How often do you catch yourself overthinking things?
Do you ever find yourself lost in thoughts about what happened last night or last year? Maybe about what will happen next year?
Perhaps you start practicing and are suddenly lost in thoughts of that wrong note you played in a performance two years ago, or you're wondering what your income will be like this year and how the job market will look when the pandemic begins to subside? Maybe you're just thinking about that hair that's always completely out of place.
The examples above are valid and also distracting in different ways. It's certainly not uncommon to get lost in thinking about the bigger picture.
There are a million ways we can distract ourselves: overthinking something from the past, obsessing over things that haven't happened yet, focusing on things that are actually inconsequential, or telling ourselves what a terrible job we have done, are doing or will do. These are just a few that I may, or may not, have some personal experience with.
What has helped me tremendously with overactive and critical thoughts is mindfulness meditation.
I don't mean that meditating has stopped the ridiculous banter that can happen in my subconscious. I'm not actually sure it is possible to stop that. Rather, meditating has shown me a new perspective on my tendency to overthink and overcomplicate my day to day life.
The reality is, most of us end up in this chaotic mind state without even realizing we have let these thoughts run rampant.
What mindfulness meditation tells us is that we have a choice about how to react when we have these feelings or distracting thought patterns.
You may not notice right away that your mind has wandered, or that it's taken you down another rabbit hole of dissecting one of your self labeled flaws, but at some point you will notice.
That moment of noticing is the magic moment! When you notice you are telling yourself stories or being exceptionally hard on yourself, or even that you are simply distracted, you acknowledge that it's happening. Notice what it feels like physically and mentally. Then, send those thoughts on their way by beginning the task at hand again.
In mindfulness meditation, the goal is usually to focus on the breath. Or, that's the assumed goal. The real objective is to notice when your mind has wandered and bring yourself back to focusing on the breath.
The intention is to see your thoughts and patterns of thought as passing events. You didn't actively call upon them or set out to derail your warmup, meditation session, or performance, but once you notice that it's happening you can move on.
It's ok to also acknowledge anything helpful coming from these thoughts. In fact, it's encouraged. Can you learn anything useful from how you've distracted yourself? If you can, great, keep the material you can use. If you can't, also great, then it becomes even easier to let those thoughts go.
Here's an example of how this could play out in a regular activity, let's say, beginning your first practice session or warm-up of the day:
The real magic of mindfulness meditation is the awareness of what happens in our subconscious, and that's what I think translates so well to life, and especially life for a musician.
Give it a shot the next time you notice yourself thinking about that note that happened two lines ago or about all the reasons you shouldn't start practicing. Be aware that your subconscious has taken you on a little side trip and then do your best bring yourself back.
It's important to note that we will need to do this again and again, thousands and thousands of times. But like our muscles we train through regular practice, the more you exercise this ability, the stronger it becomes.
Thoughts and feelings are not truths, rather, they're events that we can choose to participate in or not.
How do you start practicing?
Quite literally, what are your actions as you begin a practice session?
Do you whip the case open, throw your instrument together and hurriedly begin your scales only to stop thirty seconds later when your phone dings with a text message or email notification?
Are you still thinking about what your friend said between classes or that test that didn't go very well?
Maybe you're working your way through all the major keys in a technical exercise, stop, and then can't remember which key you were on (full confession - this is what I struggle with!).
You get the idea - it can be difficult to turn off external and internal distractions, and we all know that there are endless amounts of them.
If we want to have productive and satisfying practice, we have to consider how we begin.
It's not always fun to set boundaries or use discipline to create structure, but if we are willing to do it we feel calmer and more satisfied within ourselves, and less attached to the external validation that distracts us.
Consider the first note you play in a practice session. How do you get there? Most of us immediately place the instrument to our face after we put it together and start blowing. It can take forever to feel like we're warmed up and in the moment, and by then our practice time might be up.
Alternatively, imagine how much more focused, more satisfying, and more productive your practice might be if you don't move instantly from taking your instrument out of it's case to playing scales as fast as possible like a technique maniac.
