Stay on You
My teacher, Jean Ferrandis, said this to us all the time.
Stay on you. Be on you. On you.
There was a lot of meaning behind those small words. He was conveying many of the complex aspects of making music.
Stay true to yourself. There's no need to try too hard, to try SO hard. Physically, be present to yourself and stay in a neutral posture. Be in the moment.
Like many advanced aspects of making music, staying "on you" requires physical and mental aptitude, sharpened and precise physical and mental skills. It also requires you to stay neutral and to be in the moment.
It took me a long time to fully understand this concept, and even longer to begin to integrate it so that I could, sometimes, stay on me when I was playing the flute. (Until I became distracted or started trying way too hard again).
Not surprisingly, although eventually I was able to understand and begin embodying this instruction, as I've matured and continued to grow as a musician I have found new meaning and new layers to staying on me.
This concept is mental - it asks us to create a very detailed and clear picture of what the music is going to do, exactly how it will sound, and where it is headed. It is in many ways, an advanced visualization exercise. You must spend the time and effort to know what you want from the music and how you will sound when you play it. Then, to fully execute this visualization you must continue to think ahead as you are playing - what is coming next? How will it sound?
*You can try this as a long tone exercise.:
Doing this well takes a lot of mental training. To be able to be in the moment and ahead of it is not necessarily an inherent skill.
This concept of remaining on you is also physical - it asks us to stay neutral in our stance, in our posture, and in the way we hold our instrument. Have you ever really watched a classical musician prepare to play? Many take a lot of extra and unnecessary movements which ultimately create a lot of tension. Even more take an aggressive forward stance or shift their weight so it becomes uneven. It's almost like we're preparing for a fight.
*You can experiment with this in a simple way:
Both of these exercises bring us much closer to staying on ourselves as we play, in mindset and in the physicality of playing. This is how I began to understand Jean's instruction.
The other meaning he intended was to encourage us to use our own voice - to not only imitate or feel pressured to be or sound like anyone else.
But, I don't think that this instruction stops after these three major points. As I mentioned, I continue to find ways to explore this concept.
One of the great things about playing an instrument is the way we can tie it in to other interests we have, or that we can bring outside interests into our music and practice. An obvious example for me is my interest in yoga and meditation. There are unending ways I can use what I am learning about these pursuits in my flute playing.
Recently, I was doing a guided meditation where the teacher emphasized that it's important to make sure that you are truly feeling physical sensations, not just thinking about them.
How often do we do this playing our instruments? I know that, personally, I overanalyze many of the physical aspects of playing, even the ones that I have practiced into subconscious ability. I'm sure that my brain is in overdrive when I perform and practice in many unnecessary ways.
Think about your own practice:
Often, by trusting ourselves and immersing ourself in the sensations we can find solutions to our problems, become more fluid, or create a better phrase. There are many applications of this approach.
Staying on you when you play your instrument asks a lot of you. It asks you to stay mentally engaged in the current moment, to visualize in detail what is coming, to physically remain neutral, not overexert in mind or action, and yet to stay engaged in the physical sensation of what you are doing.
Listed like this, these concepts can seem complex and daunting. However, when you break them down you'll find that by staying on you you are simplifying your actions and pulling away layers of unnecessary habits you have built as you tried to be a better musician. There's nothing wrong with what you did previously, but maybe those habits are not serving you anymore.
The only way to truly share your music is to be on you.
Quality over Quantity
"Quality over quantity."
I grew up hearing my mom say this often throughout my life. It's ingrained as part of my perspective on the world, but I feel whole heartedly about the value of this approach to many aspects of life.
Over the past year, so many things have become available online. Even more than we had prior to the pandemic - which was still a LOT of information that you could access from anywhere. I think music and music education could benefit tremendously from this transition - imagine accessing whoever has the skills you seek no matter where you or they live! Through this push to move online, I've seen many musicians take different approaches to marketing themselves and their skills.
You may have already noticed the typical "format" that is used for online marketing. Some snazzy looking instagram posts, a website, and some generic text about the value of the product or offering. Over the past year, a lot of companies have included their social, moral, and ethical causes in effective and not so effective ways. You may have noticed marketing on every digital platform that is both compelling and genuine, and overwhelming and insincere.
Like when we meet people in real life, we make judgements based on our impression of a person or product. Sometimes those judgements are wrong, but you can usually trust your gut if you think someone is being untruthful or if something just doesn't "seem right."
