We are all aware that nothing is perfect. Logically, we know this is true and yet we continue to strive for perfection anyway. The dissonance this creates can be pervasive for musicians - we desperately want perfect response, performances, stage presence and technique even as we are fully aware that absolute perfection is impossible.
This disconnect between what we want and what we know is possible can leave us with a distinct dissatisfaction; a nagging feeling that we are not capable of what we hope to achieve.
So if we’re not really striving for perfection, what are we working toward?
In Terry Orlick’s book “The Pursuit of Excellence” he emphasizes connected focus. In a solitary sport or pursuit, this means being fully connected to the task at hand. But there are a variety of layers to this - in chamber music, it could be connecting to your fellow musicians; in teaching it might mean to focus on fully connecting with your students through what you are teaching. It could even mean focused listening when you are the audience and not the performer.
Having this connected focus in mind has proven incredibly helpful for me in tying together elements of mindfulness and yoga with my musical practice and performance, and particularly helpful in learning to work with and through performance anxiety.
Last weekend, I hosted a big event for around fifty flutists. Beyond organizing and coordinating, I had three performances spanning across the entire day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a concerto performance in the evening. My biggest anxieties about the day were tied to my ability to maintain my focus with so many important things happening at once, and how my attention might hijack those performances.
Leading up to the day I made sure to stick to my regular meditation practice because I knew it would help me to manage racing and distracting thoughts (among other benefits), but I also made an added priority of connected focus. I imagined the ways I would connect with attendees, focus on the message of the music or the other musicians I was performing with, and how I would stay present to the overall message of the music and the day. When the big day finally arrived, I did my best to do all of those things in the moment.
Were my performances perfect? Absolutely not. Neither was the day. But they were both meaningful, connective, and engaged. I rolled with the punches in both performance and coordinating as best I could and focused on the desired outcome that a connected focus would bring.
Overall, I had an easier time accessing my focus and accepting the things that did not go as well as I might have hoped.
Of course I’m still a human (and a musician), and after the fact I found myself ruminating on some of those imperfections even though I was managing my emotions better than I might have in the past.
In the days following the event I was reading “Think Again” by Adam Grant, and in one of the chapters he talks about embracing imperfections - even going as far as to acknowledge or advertise them. (The book gives the example of applying for a job and not camouflaging things that you know might be viewed as detriments). Grant’s point is that by acknowledging weaknesses and getting them out of the way we can focus on emphasizing our strengths fully.
This connected with my recent experience in a small light bulb moment. I don’t have to get up on stage and announce my weaknesses to the audience, but I can take Grant’s advice when preparing for or reflecting on this situation and future events and performances.
If I acknowledge my weaknesses, noting what could have been better and, most importantly, what I can learn from them, I can move forward with more ease and more growth toward my goal of connected focus.
In the heat of performance this approach of accepting imperfections while maintaining connected focus helps me to release the past and stay in the present with my mind on the right things. When I’m working with a student it allows me to do a better job of staying a curious listener that is engaged in what they are saying and experiencing.
The most valuable thing we have to gain is the ability to see ourselves as musicians with more perspective and balance. To see both the things that need work as well as the things we do well. To have the opportunity to make sure that we are learning from both our imperfections and our strengths equally.
Did you ever notice that when you think too hard about how much there is to be done it seems completely impossible to do it all in the time you have available?
And yet, every time we have this feeling, if we start putting one foot in front of the other, things get done. Miraculously (with a little perseverance) time after time the work gets done.
None of this is new information - we’ve all heard this before: just getting started, do one thing, the two minute rule (if you can do it in two minutes or less, get it done).
Even though we know it though, don’t we all forget? How many times have you had the rising feeling of panic about getting it all done, or procrastinated because it felt impossible to finish everything you needed to do anyway?
I have that tendency to languish in all the tasks that lay ahead. Not for very long, but I always do. There are studies about how whining makes us feel better, so I’ll chock that tendency up to science. Once I get it out of my system and get started, though, the work is the enjoyable part. It feels good to get things done, make progress on a new piece, or see consistency develop in my playing.
