When in your musical journey did you first learn to be attentive to your whole body as you played your instrument?
When was the first time you realized you needed to be mindful of how you were breathing? When did you realize that the way you stood and distributed your weight through your legs and feet mattered?
Most of us were young when we learned how to play, and so our self awareness was limited. I have yet to meet a beginner that doesn't need at least some time to focus on each element independently - the placement of the head joint, the way they are blowing, the exact spots where the flute will rest in their hands, which keys belong to which fingers, etc..
We pick up bits and pieces of the whole picture as our playing matures, but most of us are slow to put together the image of our whole body as it relates to our instrument.
My first bigger glimpse of this was in high school as a student at the Flute Workshop at The Ohio State University, taught by Katherine Borst Jones (who would later become my undergraduate teacher and a dear mentor and friend).
KBJ showed us how the whole rib cage and upper body is involved in breathing by having us breathe while hugging an enormous exercise ball. She taught us to ground our feet but stay flexible, "like a tree," and to find the strength of our legs and body in a warrior pose.
I learned even more as my time in KBJ's studio continued, I played in masterclasses for a variety of teachers, and went on to grad school. I ran with this knowledge for quite some time, knowing that I could always learn more but feeling like I had a pretty good foundation.
Then I met Jean Ferrandis, and a completely different vision of how the body influences flute playing came to light. My first lesson with Jean was spent learning about his approach to freeing the whole body in order to focus on the air. One of the first things I remember learning from him in that lesson is that if you lock your hips, it cuts off the freedom, resonance, and movement of your upper body.
You can test this freedom of movement in yourself by miming tossing a ball gently underhand:
- Stepping forward, gently underhand toss your imaginary ball with the opposite hand as you continue to step through the movement.
- Do it with the left and the right no matter which is your dominant hand.
- Feel the way the movement connects (or maybe, doesn't connect) from your hips to your shoulders as you step into the toss.
- What do you notice?
- Where is it fluid and natural? Where could it improve?
(I should note that we did this for at least 30 minutes in my first lesson with Jean - none of us are as aware as we think!)
Jean's teaching expanded my view of the physicality of playing. He always made sure we were aware of the ways we blocked fluidity, or when we made movements a habit that were not natural.
This year, with a little extra time on my hands (an actual silver lining of the pandemic) I invested in expanding my interest in the whole body as it relates to being a musician and enrolled in a 200 hour yoga teacher training. Yoga has made a tremendous impact for me when I practice it regularly - the focus on correct body alignment, muscle and joint movement, and the attention to patience and mindfulness are so incredibly beneficial to performance and practice of a musical instrument.
During a recent training weekend, I heard something that instantly struck a chord:
"The body is the home of your creativity."
I knew immediately how true this is from the way my own sense of embodiment has developed through my musical journey. I know from experience how small bad habits can grow into difficult physical blocks, and how small amounts of awareness in the right places can create tremendous freedom.
Yet even though I know how to care for my creative home when playing the flute, I don't always do a good job. And if all of my eye opening experiences of finding new awareness have taught me anything, it's that we are always learning. We can always have a better or more detailed mental image of our whole self, whether we're just sitting or doing something as athletic (yes, athletic!) as playing our instrument.
I often wonder how all of this would have sunk in when I was first learning to be self aware in my playing and how it might have changed my abilities and opened up creativity.
From teaching, I know that it can be difficult for my students to retain awareness, even if they are able to find and identify it. If we lock in on loosening the knees and distributing the weight evenly between the feet, that attention often vanishes in a few minutes.
Some of that awareness develops along with maturity and skill, but what I think works against us ALL is the disembodiment created by staring at a phone (and the way we hold it!) or a computer screen constantly.
How often do you think about the way you are sitting when you work at the computer for an hour or two?
When was the last time you were aware of the space around you as you worked?
Do you find yourself craning your neck afterward and desperately stretching?
What about the last time you practiced - were you trying to stretch out all the stiffness afterward?
Here's a simple exercise to try the next time you are sitting at a desk and typing (or looking at your phone when you should be typing):
- Start by noticing your shape, and where you feel curves in your spine and weight distributed in your seat.
- Locate your sit bones (also known as the ischial tuberosity, or the two pointy bones in your seat that you can feel against the chair) . Are they pointing forward?
- Tilt your sit bones back and widen them. Notice what changes. Now where does your spine curve? Where is the weight distributed in your seat?
- Take a deep breath and exhale, allowing gravity to work. Make sure you are not using your upper body to hold yourself up - allow your shoulder blades to slide down your back.
- Move between your two postures slowly, noting the sensations that follow and how unconsciously you can slip into the first posture.
