Failure is both a celebrated and taboo topic in performative disciplines.
You will see many athletes, musicians, actors, etc, discuss failure as a pathway to success, and the internet is littered with inspirational quotes about failure and its necessity as part of a successful career or life.
You will also notice that these same performers, and most everyday run-of-the-mill humans, will hide their failures behind the veil of their successes, showing only the positive event that came after what we can assume was many less desirable outcomes.
I think most of us can put ourselves in both of these camps. I often share stories of failed auditions or subpar performances with my students as a means of showing that we all have them and they are one of the ways we learn. But I also rarely share failed outcomes - or even that I'm making an attempt at something scary - publicly. What's the expression about holding your cards close?
My point here is not that either of those ways of viewing or hiding failure is right or wrong. Rather, I think we all need to consider our relationship to failure more closely and sincerely as a window to how we're approaching and living our lives.
It's important to define what you mean by failure - it's an awfully broad term, after all. When you think of failing, do you mean that you completely fell on your face and made a fool of yourself, and that you had absolutely no idea how to do the thing you were attempting? Or, maybe more likely, failure could mean that you made a concentrated effort toward something using your accumulated knowledge and skill and it didn't work out. Those are two very different things!
It's also important to differentiate between a few things:
- Did you actually "fail" (By your definition? By someone else's?) or were you simply not the first pick?
- Does your "failure" negate any of your skills, knowledge or worth?
- Do you truly feel like a failure or are you simply disappointed? (More on this in a second)
- Can you try again? (Do you want to?)
- Did you learn something? (This sounds cliche - try to be very specific about you want to improve on)
As I experience more failures and successes, I am beginning to think we have our definitions and priorities all wrong. Failure is more of an experience than a thing.
First of all, we have to dedicate ourselves to something and then be willing to take a risk to even have success or failure. Maybe we should try harder as we become more skilled to maintain focus on the process and objective.
Second, we learn from every experience in life. We learn what we did well, not well, or what just plainly needs to be different. Most crucially, we should learn what is important to us and why it is important for us to share.
Third, we need to understand what failure (or success for that matter) does and does not do to us. Failure does not inherently change us - what we learn helps us change ourselves.
Finally, a "failure" does not mean you're incapable, terrible, unseen or any other negative adjective. Just because you weren't the "winner" doesn't mean you lost anything.
(A side note that "success" could be redefined in a similar way - as a gratification of a tremendous amount of effort or a positive outcome of something we have invested in, etc.)
Most importantly: We need to learn to differentiate between our feelings of self worth, the feeling of failure, and the feeling of disappointment.
There have been many devastating disappointments in my career - or at least I thought they were at the time they occurred. Eventually I had to decide, like we all do, if I would keep on trying or not. As I drove on to new objectives those feelings of failure were left further and further behind, and in the rearview mirror they often look a lot more like hurt and disappointment.
I think for most of us, part of our struggle in dealing with failures is that we don't understand them by the correct definition. When was the last time you truly failed? Like, first time riding a bike fell off and skinned your knee because you were clueless failure? In your musical career, this type of "failure" probably hasn't happened since back when you were a beginner.
This understanding doesn't make it easier to deal with a failure (or rather, a disappointment) in the moment, but I believe it can make it a healthier process for all of us. One that we can weave into the overall fabric of our experiences, rather than allowing it to be definitive.
I don't mean to say that the disappointment that comes from a "failure" or outcome we didn't want is insignificant. It is still a huge feeling to be grappled with. But, like most feelings, it only becomes easier to deal with if we call it for what it is, face it head on, and allow ourselves to feel the visceral experience of it. Eventually we'll tire of that exhaustive disappointment, begin to see the experience clearly and start looking forward.
We're often not privy to the things that happen when others get to decide if we have "earned" a place. However, any insight you gain won't matter if you don't learn to understand your feelings, value yourself and your efforts, and believe in your capability to grow.
Seeing failure for the disappointment it really is softens the blow and helps us accept the situation without unecessary self-degradation. In this way we can continue to learn and grow, to understand ourselves better, and move on to the next project (which, as you might expect, will inevitably bring some disappointments and some successes).