I’m in a busy season, and I’ve definitely had my short-lived whining moments (which feel pretty good, if I’m being honest). But now that I’m getting things done I’m reminded that they enjoyment really comes from knowing that you can.
If you’re feeling stuck right now, this blog is a little nudge to take a step forward, even if it’s a small one. Momentum creates momentum.
Time to go practice.
“If I’m suffering, there is something I’m not mindful of.”
Dan Harris said this on an episode of the Ten Percent Happier Podcast this week and I actually said “Oh,” out loud when I heard it. One of those moments where it feels like the author or speaker had you in mind when they thought to say this particular thing.
I want to clarify here that Dan Harris was talking about suffering in the Buddhist sense, not the type of human suffering we see in war or medical illness. In Buddhism, suffering (also called dukkha) is thought to exist because of dissatisfaction we create for ourselves - because we crave or desire things we don’t have and look past what is in the present moment. Not being open to change and trying to hold on to the past or an idea of the future can also cause dukkha. (This is paraphrasing, of course, and this is an interesting concept worth exploring more).
I’ve spent this whole week feeling tense and jittery, and also preoccupied with some big performances that are coming up.
All week I kept trying to push those feelings away thinking, I’ve worked SO hard on my mindset and focus for the last two years, why do I still feel like this? I am preparing well and I’m not unhappy with how I’m sounding, I’m meditating and paying attention to my mindset around performance, and I’m doing my best to maintain my sleep hygiene and eating healthy meals.
As I listened to this particular episode of the TPH podcast, it occurred to me that, yes I have done a lot of work, but there were so few demands on me as a performing musician during the early part of the pandemic and it was the least work I’ve had to do I the last, um, almost twenty years. So, although I feel like I’ve sorted a bunch of stuff out, I’m still human.
What was I not being mindful of that was leading to suffering? My suffering this week was coming from the expectation that I would never be frazzled again because I’d done some work (even typing that seems totally ridiculous!).
I wasn’t being mindful of the situation - yes I am applying things I have practiced, but in a completely new set of circumstances.
With a little perspective, it seems appropriate that facing my first concerto performance since the pandemic might feel a little stressful even if I’m mindful and focused.
So now the task at hand is applying the things I’m learning to do better while allowing myself to feel the stress.
It’s not bad to feel nervous or concerned - what matters is my ability to flip the focus around to the right things. To allow the emotions to come up and pass away because they are just emotions - not facts.
How many times have you caught yourself searching the internet for an answer? Or, just for "a little more" information?
Most of us use the internet this way all the time without even thinking twice.
You might want to know what spice to substitute when you are missing an ingredient. Perhaps you are looking for information about a piece or composer, or you aren’t feeling well and have taken a deep dive on WebMD looking for the reason.
We’re curious creatures, and there is a lot we want to know. Learning is for a lifetime. It's good for us, and helps us become better at our jobs and being human.
But I don’t really believe our desire to learn is the ultimate driver of endless internet searching.
What I really believe moves us to look endlessly for all these types of answers is our desire for an easy solution.
Surely with all the information that’s out there someone can tell me exactly why my high G sharps are not centered or consistent. There has to be somewhere on the internet that could solve that, right?
I am as guilty of this type of searching as the next person - self improvement newsletters, books, and websites are a dime a dozen. It is so enticing to think that the answer is already out there somewhere.
Why do you think everyone can make so much money online selling courses and programs?
On the flip side of finding the easy solutions is hours of time spent searching and very little time spent experiencing.
(Please don’t get me wrong, we can find a lot of helpful information on the internet - obviously I hope that my blog is helpful! - but at some point we need to try for ourselves.)
If I'm being honest, most of my internet searches leave me with a feeling of having all the information and no solid answer. That's because so much of what we understand and are able to do is dependent on our own personal experience.
Lately, I have consciously put a lot of energy and focus on stepping away from the unlimited resources that are available online and exploring my own personal resources: experience, the tangible feelings of practice, and investigating possible solutions by accessing the information I already have and my experiences in the moment.
