This month I tackled some books that I have been saving for when I could really take my time and dig in to them. Many of them were about the creative process, some were about yoga/meditation/breathwork/mindstate, and a few were novels I wanted to savor.
I've made it most of the way through this month's to-be-read pile, and it just so happened that I read three books about developing the creative process back to back. I found them all interesting - worthwhile in their own way - but not created equal, and thought it would be fun to break them down here since I am in the midst of what feels like a mini-evolution of my own work process (pictured below during my stay at the Endless Mountain Music Festival).
The first book I read was one I have been saving and looking forward to - it has a beautiful cover, the layout is inviting, and I was expecting a lot of nuggets of inspiration from this one, based on what I had heard about it so far.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
If I'm being really honest, I was totally disappointed in this book. If you have never read anything about the creative process, I actually think it would make a great, easy to digest introduction. But if you are a seasoned creative, this book falls flat for inspiration. It's full of platitudes and empty statements about creativity, and doesn't contain any truly actionable ideas about the creative act as the title suggests. It might be a nice to book to leave out and flip open if you're in need of a shot of motivation, but it definitely didn't live up to my expectations for an author with such an interesting and varied career.
I originally shared these reviews in my monthly newsletter (have you subscribed yet?), and realized after it went out that I completely forgot one of the books I read about the creative process. I suppose it didn't make much of an impression...
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
I liked this book more than Rubin's Creative Act, and while it did have some useful nuggets of reflection on the things that keep us from moving forward creatively, it didn't break down any major thought barriers for me around my own creative process. Like Rubin's book, however, I think this could provide a good stepping off point for creatives who haven't explored outside inspiration for how they could approach their work.
One thing I think Pressfield did well was share openly the distractions we face and the need for discipline and intention around our work. I appreciated the portion of the book about the resistance we all feel the most.
The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp
This book surprised me in its practicality. I didn't know more than the basics about Tharp before reading this, and was impressed at the discipline of her creativity. It's always interesting to catch a glimpse behind the curtain into a successful creative's life, and this was no exception. Tharp discusses her own habits and disciplines, how specific projects came to life, and provides exercises for the reader to consider what matters most to them and to help lay the ground work for better creative habits. Both practical and interesting, I think this one is a must read if you are interested in strengthening the creative acts in your own life.
Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
I had procrastinated reading this book even though it was recommended by one of my absolute favorite newsletters because I wasn't sure how much it would be about the actual act of improvisation (something I avoid like most classically trained musicians!). Although improvisation is discussed, the book is truly about how we create and quickly became a new favorite for me. It is relatable and inspiring, and somehow takes a huge, ambitious topic and boils it down into useful, encouraging, and relatable ways to address blocks and the way we think about creativity. As I read, I found myself writing in the margins and dog-earing pages the entire time. While not as clinically practical as Tharp's Creative Habit, Free Play is what finally helped me start to shift out of my own creative rut.
The most important takeaway for me is that we're all at different stages of our creative journeys and processes. Even though I didn't love Rubin's Creative Act, it felt useful to read these four books in succession, although unintentionally. They are an excellent representation of how differently we all approach creativity, and a reminder that we won't relate to everyone's art or approach to making it. But for the same reason that we study our instruments with many teachers and rarely love every single thing they ask us to do. There are useful takeaways everywhere if you are being vigilant, even if they are simply things you are making a note that don't want to replicate (right now). Just like we each have a unique voice in our music or art, our methods in the end will, and should, be unique to us.
When you think about fear or anxiety, do you ever consider their timeline?
When did the fear arrive? How long has the anxiety been here (and has it always been the same)? Has it ever left or subsided? Could you picture it ending?
Before we can address the lifespan of fear, though, we have to unwind some terminology…
When we talk about fear or anxiety, we are often imprecise. Culturally, anxiety has become a bit of a blanket term that represents so much it is hard to pin down a definition. If we’re discussing performance anxiety, that’s a more specific type of fear, but it can still mean a great many things.
Even by using the words fear and anxiety interchangeably here I am muddying the waters while simultaneously proving the point that these words can mean many things and have varying degrees of severity. Stage fright for me might have a very different root cause than it would for the next person.
