Raise your hand if you have ever felt depleted, over-scheduled, or exhausted with lots of responsibilities that still need your attention?
Everyone? Ok. (If this has never been you, I’d love to hear how you do it. Please write me!)
Hopefully you’re not experiencing this type of exhaustion or burnout all the time, but it is incredibly common among professional musicians and music students (a topic for another blog, or many!).
So what do we do when we’re feeling tapped out but we have a lot of work to do? Especially if we need to practice our instruments and don’t want to indulge bad habits or sloppy work that will do more harm than good?
Short of a caffeine drip - which I have considered on numerous occasions - there are some real, actionable things we can do to infuse our practice with energy even when we are feeling more like taking a nap than opening our case. Some of these are quite obvious but perhaps still places you could refine your approach, and many are things I overlooked for too long as a younger player and student.
* Plan/Block your time:
This is not a scenario of “I will always practice for an hour at 8AM.” Rather, if you are feeling over-extended or burned out, think of this as survivalist time blocking. Look at your busy schedule for the next week or two (more than two when we are truly up to our ears in busy becomes too overwhelming). Consider each day’s activities and when you will have the most time/energy for practice. Prefer morning practice but can’t fit it in? Plan for the next best window you can find on each day. Don’t aim for perfection - when we’re truly short on time, twenty good minutes are infinitely better than no minutes at all or an hour of terrible practice at the end of an already long day.
* Use the time you have set aside wisely:
Maybe you played for five hours the day before (not uncommon if you have a double rehearsal or a student schedule) and your muscles are fatigued. Could you dedicate half your allocated practice block to listening, score/part study, and visualization exercises? Especially for students, these element of learning music are underrated and typically underutilized - we can save a lot of struggle if we understand the piece, how we fit in, and what sections genuinely need our attention. Using these practice strategies also helps keep us from unintentionally creating bad habits by over-playing.
Related to using your time wisely, there are many things we can do that don’t require putting the instrument together at all, some of which I listed above: score study, listening, researching the context of the piece, imagery/visualization practice (athletes truly understand the value of this last one and we musicians are missing out), eating a good meal, and getting an extra hour of sleep.
Yes it’s annoying, yes it seems like we could probably skip it, yes it is absolutely necessary. When we are playing more than normal we might feel as if our muscles are ready to go all the time, which is precisely what will lead to overuse injuries and bad habits. Even five minutes of smart stretching split at the beginning and end of practice is productive, although I would encourage you to find room for more or to develop a small, manageable, and regularly repeatable routine of stretching and myofascial release.
* Eat well:
When we are busiest is precisely when we struggle with decision fatigue. Our mind has enough to manage, so eating junk food is not only an easy way out, but what our tired mind would prefer because it requires less choice and tastes great. Make this easier on yourself by stocking up on healthy snacks/leftovers before a busy week begins. It’s annoying, I know, but you will thank yourself later.
* Focus on your sleep:
One of my biggest personal struggles when I drive a lot for gigs is staying on track with rest. Often when I get home late after a long drive I need time to unwind and I’m usually hungry (see above re: healthy snacks). I have to really set boundaries after these long, late drives by planning ahead not to doom scroll on my phone or watch TV while eating cheese and crackers when I do finally get home. I feel whiny and irritated about this every time, but make a plan in advance for rest just like you would for food and stick to it. Trust me, it’s worth it.
* Practice in smaller, well-planned time blocks:
We all have our own struggles, and this is one of the most effective strategies for me personally. When I am over-scheduled my focus is often not up to my usual standard. I can be more productive in my practice by working in shorter blocks of time. Instead of a thirty minute warmup I will consolidate it down to ten. Later in the morning I might spend fifteen minutes running through some challenging passages to get a baseline of where they’re at. Even later in the day I will spend fifteen to twenty minutes on a few of those challenging technical sections, being very detailed in how I work through the challenges (with a metronome, grouping, etc.). Later yet I might do a five minute power session on something I’m struggling with, like high register, by doing focused exercises and working on tricky high register tuning passages.