Doing this hasn't gotten me anywhere quickly, but it has moved me infinitely further ahead than spending hours looking for someone to tell me how to fix those G sharps.
We don’t move forward by simply reading or watching how someone else has done it. We have to feel our way through. Only by building on our own experiences do we continue to step forward.
Have you ever noticed yourself gearing up in a huge way for something - taking a shot in basketball, playing a high note or fast passage on your instrument, taking a really important test - only to not reach the outcome you wanted despite the intense amount of effort and energy you’re expending? You might have been tensing, bearing down, holding your breath, overthinking, etc..
This tendency shows up in lots of our activities, and often in the ones that are most important to us. Although I think it often feels like over-exerting, I’ve come to identify it as reaching.
If I relate this specifically to flute playing, I see it in my students (and myself) physically as lifting the shoulders, leaning forward, gripping or pressing too hard, or overblowing. It might also show up as predictive failure before an attempt is even made, or playing cautiously instead of really going for it.
What all of these ways that we over-exert or reach have in common with each other is that they pull us physically up out of our bodies and into our heads. They demand a lot of physical work from us, and trick us into feeling like we’re doing something productive. If we are reaching in a mental capacity, it makes the mind busy and gives us plenty to think about including all the ways we could fail.
If you don’t play the flute (or another musical instrument), and even if you do, you might relate this to gripping the steering wheel extra hard in traffic, leaning close to your desk to take a test, or clenching your jaw when you are stressed.
None of these actions make a particularly positive impact, but they can placate our nerves and give us a sense of working toward achievement.
In my own playing I see myself reaching when I am stressed or nervous, when I am putting a lot of pressure on the outcome, and especially when things are changing.
Over the last few years I’ve got through a growth spurt in my playing. (Yes, I believe this can happen any time in our playing careers - after all, we are always learning!)
After experiencing some intense performance (and subsequently some general) anxiety, I was reaching in a lot of places in my life. I was operating in survival mode which lead to some playing habits that were not in line with my desired goal of neutral ease.
Meditation, yoga, and especially understanding and shifting my mindset have helped tremendously for me. I see my playing changing and the mental fog lifting - no growing pains last forever. I still catch myself reaching, but it’s an exception instead of the norm way more often now.
So, what are the ways we reach?
Signs you might be reaching:
This list is not comprehensive. There are a myriad of ways we reach and overthink. Some of them are subtle, some are relevant only when we perform a specific action. Some of them may only be relevant when we play a specific passage or note.
As always, you know yourself best. You are probably already aware of these places where you consciously or subconsciously put on the armor of extra tension or thought. Observe yourself and let your own body and mind point you to places where you can let go and look for a neutral path.
My journey toward not reaching in my music actually began while I was still a student.
I was so fortunate to study with Jean Ferrandis, who is an incredible musician, but also a master of neutral. Jean’s way of teaching and playing the flute is built around using the body in a neutral and easeful way.
Even before I started practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation, I was learning to observe myself and become grounded from my lessons with Jean. When I find that I am reaching in music or life I am always drawn back to what I learned studying with him.
Below are some of my favorite ways to take things I am reaching for from effort to ease. They come from my studies with Jean, my practice of meditation and yoga, and my own experience pulling it all together. They work for flute, for music, and for day to day life.
Be On You: This is something that I heard again and again from Jean. It is the foundation of not reaching. He always insisted that we must remain who we are when we play the music, and that we physically stay on ourselves. No pretending, leaning, pulling, or reaching.
Don’t Search: Have a clear picture of what you want. In life, from a note, in a performance, from a conversation. If you know with vivid detail the color, texture, and feel of what you want the result to be your chances of obtaining it are much better.
Enjoy: This should be self explanatory, but when we are reaching we are rarely having a good time. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to understand and make music and to communicate through it. Even when we are working hard, we can enjoy.
Don’t Force: If you only think about blowing and you blow with aggressive force to create, the air will destroy your sound and phrase. The music and your air are one and the same. Move the air lightly and freely while keeping the music in your mind. Think ahead to where the music is going and hear it before you play it.
