The Missing Element of Success
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.
Favorite Books by Subject
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
Top Reads of 2022
I’ve been doing a “best books of” post for several years now (here are 2021 and 2020), and it was fun to take a look back at what my favorites have been in previous years. I always read a mix of fiction and non-fiction, but my previous lists of favorites lean heavily toward non-fiction. I felt like I really indulged in fiction in 2022, so let’s see what this past year’s list of favorite turns out like!
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
Most of us are familiar with John Green because of the YA novels he’s written (The Fault in Our Stars, Turtles All the Way Down, etc.). He has a podcast with his brother, Hank Green (also an author), that’s quite popular that I haven’t explored yet. This book is a series of short essays where Green rates the regular everyday occurrences of the Anthropocene period (our current geological age) a la Google. He shares personal anecdotes that remind us all we’re having the same human experience in an enjoyable and relatable way. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four and a half stars.
Uncommon Measure by Natalie Hodges
I found Hodges book to be extremely thoughtful, and at times quite challenging to read because of the way it points out the inadequacies of how many of us are taught to become musicians. Natalie Hodges spent her young life working hard to be a virtuoso violinist. She chronicles her experiences through our perception of time and consciousness, and how her experiences in music might have shaped her or been shaped by her. Hodges touches eloquently on so many of the challenges of becoming and being a musician, while including neuroscience and quantum physics, by taking us along on her own journey of imagining her life outside of being a classical violinist.
Presence by Amy Cuddy
Amy Cuddy gained noteriety for her TED talk that has been viewed by millions. The overarching message of this book is that we don’t have to make grand changes to approach scary situations, nor should we continue to approach them with one eye closed in fear. I loved the stories Cuddy shares in Presence about people who took simple moment to moment approaches to intimidating situations, and her practical advice on how we can show for ourselves up over and over again.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
This was a really enjoyable read. The characters felt rich, and Williams writing created such a vivid picture for me of this story as it unfolded. As someone who loves words, this story of lexicographers creating and editing the dictionary opened up a history I had never considered of who defined our language and how.
Range by David Epstein
Range takes a fascinating look at how we learn and grow our skills in a culture that says we must focus fast and early. Especially for those of us in fields like music where it can always feel like we started too late, I found this book refreshing. Epstein unpacks how being hyper focused can box us in, and how the paths that highly successful people take are often much more winding than we think. The information in this book is important for anyone who teaches or interacts with children and young adults to consider.
We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman
This novel is a beautifully painted picture of what it’s like to grieve with someone with terminal cancer, and was my favorite novel of 2022. It was not an easy read, especially if you’ve lost someone, but I was so moved by the way this book expresses how deeply we feel in the close relationships we build and how both the most joyful and saddest moments can be painful in their extremes.
Quiet by Susan Cain
Quiet, for me, was one of those rare books that clearly lays out things you have never been able to find the words to express. Cain redefines what it means to be an introvert, and to be a highly sensitive person. She takes the cultural labels out of the equation and makes it relatable for the reader to consider what it would be like to be introverted, or what it would be like to find balance as an introvert in an extroverted culture. There is concrete, functional advice in the book for how to work with introverted adults or children, and I think this book could help all of us consider and become more receptive to how each person’s experience is unique.
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
Four Thousand Weeks sits at the top of my list for 2022 for the way it genuinely challenged my concept of time and the way we are taught to treat it as a manageable, moldable commodity. It is both factual and philosophical, and explored our growing collective sense of anxiety and urgency. I appreciated that Burkeman didn’t take a negative perspective on the way our relationship with time has developed and took a more positive and reflective approach to how we might proceed differently.
So now I want to know - what books did you love in 2022?
What I Learn From Reading
It’s no secret I love to read.
My monthly newsletter always includes a book recommendation, I share my “what I read list” on Instagram every month, and many of the “small joys” photos I share include a book (with a cat or coffee always close by). I could spend hours in bookstores just browsing and thinking about what to read next.
The title of this blog might seem transparent - there’s clearly lots to be learned from reading. In fact, I had to learn so much via textbook in school that for the years I was enrolled in higher education I hardly ever read for fun.
As I reflect on another year of reading though, I’m aware that my hobby of reading has become about so much more than collecting “book smarts.”