* De-brief your practices and rehearsals:
With limited time to prepare for the next lesson, rehearsal, or performance during your busiest weeks, we can only plan as well as we reflect. During college I got into the habit of keeping a practice journal and recording what I needed to get done and what I had already practiced. Taking this a step further can level up our practice, limited though it might be, in a big way (this bullet point works whether we are in a busy season or not). As suggested by Terry Orlick in his book In Pursuit of Excellence, I started to “debrief” after each performance or practice session. What went well? Why? What didn’t go well? Why? These reflections inform how I use my limited time the next day. I keep a running note on my iPhone Notes app where I jot down points and observations to be revisited later.
* Have fun:
This doesn’t have to be anything monumental, and is probably best if it's not related to your instrument or work. For me, during the weeks where I have to drive a lot to rehearsals this means listening to podcast episodes I’ve saved and my favorite non-classical music that I can sing out loud to in the car. It’s cathartic and helps clear out my brain before and after demanding rehearsals. I also try to spend a little extra time with my cats and making coffee at home - two things that bring me a lot of joy that have absolutely nothing to do with work! Consider the little parts of your day and what small things make you happy, and then deliberately focus on those joyful moments to break up the monotony of your busy day.
The way being busy makes us feel and what we need to do to cope with high-demand periods of work will change as we get older and more experienced, but I don’t know a single musician (student or professional) who can get through a busy season successfully and relatively unscathed without at least some intentional planning.
What works best for you when you are feeling stretched to the limit? Where is an area you could make small adjustments that would have a big impact on your overall wellbeing and energy level?
This month I tackled some books that I have been saving for when I could really take my time and dig in to them. Many of them were about the creative process, some were about yoga/meditation/breathwork/mindstate, and a few were novels I wanted to savor.
I've made it most of the way through this month's to-be-read pile, and it just so happened that I read three books about developing the creative process back to back. I found them all interesting - worthwhile in their own way - but not created equal, and thought it would be fun to break them down here since I am in the midst of what feels like a mini-evolution of my own work process (pictured below during my stay at the Endless Mountain Music Festival).
The first book I read was one I have been saving and looking forward to - it has a beautiful cover, the layout is inviting, and I was expecting a lot of nuggets of inspiration from this one, based on what I had heard about it so far.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
If I'm being really honest, I was totally disappointed in this book. If you have never read anything about the creative process, I actually think it would make a great, easy to digest introduction. But if you are a seasoned creative, this book falls flat for inspiration. It's full of platitudes and empty statements about creativity, and doesn't contain any truly actionable ideas about the creative act as the title suggests. It might be a nice to book to leave out and flip open if you're in need of a shot of motivation, but it definitely didn't live up to my expectations for an author with such an interesting and varied career.
I originally shared these reviews in my monthly newsletter (have you subscribed yet?), and realized after it went out that I completely forgot one of the books I read about the creative process. I suppose it didn't make much of an impression...
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
I liked this book more than Rubin's Creative Act, and while it did have some useful nuggets of reflection on the things that keep us from moving forward creatively, it didn't break down any major thought barriers for me around my own creative process. Like Rubin's book, however, I think this could provide a good stepping off point for creatives who haven't explored outside inspiration for how they could approach their work.
One thing I think Pressfield did well was share openly the distractions we face and the need for discipline and intention around our work. I appreciated the portion of the book about the resistance we all feel the most.
The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp
This book surprised me in its practicality. I didn't know more than the basics about Tharp before reading this, and was impressed at the discipline of her creativity. It's always interesting to catch a glimpse behind the curtain into a successful creative's life, and this was no exception. Tharp discusses her own habits and disciplines, how specific projects came to life, and provides exercises for the reader to consider what matters most to them and to help lay the ground work for better creative habits. Both practical and interesting, I think this one is a must read if you are interested in strengthening the creative acts in your own life.
Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
I had procrastinated reading this book even though it was recommended by one of my absolute favorite newsletters because I wasn't sure how much it would be about the actual act of improvisation (something I avoid like most classically trained musicians!). Although improvisation is discussed, the book is truly about how we create and quickly became a new favorite for me. It is relatable and inspiring, and somehow takes a huge, ambitious topic and boils it down into useful, encouraging, and relatable ways to address blocks and the way we think about creativity. As I read, I found myself writing in the margins and dog-earing pages the entire time. While not as clinically practical as Tharp's Creative Habit, Free Play is what finally helped me start to shift out of my own creative rut.