Right Effort: This is a term that I learned from George Mumford and I think of it often when I catch my mind reaching. If we’re allowing our thoughts to take over and run wild we are not in the present moment, and we’re probably not doing our best. We can be attentive to what our thoughts are doing and remind ourselves to come back to the present and make right effort.
Trust: Do the work to understand the music and yourself. Freedom comes from that work and understanding. Trust the work you have done. Trust yourself.
Your Concentration Must Be Large: These are Jean’s words, but this could have just as easily come from Mindfulness Meditation teachings. The overarching idea being to see the whole space of the mind, or the whole scope of the music, so that we are able to be discerning, stay present, and keep going. If we focus on any one thing too hard (a note, an audition, a conversation) it overtakes everything and becomes so important that we lose our ability to have equanimity.
To Miss Is To Be Free: It is actually desirable to miss or make a mistake because we are trying, taking a risk, testing an idea, or saying some thing honest.
A Powerful Center Brings Freedom: I have this in my notes from a class with Jean. He was talking about our physical core being active to allow the rest of the body to be free. We could also see this from a mental perspective, that a strong mental center brings freedom from our thoughts.
You Are Always Powerful And Full Of Energy: This idea has found a place at the core of how I play and also how I think about life. We have what we need - we have the capabilities, the awareness, and the ability to grow. In playing, our body is already full of energy - there is no need to create more.
Of course knowing all these things and understanding these concepts doesn’t mean that we are always able to integrate them. Even though I learned them a long time ago, I still sometimes catch myself reaching. Like mindfulness teaches us, the moment of noticing is mindfulness, not the absence of something. From that moment we can move forward with awareness.
The next time you catch yourself reaching, take a mental step back. Assess the situation, be “on you” and try focusing on the outcome instead of the effort. It’s ok if you miss.
Usually when I reach the point in the week where I write the first draft of the blog I share every Thursday (or Friday if I'm behind!) I have had something on my mind…about teaching, mindfulness, performance, yoga, practice…that I want to explore.
Something that I feel needs discussed, that would be helpful to me, or helpful to other musicians.
Everyone once in a while I have to fish around notes I have made to myself of things I was saving to explore on a rainy day.
And then (thankfully not very often) there are weeks like this week where I feel like I have absolutely nothing to write about, unless the internet would like to read my to-do list(s).
My brain is overflowing this week. Full. Completely stuffed.
And not with good ideas. Well, maybe a few good ideas. But it’s also full of emails that need written, academic hierarchies I don’t yet understand, organizational concerns and tasks, overwhelm at parts of large projects that are out of my control, music that needs learned, and practice time that is lost to immediate tasks at hand like remaining mentally present in lessons with my students.
This week I solved very few outstanding issues, did not make much headway on my own projects, and still owe a lot of people emails.
I bet this is where you’re expecting me to say that it's totally ok, right?
But it’s not (I like to keep things spontaneous around here).
I’d like to think that I’m doing my best to keep up with what I expect from myself (and what I need to get done) but I’m actually just hanging onto my life raft with one pinky toe and splashing wildly this week.
It’s been several years since I’ve had this type of demand on my time, and the reality is that I didn’t adjust accordingly. Some course correction is now required.
At some point this week I realized the thing that wasn’t working right was me. (Note that I didn't realize I can't do it, just that I haven't been.)
I have been asking my brain to switch tasks too often, putting off easy emails that could have been done days ago, overthinking things just long enough to not make any headway before I had to move on to something else.
Ouch. It’s painful to realize we are working against ourselves.
There’s no grand moral to this story, other than the fact that I’m grateful I’ve been cultivating awareness in my life because if it could have taken so much longer to level with myself and who knows how far downstream I would have been then, life raft nowhere to be seen.
Once I figured out that it was me in the way, and how I was slowing myself down, it got easier to make better choices.
I bought a cube timer so that I wasn’t relying on my phone or Apple Watch, which meant I could put those items down or change the mode.
Along those lines, I finally set the work focus on my iPhone (I have been using the sleep focus since it came out and love it - why did it take me so long to set it for work?!)