We might be afraid of performing for crowds because of the sheer number of people or we could simply be anxious about messing up in front of a lot of people who will remember. Perhaps flying gives us anxiety over a lost bag, or a greater fear of something catastrophic. You might know someone who is afraid of riding a bike, or perhaps someone who has anxiety about riding their bike around cars in the city.
It’s important if we feel fear, anxiety, or tension about something in life to understand what is actually scary.
Do we worry about the judgements of others? Are we afraid to mess up something that matters deeply to us and has taken up a great deal of time and effort? Maybe we are anxious that our efforts will not be deemed worthy of whatever we are striving for. Do you fear losing those who are important to you? Maybe you are afraid of letting someone down. There are many different hats our worry and dread can wear.
As musicians, I think it’s common to move through a variety of different versions of the anxiety and fear that can come along with auditions, performing, and all the various aspects of music making.
I’ve discussed this before, but over my life as a musician, I’ve gone from having no performance anxiety, to feeling the fear that I won’t be accepted at an important audition. I’ve had dry mouth, shaky limbs, a twitchy embouchure, and brain fog on stage among other symptoms. I’ve felt distraught over how I do or don’t measure up to others and found myself ruminating on these useless worries instead of getting work done in the practice room. I’ve been intimidated by many conductors and timid in my playing.
Luckily, I didn’t have all these symptoms of fear at once. They have ebbed and flowed throughout my musical life and, fortunately, have been intermingled with feelings of extreme focus and free, unburdened music making on stage.
It wasn’t until I was older and more experienced that I started to realize how much I actually got to decide about my fear and anxiety in both life and music. Meditation and yoga have helped me tremendously with this, as well as several books by performance coaches and elite athletes.
It only takes a little research to realize that everyone has some version of this to deal with, and that even if someone doesn’t feel fear, we are all responsible for sorting out the distractions that come with doing something performance based.
Perhaps it is only with enough time that we can gain the necessary perspective, but I do wish that someone had laid it out succinctly for me when I was younger that I’m in charge, and fear has a lifespan. It might be around for the long haul, but we can certainly outlast it.
So, what are the major events along the lifespan of fear?
*Feeling anxious, worried, tense, or afraid
The arrival of a fear can come out of nowhere - maybe even in the middle of a performance as it did for me once! This is no reason to live with the fear of fear, but rather the acknowledgement that many physical and mental factors play into our experiences of anxiety.
*We need to identify what is actually scary
When we experience stress or anxiety, it is common to make mountains out of molehills. A whole concert might feel paralyzing, but if we take a step back to consider the music we’ve prepared, perhaps we are preoccupied with a scary entrance or quiet high note and are letting our worries wash over the entire concert. Perspective goes a long way toward deflating a general feeling of anxiousness.
*Can you do the thing anyway?
Sometimes, if we are really lucky, identifying what is actually at the root of our nervousness will bring us back to a more manageable base line. If you’re not that lucky, you can still use the identification of the fear or anxiety to help you. Instead of just feeling the fear (racing heart, clamminess, unfocused thoughts), you’ve now established a culprit. When you catch yourself identifying with the feelings, label them and note the root cause then get on with the task.
*Shift your focus to right effort
A side stop on the last life span event, this is where we focus our energy and efforts on what we are doing rather than how we are feeling. This stop requires effort, but it’s right effort rather than feeding even more energy to our feelings and thoughts of nervousness. If you catch yourself re-investing in the anxiety, simply shift again and start over.
*Realizing fear doesn’t have a grip
Even a brief moment of success pulling our attention away from our feelings of fear is a success. Celebrate your successes and the knowledge that fear does not control you. Each time you succeed in redirecting your attention, you build resilience and the muscles of your attention. Moving through your fear is what opens up the space for better things
*Do (new) hard things
This saying gets used a lot, but it’s useful and an important stop along the life span of fear. Once you have realized you can do things while you feel anxious and have had some practice shifting your focus to right effort you can start to take on new, harder tasks. Even if some of the fear lingers, you can keep growing.
