One of my biggest pet peeves is the prevelance of “hacks” on the internet - both the type of person and the incessant shortcuts that are supposed to make things easy and effortless. The dictionary defines a hack as a “person who does dull, routine work.” Seems fitting for the endless internet articles about hacks for cutting avocados and streamlining our workflow.
Hacks play into our cultural desire for speed, efficiency and multi-tasking and our lack of attention and time for deep work. Any creative (and anyone who read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) could tell you, though, that mastery takes time above most else.
As my students begin their school year, especially those in college, I am acutely aware of how much is being asked of them. Students beginning their first year in a new building or location, like middle school, high school, or college, have an especially big job of acclimating to new social and learning environments. First year college students are learning to fully fend for themselves for the first time, and all college students are learning over and over again to motivate themselves without the help of their families.
Anyone who is in school, and all of us who teach, are managing distractions. Our devices, social gatherings, that long lunch you’d like to have, etc. All of these things can zap time in an instant and contribute to the feeling of not having enough hours in any day.
As I observed my students hit the ground running this week, I could already start to see their feelings of overwhelm when it comes to time management. How, exactly, is this all going to fit?
The answer is the opposite of a hack. An anti-hack if you will. It lies in perspective.
Pay attention to your schedule. Where are their gaps that can be used for meals? When are you in the music building with a break that could be used for practicing? The random pockets of time that occur in your schedule are key for productivity in school. Use them to carve out space for intentional deep work.
Be aware of distractions
This includes your phone, iPad, laptop, Apple Watch, friends who are distracted practicers, and all the time you spend lamenting how much you have to do. Try to remain aware of what’s distracting you. Acknowledge those distractions, then forget them. Pick one thing to work on and get started.
Keep your deadlines in view
Make a list of important projects, performances, tests, and other deadlines you have throughout the semester and put it somewhere you will see it often. This list isn’t meant to scare you. Use it as a reminder to do what you can now instead of putting everything off until the last minute.
Find an honesty buddy
Everything is better with a friend. Find a friend who has a similar workload or schedule to you, and ask them to keep you honest. Have them give you a nudge toward what needs done if they catch you faffing (doing things in a disorganized way and generally not achieving much).
Make time for reflection
When it comes to perspective, reflecting on our habits and actions is the MVP. Debrief yourself each week - where did you overwork yourself? Where did you get a little lazy? How’s your sleep schedule?
It’s important to give your mind a break. Make sure you do things you enjoy that are unrelated to your work and studies. Much like sleep, doing fun, restful things allows our brain to process all of the other information it is managing.
None of these points on their own will miraculously make school easy, and they all take time to become habits. They might be a bit obvious, but they are not over simplifications.
Learning is all about effort. You get out of it what you put into it, and gaining a little perspective goes a long way.
Creating Depth in Education
Every year as summer ends and a new school year is about to start, I find myself reflecting on the nature of teaching and learning.
When I decided not to pursue a music education degree in college and focus on performance, I knew deep down that I wanted to teach. What I had realized was that I wanted to hyper-focus my own time (and the time that I would hopefully spend teaching in the future) and development on the flute.
Making that decision meant there was potentially a lot less structure to my future, but also the guarantee of a lot more creativity involved in figuring out how I was going to become, quite specifically, a flute teacher.
Good teachers have so many traits. They are skilled, knowledgeable, students in their own right, patient, creative, well-spoken, dynamic, and so many other things. Some of these great traits I certainly don’t have, and I highly doubt anyone has them all.
Teaching music is a singularly unique thing. Many people and schools don’t understand its value or place in education or modern culture. Music teachers work long hours, well beyond the school day, and fight for every ounce of funding they get. Those who dedicate themselves to this kind of teaching do it out of sheer love of music and the impact it makes on people’s lives.
Teaching music outside of any structured school system (like in a private studio of your own creation), and pursuing your own abilities in music, takes another special (insane?) type of personality.
We build our own schedule, structure, and rules. We set our own standards and expectations for both our students and ourselves. We are evaluated by the parents and organizations who pay us, but without a structured system of evaluation. We create our own curriculum - it’s up to us what and how we teach. Even now as an adjunct at a state system university, there are structured expectations of what my students will be able to do, but I am the only person teaching flute and so the curriculum in my studio is still very much my responsibility and creation.
