We hear a lot about how playing an instrument is so beneficial because of all the ways it activates our brain.
We are not simply learning to play the flute in our studies, but rather to physically hold the instrument, use the correct finger combinations, count rhythms, maintain tempo, remember the key signature, understand the context of what we are playing……you get the point.
It’s no wonder that we can often find ourselves mentally overwhelmed as our playing becomes more advanced and we continue to try and dissect each of these tasks to critique our progress.
Have you ever found yourself thinking so hard about something you want to do while playing that you can’t seem to come anywhere close to it? Maybe you have repeated something so many times and found so many reasons to critique yourself that everything sounds wrong - like a word that you’ve said out loud so much that it doesn’t even sound like a word anymore. Or, you could have experienced questioning something you've done a thousand times, like playing a high F#.
These are all common examples of overthinking for many musicians.
When we put too much emphasis on our evaluation of each and every skill, we begin to negate the neuroplasticity that happens through learning. We spend all our practice time in an effort to be able to consistently (and automatically) repeat the actions needed to play well, and then undermine all the work we have done with our perfectionistic overanalyzing.
So how do you begin to trust the actions and skills that you have cultivated?
You fully experience them.
Instead of thinking about what you are doing when playing, you have to begin to feel it. To hand over the nit-picking in exchange for focusing on this exact moment.
If we can be open to the present moment we become grounded in the body. We trust ourselves. And if we can stay in the moment, we open the door to an effortless flow state that allows all the skills we have cultivated to come to the surface because we no longer stand in their way.
Try it - what happens if you play your instrument and truly focus on the feeling of playing in this exact moment? How is it different than thinking about all the ways the current moment could be better?
Wind players with too much wind? Is that possible?
Do you ever take a deep breath to play - a really good one, where you can feel your lungs expand all the way around - and then immediately feel like you are about to run out of air?
Have you had a moment of panic in performance when you can feel the sensation of breathlessness setting in and then run out of air even faster than you might have otherwise?
Many famous flutists have taught the concept of only breathing for the phrase, meaning taking in only the amount of air the phrase dictates rather than as much as you possibly can. Of course this makes sense as it creates a natural phrase and enables an organic breath in at the end of the phrase before beginning another.
Only in recent years are we seeing scientific studies that explain why this teaching concept is correct and how we can actually be over-saturated with oxygen. This can even happen (and does frequently for a large number of people) during completely mundane activities like watching tv and sleeping.
If it’s possible to have too much oxygen in our system when we are doing something as inactive as binging Netflix, it stands to reason that we could certainly be over-breathing without even realizing it while playing our instruments.
There is no way to provide the broad picture of how beneficial both efficient, anatomically correct natural breathing and structured breathwork are for all of us in this blog. However, a little knowledge of some foundational basics of breath are important. I really believe that most of us would map how our breath works in the body incorrectly if we had to describe it.
Oxygen keeps us alive. It helps our body circulate many of the nutrients it needs. Breathing, when done correctly, can stimulate the vagus nerve and calm our nervous system (or the opposite if we are truly in danger). Our breath removes toxins from the body, with the big one being CO2. In fact, when you lose weight, you lose most of it in the CO2 of your out-breath.
Amazed yet? Our breath does incredible things in the body on its own when it is working properly. When we take it a step further and practice breathwork techniques like pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or conscious breathwork we can learn to calm, soothe and ground ourselves. We can even begin to rewrite neural patterns that have been created by traumatic events or just plan bad habits.
Now that we have some background, let’s get back to CO2.
Most of us habitually over-breathe. Check yourself right now: is your mouth open? Are you breathing in and out of your mouth while you read?
Notice if there is anyone around you. Are they breathing through their mouth right now?
When we breathe through our mouths, not only do we miss out on the crucial passage of air through our nose and sinuses, we breathe more and more shallowly. This continued shallow breathing builds up the oxygen in our system and creates not only a lack of CO2, but also an intolerance to it.