Taking even a few seconds to focus inward before beginning lets us practice with intention.
Here are some ways you can set the tone for focused practice:
This may look like a lot of steps, but the whole list together takes around 2 - 5 minutes.
By giving yourself the time to quiet the space around you and connect with yourself and your goals, you will save you much more than 5 minutes in distracted practice.
Give it a try - what do you notice as the biggest benefit of intentional practice?
"So many books, so little time." - Frank Zappa
I have loved to read since I was little, and while that interest waned a little bit when I was in school (required reading sometimes puts a damper on fun), reading is one of the great joys of my life.
I have been pretty consistent in my reading habit for the last few years, but with a lot of extra time on my hands last year and a desire to not watch the news 24/7, I kicked things into high gear. In the process, I realized how much time I could waste faffing on stupid websites, social media, etc., and how many books I could read if I was more attentive to how I was spending my time.
(Although, sometimes you just want to play Words With Friends, and that's ok!)
I use Goodreads to track what I read and it gives you a great summary at the end of the year showing all your books. (This is also a very satisfying way to celebrate yourself for reading!) After 21,051 pages in 2020, here are my top picks:
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
This book is one I know that I will visit over and over. I read this before I started meditating regularly, and I can't wait to read it again now that I have built a meditation habit. This book is a must for anyone with a high stakes job (like musicians!).
Deep Work by Cal Newport
I read several of Newport's books last year, and they all really make you stop and evaluate the things you do without thinking. This one focused on the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship and the benefits of learning to focus and limit distractions (not something that is exactly encouraged in our current culture). I also have to give an honorable mention to Newport's book Digital Minimalism. Like Deep Work, it encourages us to consider that what is common is not necessarily best, and that we should exercise our discerning mind rather than blindly accepting the norm.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
I love reading about history, and basically inhaled all of Larson's books last year. They are written like fiction, weaving you through the stories of a chosen few individuals, but provide the broader context to understand what was happening in the world during events like Hitler's rise to power and the creation of the cross-Atlantic telegraph. Devil in the White City was my favorite, but they're all worth reading.
Maybe you Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This book gives you a glimpse of what therapy is really like, and the ways in which therapists are also human. It's an endearing approach and pulls some of the stigma out of therapy. Gottlieb shares about herself and about different types of clients, and there is someone or some struggle in this book that each of us can relate to.
10% Happier by Dan Harris
This is the book that convinced me to just try meditating. It's a very down to earth approach about the ways meditation can help us, even though most of us won't achieve enlightenment. I can't recommend the app by the same name (Ten Percent) enough. Meditation is changing my life.
The Practice by Seth Godin
I have talked about Seth Godin's daily blogs before. I love the way he pulls information down into small, digestible, actionable thoughts. This book reads like one of his blogs with lots of very small chapters, but is an absolute MUST for creatives. After reading this on my Kindle, I plan to order a paper copy so I can go to town with sticky tabs and a highlighter!
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
My favorite type of reading to indulge in is fiction (usually with a tinge of history or fantasy), and this book was such a vivid read. The characters were realistic and easy to picture, and I loved the glimpse it provided into Indian culture, especially given my deep dive into yoga this year.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
V. E. Schwab's books are amazing. She writes intricate and beautifully detailed plots and characters, and I love the way she uses language. I couldn't wait to read this book, and it didn't disappoint. The characters are exquisite and the story is both uplifting and heartbreaking. I actually lost my sense of time reading the end of this book and spent an unplanned hour in tears as the story resolved itself. Who doesn't want to read a story you can completely lose yourself in?
There were a few books I read last year that I didn't like at all, but even those were time well spent. I'm already excited about the books I'll read this year and the time they will help me spend not faffing around on social media! All the books below have links if you want to read more about them or the authors. Happy reading!
P.S. Leave a comment with some books you love - I'm always looking for more to read!