These are the things I learn from reading:
Make Room for Rest
In this day and age, rest often means mindlessly scrolling or bingeing Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, both of those activities really can help us decompress…but there’s a limit. Sitting down to read means I am setting aside the possibility of noticing a new email or notification on my phone. I am consciously tucking in with my lunch, or on the couch to end the evening. Allowing myself the option to doze off in the most gentle of ways, somewhere in the passages of a good book, is its own kind of permission to rest (and beats falling asleep to blue light any day).
Be Gentle with Yourself
None of us are strangers to the feeling that we must be accomplishing something, and at all times, to be good or useful. Reading in this way is like a mini rebellion. Maybe I’m learning, or maybe I’m not, but for the time I’m holding the book it doesn’t matter.
Enjoyment Belongs In Every Day of our Everyday Life
Do you ever catch yourself escaping into your phone or Netflix? That nagging feeling of not completing something important is there, and yet you slink off into blissful scrolling oblivion anyway? It might not be a bad thing to allow yourself those moments of respite - although not if you catch yourself picking your phone up or checking your notifications right in the middle of an important task, and I do think they’re better spent with a book…
Ideas Take Time to Come Together
I love to read for pleasure, but I also enjoy reading about subjects that fascinate me. I go through phases of both each year, but am always struck by how much space I need for information to start to knit together into new ideas. It could be days or weeks after I finish something interesting and I will find myself struck with how it relates to teaching or performing. Suddenly, and almost out of nowhere, a very clear idea will pop up tying all sorts of seemingly random but relevant information together.
Pausing is Not a Reward, Not Everything Needs a Purpose
If I’m being honest, I initially “allowed” myself my reading habit because although I loved it, it was also productive. It had purpose, and heaven forbid that I do anything simply because I love it. Even my outlets had to be well, outlets. They were a relief from something, meant to get me back on track with my responsible and acceptable goals. (I’m rolling my eyes at myself as I type). I still struggle with that mindset, but no matter what our hustle culture tells you, pausing for fun and leisure is not something we have to earn somehow.
I could learn these lessons from any hobby or pastime, it just happens that one of my favorites is reading. I have others that bring me joy, and I would guess that you do, too. Maybe like me you resurrected them during the pandemic. Did you set them aside when you went back to work, though? Maybe those pandemic projects deserve a cherished spot in your regular life, too.
I chose to use “learn” instead of “learned” in the title of this blog because reading, for me, isn’t about what new info I walk away from each book with, although that’s an obvious benefit. At its core, reading has come to represent how we intertwine work, pleasure, and the demands of every day life in a way that is fulfilling and enriching. It points out that we never know what’s ahead, and I want to end each day with a balance of effort and joy that feels good.
Flip The Script
How often have you looked back at things you wish you would have done?
Laying awake at night thinking about what we wish we hadn’t said or done has become a bit of a standard joke, but in an achievement driven culture or field it can feel awfully relatable.
Even if it’s not keeping you up at night, I think it’s safe to say that most of us have choices we wish we would have made differently or situations we wish we would have handled differently in our past.
Regardless of how often you find yourself thinking about these past experiences, most of us probably spend much more time with the negative ones than the positive ones. To some extent, that’s likely for a positive reason. We all have a desire to grow, and using previous failures is a valid way to consider how we would like to move forward.
However, it might also be healthy to do the opposite.
When was the last time you drew some inspiration from yourself?
When was the last time you really thought about something you did that took courage, or something you prepared well for that had a positive outcome?
Even if your look back at yourself is neutral, rather than negative, there is a lot to be gained. It might be as simple as realizing that you weren’t as far behind as you thought.
As with most things, balance is key. Always seeing yourself with a super negative view would be unhelpful, but the same is true for viewing yourself in an inflated positive way all the time.
The next time you feel motivated to critique your past behaviors, consider also what you did right. Could you list both things and see them as just that…a list? Objective data on the situation that might come in handy later is a lot easier to work with in the future than a late night binge of self judgement.
What If Everyone Is Doing It?
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.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the prevelance of “hacks” on the internet - both the type of person and the incessant shortcuts that are supposed to make things easy and effortless. The dictionary defines a hack as a “person who does dull, routine work.” Seems fitting for the endless internet articles about hacks for cutting avocados and streamlining our workflow.
Hacks play into our cultural desire for speed, efficiency and multi-tasking and our lack of attention and time for deep work. Any creative (and anyone who read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) could tell you, though, that mastery takes time above most else.
As my students begin their school year, especially those in college, I am acutely aware of how much is being asked of them. Students beginning their first year in a new building or location, like middle school, high school, or college, have an especially big job of acclimating to new social and learning environments. First year college students are learning to fully fend for themselves for the first time, and all college students are learning over and over again to motivate themselves without the help of their families.
