The end of the year is such a busy time for musicians, that it can often feel like a game of survivor. I haven’t spent as much time over the last few weeks thinking about teaching concepts as I have just making sure I don’t miss any rescheduled lessons or rehearsals.
The thing that has been on my mind though is how little interest I have in social media when I’m this busy. I still share things and browse a bit, but the amount of time (and the amount of available brain space) I have is so reduced that it’s a great reminder what activities in our work lives (and personal lives) really matter the most.
How much time should I really be spending on social media and content, even when I’m not this busy?
It’s an important question to ask.
When Facebook and Instagram became popular I had very little interest in either. My interest in Instagram increased when I decided to dedicate a page to my studio, teaching, and performing. It’s fun to curate my ideas about music and teaching (which is also a big reason why I blog) and I enjoy creating posts that look nice together.
Even though it’s enjoyable to share on a nice looking Instagram feed, the last few weeks have me wondering if that time wouldn’t be better spent on my website or (gasp!) real life art and music.
Although I try to be really mindful of how and what I share, I often think like a lot of what I see on social media is phony, super watered down, or just not very useful. Given that outlook, it’s easy for me to feel like there’s not much of a point to generating content.
There are truly authentic and interesting musicians I’ve met online, or have been introduced to by friends via Instagram. They’re really interesting people and I feel like I learn a lot from them - but it can be so hard to find these types of people when you have to weed through so much stuff.
When I run out of steam to share and try to connect, it’s often because of that feeling of sifting through a lot of junk to find a few treasures. Who could possibly find the content I do create in this sea of messiness?
All of these seemingly discouraging aspects of social media have actually made me feel much better about the ebb and flow of sharing and about using resources outside of social media like my website and a monthly newsletter. I am reminded that not posting when I’m too busy for it, when I'm disinterested, or just not wanting to learn to make reels is ok.
If I’m going to be authentic in what I share, that means I need to be real in both the actual content and when/how I post. Perhaps this also means not going with the crowd, but using a platform or format that feels like it fits me better. Maybe I will reach less people this way, but it seems like those interactions would be more genuine and meaningful.
Nothing we do works unless it’s in alignment with our personal ideals, morals and motives. The world would have us believe we should all look alike and share in the same ways all the time, but that’s impossible and boring!
What are some ways you could get creative online that would feel authentic to you?
The best way for you to use social media, have a music career, or do anything is to do it like you.
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.
Many musicians feel like playing their instrument is home - we are encouraged to view our instrument as an extension of ourselves, a part of our voice. And truly, it can be a very organic expression of our thoughts and feelings.
But what happens when playing your instrument doesn’t feel comfortable?
When you are growing as a musician, inevitably, you will have periods of time that you are making adjustments and questioning how you play or what you want to do in your career. Those times of experimentation and discovery are crucial for growth, but they can leave us feeling unsettled.
If you’re a student who is about to graduate or someone who has newly entered the “real world” after music school, you may relate to that feeling of being misplaced in a big way. We are offered so many amazing resources in school - ensembles, mentors, peers, chamber music, plentiful practice time - that when we are suddenly removed from that environment it is quite jarring.
In my own life, I’ve gone through several of these moor-less periods, both in and out of school. They are often connected to times when I feel my playing is shifting and changing. Somehow, it seems that feeling a newness or discomfort in my routine of flute playing reflects a much bigger shift in my life.
And I suppose that it’s true - we grow and change over the course of our lives, and that affects the way we approach being a musician.
There are obvious examples and many, many more subtle ones. Leaving school and still needing to grow as a musician without somewhere to perform is a large hurdle. Realizing that you have dedicated a lot of time to something that hasn’t helped you grow as a person or musician the way you’d hoped feels like a monumental observation. Dedicating time and effort to your health will change how you feel in your body and affect your playing.
In the past, and especially when I was a recent graduate, this feeling that a tether, to a place or the way I did things in the past, had been severed seemed to present only one option. To dig in with resolve and forge ahead doing what I was told to do in school or to keep doing the same things I had been and wait for the feeling to pass.
But now, I’m realizing that these phases are a call to create a new home in myself. A new sense of belonging, whether that is in leaving something that has run its course behind or trusting the musical skills I have cultivated as a flutist over my life since I was eight.
One of the most exciting things to me about a life in music was that I had choices. I could build a career out of the things that spoke to me, create a unique schedule and follow uncharted paths.
But as music students and young professionals, there is a distinct message that to be respected and successful you really must follow the things that speak to you on a sometimes unspoken but traditional path … orchestral work, music administration, college teaching, etc..
In choosing to deviate from what's expected, it can become hard to resist the feelings of self-criticism or concern about how you will be viewed professionally, even when you know you don’t want to do something that is admired.
I have challenged myself this year to pursue the things that really speak to me. I have left a few things behind or said no to things that I would have jumped at five years ago. In some ways, it has made me feel much freer to understand the parts of music that I am not meant for right now. In other ways, it has handed a microphone to that tiny critical voice that says things like “you are only doing something else because you are not good enough to truly be 'successful'.”
What I wish I would have realized as a young musician is that the tiny critical voice, that sometimes shouts very loudly, is usually just fear.
When you pinpoint what it is you truly want, is it surprising that fear shows up to say, “but what if you can’t actually do it?”
If you are facing big decisions, allow yourself to sit with your fear. Will you be guaranteed to succeed if you make a change? No, but will you grow and learn? Will you be doing something you can genuinely be invested in?
If you are a student or a new graduate, allow yourself to sit with your fear. Ask yourself what careers and who you admire, then ask yourself why.
If you understand your why, then you will be able to follow it to the path that’s meant for you.
Find a quiet space where you feel safe. Close your eyes and feel your breath, listen to the sounds around you and then go inward. Be open and notice what shows up.
It’s not simple, but you have to remember that in life and in music, no one holds all the answers for you. You have what you need to create the space that feels like home, but you have to be willing to hold that space for yourself. No one else can do it for you.
We hear a lot about how playing an instrument is so beneficial because of all the ways it activates our brain.
We are not simply learning to play the flute in our studies, but rather to physically hold the instrument, use the correct finger combinations, count rhythms, maintain tempo, remember the key signature, understand the context of what we are playing……you get the point.
It’s no wonder that we can often find ourselves mentally overwhelmed as our playing becomes more advanced and we continue to try and dissect each of these tasks to critique our progress.
Have you ever found yourself thinking so hard about something you want to do while playing that you can’t seem to come anywhere close to it? Maybe you have repeated something so many times and found so many reasons to critique yourself that everything sounds wrong - like a word that you’ve said out loud so much that it doesn’t even sound like a word anymore. Or, you could have experienced questioning something you've done a thousand times, like playing a high F#.
These are all common examples of overthinking for many musicians.
When we put too much emphasis on our evaluation of each and every skill, we begin to negate the neuroplasticity that happens through learning. We spend all our practice time in an effort to be able to consistently (and automatically) repeat the actions needed to play well, and then undermine all the work we have done with our perfectionistic overanalyzing.
So how do you begin to trust the actions and skills that you have cultivated?
You fully experience them.
Instead of thinking about what you are doing when playing, you have to begin to feel it. To hand over the nit-picking in exchange for focusing on this exact moment.
If we can be open to the present moment we become grounded in the body. We trust ourselves. And if we can stay in the moment, we open the door to an effortless flow state that allows all the skills we have cultivated to come to the surface because we no longer stand in their way.
Try it - what happens if you play your instrument and truly focus on the feeling of playing in this exact moment? How is it different than thinking about all the ways the current moment could be better?
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.