The chakra system originated in India around 1000 or 1500 BC. Chakra means "wheel" in Sanskrit, and refers to the energy points in the body. There are seven main chakras that run the length of the spine and work together when they are balanced..
In yoga, you can address the chakras through asana (physical poses). Considering the different chakras is also a great way to figure out where you might be overexerting in your life, or perhaps to find the things you are avoiding or bad habits you have developed.
In the yoga teacher training I'm completing, our training weekends are organized by the chakras. We learn what each chakra represents, how it communicates with the other chakras, what sense and element are related to it, and what asana can help balance it.
Just before the holidays, we met for training based on the second chakra - "svadisthana" meaning the self dwelling place where our being is established, or the sacral chakra. The element of the second chakra is water, and it's right is the right to feel and enjoy without guilt.
As you might expect, since the element is water, we discussed how water moves, its characteristics, and it's tendencies. Water can flow gently or violently, it can be a drip or a destructive current. It can create and destroy, depending on its intensity.
The other interesting aspect of this for me was the concept of our right to feel and enjoy. How often have you (or I) limited our enjoyment of something because we were distracted by the need to do even better, be even more successful, or have even more of something?
Shortly after that training weekend I took a class with a friend and we spent time together after class discussing my goals for learning about yoga and teaching it, as well as talking through questions and concerns I have about teaching.
I mentioned that I have always struggled with perfectionism. It has always been difficult for me to take the leap into doing something new if I don't feel like it's exactly right or completely ready. I have grappled with a lot of these issues in my music career, but yoga teacher training has brought many of these issues back to the surface.
Participating in this training is the first time in a long time I am learning something completely new and then very quickly translating that new information into action. I'm grateful for the ways it has brought my struggles with perfectionism and my tendency to hesitate to light.
By considering my habits through the lens of yoga , especially using the chakras, Ive also been able to develop new tools for feeling grounded, and for keeping myself moving.
When talking through this with my friend, she suggested a good mantra for me might be to "flow like water," and it was like a light bulb went off.
After a lifetime of restricting myself because I want things to be "just right," and limiting so much creativity that might occur in the moment, I realized that exactly what I need is to be fluid.
To be open to possibility.
So, it seemed that my word of the year is obvious: fluid!
If you've spent time on the internet or social media lately, you might have noticed there's a small war being waged against New Years resolutions.
Of course there's the usual "new year, new you!" junk floating around, but there is also a lot of negative attention being directed toward the idea of resolving to do something new or better to kick off this trip around the sun.
The argument for this seems well-meaning: we have a lot on our plates, there's a pandemic, you are enough as you are, etc.. None of this is untrue, but it all reeks a bit of another well manicured internet "wellness" pitch.
Even if things out there are still a little scary, we're allowed to want to improve or become better, right?
I hope so.
I mentioned in my last post how much I love New Years Eve. I love the ability it gives us to be so much more present to the space between the past and future than we usually are. I often feel like I gain so much clarity around New Years Eve about where I've been and where I want to be.
I have no shame in saying that I've made lots of New Years resolutions, some that I've kept and some that I haven't. My take on it has always been that, like regular goals (which, if we're being real, are resolutions without the holiday), resolutions give us a chance to verbalize our big desires.
This is important - we need things to feel attainable and real to be motivated to work toward them.
Last year, though, I ditched the resolutions. Not because they were making me feel unworthy, but because I didn't know exactly what I wanted. I wasn't used to that and it freaked me out - how could I possibly be without a big goal? Maybe there was something wrong with me!
Then I saw a friend post her "word of the year" and thought, surely I could chose a word. It would be like setting a theme for the year, and that sounded like a useful guide when I was feeling a little nebulous to begin with.
Coming off of a few very stressful years, not in the least because I was struggling with a lot of self criticism, perfectionism, and at least a little burnout, I knew what I needed was structure that would help alleviate some stress and encourage me to do the right kind of work.
My word for 2020 was "consistency," and although when I chose it I had daily practice of my instrument in mind, it turned out to be exactly the word I needed when the world shut down and I was stuck at home with a completely different landscape of goals available to me than I had imagined.