When more and more musicians began expanding their online presence as things shut down in 2020, this was very much the case. You could tell if something special was being offered, or if the person sharing it seemed on the level.
But there's another layer in between legitimate, high quality educational or performance offerings, and offerings that look amazing and don't live up to the hype. In between these two rungs on the ladder is what's offered because people would rather share something than nothing. A lot of the internet falls on this middle rung, in my opinion.
This is what makes me wonder. Is sharing something always better?
This is not just a question for musicians. This is a question for all of us who share on social media as the digital face of a business, and also as humans.
Let's say you are a chef with a large following online - sharing your morning breakfast and coffee routines is probably pretty interesting to those who follow you. It's also relevant to your business and gives insight into how someone with a lot of knowledge in their field is using it in their personal life.
But, let's say this same chef starts sharing bits and pieces of their personal life, maybe no-makeup selfies and personal clutter. Is this interesting in a human interest kind of way? Yes, maybe to some. It might make them more relatable, but does it really add quality to their mission? Not that I can see. From my perspective, this adds to the clutter online. It's just one more thing we can use to distract ourselves. Now, instead of only checking this chef's Instagram account for new recipes, I find myself watching ten minutes of archived stories about skin care.
My point with this example is that while some people do find more information and sharing more interesting, I don't think it's helping us. (I have certainly fallen guilty to wasting a lot of time on this kind of content - I am human, after all).
I don't think that selling basic skills like they are unique and ground breaking is helping us, either. Of course you need to market what you are good at in a genuine way, and you should be good at the fundamentals of what you do (a lot of my studio's success is because I am good at teaching the basics, and that is a worthwhile and marketable skill without trying to display it as something it's not!).
I'm also not suggesting that we don't share anything fun. You should be yourself. Love to meditate? (I do!) Maybe you love video games or reading. Or, you're training for a half marathon and love the enneagram. You can share the things that make you you in a meaningful way, and to some extent you should. It will help you connect with like minded people and project who you are and what you value at your core
What I am suggesting is that we share thoughtfully. That we share genuinely what our real skills are for their intrinsic value without overplaying them, and without cluttering those genuine skills and interests with a lot of noise just because we can.
Maybe this means you post a little less, but when you do I bet it will be really good, really worthwhile for those who read it, and way more appealing because the value will be evident to your audience (however big or small).
That's quality over quantity, and quality is how I believe we make an impact.
Mindfulness in Action
How often do you catch yourself overthinking things?
Do you ever find yourself lost in thoughts about what happened last night or last year? Maybe about what will happen next year?
Perhaps you start practicing and are suddenly lost in thoughts of that wrong note you played in a performance two years ago, or you're wondering what your income will be like this year and how the job market will look when the pandemic begins to subside? Maybe you're just thinking about that hair that's always completely out of place.
The examples above are valid and also distracting in different ways. It's certainly not uncommon to get lost in thinking about the bigger picture.
There are a million ways we can distract ourselves: overthinking something from the past, obsessing over things that haven't happened yet, focusing on things that are actually inconsequential, or telling ourselves what a terrible job we have done, are doing or will do. These are just a few that I may, or may not, have some personal experience with.
What has helped me tremendously with overactive and critical thoughts is mindfulness meditation.
I don't mean that meditating has stopped the ridiculous banter that can happen in my subconscious. I'm not actually sure it is possible to stop that. Rather, meditating has shown me a new perspective on my tendency to overthink and overcomplicate my day to day life.
The reality is, most of us end up in this chaotic mind state without even realizing we have let these thoughts run rampant.
What mindfulness meditation tells us is that we have a choice about how to react when we have these feelings or distracting thought patterns.
You may not notice right away that your mind has wandered, or that it's taken you down another rabbit hole of dissecting one of your self labeled flaws, but at some point you will notice.
That moment of noticing is the magic moment! When you notice you are telling yourself stories or being exceptionally hard on yourself, or even that you are simply distracted, you acknowledge that it's happening. Notice what it feels like physically and mentally. Then, send those thoughts on their way by beginning the task at hand again.
In mindfulness meditation, the goal is usually to focus on the breath. Or, that's the assumed goal. The real objective is to notice when your mind has wandered and bring yourself back to focusing on the breath.
The intention is to see your thoughts and patterns of thought as passing events. You didn't actively call upon them or set out to derail your warmup, meditation session, or performance, but once you notice that it's happening you can move on.