A lack of tolerance to CO2 means that as we come to the end of an exhale, hold our breath, or breathe out for a long phrase while playing a wind instrument, we can’t sit with the discomfort of having more CO2 present and breathe in rapidly or immediately.
As wind players, we interact with our CO2 tolerance every day, usually without ever learning about it.
When playing our instruments we are often expelling air to the point of discomfort. In addition, we deal with nervousness, which can cause shallow breathing and bring the discomfort of CO2 intolerance to the forefront.
If we are breathing in more often then we need to when playing or breathing in a fast shallow way when we’re nervous, then we are actively bringing a greater and greater amount of oxygen into our system. In turn, our lack discomfort with CO2 grows.
I think it’s worth emphasizing that CO2 is not just a waste gas, but an important part of the cycle of breath and rejuvenation of the complex systems in our body.
One of the most practical ways to improve our breath control and capacity in our playing is not through fancy breathing exercises, but rather by paying attention to our every day habits and behaviors.
A remarkable number of us are mouth breathers. Again, check right now - are you breathing through the nose or the mouth?
Just by increasing the amount of time you spend breathing in through the nose you can feel more calm, increase your CO2 tolerance, and strengthen the systems in your body that are built around breathing.
Some practical ways you can increase your nose breathing (Please note that I am not a doctor and if you have contraindications like a heart or lung issue, you should talk to your doctor before trying any of these exercises):
These are changes we can implement every day to help ourselves feel more calm, feel more “comfortable” with that low-on-air feeling, and to have a healthier relationship with our breath.
Begin with your daily habits. Awareness is key, and by simply becoming more aware you can create huge health benefits for yourself.
When you feel ready to go beyond the daily habits, there are few basic exercises we can start with to build and grow our CO2 tolerance:
Many professional athletes have seen huge improvements in their performance through breathwork and exercises for CO2 tolerance. Doesn’t it make sense that we might also benefit as wind players who work with oxygen and CO2 every time we pick up our instrument?
I want to include a snippet of my personal experience since I started exploring breathwork in the last year as a testament to the impact it can have.
One of the things I have always struggled with in performance is the feeling of breathlessness. Some of this comes from nervous shallow breathing, which I have done my whole life. That habit was amplified during a period of time when I had a B12 deficiency (which can lead to breathlessness) and created even more subconscious poor breathing habits.
Recently, when I was away for an orchestra festival I used a large hill on the campus where we were staying to build on my nose breathing walks. Every day we had rehearsal over the three weeks, I walked up this (VERY!) steep hill to rehearsal slowly enough that I could continue breathing through my nose. If I started breathing through my mouth or feeling like I needed to, I stopped until I could continue on breathing only through the nose.
Not only did my pace improve (admittedly it started out pretty slow - that hill is big!), but my feelings of breathlessness due to nerves in rehearsal and performance became more manageable and notably different. I was shocked at the rapidity of the change. It certainly inspired me to continue exploring all the many ways breathwork can improve my quality of life and my flute playing.
I hope you are feeling inspired to explore what your breath can do! If you are interested in the topic, I highly recommend the follow books:
Breath, by James Nestor
The Oxygen Advantage, by Patrick McKeown
A Practical Guide to Breathwork, by Jesse Coomer
Let me know - was this all new information? Are you reconsidering how you might approach your breath in play and your daily life?
How often have you thought about doing something productive and then talked yourself out of it?
Maybe you were watching some Netflix to relax and thought, I should do some laundry. Well, maybe after the next episode.
Or, I should probably practice, but I'll do it after I answer all these emails.
Trying to get started, or change directions, often presents us with a roadblock. It's much easier to stay on the couch than sort laundry. Much easier to half-heartedly respond to emails than commit your attention to practicing.
One of my favorite things that author James Clear frequently discusses is that we all tend to over-inflate the concept of productivity and the types of tasks we should be doing. When we imagine what we want to accomplish, it's often large ambiguous goals like "get in shape" or "learn new repertoire."