Understanding our true experiences, whether they are positive or negative, can bring us a more realistic, satisfying, and fulfilling approach to work and life.
As humans, we’re quick to judge. Our fast paced world seems to demand it with all the information it presents to us. We feel the pushing from all sides to move quickly, own the next cool thing, post every day and be available all the time.
When I say we’re quick to judge, I mean that we are quick to judge the value of something or someone. The coolness of it, how good it might make us look, or how we feel when we measure ourselves up against the next person and their sparkly exterior and content.
It’s possible that this isn’t the best use of our emotional energy.
Not all judgment is bad, and it's a necessary part of life to use our ability to determine the worth of something, but we have to be deliberate to stay engaged in a healthy kind of judgement.
For example, we might all practice judging what is worth our valuable time (reading vs scrolling, continuing to say yes to every project that pops into our email, etc.).
When we practice, too, we have to judge in a productive way what is and isn’t working. We run into trouble when we make that judgement personal. “I can’t believe I missed that high note again - I’m so terrible, I never make it” is not a productive judgement, but how often do we have thoughts like that in the practice room?
Feeling the need to “measure up” can be motivating, but we have to have a discerning mindset to keep a healthy attitude of competition with ourselves and with others.
Being too focused on judging (whether it’s our worth against others, our value based on one practice session, or focusing on getting things done quickly just to achieve more) can derail our progress before we even realize it by creating an unsustainable pace and expectation for the speed of our growth and development.
The more we can learn to “judge” in a healthy way and tune in to our own goals and timelines the better our quality of life will be.
It’s so easy to forget these things as we’re bombarded by work, social media and every day life. Slowing down feels like going the wrong way in traffic.
One of the most beneficial parts of deciding to complete my 200 hour yoga teacher training has been the chance to be a student again and be immersed in self study as an adult with more life experiences.
If you’ve ever been a student you’ve experienced the realization that some things cannot be learned overnight, and that there’s usually plenty you don’t know. Hopefully you've also experienced teachers who have guided you through those longer learning processes step by step while helping you stay motivated (not intimidated) by the light that’s way at the end of the tunnel.
All of the lessons I learned about growing in this way as a musician remain applicable, but how often do we forget things we already know? I’d say the answer for most of us, at least for me, is pretty often.
We want instant gratification, instant value, or to pass a quick judgment and move on in so much of life, that I think we come to expect the same things from practicing or developing any skill or expertise. We want to get better yesterday, which leads us to being even more judgmental about ourselves. (“Why is this piece I just started not getting better - I don’t have enough time for this!”)
In yoga teacher training, one of our projects was to take photos of ourselves in a variety of poses at the beginning training and then again at the end of training six months later, writing a reflection about each and about the way we’ve changed after viewing both sets of photos.
(First of all, ugh. This instantly took me back to undergrad conducting courses and watching videos of myself on the podium that I had to self critique!)
I had hoped to see a difference in my two sets of pictures, but didn’t think much of it besides that I’d rather not need to take so many photos of myself.
I was shocked when I looked at the pictures. There were only six months between them, during which I didn’t really feel like so much was changing, but it was like looking at a different person. Physically and energetically I had transformed.
It made me think, if these look so different, what were those six months made up of?
The answer was small consistent and intentional habits.
Daily meditation, focusing on daily routine, a consistent and deliberate yoga practice at least 3-4 days a week, and some serious work on self acceptance.
I never had a moment of euphoric transformation, or a time when it felt like things just “clicked.” I still haven’t.
Yet, when I look at the photos it appears as though I might have. I see strength, confidence, and flexibility that weren’t there before. I see things that I often notice in others and find myself imagining they must have learned a secret to or just have naturally without needing to work for it.
Seeing these photos is much the same as recording ourselves regularly in practice. The changes from day to day are so small that we can’t see them, but hindsight is 20/20. During the time between photos, I was practicing with a focus on the actions, not their value or my ability to do them. Without the recording, or in my case the photos, it’s so easy to keep judging ourselves with no regard for the pieces we are setting into motion.
