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.
Most of us are back in the full swing of the school year. Whether you are a student (or teacher!) who has decided to stay online or you are back in the classroom, by now you have likely gotten a taste of the post summer shock that comes with suddenly having a lot of work to do and tasks to keep track of.
Students will likely be balancing a tremendously demanding course load on top of the expectations that they will practice a lot, making sure to grow their musicianship, increase their technique and play in ensembles, all while making plans for their future careers.
No big deal. (Yeah, right!)
What follows are some suggestions for how we can get the most out of our lessons and efforts while in school through tracking and reflection. There are lots of ways to do this. At the very least, I hope that this gets your wheels turning!
Everyone learns differently - it makes sense that we are all unique and so our learning styles and methods benefit from being tailored to our preferences.
I highly recommend taking a learning style quiz (Google "learning style quiz" for lots of options) and understanding if you are an aural, kinesthetic or visual learner. Perhaps you are some combination of those. Learning how you best process information allows you to identify efficient ways to retain the new information coming at you from all directions.
So, do you take notes after your lesson?
Spoiler: I think we all should.
Whether you draw something to remind you of what you learned, make a voice memo of a few important points, simply write down your tasks for the next lesson, or rewrite some of the major concepts of the lesson, you reinforce what you learned by reviewing the lesson in your mind.
Summarizing what was covered in your lesson helps you to retain the information, making it easier to apply in rehearsals and the practice room.
Some examples of things you might record after your lesson:
- What you need to do for the next lesson
- What is new? What are you working on that is a continuation of a larger project or goal?
- Objectives: What are you trying to accomplish with each assigned task?
- Sensations: What did it feel like when you did something well in the lesson? (ex: a great interval) What did you do physically that made it work?
I want to emphasize how important it is to synthesize our logical, analytical experience of what we learn with the sensations of physically doing the task (playing your instrument, singing, throwing the ball, etc).
It's not often you see an athlete taking notes and then setting them aside, assuming that the academic learning will be enough to help them make the big play in their next game. They are always connecting what they've learned studying plays or watching tapes with the action it connects to.
The better we get at articulating what it feels like to get something right, the better we will get at replicating it and teaching it.
Playing an instrument is a mental and physical activity. Our goal as musicians is always to connect what we know about the music with the correct physical action to produce the desired result we imagine every time.
How you keep track is entirely up to you. Here are some suggestions of places to keep notes for yourself:
- A voice memo (you could also record your lessons, but you should still summarize the experience for yourself)
- A special notebook that is meant just for your reflections
- A voice memo
- A document on your computer
- A notes app on a tablet (I would suggest using Do Not Disturb mode while you reflect on what you learned if you use a digital tool)
Personally, I love keeping a special notebook where I can reflect. (I still keep some of my lesson notes on hand at all times in my practice space, and sometimes even in my gig bag!) This makes sense for me as a kinesthetic and visual learner. Do what works for you!
Some other useful tools and tactics might be to keep a practice journal (separate from your lesson notes) and to make reminders that you can put within sight while you are practicing.
If you are in college and using different practice spaces often, a small sign (for example, an 8x11 sheet of paper or post-its you can trade out on an 8x11 sheet) that you can keep in your bag is a great way to carry your practice reminders with you.
A practice journal can be as detailed as you'd like (think Excel spreadsheet!) or a loose list of what you did each time you practiced. I tend to think more detail is better so that when you reflect on it later, or need to submit what you did during your semester, you have all the information you need.
Examples of what you might track in a practice journal (not an exhaustive list!):
- What you practiced
- Practice techniques used (changing rhythms, etc)
- What scales you did, what ones you need to more of, etc.
- What warmups or exercises you are using
When we are very busy in our day to day life, we can sometimes lose track of where we are headed. Your practice journal can be an excellent spot to check in each week and make sure that you are progressing toward your larger goals and deadlines. In addition, when you have finished school and need some guidance on exercises to use, or you need ideas of what to teach your students, your practice journal can help spark inspiration as you review what was assigned to you at different stages of learning.
Although I'm writing this with college students in mind, I believe that these concepts apply to any student (even adult learners!). I have never regretted taking the time to write some notes to myself as a student or an adult.
When you track your tasks, goals and experiences you are actively creating progress.