I started waking up just a little earlier each day. Definitely not to workout at 5am or practice before the sun comes up, but just enough to shower and have coffee earlier so that practicing and other important tasks could also happen earlier, etc.
None of these things are going to get me on track right away, but combined with an awareness of what I'm doing they will help. I’m also not suggesting that any of these solutions are right for your predicament. If you're lucky, you don't even have a predicament!
Hopefully, you are having an awesome week and totally killing it at absolutely everything you're doing. That just wasn’t me this week. It’s not really ok, but it’s also not the worst and it’s definitely not permanent.
Except for this being an adult thing - that is going to stick around.
For at least the past two years I’ve chosen a “word of the year” instead of making new year’s resolutions.
I’m not against resolutions - I think we should all use the momentum of change that comes with a fresh calendar in whatever way works for us. It’s great to have a push toward the things that we have been thinking about or desiring for our lives.
I love setting a word for the year because it provides a foundation to build on all year long; a thoughtful theme for all of my actions and experiences. Whatever word I choose can apply to my personal and professional goals, and my relationships with others and with myself.
Choosing a word allows me to focus on positive ways I would like to move forward by keeping a feeling or action in mind that I would like to bring into my daily life. It also helps with reflecting on the experiences I have, whether they’re good or bad, with a healthy distance because I can look through the lens of the word.
When I’m selecting a word for the year, I try not to force a choice. A lot of times something will happen, a conversation will spark inspiration, or I will read something that jumps out at me as the catalyst for my word choice. Going into 2022, that didn’t seem like it was going to happen.
I didn’t want to select my word out of thin air - I wanted to know I could weave it into all the things I have coming up in the new year, as well as the personal goals I have for myself.
I spent some time reflecting on what went well in 2021, and where I want to grow in 2022. I gave a lot of thought to a few exciting events and projects happening this year and what I think I need to cultivate to both do well at them and enjoy them.
And then I dove down the rabbit hole that is the thesaurus. I spent some time sorting through words that came to mind looking for one that had the right feel and fit.
Eventually I landed on spirit. It’s a word with many definitions, but this is the version that spoke to me:
1. the result of a positive and confident attitude 2. essence of courage, enthusiasm, and determination 3. energy, playfulness
I love the action of this word, and the way it reminds me that I can choose the attitude I bring to every situation. It reminds me that I can enjoy my experiences for what they are, and that it’s not just my abilities that matter but the essence of what I do, how I do it, and who I am.
So, here’s to living with spirit in 2022. And, a little encouragement to choose a word for yourself if you haven’t (it doesn’t need to be January 1st for this exercise to give you a boost toward how you want to feel and act in your life!).
Even when we are not particularly busy, somehow life can feel chaotic or overwhelming. There are always messages to answer, we are bombarded with images of all the cool things everyone else is doing, and we are generally over-stimulated.
For musicians, this feeling of overwhelm can come from regular practice thoughts, anxiety about upcoming performances, or general concerns about unpredictable income streams. If you are a music student, you may feel engulfed by the sheer volume of work and practicing you need to do.
Personally, I find myself in this buzzy, underlying feeling of overwhelm almost every January. I mind the dreary winter weather and I hate being cold. After a season of busy holiday festivities and gigs, trying to get organized for a new year of teaching and performances can be daunting. I feel like my mind, and my office, are scattered and messy!
We all have a lot to face these days, but when your work depends on your ability to show up hyper focused for practicing, rehearsing, teaching or performing, the strain of distraction takes on a new meaning.
In times that you are feeling overwhelmed I’d like to invite you to build something. A container, for yourself. A physical or mental space (ideally, both) where you can declutter and find sanctuary. Your physical container could be a room, park, or coffee shop where you feel safe. Your mental container should be a way to get in touch with yourself instead of allowing responsibilities or expectations to take your attention and run.
Sounds idyllic, right?
I actually think that this is practical and available for all of us. So how do we do it?
Pay attention to how you’re feeling. This might mean being with some uncomfortable emotions like stress, anxiety or disappointment. Only by identifying these things for what they are can we unarm them and move past them.