*Not feeling the fear anymore
Some fears have a much longer lifespan than others, but they will all come to an end if you persevere. Recently, I had an experience where something that had been a cause of anxiety for many years no longer felt scary. It was an unexpected relief that was the result of a lot of right effort and personal work.
A note of caution here, that we never want to become complacent. An old fear that has lost its power over us may still find a way to rear its head. This is why it’s important for us to stay detailed and vigilant in what matters to us. Your methods for dealing with the stressors and tension in your life will change over time, but maintaining awareness helps our successes stick.
How you choose to work through your fear points in life will be unique to you. Yoga and meditation have truly changed my relationship with my instrument, but I also rely on smart preparation, having a deliberate and detailed focus in my music making, and honest, frequent self reflection in both practice and performance.
I love hearing about what works for others because we never know when we’ll find another tool that fits just right in our box of resources.
Our lifetimes are long, and it’s absolutely worth the effort it takes to address the things that make us feel anxious. Because it’s so acceptable to discuss stress and anxiety now, there is also a comfort in relating to everyone having it rather than taking the sometimes tedious and mundane steps toward overcoming what stands in our way.
Timelines always look so different in hindsight. When we learned to ride a bike as children, it seemed the training wheels would always be there. The prospect of taking them away was scary (for most of us) and it might have felt like riding confidently without them took forever. In reality, that experience was a blip on the map. Even if a fear is with you for many years, there will be a time both before and after its lifespan.
Without our bodies, we could not play our instruments.
When I studied with Jean Ferrandis he would say that everything has a frequency, and we shouldn’t disrespect the natural frequencies. Meaning, for example, that if we blow way too much or too little we’re not respecting the frequency of the instrument.
In the time since I studied with Jean, I’ve also come to realize that this also means we have to respect the frequencies of our body.
I think about this concept a lot now. If we over or under use parts of the body in our playing, we will compensate somewhere else, creating tension, extra effort, and blocking resonance.
If our body feels unnatural or is used inefficiently, it will translate not just to the way we sound, but also to our mind state.
Elaborate briefly on movement benefits - concept from yoga of meeting yourself where you are. Perfect for building a warm up routine
We’re all aware just how important exercise is for our health. At the root of it though, it doesn’t matter if you run, lift weights, hike, bike, or do water aerobics.
Movement is what matters.
There is an intersection here with yoga that I particularly love. Yoga encourages us to meet ourselves firmly where we are. It asks us to move with what we have, with acceptance and an understanding that we are not moving to change but to know ourselves better. It’s an approach to physical movement that is particularly relevant to playing an instrument.
When we consider how our physical body impacts our playing, it is important to do so from this place of meeting. Meeting ourselves where we are, and understanding what we need.
Consider how it feels to play your instrument when you are in an optimum physical state - no tension, no restriction, everything is free and resonant.
Now think about the difference when you feel tense.
With those two different experiences in mind, imagine yourself performing. What happens to your body when you are on stage? Does your breathing remain free? Do you feel that familiar tension? Or, maybe something different happens entirely like shaky hands or dry mouth.
Most of us are intimately familiar with our physical ticks and habits as they relate to playing our instrument. Not very many of us have a regular movement routine that addresses our strengths and weaknesses as they relate to playing, though.
Imagine the amount of concentration and brain power you could waste thinking about a tense muscle, or worrying you won’t get enough air in your next breath because your chest feels tight on stage.
Not only do physical issues limit our actual performance, they limit our mind in performance.
So how can you respect your frequencies?
A good place to start is by simply noticing:
Building a base level awareness of what’s happening in our bodies is the first step toward finding neutral and creating efficiency.
I hope you’ll join me for the Warm Up to Flow workshop to meet yourself where you are, acknowledge yourself under pressure and identify helpful elements to add to your warm up to find your peak physical performance state.
If I don’t meditate - how could mindfulness become a regular part of my warm up?
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are huge, broad topics. There is a tremendous amount of information to digest. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness or mindfulness meditation you know that, like playing an instrument, it’s a slow and often internal journey that requires consistency and dedication.
So how can we take these far-reaching concepts and pare them down to fit our specific needs as musicians, while still respecting these disciplines and what they have to teach us?