Whether you are a detailed note taker or record more generalities, the bottom line is that you are allowing yourself the important reflection time that research has shown solidifies what you learn. You are giving yourself space so that your mind and body can connect all the right dots.
In our busy-ness we often forget that it is in stillness and calm that we actually make progress.
You’ve heard all the stories about how failures are actually blessings, and how one closed door means another door opens, right?
As musicians (or as teachers, entrepreneurs, performers, administrators…) we deal with rejection a lot. We get told “no” so many times we might even stop applying for scholarships, grants, auditioning or putting ourselves out there at all.
I had an experience recently where a lot of the places I invested my efforts created some really wonderful outcomes, except for one. I won’t get into the details except to say that the rejection letter was terribly written, and for the first time in my career (or maybe even in my life) I felt like I had enough perspective to take it for what it was really worth.
So, what can do we actually learn from rejection?
In order to learn from rejection, we must be willing to learn in the first place. For example, if you make an audition tape, but aren’t willing to have anyone listen to you and give you comments before you record, are you really in it to get better? Or, are you looking for an easy win, praise or recognition?
No matter what type of work you are doing, having someone more experienced that you trust and respect view your work is always a good idea. You don’t have to broadcast your behind-the-scenes to the world, but you do have to be willing to show someone your best effort, even if you don’t think it’s good enough yet. On top of that, you have to stay open to receiving their feedback.
In order to learn from rejection, you have to be willing to try. If you have a million ideas that you love, but you never share them with anyone they will never be rejected. They’ll also never help or impact anyone else.
There are lots of ways to put your ideas into action. For example, you could consider writing down your thoughts (maybe in a blog!), creating an online workshop or a special project for your private studio. All of these things will take you time and effort, but they don’t cost a lot and give you lots of opportunities to receive feedback (make sure that you ask for some from people you trust!).
Most things won’t turn out to be a total flop, but it’s also true that every idea can’t be your best idea. To get to an outcome that is worth something, you have to be willing to share and stay open to the way it is received.
Since we are considering feedback so much, it’s crucial to remember that not everyone will like what you have to offer. Perhaps they don’t like your style of playing, or they simply aren’t interested in the topics that you feel so passionately about. That’s ok.
Here’s the most important part: it’s ok, because you don’t need to connect with everyone. You need to do work you are proud of, that is well thought out and that you care about. Even if someone doesn’t “like” it, we can all respect when someone works hard and puts in the effort on something they are invested in.
So what is the actual rejection teaching us?
* It might be teaching us that we are not at the level we need to be yet.
* It might be teaching us that we could reevaluate our effort - how are we approaching improving?
* It might be teaching us that we did everything we could, but we were not what the committee was looking for (in style, approach, expertise, etc).
* It might be teaching us to seek out more honest feedback in advance.
* It might be teaching us … nothing. Sometimes there are a lot of qualified candidates and we just don’t win the lottery that day.
*** It is always teaching us to go inward. To take an honest look at our approach and the reason we are doing things.***
Our reflection on how we got to the event that we are receiving feedback on and what we know about ourselves is teaching us a lot.
The feedback we receive in advance from knowledgeable mentors or colleagues is teaching us a lot.
But the actual rejection? The letter that shows up in your mailbox or email? That’s not teaching you anything.
What you take away from each rejection letter or “no” you get has very little to do with how it’s delivered.
If you take each of these rejections to heart, assume that the words are truthful and mean something about you and your abilities, then rejection will teach you something - that you are not worthy. It will slip into the little cracks between all the things you’re proud of and start to break apart your confidence bit by bit. It will seep into the way you think about yourself without you even noticing.
Be mindful of how you receive rejection. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself about rejection. It is possible to learn in an intentional way from your own experiences around rejection, but you must be willing to be open.
I have become very committed to my meditation practice over the last year. As with any new or developing interest, this has led me to do more research and reading on the subject, seek out references and examples of how to apply it to my daily life, and of course, to lots of meditating.
I think it’s inevitable that an interest in mindfulness meditation will lead you to some understanding of Buddhism. Buddhism is the inspiration and origin of much of what we think of as mindfulness meditation. Buddhist practices and principles can be traced back to ancient times, and if you’re like me, you might have found through your meditation journey that many are quite useful and applicable to our modern lives.