Don’t expect perfection. This is true for yourself and everyone around you. We’re all human and that means nothing will ever be perfect. Embrace imperfection as part of the experience of life.
Indulge in something you enjoy. No, I don’t mean an online shopping spree. Pick something small that you love and really enjoy it. Maybe it’s your first sip of coffee, or holding a warm mug. It could be the ten minutes you carve out to read before bed, or a morning jog. Truly indulge in the whole experience of this activity.
Check in with yourself. Ideally, this is in a way that you could do it anywhere. Maybe it’s taking a deep breath or focusing on the air leaving your nostrils. It could be becoming present to feeling the bottom of your feet. Pick something that works for you that you could do on stage, in the classroom, or by yourself.
These are just suggestions of ways we can create a container for ourselves - a place to feel and recognize our emotions and situation. Do what works for you that supports your wellbeing.
The goal is not to escape, but rather to help yourself find a way to be in the present moment with a clear head.
2020 kicked my love of reading into high gear. As the year progressed I needed something to look forward to that wasn’t on my phone or the internet. Although I was practicing, it wasn’t fitting the bill - it came with it’s own baggage at the time, since we had no idea when we could perform again (and because we know that while practicing can be enjoyable it's not necessarily relaxing).
Reading became the perfect quarantine activity and escape, and I ended 2020 having read 63 books, deeply in love with reading in a way I hadn’t been since childhood.
I love using Goodreads to keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. They also allow you to set a reading challenge for yourself each year of how many books you’d like to read. Coming out of 2020 I couldn’t know how a busier schedule would play out for my reading habit, so I stuck with a goal of reading 40 books in 2021.
As it turned out, I still loved having something to focus on that wasn’t on my phone, or related to work or the breaking news of the minute, and ended the year with a total of 53 books read.
Overall, I read mostly non-fiction in 2021. There were a number of books I read that were genuinely impactful on my day to day actions and that I plan to read again. I hope that you find some of these helpful, or just plain enjoyable as well.
Looking ahead at 2022, I’ve set a Goodreads goal for at least 50 books. However many books I read this year, I hope I continue to love reading just as much or even more.
What books have you loved recently? What are you planning to read? Let me know so I can build my list for 2022!
For now, on to the best books of last year (in no particular order)!
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal
There were several books I read this year that I think should be required reading for college students, especially students facing high stakes performance fields (medicine, music, law, etc.). The Upside of Stress is one of these books. McGonigal unwinds our cultural perception that all stress is bad by teaching us about mindsets and the different types of stress responses we might have. She lays out practical ways we can begin to shift our relationship with stress and understand our reactions.
Throughout the book McGonigal acknowledges that there are types of stress that can wreak havoc on our mind and body, but that much of the stress we encounter in our lives is something we can use to move forward and grow if we understand it. This book was easy to absorb and the suggestions it gives are easily applied as many of them are shifts in mindset.
Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
Peak Mind made its way into my favorites this year for its approachable, science-backed endorsement of the benefits of meditation on attention. This is an excellent book for anyone who is skeptical about the tangible advantages of meditation. Jha walks us through the experiences of skeptics, including herself, who find calm and awareness through daily meditation, and also shows us the research behind why just 12 minutes a day can be enough to make a positive impact.
In our fast moving and attention-seeking culture, this book does an excellent job of heralding the benefits of meditation for our distracted minds, as we as suggesting how you can get started if you’d like to try.
Added bonus: Jha has also done a number of extremely informative and interesting podcast interviews for anyone who’d like a preview of her research and perspectives.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This book was an unexpected favorite. (I can’t even recall where I saw it recommended.) I’ve never liked running, but a lifetime of practicing my instrument and growing as a musician feels like its own kind of marathon. What I loved so much about this memoir was Murakami’s thoughtful reflection on how running over the course of his life allowed him to reflect on his experiences and tie them together. He eloquently describes the personal growth and reflection that comes from pursuing something that can’t be achieved quickly, or maybe ever, to the level you would like. I loved how he touched on the way all the parts of our lives are connected.
