Back when Facebook first started I made a gratitude post almost every Thanksgiving. I love seeing them pop up in the memories feature and being reminded of where I was finding pockets of joy over all those years.
I stopped sharing in such a personal way quite a while ago on social media. It’s hard to draw a line between “personal” and “professional” social media now - to me, it all feels public.
I have become more open with what I share, but with more parameters and boundaries. I will share openly about my experiences in my career and the ways that my personal life and work life come together, but now I prefer to keep detailed of my personal life much more to myself.
Seeing all my old gratitude posts in my memories on social media this week made me feel a little nostalgic. As I’ve gotten older, I think I have a less blindly optimistic perspective. As we age we experience so many joyful events, but we are also subject to more sadness, loss, and difficult situations. But I don’t feel less happy by any means. In fact, I think that the broader experience of life has left me generally more satisfied and fulfilled.
There is an article that I read when I was in college, and although I don’t remember where I read it I think of it often. It said something to the effect that the culture in the United States is one of the only ones that emphasizes that we should be happy all the time and avoid sadness and disappointment at all costs. Other cultures believe that happiness is only one part of the full experience of life, which should also include sadness, disappointment, and other undesirable and desirable emotions.
I’ve tried to carry this idea with me since then, that all the emotions we experience are necessary parts of our lives. As I develop a meditation practice and dive deeper into yoga, that same concept comes up in these ancient practices.
When I think about thankfulness this holiday season, I can see how both the best and worst parts of my year have played into the immense amount of gratitude I am able to feel this holiday season.
I started new jobs this year that are the culmination of hard work and a commitment to right effort toward the concepts and activities that I feel drawn to. I’m being challenged to step into a better version of myself in these positions, and to release the things and positions I have outgrown. It is both gratifying and exciting to feel that I am at a stepping off point for a new stage of my professional life.
On the other end of the spectrum, we lost a family member to cancer this year. It was an intense experience that spanned just under six months from diagnosis. We have spent very few weekends at home and a lot of time traveling. It left much of the time we did spend at home feeling less than productive and fairly disheveled.
But even embedded in this loss and deep rooted sadness, there is gratitude. We spent more time with family than we ever would have otherwise, we have talked about difficult emotions and losses, and we have a new appreciation for our time together and each other. All of these things are positive, although it is grief and loss that brought them about.
Considering all of these events and emotions, I realized that what I am most grateful for this holiday season is perspective. I am grateful to understand that all of the events we experience are important to the full scope of our lives. I am grateful that as we age and continue to grow our life view grows with us.
Of course I wish that my whole family was together this Thanksgiving without illness and loss, but I am still sitting with deep gratitude for what we do have.
I hope that if your year has included something good or something bad, or more likely if it has included both, that you can find some gratitude through your perspective this holiday season. Gratitude in your ability to feel both happiness and sadness, and to make the most of all the experiences of your life.
Wishing you peace, joy and gratitude this Thanksgiving and always.
Musicians spend an incredible amount of time in lessons, masterclasses, studio classes and ensembles from the time we begin to play our instrument. From the first sound until you graduate from your final degree or certificate, we are led and supported by mentors and peers.
And then…it stops.
The community support of being in school evaporates at our final graduation. It can feel as if the competition meter gets turned to max and we suddenly need to prove our worth at every turn. Where before (if we are in a healthy learning environment) there is room for exploration and mistakes, now we must suddenly and magically know how to navigate whatever is thrown at us.
Our training leads us to believe that this is the way it should be. That once you walk out the school doors for the last time you will understand exactly how to proceed with job applications, auditions, evaluations of your teaching, rigorous tenure processes and more.
For a while, this might work. The belief that we can figure it out can carry us a long way. But music is a field that brings tremendous highs and lows - a great performance, a bombed audition; a fantastic rehearsal, a student who is disruptive and unresponsive.
Eventually though, a version of decision fatigue sets in. We are constantly analyzing and questioning ourselves, and it might feel like the whole world is doing the same.
After a particularly high point in my own career development, I had a sudden and jarringly negative performance experience. It rattled my sense that I knew what I was doing. Had I just been making it up all along? Were all of the positive things that happened coincidences? When was everyone else going to realize that I was flying blind?
What followed was a rough patch of anxiety and self doubt. We all go through these ups and downs, but this time felt different. I just couldn’t pull myself out of it, and the fear that others might see a weakness in my performance abilities was overwhelming.
Then a friend suggested that I read George Mumford’s book The Mindful Athlete. Mumford turned his life around through mindfulness and went on to coach the Chicago Bulls and the LA Lakers in mindfulness. Some of the topics he teachers are right effort and flow.
The book was eye opening to me, and the beginning of a shift in my thinking. If athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James at the absolute highest level of their career were getting coached on mindset and flow, why did I think I needed to figure it out all alone, by myself?
As I continued to grow an interest in mindfulness and performance mindset I also started to more deeply explore yoga and anatomy.
