Do you ever notice that when you are busy you somehow accomplish a wild number of things in one day, yet when you have all the time in the world it can be hard to get any one project done?
With deadlines looming or people counting on us, it becomes quite clear how we need to use our free time.
I always thought that I was someone who thrived under a little pressure. As a student I would procrastinate just enough on papers and studying so that I would feel the pressure of my deadlines, and then I would sit down and crank out the work that needed done.
In hindsight, what I was creating for myself were constructive time constraints. Knowing I only had two weeks until the exit exams for my Master’s degree meant that instead of sitting and chatting with friends over coffee I needed to study over my many daily caffeinated beverages.
As a freelancer, this means that when I have a half hour break from teaching and there is a gig coming up I practice instead of faffing on the internet.
It turns out that I don't have remarkable self control, I just have constraints.
With summer just starting here and school finally ending for almost all of my students, I see them relax at the evaporation of the rigid constraints of school. They have space to sleep in, see their friends, go swimming, and get outside - all things that are necessary for kids who have spent so much of the year stressing over grades and standardized tests.
But as necessary as this space to play, daydream, and relax is, the lack of schedule often wrecks some havoc on practicing.
I’ve made some adjustments over time to how I teach in the summer to help my students keep improving without feeling like I am sucking the spontaneity out of their time off:
We take a break! Each summer begins with a week off from lessons and ends that way, too. If you’ve been a student at any point, you know how special and bittersweet the transition in and out of summer can be. Add in the time I am away for summer festivals and conventions and we average a decent amount of lessons without the requirement to be present each week.
I encourage creative practicing. During the school year most of my students squeeze their practice in during study halls or at night, but in the summer they can practice at whatever time of day feels right to them. Do they enjoy playing outside? Perfect for the nice weather and neighborhood enjoyment. Do they have a friend from school they could visit and practice with? Who says practice can’t be social sometimes! Do they hate sitting down for a full hour of practice? Divide it in half or thirds!
We have an end goal in mind. Although we are more relaxed in the summer, we’re still focused in lessons on moving forward in our skills. Having a recital at the end of the summer gives my students both an objective and something to look forward to. I make the recital on the same Sunday each year so that families know to plan for it well in advance.
We play something fun. I have a fairly structured curriculum I like to use in lessons, and although I adapt it to each student, they don’t always get to pick their repertoire. In the summer, I encourage them to find pop music, movie music or write down a song they like by ear that they could play at our recital. Getting to exercise choice after school and standardized testing season can feel like a real treat.
There are many applications of healthy constraints in our lives (personal boundaries being a great example) and in our practice rooms (using a timer and setting specific objectives for each session) but I was inspired to think a little differently about how constraints can help us by my old house and renovation projects.
When you live in a historic home built in 1900 or before, there are quirks - odd sized rooms, rules about keeping certain historical features, and old wiring are a few examples. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to change the space the way you might think is ideal, but there is always a creative solution to make the best of the space you have.
Having an old house is a lot like our playing and musicianship. The old foundation of how we’ve learned is there, but there is always a way to update the space and use our perspective and knowledge to make it better.
Our culture pushes make-your-own schedules, self-employment, and autonomy as the ultimate freedoms, but we’re missing the mark thinking that everything should be unbound. Healthy structures help us achieve our goals and enjoy the time we spend in work and activities.
Remember that even if you can't change your schedule, you can always exercise control over how you spend your time. Even if it’s just deciding how to divide those thirty minutes of practice.
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.
As I was sitting here staring at a blank page thinking and thinking about how I didn’t have anything to write, it occurred to me how much time I spend thinking so hard about so many different things that don’t really matter very much, or maybe aren't even real.
Why did that one G come out so funny in rehearsal last week? Why do I feel so disorganized about what I need to practice? Why can’t I remember to water my plants? Why didn’t I plan better before I went grocery shopping this week?
