I've been contemplating what to write today on and off for the whole morning. A little bit ago I sat down to stare at this blank text box thinking inspiration might strike, as it often does if I get quiet enough to let it.
Time passed, and the text box was still blank.
I listened to some music, practiced a little more, and gave myself some time to enjoy watching the big fluffy snow falling outside my office window.
Still, no ideas came. No light bulb moments.
I got another cup of coffee and ticked off a few of the to-dos on my Monday list.
So far, this is proving to be a very average Monday. Not completely uninspired, but not overflowing with inspiration. My practice today has been satisfying, but not necessarily amazing, my meditation was its usual amount of distracted, The coffee tastes good, and I genuinely love the snowy view I have from my space.
I won't leave the house today since my lessons continue to be online and I'm still staying home as much as possible (where is there to go, anyway?). But, home is nice. My cats are here and they are excellent company. Later, after I teach some really great students, I'll make dinner with my husband and read.
So, we have to face the facts. Today is Monday. It's an average day. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and it's also not a day I will make a groundbreaking career advance or share something that gets me an astronomical amount of likes on social media (as far as I know).
Today I will do the things I know help me improve at my work. I will meditate, practice, and plan. I will interact with, and hopefully help, my students. I will talk to people I love and do things I love.
We are conditioned to look for monumental moments to share, accomplishments and knowledge to push out to the world every single day that say we are successful, important, beautiful, and relevant.
We are all those things, but in our own way because we are also human.
I am important in my own life, but not to everyone. I am successful in some ways, but not by everyone's definition. I would like to think that we all add something beautiful to life, but it's possible not everyone will see your beauty.
So for today, it's ok that I won't have a genius idea to share, a monumental break-through in my flute playing, or a post that goes viral. It's ok if I don't convince someone who didn't know who I was or who didn't like me that I am actually awesome.
Today I will make music, even if I do it alone. I'll turn air into sound and help my students do the same. I will meditate, drink coffee and hang out with my cats. I will probably do some yoga. I will spend time writing out snippets of ideas and inspirations that may turn into a monumental project later, but not today.
When the world was busier, it was easy to forget that this is actually life. I certainly forgot that it's often these quiet in between moments that get us ready for the next thing, and that remind us it is what's closest to us that matters.
As I gain more experience in my music career (read: as I get older), I’m realizing that feeling successful has very little to do with what we accomplish or what is recognized by other people.
If I reflect on the various times I have felt the most satisfied with my work, it’s when I've made steady progress toward a worthwhile goal or when I've regularly created with intention. Those two things may sound inspired, but they’re often not.
It’s not the quality of daily progress or the value of your daily creations that produces the satisfaction, but the act of doing on a regular basis.
We have all experienced performances where we’ve been totally “in the zone” as well as practice sessions that feel like we are uninspired and banging our head against the wall. And yet we keep coming back to the art, to our practice.
Because we know deep down that the real satisfaction is in the making - in working through the ruts and the imperfections and coming out a little bit better.
The satisfaction in a creative career is not actually succeeding, but creating regularly with intention in a genuine way.
Realizing this is where we start to get to the magic.
Routine Inspired: Getting it done in spite of yourself
I was moved to action after reading Deep Work by Cal Newport and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Both books were excellent from cover to cover but, coming off of a year (or two) of feeling relatively uninspired and mostly stuck, there were two main ideas that basically jumped off the page and hit me over the head.
Newport’s whole book focuses on the value of deep work (uninterrupted, undistracted time spent focusing on a cognitively demanding task), and he gives concrete advice on what we can do to make it fit into our lives.
Obviously as a musician or disciplined creative you are no stranger to deep work, but how often do you allow your phone to pull you away from a practice session or put off practicing for something that could wait, like answering emails? Newport stresses making time for deep work each day and tracking it somewhere you can see it.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown focuses on being more selective about what we deem worthy of our valuable time, sacrificing what is good for what’s great, and choosing to focus our efforts toward what we deem essential.
These two concepts together have the potential to completely shift what we can achieve in our day to day life as creatives by implementing routine, something that McKeown stresses is a must, and pairing it with Newport’s suggestion to track yourself doing the deep work.
“Routine is one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles. Without routine, the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us. But if we create a routine that enshrines the essentials, we will begin to execute them on autopilot.” - Greg McKeown
After reading these books I considered, did I have a daily routine? What did it look like? Had I actively and consciously chosen what was included in it?
