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.
I had a great conversation with a friend this week where we were discussing right effort, the way our thoughts shape our actions, and specifically, how we use our thinking to avoid challenges and challenging work.
It was a little light bulb moment for me about how what might feel like a persistent self-critical train of thought might actually be a sneaky method of avoidance.
Think about how often we make critical statements about ourselves in our thoughts. We see someone performing well and think we can’t, or we look at someone who is in shape and think we could never manage the self discipline. Perhaps when you are practicing you have thoughts that some aspect of your playing will just never be very strong.
In some ways these thoughts can feel helpful, even productive. It feels like we are identifying the places we are deficient, that we are creating a laundry list of ways we’d like to be better, and selecting things we will work on later (probably).
But are we really creating a productive task list? Or are we repeating a predictable, easy list of “things to do” that makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere, substituting it for actionable steps or objectives?
Being a good musician requires us to think critically, but the quality of the feedback we are giving ourself matters.
The next time you catch yourself thinking a generic critical statement in the practice room, see if you can catch it and challenge yourself to go deeper. Not just identifying what is bad, but really naming the specifics - what do you want to change and how you could do that. Even if you don't land on the right solution on the first try, which we usually don't, you're moving in a productive direction.
Do your best to keep seeing the moment in depth, and try to stop those generic critical thoughts from pulling you off track.
Have a clear intention for your actions and keep looking close to avoid getting caught up in generalities.
Of course this isn’t as easy as just saying something needs work and moving on like we regularly might. Our usual laundry list of critiques does serve a purpose - it lets us feel like we are accomplishing something.
Changing our habits and getting to the root of our critical thoughts doesn’t have to be painful, though. In fact, I think it should be the opposite. As we start to see the results of employing truly critical thinking, we’re motivated to keep up the good work. You might even feel less bad overall because you are no longer simply identifying things you don’t like about yourself or your habits.
Creating a healthier approach to critical thinking comes from right effort, curiosity, mindfulness, and a willingness to sit with some discomfort. By making our efforts more intentional we can have a more equanimous approach to ourselves and the things that are important to us.
The mind-body connection is both simple and straightforward and incredibly complex. It makes sense that our thoughts and our physical body would be intertwined (we do carry our brain around in our body all the time!), but the ways they affect each other are many and it can be overwhelming to consider how we might address this to improve our day to day life, performance, and ability to play and communicate through our instruments.
I love exploring the mind-body connection through yoga. I’ve learned so much about anatomy through my yoga practice and teacher training, and I have gained a lot of understanding about the way our fascia, muscles, and bones work. (I’m still learning, of course - this is not a small topic!)
No one part of the body operates alone.
As an example, recently I was finding that one side of my jaw/tongue felt stiff and immobile when I was practicing. My initial thought was that I must have been clenching my teeth throughout the day or while sleeping. As I observed myself, though, that proved not to be the case.
Further observation led me to notice that when I turned my head I could feel strain/tension in the muscles around my collar bone that connect the shoulder and (surprise!) the jaw on the side of the tongue where I was experiencing limited mobility. By following up with some simple exercises for the point of origin in my shoulder and neck, I was able to relieve the tension inside my mouth.
It’s not just our physical body that benefits from this kind of knowledge and attention. In the situation I described above, understanding that the limitations I had been experiencing in articulation and mobility around the jaw were coming from something clearly temporary and fixable gave me a peace of mind in practice and the ability to plan well to alleviate those issues.
This is a small example of how growing our understanding of the way the body works can help us solve problems in our practice and understand barriers that come up in playing and practice.
I always try to be on the lookout for ways to deepen my understanding of how the physical and mental aspects of playing are connected.
Recently, I’ve been discussing the role of the sinuses and soft palate in tone production with a lot of my students. I once had a teacher explain this to me by saying that you should raise the space just above the center of your eyebrows inside your head. (Did you try it? It’s possible! Kind of weird, right?)
You can create a similar feeling by breathing in quickly through the nose, or by mimicking the beginning of a yawn (are you yawning now from trying that?).
Doing this helps us create resonance by using open space real estate already available in our head - the sinuses!
As I was working through this concept with a student, I was thinking about how that space above the center of the eyebrows is also the location of the third eye or anja chakra.
In yoga, the third eye chakra is our seat of knowing or intuition. It acts as our center of wisdom and consciousness. This chakra allows for clear thought and self-reflection, and when it’s balanced trades “me vs. them” for a more interconnected approach to thought.
When this chakra is blocked or out of alignment we might notice tension around the brow or headaches, sinus issues, or trouble concentrating and sleeping. Emotionally, we might feel a lot of self-doubt and worry, or find ourselves overthinking a lot if the third eye is out of balance. A blocked anja chakra can impede our ability to be confident.