Anyone who is in school, and all of us who teach, are managing distractions. Our devices, social gatherings, that long lunch you’d like to have, etc. All of these things can zap time in an instant and contribute to the feeling of not having enough hours in any day.
As I observed my students hit the ground running this week, I could already start to see their feelings of overwhelm when it comes to time management. How, exactly, is this all going to fit?
The answer is the opposite of a hack. An anti-hack if you will. It lies in perspective.
Pay attention to your schedule. Where are their gaps that can be used for meals? When are you in the music building with a break that could be used for practicing? The random pockets of time that occur in your schedule are key for productivity in school. Use them to carve out space for intentional deep work.
Be aware of distractions
This includes your phone, iPad, laptop, Apple Watch, friends who are distracted practicers, and all the time you spend lamenting how much you have to do. Try to remain aware of what’s distracting you. Acknowledge those distractions, then forget them. Pick one thing to work on and get started.
Keep your deadlines in view
Make a list of important projects, performances, tests, and other deadlines you have throughout the semester and put it somewhere you will see it often. This list isn’t meant to scare you. Use it as a reminder to do what you can now instead of putting everything off until the last minute.
Find an honesty buddy
Everything is better with a friend. Find a friend who has a similar workload or schedule to you, and ask them to keep you honest. Have them give you a nudge toward what needs done if they catch you faffing (doing things in a disorganized way and generally not achieving much).
Make time for reflection
When it comes to perspective, reflecting on our habits and actions is the MVP. Debrief yourself each week - where did you overwork yourself? Where did you get a little lazy? How’s your sleep schedule?
It’s important to give your mind a break. Make sure you do things you enjoy that are unrelated to your work and studies. Much like sleep, doing fun, restful things allows our brain to process all of the other information it is managing.
None of these points on their own will miraculously make school easy, and they all take time to become habits. They might be a bit obvious, but they are not over simplifications.
Learning is all about effort. You get out of it what you put into it, and gaining a little perspective goes a long way.
The Flow of Life
I’m currently approaching the first weekend of a three week orchestra festival. Our first concert is tomorrow evening, and I get to play Peter and the Wolf as part of the program.
In the meantime, I’ve also been preparing for next week’s concerts because they include a flute and harp recital, a woodwind sextet performance, and a performance of the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto.
This three weeks in the summer is always intense, but this year is extra so!
As I was planning and packing, I was preparing to feel a consistent sense of tension and anxiousness just based on the sheer amount of performances I would have. Now that I’m here and settled in, though, I feel an overwhelming sense of calm.
If I take a step back and look at it from a distance, it makes so much sense, and I feel it every year when I arrive. Although I have a lot of musical plates to keep spinning, my other usual life responsibilities have been temporarily taken off the table.
I have as much time as I need to practice, I can spend time in quiet reflecting on rehearsals or visualizing aspects of upcoming performances, and if I want to listen to the repertoire I’m performing I don’t have to find a place to be isolated at home to do so or squeeze it in between lessons.
The simplicity of my days here - a predictable timeline of commitments, having only the flute to really focus on (although I’m doing other work here and there), and even knowing exactly what and when I’ll eat creates an underlying calm that I appreciate so much surrounding these big concerts.
Musicians, athletes and performers often talk about being in a flow state. Usually they mean a time in a performance or a game that doesn’t last for a long extended period where we are so engaged in the moment that everything else falls away.
Having access to this simplicity of lifestyle, even for a few short weeks, creates a sort of overarching flow state for me that makes it so much easier to get to work, go to bed early, and generally do all the things I wish I usually had more time for when it comes to practicing.
Eventually, though, I’ll head home and back to reality (and I am always glad to do so when the time comes!). The question, then, is how do we create a little of this life flow in our regular day-to-day?
I’m reminded of all the stories of CEOs who own only one type and color of shirt and the same with their selection of pants so that they never have to consider their outfits, or celebrities who eat exactly the same meals every day. I have to admit, that sounds a little boring to me, but I do love a good routine and maybe this is why.
It certainly could be that a key to creating this flow on a regular basis is consciously creating a helpful routine around the basics - groceries, taking our vitamins, knowing when we will sit down to do our deep work so that it’s easier to shut out the noise, etc..
What I’m experiencing for the next three weeks is the supersized version of this life flow, but it does serve as inspiration to find a little more space in my day to day life when I head home.