The answer was that while I had things I did each day, there was not a lot of intention behind what was essential and I was, in fact, getting pulled in a million directions all the time. So I let myself daydream a little bit - what would I do every day if I could choose to focus on what was absolutely essential? What might that look like in a morning routine?
All that daydreaming made me realize that the only thing stopping me from doing deep work and what was essential every day was me. It was my lack of planning and intention that was leaving me in a creative rut feeling lost and rudderless.
Putting it into practice
I proceeded to make a morning routine with a focus on what I know needs to happen for me to focus on my essentials: being a good musician, feeling balanced and being creative. During this routine my laptop stays closed, and my phone is on silent somewhere I can’t see the screen.
It looks roughly like this:
Some days I’ll flip writing and yoga, and you’ll notice this is not militaristically timed. It does leave me a small window to answer emails, but not until I have done the most essential tasks with uninterrupted attention.
Starting my day this way means I don’t get conned into sacrificing something non-negotiable for something that needs done “immediately.”
I don't keep this routine on the weekends. Instead I fit these things in at whatever point they make sense (or leave them out if they don't). Having done these tasks so deliberately during the week, I can afford to be flexible on the weekends when I might have other things I want to do, like hang out with my husband, run errands, or read more.
You may think this all seems obvious, but the difference is that I am truly treating my morning routine (as inspired by Essentialism) as the deep work that Cal Newport discusses. I allow myself to fully engage in the tasks at hand, and therefore can tackle creative challenges in a way that stretches my abilities each day.
Although I wasn’t taking on any remarkably new and earth shattering tasks, giving new attention and priority to my routine created a significant and noticeable difference in less than a month:
1. Clearing mental clutter: Having a routine in place that I follow without having to figure it out each morning frees up mental space. I know that once I’ve had my coffee I will meditate, and that once I do that I will practice. It’s not up to how tired or awake I feel - each task gets done because it's part of the routine. (Think of the famous anecdote about successful people like Steve Jobs owing seven of the same outfit so they don’t have to think about what they wear each day).
2. Create more by default: I was writing more blogs, creating more resources for teaching, learning more music, etc. All of that was without any herculean effort on my part, only that I made sure there was time to do these things each day.
Generating more output automatically helps us feel more successful as creatives. Whether we’re making a defining element of our work or not, we are exploring our potential and making.
3. Reduce internet "faffing" and self judgement: Another massive benefit of this routine is the way it has reduced my internet scrolling and browsing in the morning. I intentionally read a few daily blogs that I love and may or may not shuffle through a few friends posts before it’s time to start the routine. I spend so much less energy on wondering why I’m not accomplishing what other people are and spend it figuring out what I can create on any given day instead.
Have I have measurable success since I started this morning routine? Maybe it depends on what lens you are viewing things through, but I feel productive, inspired, and creative and I would call that a win for routine.
Give it a try
I hope this inspires you to implement your own routine by considering what is essential to you and how much deep work you are really doing (I’d also encourage you to read the books I listed above!). If you want to give it a shot, I’ve found it helpful and motivating to see my dedication in writing.
You’ll find a free download here of a routine tracker that you can use to tally the days you do deep work/stick to your routine. Tape it up somewhere you’ll see it each day when you begin your routine.
It takes time for things to sink in - this is a monthly tracker for a reason, so give it time. It’s also great to evaluate at the end of each month. What positive outcomes did you have? What’s not lining up with your essentials? Just because something is essential to us now, doesn’t mean that won’t fade with time and that's ok.
Establishing this type of routine has given me a tangible way to grow that has nothing to do with my perception of success or my feelings of self confidence.
No matter how good or bad I feel about myself on a given day, how inspired or uninspired I am, the routine isn’t about creative genius or accomplishment. It’s about investing in what I value, and I can always get on board with that.
We've all heard the saying "practice makes perfect."
I can't stand it.
We are as familiar with the concept that perfect doesn't exist as we are with that age old saying.
No matter how good we get - there is always something that can be better, always something left to tweak, adjust, improve..
So if we're not striving for perfection, what are we doing when we practice? What are we aiming for?
We are exploring the expression of imperfection.
Every time we practice, we are striving for a different type of imperfection - one that serves us better than the previous version.