The most important takeaway for me is that we're all at different stages of our creative journeys and processes. Even though I didn't love Rubin's Creative Act, it felt useful to read these four books in succession, although unintentionally. They are an excellent representation of how differently we all approach creativity, and a reminder that we won't relate to everyone's art or approach to making it. But for the same reason that we study our instruments with many teachers and rarely love every single thing they ask us to do. There are useful takeaways everywhere if you are being vigilant, even if they are simply things you are making a note that don't want to replicate (right now). Just like we each have a unique voice in our music or art, our methods in the end will, and should, be unique to us.
When you think about fear or anxiety, do you ever consider their timeline?
When did the fear arrive? How long has the anxiety been here (and has it always been the same)? Has it ever left or subsided? Could you picture it ending?
Before we can address the lifespan of fear, though, we have to unwind some terminology…
When we talk about fear or anxiety, we are often imprecise. Culturally, anxiety has become a bit of a blanket term that represents so much it is hard to pin down a definition. If we’re discussing performance anxiety, that’s a more specific type of fear, but it can still mean a great many things.
Even by using the words fear and anxiety interchangeably here I am muddying the waters while simultaneously proving the point that these words can mean many things and have varying degrees of severity. Stage fright for me might have a very different root cause than it would for the next person.
We might be afraid of performing for crowds because of the sheer number of people or we could simply be anxious about messing up in front of a lot of people who will remember. Perhaps flying gives us anxiety over a lost bag, or a greater fear of something catastrophic. You might know someone who is afraid of riding a bike, or perhaps someone who has anxiety about riding their bike around cars in the city.
It’s important if we feel fear, anxiety, or tension about something in life to understand what is actually scary.
Do we worry about the judgements of others? Are we afraid to mess up something that matters deeply to us and has taken up a great deal of time and effort? Maybe we are anxious that our efforts will not be deemed worthy of whatever we are striving for. Do you fear losing those who are important to you? Maybe you are afraid of letting someone down. There are many different hats our worry and dread can wear.
As musicians, I think it’s common to move through a variety of different versions of the anxiety and fear that can come along with auditions, performing, and all the various aspects of music making.
I’ve discussed this before, but over my life as a musician, I’ve gone from having no performance anxiety, to feeling the fear that I won’t be accepted at an important audition. I’ve had dry mouth, shaky limbs, a twitchy embouchure, and brain fog on stage among other symptoms. I’ve felt distraught over how I do or don’t measure up to others and found myself ruminating on these useless worries instead of getting work done in the practice room. I’ve been intimidated by many conductors and timid in my playing.
Luckily, I didn’t have all these symptoms of fear at once. They have ebbed and flowed throughout my musical life and, fortunately, have been intermingled with feelings of extreme focus and free, unburdened music making on stage.
It wasn’t until I was older and more experienced that I started to realize how much I actually got to decide about my fear and anxiety in both life and music. Meditation and yoga have helped me tremendously with this, as well as several books by performance coaches and elite athletes.
It only takes a little research to realize that everyone has some version of this to deal with, and that even if someone doesn’t feel fear, we are all responsible for sorting out the distractions that come with doing something performance based.
Perhaps it is only with enough time that we can gain the necessary perspective, but I do wish that someone had laid it out succinctly for me when I was younger that I’m in charge, and fear has a lifespan. It might be around for the long haul, but we can certainly outlast it.
So, what are the major events along the lifespan of fear?
*Feeling anxious, worried, tense, or afraid
The arrival of a fear can come out of nowhere - maybe even in the middle of a performance as it did for me once! This is no reason to live with the fear of fear, but rather the acknowledgement that many physical and mental factors play into our experiences of anxiety.
*We need to identify what is actually scary
When we experience stress or anxiety, it is common to make mountains out of molehills. A whole concert might feel paralyzing, but if we take a step back to consider the music we’ve prepared, perhaps we are preoccupied with a scary entrance or quiet high note and are letting our worries wash over the entire concert. Perspective goes a long way toward deflating a general feeling of anxiousness.