As a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, I have a great appreciation for the amount of work it takes to meditate and grow a meditation practice, and for the ups and downs that come with such an introspective practice.
However, the fundamentals of mindfulness practice are accessible to all of us, whether we are seasoned meditators or not.
Conceptually, it’s not a far leap from the focus required to be a musician to mindfulness. We already have some experience wrangling the mind away from distractions so that we can get work done in the practice room and so that we can focus in performance.
Even though as musicians we might be more mindful than the average person, I would guess that most of us still have plenty of distractions like self-critiques, concern about the judgment of others, or stress over the situation that bombard our experiences of practice and performance. Which is exactly why taking the time to address our mindfulness can greatly benefit our work.
I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage the development of a regular mindfulness practice here. In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research about how much practice, or how little, is required to make an impact. (Amishi P. Jha’s book Peak Mind is a great entry point, and suggests that about 12 minutes a day is all it takes to help create our peak state of mind more frequently).
But if you’re still skeptical, I understand. Most of us find the idea of sitting in stillness and silence with ourselves laughable.
As with most challenging undertakings, we need a relatable entry point. Something that is attainable, but also shows us the potential benefits. One of my favorite mindful practices is below. It’s short, simple, easily repeated, and never loses its impact. Even now as a more seasoned practitioner of mindfulness, I still use this one all the time.
Following the breath:
While at first this may seem like a breathing exercise, the breath is really just an anchor here. It is a place to rest our attention that doesn’t require any action from us. The breath provides somewhere to place your attention when you begin and when you realize you have become distracted again. It simply provides a resting place for your mind.
Try it out for yourself. Try not to judge your ability to follow the breath - that’s not the point of the exercise. Make sure you do this exercise a few times, for at least a few days before you pass judgment. Continue to note how you feel after each practice.
There are many more ways to bring mindfulness into our warm ups and the way we approach our instruments. We’ll go in depth in the Warm Up to Flow workshop!
What does the breath have to do with finding a flow state?
Our health, both physical and mental, is deeply intertwined with our breath. Oxygen, quite literally, keeps us alive. Our breath circulates nutrients and removes toxins from our body. Science has backed up that breathing also stimulates our nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, and can agitate or calm us depending on the stimulation.
Anyone who sings or plays a wind instrument, enjoys long distance running, lifting weights, or practices yoga regularly understands the integral role the breath plays in helping us do some pretty amazing things from running marathons to performing concertos.
Many of us, however, still don’t realize what an integral role our breath plays in our day-to-day sense of ease and the way we handle stress.
It’s impossible to briefly state the impressive list of ways our breath affects us (I highly suggest reading Breath by James Nestor to develop a better understanding). So, to completely over-simplify, if we become participants in our breath instead of passive users, there is great potential for our overall health and performance.
If you haven’t already gotten the impression that the breath can do impossible things, it’s also been shown that the practice of pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or other breathwork techniques can even help us rewrite neural patterns we have developed over time.
It is common in our culture to over-breathe or breathe too quickly and rapidly, both of which are actually quite shallow. Mouth breathing is also wide spread. Both of these habits can negatively impact our health and mindset, and while you would think most musicians would have a good handle on healthy breathing, how we function in real life is very different from how we play our instruments.
Having gained just a little perspective on the major player the breath is in our overall wellbeing, it becomes easier to see how crucial it is for all of us and especially those in high performing or high stress situations to make sure their breath is working for them, not against them. Beyond that, learning how to use the breath to help regulate our nervous system and focus is something we all can and should do.
The absolute best thing about breathwork, though? We all breathe already. It’s something we can all do, with a tool that absolutely everyone has at no cost.
There are many types of breathwork, and you may have already learned some simple breathing exercises without realizing the potential scope of their impact. As with all disciplines, each exercise won’t speak to you, and it’s possible to find one that suits your specific sensations and needs but later connecting more with a different exercise.
Box breathing is a common approach to learning how to meter our breath, extend our inhales and exhales, and build CO2 tolerance.
A simple box breath follows these steps:
Another commonly used yogic breathing practice (pranayama) is alternate nostril breathing.