As we develop our musical abilities we make large and small changes to the habits we have created. Sometimes we are trying to adjust the direction our air travels by the slightest amount, sometimes we are taking on a more monumental task like changing our embouchure.
Over the course of our long musical journey we may change those things again at a later time, and then again after that. They're never perfect. Rather, they serve us better each time we make an adjustment.
I once took a week long class with Thomas Robertello, who is an extremely logical and systematic teacher, and this topic came up. His comment shaped my view about this idea of perfection and mistakes in a very impactful way. Someone who was performing in the class bemoaned how poorly they did something and how it held them back. Robertello's response was that at one time that method, that way of doing things, was their best. Just because it wasn't anymore didn't make it or them bad.
At some point as we grow, our imperfections shift and change. We leave behind what used to be difficult or impossible for a new difficult or impossible. We don't need to berate or judge ourselves for the old way of doing things - we were simply working with the resources we had. Instead, we can focus on exploring our new knowledge and skills.
Taking this mindset in practice is mentally freeing. It allows us to release judgement of previous mistakes and "imperfections" so we can focus on attainable goals that lead us to better expression of our true abilities.
Many of us have or have had the mindset that we are practicing to make something perfect, when in reality we are practicing to make ourselves able to consistently display our current best.
Instead of zeroing in on perfection in practice, we should be exploring what is not serving our playing and focus on developing those habits to better express our true ability.
We will never be perfect. No one will be. But we can develop our skills and continually work to display a truer picture of them.
Trying new things in practice, a willingness to explore our focus and method, and digging in to why a certain "mistake" or "bad habit" resurfaces is where we improve.
Mistakes and difficulties are where we grow and a curiosity of them is the catalyst for that growth.
Our overarching goal in music making is not the absence of mistakes, but playing intentionally and thoughtfully so that we can share our music. Mistakes will happen because we are human and not perfect, but by exploring imperfection we can release our focus on mistakes while developing and expressing our abilities.
What you accomplish in practice depends completely on your mindset and objectives. The next time you practice, instead of focusing on the need to make a passage perfect, focus on what's not serving you and how it can be embraced as a tool for improvement.
It's not uncommon to see everyone looking for some kind of quick fix.
Don't we all want to feel more rested without having to actually give up more hours to sleep, be fitter without having to exercise more, or be better at something without having to sacrifice hours and hours a day?
Fast food, food delivery services, Cliff Notes....all kinds of things around us tell us that we can be better for almost little or no effort.
I'm not buying it.
If you are a musician at any level, you may already know (or at least suspect) that there is no replacement for putting it in the work. One of my teachers growing up called it "woodshedding" (I actually still use this term a lot - I like it's meaning, but I also like it because it makes my students look at me like I have two heads.)
Basically, if you want to get something tough done, you've got to take it out to the "shed" (somewhere you're by yourself), make a mess, and get it done.
Still, we often take shortcuts without even realizing it, and I would argue it's because they are prevalent in our culture. We don't exactly value you things that require us to be there for the long haul before we see results.
In teaching, I find this is something that I really have to show my students. Most of us are impatient in some way, but they are growing up in an impatient era. So we often do the work together - our "woodshedding" is communal. I think that they need to really experience the positive outcomes of doing the work to be willing to do it in their own practice time.
In my own practice, I sometimes have to remind myself that if I stop checking my email or thinking about that meeting I have tomorrow and just spend the half hour or hour I need on a technical piece with the metronome, all of my subsequent practice will be better, more productive and progress more quickly.
A side note here: I'm not talking about spending hours and hours aimlessly. What I'm talking about is slowing down and taking the time necessary for intentional practice and practice methods.
I was reminded of this while working on a piece this week that has a lot of scale patterns in unusual modes - they were both not in my fingers or in my ears, and the only way to get them there was to woodshed. I took the tempo WAY down (by half!), worked in small groups, then slightly larger groups, then just slightly quicker in small groups and then slightly larger groups, and so on.
Two days later, I can hear where the piece is going and it lays well in my fingers. Had I not done that tedious work I would still be banging my head against the stand trying to go fast, learning a bunch of bad habits, and not making any real progress. (Admittedly, I made most of the progress on the second day - things take time to sink in, even when we do it right!)
In the world of auto-tune, filters, fast food and endless distractions, sometimes we all need the reminder that: There is no substitute for doing the work with intention.
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.