What I was reminded of by this assignment is that good things take time.
Putting your nose to the grindstone means that you have to stop looking and hoping for a quick fix.
It means turning down the volume on those outside voices that tell you there’s a fast way to anything worthwhile.
As I look back six months feels like a blink, but that wasn’t the case in the moment. There were days I just didn’t want to do things, and I would skip routines I knew were good for me.
I could have easily sabotaged myself by looking at other people online or in my teacher training and thinking about how their down dog or wheel looked so much better than mine, or thinking that they were so much more self aware and mindful than I was. Sometimes I did that, but in the long run, my willingness to stick out focusing on small daily work for myself outweighed those days with dips in motivation.
I really believe that in order to change and grow we have to listen to ourselves - trust ourselves - and be willing to shut out the noise.
It can be scary to not buy in to the hype of constant sharing, motivation and “easy” self improvement. These things give us an easy out to judge ourselves rather than focus on what we really want and what it will actually take to get there.
But if we choose to be honest with ourselves, knowing that we won’t make leaps and bounds every day, we won’t have the best photo on Instagram all the time, and every day won’t hold mega career gains we can begin to focus on what matters to us, what we’re grateful for, and what we can do to help ourselves grow.
Go inside and listen to yourself - what are your goals? Not the big huge ones, the little ones that are really tough to turn into habits that you know will improve your life.
Choose those small habits that might not ever be noticed by anyone else and invest in yourself by cultivating them.
And then, make sure you check back in every once in a while. You might be shocked at how much you’ve grown.
We all have both self-encouraging and self-deprecating thoughts, but I think it's safe to say that most of us are more negative than we are positive when it comes to how we think about ourselves.
If you're a musician, it's possible that being in a competitive field, largely based on being able to self-critique, has made this worse for you. We are expected to observe ourselves daily as musicians, note our flaws, and find solutions to improve them.
No one says that should translate to being mean to ourselves, and I'm sure that none of our teachers want that for us, but I don't personally know a single musician who has created a completely healthy relationship with themselves in the practice room from the beginning of their studies. Unfortunately, we seem prone to this as humans.
Most of us have a moment of reckoning in our musical journey, especially if you pursue a career in music, where we realize that it's simply not sustainable to improve our playing by berating ourselves for the rest of our lives. Hopefully it prompts us to make positive changes and improve our relationship with ourselves.
Although I think I've had my fair share of moments of reckoning, we can never let our guard down.
Recently in preparing for some performances, I noticed a repeating series of events in my practice. I would start out with good intentions and have a centered warm up, but as I'd dig in to the repertoire I would find myself nitpicking technical things. Suddenly, my brain was off down a rabbit hole of turning something that wasn't an issue, like my hand position or some random muscle stiffness into a crisis.
I wasn't choosing those thoughts. In fact, I wasn't choosing any particular thought, so they were running rampant, wrecking the rest of my practice session and setting the tone for what the rest of my day will be like.
After a day or two of this happening (and wallowing in it a bit if I'm being real), I got my act together.
I decided to make a choice.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us that thoughts are events, not facts. We can choose to latch on to them, or we can decide to watch them arrive and then bid them a firm goodbye.
If you don't allow yourself to fixate on a negative thought, it can't take hold. Without anything to feed it, it can't grow.
To do this, though, you have to practice awareness.
We are programmed to want to avoid negative thoughts and feelings. But by allowing yourself to see those negative thoughts show up and notice how they are making you feel, you stop hiding and giving up your control. Acknowledging them gives you the space and clarity to see them for what they are and send them packing.
You retain the power over the situation.
It's the difference between a few seconds of negative grossness or finding that you just beat yourself up for fifteen or twenty minutes and ruined your day.
I want to point out that this is not easy.
We have spent years allowing our thoughts to read like facts from a reputable source, and it takes practice to both notice your thoughts and then convince yourself that you get to decide what sticks.
It's not easy, but it's worth it.
