, “practice performing” ended up on my harp goals list.

I’d not discussed any of this with my teacher. Little matter – she began my first lesson this semester saying, “I think you should do the Harp Society Audition and Evaluation this year.” The Audition and Evaluation happens every spring, yet my teacher never suggested that I participate in all the years I’ve been taking lessons. Apparently writing “practice performing” in my harp goals activated her hidden psychic powers. What could I do but agree to go through with exactly what I had asked for with my intentions and my harp goals.

The Audition and Evaluation is a national activity of the American Harp Society, sponsored here by our local chapter of the AHS. A student plays two pieces for an evaluator and a small audience of students and their parents, and receives feedback from the evaluator. The student then has a month to work on the two pieces, and ready a third piece for performance. Four weeks later the student plays again, having hopefully improved the performance of the pieces.

My initial performance did not go well. “Quaking like an aspen leaf” would be the best description of my attempt to play Susann McDonald’s Little Prelude and Marcel Grandjany’s Reverie. I made it to the end of both pieces, after stopping in the middle of my first piece to breathe. The evaluator was kind. I told him that I was doing the A&E to work on performance anxiety, and he assured me that playing that day was exactly what I needed to do. I’m not sure when my hands became calm enough to land on and truly pluck the harp strings, but he wrote on my evaluation sheet, “You play beautifully.”

I worked intensely this past month to make playing beautifully become a reality at my second performance. I played the A&E tunes in my lessons. My teacher coached me to feel the strings under my fingers and listen to the sound of my harp instead of being distracted by the monkey-mind chatter in my head. I practiced performing the tunes before each week’s group harp technique class. I played Scottish tunes for a summer music camp scholarship audition, just to have another performance practice opportunity. I practiced progressive relaxation, the Sarnoff Squeeze, and yoga postures and breathing to lessen the effects of my over-supply of adrenalin. I worked with a therapist using EMDR to desensitize me to performance situations past and present.

At one of my last lessons, my teacher told me to play my tunes as though I was going to slay the dragon – to not worry about over-playing or sounding beautiful, but to dig in and play with gusto, without care for how musical I sounded. And when I was finished, she said it was wonderful, that I’d engaged her with these tunes that she’s heard a thousand times, that they were musical without me trying to “make” them musical. The music was inside my playing without my trying to put it there. Freeing myself to play the tunes, slaying the dragon, let the music emerge.

Yesterday was day two of the Audition and Evaluation. I sat at my harp, feeling the warmth of my hands, and took a deep breath. As I lifted my hands to the harp I thought, “Slay the dragon!” and began to play.

I knew I would only freak myself out if I defined success as playing without shaking. Whether I shake or not is still beyond my ability to control. Instead, I decided that if I showed up, played all the way through my pieces without taking my hands off the harp, stayed present with the sound and music instead of going into hyper-alert sensory overload, and controlled any shaking enough to be able to still play, I’d call the morning a success.

And it was.

Tonight’s The Night – Harp Ensemble Concert

In three hours I’ll be sitting with my ensemble harp-mates, waiting for our teacher to count off the tempo and introductory measures for our first piece, Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head. With a large infusion of grace, and a minimal infusion of adrenaline, we will not begin the piece like the run of the Spanish bulls, but instead will take it at the sweet, lyrical pace we’ve practiced.

We’ll play a second Christmas carol, and then I’ll play my solo, my own arrangement of The Grenadier and the Lady. This tune is way too hard for me, and I can only blame myself for that. I’m the one who wrote the arrangement, which contains in one three-minute piece absolutely everything my left hand ever needed to learn how to do. I’ve spent the last three months learning to play it.

My performance nerves are in high gear today. I had a lesson scheduled this afternoon, so I got to run my solo again. And again. And again, with my teacher repeating “Slow down” about every third measure. I couldn’t find the brakes the first two times I played it. The adrenaline surge kept propelling me towards a crash-and-burn tempo out of my control, which required creative improvised passages to get to the last chords.

