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