Occasionally, though, there is a concept that seems un-relatable (or just plain far out). Maybe you have even had this experience in a lesson where a perfectly intelligent and respectable teacher presents a concept to you that just seems out of place for your own playing or practice, or maybe they taught you a concept that you just find weird and hard to do or conceptualize.
Somewhere along my path of growing a meditation practice I ran into the Buddhist concept of Non-Self or No Self (anātman). At first read, it can seem a little nuts:
Non-Self: in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Instead, the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing.
(Are you wondering how this relates to music yet?)
I didn’t give a lot of thought to this concept initially, because, frankly, it’s a big one. There’s a lot to take in and consider in this view that’s very different from how we often perceive ourselves.
If we look at this concept from the simplest angle we can (which, let’s be honest, is still a bit mind-bending), then it means that each of us are always changing. That while there are things about us that may be the same from year to year or moment to moment, other aspects of us, both big and small, have changed. We are always changing in some way.
Another perspective that might be helpful is that we are not our mind and body, but we do have a mind and body. We are not our experiences or our thoughts, but we have experiences and thoughts. The mind, body, experiences and thoughts we have are always in flux in some way.
Part way through my first year of meditating, I did a guided meditation on the Ten Percent app led by Anushka Fernandopulle that addressed this concept and a little light bulb went off.
(Now we’re getting to somewhere this connects with our study and performance of music!)
The perspective that Anushka Fernandopulle shared gave the example of any mistake we might make, big or small. Mistakes are on not on purpose - if we had complete control over our self then we would never make any mistakes.
There would never be a wrong note, an out of tune note, or a late or early entrance. You would never play badly in lesson you had prepared for. You wouldn’t eat that ice cream at midnight after a gig when you weren’t even hungry.
But there are all of those things, we do play badly sometimes, and we also eat midnight snacks (not for lack of trying to do otherwise).
I’m sure that you can conjure up at least a few situations where you tried your absolute hardest, and things just didn’t come out the way you wanted.
The lightbulb moment for me in the concept of non-self though, was the idea that because things are always changing and malleable, and because we have many parts, elements, experiences and thoughts, we cannot possibly expect to control everything.
Let me repeat that for all the perfectionist musicians, including myself: because all our physical parts, our mind, our thoughts and our experiences are always changing in some way, we cannot expect to control everything.
The next time you play out of tune or miss a note, even though you practiced and prepared as best you could, do not blame yourself for making a stupid mistake. Do not personalize the experience as if you can control absolutely every variable at every moment.
Yes, from moment to moment we are mostly the same, and we do have to make our best effort (or right effort as George Mumford would say), but the lesson to learn here is that we need to release the things we are not responsible for or in control of.
Focus on what you can do with well moment to moment with a positive mindset and right effort and release the idea that we can somehow control the fact, or the ways, that we are always changing.
For those of us who struggle with an incredibly strong inner critic, the pressures of performance and our own expectations, this Buddhist concept of Non-Self at it simplest might provide us with a new perspective.
At its core, Non-Self provides space for self acceptance, self forgiveness, and a path out of perfectionism.
How could you incorporate this view of Non-Self in a healthy way in your practice or performance? I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!
Prior to the era of Zoom, I was incredibly skeptical of online connection. It felt clunky and cumbersome to me to try and get to know people online, and so often it seemed disingenuous.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think that social media is a place where we have to tread carefully with boundaries and awareness, but I do think that not having the option to meet in person forced us into being more sincere in a lot of our online interactions as we all took to different corners of the internet to find comfort and community.
Certainly, we’ve all learned the value of socialization and the longing and loneliness that exists when we are not allowed to gather together. There are also other more subtle lessons about community that I think have come to light.
After completing my 200hr yoga teacher training online, I understood that it was possible to deeply connect with others virtually. The key is to be willing to make yourself vulnerable - to be willing to share openly.
The positive experience of vulnerability in my teacher training inspired me to start blogging again and be vulnerable in sharing my thoughts, methods and perspectives.
It can seem incredibly scary to share online. There are so many people sharing “practice” videos that sound like performances, and beautiful pictures of people and experiences that we feel removed from. We all know these posts are curated, but the more of them we see the more it constantly stays in the back of our minds.
(A note here to say that intention matters. Curated is not always bad - my posts and blogs are planned, but with the intention of sharing something important to me and always staying true to myself.)