"Consistency" turned out to be so beneficial for me last year, in ways I could not have ever predicted when I picked it as my word of the year. It led me back to yoga, helped me learn to meditate, brought me back to my instrument when there were no gigs to be seen, and helped me take better care of myself as the year kept throwing punches.
As you might guess, I am convinced about the power of choosing a word instead of a resolution. Your word might apply to your work, your personal life, a specific project, or all of the above.
If you're interested in choosing a word of the year with me, I'd love to have company.
Here are some suggestions for choosing your word wisely:
Leave a comment if you're going to choose a word - I'm going to share mine in another post.
The way I see it, setting a word for 2021 is the perfect way to thoughtfully guide myself into the new year.
When we wrapped up lessons in December I encouraged my students to listen to their gut when it came to practicing over the holiday break.
Often on a long-ish break from lessons I encourage my students to be diligent. Some time off can be healthy, but we all benefit from the routine of regular practice, even if the amount of time we play is reduced. I'm known to assign lots of extra materials to keep my students busy over a break (sorry, not sorry!).
Not to sound cliché, but the end of 2020 was different. (You're thinking, duh, we know, so what?)
So, we all need to pay attention to how we're actually feeling, is what.
I typically love New Years Eve. There's that extra feeling of excitement for new unknowns, and the adrenaline of possibility. There is a duality we feel at New Years that other holidays and events just don't provide. The sense that we are both in the past and the future all at once. On a precipice between what we have been and what we will be, with a startlingly clear view of each.
Of course, we have that duality available to us all the time. It would be awesome if we lived between the past and future, in that truly present moment, more often.
We all spent some time avoiding reality this year. Maybe it was too many snacks and virtual happy hours at the beginning of quarantine, or shutting the news off when you wanted to pretend it didn't feel like the world was busting open. It could have been a good escape like lots of reading or exercise, or maybe it was numbing out in front of the tv or on social media. Most of us probably did some version of all of those.
So when we logged off for the holidays to close out 2020, after months of actually slogging through whatever insane things the last year continued to require from us, I encouraged my students to do what felt right. Practice if it sounds fun, or don't if you don't feel like it.
Try to listen to yourself. Not tune out to something distracting, actually listen.
I had grand plans for my break. Lots of reading to do, practicing for fun, and working ahead on things for my yoga teacher training. But, as the break went on, it became pretty clear that some of it just wasn't going to happen.
For once though, instead of berating myself ("I CANNOT BELIEVE that you didn't finish these eight thousand projects you came up with for yourself", etc.), I was ok with it. It's what I needed. Instead of duking it out with myself, I'll pick up refreshed when the break is over, with the energy I need to do a good job on the important stuff instead of a bunch of things that are half baked.
(This isn't a post about stopping everything for lazy "self care.")
As we go into this year with renewed energy and optimism, this is the lesson to take from 2020 - listen to yourself.
Check in with yourself. Regularly.
How do you feel?
What are you working toward?
Is what you're doing getting you somewhere?
Do you still want the same things?
Once you've asked the questions, you just have to give yourself the space to listen.
You might have a plan you meant to stick to but changed your mind, and sometimes that's actually the right answer.
I know that I have hesitated to move forward with good ideas because I felt I didn't have things worked out quite yet. I also know that I have stopped short of sharing new ideas or skills because I didn't think I knew enough to share yet.
My students sometimes hesitate to finish a phrase because they think it's not (or isn't going to turn out) good enough. They will stop and restart, only to stop and restart again in the same exact place.
Is it that they know they have a lack of knowledge or ability that makes them do this? Or, is it fear? Fear of being seen and heard "in progress."
It's almost always fear. A self-protect mechanism that somehow makes them feel confident that they can predict how badly, how unfortunately the future will turn out if they keep playing.
Professionals do it all the time - not sharing something we wrote, or a recording that will life a long internet life that is just not quite up to our standard.