It's ok to also acknowledge anything helpful coming from these thoughts. In fact, it's encouraged. Can you learn anything useful from how you've distracted yourself? If you can, great, keep the material you can use. If you can't, also great, then it becomes even easier to let those thoughts go.
Here's an example of how this could play out in a regular activity, let's say, beginning your first practice session or warm-up of the day:
The real magic of mindfulness meditation is the awareness of what happens in our subconscious, and that's what I think translates so well to life, and especially life for a musician.
Give it a shot the next time you notice yourself thinking about that note that happened two lines ago or about all the reasons you shouldn't start practicing. Be aware that your subconscious has taken you on a little side trip and then do your best bring yourself back.
It's important to note that we will need to do this again and again, thousands and thousands of times. But like our muscles we train through regular practice, the more you exercise this ability, the stronger it becomes.
Thoughts and feelings are not truths, rather, they're events that we can choose to participate in or not.
How do you start practicing?
Quite literally, what are your actions as you begin a practice session?
Do you whip the case open, throw your instrument together and hurriedly begin your scales only to stop thirty seconds later when your phone dings with a text message or email notification?
Are you still thinking about what your friend said between classes or that test that didn't go very well?
Maybe you're working your way through all the major keys in a technical exercise, stop, and then can't remember which key you were on (full confession - this is what I struggle with!).
You get the idea - it can be difficult to turn off external and internal distractions, and we all know that there are endless amounts of them.
If we want to have productive and satisfying practice, we have to consider how we begin.
It's not always fun to set boundaries or use discipline to create structure, but if we are willing to do it we feel calmer and more satisfied within ourselves, and less attached to the external validation that distracts us.
Consider the first note you play in a practice session. How do you get there? Most of us immediately place the instrument to our face after we put it together and start blowing. It can take forever to feel like we're warmed up and in the moment, and by then our practice time might be up.
Alternatively, imagine how much more focused, more satisfying, and more productive your practice might be if you don't move instantly from taking your instrument out of it's case to playing scales as fast as possible like a technique maniac.
Taking even a few seconds to focus inward before beginning lets us practice with intention.
Here are some ways you can set the tone for focused practice:
This may look like a lot of steps, but the whole list together takes around 2 - 5 minutes.
By giving yourself the time to quiet the space around you and connect with yourself and your goals, you will save you much more than 5 minutes in distracted practice.
Give it a try - what do you notice as the biggest benefit of intentional practice?
Top Reads of 2020
"So many books, so little time." - Frank Zappa
I have loved to read since I was little, and while that interest waned a little bit when I was in school (required reading sometimes puts a damper on fun), reading is one of the great joys of my life.
I have been pretty consistent in my reading habit for the last few years, but with a lot of extra time on my hands last year and a desire to not watch the news 24/7, I kicked things into high gear. In the process, I realized how much time I could waste faffing on stupid websites, social media, etc., and how many books I could read if I was more attentive to how I was spending my time.
(Although, sometimes you just want to play Words With Friends, and that's ok!)
I use Goodreads to track what I read and it gives you a great summary at the end of the year showing all your books. (This is also a very satisfying way to celebrate yourself for reading!) After 21,051 pages in 2020, here are my top picks:
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
This book is one I know that I will visit over and over. I read this before I started meditating regularly, and I can't wait to read it again now that I have built a meditation habit. This book is a must for anyone with a high stakes job (like musicians!).
Deep Work by Cal Newport
I read several of Newport's books last year, and they all really make you stop and evaluate the things you do without thinking. This one focused on the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship and the benefits of learning to focus and limit distractions (not something that is exactly encouraged in our current culture). I also have to give an honorable mention to Newport's book Digital Minimalism. Like Deep Work, it encourages us to consider that what is common is not necessarily best, and that we should exercise our discerning mind rather than blindly accepting the norm.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
I love reading about history, and basically inhaled all of Larson's books last year. They are written like fiction, weaving you through the stories of a chosen few individuals, but provide the broader context to understand what was happening in the world during events like Hitler's rise to power and the creation of the cross-Atlantic telegraph. Devil in the White City was my favorite, but they're all worth reading.
Maybe you Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This book gives you a glimpse of what therapy is really like, and the ways in which therapists are also human. It's an endearing approach and pulls some of the stigma out of therapy. Gottlieb shares about herself and about different types of clients, and there is someone or some struggle in this book that each of us can relate to.