To sustainably create positive change for yourself, you must choose to be the conscious observer of your thoughts,
As musicians, we begin our studies at a very early age, and although we may not be aware of it at first, we are compiling methods, habits and resources from our earliest lessons.
Even something as simple as our hand position is a habit built from the way in which we were taught. We don’t have to relearn it (unless we want to change it), it just remains with us as part of our playing.
As we become better players, we begin to seek out ways of improving - technical exercises, practice techniques, practice plans, long tones and tone exercises, feedback on our embouchure and breathing - and build up intentional habits around these things.
If we change teachers we might adapt our compiled resources, purging the ones that no longer serve us and adding new ones.
As students, and even as a professional, the number of possible resources, methods and approaches can sometimes seem overwhelming. There’s no way we could even try all of them, let alone make sure to keep trying everything we’ve learned.
For the same reason we feel ready to move on to new teachers, we become ready to leave an old method or way of doing things behind, and that’s a very healthy habit of growth and self evaluation.
Gathering your tools
When I begin to introduce this kind of intentional resource building to my students, I talk to them about building a toolbox.
We explore warm ups, practice techniques, tone exercises and possible practice routines or schedules in depth. As we complete a detailed exploration of one of these tools we place it in the tool box, filing it under potential uses. As lessons continue we discuss times when it would be good to break out an old tool for a particular piece or problem, and begin to develop an expansive library of tools for approaching challenges and problems.
I’ve come to love this toolbox analogy. It takes some stress out of feeling we have to practice everything in every way all the time. It also encourages my students to think critically about the problems they encounter in practice and what exercises they already know that might help. If nothing in the toolbox seems quite right, it encourages them to ask me about any issues in an effective way because they have already given the challenge careful thought.
Having an in-depth understanding of your resources also builds confidence as you begin to solve your own musical problems and learn to trust your instincts.
After all, no one understands your playing from the inside out except you.
Sometimes we let habits or tendencies into our toolbox without realizing, and it’s good to be aware of what tools we are using so that we can clean out the box when it starts to look more like a junk drawer. Examples of items you might remove are playing too fast when just learning a piece, or forcing the sound too much to project or play in a loud volume.
Building this kind of toolbox and making sure it doesn’t get junky or begin to overflow due to inattention is not only applicable to music. Considering our tools for life in this way is also helpful for clearing mental space, building intentional habits and creating the kind of life we want.
You can think of it in an everyday context, or consider how what physical and mental tools are needed for performance. (Hint - those two things aren’t and shouldn’t really be that different.)
For example, maybe sometimes you find yourself feeling exhausted and lethargic, only to realize you haven’t been sleeping enough for the last week and aren’t really drinking much water.
Or, try thinking back to the last difficult conversation you had to have where you couldn’t get a handle on your emotions enough to articulate your point. That’s not all that different from emotions running wild in a performance to the extent that your nerves are the ones driving the bus.
We need to build tools for life as much or more than we even need them to be good musicians. The subject matter may seem more basic - it’s not necessarily intellectually challenging to focus on how many ounces of water you want to consume each day - but it’s often the simple things in life that allow us to reach our fullest potential.
Tools for our physical health could be sleeping enough, staying hydrated, and finding a type of exercise we enjoy enough to do regularly.
Filling our mental health toolbox might mean finding meditation practices we enjoy and benefit from, journaling or making sure we have a trusted friend to talk to when we’re stressed, and then making sure to do those things consistently.
Just like with music, when we build a “life toolbox,” what we keep in it will expand and change as we try new things and get to know ourselves better and better.
You’ll find that your musical tools and your life tools will actually overlap and you can probably keep them in the same box after all.
You have everything you need
The thing I want to stress most out of all this analogizing is that you already have every tool you need in this moment.
Every tool you have stashed away and used up to this point has allowed you to get here.
Will you learn new tools? Yes.
Will you throw away the old, worn out ones? Yes.
Just because you will continue to grow doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with where you are. And, just because you come up against a struggle doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong.
Go back to your box and take a look around - what can you use?
If you really don’t know the answer, go to someone you trust and ask for their favorite tool. Maybe you’ll borrow it or maybe you’ll keep it, but either way you will become more educated about what you need and what the right tools are for your job of building your life.