How many things have you started and not finished because you're just not good enough, yet?
One of my favorite things to remind my students when they stop before they can make a mistake or as soon as something doesn't quite please them is that "gross is good." Gross means you are trying. Gross means you took a risk (you could replace the word "gross" with "mistakes"). Gross is human.
I don't know anyone who is perfect - as a person, or a musician, or in any other profession. We are all constantly learning, and we can actively choose our attitude by limiting ourselves and not trying, or trying and growing. But, if you never try you will never grow.
If you never let it be gross, it will never be good.
No one but you expects you to be perfect - they are too busy placing the same expectations on themselves.
What we all need to do is remember that we are the only ones who remember each event in our lives - the only ones who remember every single wrong note, every nervous moment - and that it is always more important to grow.
If you gave your best possible performance of a piece today and then performed the same piece in five years, they would be very different performances. Hopefully you would do it better - wouldn't you hate to be stagnant or move backwards?
But knowing you will be better in five years is no reason to avoid giving your best now.
Do what you can with what you have and you will grow.
In the short time I have been studying to teach yoga, I have learned so much about the history of yoga and the spiritual practice and beliefs that are the basis for the physical practice we are all so familiar with.
The poses that we practice in what you would picture as a typical yoga class are called "asana." This term refers to the physical postures that we take when doing yoga. While asana is often the only part of a yoga practice many of us are familiar with, it is one of the eight limbs of yoga that make up the spiritual and physical practice.
You may already notice that there is often a focus on the breath in yoga classes you have taken. If you've never tried yoga, it is common for a teacher to help you sync your breath to your movements, cueing you to inhale and exhale when it makes sense with your physical movements.
The breath is an integral part of yoga, and as I am learning more about the foundations of yoga I am fascinated by the way this ties in with my perception of the breath as a wind player, and specifically as a flutist.
Prana is the life force energy, a universal energy which flows in currents in and around the body. Yoga often divides it into five distinct vayus. In Sanskrit, vayu means "wind", while the root of the word (va) translates to "that which flows." Vayus are also thought of as energies.
Already, you may sense the connection to playing your instrument - we are often trying to communicate something about ourselves or connect through our sound as made by our own wind.
There are distinct differences between the five vayus, and a familiarity with them can allow us to be more perceptive to subtleties of the body - something musicians are used to doing and need to be quite skilled at.
Prana-vayu is inward moving breath which flows in and up from the heart through the head.
Take a breath in and notice how you can feel opened, lifted and energized by this energy going up through your body.
Apana-vayu is downward moving breath, which flows down and out through the body taking toxins or unwanted substances like carbon dioxide with it.
Breathe in and notice how you can feel opened, grounded, and rooted as the breath travels down through the body.
Now. take a moment to breathe with your focus on prana and apana, allowing yourself to be energized by each breath in and releasing anything that is not serving you on each out-breath.
Samana-vayu translates to "balancing air" and unites the upward and downward energy of prana and apana. Samana energy swirls around your midsection where it brings us balance.
Take a moment to breathe in and out, noticing the way you expand through the front, back, and sides of your midsection.
Vyana-vayu is outward moving and travels from the center of the body through the limbs at the borders of the body.
Breathe and notice how you can feel your breath reach your arms and legs, hands and feet.
Take several long breaths in and out, noticing how you can feel expansion and release in your midsection as the air travels in to the center of the body and out through your limbs.
Udana-vayu is "that which travels upward" and is centered around the neck and head. It's expression is verbal (or, in the case of a musician, based in our tone or musical voice).
Breathe in and out, noticing the way you feel the breath move through your throat - try sighing audibly on the out-breath.
Now that you've given yourself a moment to consider all the ways the breath energizes us, and helps us release and verbalize, consider how this relates to your use of air when playing your instrument.
Our air energizes us to play (prana and apana), allowing us to feel both the energy to create sound and the grounding that we need to resonate. Our air also opens us to being resonant while carrying our sound away from us (samana and viyana).