Once I started posting and sharing though, I started finding like-minded accounts and people, and realizing I was not alone in my interests, my strengths or my struggles.
It’s very similar to the experience of going to music school and being surrounded by people who are “your kind” for the first time. You find friends who will discuss your interests in depth and connect with you over all the triumphs and defeats of your craft.
Topics like perfectionism, imposter syndrome and burnout come up a lot for musicians, and the neatest part about finding a community of people you trust is that you realize you are not alone in these or other challenges (like those of playing your specific instrument).
When you find people who will return your vulnerability, you find your strengths. You gain the perspective to realize that yes, I struggle with this one thing, but I’m actually doing ok!
Think of it this way: if you sit at home alone and watch “inspirational” Instagram and YouTube videos of people playing, then try to practice and critique your playing you will almost always end up feeling crummy and less than. If you find a group of friends who will listen to each other play in person or online and give both positive and constructive feedback you will feel inspired as you connect over sharing in the difficulties and triumphs.
The internet can isolate us so easily, but if you take control over the vehicle that is available to you for connection you will be both inspired and affirmed.
At it’s core, connection teaches you that you are not alone in your difficulties and you are doing good work.
What new thing could you do to create genuine connection in your life?
There is so much discussion about getting back to gigs after all the shutdowns, and all the feelings, emotions, joys and stresses that are coming along with musicians getting back to work.
The last year and half has been weird, and while my teaching and gig life is springing back to normal and I am extremely grateful, I think it’s wrong to pretend that things haven’t changed at all.
We were given an enormous and unusual (and of course stressful and scary) opportunity to really consider what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
From my own perspective as a musician who usually wears many hats, I needed that time off whether I wanted it or not. I was burnt out, and desperately needed to address my approach to work. If my hand hadn’t been forced, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to consider how work was truly affecting my mental health and my overall attitude and approach to life.
Pre-pandemic I was exhausted, running myself rampant because that’s what a good musician is supposed to do (or, that’s what we’re taught a good musician with a good career does). I was musically in shape and mentally out of shape, and had a lot of stress about the meaning of every note I played on stage. (As you can imagine, if something didn’t go quite the way I wanted in a performance, it felt a little catastrophic.)
I was pushing hard for my career without allowing myself the space to focus on where I was going or why I wanted to be there.
Over the time when it wasn’t possible to gig, I spent less time with my instrument and more time with my mind. I started learning how to care for my mental wellbeing, brought my attention back to my physical health, and also refocused on my performance mindset.
Something else that there was space to consider was how I prepared for things - what was my method of preparation? What were my mental habits leading up to a performance?
For me, the answers to some of these questions were tough to accept - it is difficult to see the ways that we are selling ourselves short. But in considering the way I viewed my own ability and value, I allowed myself the space to ask and answer many difficult questions.
The silver lining of accepting that we have put limits on ourselves, created difficulty through unawareness, or that we have been flying blind at warp speed is that by seeing these obstacles and habits they are easier to remove and change.
Now, as we go back to work, we have an incredible opportunity to bring a consciousness of being back to work with us.
We have an opportunity to adjust our habits, to treat ourselves better, and to consciously create our own landscapes.
As an example, consider how many things you said yes to doing before the shut down that you only did because you felt you had to. That’s a post for another day, but generally speaking we are taught to do everything because you never know when you might miss something. At the root of it, I believe this actually leads to a scarcity mindset and causes us to overload ourselves. (This ties into the concept of Essentialism).
To provide entertainment, inspiration and instruction, all of which are healing for most people, is a gift in a career. Perspective on how this fits into the thread of very real and sometimes scary everyday events can only stand to make us more adept at providing what the world, our audiences and our students need.
At this moment, we have a clean slate on which to be intentional about what we do - focusing on only the best places to put our efforts and leaving behind the things that are only good or ok.
Like any change, it will require a concentrated effort of often small and seemingly insignificant daily habits that add up over a long period of time.
As musicians, we tend to catastrophize small events that are imperceptible to others (an out of tune note, getting passed over in an audition) or how we measure up to other people, but this moment has a lot to teach us.
We can and should use our post pandemic perspective to make changes, even small ones, that will help us to be our best selves.
Reflect on your habits - what will you change given all the perspective you have gained?
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.
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.