*Can you do the thing anyway?
Sometimes, if we are really lucky, identifying what is actually at the root of our nervousness will bring us back to a more manageable base line. If you’re not that lucky, you can still use the identification of the fear or anxiety to help you. Instead of just feeling the fear (racing heart, clamminess, unfocused thoughts), you’ve now established a culprit. When you catch yourself identifying with the feelings, label them and note the root cause then get on with the task.
*Shift your focus to right effort
A side stop on the last life span event, this is where we focus our energy and efforts on what we are doing rather than how we are feeling. This stop requires effort, but it’s right effort rather than feeding even more energy to our feelings and thoughts of nervousness. If you catch yourself re-investing in the anxiety, simply shift again and start over.
*Realizing fear doesn’t have a grip
Even a brief moment of success pulling our attention away from our feelings of fear is a success. Celebrate your successes and the knowledge that fear does not control you. Each time you succeed in redirecting your attention, you build resilience and the muscles of your attention. Moving through your fear is what opens up the space for better things
*Do (new) hard things
This saying gets used a lot, but it’s useful and an important stop along the life span of fear. Once you have realized you can do things while you feel anxious and have had some practice shifting your focus to right effort you can start to take on new, harder tasks. Even if some of the fear lingers, you can keep growing.
*Not feeling the fear anymore
Some fears have a much longer lifespan than others, but they will all come to an end if you persevere. Recently, I had an experience where something that had been a cause of anxiety for many years no longer felt scary. It was an unexpected relief that was the result of a lot of right effort and personal work.
A note of caution here, that we never want to become complacent. An old fear that has lost its power over us may still find a way to rear its head. This is why it’s important for us to stay detailed and vigilant in what matters to us. Your methods for dealing with the stressors and tension in your life will change over time, but maintaining awareness helps our successes stick.
How you choose to work through your fear points in life will be unique to you. Yoga and meditation have truly changed my relationship with my instrument, but I also rely on smart preparation, having a deliberate and detailed focus in my music making, and honest, frequent self reflection in both practice and performance.
I love hearing about what works for others because we never know when we’ll find another tool that fits just right in our box of resources.
Our lifetimes are long, and it’s absolutely worth the effort it takes to address the things that make us feel anxious. Because it’s so acceptable to discuss stress and anxiety now, there is also a comfort in relating to everyone having it rather than taking the sometimes tedious and mundane steps toward overcoming what stands in our way.
Timelines always look so different in hindsight. When we learned to ride a bike as children, it seemed the training wheels would always be there. The prospect of taking them away was scary (for most of us) and it might have felt like riding confidently without them took forever. In reality, that experience was a blip on the map. Even if a fear is with you for many years, there will be a time both before and after its lifespan.
Because it has become more acceptable to talk about health as it relates to musicians, you may have noticed more injury statistics related to the frequency of injuries showing up on social media and in publications, as well as statistics about the average amount of pain that musicians are experiencing at various ages and stages in their journeys.
These statistics provide extremely useful data toward the case that we must include health and wellness in university music programs, especially when we consider how long this crucial piece of playing development and career longevity has been overlooked. However, I think for the average musician having a variety of experiences of brief or prolonged discomfort, this data-driven sharing is missing the mark.
While we’re moving in the right direction educating musicians about both preventing and addressing injuries, we need to teach students and professionals not just that they could become injured, but to recognize the signs of an incoming injury.
Signs of overuse or injury can be as benign as light muscle tension, headaches, or a faint tingling sensation. Musicians might find that they are clenching their teeth at night, locking their jaw, or waking up in the morning clenching their hands into fists. Not being able to play for as long as usual or a decrease in stamina or breath control may be another sign that something isn’t right. Even simple indicators that we are over-tired are important as we can practice with bad habits that lead to injury when we are unrested for long periods of time.
One of the best indicators of an incoming injury may be the most subtle of all - a simple decrease of our ability to be aware and notice or embodied - and it could cause us to miss all the signals listed above. To understand it though, we need to learn about how it is that we recognize what is happening in our bodies.
Proprioception is the sense of our body in space (body position, movement, and the ability to feel what is around us).