Finally, our air carries our true expression as we communicate through the sound of our instrument (udana). It radiates out from our heart with the messages we hope our music will project.
There is a Buddhist scripture titled Udana that is translated as "inspired utterances," and I love the connotation of that translation in relation to music.
The next time you warm up on your instrument, use some long tones to consider the five vayus:
- Spend time focusing on each vayu individually as you do your long tone exercise.
- Do you notice anything new about the breath moving through your body or your perception of the breath?
- Does focusing on the breath in this way make you more aware of subtle movements or changes in the body? What about subtle changes in your sound or resonance?
The five vayus can help us balance ourselves in life, but I believe they can help us balance ourselves especially while playing our instruments where our attention often gets swept away as we overexert ourselves in the musical task at hand.
A simple and effective way to start warming up:
Pick one note (if you're a flutist, B in the staff is quite nice for this exercise).
Hold the instrument with as little tension as possible. Maybe even with just one hand if you can, letting the other arm relax at your side.
Focus on moving your air freely and finding optimal resonance. Don't try too hard.
Stay with this note as long as you need until you feel the resonance and vibration and notice warmth in the sound.
Try relaxing your knees, bending one at a time or shifting your weight side to side. Can you keep the resonance and ease of playing while you do this?
As long as you can maintain the quality of air movement, try walking around your space, making sure none of your joints are locked and your movements are fluid.
Now carry this ease of air and movement as well as the beautiful quality of sound you have created through any long tone exercise you like, beginning on the note you started with.
I had a bit of a technology melt down last week.
It was spurred on by several things that coalesced into slight (major) loss of calm. I don't think it should have surprised me - months of learning or using new skills you're not necessarily interested in can be tough, and then when things don't come together because you're not quite good enough at editing yet or that microphone wasn't in the right spot, etc., we're bound to feel a little defeated.
Alas, my technological struggles are not the point here.
We have some options when we get frustrated. We can wallow in our sorrows (sometimes, a good therapeutic wallow is good for the soul). We can keep banging our head against the wall (this would be an example of efforting in the wrong way) and try to hash something, anything, out of our frustrations. Or, we can put it down and come back later.
I have long been an advocate of "bad practice is worse than no practice." If you are fighting yourself, then you are definitely not getting anything done and you might be creating some nasty habits.
So, my usual reaction, when I am thinking clearly, is to walk away, cool off, and come back to it.
But, beyond giving the task space, we need to make space.
Perhaps even if you give yourself some time to cool off you may have residual frustration when you come back to the task. You may sit down to a flood of emotions remembering how peeved you were at the problem when you stopped.
To bring yourself back around from the space you gave to your task, you now need to create space in and around yourself so you can work.
This will likely mean:
- Giving yourself room to focus (no phone in the room, not cramming the activity in between other tasks, picking a productive time of day to work)
- Checking in with yourself before you get started: What do you want to accomplish? How are you feeling? (It's hard to work when you are hungry, for example.)
- How are you sitting? Find your feet on the floor and your sit bones, check in with your spine.
- What is the most specific thing you could focus on that would help fix your problem? If I'm practicing, that could be just my stance, just my air, just one note that will resonate the way I want. If I am working on the computer, that could be figuring out how to create a template from an effect I want to reuse in a video
- Taking some deep breaths. Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath when you are concentrating? Yeah, me too. Make sure you are breathing (and blinking if you're working at the computer).
- Reevaluating your task entirely. Are you making things too complicated? We usually are.
I definitely wallowed a bit last week. Once I got it out of my system, though, I came up with a plan. I adjusted some goals to make things more reasonable. bought a pair of bluelight glasses (who knows if they actually work, but even if the relief I'm noticing is all in my mind, sign me up!), AND found a way to make space for myself.
If I'm being honest, making space did mean some time completely unrelated to the problem playing as many meditative long tones and technique exercises as I wanted, but I know that will allow me to come back open to my work. Making space for yourself will look different for everyone.
As you approach your next big task, how can you give and make space to/for yourself?