Again and again as I was learning about the mind and body I kept thinking, why isn’t anyone teaching and coaching musicians on these topics?
How much stress, anxiety and injury could we avoid with a better understanding of our anatomy, brain and nervous system?
Even further, how much could we benefit from continued outside perspective on the way we approach our craft?
I don’t think we have to look very far for the answer.
If you’ve ever watched the olympics, you are bound to have seen an event where the expected champion had a poor run and didn’t medal, or won a bronze instead of a gold. Are they disappointed in the outcome? Yes, of course. Do they come back and try again? Almost always.
Athletes at the highest level spend all their energy on building the skills they need, including mindset, with continued feedback, and when you compare them to musicians I think the difference in emotional response becomes clear.
Through their training and receiving immediate and outside feedback athletes are miles ahead of us at believing in their strengths and developed abilities, and knowing that one bad day does not predict the future or define our worth.
Think about it this way - the NBA is full of the world’s most talented basketball players, and yet in every game one team is guaranteed to lose. One team is bound to make mistakes and not play up to the level of their opponents. Do those losses define them? No, they become the material from which they grow.
Compare these examples to how we often feel like a terrible or inadequate musician after an out of tune note or a crummy rehearsal (let alone a bad audition) and I think it becomes clear that athletes are doing something right.
There is a perception in our field that if you ask for help or instruction after a certain point you are a bad musician, not enough, or unworthy.
I think that’s total garbage, and that the biggest key to a healthier career and workplace for musicians is to get over this idea that we must be superhuman.
You might be starting to think, well, that’s all fine, but how do I apply it to my own life if I can’t afford lessons, a personal trainer, mindfulness guide and mindset coach?
I think there are a lot of ways we can open bring feedback and continued learning into our lives, some of which don’t cost a thing.
Ideas for creating support and connection:
My best teachers taught me that we are students for life.
We never stop learning, and you never know what you might learn tomorrow, next year, or in five years that will change your perspective and help you move to the next level.
I want to point out here that I'm not suggesting we don't trust the skills we have grown. We have to stay in touch with our abilities and our intuition. What I am suggesting is that perhaps one of the most important ways we can unlock a more gratifying experience is through insight from trusted sources and community with those who inspire us.
As part of my own commitment to learning and creating a system of feedback and community, I enrolled in George Mumford’s Mindful Athlete course this fall. Every six months there’s a study group where we dive deep into how we can expand our access to what George calls “the masterpiece within” through the concepts of mindfulness.
I just finished my first study group this week, and the process of learning in a community of others who also want to live and work with intention and heart was so rewarding.
I’m not going it alone, and I don’t have to. Neither do you.
Through sharing what we’re learning and how we’re growing we all become better, so let me know: how do you bring feedback and community into your professional life
Think about how you practiced when you first learned.
Lots and lots of playing the same thing over and over, right?
Think about how you practice now.
Hopefully it’s very different and your teachers over the years have taught you many useful practice techniques.
Examples of these techniques include …
But why do we practice in these ways and what is the objective of doing so? Think beyond getting the notes right and doing it “better.” Knowing the reason why may just be the key to getting what you do in practice to stick.
Getting to the root of it
Almost everything we practice is a transition of some kind, and that is what we’re tackling when we practice.
Really consider what happens when you practice a difficult interval and finally get it to work. You’ve probably spent a few minutes playing it over and over - perhaps you were being quite detailed and dove into your toolbox of practice techniques to really sort out what needed to happen to make it consistent.
So, what actually happened to make it work?
Your air and muscles happened to be in the right places at the right times and the interval came out?
Yes, but there’s more to it than that. If you really did the work on this transition there is way more to it than that. In the case of the interval, you learned how the distance you’re seeing between the notes translates to how you lead up to the interval and what repeatable physical action your embouchure must take in combination with your air when you see that interval on the page.
Where it began, and where it’s going
When we are kids learning to play our instrument and blindly repeating things over and over, it’s likely that we aren’t reading all that carefully.
If you teach, how many students have you had that blatantly don’t read a rest or slightly difficult rhythm and play something more simple instead?
Another example of this is the student who has been told the key signature does not include Eb, but continues to play them ad nauseam. These students are not really reading - they are skimming and working off of previously developed muscle memory.
When we practice in a detailed way, pulling resources out of our toolbox, we read carefully. We identify the details of what is printed on the page, and in turn build a pathway between what we see and what we know. It gives us the ability to overwrite what we might have thought we read at first glance if it was wrong.
You might remember times that you were detailed in reading, but still couldn’t facilitate whatever difficulty you were working on. I am reminded of my students when they know what’s on the page, but continue to play something over and over at a tempo that is too fast making the same mistakes.
When we practice well, we draw a line between what we have discovered by reading carefully to the physical act of playing our instrument. We connect the dots between what we see and the physical actions required to make it happen through a detailed consideration and exploration of what creates the desired result.
