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.
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?
When I was in school, there was a popular assignment to write a letter to your past self. I think this is a fairly common exercise in self reflection for any age.
There is a great deal of value in looking back on the experiences of our lives, both happy and challenging, with the perspective we gain over time.
Maybe you have also done the other version of this activity where you write a letter to your future self listing all your most ambitious goals and what you hope to achieve.
There is value in looking ahead and visualizing what you sincerely hope will come true. However, as I move through my career and life reflecting back on the experiences I have had and imagine what might lie ahead, I feel like there is a more impactful way to do this exercise.
Instead of looking ahead at all our loftiest ambitions (I will have a full time orchestra job and live in a large house), we might benefit from shifting the focus to be more subtle, more inward. What do you want your life to feel like? What type of people do you hope to be surrounded by? How would you like to show up in your life for yourself and others?
Rather than spend our future-focus on external achievements, we could imagine what we will achieve in our emotions, wellbeing, and in our relationships with and impact on others.
Writing to ourselves in this way lets us acknowledge all the work we have already done, all the things we already know to be true about ourselves, and all the ways we hope we will honor that knowledge in the future.
September 30, 2021
Dear Future Me,
I hope that you are following your gut. I know that sometimes you can feel a strong sense of responsibility to things that you have outgrown. It is ok to do your best and then move on to what is a better fit for your life and skills.
I hope that you are being creative in your teaching. You have so much more energy to guide your students when you are exploring music you love and concepts that you know will help them in music and life. Maybe you have explored a lot more about how mindfulness and yoga can be incorporated into teaching young musicians and are sharing it with others!
I hope that you are making time for friendships and your closest relationships. Life is so much richer when you have more time to spend it with the people, and pets, you love.
I hope that you are continuing to define success on your own terms. You always feel more “successful” when you are reading and learning, making music and having lots of different experiences.
I hope you are still using mindfulness as a tool to navigate perfectionism, reminding yourself that each moment is new and fluid and the most you can do is to stay present in the right now.
I hope you are creating space.
With love and acceptance,
No one can do it all. Or, maybe a few people can, but what are they sacrificing? Who is helping them do it?
In order to “do it all” in an area of our life, we make sacrifices in other places that don’t matter as much. It’s why a world class, virtuosic violinist is not also an influential investment banker.
We can do many things, but we can’t do everything.
One of the lessons we usually learn too late is that limits are a good thing. Our minds reach a limit when we need to rest. Our bodies reach a limit when we have pushed them too far.
We cannot spend our free time writing endless emails and never practicing if we need to be prepared for our rehearsals and performances. We can't have any energy to share with our students if we never sleep.
This month I feel like I have reached several of my limits - emotionally, physically, and also mentally. This is life. But, the joy of being human is that we can grow and learn how to move through the times when we have tapped out my resources.
What I have learned is that running up against your limits is not an invitation to look for a new energy hack or productivity trick. It is not an invitation to miss out on sleeping well so that you can finish writing emails.
Reaching your max is an opportunity to be uninspired. To put your need to produce to rest. To answer the emails, but later than you usually would. To practice, but with more breaks than usual. To let your ideas and projects simmer for a while.
It is a reminder that the patience to let things percolate is often what eventually brings them to life.
For the past few weeks I have been taking my time. Practicing when I can and accepting when I can’t. Answering messages and meeting my deadlines, but with less hurry-up than usual.
Despite my lack of inspiration, things are getting done. In fact, things are remarkably totally normal.
Nothing lasts forever. This month will turn into next month and the demands on my time and energy will change. My inspiration will return until the next time I need a reminder that it’s ok to be uninspired.
In allowing myself some limits, I’m also reinforcing my understanding of their value.
This is not a call to action. It is not an excuse to do nothing.
It’s a nudge to notice the rhythms of your life and work with them, not against them.
The encouragement to create space and enjoyment in so many places you might otherwise never have found it.
You’ve heard all the stories about how failures are actually blessings, and how one closed door means another door opens, right?
As musicians (or as teachers, entrepreneurs, performers, administrators…) we deal with rejection a lot. We get told “no” so many times we might even stop applying for scholarships, grants, auditioning or putting ourselves out there at all.