We are so absorbed in these grand ideas that we never really exert any effort toward them because the small practical steps that would get us there feel so far removed from the goal.
The next time you set a large goal for yourself, get specific. Not just, "I want to learn new repertoire" but "I want to learn pieces x, y, and z by a particular date for a particular purpose."
Then, set about deciding what small steps make up the process of reaching that goal.
For a student who struggles with some pain when playing or practicing, they might decide what stretches would help them. Then, make an actionable decision about when they can do them.
It always helps to attach something new we'd like to do to a task we already complete regularly. For the student addressing injury prevention, this might mean stretching their wrists each time they brush their teeth.
Not only does this fit their new actionable step into their day twice, but it utilizes something else that's crucial.
The hardest part is getting ourselves moving so it makes sense to attach an action to something you already do. This allows us the opportunity to build on actions we already take to add new, important actions to our routine.
Now, you might think that stretching twice a day for just two or three minutes isn't worth much. However, if you weren't stretching at all before you've already more than doubled your previous efforts. Five minutes of stretching each day equals over thirty hours of stretching in one year.
The only way forward is one small step at a time.
Most of us are back in the full swing of the school year. Whether you are a student (or teacher!) who has decided to stay online or you are back in the classroom, by now you have likely gotten a taste of the post summer shock that comes with suddenly having a lot of work to do and tasks to keep track of.
Students will likely be balancing a tremendously demanding course load on top of the expectations that they will practice a lot, making sure to grow their musicianship, increase their technique and play in ensembles, all while making plans for their future careers.
No big deal. (Yeah, right!)
What follows are some suggestions for how we can get the most out of our lessons and efforts while in school through tracking and reflection. There are lots of ways to do this. At the very least, I hope that this gets your wheels turning!
Everyone learns differently - it makes sense that we are all unique and so our learning styles and methods benefit from being tailored to our preferences.
I highly recommend taking a learning style quiz (Google "learning style quiz" for lots of options) and understanding if you are an aural, kinesthetic or visual learner. Perhaps you are some combination of those. Learning how you best process information allows you to identify efficient ways to retain the new information coming at you from all directions.
So, do you take notes after your lesson?
Spoiler: I think we all should.
Whether you draw something to remind you of what you learned, make a voice memo of a few important points, simply write down your tasks for the next lesson, or rewrite some of the major concepts of the lesson, you reinforce what you learned by reviewing the lesson in your mind.
Summarizing what was covered in your lesson helps you to retain the information, making it easier to apply in rehearsals and the practice room.
Some examples of things you might record after your lesson:
- What you need to do for the next lesson
- What is new? What are you working on that is a continuation of a larger project or goal?
- Objectives: What are you trying to accomplish with each assigned task?
- Sensations: What did it feel like when you did something well in the lesson? (ex: a great interval) What did you do physically that made it work?
I want to emphasize how important it is to synthesize our logical, analytical experience of what we learn with the sensations of physically doing the task (playing your instrument, singing, throwing the ball, etc).
It's not often you see an athlete taking notes and then setting them aside, assuming that the academic learning will be enough to help them make the big play in their next game. They are always connecting what they've learned studying plays or watching tapes with the action it connects to.
The better we get at articulating what it feels like to get something right, the better we will get at replicating it and teaching it.
Playing an instrument is a mental and physical activity. Our goal as musicians is always to connect what we know about the music with the correct physical action to produce the desired result we imagine every time.
How you keep track is entirely up to you. Here are some suggestions of places to keep notes for yourself:
- A voice memo (you could also record your lessons, but you should still summarize the experience for yourself)
- A special notebook that is meant just for your reflections
- A voice memo
- A document on your computer
- A notes app on a tablet (I would suggest using Do Not Disturb mode while you reflect on what you learned if you use a digital tool)
Personally, I love keeping a special notebook where I can reflect. (I still keep some of my lesson notes on hand at all times in my practice space, and sometimes even in my gig bag!) This makes sense for me as a kinesthetic and visual learner. Do what works for you!