Remember, you are the only person that knows yourself inside and out.
The moment you realize that you have all these tools at your disposal is the moment you can access your full potential, and it’s available to you any time.
We've all experienced a lull over the last year.
Missed holidays, less work, maybe even unemployment. Slowly, things are creeping back to normal and I find myself with plenty on my calendar every day for the first time in a year.
While I'm thrilled to be getting back to work, recording and planning for performances on top of the online teaching I've done over the last year, I've become very aware of how it feels to start piling tasks on and my habits when it comes to work.
For all the negatives over the last year, the major positive is that I've realized I don't want to take on every last thing just to be busy. I've had enough distance to acknowledge and accept that keeping myself busy just to be busy doesn't prove anything about knowledge, skill, or success.
(Seth Godin has a great quick blog post about this here.)
The difficult part is sticking to that. As the world springs back to action, my work in administration, especially, has the same clamor and chaos as always. Emails are flying and distractions abound.
I find myself writing post its everywhere and scribbling notes to myself in the margins of my bullet journal. Fix this thing on the website, check that account balance, etc.
Some demands are unavoidable, but many are ones we create for ourselves. I'm a master at self-made busy. My intentions are good - it's nice to feel like you have a purpose.
BUT, maybe there is a better way.
Perhaps I don't have to jot everything down like a crazy person, but rather I could look for a better way to keep track of my responsibilities.
I can enforce more deep work time for myself, shutting out emails except for designated parts of the day where I can take care of correspondence.
Beyond the practical ways that we can take control over the noise in our lives, there is a broader view I think we should all take. We'll never have this distance and perspective over our work lives again.
Doing everything good takes time away from the things that could be great. Take practicing your instrument - we all know the difference between ten minutes of practice to get by and an hour to dig in (when it's done well).
Or, maybe it's continuing to teach that student that hates practicing and only takes lessons because their parents force them to. Is that the best use of your teaching skills and musical knowledge?
We're conditioned as musicians to say yes always, because, what if we miss out?
But what if the reality was that by choosing to say a few strategic "no"s you could create something really spectacular?
The "yes" of your choosing is waiting for you on the other side.
If you're a musician, you're likely not a stranger to perfection or perfectionism, or to the feeling that you have to get it right.
In fact, perfectionism can often breed a lot of success for a musician......for a while. The drive to continue working to get it "right" can push us forward. Often, until we are right up against a wall of frustration or stalled development.
There is a certain amount we need to be able to do right in music and in life - our scales, the etude for our next lesson, eating three meals a day, driving safely on the highway, and maybe those orchestral excerpts you want to be especially perfect for your next audition.
At some point, perfectionism becomes straight up self-criticism and causes us to question a lot about our playing and performance. It might cause us to think things like: "If only I could have done it right like so-and-so....I bet that they don't struggle with breathing like I do," or "I bet they don't miss a day of their workouts or binge Netflix instead of practicing."
Thoughts of how everyone else is "doing it right" can permeate our preparation for auditions, job interviews, our practice sessions, and even our daily life.
In the age of social media, it seems like everyone's practice routines, strategies for success, and endless accomplishments are on full display.
Of course we start to wonder if we're getting it anywhere close to right. It's only natural to question your intuition when the messaging says that everyone else has the answers.
There are a few realities that evade us in the messaging we often receive. When you have a moment of self doubt in practice or in life remind yourself that:
When you see other musicians/people succeeding you see only the tip of the iceberg.
Only you understand what works for your life.
Your aspirations can be different than others.
You are the only person who can do what you are dreaming of,
Only you know what message you'd like to share, and being honest is different than being right.
Messy is way more interesting than perfect.
There are enough people "doing it right" in the world. Trust yourself to do it your way, to follow your intuition, and to share your message even if it's messy.
Also, it's not normal to feel obligated to influence thousands of people online every day. Focus on making a difference for yourself and those around you.
Trust yourself to do it right....for you.