I had an experience recently where a lot of the places I invested my efforts created some really wonderful outcomes, except for one. I won’t get into the details except to say that the rejection letter was terribly written, and for the first time in my career (or maybe even in my life) I felt like I had enough perspective to take it for what it was really worth.
So, what can do we actually learn from rejection?
In order to learn from rejection, we must be willing to learn in the first place. For example, if you make an audition tape, but aren’t willing to have anyone listen to you and give you comments before you record, are you really in it to get better? Or, are you looking for an easy win, praise or recognition?
No matter what type of work you are doing, having someone more experienced that you trust and respect view your work is always a good idea. You don’t have to broadcast your behind-the-scenes to the world, but you do have to be willing to show someone your best effort, even if you don’t think it’s good enough yet. On top of that, you have to stay open to receiving their feedback.
In order to learn from rejection, you have to be willing to try. If you have a million ideas that you love, but you never share them with anyone they will never be rejected. They’ll also never help or impact anyone else.
There are lots of ways to put your ideas into action. For example, you could consider writing down your thoughts (maybe in a blog!), creating an online workshop or a special project for your private studio. All of these things will take you time and effort, but they don’t cost a lot and give you lots of opportunities to receive feedback (make sure that you ask for some from people you trust!).
Most things won’t turn out to be a total flop, but it’s also true that every idea can’t be your best idea. To get to an outcome that is worth something, you have to be willing to share and stay open to the way it is received.
Since we are considering feedback so much, it’s crucial to remember that not everyone will like what you have to offer. Perhaps they don’t like your style of playing, or they simply aren’t interested in the topics that you feel so passionately about. That’s ok.
Here’s the most important part: it’s ok, because you don’t need to connect with everyone. You need to do work you are proud of, that is well thought out and that you care about. Even if someone doesn’t “like” it, we can all respect when someone works hard and puts in the effort on something they are invested in.
So what is the actual rejection teaching us?
* It might be teaching us that we are not at the level we need to be yet.
* It might be teaching us that we could reevaluate our effort - how are we approaching improving?
* It might be teaching us that we did everything we could, but we were not what the committee was looking for (in style, approach, expertise, etc).
* It might be teaching us to seek out more honest feedback in advance.
* It might be teaching us … nothing. Sometimes there are a lot of qualified candidates and we just don’t win the lottery that day.
*** It is always teaching us to go inward. To take an honest look at our approach and the reason we are doing things.***
Our reflection on how we got to the event that we are receiving feedback on and what we know about ourselves is teaching us a lot.
The feedback we receive in advance from knowledgeable mentors or colleagues is teaching us a lot.
But the actual rejection? The letter that shows up in your mailbox or email? That’s not teaching you anything.
What you take away from each rejection letter or “no” you get has very little to do with how it’s delivered.
If you take each of these rejections to heart, assume that the words are truthful and mean something about you and your abilities, then rejection will teach you something - that you are not worthy. It will slip into the little cracks between all the things you’re proud of and start to break apart your confidence bit by bit. It will seep into the way you think about yourself without you even noticing.
Be mindful of how you receive rejection. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself about rejection. It is possible to learn in an intentional way from your own experiences around rejection, but you must be willing to be open.
Prior to the era of Zoom, I was incredibly skeptical of online connection. It felt clunky and cumbersome to me to try and get to know people online, and so often it seemed disingenuous.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think that social media is a place where we have to tread carefully with boundaries and awareness, but I do think that not having the option to meet in person forced us into being more sincere in a lot of our online interactions as we all took to different corners of the internet to find comfort and community.
Certainly, we’ve all learned the value of socialization and the longing and loneliness that exists when we are not allowed to gather together. There are also other more subtle lessons about community that I think have come to light.
After completing my 200hr yoga teacher training online, I understood that it was possible to deeply connect with others virtually. The key is to be willing to make yourself vulnerable - to be willing to share openly.
The positive experience of vulnerability in my teacher training inspired me to start blogging again and be vulnerable in sharing my thoughts, methods and perspectives.
It can seem incredibly scary to share online. There are so many people sharing “practice” videos that sound like performances, and beautiful pictures of people and experiences that we feel removed from. We all know these posts are curated, but the more of them we see the more it constantly stays in the back of our minds.
(A note here to say that intention matters. Curated is not always bad - my posts and blogs are planned, but with the intention of sharing something important to me and always staying true to myself.)