Some other useful tools and tactics might be to keep a practice journal (separate from your lesson notes) and to make reminders that you can put within sight while you are practicing.
If you are in college and using different practice spaces often, a small sign (for example, an 8x11 sheet of paper or post-its you can trade out on an 8x11 sheet) that you can keep in your bag is a great way to carry your practice reminders with you.
A practice journal can be as detailed as you'd like (think Excel spreadsheet!) or a loose list of what you did each time you practiced. I tend to think more detail is better so that when you reflect on it later, or need to submit what you did during your semester, you have all the information you need.
Examples of what you might track in a practice journal (not an exhaustive list!):
- What you practiced
- Practice techniques used (changing rhythms, etc)
- What scales you did, what ones you need to more of, etc.
- What warmups or exercises you are using
When we are very busy in our day to day life, we can sometimes lose track of where we are headed. Your practice journal can be an excellent spot to check in each week and make sure that you are progressing toward your larger goals and deadlines. In addition, when you have finished school and need some guidance on exercises to use, or you need ideas of what to teach your students, your practice journal can help spark inspiration as you review what was assigned to you at different stages of learning.
Although I'm writing this with college students in mind, I believe that these concepts apply to any student (even adult learners!). I have never regretted taking the time to write some notes to myself as a student or an adult.
When you track your tasks, goals and experiences you are actively creating progress.
Whether you are a detailed note taker or record more generalities, the bottom line is that you are allowing yourself the important reflection time that research has shown solidifies what you learn. You are giving yourself space so that your mind and body can connect all the right dots.
In our busy-ness we often forget that it is in stillness and calm that we actually make progress.
You’ve heard all the stories about how failures are actually blessings, and how one closed door means another door opens, right?
As musicians (or as teachers, entrepreneurs, performers, administrators…) we deal with rejection a lot. We get told “no” so many times we might even stop applying for scholarships, grants, auditioning or putting ourselves out there at all.
I had an experience recently where a lot of the places I invested my efforts created some really wonderful outcomes, except for one. I won’t get into the details except to say that the rejection letter was terribly written, and for the first time in my career (or maybe even in my life) I felt like I had enough perspective to take it for what it was really worth.
So, what can do we actually learn from rejection?
In order to learn from rejection, we must be willing to learn in the first place. For example, if you make an audition tape, but aren’t willing to have anyone listen to you and give you comments before you record, are you really in it to get better? Or, are you looking for an easy win, praise or recognition?
No matter what type of work you are doing, having someone more experienced that you trust and respect view your work is always a good idea. You don’t have to broadcast your behind-the-scenes to the world, but you do have to be willing to show someone your best effort, even if you don’t think it’s good enough yet. On top of that, you have to stay open to receiving their feedback.
In order to learn from rejection, you have to be willing to try. If you have a million ideas that you love, but you never share them with anyone they will never be rejected. They’ll also never help or impact anyone else.
There are lots of ways to put your ideas into action. For example, you could consider writing down your thoughts (maybe in a blog!), creating an online workshop or a special project for your private studio. All of these things will take you time and effort, but they don’t cost a lot and give you lots of opportunities to receive feedback (make sure that you ask for some from people you trust!).
Most things won’t turn out to be a total flop, but it’s also true that every idea can’t be your best idea. To get to an outcome that is worth something, you have to be willing to share and stay open to the way it is received.
Since we are considering feedback so much, it’s crucial to remember that not everyone will like what you have to offer. Perhaps they don’t like your style of playing, or they simply aren’t interested in the topics that you feel so passionately about. That’s ok.
Here’s the most important part: it’s ok, because you don’t need to connect with everyone. You need to do work you are proud of, that is well thought out and that you care about. Even if someone doesn’t “like” it, we can all respect when someone works hard and puts in the effort on something they are invested in.
So what is the actual rejection teaching us?