But with any luck, or another helping of grace, the worst of my playing today was in the privacy of my teacher’s studio. And by the end of my lesson, I played the piece well. I silently counted out a glacially slow introduction. But with starting slow, I not only got to the end of the piece, my teacher said that it sang as I played it.

This afternoon, I’m tired and drained. Hopefully that means that at my lesson, my hair-trigger adrenal glands gave me the last roller coaster ride of the day. Though I’m reminding myself that world peace does not depend on how I play my harp tonight, I would like to play my solo and all the concert pieces as beautifully as I play them when I’m alone in my practice room. I want my ladle from the Lake of Music to be full of water for tonight’s audience. I want to make music.

Honest Feedback: Another Charm Against The Inner Critic

I was talking with my teacher about the recent apparition of Inner Critic, and thanking her for sending him back to his lair by transforming what I could play of The Cherry Tree Carol into music. In the course of our conversation she shared some advice for dealing with self-criticism that was given to her by her teacher: “Have the courage to give yourself honest feedback.”

She is so right. Honest feedback is a perfect charm against Inner Critic, who has only grandiose and hurtful adjectives to fling at me. “You’re terrible,” he shouts, after I once again fail to traverse measure four of The Cherry Tree Carol. But if I ask him to tell me in exactly what way I’m terrible, he can’t answer. If I ask him the specifics of what I did wrong, he sputters and snorts, is speechless. Was it my phrasing, or dynamics, or playing the incorrect notes? Was it problems with the rhythm or tempo, my fingering or hand position, a lapse of attention? He doesn’t know.

When I have the courage to step back from IC’s name-calling and from my feelings that arise in response, and honestly look at what happened in measure four, his power to immobilize me evaporates. The act of analyzing what I did and didn’t do in the measure ends my immobility and leaves no room for him in my thoughts. Once I figure out that I didn’t land on the C string for the second note, and that I held the first 8th note too long, I can begin to experiment with how to fix that measure. I know I need to nab the C string with my thumb, so perhaps I can practice grabbing that particular interval, so my thumb learns exactly where to go to find C. I know I’ve got to get off the initial 8th note faster, so perhaps I can use the metronome while I clap, count, and sing measure four, until I feel the note values and the rhythm in my body. Instead of trying to play the whole measure, perhaps I’ll work on only those first two notes, and drill just that half of the measure until I can play it easily.

It takes courage to give myself feedback about my performance, whether it be an entire piece played for others or a few measures played alone in my practice room. It’s hard to look at what I didn’t play as well as I thought I would, to look at what exactly fell short of my expectations, and then to analyze it bit by bit to figure out what I must do to make it better. It takes courage to experiment with strategies to correct my mistakes, for I know from experience that I’ll make even more mistakes as I weed out strategies that won’t be helpful as I search for the ones that will be. And it takes courage to admit that the responsibility for improving my playing is all mine, and to act accordingly.

It also takes courage to notice and name what I did well, and to acknowledge each accomplishment, however small it may seem in the face of IC’s large and sweeping accusations of musical incompetence. But for any sound to have come from my harp, something I did had to have worked. That initial fourth-measure 8th note was too long, but it was the correct pitch, I started it at the right time, I closed my fingers completely and created a beautiful sound. And there was nothing wrong with the first three measures I played.

Inner Critic does not want me to know these things. He does not want facts interfering with his pronouncements. The last thing he wants is for me to take action and figure out the problem, and then shoulder my responsibility for making my playing better, while I name and claim the playing I do well. He wants me to collapse in fear, to take the easy way out, to free-fall into his trap, and let the music in my heart die unplayed and unheard.


One of my first SoulCollage cards is named Courage. The woman in the card is worried, even afraid, but she faces her fears both big and small with resolve. She has courage. She is not afraid of being afraid. She epitomizes this quote from Mark Twain: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Her gifts to me include a strong heart, a quick wit, and stubbornness of purpose. She tells me that I have the courage to move forward with life and music, despite anything that Inner Critic might say to try to stop me.  She reminds me that I have all the courage I need to give myself honest feedback, and stop Inner Critic in his tracks.