Once I started posting and sharing though, I started finding like-minded accounts and people, and realizing I was not alone in my interests, my strengths or my struggles.
It’s very similar to the experience of going to music school and being surrounded by people who are “your kind” for the first time. You find friends who will discuss your interests in depth and connect with you over all the triumphs and defeats of your craft.
Topics like perfectionism, imposter syndrome and burnout come up a lot for musicians, and the neatest part about finding a community of people you trust is that you realize you are not alone in these or other challenges (like those of playing your specific instrument).
When you find people who will return your vulnerability, you find your strengths. You gain the perspective to realize that yes, I struggle with this one thing, but I’m actually doing ok!
Think of it this way: if you sit at home alone and watch “inspirational” Instagram and YouTube videos of people playing, then try to practice and critique your playing you will almost always end up feeling crummy and less than. If you find a group of friends who will listen to each other play in person or online and give both positive and constructive feedback you will feel inspired as you connect over sharing in the difficulties and triumphs.
The internet can isolate us so easily, but if you take control over the vehicle that is available to you for connection you will be both inspired and affirmed.
At it’s core, connection teaches you that you are not alone in your difficulties and you are doing good work.
What new thing could you do to create genuine connection in your life?
There is so much discussion about getting back to gigs after all the shutdowns, and all the feelings, emotions, joys and stresses that are coming along with musicians getting back to work.
The last year and half has been weird, and while my teaching and gig life is springing back to normal and I am extremely grateful, I think it’s wrong to pretend that things haven’t changed at all.
We were given an enormous and unusual (and of course stressful and scary) opportunity to really consider what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
From my own perspective as a musician who usually wears many hats, I needed that time off whether I wanted it or not. I was burnt out, and desperately needed to address my approach to work. If my hand hadn’t been forced, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to consider how work was truly affecting my mental health and my overall attitude and approach to life.
Pre-pandemic I was exhausted, running myself rampant because that’s what a good musician is supposed to do (or, that’s what we’re taught a good musician with a good career does). I was musically in shape and mentally out of shape, and had a lot of stress about the meaning of every note I played on stage. (As you can imagine, if something didn’t go quite the way I wanted in a performance, it felt a little catastrophic.)
I was pushing hard for my career without allowing myself the space to focus on where I was going or why I wanted to be there.
Over the time when it wasn’t possible to gig, I spent less time with my instrument and more time with my mind. I started learning how to care for my mental wellbeing, brought my attention back to my physical health, and also refocused on my performance mindset.
Something else that there was space to consider was how I prepared for things - what was my method of preparation? What were my mental habits leading up to a performance?
For me, the answers to some of these questions were tough to accept - it is difficult to see the ways that we are selling ourselves short. But in considering the way I viewed my own ability and value, I allowed myself the space to ask and answer many difficult questions.
The silver lining of accepting that we have put limits on ourselves, created difficulty through unawareness, or that we have been flying blind at warp speed is that by seeing these obstacles and habits they are easier to remove and change.
Now, as we go back to work, we have an incredible opportunity to bring a consciousness of being back to work with us.
We have an opportunity to adjust our habits, to treat ourselves better, and to consciously create our own landscapes.
As an example, consider how many things you said yes to doing before the shut down that you only did because you felt you had to. That’s a post for another day, but generally speaking we are taught to do everything because you never know when you might miss something. At the root of it, I believe this actually leads to a scarcity mindset and causes us to overload ourselves. (This ties into the concept of Essentialism).
To provide entertainment, inspiration and instruction, all of which are healing for most people, is a gift in a career. Perspective on how this fits into the thread of very real and sometimes scary everyday events can only stand to make us more adept at providing what the world, our audiences and our students need.
At this moment, we have a clean slate on which to be intentional about what we do - focusing on only the best places to put our efforts and leaving behind the things that are only good or ok.
Like any change, it will require a concentrated effort of often small and seemingly insignificant daily habits that add up over a long period of time.
As musicians, we tend to catastrophize small events that are imperceptible to others (an out of tune note, getting passed over in an audition) or how we measure up to other people, but this moment has a lot to teach us.
We can and should use our post pandemic perspective to make changes, even small ones, that will help us to be our best selves.
Reflect on your habits - what will you change given all the perspective you have gained?