10% Happier by Dan Harris
This is the book that convinced me to just try meditating. It's a very down to earth approach about the ways meditation can help us, even though most of us won't achieve enlightenment. I can't recommend the app by the same name (Ten Percent) enough. Meditation is changing my life.
The Practice by Seth Godin
I have talked about Seth Godin's daily blogs before. I love the way he pulls information down into small, digestible, actionable thoughts. This book reads like one of his blogs with lots of very small chapters, but is an absolute MUST for creatives. After reading this on my Kindle, I plan to order a paper copy so I can go to town with sticky tabs and a highlighter!
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
My favorite type of reading to indulge in is fiction (usually with a tinge of history or fantasy), and this book was such a vivid read. The characters were realistic and easy to picture, and I loved the glimpse it provided into Indian culture, especially given my deep dive into yoga this year.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
V. E. Schwab's books are amazing. She writes intricate and beautifully detailed plots and characters, and I love the way she uses language. I couldn't wait to read this book, and it didn't disappoint. The characters are exquisite and the story is both uplifting and heartbreaking. I actually lost my sense of time reading the end of this book and spent an unplanned hour in tears as the story resolved itself. Who doesn't want to read a story you can completely lose yourself in?
There were a few books I read last year that I didn't like at all, but even those were time well spent. I'm already excited about the books I'll read this year and the time they will help me spend not faffing around on social media! All the books below have links if you want to read more about them or the authors. Happy reading!
P.S. Leave a comment with some books you love - I'm always looking for more to read!
Flow like Water
The chakra system originated in India around 1000 or 1500 BC. Chakra means "wheel" in Sanskrit, and refers to the energy points in the body. There are seven main chakras that run the length of the spine and work together when they are balanced..
In yoga, you can address the chakras through asana (physical poses). Considering the different chakras is also a great way to figure out where you might be overexerting in your life, or perhaps to find the things you are avoiding or bad habits you have developed.
In the yoga teacher training I'm completing, our training weekends are organized by the chakras. We learn what each chakra represents, how it communicates with the other chakras, what sense and element are related to it, and what asana can help balance it.
Just before the holidays, we met for training based on the second chakra - "svadisthana" meaning the self dwelling place where our being is established, or the sacral chakra. The element of the second chakra is water, and it's right is the right to feel and enjoy without guilt.
As you might expect, since the element is water, we discussed how water moves, its characteristics, and it's tendencies. Water can flow gently or violently, it can be a drip or a destructive current. It can create and destroy, depending on its intensity.
The other interesting aspect of this for me was the concept of our right to feel and enjoy. How often have you (or I) limited our enjoyment of something because we were distracted by the need to do even better, be even more successful, or have even more of something?
Shortly after that training weekend I took a class with a friend and we spent time together after class discussing my goals for learning about yoga and teaching it, as well as talking through questions and concerns I have about teaching.
I mentioned that I have always struggled with perfectionism. It has always been difficult for me to take the leap into doing something new if I don't feel like it's exactly right or completely ready. I have grappled with a lot of these issues in my music career, but yoga teacher training has brought many of these issues back to the surface.
Participating in this training is the first time in a long time I am learning something completely new and then very quickly translating that new information into action. I'm grateful for the ways it has brought my struggles with perfectionism and my tendency to hesitate to light.
By considering my habits through the lens of yoga , especially using the chakras, Ive also been able to develop new tools for feeling grounded, and for keeping myself moving.
When talking through this with my friend, she suggested a good mantra for me might be to "flow like water," and it was like a light bulb went off.
After a lifetime of restricting myself because I want things to be "just right," and limiting so much creativity that might occur in the moment, I realized that exactly what I need is to be fluid.
To be open to possibility.
So, it seemed that my word of the year is obvious: fluid!
Word of the Year
If you've spent time on the internet or social media lately, you might have noticed there's a small war being waged against New Years resolutions.
Of course there's the usual "new year, new you!" junk floating around, but there is also a lot of negative attention being directed toward the idea of resolving to do something new or better to kick off this trip around the sun.
The argument for this seems well-meaning: we have a lot on our plates, there's a pandemic, you are enough as you are, etc.. None of this is untrue, but it all reeks a bit of another well manicured internet "wellness" pitch.
Even if things out there are still a little scary, we're allowed to want to improve or become better, right?
I hope so.