The connective tissue of the body (fascia) is largely what allows us to have proprioception. Growing our felt sense of the body (embodiment) can also help with proprioception.
Fascia is everywhere in the body - around, in, and through our muscles and fat. Fascia’s ability to slide and glide as we move is an important part of how our body works, and when a muscle is injured or stiff or a movement pattern that is unhelpful or unhealthy is reinforced, fascia can become dehydrated and harden.
Proprioception is something we all have, but the quality of our proprioception is not guaranteed and is actually directly linked with both our sense of awareness and any pain we are experiencing.
Nociception is the body’s perception of pain, as translated through our sensory nervous system. It is how the body sends the brain signals to create appropriate defensive responses to injuries or illnesses.
You may already have the impression that proprioception and nociception are at least peripherally related. The connection between these two types of awareness runs deep, however, and is enhanced or dulled by our sense of embodiment.
When we experience pain in the body, it uses up our nervous system’s attention and energy which leaves less available for other systems and actions. As our sense of nociception becomes more and more elevated, our proprioception will continue to deteriorate. This is why we often seen older people or people who experience a lot of chronic pain becoming more and more clumsy.
As musicians, we tune in to what’s happening in our bodies much more than the average person. This can make us hyper aware when something feels different or we experience some discomfort. This works to our advantage as all of our experiences of pain and discomfort play into the relationship between our proprioception and nociception.
It may seem simple or obvious, but our sense of awareness is one of our best tools in injury prevention. This is an often under-celebrated reason why things like yoga, strength training, and massage can be so beneficial, as they help us become more familiar with what feels normal and abnormal in our bodies.
In a recent blog, I talked about what I think is the secret ingredient for putting your knowledge of anatomy and the body to use: your felt sense of the body, or your sense of embodiment, and this is where we put it to work. Proprioception is where embodiment meets action.
If you are experiencing pain, even at a very low level, if you allow it to continue you are allowing it to affect your general awareness, coordination, and overall energy level. Staying healthy as musician requires putting in the effort of building awareness and taking action when we notice something has changed.
Earlier this year I took a certification in self myofascial release, which is essentially self massage with tools that are safe to be used around all our muscles and joints. If you have ever used a foam roller or lacrosse ball on a sore muscle, you have practiced self myofascial release. (If you’ve ever used a foam roller and found it way too uncomfortable, you might need a softer tool. If you are using a lacrosse ball, you definitely need a different tool as they are much too hard to be safe for all the muscles of the body!).
One of the biggest benefits of regular fascia work, which encourages the tissue to function correctly in the body, is a decrease in nociception and increase in proprioception. Even if you are playing your instrument a lot without experiencing pain or discomfort, you should still be addressing the muscles that are involved through fascia work or massage to keep them hydrated and working together in healthy ways.
As someone who regularly does yoga, I was fascinated to see what else myofascial release had to teach me about embodiment and proprioception. During my training I had amazing experiences of really feeling how various parts of the body work together where my previous knowledge had been very logical and textbook.
Since completing my training, I’ve used myofascial release to help alleviate migraines, tension headaches, and forearm, shoulder, and back pain. As someone who is obsessed with having the tools to navigate whatever challenges come up, learning how to address my sense of awareness and experience of discomfort this way is empowering and useful.
If you’re interested in how to build a greater sense of proprioception, I’d suggest checking out www.therollmodel.com. Or, send me a message! I love introducing these concepts to musicians and answering questions about their applicability and use.
If pain blocks awareness, then maybe the reverse is true - building awareness builds proprioception, which in turn builds the effectiveness and ease of the skills we work so hard to develop and maintain.
I think the world is too noisy. Always clamoring for our attention with solutions, suggestions, entertainment, distraction….
I have this feeling a lot. Most of the time, honestly. Usually I try to turn down what I can and keep plugging, feeling that if I drop out of the sea of voices online I won’t be able to claw my way back in. But it goes against my intuition and my preference for space, for quiet to keep up with the chatter all the time. Against my knowing that everything we have to say isn’t worth shouting, saving, or re-sharing.
I love introspective practices like yoga and meditation. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, or a mildly extroverted introvert.