At first it may feel awkward and rigid to widen your sit bones back because it will change the way you are curving your spine. It should bring the curve of your spine at the sacrum in to the midline and a more anatomically neutral position, allowing you to stack your ribs and head over your hips while you sit. Make sure you are not lifting yourself up with your upper body (lower your shoulders, please!) and it will feel a lot less rigid.
Once you feel good doing this seated, try doing it the next time you are preparing to practice. Even standing, we can all allow gravity to gently work while widening the lower back and sit bones to find openness in our stance and a natural curve of the spine. Can you keep that posture when you pick your instrument up?
This is just one small way to clean your creative house. The more physical space you create, the more mental space you will find.
It was easy to practice when I was in music school. My major required me to show continued progress each week in rehearsals, lessons, and performances.
I knew that there was an expectation I would be prepared and playing better at each rehearsal, so I went straight to the practice room every day, usually first thing in the morning before there was so much chaotic distraction from other practicing students.
When I have a gig coming up, it's easy to practice. I squeeze it in between lessons, listen to pieces I'm going to perform while I do other tasks. No problem, there is a deadline ahead to be ready for.
When I'm not a student, there are no performances, AND there is a global pandemic, it's harder to prioritize practice. Oh, I'll do it later.....well, I could answer those emails....whoops it's time to teach.
Usually if this happens I have a lot of guilt for being lazy or unorganized, but I actually think it's deeper than that.
I have played the flute long enough to know that if I start to play and really (I mean REALLY, like no phone in the room really) get focused I will feel better. Not because I'm proud of myself or busy thinking how great I am, or how I'll win some audition, or "look at me I'm so productive" - no, better because it is amazing to focus on just one thing. One physical thing that can be almost meditative when you get into your practice groove.
So, why do I avoid practice and then give myself guilt trips?
Because when there isn't a goal on the horizon, practice takes on a whole different spin. You can start to think, what's the point? I have nothing to prepare for. Or, you start to wonder what opportunities could even exist in the future (this is a strange time, after all).
Newsflash: the future is none of your business.
You have no way of knowing what tomorrow, next month or ten years from now will bring (if you do know that you should be making millions on predictions and not pursuing a music career!).
We cannot base our lives on desperately planning for or imagining things that are completely out of our control (please note, this is different than having goals). This will only leave us constantly distracted and desperately grasping at whatever thought or project looks most tangible.
Now is when sheer willpower needs to take over. Not the kind of willpower where you wait for inspiration to strike, but the kind you build through taking consistent daily actions. The willpower you have because you know what is best for yourself.
The pandemic won't last forever. You won't lack for somewhere to perform forever. How can you stay in touch with yourself and your music if you don't explore, play and keep moving?
This is the time to do it anyway.
We all know it's scary to try new things. There was also a time for all of us that it wasn't so scary. Maybe that was just a year ago for you, or ten years ago. Maybe it hasn't been that way since you were very, very little. Perhaps you can't even remember that time.
Over the course of our lives we've all learned new things, even in "safe" ways. We've started new jobs and been trained to do new tasks. Maybe you became a parent or got married - those are definitely new skills. If you're a student, you learn new things all the time.
So, what's the tipping point where we lose our willingness to do these new things? For some it's when we are young and we realize that someone might be watching, or a kid at school makes fun of us for something mundane we've never paid attention to. For others, we are older and realize that we don't want to do anything we don't feel absolutely sure of because we might fail.
In my case, it crept in when I reached a certain amount of "success" with work - suddenly I became aware that if anything I did didn't reach my standard someone else might judge it and think me less capable.
As that feeling crept into my work life, from the outside you might not have noticed anything different. I coasted along at my regular activities doing mostly the same quality of work as always, and to some extent that presents like success. At the same time, I stopped putting my neck out when something new and interesting popped into my head.
Eventually, this feeling that someone might notice me failing was spreading like a weed into my previously reliable endeavors. What if someone notices that high F# wasn't just right? What if they know I am nervous and can't remember what other instruments play this chord with me? What if they can tell I feel nervous?
So it went, as I continued to stuff these thoughts and feelings further and further down until a lot of previously comfortable situations made me very, very nervous.
Ironically, the pandemic and the ensuing shut downs gave me the best opportunity yet to evaluate my perspective and what started this vicious cycle of doubt.
Our mind and our body build support systems for our habits, so when I started to doubt myself a little, those thought pathways became stronger. Over time, they became body-builder thoughts. Tough, hard to move, and persistent.
I'm currently reading The Practice by Seth Godin (if you don't read his daily blog, you are missing out big time: https://seths.blog), and he delves into the reality of creating in the most digestible way I have seen yet. As the title of the book implies it is the practice, not the ensuing result, that matters.
Good decisions can still have bad outcomes, and this is where most of us run astray. We are so obsessed with the outcomes that we lose sight of building the skills and habits for our own personal goals.