How do you create space to flow in your daily tasks?
It's OK To Be Tired
It’s ok to be tired.
There’s so much messaging right now to scale back, take a break, or clear our plates. Which, like all advice, is good circumstantially.
Sometimes we can do that - cut out things that aren’t important or worthwhile and open up beautiful pockets of productivity or rest.
Realistically though, it’s just not like that most of the time. Some seasons are consuming. If it happens that you are in one of these seasons, I’m with you.
If you are fully booked with things that feel draining or negative, first of all, I’m sorry. Life brings all types of seasons and this is just one of them. Keep doing your best to see the small joys and care for yourself.
If you are fully booked with wonderful things, then enjoy them. Yes you may feel exhausted, but we can be both joyful and worn out.
Either way, try not to give in to complaining about your tiredness. Our culture would tell us us to wear our busy-ness as a badge, but resist the urge. Wear your joys - step into them fully and be present - but try not to elevate busy as the goal.
See if you can embrace even a small aspect of this station stop on your journey. Be present to the things that make you pause or smile and soak them up. Know that nothing lasts forever, so do your best to keep your eyes open and take in what’s around you as you walk through this very real but also impermanent season.
Finally, you may already feel that you have taken on too much, but that’s often when we give up and take on even more. Learn to draw a line even if you feel you’ve already walked too far. Keep practicing saying no when you really need to.
Hang in there. Stay the path. Bring yourself to the present moment.
A new season will be here soon.
Trying Something New
When I started blogging regularly near the end of 2020, I was just looking for an outlet - I had just started my yoga teacher training, was teaching completely online, had no gigs to prepare for because of the pandemic, and more free time than I’d had in years.
It was great to have somewhere to flesh out ideas about teaching, yoga, being a musician - whatever was on my mind (the benefits of writing something I wasn’t sure anyone would read was feeling that I could freely take my choice of topics)!
I wasn’t sure if I would continue writing when things went “back to normal” (what is normal now, anyway?) - I was writing a lot during the time that everything was shut down.
As we all got busier again I realized that I didn’t want to stop writing, but I needed to give myself a few perimeters so I could stick to it (keeping up with the topic of last week’s blog here, I needed some constraints to keep writing creatively).
I settled on a weekly blog, published mostly on the same day each week, and for the most part that’s worked well with my schedule and lifestyle now that my calendar has filled up again.
One of the things that I wasn’t expecting to come from sitting down to write each week is the way my willingness to be open with others would change. By allowing myself to write out my teaching methods and philosophies, feelings about career choices, ideas about yoga and meditation, etc., I have been able to solidify concepts, ideas, and goals for myself.
Blogging has given me a space to practice talking about things that are important to me, which in turn lets me feel confident in conversations with my colleagues and students.
As someone who truly enjoys their privacy and solitude (only child here!), I’m still surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed making new friends online and putting myself out there a little bit more. It helped that I did it in a way that felt genuine to me - I love writing, and am sure I never would have considered or stuck to a video blog, YouTube channel, etc..
Beyond feeling like I’ve given myself more time to think about important topics in my work, the most enriching thing about engaging with other musicians has been learning the similarities of our stories. For all the ways we’re different, there are so many commonalities that come up in our training, performance, personal struggles, and interests.
I think as musicians we can often feel alone - most non-musicians have a hard time understanding our work hours, the types of jobs we have, and the pressure we feel around our performances and skills.
But I also think that as musicians we often tell ourselves we are alone - that everyone would judge us or disregard us for feeling nervous or debating a different career, that no one else feels those things or was a late bloomer musically.
The reality though is that it’s all in our heads. If we really start to listen carefully to others and open up to them in genuine conversation, it becomes clear that what makes us all the same is our humanness - we feel pressure, have fears, live for a great performance, question our choices, commit to doing something unique and demanding - and the way we reconcile that with our work and artistry.
I suppose I’m sharing all of this as encouragement - that if you feel like you want to share somehow or get to know those around you more, it’s worth it. Listen to your gut and find genuine ways to start putting yourself out there that aren’t just performances. There is so much to gain from enriching our lives professionally not just in performance, but in communication and building rich support networks.
Some of the things I’ve started doing over the last two years are still surprising to me, and might even feel a little silly, but it's hard to imagine not doing them now:
I hope that this leaves you a little inspired to try something new and find outlets for yourself. What are the ways you could explore your unique interests and skills to connect with others? I would, genuinely, love to hear about them.
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.