I would guess not everyone does this to the same extremes, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in the amount of brain space and time I can spend considering a lot of important (and unimportant) things ad nauseam.
A few days ago I caught myself doing this while I was practicing. I’ve written about different scenarios of this before, but for some reason it sparked a light bulb moment this week, even though I’ve already experienced similar realizations. (We keep being given the same messages until we learn what we need from them, I think.)
When I’ve written about this before it was about overthinking that happens when we have so much on our to-do lists that we catastrophize all of it to the point of not being able to get started. My experience this week was different in a subtle, but important way.
As I was practicing, I was honed in on something that felt a little weird or “off” in my playing - something that, I kept thinking, I should be able to do effortlessly and that I shouldn’t ever have to think about at this point. I caught myself thinking that this particular aspect of my playing was so solid and easy before, how could I have regressed so that it wasn’t?
As I was ruminating, out of nowhere and for a brief moment, I had a sliver of outside perspective. I remembered the reality of previous practice sessions days, months, and even years ago. I realized that I might not have been paying much attention to this aspect of my playing before, but that wasn’t because it was perfect. I remembered clearly other times that I had off-days with this particular skill.
This tiny moment of clarity allowed the thought fog to lift and reminded me that we really can’t believe everything we think.
I had been understandably frustrated with something that doesn’t usually require my attention, but in allowing my frustration to run rampant I had started telling myself stories that went well beyond the actual experience at hand about my abilities, approach, and playing without even realizing how far into the fabricated future I was letting my thoughts travel.
Even though this experience was subtle, it felt like a huge step forward. How long would I have created unnecessary frustration and distraction over this issue in my practice if I hadn’t been able to see what was happening with a wider perspective?
I believe whole heartedly that mindfulness meditation is what has created an increasing number of these very subtle “ah-ha” moments for me both in music and life.
Much like practicing our instruments, practicing mindfulness can seem slow to progress and sometimes tedious, but the growth is always available to you if you are willing to stick with the practice.
How aware are you of your thoughts in the practice room?
Can you really see where the division is between what’s happening now in the moment and what you’re predicting about the future?
How could you strengthen your mind to see the moment clearly?
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.
Have you ever heard your teachers say their goal is for you to “teach yourself”?
It’s a common goal in music for teachers to discuss this concept, because at some point every student steps out on their own without a teacher they see each week to keep them on track. Although we can always choose to work with a teacher, no one knows us better than ourself. We all become independent learners at some point.
When we’re a student, growing the ability to teach ourself can look like taking our teacher’s advice about practice techniques, time management, listening, etc., and learning how to apply it appropriately in the practice room. During this time in our development, we still get to check in each week to make sure we’ve applied the tools correctly and are moving in the appropriate direction.
What about after school? We don't all go into teaching, but I've learned a lot about teaching myself from teaching others. I view my students very objectively - my goal is always to really see and hear what they are doing, notice what is holding them back, and find creative solutions that work for them specifically. (i.e. My mean inner critic never comes out when I’m listening to a student the way it does when I’m “teaching” myself.)
Beyond the reality that we are much meaner to ourselves than we are to others, there’s also the fact that we usually learn to guide ourselves at the same time we lose both our access to private lessons and the structure of music school. When it’s up to us to create our learning structure, that can prove a large hurdle in itself.
So when we really get down to practicing and improving on our own, how can we balance (or just plain shush) the inner critic who always has a lot of mean and distracting things to say but not nearly enough productive feedback to give?
I think there’s something missing from the whole process of the way that we are taught to approach teaching ourselves, and how we are taught to manage our fear and self criticism from the beginning.
This is a recent realization for me, brought on by a truly inspirational session of George Mumford’s mindful athlete course. During that particular session, it came up for a few people that they still feel so much doubt or anxiety doing the things they are skilled at. That as we build skill and expertise, we can often feel even more susceptible to outer judgement, and especially to self criticism.