* It might be teaching us that we are not at the level we need to be yet.
* It might be teaching us that we could reevaluate our effort - how are we approaching improving?
* It might be teaching us that we did everything we could, but we were not what the committee was looking for (in style, approach, expertise, etc).
* It might be teaching us to seek out more honest feedback in advance.
* It might be teaching us … nothing. Sometimes there are a lot of qualified candidates and we just don’t win the lottery that day.
*** It is always teaching us to go inward. To take an honest look at our approach and the reason we are doing things.***
Our reflection on how we got to the event that we are receiving feedback on and what we know about ourselves is teaching us a lot.
The feedback we receive in advance from knowledgeable mentors or colleagues is teaching us a lot.
But the actual rejection? The letter that shows up in your mailbox or email? That’s not teaching you anything.
What you take away from each rejection letter or “no” you get has very little to do with how it’s delivered.
If you take each of these rejections to heart, assume that the words are truthful and mean something about you and your abilities, then rejection will teach you something - that you are not worthy. It will slip into the little cracks between all the things you’re proud of and start to break apart your confidence bit by bit. It will seep into the way you think about yourself without you even noticing.
Be mindful of how you receive rejection. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself about rejection. It is possible to learn in an intentional way from your own experiences around rejection, but you must be willing to be open.
I have become very committed to my meditation practice over the last year. As with any new or developing interest, this has led me to do more research and reading on the subject, seek out references and examples of how to apply it to my daily life, and of course, to lots of meditating.
I think it’s inevitable that an interest in mindfulness meditation will lead you to some understanding of Buddhism. Buddhism is the inspiration and origin of much of what we think of as mindfulness meditation. Buddhist practices and principles can be traced back to ancient times, and if you’re like me, you might have found through your meditation journey that many are quite useful and applicable to our modern lives.
Occasionally, though, there is a concept that seems un-relatable (or just plain far out). Maybe you have even had this experience in a lesson where a perfectly intelligent and respectable teacher presents a concept to you that just seems out of place for your own playing or practice, or maybe they taught you a concept that you just find weird and hard to do or conceptualize.
Somewhere along my path of growing a meditation practice I ran into the Buddhist concept of Non-Self or No Self (anātman). At first read, it can seem a little nuts:
Non-Self: in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Instead, the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing.
(Are you wondering how this relates to music yet?)
I didn’t give a lot of thought to this concept initially, because, frankly, it’s a big one. There’s a lot to take in and consider in this view that’s very different from how we often perceive ourselves.
If we look at this concept from the simplest angle we can (which, let’s be honest, is still a bit mind-bending), then it means that each of us are always changing. That while there are things about us that may be the same from year to year or moment to moment, other aspects of us, both big and small, have changed. We are always changing in some way.
Another perspective that might be helpful is that we are not our mind and body, but we do have a mind and body. We are not our experiences or our thoughts, but we have experiences and thoughts. The mind, body, experiences and thoughts we have are always in flux in some way.
Part way through my first year of meditating, I did a guided meditation on the Ten Percent app led by Anushka Fernandopulle that addressed this concept and a little light bulb went off.
(Now we’re getting to somewhere this connects with our study and performance of music!)
The perspective that Anushka Fernandopulle shared gave the example of any mistake we might make, big or small. Mistakes are on not on purpose - if we had complete control over our self then we would never make any mistakes.
There would never be a wrong note, an out of tune note, or a late or early entrance. You would never play badly in lesson you had prepared for. You wouldn’t eat that ice cream at midnight after a gig when you weren’t even hungry.
But there are all of those things, we do play badly sometimes, and we also eat midnight snacks (not for lack of trying to do otherwise).
I’m sure that you can conjure up at least a few situations where you tried your absolute hardest, and things just didn’t come out the way you wanted.
The lightbulb moment for me in the concept of non-self though, was the idea that because things are always changing and malleable, and because we have many parts, elements, experiences and thoughts, we cannot possibly expect to control everything.