We have all heard the talking points about music education and why it’s crucial for students: they become better test takers, better at math, their overall grades are better, they learn to be a team player, etc. This list goes on and on and frankly, if you are already an advocate of music education, these things seem quite obvious.
Students who study privately get an extra layer of benefits. They receive one on one time with an adult who is invested in them and gets to know their personality and interests. They’re given opportunities to try new things that are challenging in a safe environment, which teaches them to be able to continue taking calculated risks going forward in life.
My students also build confidence in so many ways. They have small wins and improvements every week that show how even a little built of effort creates results. They learn that their interests are worthwhile simply because they enjoy them which helps them confidently explore their creativity and capabilities. We consistently work through difficulties and come out on the other side ensuring to them that with the right approach they can do difficult things.
From my perspective, all of this is already making studying an instrument sound pretty awesome. But, as many public school and private music teachers know, it’s a hard sell to keep students in music programs and lessons. School is very demanding with AP and honors classes, expectations for how many activities students will be in, volunteering, growing social lives, social media and peer pressure, and then more recently, a pandemic layered on top.
It’s not surprising that it can be hard for students to see why spending an hour practicing flute or violin or any instrument alone while all of this looms over you is worth it.
So, how exactly is practicing like real life?
There are several direct connections between practicing and real life that I think show its value in a different and more accessible way.
Analysis and calculated action
I reference creating a tool box a lot in lessons. Take warm-ups for example: we learn a variety of warm-ups consistently in lessons like harmonics, long tones, tapers, arpeggiated exercises, tone exercises, and the list goes on.
Students can often view these warm ups as the tedious thing they have to do with the tuner or metronome before they can practice the “fun stuff.” But the reason they feel this way is because they haven’t connected them to the rest of their practice.
Enter the toolbox. It is your individual collection of approaches and tactics that tackle specific issues you know are problematic for you. When you are practicing on your own and run up against something difficult, you can reach into this toolbox and try on a few possible ways to fix the problem.
This requires awareness that there is a problem in the first place - recognizing that is half the battle. Then, an analysis of what might be causing the issue. (Pitch dropping or going flat at the end of a note? Perhaps the air is not fast enough or strong enough.) To do this analysis you have to step back and observe, not take immediate action. We live in a society that demands instant - instant response to emails, instant reactions and responses to text messages. This analysis of our challenges and available tools takes patience.
Once you have evaluated your situation and what you have at your disposal, then you can take calculated action trying on one or several tools in the format you learned them, or adjusted and adapted to the specific situation. (To work on air speed and droopy note ends, you might work on tapers and harmonics, for example.)
This ability to pause and observe, catalog what we have at our disposal, and then act is a skill we all need in real life.
In a world that would imply we need to exist only on snap judgements, we all should be able to give ourselves the space to make good choices and apply the tools we have learned.
Self-reliance and independent thinking
There is a lot of pressure to succeed in specific ways now, not in the least because other people’s success and ideas are so visible to us around the clock. Students and professionals alike are constantly bombarded with what our peers are doing and, subsequently, with what we are not doing.
There are constant messages in all professions and parts of life that if you do this journaling exercise you will discover what’s holding you back, or if you take this course you will suddenly know how to sell your skills, or if you bought that shirt and wore your makeup differently you would be more likable.
Not only is this messaging exhausting, it also subliminally tells us that we are missing something we need. You might have experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you felt knowledgable about something and then found yourself wondering what everyone else would think if they saw you doing that skill on display.
When we practice, we are essentially forced into quiet time alone with ourselves. This can seem overwhelming when we are used to so much input, and students may find themselves practicing and thinking that they couldn’t possibly know what to do. Perhaps they get distracted thinking how their embouchure looks weird, or their hand position is different than that other person’s, or that they have no idea how to fix that weird thing about their tone. It’s no wonder when the internet would have us believe that we can buy the answers to almost anything.
This is where we must exercise independent thinking and self reliance. As a musician, and a human, you are unique. Your bone structure, your embouchure, your sense of holding and playing the instrument, the inner working of your life, is unique to your experiences.