In these scenarios where we know that we are able to do something, but afraid to realize our inner masterpiece (as George calls it), we can feel paralyzed. How do we keep moving toward our goals without getting distracted from right effort by our doubt and self criticism?
When we’re really being vulnerable and pushing ourselves it can often feel like our faith or trust in ourselves, and what we’re doing, has vanished. We can be distracted by the difficulty and demand of what we are trying to do. What we need is to cultivate trust in ourselves, our performance, our message, and our ability to show up in the way we need to.
Personally, I can feel overwhelmed by perfectionist thoughts, and this understanding that the mental barrier is arising from vulnerability and trying something challenging makes it easier to address.
How do we address it exactly, though? How do we cultivate trust?
See the moment in depth:
* Either reflect back on when you challenged yourself and felt vulnerable or try to experience that moment deeply in real time.
* Were you scared the entire time? As you look deeper, you will realize that there is a lot more nuance to it than that.
* Are you self critical the entire time? Or can you look with more intention to see beyond the self criticism and notice all the ways you know to help yourself practice well and grow your playing.
* As you start to see the truth in depth, see your fear and your inner critic, and also see how they intertwine with the entirety of your experience.
As you start to become aware of the truth - the depth of your experience - you will become more relaxed and observant which allows you to move forward moment by moment, doing what you know to do. You can focus on right effort.
Teaching ourselves is an exercise in mindfulness - how are we speaking to ourselves? What are we paying attention to, and do we need to shift our attention? How are deeply are we experiencing the moment?
The objective is not to remove our doubt, but to make doubt the tool for learning. Know that doubt shows you where you can grow.
At some point during the same session of the Mindful Athlete George said, “when you want to learn something, teach it.”
What better way could there be to grow as a musician than to learn to mindfully teach ourself?
I have been reading, and thinking, a lot about time lately. Then again, doesn’t it always seem like we are thinking about time?
How much can I get done today, how much is left to do, there’s not enough time to cook or do laundry, how many more students could I teach, etc…
I’ve just started reading Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, and already it has made me reconsider the way we perceive time and how we’ve come to interact with time the way we do.
Just before starting this book, I had a conversation with my husband that I never imagined I would have - I actually said out loud that I would like to be less busy.
As musicians, we’re primed from an early age to know how to be busy successfully, and that to be busy is to be successful. But lately, as my plates continue to fill with activities that feel an awful lot like busywork, I’m wondering how much of that actually equals success?
If I am constantly teaching but never have time for the deep, intensive practice that is required to perform the way I want I am busy, and maybe successful? What if I consider the type of students am I teaching, how well I am teaching, and how much my performance abilities suffer - do I still feel successful?
If I never have time to sit down and flesh out new ideas for classes and workshops or to codify what I am learning from teaching and performing, I am definitely busy but what about successful?
If I can’t enjoy time with my family or doing activities I love because I am working so much, it’s possible I am both busy and successful, but not content.
All of these questions are very personal - we all want different things, and we've all reached varying levels of achievement to this point.
As I was reading Four Thousand Weeks last night, I came across two passages in the book that really made me pause:
“…you have too much to do, so you try to fit more in, but the ironic result is that you end up with more to do. The worst aspect of the [efficiency] trap is, though, is that it’s also a matter of quality. The harder you struggle to fit everything in, the more of your time you’ll find yourself spending on the least meaningful things.”
“The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use of a portion of your time.”
I can relate to these statements at my core. I’ve had that feeling so often that time is slipping away and that I never quite get enough done to really treat myself to spending time on the important stuff.
It’s exactly how I was feeling when I said I’d like to be less busy (it’s still seems weird to say that out loud!). Isn’t that why we work so hard in the first place? Not to add more to our plates, but to be able to choose what’s on it in the first place.
Even in just the first few chapters of Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman makes the point that as we get more skilled and gain more resources our culture does not reward us with time - it rewards us with more to do and higher demands.
I feel a strong urge to release things right now - even some good things - to have space. Space to be still, to sit and think, to practice and not be rushed.