Failure is both a celebrated and taboo topic in performative disciplines.
You will see many athletes, musicians, actors, etc, discuss failure as a pathway to success, and the internet is littered with inspirational quotes about failure and its necessity as part of a successful career or life.
You will also notice that these same performers, and most everyday run-of-the-mill humans, will hide their failures behind the veil of their successes, showing only the positive event that came after what we can assume was many less desirable outcomes.
I think most of us can put ourselves in both of these camps. I often share stories of failed auditions or subpar performances with my students as a means of showing that we all have them and they are one of the ways we learn. But I also rarely share failed outcomes - or even that I'm making an attempt at something scary - publicly. What's the expression about holding your cards close?
My point here is not that either of those ways of viewing or hiding failure is right or wrong. Rather, I think we all need to consider our relationship to failure more closely and sincerely as a window to how we're approaching and living our lives.
It's important to define what you mean by failure - it's an awfully broad term, after all. When you think of failing, do you mean that you completely fell on your face and made a fool of yourself, and that you had absolutely no idea how to do the thing you were attempting? Or, maybe more likely, failure could mean that you made a concentrated effort toward something using your accumulated knowledge and skill and it didn't work out. Those are two very different things!
It's also important to differentiate between a few things:
- Did you actually "fail" (By your definition? By someone else's?) or were you simply not the first pick?
- Does your "failure" negate any of your skills, knowledge or worth?
- Do you truly feel like a failure or are you simply disappointed? (More on this in a second)
- Can you try again? (Do you want to?)
- Did you learn something? (This sounds cliche - try to be very specific about you want to improve on)
As I experience more failures and successes, I am beginning to think we have our definitions and priorities all wrong. Failure is more of an experience than a thing.
First of all, we have to dedicate ourselves to something and then be willing to take a risk to even have success or failure. Maybe we should try harder as we become more skilled to maintain focus on the process and objective.
Second, we learn from every experience in life. We learn what we did well, not well, or what just plainly needs to be different. Most crucially, we should learn what is important to us and why it is important for us to share.
Third, we need to understand what failure (or success for that matter) does and does not do to us. Failure does not inherently change us - what we learn helps us change ourselves.
Finally, a "failure" does not mean you're incapable, terrible, unseen or any other negative adjective. Just because you weren't the "winner" doesn't mean you lost anything.
(A side note that "success" could be redefined in a similar way - as a gratification of a tremendous amount of effort or a positive outcome of something we have invested in, etc.)
Most importantly: We need to learn to differentiate between our feelings of self worth, the feeling of failure, and the feeling of disappointment.
There have been many devastating disappointments in my career - or at least I thought they were at the time they occurred. Eventually I had to decide, like we all do, if I would keep on trying or not. As I drove on to new objectives those feelings of failure were left further and further behind, and in the rearview mirror they often look a lot more like hurt and disappointment.
I think for most of us, part of our struggle in dealing with failures is that we don't understand them by the correct definition. When was the last time you truly failed? Like, first time riding a bike fell off and skinned your knee because you were clueless failure? In your musical career, this type of "failure" probably hasn't happened since back when you were a beginner.
This understanding doesn't make it easier to deal with a failure (or rather, a disappointment) in the moment, but I believe it can make it a healthier process for all of us. One that we can weave into the overall fabric of our experiences, rather than allowing it to be definitive.
I don't mean to say that the disappointment that comes from a "failure" or outcome we didn't want is insignificant. It is still a huge feeling to be grappled with. But, like most feelings, it only becomes easier to deal with if we call it for what it is, face it head on, and allow ourselves to feel the visceral experience of it. Eventually we'll tire of that exhaustive disappointment, begin to see the experience clearly and start looking forward.
We're often not privy to the things that happen when others get to decide if we have "earned" a place. However, any insight you gain won't matter if you don't learn to understand your feelings, value yourself and your efforts, and believe in your capability to grow.
Seeing failure for the disappointment it really is softens the blow and helps us accept the situation without unecessary self-degradation. In this way we can continue to learn and grow, to understand ourselves better, and move on to the next project (which, as you might expect, will inevitably bring some disappointments and some successes).
Understanding our true experiences, whether they are positive or negative, can bring us a more realistic, satisfying, and fulfilling approach to work and life.
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.