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.
You get out of it what you put into it.
I think there is so much truth in this saying. Our perspective, determination, attitude and commitment determine so much of what happens to us in life.
My healthy optimism can’t magically create a job opportunity, but it can help me to be more engaged with what’s going on around me, maybe leading me to be in the “right place at the right time.”
The other reason I love this saying is the implication that the responsibility sits with us. I truly believe that we must take responsibility for ourselves and our lives by putting our best effort (whatever it is at the moment) into everything we do.
We create, or hinder, our own growth in immeasurable ways every day.
What brought this saying to mind recently were the juries my college students had to prepare for at the end of their fall semester. There are stringent requirements for performing repertoire, scales, sight-reading and even improvisation. They have to prepare program notes and a repertoire list as well, and all of this after a weekend of some of their biggest performances of the year, right at the beginning of final exams.
Anyone who has been a music major can relate to the insane conclusion of each semester. Those who have been through it may also be able to relate to the sense that if we ignore it for most of the semester maybe it will all just go away…yet before you know it, you’re looking at a panel of woodwind faculty waiting to hear a G# melodic minor scale.
Why is it that we procrastinate on things like scales and preparing for these difficult performance situations?
I suppose the answer could be different for all of us, but I have a theory that deep down we all avoid these things because they are hard work and we still might fail.
Learning repertoire and scales is difficult. It takes a lot of time, organization, and energy to learn new material and figure out how to get around our technical difficulties.
However, if we’re willing to put the effort into it, just like in life, there are concrete, measurable results. We can see (and hear) our improvement both in the material we are practicing and the way it shows up in other repertoire or technical study, just like you can see the impact sleeping for an extra hour or spending less time online has on your everyday life.
When I see my students avoiding their scales or half-committing to working on them, I want to remind them of all the ways sitting in the work and frustration will benefit them on the other side.
So, if you’re a high school or college student who needs to perform your scales or other technical exercises for a grade (or if you’re a working professional who performs for a paycheck!), let’s walk through what you can put in to your scales (and your life!) that will turn into long term rewards:
Identify the goal:
Get to know the material:
Practice the hard stuff:
Visualize (Mental Practice):
Share with others:
Maintain a positive outlook:
Most of us are more capable than we give ourselves credit for. We become discouraged when we can’t do something instantly or quickly, dismissing it as a failure.
Designate your goal and determine the work that needs to be done. Create a plan and commit to it. Put in the work.
And while all of that is crucial, what we have to remember is that in order to be able to DO anything we have to first be willing to TRY.
Once you’ve done the work, trust yourself. Focus on the outcome - the big picture of the exercise or piece you’ve learned - and go for it. Play for others and really give your best effort.
Show up for yourself knowing you can rely on everything you put in.
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.
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?
Do you ever just want to rant?
It’s not often, but occasionally I find myself wanting to sound off about everything that is annoying me.
Or, I’ll find myself constantly thinking about a particular topic, but focusing on what other people are doing around that topic that irritates me.
As I started to write today’s blog I got into a rhythm of ranting (aka complaining) about the particular thing that was on my mind. Thankfully I realized it before I hit post. Complaining may make us feel better temporarily, but beyond that it doesn’t really do us any good.
So what should we do when we find ourselves wanting to rant or stuck in a cycle of complaining?
Take it as a sign.
When we get stuck in a loop, what it really means is that we are not spending our time well. Maybe we’re spending too much time watching other people do things, we’re obsessing over something we can’t change, or maybe we’re just not taking action.
In my case, I’ve been spending a lot of time mulling over some aspects of social media and using the internet to build out a career in music that don’t feel right to me.
Like most aspects of our lives, if something seems off or our gut feeling is that an action or activity is not for us, it usually isn’t. We have to trust our instinct in order to remain authentic, but that can be difficult when our gut tells us not to join the masses.
Instead of spending your energy doing something you don’t want to do, or that isn’t authentic to you or your goals (or instead of spending all your energy complaining about it), refocus it on what would feel authentic.
If you didn’t feel any obligation to conform, how would you communicate and share with others?
How would you shape your day?
How would you shape your career?
When I was in school, there was a popular assignment to write a letter to your past self. I think this is a fairly common exercise in self reflection for any age.
There is a great deal of value in looking back on the experiences of our lives, both happy and challenging, with the perspective we gain over time.
Maybe you have also done the other version of this activity where you write a letter to your future self listing all your most ambitious goals and what you hope to achieve.
There is value in looking ahead and visualizing what you sincerely hope will come true. However, as I move through my career and life reflecting back on the experiences I have had and imagine what might lie ahead, I feel like there is a more impactful way to do this exercise.
Instead of looking ahead at all our loftiest ambitions (I will have a full time orchestra job and live in a large house), we might benefit from shifting the focus to be more subtle, more inward. What do you want your life to feel like? What type of people do you hope to be surrounded by? How would you like to show up in your life for yourself and others?