Also known as Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing is a yogic pranayama (breathwork) practice known to help with stress and anxiety. The sanskrit name nadi shodhana translates to "subtle energy clearing.”
To try it:
You can test out both of these techniques for yourself - how do you feel afterwards? What changed in your mind or body? How does your breathing feel after trying these compared to before?
We’ll explore several more breathwork techniques in the Warm Up to Flow workshop, and also how to discern what practice might best suit your individual needs and warm up routine as you build your way to a flow state. I hope you’ll join me!
Anyone with hypertension, a history of aneurysms, osteoporosis, cardiovascular issues, or vision issues should consult a doctor before seriously undertaking breathwork.
I’ve learned a lot as a musician about anatomy, movement, mindfulness, and how our brains work, especially over the last two years since being trained in yoga and mindfulness meditation. These are endlessly fascinating topics to me, and they have completely rejuvenated my experience of being a musician and a teacher. As I’ve contemplated the connections between these topics and music making that could help my students, certain ideas stick in my mind as being useful for all of us.
One of those “sticky” ideas turned into my Body of Sound workshop, which incorporates movement into some of our standard flute warm ups with the intention of helping us understand what truly creates resonance in our sound, and how we generate our unique tone quality at a fundamental level.
Another idea that has truly stuck for the last few years combines my fascination with the feeling of playing when we’re in the zone and my experiences of struggling to find an optimum head space under pressure. The intersection of these two things? Warm ups.
When I decided to host a workshop online it seemed obvious to address this idea of warm ups, the relationship we know they have to the flow state, and how we can tweak our individual warm up to serve us best in our quest for an optimal mind state.
What is a warm up?
A warm up is the signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wake up and do what you have trained to do.
Even for seasoned musicians, remaining in the moment during challenging rehearsals, performances, recording sessions, or even practice can feel elusive.
On top of this dodgy attention, we might layer self criticism about the fact that we’re not being more focused, accomplished, productive, or achieving. This self criticism is often not fully founded, but just another distraction.
There’s more to it, though, than just being “distracted.” Have you ever considered whether it’s realistic that we expect ourselves to hop out of real life and straight into a hyper-focused rehearsal or practice session?
We expect a lot from ourselves when it’s time to perform and spend hours preparing the music, but prepping ourselves for performance requires more than just learning the notes.
It is possible to get into the flow state more consistently. Athletes do it all the time. Dancers. Popular bands and singers. High performing classical musicians and opera singers.
So what do they all have in common?
Not the same one across disciplines, but likely the same principals, and above all the consistency of the warm ups they do.
These performers have found something that works for them and revisit it every time they need to be “on.”
It could be a conscious action like a particular muscle or vocal warm up, or an unconscious action like a tick (think of a baseball player who might always tap their shoe with the bat twice before batting). On a deep, subconscious level the performer relates this action to the task at hand. At the end of completing the warm up, their mind and body know what is about to happen and are primed for right effort toward the goal.
Creating a useful warm up is not unlike the habit stacking that James Clear discusses in his book Atomic Habits. It’s building incrementally on something that we know is successful and capitalizing on the outcomes.
In fact, the basis of this workshop was inspired by Clear’s writing on using a pre-game routine to get motivated. One of the best points that Clear makes on this topic is that when we are required to do something (like practice or rehearsal) so often there are bound to be days that we’re not motivated or focused.
According to Clear, every action that is part of the pre-game routine matters (even how you put on the baseball glove, or, how you put your instrument together), and the routine should be done in the same way every time.
From Clear’s perspective there are a few non-negotiables to this routine: starting with something so easy you can’t avoid it (like getting out your instrument) and following that with actions that move you toward your goal.
The first time I read about this pre-game routine, my mind instantly went to my warm-up. The methodical way I put the flute together each time I play, and the playing warm ups I repeat daily because they feel good, and effective. There was way more to it than I had ever realized!
So over the years after making this connection between pre-game routine and performance, I kept thinking about how it applied to musicians. How we all already warm up to play, and how it’s at least somewhat the same warm up each time we put the instrument together. Also on my mind was how performances went when I did and didn’t allow time to warm up in the way I like and know is useful.