I think anyone dedicated to an art form or athletic pursuit would enjoy this meaningful reflection.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
James Clear writes one of my favorite weekly newsletters and has one of my favorite accounts to follow on social media. His claim to fame is codifying existing research and breaking it down into actionable steps and digestible pieces of information that are meant to improve our daily lives and help us develop, well, atomic habits.
It would be impossible to summarize this book in the amount of space I’d like to use here. It includes so much useful information about our behaviors and suggestions that we can implement, I’m certain you couldn’t apply it all in just one read.
Throughout the book I found myself inspired to make small adjustments and reconsider how I thought about and approached my daily habits and routines. This is definitely one to read more than once - I’m sure that I will take new things away from it each time.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
This was a book I couldn’t put down.
The Tiger reads like fiction but is a completely true story about a man eating tiger that took place in Siberia in the late 90s. I was fascinated by the culture, the Russian history the book provides, and the relationship people who live in Russia’s far east have with the tigers that share the region. This book includes cultural perspective, history, and educates the reader on conservation and the protection of tigers living in the wild all wrapped up into the excellent storytelling of this real life thriller.
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety is another that I believe all college students (and adults) should read. In the way that McGonigal’s Upside of Stress breaks down how we can use our understanding of stress to work with it, Brewer outlines how we can unravel the cyclical experiences of anxiety we can get stuck in through understanding how it works.
I found this book helpful in working through my own performance anxiety and have it high on my list of books to read again. Like other books I loved this year, Unwinding Anxiety provides actionable steps and clear explanations that make it approachable and useful. It also encourages the embodiment of our experiences, much like we would in meditation or breathwork, as a way of facing our feelings of anxiety.
Breath by James Nestor
Although this is the only book on breathing I’m including in my “best of” list, I actually read six books on breathing and breathwork in 2021, which has become a topic of fascination for me. Understanding the way our modern lives have affected how we breathe and why it’s so important is something that could benefit anyone, and Nestor’s book is a great starting point.
Learning about the all implications of how we breathe has brought up so many questions for me about why wind instrumentalists aren’t thinking about the breath outside of how we inhale and exhale to produce a sound.
Nestor’s book takes us through his own experience of breathwork and through his reasearch to understand all the ways the breath affects our mind and body. It’s enlightening and enjoyable to read - my top recommendation from 2021!
When the school year started I was craving a simplified way to share online. I wanted to write something useful that didn’t require constant engagement, so I started a monthly newsletter.
Over the past few months, I’ve really enjoyed figuring out what to include in it as I added a section for student events/accomplishments, my favorite book each month and a mindful moment with an exercise for increased physical or mental awareness.
For my last blog of 2021 (how did we get here?!) I thought it would be fun to recap all the Mindful Moments from the newsletter. There are only a few this year, but they are all things I do regularly and appreciate in my own life.
I try to post a blog every Thursday, and there is technically one left for the year after today. Instead of a blog next week, though, I’m planning to add several more “freebies” on my site that will be printable for all newsletter subscribers. If you aren’t subscribed to the newsletter yet, it will be a good one!
If this is your first blog, if you have read a few, or if you read often I’m grateful that you’re here. Thanks for sharing a little corner of the internet with me.
Now, on to the main event!
Mindful Moments of 2021
September - Time For A Stretch Break!
Have you noticed the tendency of those around you to crane their neck forward as they read on their phones? Maybe you notice yourself doing it!
Or, have you ever caught yourself pushing your head forward to meet your flute?
There is an epidemic of this forward neck position in our modern culture thanks to computers and phones (text neck, anyone?).
Any time we habitually use a muscle in a certain way, for better or worse, we create a pattern and pathway of movement. Repetitive motion reinforces the pattern of movement.
As a result of modern devices, most of us have a lack of mobility in the cervical spine.
So, what can we do to counteract text neck and regain mobility?
Simple neck stretches:
Sit or stand comfortably. Stack your ribs, chest and head over top of your hips.
Let your right ear drop toward your right shoulder. Release the weight of your head to the right. Repeat on the left side.