It is not always easy to find, but one of the things I value most in life is the space to think and just be. It gets harder and harder to carve out as we get older, and in a culture of constant connection and sharing, so I do my best to intentionally make time to keep knowing how to be with myself. Even if we don’t enjoy it, it’s good for all of us to practice this.
Sometimes, though, even with a regular practice of just being, we still get swept up and swept away in the noise, and the events, and the ideas and images of other people’s lives.
Over the last month, I’ve really thrown myself into my reading habit. I always read a lot, but I know that when I go full bore with reading it’s often because I need to disconnect, to stop letting my attention be drawn to so many exterior places each day.
It’s not monumental to take time off from your phone or social media or the news, but did you every notice how often people do it and then follow up more noise? Maybe a list of things they’ve learned or ways they became a better, more balanced, more intentional person.
This weekend I made a point to stay off my phone as much as possible. I still answered messages from friends, emails, and I did open up social media apps once or twice.
None of that is monumental. It felt good - it felt like what should be closer to our baseline behavior around media. It feels silly to me to even write about doing something so simple, and annoying that it took so much intention to do it at first. After a day or so though, and as I always do, I realized how boring social media and the media is.
Don’t get me wrong, I love knowing what my friends are up to and it’s important to understand current events, but I would argue that most of our media consumption is neither of those things.
I love the accounts of creatives I admire who their writing, art, and inspiration, but you have to weed through a lot of stuff to get to them. It seems to me that the internet is a lot of people pitching side hustles, sharing their "wild successes”, and their brilliant, usually unoriginal ideas.
Of course I know I’m guilty of sharing revelations that are not necessarily new (like this one!). I love a good quote or a moment of self-realization. I enjoy sharing things that I find helpful in the hopes that someone else might also benefit from seeing a helpful tidbit at just the right, fortuitous moment.
But, if you take a step back for a little while and then re-enter the cacophony that is our day to day life, it is suddenly a giant echo chamber of people repeating ideas that sold for someone else, or mimicking videos and posts that went viral or gained a lot of attention. With a broader perspective, it becomes easier to see the redundancy of what is said in our news and social media feeds.
Sometimes it’s fun to participate, and a healthy dose of reality can make social media into a manageable, even enjoyable, part of life rather than a monster that looms over everything we do. It’s certainly harder to hold that healthy perspective when social media can help your work or business.
I find it hard to write on this topic without rambling. What I know is that it’s easy to feel drained by the internet when you love to be alone, and that I feel nostalgia for a time when all my hopes, dreams, and shortcomings weren’t presented in the pretty package of an app on my phone.
I also know that we always have more say in how outside voices influence us than we think. That it takes the same willpower muscles as practicing to exercise protection of our own emotions and of what is most important to us in our lives.
There isn’t going to be a list here of what I learned in my weekend (and hopefully longer) off from social media. I have no suggestions for cleaning up your habits or improving your relationship with your phone because we’re each different, and we’re not all prepared to face the habits that we know need changing that we have been avoiding (myself included).
I just know that we all need a little peace and quiet, and we need it a lot more often than the world leads us to believe. Our participation in the noise of the moment is not mandatory.
When was the last time you enjoyed a little silence?
There is a lot of conversation on the internet about all the things music school doesn’t teach us. The ways that it perpetuates unhealthy cycles that have been solidified over generations.
We don’t see a lot of discussion about what in our is right or good about the time we spend in music school. I don’t want to undermine what needs to change, but as I look back and reflect I’m realizing that one of the most valuable things about the time I spent in school was something I took completely for granted at the time.
It was so obvious to me as a freshman moving into an arts dorm - the joy of being surrounded by so many people who value the arts so deeply was new and exciting, and it spawned so many friendships.
Over the four, six, or even more years we spend in school we easily grow accustomed to having access to all the perks. Music libraries, musicians playing every instrument and style of music, amazing teachers and mentors, and friends who are also fully entrenched in figuring out how to be a musician.
When we leave school, it’s a sneaky shock to be removed from this artistic bubble. In my case, I was busy figuring out how to be a regular adult, not a student. I still had some connections to my previous school, was still traveling to take lessons, and was working as a musician.
Music hadn’t evaporated from my life by any means, but as time went on there was a growing sense of loneliness and disconnect. As a recent graduate working on my own most of the time, for the first time in years I was living in a world of mostly non-musicians.
