Many musicians feel like playing their instrument is home - we are encouraged to view our instrument as an extension of ourselves, a part of our voice. And truly, it can be a very organic expression of our thoughts and feelings.
But what happens when playing your instrument doesn’t feel comfortable?
When you are growing as a musician, inevitably, you will have periods of time that you are making adjustments and questioning how you play or what you want to do in your career. Those times of experimentation and discovery are crucial for growth, but they can leave us feeling unsettled.
If you’re a student who is about to graduate or someone who has newly entered the “real world” after music school, you may relate to that feeling of being misplaced in a big way. We are offered so many amazing resources in school - ensembles, mentors, peers, chamber music, plentiful practice time - that when we are suddenly removed from that environment it is quite jarring.
In my own life, I’ve gone through several of these moor-less periods, both in and out of school. They are often connected to times when I feel my playing is shifting and changing. Somehow, it seems that feeling a newness or discomfort in my routine of flute playing reflects a much bigger shift in my life.
And I suppose that it’s true - we grow and change over the course of our lives, and that affects the way we approach being a musician.
There are obvious examples and many, many more subtle ones. Leaving school and still needing to grow as a musician without somewhere to perform is a large hurdle. Realizing that you have dedicated a lot of time to something that hasn’t helped you grow as a person or musician the way you’d hoped feels like a monumental observation. Dedicating time and effort to your health will change how you feel in your body and affect your playing.
In the past, and especially when I was a recent graduate, this feeling that a tether, to a place or the way I did things in the past, had been severed seemed to present only one option. To dig in with resolve and forge ahead doing what I was told to do in school or to keep doing the same things I had been and wait for the feeling to pass.
But now, I’m realizing that these phases are a call to create a new home in myself. A new sense of belonging, whether that is in leaving something that has run its course behind or trusting the musical skills I have cultivated as a flutist over my life since I was eight.
One of the most exciting things to me about a life in music was that I had choices. I could build a career out of the things that spoke to me, create a unique schedule and follow uncharted paths.
But as music students and young professionals, there is a distinct message that to be respected and successful you really must follow the things that speak to you on a sometimes unspoken but traditional path … orchestral work, music administration, college teaching, etc..
In choosing to deviate from what's expected, it can become hard to resist the feelings of self-criticism or concern about how you will be viewed professionally, even when you know you don’t want to do something that is admired.
I have challenged myself this year to pursue the things that really speak to me. I have left a few things behind or said no to things that I would have jumped at five years ago. In some ways, it has made me feel much freer to understand the parts of music that I am not meant for right now. In other ways, it has handed a microphone to that tiny critical voice that says things like “you are only doing something else because you are not good enough to truly be 'successful'.”
What I wish I would have realized as a young musician is that the tiny critical voice, that sometimes shouts very loudly, is usually just fear.
When you pinpoint what it is you truly want, is it surprising that fear shows up to say, “but what if you can’t actually do it?”
If you are facing big decisions, allow yourself to sit with your fear. Will you be guaranteed to succeed if you make a change? No, but will you grow and learn? Will you be doing something you can genuinely be invested in?
If you are a student or a new graduate, allow yourself to sit with your fear. Ask yourself what careers and who you admire, then ask yourself why.
If you understand your why, then you will be able to follow it to the path that’s meant for you.
Find a quiet space where you feel safe. Close your eyes and feel your breath, listen to the sounds around you and then go inward. Be open and notice what shows up.
It’s not simple, but you have to remember that in life and in music, no one holds all the answers for you. You have what you need to create the space that feels like home, but you have to be willing to hold that space for yourself. No one else can do it for you.
We hear a lot about how playing an instrument is so beneficial because of all the ways it activates our brain.
We are not simply learning to play the flute in our studies, but rather to physically hold the instrument, use the correct finger combinations, count rhythms, maintain tempo, remember the key signature, understand the context of what we are playing……you get the point.
It’s no wonder that we can often find ourselves mentally overwhelmed as our playing becomes more advanced and we continue to try and dissect each of these tasks to critique our progress.
Have you ever found yourself thinking so hard about something you want to do while playing that you can’t seem to come anywhere close to it? Maybe you have repeated something so many times and found so many reasons to critique yourself that everything sounds wrong - like a word that you’ve said out loud so much that it doesn’t even sound like a word anymore. Or, you could have experienced questioning something you've done a thousand times, like playing a high F#.
These are all common examples of overthinking for many musicians.
When we put too much emphasis on our evaluation of each and every skill, we begin to negate the neuroplasticity that happens through learning. We spend all our practice time in an effort to be able to consistently (and automatically) repeat the actions needed to play well, and then undermine all the work we have done with our perfectionistic overanalyzing.
So how do you begin to trust the actions and skills that you have cultivated?
You fully experience them.
Instead of thinking about what you are doing when playing, you have to begin to feel it. To hand over the nit-picking in exchange for focusing on this exact moment.
If we can be open to the present moment we become grounded in the body. We trust ourselves. And if we can stay in the moment, we open the door to an effortless flow state that allows all the skills we have cultivated to come to the surface because we no longer stand in their way.
Try it - what happens if you play your instrument and truly focus on the feeling of playing in this exact moment? How is it different than thinking about all the ways the current moment could be better?
Do you ever just want to rant?
It’s not often, but occasionally I find myself wanting to sound off about everything that is annoying me.
Or, I’ll find myself constantly thinking about a particular topic, but focusing on what other people are doing around that topic that irritates me.
As I started to write today’s blog I got into a rhythm of ranting (aka complaining) about the particular thing that was on my mind. Thankfully I realized it before I hit post. Complaining may make us feel better temporarily, but beyond that it doesn’t really do us any good.
So what should we do when we find ourselves wanting to rant or stuck in a cycle of complaining?
Take it as a sign.
When we get stuck in a loop, what it really means is that we are not spending our time well. Maybe we’re spending too much time watching other people do things, we’re obsessing over something we can’t change, or maybe we’re just not taking action.
In my case, I’ve been spending a lot of time mulling over some aspects of social media and using the internet to build out a career in music that don’t feel right to me.
Like most aspects of our lives, if something seems off or our gut feeling is that an action or activity is not for us, it usually isn’t. We have to trust our instinct in order to remain authentic, but that can be difficult when our gut tells us not to join the masses.
Instead of spending your energy doing something you don’t want to do, or that isn’t authentic to you or your goals (or instead of spending all your energy complaining about it), refocus it on what would feel authentic.
If you didn’t feel any obligation to conform, how would you communicate and share with others?
How would you shape your day?
How would you shape your career?
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.