Let your chin drop toward your chest. Release the weight of your head down.
Look up, always making sure you can swallow. If you lose the ability to swallow, you've gone to far. Take a few deep breaths in and out through the nose as you look up.
Baby back bend:
Stand or sit comfortably with your arms at your sides. Inhale and reach your arms up and overhead bringing the palms together.
As you exhale, press down through your feet (or let your weight sink into the chair) and reach back slightly with the finger tips.
Inhale to reach back up to center.
Exhale to release the arms down.
Repeat two or three more times.
Easy keyboard/phone break:
In a sitting or standing position, bring your arms behind your lower back for a light bind, allowing the hands to rest on opposite forearms.
Take three long, slow breaths in and out through the nose.
Switch arms and repeat.
October - Create Space With Alignment
Last month's mindful moment helped us check in with our cervical spine - the part of our upper back and neck most affected by our use of modern devices.
Keeping our attention on the spine, this month we're considering the natural shape of the spine and how we can adjust our standing or sitting habits to allow the natural curves of the spine.
Did you know that the spine is not straight? This is an example of where body mapping can be tremendously helpful in our every day lives.
Although we might think of the spine as rigid, it is actually quite flexible. Its natural curves help us move freely and alleviate pressure on the delicate parts of the body it protects.
Because many of us sit and stand in a variety of unatural positions for most the of the day - think text neck, slouched forward when standing, leaning over a desk - we lose touch with how to create alignment in the spine comfortably.
Being in alignment shouldn't require us to exert extra energy, rather we should be able to let the body do what it is meant to do naturally.
So how can you create comfortable alignment?
Stack up in an Easy Seat:
Sitting down with both feet on the floor (or cross legged), find your ischial tuberosity or sit bones (the two pointy bones you can feel pressing into the chair).
Release your weight into the chair, letting it press down evenly through both sit bones. Relax the muscles around your hips and the muscles in your legs.
Notice where your rib cage is in relation to your hips. If it is in front of or behind the hips and sit bones, bring the ribs in line with the hips and sit bones.
Notice the alignment of the chest, then bring the chest in line with the ribs, the hips and the sit bones.
Notice the alignment of your head and bring it to rest on top of your chest, ribs, hips and sit bones.
Stay and breathe in and out through the nose slowly in this posture for at least five breaths.
The biggest benefit of this exercise is awareness. How does you spine feel now compared to before? How is this different than how you usally sit or stand?
You can recreate this alignment anywhere - even when standing!
November - Accepting Without Judgement
Something musicians struggle with that I believe we can all relate to is self-criticism. Being a musician requires that we critique our abilities in an effort to improve. Too often, though, that objective critical eye turns entirely to self-judgement.
Being overly self critical isn't something that only happens in the practice room, though.
We all experience it daily, by thinking offhanded thoughts like "why did I say that, it was so dumb" or "look at what that other person is doing, I'm so lazy and unsuccessful." There are so many other ways we discount our efforts or impede them when we are being judgemental or expecting too much of ourselves.
One of the things I love most about yoga and mindfulness meditation is the way both disciplines encourage self acceptance. Not in a fluffy, overly positive way, but through recognition of all the things we do and feel and the acceptance that they are neither good or bad, but simply parts of the present moment.
There are endless positive connotations to seeing your present moment with acceptance - think about a few ways this might benefit you!
Try if for yourself:
Sit comfortably. If you're somewhere you can relax, close your eyes.
Bring your attention to your breath. Don't try to change it, just notice where you can feel it entering and leaving the body.
Once you feel you're maintaing a simple awareness of the breath, become aware of the body sitting.
Notice what you feel. Maybe it's tension, sleepiness, restlessness, or that you are being bombarded by thoughts.
Try not to engage with any one thought or sensation beyond observing its existence.
Bring the attention back to the breath, accepting those things that you noticed as part of the present moment.
See if you can sit with this intention for 3 to 5 minutes, always returning to the breath after noting anything that comes up.
Take a few deep breaths before gently bringing your attention back to your surroundings.
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.