As time has gone on I’ve been lucky to maintain friendships and find new belonging, but life often becomes fuller as we get older and if we’re going to find community in our lives it requires becoming much more intentional.
Research also tells us the benefit of being in a community, including that feeling supported by those around us helps calm and regulate our nervous system and create a deep, lasting feeling of safety.
While it would be ideal for all of us to find a community of people with our exact situation (for example, musicians who are also self-employed or freelancing) that’s not always possible. It can be just as good for our well-being to find communities around our other interests (exercise, mindfulness, cooking, coding … the list is endless).
In the way that friendships sometimes can as adults, making time for this type of community in your life can feel like work. It will require you to reach out to old friends, talk to new people, and leave the house at times when you would just like to curl up with a blanket and Netflix.
But, how much better would our art (and lives) be if we prioritized community? If we created a space for ourselves and those like us to rest in work or leisure? To commiserate over the difficulties of our work or forget them entirely and go for a hike, or to brainstorm crazy ideas with people are willing to genuinely encourage our creativity?
If I look back on the times that I really felt unmoored, I can see now the lack of community. When I took my yoga teacher training I was shocked at how having a group of friends I saw regularly and related to easily changed my day to day sense of wellbeing. Since then I do my best to remember the importance and value, even when it would be easier not to prioritize it.
Having a community reminds us of the big picture, what’s truly important, and affirms to us who we are at our core.
If you’re feeling frustrated in your work or pessimistic about your creative ventures, shift your focus and engage your community. If you’re not sure whether you have have one, start small and reach out to an old friend or mentor and ask how they’ve been. Make small talk with someone at your weekly yoga class or find a run club. Find a few people, or even just one, who can see you through your shared interests and then take note of the changes in your sense of safety and comfort.
A regularly updated list of books that are excellent for musicians, yogis, mindfulness practitioners, and humans.
The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten
The Flute Book by Nancy Toff
The Listening Book by W. A. Mathieu
Uncommon Measure by Natalie Hodges
Self Development for Creatives:
The Practice by Seth Godin
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Originals by Adam Grant
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
Drive by Daniel Pink
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick
Range by David Epstein
Mindfulness & Meditation:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
The Posture of Meditation by Will Johnson
Lighter by Yung Pueblo
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
Eastern Body Western Mind by Anodea Judith
Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Breath by James Nestor
The internet is so many things - a great source of information and inspiration, and also a chance to see how many people are already doing amazing versions of what you’d like to do.
That might sound cynical, but while I think we can find so much inspiration on the web, we can also feel defeated when we see our passions and ideas showing up in other people’s work.
Of course, it has been this way throughout history, and there are lots of famous examples of big discoveries happening simultaneously although only one person would end up being well known. It’s just that in 1800, the internet didn’t exist to let people know they weren’t alone in their genius.
In my case, I’m seeing the boom of mindfulness and wellness amongst musicians online at the same time that I am becoming more educated on these topics. It would be easy to feel like the ship has already sailed.
If we’re looking at it from this pessimistic point of view, then there are lots of things we could easily give up on. Playing the flute would be an obvious one - there are so many amazing flute players past and present, who needs one more?
In fact, I think that because there is so much available to us on the internet, we need people to continue to become experts and artists in places where there are also many other examples of success. It absolutely matters less what the most famous people are doing and more what you are doing to those who are close to you.
It is crucial for your students or peers to see you working hard and succeeding - it encourages them to think about what is possible.
It is impactful for you to build an interest in niche topics - it shows others the value in pursuing something meaningful even if our culture doesn’t prioritize it.
It is important for you to learn how to interpret and communicate through music - your playing will be a unique combination of your experiences and knowledge that leads to valuable performances and interpretations.
It is healthy for you to fail and succeed at something important - it both challenges you to grow and encourages you to keep going.
Beyond this, even though it can be hard to remember in the age of TikTok and Instagram, you are unique! There really isn’t anyone like you, although there will be others who are similar to you.
Your version of what you do, share, teach, and enjoy will be different than anyone else’s. And even if it somehow isn’t, it still matters.
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.