I love doing all of these things. They take time, and some are quite difficult, but I appreciate both the challenges and the freedom to do something in a way that I think is effective and worthwhile. I feel a great deal of responsibility to continue growing and adapting so that I can offer my students my absolute best.
This past weekend, I attended an event that epitomizes much of what we do as flutists - the National Flute Association Convention. This happened to be the 50th anniversary convention, and was held in Chicago. I attended my first NFA convention in 2003 in Las Vegas, and have since been all over the country for NFA conventions from San Diego to Orlando. In total, I have attended 11 of these unbelievable gatherings.
I call it an unbelievable event because to anyone who isn’t a flutist, it really is hard to fathom. Attended by thousands, you are inundated with flute from the moment you arrive. Exhibitors, performances, lectures, masterclasses, workshops, and research are all at your fingertips for five days. Growing up in an era with much less internet made me even more amazed at everything an NFA convention had to offer and the distances people traveled from around the globe to attend.
As a student my wonder had to do with the overwhelming amount of new information and the unbelievable level of artistry. As a professional, I have an intense feeling of wonder that we all choose to love this one instrument and everything it can do and represent so much.
One of the things I enjoy in life is meeting people who aren’t close to any musicians and the reactions they have to what we do, or to the fact that you can attend a flute convention with thousands of other flute enthusiasts. It speaks to the bubble we exist in because of this particular thing that we are devoted to.
This year, after three years off due to the pandemic, what I wanted most from my convention experience was to socialize. I wanted to be with my friends from all over the world who also have decided to pursue this one particular skill in such an intense way. I wanted to talk about how we teach, and how we make a living while balancing our unique work with the world around us.
I realize that by now it may seem that I’ve diverged from my original topic of teaching and learning entirely. But I think that the NFA convention is a really beautiful example of all the things that education is and should be.
At these conventions, you find everyone from absolute beginners of all ages, to accomplished hobbyists, students, orchestral flutists, university professors, and genuine virtuoso performers. They all accept and entertain each other. There is no judgement about what level of flutist you are - everyone is welcome to fully immerse themselves in the rich history and scope of the instrument and learn as much as they can absorb.
For those of us who are no longer students, the convention offers a space for us be enriched. I always leave with new music to learn, new ideas to share, and better equipped to help my students navigate their abilities and purchasing new instruments. As in education, you get out of it what you put into it - your attitude and willingness to interact make a significant impact on your personal experience and how much you benefit.
There is camaraderie for everyone. As a flutist, it’s truly one of the only places that you can find someone who shares the same job as you. Whether you are a freelancer and adjunct or a private teacher who works a “day job” you will likely find someone who is or was in your shoes. We can learn so much from our peers.
There are challenging moments as well. We often realize just how well so many people play and perform. We might question our own habits and approach, but with the right attitude can walk away inspired to do more rather than succumbing to comparison and shame over what we feel we might lack.
As a teacher in recent years, I have seen so many of my students quit the extracurricular activities they love because they feel overwhelmed by a schedule full of AP or honors courses, or because they need to diversify their college resume by participating in every type of activity. The standardized testing they endure at school leaves them feeling like there is little room or value for creativity. I can’t blame them when they spend their earliest years in an environment that praises grades on tests over creating something beautiful.
I wonder how I can continue to show my students the value of playing an instrument - self expression, community, deep learning, focus, and personal enrichment - in a world that doesn’t seem to value those things at all.
After the convention this year, it occurred to me that what I want to create for my students is exactly what I experienced. An environment where you can be inspired by others, express yourself openly, and find value in a pursuit not because someone will give you a grade or praise but because it enriches your experience of life.
The freedom of creating my own curriculum and environment for my students outweighs so many of the challenges of being a musician who teaches. My deep love of learning and being challenged is why I ended up on this path, and I want my students to understand that both of those things always have value. I want them to always feel it’s worthwhile to pursue what they enjoy and grow through even if it’s not a “useful” or “practical” job or skill.
The pursuit is what matters most - that we are trying. That we have something we care about. That we share our skills and knowledge with others. Talent and achievement are nice, but not important.
A certain level of mastery might be required for what we’d like to do, but mastery and recognition are not synonymous. All of us are teaching through our actions, whether we aim to or not, and even on a small scale we can make a big difference.
So while I’m especially glad to have seen my friends face to face that I have not seen in person in at least three years, I am inspired by the level of performance demonstrated by my peers, and I am glad to have found new music to learn and teach, this year I feel a different sense of gratitude and perspective returning home to a new school year.