The next obvious question was, can we tweak our warm ups to be even more preparatory?
Of course we can!
By way of our training we can identify what we need on a large (long term goals) and small scale (specific to the day) to be successful players. Our warm ups already naturally address our personal needs, strengths and weaknesses. For example, if I am feeling sluggish I will play something that really gets my air moving, or do some physical exercises.
The act of warming up already primes us to be in the zone by the nature of its repetition, but based on what we know from self inquiry, we can actively prime the warm up to produce our optimum flow state.
Doing something like warming up without a plan can be helpful even if we lack a clear intention or goal. Similar to repeating a section in the music over and over without listening carefully, we might end up with some positive results but there is a better way to get there (and beyond) if we spend a little time in reflection prior to beginning.
There are three pillars of a musician’s warm up that can help us reach an optimum state of body and mind:
By addressing our strengths and weaknesses in these areas and exploring proven exercises, approaches to mindfulness, and specific physical aspects of playing we can discern what our individual "pre-game routine" needs.
I hope you’ll join me on March 5th to deep dive into your warm up. Using self inquiry and these guide posts we will each craft a unique warm up that is highly functional, repeatable, and can continue to be developed over time to meet our evolving needs.
There is a lot of conversation on the internet about all the things music school doesn’t teach us. The ways that it perpetuates unhealthy cycles that have been solidified over generations.
We don’t see a lot of discussion about what in our is right or good about the time we spend in music school. I don’t want to undermine what needs to change, but as I look back and reflect I’m realizing that one of the most valuable things about the time I spent in school was something I took completely for granted at the time.
It was so obvious to me as a freshman moving into an arts dorm - the joy of being surrounded by so many people who value the arts so deeply was new and exciting, and it spawned so many friendships.
Over the four, six, or even more years we spend in school we easily grow accustomed to having access to all the perks. Music libraries, musicians playing every instrument and style of music, amazing teachers and mentors, and friends who are also fully entrenched in figuring out how to be a musician.
When we leave school, it’s a sneaky shock to be removed from this artistic bubble. In my case, I was busy figuring out how to be a regular adult, not a student. I still had some connections to my previous school, was still traveling to take lessons, and was working as a musician.
Music hadn’t evaporated from my life by any means, but as time went on there was a growing sense of loneliness and disconnect. As a recent graduate working on my own most of the time, for the first time in years I was living in a world of mostly non-musicians.
As time has gone on I’ve been lucky to maintain friendships and find new belonging, but life often becomes fuller as we get older and if we’re going to find community in our lives it requires becoming much more intentional.
Research also tells us the benefit of being in a community, including that feeling supported by those around us helps calm and regulate our nervous system and create a deep, lasting feeling of safety.
While it would be ideal for all of us to find a community of people with our exact situation (for example, musicians who are also self-employed or freelancing) that’s not always possible. It can be just as good for our well-being to find communities around our other interests (exercise, mindfulness, cooking, coding … the list is endless).
In the way that friendships sometimes can as adults, making time for this type of community in your life can feel like work. It will require you to reach out to old friends, talk to new people, and leave the house at times when you would just like to curl up with a blanket and Netflix.
But, how much better would our art (and lives) be if we prioritized community? If we created a space for ourselves and those like us to rest in work or leisure? To commiserate over the difficulties of our work or forget them entirely and go for a hike, or to brainstorm crazy ideas with people are willing to genuinely encourage our creativity?
If I look back on the times that I really felt unmoored, I can see now the lack of community. When I took my yoga teacher training I was shocked at how having a group of friends I saw regularly and related to easily changed my day to day sense of wellbeing. Since then I do my best to remember the importance and value, even when it would be easier not to prioritize it.
Having a community reminds us of the big picture, what’s truly important, and affirms to us who we are at our core.
If you’re feeling frustrated in your work or pessimistic about your creative ventures, shift your focus and engage your community. If you’re not sure whether you have have one, start small and reach out to an old friend or mentor and ask how they’ve been. Make small talk with someone at your weekly yoga class or find a run club. Find a few people, or even just one, who can see you through your shared interests and then take note of the changes in your sense of safety and comfort.
