I have typed and retyped the beginning of this blog so many times. This week feels heavy.
Even outside of world events, two years of all kinds of uncertainties, and general unknowns, it feels heavy.
Beyond my own concerns about my personal life and work life.
Working with students means constantly thinking about their futures. It means I go home thinking about the things that weigh on them, the expectations they put on themselves, their social pressures, and how to show them that learning is a worthwhile pursuit.
It’s impossible not to take it home at the end of the day. It all goes with me. Their trials and tribulations and my own…waking up in the middle of the night thinking about that student who is struggling and whatever is already weighing on me .
All week I have been thinking about the in between of teaching - not knowing the right answer for how to help a lot of the time, but knowing that whatever requires that we keep going to figure it out. I will have to continue being present and holding space.
Or, maybe that’s the answer after all. To be here. To hold space. To make room for my students.
How many times have you caught yourself searching the internet for an answer? Or, just for "a little more" information?
Most of us use the internet this way all the time without even thinking twice.
You might want to know what spice to substitute when you are missing an ingredient. Perhaps you are looking for information about a piece or composer, or you aren’t feeling well and have taken a deep dive on WebMD looking for the reason.
We’re curious creatures, and there is a lot we want to know. Learning is for a lifetime. It's good for us, and helps us become better at our jobs and being human.
But I don’t really believe our desire to learn is the ultimate driver of endless internet searching.
What I really believe moves us to look endlessly for all these types of answers is our desire for an easy solution.
Surely with all the information that’s out there someone can tell me exactly why my high G sharps are not centered or consistent. There has to be somewhere on the internet that could solve that, right?
I am as guilty of this type of searching as the next person - self improvement newsletters, books, and websites are a dime a dozen. It is so enticing to think that the answer is already out there somewhere.
Why do you think everyone can make so much money online selling courses and programs?
On the flip side of finding the easy solutions is hours of time spent searching and very little time spent experiencing.
(Please don’t get me wrong, we can find a lot of helpful information on the internet - obviously I hope that my blog is helpful! - but at some point we need to try for ourselves.)
If I'm being honest, most of my internet searches leave me with a feeling of having all the information and no solid answer. That's because so much of what we understand and are able to do is dependent on our own personal experience.
Lately, I have consciously put a lot of energy and focus on stepping away from the unlimited resources that are available online and exploring my own personal resources: experience, the tangible feelings of practice, and investigating possible solutions by accessing the information I already have and my experiences in the moment.
Doing this hasn't gotten me anywhere quickly, but it has moved me infinitely further ahead than spending hours looking for someone to tell me how to fix those G sharps.
We don’t move forward by simply reading or watching how someone else has done it. We have to feel our way through. Only by building on our own experiences do we continue to step forward.
Have you ever noticed yourself gearing up in a huge way for something - taking a shot in basketball, playing a high note or fast passage on your instrument, taking a really important test - only to not reach the outcome you wanted despite the intense amount of effort and energy you’re expending? You might have been tensing, bearing down, holding your breath, overthinking, etc..
This tendency shows up in lots of our activities, and often in the ones that are most important to us. Although I think it often feels like over-exerting, I’ve come to identify it as reaching.
If I relate this specifically to flute playing, I see it in my students (and myself) physically as lifting the shoulders, leaning forward, gripping or pressing too hard, or overblowing. It might also show up as predictive failure before an attempt is even made, or playing cautiously instead of really going for it.
What all of these ways that we over-exert or reach have in common with each other is that they pull us physically up out of our bodies and into our heads. They demand a lot of physical work from us, and trick us into feeling like we’re doing something productive. If we are reaching in a mental capacity, it makes the mind busy and gives us plenty to think about including all the ways we could fail.
If you don’t play the flute (or another musical instrument), and even if you do, you might relate this to gripping the steering wheel extra hard in traffic, leaning close to your desk to take a test, or clenching your jaw when you are stressed.
None of these actions make a particularly positive impact, but they can placate our nerves and give us a sense of working toward achievement.
In my own playing I see myself reaching when I am stressed or nervous, when I am putting a lot of pressure on the outcome, and especially when things are changing.
Over the last few years I’ve got through a growth spurt in my playing. (Yes, I believe this can happen any time in our playing careers - after all, we are always learning!)
After experiencing some intense performance (and subsequently some general) anxiety, I was reaching in a lot of places in my life. I was operating in survival mode which lead to some playing habits that were not in line with my desired goal of neutral ease.
Meditation, yoga, and especially understanding and shifting my mindset have helped tremendously for me. I see my playing changing and the mental fog lifting - no growing pains last forever. I still catch myself reaching, but it’s an exception instead of the norm way more often now.
So, what are the ways we reach?
Signs you might be reaching:
This list is not comprehensive. There are a myriad of ways we reach and overthink. Some of them are subtle, some are relevant only when we perform a specific action. Some of them may only be relevant when we play a specific passage or note.
As always, you know yourself best. You are probably already aware of these places where you consciously or subconsciously put on the armor of extra tension or thought. Observe yourself and let your own body and mind point you to places where you can let go and look for a neutral path.
My journey toward not reaching in my music actually began while I was still a student.
I was so fortunate to study with Jean Ferrandis, who is an incredible musician, but also a master of neutral. Jean’s way of teaching and playing the flute is built around using the body in a neutral and easeful way.
Even before I started practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation, I was learning to observe myself and become grounded from my lessons with Jean. When I find that I am reaching in music or life I am always drawn back to what I learned studying with him.