Maybe what I knew deep down years ago and am just now able to articulate is that I didn’t want to teach music in the first place. What I wanted was to at least try to experience and teach the satisfaction of depth and exploration.
I am grateful to this community of people that all agree it is worthwhile to pursue something in earnest just because you love it, whether you make a living doing it or not, and whether or not the rest of the world says it has value.
I am looking forward at my school year with a renewed commitment to creating a pocket of this community for my students. An environment for deep learning and exploration of something we know has tremendous and lasting value.
Last Friday I had the chance to perform the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto. It was a transformative and rich experience, but the performance was just a small piece of the whole.
Side bar: There will be some backstory here, and it’s for slightly selfish reasons because I want to catalog this period of time so that I can revisit this experience later and fully remember the months leading up to this performance as well as the performance itself. If you’d like to skip ahead, I won’t be offended - jump to the bullet points further on in the post for the lessons I’ve learned that I think could benefit anyone preparing for something big.
The performance fell in the middle of an extremely busy summer festival, and an especially busy week and a half of performances. The run down went something like: Friday - Peter and the Wolf; Monday - Flute and Harp Recital; Wednesday - woodwind sextet performance; Friday - Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto; Saturday - Beethoven 5 and other pieces.
Now, I knew well in advance that I would be facing that timeline, as well as the repertoire I would need to have prepared. I had from roughly January to prep the concerto and late spring to prep the other pieces. It just so happened that I played Peter and the Wolf in March (on only a week’s notice!), so it helped to have that one fresh in my fingers.
What I could not have predicted was the fact that we would buy a house this spring (we were not planning on moving!), do some quick construction on our old house, and move all before the festival got here in mid-July. Add in hosting the first Flute Day at MU and a concerto with the MU Wind Ensemble, and it made for a wild ride in the first half of 2022!
Any one of these things could have completely thrown me in a tailspin not that long ago, but I had a few things working to my advantage. Like most freelance musicians, I have gotten good at learning music in a pinch. Years of filling in and jumping on board have made me confident in my abilities to make it work when I have to.
What that really equates to is squeezing in practice anywhere you can, because you have to. I took my flute on family trips or any time I was away from home for more than a day, squeezed in ten or fifteen minutes any time I could between lessons, and listened to the pieces I would be performing while I was painting walls during our moving and selling process.
So far, none of this is earth shattering information - these are the regular things we do to prepare for performances when we’re busy.
In this case though, I was preparing for an important performance of a concerto that is both famous and long (roughly 30 minutes), just a few years after a major run-in with performance anxiety/regular anxiety/stress.
I’ve spent the last two years learning about why I feel nervous, what I can do before, during and after performances to help with that, and implementing that knowledge so that I am able to give a strong, confident performance that I can enjoy.
That’s no small order, no matter how much experience we have performing, competing in a high performance activity, or putting ourselves out there as creatives.
There are many things that have helped me balance my time so that I can focus on what’s important, which include a willingness to say no to things that might be good (or less than good) but not great; getting enough sleep and eating well; hydrating; making time for things that help me unwind both physically and mentally (like yoga, reading, meditation, and family time).
But there are also some very concrete things that help me tackle feelings of worry and stress, concern about being judged, perfectionism in performance, and my ability to enjoy the moment that I know could benefit anyone who finds themselves in my shoes.
I have to give credit here to a few sources that inspired most of the items in the following list - my teachers who planted pedagogical seeds that have grown into both saplings and strong trees, yoga and mindfulness meditation which have allowed me to begin to understand what it means to be embodied and not just in my mind, George Mumford’s Mindful Athlete course, and Terry Orlick’s book In Pursuit of Excellence.
Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned about trust and preparation:
The most impactful part of this concerto performance for me was that I enjoyed the entire experience. I enjoyed being able to work through difficult practice days and remind myself that nothing is just right from the very beginning. I enjoyed visualizing myself in the moment and thinking about what my best performance could sound and look like. I enjoyed collaborating with the other musicians tremendously - what a treat after months of prepping alone. I even enjoyed feeling nervous on stage because I was able to see my thoughts and nerves for what they were - events, not facts.
What I’ve learned over the last few years is that I’m not actually looking for perfection or virtuosity - I’m looking for balance. Balanced thoughts, balanced embodiment. And this time, I think I found a little of both.
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.