I mentioned in my last post how much I love New Years Eve. I love the ability it gives us to be so much more present to the space between the past and future than we usually are. I often feel like I gain so much clarity around New Years Eve about where I've been and where I want to be.
I have no shame in saying that I've made lots of New Years resolutions, some that I've kept and some that I haven't. My take on it has always been that, like regular goals (which, if we're being real, are resolutions without the holiday), resolutions give us a chance to verbalize our big desires.
This is important - we need things to feel attainable and real to be motivated to work toward them.
Last year, though, I ditched the resolutions. Not because they were making me feel unworthy, but because I didn't know exactly what I wanted. I wasn't used to that and it freaked me out - how could I possibly be without a big goal? Maybe there was something wrong with me!
Then I saw a friend post her "word of the year" and thought, surely I could chose a word. It would be like setting a theme for the year, and that sounded like a useful guide when I was feeling a little nebulous to begin with.
Coming off of a few very stressful years, not in the least because I was struggling with a lot of self criticism, perfectionism, and at least a little burnout, I knew what I needed was structure that would help alleviate some stress and encourage me to do the right kind of work.
My word for 2020 was "consistency," and although when I chose it I had daily practice of my instrument in mind, it turned out to be exactly the word I needed when the world shut down and I was stuck at home with a completely different landscape of goals available to me than I had imagined.
"Consistency" turned out to be so beneficial for me last year, in ways I could not have ever predicted when I picked it as my word of the year. It led me back to yoga, helped me learn to meditate, brought me back to my instrument when there were no gigs to be seen, and helped me take better care of myself as the year kept throwing punches.
As you might guess, I am convinced about the power of choosing a word instead of a resolution. Your word might apply to your work, your personal life, a specific project, or all of the above.
If you're interested in choosing a word of the year with me, I'd love to have company.
Here are some suggestions for choosing your word wisely:
Leave a comment if you're going to choose a word - I'm going to share mine in another post.
The way I see it, setting a word for 2021 is the perfect way to thoughtfully guide myself into the new year.
When we wrapped up lessons in December I encouraged my students to listen to their gut when it came to practicing over the holiday break.
Often on a long-ish break from lessons I encourage my students to be diligent. Some time off can be healthy, but we all benefit from the routine of regular practice, even if the amount of time we play is reduced. I'm known to assign lots of extra materials to keep my students busy over a break (sorry, not sorry!).
Not to sound cliché, but the end of 2020 was different. (You're thinking, duh, we know, so what?)
So, we all need to pay attention to how we're actually feeling, is what.
I typically love New Years Eve. There's that extra feeling of excitement for new unknowns, and the adrenaline of possibility. There is a duality we feel at New Years that other holidays and events just don't provide. The sense that we are both in the past and the future all at once. On a precipice between what we have been and what we will be, with a startlingly clear view of each.
Of course, we have that duality available to us all the time. It would be awesome if we lived between the past and future, in that truly present moment, more often.
We all spent some time avoiding reality this year. Maybe it was too many snacks and virtual happy hours at the beginning of quarantine, or shutting the news off when you wanted to pretend it didn't feel like the world was busting open. It could have been a good escape like lots of reading or exercise, or maybe it was numbing out in front of the tv or on social media. Most of us probably did some version of all of those.
So when we logged off for the holidays to close out 2020, after months of actually slogging through whatever insane things the last year continued to require from us, I encouraged my students to do what felt right. Practice if it sounds fun, or don't if you don't feel like it.
Try to listen to yourself. Not tune out to something distracting, actually listen.
I had grand plans for my break. Lots of reading to do, practicing for fun, and working ahead on things for my yoga teacher training. But, as the break went on, it became pretty clear that some of it just wasn't going to happen.
For once though, instead of berating myself ("I CANNOT BELIEVE that you didn't finish these eight thousand projects you came up with for yourself", etc.), I was ok with it. It's what I needed. Instead of duking it out with myself, I'll pick up refreshed when the break is over, with the energy I need to do a good job on the important stuff instead of a bunch of things that are half baked.
(This isn't a post about stopping everything for lazy "self care.")
As we go into this year with renewed energy and optimism, this is the lesson to take from 2020 - listen to yourself.
Check in with yourself. Regularly.
How do you feel?
What are you working toward?
Is what you're doing getting you somewhere?
Do you still want the same things?
Once you've asked the questions, you just have to give yourself the space to listen.
You might have a plan you meant to stick to but changed your mind, and sometimes that's actually the right answer.
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.