We forget that we have no control over the outcomes.
We become disillusioned by what we have been taught - to be a successful musician you must be a college professor or full time orchestra musician, to be a successful learner you must produce straight A's, etc - that we stop thinking about what matters most to us.
What do you really want to achieve or do to make a difference? What do you want to create?
Reflecting on this thought pattern and cycle has give me a new energy to focus on the goals and projects I have created for myself and can create for myself, and to stop expecting external validation or criticism to provide much besides self doubt and distraction.
(Sticker and inspiration for the title from https://www.thegraymuse.com, artwork by https://morganharpernichols.com, The Practice by Seth Godin https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53479927-the-practice)
Sometimes I love it. Sometimes, it feels like absolute torture. I haven't done it for very long, and it took me a long time to decide to start.
Maybe that all sounds crazy to you. Maybe you are thinking, "who has time to meditate?" or, "that sounds awful!" Sometimes I have those thoughts, too. It can still seem crazy to me to spend time getting to know my mind - shouldn't I already know it based on the amount of time we spend together?
But, when you start thinking about the speed of our every day lives, the amount of information we process, the expectations we have for ourselves (we all have at least one constant, nagging self critique....why isn't my waist smaller? why don't I speak up at work? why I am so bad at xyz?). it makes sense that we might not be super in tune with ourselves.
I think we could all benefit from a daily dose of meditation.
There's so much to unpack about understanding the difference between thoughts and facts or how we allow our feelings to run over us repeatedly day in and day out, but one of the concepts that has recently thrown on a hundred lightbulbs for me is what's known as efforting.
This particular idea of effort vs allowance is something I picked up after reading (and re-reading) The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford, and then more recently, from doing a guided meditation also by George Mumford on the Ten Percent App (I would highly recommend both the book and the app).
Sometimes concepts take a few iterations to stick.
As musicians - or anyone in a highly self-driven and competitive field (this absolutely includes being a student!) - we are constantly self-critiquing. It's how we get better, and it's important for continued independent musical growth. However, I know I am not the only musician that has gone so far down the rabbit hole of self-critique that you can't get back out, even (or especially) when you are in the middle of a performance.
So recently, as I was doing this guided meditation, George was talking about pushing yourself through something because you believe you HAVE to do it, even if it's not working. You're pushing through because you want the end result (that you actually don't even believe you will reach) so badly. He calls this frustration and discomfort that we create for ourselves "wrong effort." Wrong effort lacks sensitivity toward yourself - it's when you are just trying too hard.
Here's what he said that completely smacked me over the head: "When your energy is driving you to the point where you are always looking to see how you are doing, you're not present to what you are doing."
All of the performances where I struggled for an entire concert to forget that one note that was a little out of tune, or cracked, or was just wrong came racing back. Times where I couldn't think about the phrase because I was stuck thinking about how that breath I just took wasn't as good as it was in practice, and any experience where I couldn't turn off the thoughts that are meant for the practice room were suddenly vivid in my mind.
You could also just as easily apply this to the way our culture has us comparing ourselves to others constantly.
We are not meant to think about how all the time.
Now, I certainly haven't mastered the application of allowance over efforting, but I do know that the way I can get better at this is by working on my mindset. Creating a right effort is creating spaciousness in my attention and allowing the thoughts of how to flow like water. To allow them to come up, and then also consciously allow and encourage them to move on.
What I'm learning most through meditation right now is the importance of creating space - creating awareness without attachment. I have a long way to go, but in just two or three months of consistent practice, I already see the impact in both performance and every day life.
Have you ever considered effort vs allowance in your own practice and performance? In what ways are you efforting?
- I have been skeptical about technology as applied to teaching music in the past. Not conspiracy theory, totally antiquated levels of skepticism, just regular skepticism. It's mostly that I have been unsure of what role technology should play in the career I am building for myself.
We live in a world where there is a lot of pressure to be online - both from a social and professional standpoint. There is a lot of encouragement out there to create your "brand" and make something that you can sell online no matter what field you are in. Passive income, for example, is a hot topic right now.
This has always rubbed me the wrong way though when it comes to my work. Isn't it kind of backwards to take something that most of us love because it is SO tangible and turn it into something that can be mass produced? And, call me old fashioned, but learning to do a lot of musical things is not a one-size-fits-all process.
Playing an instrument is about as tangible as it gets - the sensation of moving your air, feeling your fingers on the keys, breathing deeply and using your breath to shape a meaningful phrase. Even listening to music falls into this category, I think. The emotions that it brings up, the goosebumps or excitement you feel when you connect with a song, or even just the need to tap your foot or dance when the beat is good. If you've ever sat in the middle of the orchestra and actually felt yourself buzzing from the collective vibrations, you know exactly what I mean.