Rather than spend our future-focus on external achievements, we could imagine what we will achieve in our emotions, wellbeing, and in our relationships with and impact on others.
Writing to ourselves in this way lets us acknowledge all the work we have already done, all the things we already know to be true about ourselves, and all the ways we hope we will honor that knowledge in the future.
September 30, 2021
Dear Future Me,
I hope that you are following your gut. I know that sometimes you can feel a strong sense of responsibility to things that you have outgrown. It is ok to do your best and then move on to what is a better fit for your life and skills.
I hope that you are being creative in your teaching. You have so much more energy to guide your students when you are exploring music you love and concepts that you know will help them in music and life. Maybe you have explored a lot more about how mindfulness and yoga can be incorporated into teaching young musicians and are sharing it with others!
I hope that you are making time for friendships and your closest relationships. Life is so much richer when you have more time to spend it with the people, and pets, you love.
I hope that you are continuing to define success on your own terms. You always feel more “successful” when you are reading and learning, making music and having lots of different experiences.
I hope you are still using mindfulness as a tool to navigate perfectionism, reminding yourself that each moment is new and fluid and the most you can do is to stay present in the right now.
I hope you are creating space.
With love and acceptance,
No one can do it all. Or, maybe a few people can, but what are they sacrificing? Who is helping them do it?
In order to “do it all” in an area of our life, we make sacrifices in other places that don’t matter as much. It’s why a world class, virtuosic violinist is not also an influential investment banker.
We can do many things, but we can’t do everything.
One of the lessons we usually learn too late is that limits are a good thing. Our minds reach a limit when we need to rest. Our bodies reach a limit when we have pushed them too far.
We cannot spend our free time writing endless emails and never practicing if we need to be prepared for our rehearsals and performances. We can't have any energy to share with our students if we never sleep.
This month I feel like I have reached several of my limits - emotionally, physically, and also mentally. This is life. But, the joy of being human is that we can grow and learn how to move through the times when we have tapped out my resources.
What I have learned is that running up against your limits is not an invitation to look for a new energy hack or productivity trick. It is not an invitation to miss out on sleeping well so that you can finish writing emails.
Reaching your max is an opportunity to be uninspired. To put your need to produce to rest. To answer the emails, but later than you usually would. To practice, but with more breaks than usual. To let your ideas and projects simmer for a while.
It is a reminder that the patience to let things percolate is often what eventually brings them to life.
For the past few weeks I have been taking my time. Practicing when I can and accepting when I can’t. Answering messages and meeting my deadlines, but with less hurry-up than usual.
Despite my lack of inspiration, things are getting done. In fact, things are remarkably totally normal.
Nothing lasts forever. This month will turn into next month and the demands on my time and energy will change. My inspiration will return until the next time I need a reminder that it’s ok to be uninspired.
In allowing myself some limits, I’m also reinforcing my understanding of their value.
This is not a call to action. It is not an excuse to do nothing.
It’s a nudge to notice the rhythms of your life and work with them, not against them.
The encouragement to create space and enjoyment in so many places you might otherwise never have found it.
How often have you thought about doing something productive and then talked yourself out of it?
Maybe you were watching some Netflix to relax and thought, I should do some laundry. Well, maybe after the next episode.
Or, I should probably practice, but I'll do it after I answer all these emails.
Trying to get started, or change directions, often presents us with a roadblock. It's much easier to stay on the couch than sort laundry. Much easier to half-heartedly respond to emails than commit your attention to practicing.
One of my favorite things that author James Clear frequently discusses is that we all tend to over-inflate the concept of productivity and the types of tasks we should be doing. When we imagine what we want to accomplish, it's often large ambiguous goals like "get in shape" or "learn new repertoire."
We are so absorbed in these grand ideas that we never really exert any effort toward them because the small practical steps that would get us there feel so far removed from the goal.
The next time you set a large goal for yourself, get specific. Not just, "I want to learn new repertoire" but "I want to learn pieces x, y, and z by a particular date for a particular purpose."
Then, set about deciding what small steps make up the process of reaching that goal.
For a student who struggles with some pain when playing or practicing, they might decide what stretches would help them. Then, make an actionable decision about when they can do them.
It always helps to attach something new we'd like to do to a task we already complete regularly. For the student addressing injury prevention, this might mean stretching their wrists each time they brush their teeth.
Not only does this fit their new actionable step into their day twice, but it utilizes something else that's crucial.
The hardest part is getting ourselves moving so it makes sense to attach an action to something you already do. This allows us the opportunity to build on actions we already take to add new, important actions to our routine.
Now, you might think that stretching twice a day for just two or three minutes isn't worth much. However, if you weren't stretching at all before you've already more than doubled your previous efforts. Five minutes of stretching each day equals over thirty hours of stretching in one year.
The only way forward is one small step at a time.
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.