Let me repeat that for all the perfectionist musicians, including myself: because all our physical parts, our mind, our thoughts and our experiences are always changing in some way, we cannot expect to control everything.
The next time you play out of tune or miss a note, even though you practiced and prepared as best you could, do not blame yourself for making a stupid mistake. Do not personalize the experience as if you can control absolutely every variable at every moment.
Yes, from moment to moment we are mostly the same, and we do have to make our best effort (or right effort as George Mumford would say), but the lesson to learn here is that we need to release the things we are not responsible for or in control of.
Focus on what you can do with well moment to moment with a positive mindset and right effort and release the idea that we can somehow control the fact, or the ways, that we are always changing.
For those of us who struggle with an incredibly strong inner critic, the pressures of performance and our own expectations, this Buddhist concept of Non-Self at it simplest might provide us with a new perspective.
At its core, Non-Self provides space for self acceptance, self forgiveness, and a path out of perfectionism.
How could you incorporate this view of Non-Self in a healthy way in your practice or performance? I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!
As humans, we’re quick to judge. Our fast paced world seems to demand it with all the information it presents to us. We feel the pushing from all sides to move quickly, own the next cool thing, post every day and be available all the time.
When I say we’re quick to judge, I mean that we are quick to judge the value of something or someone. The coolness of it, how good it might make us look, or how we feel when we measure ourselves up against the next person and their sparkly exterior and content.
It’s possible that this isn’t the best use of our emotional energy.
Not all judgment is bad, and it's a necessary part of life to use our ability to determine the worth of something, but we have to be deliberate to stay engaged in a healthy kind of judgement.
For example, we might all practice judging what is worth our valuable time (reading vs scrolling, continuing to say yes to every project that pops into our email, etc.).
When we practice, too, we have to judge in a productive way what is and isn’t working. We run into trouble when we make that judgement personal. “I can’t believe I missed that high note again - I’m so terrible, I never make it” is not a productive judgement, but how often do we have thoughts like that in the practice room?
Feeling the need to “measure up” can be motivating, but we have to have a discerning mindset to keep a healthy attitude of competition with ourselves and with others.
Being too focused on judging (whether it’s our worth against others, our value based on one practice session, or focusing on getting things done quickly just to achieve more) can derail our progress before we even realize it by creating an unsustainable pace and expectation for the speed of our growth and development.
The more we can learn to “judge” in a healthy way and tune in to our own goals and timelines the better our quality of life will be.
It’s so easy to forget these things as we’re bombarded by work, social media and every day life. Slowing down feels like going the wrong way in traffic.
One of the most beneficial parts of deciding to complete my 200 hour yoga teacher training has been the chance to be a student again and be immersed in self study as an adult with more life experiences.
If you’ve ever been a student you’ve experienced the realization that some things cannot be learned overnight, and that there’s usually plenty you don’t know. Hopefully you've also experienced teachers who have guided you through those longer learning processes step by step while helping you stay motivated (not intimidated) by the light that’s way at the end of the tunnel.
All of the lessons I learned about growing in this way as a musician remain applicable, but how often do we forget things we already know? I’d say the answer for most of us, at least for me, is pretty often.
We want instant gratification, instant value, or to pass a quick judgment and move on in so much of life, that I think we come to expect the same things from practicing or developing any skill or expertise. We want to get better yesterday, which leads us to being even more judgmental about ourselves. (“Why is this piece I just started not getting better - I don’t have enough time for this!”)
In yoga teacher training, one of our projects was to take photos of ourselves in a variety of poses at the beginning training and then again at the end of training six months later, writing a reflection about each and about the way we’ve changed after viewing both sets of photos.
(First of all, ugh. This instantly took me back to undergrad conducting courses and watching videos of myself on the podium that I had to self critique!)
I had hoped to see a difference in my two sets of pictures, but didn’t think much of it besides that I’d rather not need to take so many photos of myself.