We can build self-reliance with independent thinking. Taking what you know about yourself, and releasing any concerns about other opinions, you can revisit the toolbox you are building and rummage through what you have available to you. Maybe you’ll find what you need or it will produce a question you take to your next lesson or research on your own. Or, maybe you will find that you’ve created a challenge for yourself where there isn’t one and what you need is to relax into focusing on the music and expressing yourself.
Building confidence in this independent work is where practice prepares us for real life. No matter how connected we are online, how popular someone seems, or how far we feel like we have to go, the lesson to be learned from practice is that you have to live through your own version of the task and remember that no one holds the answers for you.
To practice and live well we must exercise trust that we are the expert in our experience.
Reinforcing and sharing your work and discoveries
Sometimes students shy away from lessons because the idea of performing in recitals scares them, or taking auditions seems too intimidating. Maybe they don’t like to play in band because they feel judged by those around them.
Most of us have had the experience of doing really well in our own practice, then going to a lesson and not doing even half as well. Often, it’s because we aren’t as focused or we are nervous or anxious about sharing what we’ve done.
Practicing to reinforce your analysis and calculated actions through self-reliance and independent thinking requires us to repeat the skills above over and over. To build the muscle memory of “right efforting” into our practice and daily work.
Sharing what we’ve practiced and explored can feel challenging, but I think this is most important step in the process of practice. In fact, it can even be viewed as a practice. If you become used to sharing (in your lessons, performances, online, in writing, in teaching, etc.), then it is another muscle you exercise.
Deciding to consistently share what you practice proves to you that it becomes easier the more you do it, that you can work independently and have success, and that even if something doesn’t succeed a failure is a bump in the road, not a dead end.
Practice = real life:
These skills are something students can learn from the very beginning of studying music and develop all the way through becoming working musicians or moving on to other fields. No matter how long you play your instrument for, the mastery of these abilities that come directly from practicing will benefit you.
We will be called over and over again in life to be present in difficult situations in both work and personal circumstances, and these skills that encompass our practice are what makes it most valuable.
Our awareness, self trust, and the tool box we build can aide us in navigating both music and life with ease.
The body is the home of our creativity.
I have explored this concept in writing before - that the physical space we create is directly related to our ability to clear mental space, and also to our ability to create musically.
This idea that our awareness of the physical body and its subtleties directly impact our musical expression is under-addressed and often overlooked. Of course we talk about things like hand position and posture, but it’s often done in a way that emphasizes a rigidity and a singular “correct” way of doing things. This black and white, stringent approach creates even more tension and self judgement which often leads to physical pain and injury from practice.
What if there was a different, more natural and neutral way for us to address the physicality of playing?
There is so much discussion in music about expression - phrasing, musicality, sound quality. We talk about these things for our entire musical journey.
How, exactly, are we supposed to access that expression?
For years, I thought it was sheerly mental - an intelligence gained from years of studying musical styles, practices, and the physical act of playing my instrument. Perhaps it was an understanding I did not yet posses and I would some day have enough knowledge to suddenly unlock the next level of self expression.
The ability to express yourself is, of course, a mental practice. It does require an understanding of musical styles, standard practices, and your instrument.
But what if it was also an advanced physical understanding? An advanced awareness of our physical body?
I’m not just talking about hand position and posture. What I mean by a physical understanding is an advanced connection to the subtle experiences of being in your own body and mind, which is what truly translates to “staying on you” or being yourself. By creating this understanding, we open a new door to both physical freedom and mental freedom of expression.
Exploring the chakras as a path to musical expression
Looking at this from the perspective of yoga, we can consider the chakras. There are seven chakras, which are energy centers that act as the links between our energetic and physical bodies and the universal life force energy (prana) that connects us to everything around us.
All seven chakras work together, and if a lower chakra is block, unbalanced, or even ignored, we will overexert in the upper chakras. The same is true in reverse. Lower chakras tend to be more physical and upper chakras more related to the mind, so the outcome is that if we overexert physically we block our expression and mental clarity, and if we overthink and overwork the mind we loose our awareness and ability to ground in the physical body.