What would it be like if we weren’t constantly chained to exterior time keepers like the demands of others and the sense that we need to be everywhere and everything to be worthwhile? I think it would feel luxurious, and probably also incredibly challenging because it would require directly opposing the cultural norm: busy = value.
Isn’t it interesting, too, that just talking about doing less sounds lazy, selfish, and entitled? Or at least that’s how I’m feeling talking about it. Not to mention the financial factor here - there’s only so much we can choose not to do before the bills pile up, so some of this is daydreaming for sure.
And still, I’d like to cancel a few things this week. Free up some time to practice, to plan, to write…maybe even to do nothing.
Is there a way to shift how we relate to time in our current culture? I’m not sure, but it’s fun to think about.
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.
At the end of a semester, a school year, or a long project we might notice ourselves lacking in energy. How inconvenient that we often hit this energy lull right when we need to push toward the finish line.
Lately, I’ve noticed this in my students as their energy levels drop and their attention to detail goes along for the ride.
This is the end of the first “regular” school year post-pandemic; we’re busier than we have been in two years, bouncing right back to the same expectations as the before times.
Is it any wonder that we feel a little tapped out?
It’s not just my students that are running low on energy - I am also finding myself feeling drained at the end of each day, and wishing for an extra hour of sleep when my alarm goes off.
Fortunately I am more aware than I used to be of the ways I can help bolster myself for a busy life. I know that practicing yoga, meditation, eating well, and making sure I have time to practice the flute all help me feel prepared, calm, and generally well. But knowing these things help doesn’t make it any easier to fit them in when my schedule feels stuffed to the brim.
I would guess I’m not the only person who can feel even more stressed about fitting in the “good stuff” when time is lacking. It can easily become just another thing that we have to check off the list each day.
The necessity of our responsibilities isn’t going away any time soon, so how can we find the extra boost we need to recommit to finishing a task well?
By making time to have fun.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? Thinking, “I’m busy and tired and she is really suggesting that I have fun?!”
Well, I am.
Hear me out - it’s not as trite as it sounds.
I am not saying to drop everything and take an island vacation. In fact, I’m almost suggesting the opposite. Find somewhere in your day that you can genuinely enjoy an activity. Preferably, an activity that has nothing to do with your to-do list.
Maybe it’s the ten minutes you read a book by your favorite author at the end of the day. Or, the time it takes to do the daily Wordle over your morning cup of coffee. It could be driving with the windows down and the radio turned up or taking a walk to get some fresh air.
As you might have guessed, those are some of my current favorites. Your list might be completely different. Identifying the things that genuinely bring you joy is an important step in helping ourselves create more brain space for the tasks we have to do.
You are doing something good for yourself at a foundational level by identifying these every day things that bring you joy - you’re setting yourself up to have somewhere you can go easily when you feel your mind or body becoming weary. Not somewhere you can escape to in avoidance for a day or a week or in place of completion, but a place you can hold space for yourself on a regular basis.
Prioritizing these small pockets of joy works because it is when we allow our brain to take a break that it really gets to work. As we rest and relax the brain codifies information, correlates the things we have learned, and rejuvenates itself. Have you ever put down a difficult puzzle only to come back later and instantly see what you had been missing?
None of us like to acknowledge it, but when we really feel there is no time or energy is exactly when we need to carve out space for these small joys. Soak them up fully for a short time each day and carry the joy back to your work.
We are all aware that nothing is perfect. Logically, we know this is true and yet we continue to strive for perfection anyway. The dissonance this creates can be pervasive for musicians - we desperately want perfect response, performances, stage presence and technique even as we are fully aware that absolute perfection is impossible.
This disconnect between what we want and what we know is possible can leave us with a distinct dissatisfaction; a nagging feeling that we are not capable of what we hope to achieve.
So if we’re not really striving for perfection, what are we working toward?