I was shocked when I looked at the pictures. There were only six months between them, during which I didn’t really feel like so much was changing, but it was like looking at a different person. Physically and energetically I had transformed.
It made me think, if these look so different, what were those six months made up of?
The answer was small consistent and intentional habits.
Daily meditation, focusing on daily routine, a consistent and deliberate yoga practice at least 3-4 days a week, and some serious work on self acceptance.
I never had a moment of euphoric transformation, or a time when it felt like things just “clicked.” I still haven’t.
Yet, when I look at the photos it appears as though I might have. I see strength, confidence, and flexibility that weren’t there before. I see things that I often notice in others and find myself imagining they must have learned a secret to or just have naturally without needing to work for it.
Seeing these photos is much the same as recording ourselves regularly in practice. The changes from day to day are so small that we can’t see them, but hindsight is 20/20. During the time between photos, I was practicing with a focus on the actions, not their value or my ability to do them. Without the recording, or in my case the photos, it’s so easy to keep judging ourselves with no regard for the pieces we are setting into motion.
What I was reminded of by this assignment is that good things take time.
Putting your nose to the grindstone means that you have to stop looking and hoping for a quick fix.
It means turning down the volume on those outside voices that tell you there’s a fast way to anything worthwhile.
As I look back six months feels like a blink, but that wasn’t the case in the moment. There were days I just didn’t want to do things, and I would skip routines I knew were good for me.
I could have easily sabotaged myself by looking at other people online or in my teacher training and thinking about how their down dog or wheel looked so much better than mine, or thinking that they were so much more self aware and mindful than I was. Sometimes I did that, but in the long run, my willingness to stick out focusing on small daily work for myself outweighed those days with dips in motivation.
I really believe that in order to change and grow we have to listen to ourselves - trust ourselves - and be willing to shut out the noise.
It can be scary to not buy in to the hype of constant sharing, motivation and “easy” self improvement. These things give us an easy out to judge ourselves rather than focus on what we really want and what it will actually take to get there.
But if we choose to be honest with ourselves, knowing that we won’t make leaps and bounds every day, we won’t have the best photo on Instagram all the time, and every day won’t hold mega career gains we can begin to focus on what matters to us, what we’re grateful for, and what we can do to help ourselves grow.
Go inside and listen to yourself - what are your goals? Not the big huge ones, the little ones that are really tough to turn into habits that you know will improve your life.
Choose those small habits that might not ever be noticed by anyone else and invest in yourself by cultivating them.
And then, make sure you check back in every once in a while. You might be shocked at how much you’ve grown.
We all have both self-encouraging and self-deprecating thoughts, but I think it's safe to say that most of us are more negative than we are positive when it comes to how we think about ourselves.
If you're a musician, it's possible that being in a competitive field, largely based on being able to self-critique, has made this worse for you. We are expected to observe ourselves daily as musicians, note our flaws, and find solutions to improve them.
No one says that should translate to being mean to ourselves, and I'm sure that none of our teachers want that for us, but I don't personally know a single musician who has created a completely healthy relationship with themselves in the practice room from the beginning of their studies. Unfortunately, we seem prone to this as humans.
Most of us have a moment of reckoning in our musical journey, especially if you pursue a career in music, where we realize that it's simply not sustainable to improve our playing by berating ourselves for the rest of our lives. Hopefully it prompts us to make positive changes and improve our relationship with ourselves.
Although I think I've had my fair share of moments of reckoning, we can never let our guard down.
Recently in preparing for some performances, I noticed a repeating series of events in my practice. I would start out with good intentions and have a centered warm up, but as I'd dig in to the repertoire I would find myself nitpicking technical things. Suddenly, my brain was off down a rabbit hole of turning something that wasn't an issue, like my hand position or some random muscle stiffness into a crisis.
I wasn't choosing those thoughts. In fact, I wasn't choosing any particular thought, so they were running rampant, wrecking the rest of my practice session and setting the tone for what the rest of my day will be like.