A regularly updated list of books that are excellent for musicians, yogis, mindfulness practitioners, and humans.
The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten
The Flute Book by Nancy Toff
The Listening Book by W. A. Mathieu
Uncommon Measure by Natalie Hodges
Self Development for Creatives:
The Practice by Seth Godin
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Originals by Adam Grant
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
Drive by Daniel Pink
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick
Range by David Epstein
Mindfulness & Meditation:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
The Posture of Meditation by Will Johnson
Lighter by Yung Pueblo
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
Eastern Body Western Mind by Anodea Judith
Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Breath by James Nestor
Last Friday I had the chance to perform the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto. It was a transformative and rich experience, but the performance was just a small piece of the whole.
Side bar: There will be some backstory here, and it’s for slightly selfish reasons because I want to catalog this period of time so that I can revisit this experience later and fully remember the months leading up to this performance as well as the performance itself. If you’d like to skip ahead, I won’t be offended - jump to the bullet points further on in the post for the lessons I’ve learned that I think could benefit anyone preparing for something big.
The performance fell in the middle of an extremely busy summer festival, and an especially busy week and a half of performances. The run down went something like: Friday - Peter and the Wolf; Monday - Flute and Harp Recital; Wednesday - woodwind sextet performance; Friday - Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto; Saturday - Beethoven 5 and other pieces.
Now, I knew well in advance that I would be facing that timeline, as well as the repertoire I would need to have prepared. I had from roughly January to prep the concerto and late spring to prep the other pieces. It just so happened that I played Peter and the Wolf in March (on only a week’s notice!), so it helped to have that one fresh in my fingers.
What I could not have predicted was the fact that we would buy a house this spring (we were not planning on moving!), do some quick construction on our old house, and move all before the festival got here in mid-July. Add in hosting the first Flute Day at MU and a concerto with the MU Wind Ensemble, and it made for a wild ride in the first half of 2022!
Any one of these things could have completely thrown me in a tailspin not that long ago, but I had a few things working to my advantage. Like most freelance musicians, I have gotten good at learning music in a pinch. Years of filling in and jumping on board have made me confident in my abilities to make it work when I have to.
What that really equates to is squeezing in practice anywhere you can, because you have to. I took my flute on family trips or any time I was away from home for more than a day, squeezed in ten or fifteen minutes any time I could between lessons, and listened to the pieces I would be performing while I was painting walls during our moving and selling process.
So far, none of this is earth shattering information - these are the regular things we do to prepare for performances when we’re busy.
In this case though, I was preparing for an important performance of a concerto that is both famous and long (roughly 30 minutes), just a few years after a major run-in with performance anxiety/regular anxiety/stress.
I’ve spent the last two years learning about why I feel nervous, what I can do before, during and after performances to help with that, and implementing that knowledge so that I am able to give a strong, confident performance that I can enjoy.
That’s no small order, no matter how much experience we have performing, competing in a high performance activity, or putting ourselves out there as creatives.
There are many things that have helped me balance my time so that I can focus on what’s important, which include a willingness to say no to things that might be good (or less than good) but not great; getting enough sleep and eating well; hydrating; making time for things that help me unwind both physically and mentally (like yoga, reading, meditation, and family time).
But there are also some very concrete things that help me tackle feelings of worry and stress, concern about being judged, perfectionism in performance, and my ability to enjoy the moment that I know could benefit anyone who finds themselves in my shoes.
I have to give credit here to a few sources that inspired most of the items in the following list - my teachers who planted pedagogical seeds that have grown into both saplings and strong trees, yoga and mindfulness meditation which have allowed me to begin to understand what it means to be embodied and not just in my mind, George Mumford’s Mindful Athlete course, and Terry Orlick’s book In Pursuit of Excellence.
Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned about trust and preparation:
The most impactful part of this concerto performance for me was that I enjoyed the entire experience. I enjoyed being able to work through difficult practice days and remind myself that nothing is just right from the very beginning. I enjoyed visualizing myself in the moment and thinking about what my best performance could sound and look like. I enjoyed collaborating with the other musicians tremendously - what a treat after months of prepping alone. I even enjoyed feeling nervous on stage because I was able to see my thoughts and nerves for what they were - events, not facts.