In Terry Orlick’s book “The Pursuit of Excellence” he emphasizes connected focus. In a solitary sport or pursuit, this means being fully connected to the task at hand. But there are a variety of layers to this - in chamber music, it could be connecting to your fellow musicians; in teaching it might mean to focus on fully connecting with your students through what you are teaching. It could even mean focused listening when you are the audience and not the performer.
Having this connected focus in mind has proven incredibly helpful for me in tying together elements of mindfulness and yoga with my musical practice and performance, and particularly helpful in learning to work with and through performance anxiety.
Last weekend, I hosted a big event for around fifty flutists. Beyond organizing and coordinating, I had three performances spanning across the entire day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a concerto performance in the evening. My biggest anxieties about the day were tied to my ability to maintain my focus with so many important things happening at once, and how my attention might hijack those performances.
Leading up to the day I made sure to stick to my regular meditation practice because I knew it would help me to manage racing and distracting thoughts (among other benefits), but I also made an added priority of connected focus. I imagined the ways I would connect with attendees, focus on the message of the music or the other musicians I was performing with, and how I would stay present to the overall message of the music and the day. When the big day finally arrived, I did my best to do all of those things in the moment.
Were my performances perfect? Absolutely not. Neither was the day. But they were both meaningful, connective, and engaged. I rolled with the punches in both performance and coordinating as best I could and focused on the desired outcome that a connected focus would bring.
Overall, I had an easier time accessing my focus and accepting the things that did not go as well as I might have hoped.
Of course I’m still a human (and a musician), and after the fact I found myself ruminating on some of those imperfections even though I was managing my emotions better than I might have in the past.
In the days following the event I was reading “Think Again” by Adam Grant, and in one of the chapters he talks about embracing imperfections - even going as far as to acknowledge or advertise them. (The book gives the example of applying for a job and not camouflaging things that you know might be viewed as detriments). Grant’s point is that by acknowledging weaknesses and getting them out of the way we can focus on emphasizing our strengths fully.
This connected with my recent experience in a small light bulb moment. I don’t have to get up on stage and announce my weaknesses to the audience, but I can take Grant’s advice when preparing for or reflecting on this situation and future events and performances.
If I acknowledge my weaknesses, noting what could have been better and, most importantly, what I can learn from them, I can move forward with more ease and more growth toward my goal of connected focus.
In the heat of performance this approach of accepting imperfections while maintaining connected focus helps me to release the past and stay in the present with my mind on the right things. When I’m working with a student it allows me to do a better job of staying a curious listener that is engaged in what they are saying and experiencing.
The most valuable thing we have to gain is the ability to see ourselves as musicians with more perspective and balance. To see both the things that need work as well as the things we do well. To have the opportunity to make sure that we are learning from both our imperfections and our strengths equally.
Did you ever notice that when you think too hard about how much there is to be done it seems completely impossible to do it all in the time you have available?
And yet, every time we have this feeling, if we start putting one foot in front of the other, things get done. Miraculously (with a little perseverance) time after time the work gets done.
None of this is new information - we’ve all heard this before: just getting started, do one thing, the two minute rule (if you can do it in two minutes or less, get it done).
Even though we know it though, don’t we all forget? How many times have you had the rising feeling of panic about getting it all done, or procrastinated because it felt impossible to finish everything you needed to do anyway?
I have that tendency to languish in all the tasks that lay ahead. Not for very long, but I always do. There are studies about how whining makes us feel better, so I’ll chock that tendency up to science. Once I get it out of my system and get started, though, the work is the enjoyable part. It feels good to get things done, make progress on a new piece, or see consistency develop in my playing.
I’m in a busy season, and I’ve definitely had my short-lived whining moments (which feel pretty good, if I’m being honest). But now that I’m getting things done I’m reminded that they enjoyment really comes from knowing that you can.
If you’re feeling stuck right now, this blog is a little nudge to take a step forward, even if it’s a small one. Momentum creates momentum.
Time to go practice.
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.