The connection here to playing a musical instrument seems obvious to me. I bet we can all think of performances where we were so in our heads that it seemed our fingers wouldn’t do anything we asked. Alternatively, most of us have probably experienced times when we were so tense we just couldn’t focus on anything else.
There are two chakras that play off of each other in a way that is especially relevant to our musical expression and the use of both mind and body to create the message we’re intending to share through music.
The second chakra
“Emotion always has its roots in the unconscious and manifests itself in the body” - Irene Claremont de Castillejo
The sacral chakra (or Svadhisthana in Sanskrit, meaning “the dwelling place of self”) is located two inches below the navel. A balanced second chakra leads to feelings of abundance and creativity. When the second chakra is blocked, we can experience feelings of fear and overwhelm, loss of imagination or creativity, and pain or stiffness in the lower back and hips.
A blocked second chakra literally locks up our creativity in a stiff lower body that physically blocks the production of a resonant sound.
To connect to this chakra, we should consider its element, water, and the ability to be fluid. Even the simple act of drinking more water can be helpful to a blocked second chakra.
Water is both subtle and strong - it can destroy whatever is in its path, or gently meander around rocks and obstacles. This is reminiscent of the different attitudes and approaches required to navigate our way through life and musical expression.
To loosen up the second chakra, create just for fun. Do your favorite creative activity that is not playing your instrument. Write, read, draw, dance, cook, garden, or try something new, but whatever you do make sure it is purely for the joy of doing and not with any pressure of succeeding or doing it the “right” way.
Physically, the second chakra is related to our hips, so hip-opening yoga poses can help us to get in touch with this part of our physical body and lead us to a better understanding of the habits, sensations, and limitations we may be experiencing.
There are a few simple exercises in this printable to explore the second chakra.
The fifth chakra
“The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.” - Agnes de Mille
The throat chakra (or Vishuddha in Sanskrit, meaning “especially pure”) is located in the area of the throat - the jaw, the neck, the mouth, and the thyroid. When it is balanced we are able to express ourselves authentically with ease. A blocked fifth chakra may cause us to experience difficulty listening to others without interrupting, trouble tuning in to ourselves, and neck or jaw pain.
Although this chakra is related to the ability to express ourselves clearly, which we might consider a mental task, it can physically block us from comfortable expression through the voice or throat.
The element of this chakra is ether - the space that forms the essence of emptiness. Our true self exists in the space between the clutter of our thoughts and emotions.
To connect with the throat chakra and the ability to express ourselves authentically, it can help to speak positive affirmations out loud, like “I communicate with ease” or “I express my true emotions with ease.”
Mindfulness meditation can also help open the throat chakra through the practice of observing our mind and connecting with our inner truth. (I highly recommend mindfulness meditation for musicians - there are lots of excellent books and apps to help get you started!)
Physically, there are yoga poses that can help us explore this chakra as well, allowing us the space to understand what our unique and individual physical experience is.
Here are some simple ways to begin exploring.
Bringing it all together
Our mind and body are continually changing, and will do so throughout our lives. Whatever balance or imbalance you may feel now will not last forever, and a new one may take its place. Building an attentiveness to both our mind and physical body is important to be able to continue to express ourselves freely.
I have personally experienced the benefits of exploring the connection between my mental and physical state. When I am stressed, I often experience an inability to deal with performance anxiety that stems from overthinking. If I leave that mental pattern unchecked, it will increase until I can no longer sustain the mental strain of overthinking and it becomes a physical discomfort of overexertion to make up for my blocked expression.
All of our thoughts and actions are connected, and when I am attentive to both my mental health and physical wellbeing I can create a more consistent spacious neutral ground to work from that allows for depth and expression.
If you improve the balance of your sacral and throat chakras now, you may come to find in six months, a year, or even a week, that you notice yourself overexerting in a physical or mental way again. That’s life, and it doesn’t mean you have failed in any way.
By developing a truer understanding of our experience in the world we become adept at helping ourselves adjust to the changes and challenges that will certainly come.
Check out my free resource with exercises to explore both the second and fifth chakras.
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.
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.