What I’ve learned over the last few years is that I’m not actually looking for perfection or virtuosity - I’m looking for balance. Balanced thoughts, balanced embodiment. And this time, I think I found a little of both.
Tuning is something I address often in my teaching, partially because I feel like it was missing in my early music education. With so many things to address in young players, it’s not surprising that intonation gets left for later.
As a young player I knew I didn’t really understand tuning. I could tell if something was really wrong, but I never knew if I was sharp or flat and it took me what felt like forever to remember if you push in to be more sharp or flat. (If you’re reading this and you don’t know: to make the instrument higher push in to be short and high like a piccolo; to make the instrument lower pull the headjoint out so the flute is longer and lower.)
What I did know as a young musician was that if I tried something - rolling in, rolling out, pushing the headjoint in or pulling it out, I could figure out the right way to adjust (it becomes pretty clear if you go the wrong way!)
A few of the tools that truly helped me along the way to develop practical skills and understanding of intonation were playing long tones with the tuner, harmonics, and playing duets with others.
My skill in intonation improved steadily but slowly as I went through high school and college. Along the way I learned the difficult lesson that if we play a note out of tune long enough, our ears memorize that incorrect tuning as where the note belongs.
For example, as flutists we often struggle with the intonation of notes that are quite flexible like C# and high G. Not only does that mean we end up memorizing the placement of those notes out of tune, but also that we memorize the distance of intervals involving those notes incorrectly as well.
As you might guess, one of my major tasks was to correct my ear’s memory. I needed to really understand where each note belonged.
I knew leaving undergrad that I was still facing much of this task, and during my Master’s degree my teacher Stephanie Jutt helped me tremendously with this by catching the places where I had a wrong relationship memorized, and by reinforcing the usefulness of playing with a drone.
Using a drone for practice was not new to me, but making a point to do it consistently was. Like most things that are worthwhile, it takes time and patience to start to hear more intricately what is happening with tuning beyond just the large, glaring discrepancies. Although it may seem mundane, one of the greatest benefits of doing scales and chords with a drone is learning to hear and feel the correct relationships between the notes in a scale, a chord, or a specific interval.
When I was in school we used “The Tuning CD” (yes it was an actual CD) which had midi versions of chords that you could play along with. It worked, but if you’re familiar with earlier midi sounds, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing to listen to for a long period of time.
One of my favorite resources for playing with a drone now in teaching and my own practice is on Spotify (and probably other music services, although I haven't checked): Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation.
Playing with the cello sound is not only more pleasant than midi, but I think comparing our tuning to a natural timbre is helpful with providing perspective on how tone color and quality can impact our intonation.
When we practice with a drone, or any time we practice intonation, the activity we’re taking part is a simple and obvious one: listening.
What makes this particular type of listening so different from our day to day listening is the depth we are cultivating. When we intently listen with intonation in mind, we are listening for the slightest variance we can detect in that moment. We are actively growing our capacity to hear smaller and smaller details.
Intonation is all about relationships.
We can’t tell if we’re in tune or not if there is nothing to make a comparison to. When we are playing by ourselves, this means we need those note-to-note relationships to be accurate, and we need to use them as a guide. When we play with others, it means committing to listening without making the assumption that we’re the one who is right and then being willing to adjust as necessary.
A willingness to listen deeply and adjust are the prerequisites for good intonation.
Ultimately, this requires us to get outside of ourselves and experience what we’re hearing both intellectually and physically (Most of us have encountered the physical feelings of dissonance - when you can actually feel the vibration of the notes fighting against each other).
Playing in tune also requires us to let go - to release the previous placement of notes that we committed to if we can learn a new and better way. And, to let go of the need to be right (does it matter if your intonation is right if you sticking to where you put the note makes everyone sound bad?).
Being a musician who plays with good intonation looks a lot like being a human who plays well with others - both require us to learn to trust ourself and our ears fully but not blindly.
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.