Have you already noticed some connections between the third eye chakra and what we do as musicians? At our best, we want to be able to connect with our audience and our fellow musicians - we strive to stay open to others in performance. Not to mention that I think we’re always in need of clear self reflection and the ability to trust our intuition and abilities without overthinking.
I don’t think it’s a far stretch to consider how the third eye chakra and the same space in our physical body might be connected in the creation of resonance and our sound, not to mention our phrasing and clear communication through music.
So, how can we bring this concept into a more concrete application? How can we balance this chakra that it will benefit our musicianship? Some of these ideas may be things you already do in your practice and performance. If that’s the case, focusing on them in a new way might help to bring about new benefits or a greater understanding.
Visualization is a great way to focus the mind.
Try visualizing yourself in detail, playing at your best and connecting with your audience and fellow musicians. Or, visualize tension leaving the area at the center of the forehead, like a light flowing through allowing you to open up resonance and the third eye.
Moving your body is a great way to balance any of the chakras.
To bring the third eye back into balance, try child’s pose. Rest your head on a block, blanket, or the mat/floor and gently rock the head from side to side. Any gentle neck stretches will also help with opening up this part of the physical body.
Meditation is a powerful way to balance the mind and the third eye.
Try a guided mindfulness meditation. Or, simply sit quietly and with stillness, allowing yourself to be present to your thoughts and feelings.
At first it can feel like a far stretch to combine the chakras with an aspect of musical performance like tonal resonance. As we grow our understanding that the body and mind are always intertwined, we close the gap between thinking of them as two separate entities and open up new resources for ourself as musicians.
We are all aware that nothing is perfect. Logically, we know this is true and yet we continue to strive for perfection anyway. The dissonance this creates can be pervasive for musicians - we desperately want perfect response, performances, stage presence and technique even as we are fully aware that absolute perfection is impossible.
This disconnect between what we want and what we know is possible can leave us with a distinct dissatisfaction; a nagging feeling that we are not capable of what we hope to achieve.
So if we’re not really striving for perfection, what are we working toward?
In Terry Orlick’s book “The Pursuit of Excellence” he emphasizes connected focus. In a solitary sport or pursuit, this means being fully connected to the task at hand. But there are a variety of layers to this - in chamber music, it could be connecting to your fellow musicians; in teaching it might mean to focus on fully connecting with your students through what you are teaching. It could even mean focused listening when you are the audience and not the performer.
Having this connected focus in mind has proven incredibly helpful for me in tying together elements of mindfulness and yoga with my musical practice and performance, and particularly helpful in learning to work with and through performance anxiety.
Last weekend, I hosted a big event for around fifty flutists. Beyond organizing and coordinating, I had three performances spanning across the entire day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a concerto performance in the evening. My biggest anxieties about the day were tied to my ability to maintain my focus with so many important things happening at once, and how my attention might hijack those performances.
Leading up to the day I made sure to stick to my regular meditation practice because I knew it would help me to manage racing and distracting thoughts (among other benefits), but I also made an added priority of connected focus. I imagined the ways I would connect with attendees, focus on the message of the music or the other musicians I was performing with, and how I would stay present to the overall message of the music and the day. When the big day finally arrived, I did my best to do all of those things in the moment.
Were my performances perfect? Absolutely not. Neither was the day. But they were both meaningful, connective, and engaged. I rolled with the punches in both performance and coordinating as best I could and focused on the desired outcome that a connected focus would bring.
Overall, I had an easier time accessing my focus and accepting the things that did not go as well as I might have hoped.
Of course I’m still a human (and a musician), and after the fact I found myself ruminating on some of those imperfections even though I was managing my emotions better than I might have in the past.
In the days following the event I was reading “Think Again” by Adam Grant, and in one of the chapters he talks about embracing imperfections - even going as far as to acknowledge or advertise them. (The book gives the example of applying for a job and not camouflaging things that you know might be viewed as detriments). Grant’s point is that by acknowledging weaknesses and getting them out of the way we can focus on emphasizing our strengths fully.
This connected with my recent experience in a small light bulb moment. I don’t have to get up on stage and announce my weaknesses to the audience, but I can take Grant’s advice when preparing for or reflecting on this situation and future events and performances.
If I acknowledge my weaknesses, noting what could have been better and, most importantly, what I can learn from them, I can move forward with more ease and more growth toward my goal of connected focus.
In the heat of performance this approach of accepting imperfections while maintaining connected focus helps me to release the past and stay in the present with my mind on the right things. When I’m working with a student it allows me to do a better job of staying a curious listener that is engaged in what they are saying and experiencing.
The most valuable thing we have to gain is the ability to see ourselves as musicians with more perspective and balance. To see both the things that need work as well as the things we do well. To have the opportunity to make sure that we are learning from both our imperfections and our strengths equally.
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.