No one can do it all. Or, maybe a few people can, but what are they sacrificing? Who is helping them do it?
In order to “do it all” in an area of our life, we make sacrifices in other places that don’t matter as much. It’s why a world class, virtuosic violinist is not also an influential investment banker.
We can do many things, but we can’t do everything.
One of the lessons we usually learn too late is that limits are a good thing. Our minds reach a limit when we need to rest. Our bodies reach a limit when we have pushed them too far.
We cannot spend our free time writing endless emails and never practicing if we need to be prepared for our rehearsals and performances. We can't have any energy to share with our students if we never sleep.
This month I feel like I have reached several of my limits - emotionally, physically, and also mentally. This is life. But, the joy of being human is that we can grow and learn how to move through the times when we have tapped out my resources.
What I have learned is that running up against your limits is not an invitation to look for a new energy hack or productivity trick. It is not an invitation to miss out on sleeping well so that you can finish writing emails.
Reaching your max is an opportunity to be uninspired. To put your need to produce to rest. To answer the emails, but later than you usually would. To practice, but with more breaks than usual. To let your ideas and projects simmer for a while.
It is a reminder that the patience to let things percolate is often what eventually brings them to life.
For the past few weeks I have been taking my time. Practicing when I can and accepting when I can’t. Answering messages and meeting my deadlines, but with less hurry-up than usual.
Despite my lack of inspiration, things are getting done. In fact, things are remarkably totally normal.
Nothing lasts forever. This month will turn into next month and the demands on my time and energy will change. My inspiration will return until the next time I need a reminder that it’s ok to be uninspired.
In allowing myself some limits, I’m also reinforcing my understanding of their value.
This is not a call to action. It is not an excuse to do nothing.
It’s a nudge to notice the rhythms of your life and work with them, not against them.
The encouragement to create space and enjoyment in so many places you might otherwise never have found it.
Wind players with too much wind? Is that possible?
Do you ever take a deep breath to play - a really good one, where you can feel your lungs expand all the way around - and then immediately feel like you are about to run out of air?
Have you had a moment of panic in performance when you can feel the sensation of breathlessness setting in and then run out of air even faster than you might have otherwise?
Many famous flutists have taught the concept of only breathing for the phrase, meaning taking in only the amount of air the phrase dictates rather than as much as you possibly can. Of course this makes sense as it creates a natural phrase and enables an organic breath in at the end of the phrase before beginning another.
Only in recent years are we seeing scientific studies that explain why this teaching concept is correct and how we can actually be over-saturated with oxygen. This can even happen (and does frequently for a large number of people) during completely mundane activities like watching tv and sleeping.
If it’s possible to have too much oxygen in our system when we are doing something as inactive as binging Netflix, it stands to reason that we could certainly be over-breathing without even realizing it while playing our instruments.
There is no way to provide the broad picture of how beneficial both efficient, anatomically correct natural breathing and structured breathwork are for all of us in this blog. However, a little knowledge of some foundational basics of breath are important. I really believe that most of us would map how our breath works in the body incorrectly if we had to describe it.
Oxygen keeps us alive. It helps our body circulate many of the nutrients it needs. Breathing, when done correctly, can stimulate the vagus nerve and calm our nervous system (or the opposite if we are truly in danger). Our breath removes toxins from the body, with the big one being CO2. In fact, when you lose weight, you lose most of it in the CO2 of your out-breath.
Amazed yet? Our breath does incredible things in the body on its own when it is working properly. When we take it a step further and practice breathwork techniques like pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or conscious breathwork we can learn to calm, soothe and ground ourselves. We can even begin to rewrite neural patterns that have been created by traumatic events or just plan bad habits.
Now that we have some background, let’s get back to CO2.
Most of us habitually over-breathe. Check yourself right now: is your mouth open? Are you breathing in and out of your mouth while you read?
Notice if there is anyone around you. Are they breathing through their mouth right now?
When we breathe through our mouths, not only do we miss out on the crucial passage of air through our nose and sinuses, we breathe more and more shallowly. This continued shallow breathing builds up the oxygen in our system and creates not only a lack of CO2, but also an intolerance to it.
A lack of tolerance to CO2 means that as we come to the end of an exhale, hold our breath, or breathe out for a long phrase while playing a wind instrument, we can’t sit with the discomfort of having more CO2 present and breathe in rapidly or immediately.
As wind players, we interact with our CO2 tolerance every day, usually without ever learning about it.
When playing our instruments we are often expelling air to the point of discomfort. In addition, we deal with nervousness, which can cause shallow breathing and bring the discomfort of CO2 intolerance to the forefront.