Don't get me wrong, technology is amazing for connecting to students and audiences when there just isn't another way - say, snow days, those who just can't access live music, or, I don't know, a pandemic.
But beyond the applications to our traditional model of teaching, I have always grappled with what practical use my career as a musician has for social media "networking" and technology.
As you might expect, though, 2020 has made me reconsider all my past musings on this particular topic. I don't ever want to be antiquated about my approach to teaching or performing, but I do want to take on whatever I do in a genuine way and it just so happens that a lot of the things I enjoy in life don't require the use of a screen or keyboard (flute, yoga, hand lettering, cooking, and even reading - although I do love my Kindle).
I always have in the back of my mind that many of the subtleties I think make me a good teacher, musician, and human are things I learned through in-person experiences and careful observation.
So when the pandemic started, I was faced with a problem. How does someone who genuinely loves to stay away from the screen come up with dynamic ways to use the internet and technology to provide quality instruction to the students I can no longer see in person?
The answer so far has been to split the difference a bit - to use technology as a way to fill the void of in-person lessons and performance, but not to try and replace them (If you've streamed a flute lesson or have tried to get students to check in on just one more platform, you might have more ideas about why a lifetime of online teaching could be tedious).
There are positives in everything. I have enjoyed having to be creative about teaching topics that I have done the same way for years, and have also enjoyed the need to create new events or goals for my studio to aim for.
Recently, we moved our annual fall recital (Flutesgiving!) to an adjudication style online event. We used flipgrid and had guest teachers give video feedback, then culminated in a Zoom masterclass. We even had an oboist as one of our guests! Flutesgiving 2020 was something great that my students would have never experienced otherwise.
I've also enjoyed learning a bit about how to make videos I am, well, maybe not proud of but at least not embarrassed by. New skills and continuing to learn are always good, and I am enjoying a new perspective that is sparking different ideas about how and what I want to teach and focus on.
Will I ever have something I can "sell" in a sustainable way online? Maybe. Maybe not. That doesn't matter to me. Going back to the need to be genuine, I want to take what I offer in my performances and teaching - an openness, a plan and path to reach goals or a musical destination, an intuitive sense of what my students or audience need, a direct pathway to music and all it's emotions - and continue to provide it to those who enjoy or benefit from it.
I hope that this new relationship I have with the concept of technology in teaching leads to worthwhile and dynamic offerings that make a difference for even one student....but I also look forward to being in the same room with my students again and feeling the air vibrate when they play something great.
For a little while after I finished grad school I played around with having a blog - I collected little snippets of ideas and things that inspired me in one place. It was fun but didn't feel like it had a greater purpose, so I let it go as I built up my "real career" (freelancing, building and designing my teaching approach through my private studio - the stuff that "pays the bills").
Essentially I was buying in to the idea we learn as music students that anything that distracts us from the work of being a musician is not valuable and limits our ability to be proficient. If we face the reality of the current world, it's no longer enough to just be an amazing flutist or a pretty good orchestral musician. This is the age of the hyphenated career, and musicians aren't (and shouldn't be) an exception!
Getting back to the original direction of this conversation, as I focused only on the "right" aspects of my career, inevitably, I would always end up feeling bored. Bored when the challenge of a new group to play with isn't there, or bored when I've explored my latest idea for a project or event with my students through to completion. Maybe it's a lack of willingness to follow things through to the next much larger iteration of an idea, or it's the absence of feedback on a greater level. Whatever it is, I often create things from ideas that I love and then end up feeling unfulfilled afterwards.
Some of what I've learned is that no one will probably ever get as excited about my crazy teaching ideas as I do. It's up to me to be excited about them. The other thing I've learned is that removing the creative outlets not directly attached to my performance or teaching career limits my creativity in exactly those things. Without somewhere to explore the crazy ideas or outside interests I have there's nowhere to connect the dots, and nothing that leads you to the next "aha" moment.
We need the stimulation of the things that give us enjoyment to give us the energy for our main gig and to be our best creative selves.
Maybe this is relatable to you - have you ever noticed yourself feeling drained when all you are doing is focusing on your instrument and "playing well"? Or maybe you're a student and all you are doing is homework and stressing about your grades.
It probably feels like you can't make time for anything other than the important stuff, when really, if you're willing to give a few more minutes to designing your schedule ahead of time you can create pockets of your time to do whatever you enjoy most - maybe drawing, playing a secondary instrument, doing yoga or going for a run. Whatever it is that frees your mind and allows you to just enjoy the moment.
WIth all of that in mind, and the time I have spent recently exploring some of my other interests, I figured why not give a blog a shot again. Even if no one ever reads this, at least I can explore the far reaches of whatever crazy ideas come to mind.