As an example, let’s think about a passage that is written in difficult key signature. Maybe it has some double sharps and a few intervals that feel really awkward under the fingers. Reading and identifying the notes and intervals is not enough. Playing slowly is a step in the right direction because we can build accuracy, but if we speed up we often still miss. The pathway we need to build is between what we see and know and the physicality of doing in the difficult transitions.
Through smart practice, we can be specific about the air and embouchure shape that is necessary, and also the feeling of the intervals and rhythms in our fingers. Understanding the physicality of the line is crucial to our ability to replicate it every time we play the piece.
When we practice in a truly productive way, we identify the difficult transitions and dissect the issues using informed practice techniques from the toolbox we fill during our studies. In turn, our brain builds stronger and stronger pathways for the actions we need.
How to implement Pathway Practicing
Begin by reading in a detailed way, going beyond skimming the music. What follows is using our available tools to fully connect what we see on the page to what needs to physically take place to create a consistent result.
The key to performing well is not using practice techniques sporadically in practice.
The key to consistently performing well is the identification of transitions and the use of practice techniques to facilitate the physical and mental actions that the music demands. By approaching music in this detailed and methodical way, we create strong, mindful visual and physical connections. This is how we build neural pathways that are necessary for consistent success through practice.
(Practice techniques incorporated throughout)
1. Rough read through
2. Identify transitions
3. Read with detail
4. Identify physical demands
5. Practice to connect the visual and physical
When you went to school for music, what did you want to do?
What did you hope to be?
A soloist? An orchestral musician? A music teacher or college professor?
If I think back to the beginning of my undergraduate degree, I wanted to be a music teacher in a public school. Shortly after starting school I realized that I loved teaching, but that I wanted to focus on teaching the flute rather than all the instruments. My goal shifted to being a college professor, or maybe a private studio teacher until my other plans came together.
My friends at the time had goals very similar to mine. We admired those who already had orchestral jobs, professorships, or taught in successful music programs.
We set our sights on these lofty and limited positions and got to work.
As we finished our degrees we took, and were rejected from, grad school auditions and job interviews. Of course we were accepted to a few and we all moved on to the next stepping stone, maybe a little stung from the rejection of the programs and positions we deemed not quite ready for, but still determined
As we all went our separate ways there continued to be measurements of our abilities. A jury, a concerto competition, a job interview, a teaching evaluation. We were always being measured against something, and presumably these measurements, criteria, and categories would prepare us to move up the next rung in the classical music ladder.
I was fortunate, through good fortune, hard work and tears, to have moderate success at each rung. I went to good schools and had great teachers. My playing improved. After graduate school, I got an adjunct job and grew a private studio.
Everything was coming together toward my goal.
I started to feel dissatisfied. I wasn’t really playing much, and when I did play I worried so much that it needed to be perfect I didn’t really enjoy making music at all.
I was bored with my very predictable routine, although I loved teaching and working with all of my students.
I decided the answer was to move and challenge myself more. I uprooted and moved half way across the country to try again.
But, eventually, the same dissatisfaction crept in. I felt bored, listless, and unmotivated.
I had achieved many of the goals I set as a freshman in college, so shouldn’t I feel happier? As I was faced these goals I’d had in mind for years head on I felt a strange separation from them.
I had set them so long ago, did I still want the same things? They were the things we were told were prestigious and that we should aspire to, but did I really want them?
Even when I “achieved” them, there was still a higher level to reach. In some ways, that’s the great thing about music - we can always improve, always grow and learn. But does the target ever stop moving?
Many of us sacrifice relationships, where we live, and how we spend so much of our life for these moving targets without any guarantee of ever reaching them.
Of course, we love what we do. There’s no way we would dedicate the time and effort that it requires otherwise. And I’m certainly not suggesting that our traditional goals aren’t worthwhile.
But too much attention to finding success from an external source, worthwhile or not, will leave us disappointed and dissatisfied. We feel watched and judged, not good enough. We often feel alone and forget that other musicians are going through the same things.
Ultimately, the thing that started to bring satisfaction back into my musical life was getting in touch with why I love what I do. Why do I enjoy teaching? Why do I love to make music?
Remembering why we are driven to be in music can also help us remember what we have to offer - what makes us unique and able to contribute.
When we lose sight of our “why”s and get too focused on the moving target of a career (especially in classical music) we can find ourselves striving toward something incredibly demanding without enjoying the challenge.
So why do you want to be a musician? (Subtract the fame and glamour!) Why do you want to teach others about music? (Forget about the “big job” and admiration you might some day win!)
What is it deep down that drives your dedication?
If we always let others set the bar for us we may never be good enough. If we remember our strengths, our reasons, and set our own bar then we are more likely to find success that is personally gratifying.
There is so much joy to be found in music, but the real joy is found when you’re not worried about anyone else’s moving target.
Success becomes available to you when you tap into the joy of learning how to identify it for yourself.
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.