If we are breathing in more often then we need to when playing or breathing in a fast shallow way when we’re nervous, then we are actively bringing a greater and greater amount of oxygen into our system. In turn, our lack discomfort with CO2 grows.
I think it’s worth emphasizing that CO2 is not just a waste gas, but an important part of the cycle of breath and rejuvenation of the complex systems in our body.
One of the most practical ways to improve our breath control and capacity in our playing is not through fancy breathing exercises, but rather by paying attention to our every day habits and behaviors.
A remarkable number of us are mouth breathers. Again, check right now - are you breathing through the nose or the mouth?
Just by increasing the amount of time you spend breathing in through the nose you can feel more calm, increase your CO2 tolerance, and strengthen the systems in your body that are built around breathing.
Some practical ways you can increase your nose breathing (Please note that I am not a doctor and if you have contraindications like a heart or lung issue, you should talk to your doctor before trying any of these exercises):
These are changes we can implement every day to help ourselves feel more calm, feel more “comfortable” with that low-on-air feeling, and to have a healthier relationship with our breath.
Begin with your daily habits. Awareness is key, and by simply becoming more aware you can create huge health benefits for yourself.
When you feel ready to go beyond the daily habits, there are few basic exercises we can start with to build and grow our CO2 tolerance:
Many professional athletes have seen huge improvements in their performance through breathwork and exercises for CO2 tolerance. Doesn’t it make sense that we might also benefit as wind players who work with oxygen and CO2 every time we pick up our instrument?
I want to include a snippet of my personal experience since I started exploring breathwork in the last year as a testament to the impact it can have.
One of the things I have always struggled with in performance is the feeling of breathlessness. Some of this comes from nervous shallow breathing, which I have done my whole life. That habit was amplified during a period of time when I had a B12 deficiency (which can lead to breathlessness) and created even more subconscious poor breathing habits.
Recently, when I was away for an orchestra festival I used a large hill on the campus where we were staying to build on my nose breathing walks. Every day we had rehearsal over the three weeks, I walked up this (VERY!) steep hill to rehearsal slowly enough that I could continue breathing through my nose. If I started breathing through my mouth or feeling like I needed to, I stopped until I could continue on breathing only through the nose.
Not only did my pace improve (admittedly it started out pretty slow - that hill is big!), but my feelings of breathlessness due to nerves in rehearsal and performance became more manageable and notably different. I was shocked at the rapidity of the change. It certainly inspired me to continue exploring all the many ways breathwork can improve my quality of life and my flute playing.
I hope you are feeling inspired to explore what your breath can do! If you are interested in the topic, I highly recommend the follow books:
Breath, by James Nestor
The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown
A Practical Guide to Breathwork, by Jesse Coomer
Let me know - was this all new information? Are you reconsidering how you might approach your breath in play and your daily life?
How often have you thought about doing something productive and then talked yourself out of it?
Maybe you were watching some Netflix to relax and thought, I should do some laundry. Well, maybe after the next episode.
Or, I should probably practice, but I'll do it after I answer all these emails.
Trying to get started, or change directions, often presents us with a roadblock. It's much easier to stay on the couch than sort laundry. Much easier to half-heartedly respond to emails than commit your attention to practicing.
One of my favorite things that author James Clear frequently discusses is that we all tend to over-inflate the concept of productivity and the types of tasks we should be doing. When we imagine what we want to accomplish, it's often large ambiguous goals like "get in shape" or "learn new repertoire."
We are so absorbed in these grand ideas that we never really exert any effort toward them because the small practical steps that would get us there feel so far removed from the goal.
The next time you set a large goal for yourself, get specific. Not just, "I want to learn new repertoire" but "I want to learn pieces x, y, and z by a particular date for a particular purpose."
Then, set about deciding what small steps make up the process of reaching that goal.
For a student who struggles with some pain when playing or practicing, they might decide what stretches would help them. Then, make an actionable decision about when they can do them.
It always helps to attach something new we'd like to do to a task we already complete regularly. For the student addressing injury prevention, this might mean stretching their wrists each time they brush their teeth.
Not only does this fit their new actionable step into their day twice, but it utilizes something else that's crucial.
The hardest part is getting ourselves moving so it makes sense to attach an action to something you already do. This allows us the opportunity to build on actions we already take to add new, important actions to our routine.
Now, you might think that stretching twice a day for just two or three minutes isn't worth much. However, if you weren't stretching at all before you've already more than doubled your previous efforts. Five minutes of stretching each day equals over thirty hours of stretching in one year.
The only way forward is one small step at a time.
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.