Below are some of my favorite ways to take things I am reaching for from effort to ease. They come from my studies with Jean, my practice of meditation and yoga, and my own experience pulling it all together. They work for flute, for music, and for day to day life.
Be On You: This is something that I heard again and again from Jean. It is the foundation of not reaching. He always insisted that we must remain who we are when we play the music, and that we physically stay on ourselves. No pretending, leaning, pulling, or reaching.
Don’t Search: Have a clear picture of what you want. In life, from a note, in a performance, from a conversation. If you know with vivid detail the color, texture, and feel of what you want the result to be your chances of obtaining it are much better.
Enjoy: This should be self explanatory, but when we are reaching we are rarely having a good time. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to understand and make music and to communicate through it. Even when we are working hard, we can enjoy.
Don’t Force: If you only think about blowing and you blow with aggressive force to create, the air will destroy your sound and phrase. The music and your air are one and the same. Move the air lightly and freely while keeping the music in your mind. Think ahead to where the music is going and hear it before you play it.
Right Effort: This is a term that I learned from George Mumford and I think of it often when I catch my mind reaching. If we’re allowing our thoughts to take over and run wild we are not in the present moment, and we’re probably not doing our best. We can be attentive to what our thoughts are doing and remind ourselves to come back to the present and make right effort.
Trust: Do the work to understand the music and yourself. Freedom comes from that work and understanding. Trust the work you have done. Trust yourself.
Your Concentration Must Be Large: These are Jean’s words, but this could have just as easily come from Mindfulness Meditation teachings. The overarching idea being to see the whole space of the mind, or the whole scope of the music, so that we are able to be discerning, stay present, and keep going. If we focus on any one thing too hard (a note, an audition, a conversation) it overtakes everything and becomes so important that we lose our ability to have equanimity.
To Miss Is To Be Free: It is actually desirable to miss or make a mistake because we are trying, taking a risk, testing an idea, or saying some thing honest.
A Powerful Center Brings Freedom: I have this in my notes from a class with Jean. He was talking about our physical core being active to allow the rest of the body to be free. We could also see this from a mental perspective, that a strong mental center brings freedom from our thoughts.
You Are Always Powerful And Full Of Energy: This idea has found a place at the core of how I play and also how I think about life. We have what we need - we have the capabilities, the awareness, and the ability to grow. In playing, our body is already full of energy - there is no need to create more.
Of course knowing all these things and understanding these concepts doesn’t mean that we are always able to integrate them. Even though I learned them a long time ago, I still sometimes catch myself reaching. Like mindfulness teaches us, the moment of noticing is mindfulness, not the absence of something. From that moment we can move forward with awareness.
The next time you catch yourself reaching, take a mental step back. Assess the situation, be “on you” and try focusing on the outcome instead of the effort. It’s ok if you miss.
Usually when I reach the point in the week where I write the first draft of the blog I share every Thursday (or Friday if I'm behind!) I have had something on my mind…about teaching, mindfulness, performance, yoga, practice…that I want to explore.
Something that I feel needs discussed, that would be helpful to me, or helpful to other musicians.
Everyone once in a while I have to fish around notes I have made to myself of things I was saving to explore on a rainy day.
And then (thankfully not very often) there are weeks like this week where I feel like I have absolutely nothing to write about, unless the internet would like to read my to-do list(s).
My brain is overflowing this week. Full. Completely stuffed.
And not with good ideas. Well, maybe a few good ideas. But it’s also full of emails that need written, academic hierarchies I don’t yet understand, organizational concerns and tasks, overwhelm at parts of large projects that are out of my control, music that needs learned, and practice time that is lost to immediate tasks at hand like remaining mentally present in lessons with my students.
This week I solved very few outstanding issues, did not make much headway on my own projects, and still owe a lot of people emails.
I bet this is where you’re expecting me to say that it's totally ok, right?
But it’s not (I like to keep things spontaneous around here).
I’d like to think that I’m doing my best to keep up with what I expect from myself (and what I need to get done) but I’m actually just hanging onto my life raft with one pinky toe and splashing wildly this week.
It’s been several years since I’ve had this type of demand on my time, and the reality is that I didn’t adjust accordingly. Some course correction is now required.
At some point this week I realized the thing that wasn’t working right was me. (Note that I didn't realize I can't do it, just that I haven't been.)
I have been asking my brain to switch tasks too often, putting off easy emails that could have been done days ago, overthinking things just long enough to not make any headway before I had to move on to something else.
Ouch. It’s painful to realize we are working against ourselves.
There’s no grand moral to this story, other than the fact that I’m grateful I’ve been cultivating awareness in my life because if it could have taken so much longer to level with myself and who knows how far downstream I would have been then, life raft nowhere to be seen.
Once I figured out that it was me in the way, and how I was slowing myself down, it got easier to make better choices.
I bought a cube timer so that I wasn’t relying on my phone or Apple Watch, which meant I could put those items down or change the mode.
Along those lines, I finally set the work focus on my iPhone (I have been using the sleep focus since it came out and love it - why did it take me so long to set it for work?!)
I started waking up just a little earlier each day. Definitely not to workout at 5am or practice before the sun comes up, but just enough to shower and have coffee earlier so that practicing and other important tasks could also happen earlier, etc.
None of these things are going to get me on track right away, but combined with an awareness of what I'm doing they will help. I’m also not suggesting that any of these solutions are right for your predicament. If you're lucky, you don't even have a predicament!
Hopefully, you are having an awesome week and totally killing it at absolutely everything you're doing. That just wasn’t me this week. It’s not really ok, but it’s also not the worst and it’s definitely not permanent.
Except for this being an adult thing - that is going to stick around.
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.