After a day or two of this happening (and wallowing in it a bit if I'm being real), I got my act together.
I decided to make a choice.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us that thoughts are events, not facts. We can choose to latch on to them, or we can decide to watch them arrive and then bid them a firm goodbye.
If you don't allow yourself to fixate on a negative thought, it can't take hold. Without anything to feed it, it can't grow.
To do this, though, you have to practice awareness.
We are programmed to want to avoid negative thoughts and feelings. But by allowing yourself to see those negative thoughts show up and notice how they are making you feel, you stop hiding and giving up your control. Acknowledging them gives you the space and clarity to see them for what they are and send them packing.
You retain the power over the situation.
It's the difference between a few seconds of negative grossness or finding that you just beat yourself up for fifteen or twenty minutes and ruined your day.
I want to point out that this is not easy.
We have spent years allowing our thoughts to read like facts from a reputable source, and it takes practice to both notice your thoughts and then convince yourself that you get to decide what sticks.
It's not easy, but it's worth it.
To sustainably create positive change for yourself, you must choose to be the conscious observer of your thoughts,
As musicians, we begin our studies at a very early age, and although we may not be aware of it at first, we are compiling methods, habits and resources from our earliest lessons.
Even something as simple as our hand position is a habit built from the way in which we were taught. We don’t have to relearn it (unless we want to change it), it just remains with us as part of our playing.
As we become better players, we begin to seek out ways of improving - technical exercises, practice techniques, practice plans, long tones and tone exercises, feedback on our embouchure and breathing - and build up intentional habits around these things.
If we change teachers we might adapt our compiled resources, purging the ones that no longer serve us and adding new ones.
As students, and even as a professional, the number of possible resources, methods and approaches can sometimes seem overwhelming. There’s no way we could even try all of them, let alone make sure to keep trying everything we’ve learned.
For the same reason we feel ready to move on to new teachers, we become ready to leave an old method or way of doing things behind, and that’s a very healthy habit of growth and self evaluation.
Gathering your tools
When I begin to introduce this kind of intentional resource building to my students, I talk to them about building a toolbox.
We explore warm ups, practice techniques, tone exercises and possible practice routines or schedules in depth. As we complete a detailed exploration of one of these tools we place it in the tool box, filing it under potential uses. As lessons continue we discuss times when it would be good to break out an old tool for a particular piece or problem, and begin to develop an expansive library of tools for approaching challenges and problems.
I’ve come to love this toolbox analogy. It takes some stress out of feeling we have to practice everything in every way all the time. It also encourages my students to think critically about the problems they encounter in practice and what exercises they already know that might help. If nothing in the toolbox seems quite right, it encourages them to ask me about any issues in an effective way because they have already given the challenge careful thought.
Having an in-depth understanding of your resources also builds confidence as you begin to solve your own musical problems and learn to trust your instincts.
After all, no one understands your playing from the inside out except you.
Sometimes we let habits or tendencies into our toolbox without realizing, and it’s good to be aware of what tools we are using so that we can clean out the box when it starts to look more like a junk drawer. Examples of items you might remove are playing too fast when just learning a piece, or forcing the sound too much to project or play in a loud volume.
Building this kind of toolbox and making sure it doesn’t get junky or begin to overflow due to inattention is not only applicable to music. Considering our tools for life in this way is also helpful for clearing mental space, building intentional habits and creating the kind of life we want.
You can think of it in an everyday context, or consider how what physical and mental tools are needed for performance. (Hint - those two things aren’t and shouldn’t really be that different.)
For example, maybe sometimes you find yourself feeling exhausted and lethargic, only to realize you haven’t been sleeping enough for the last week and aren’t really drinking much water.
Or, try thinking back to the last difficult conversation you had to have where you couldn’t get a handle on your emotions enough to articulate your point. That’s not all that different from emotions running wild in a performance to the extent that your nerves are the ones driving the bus.
We need to build tools for life as much or more than we even need them to be good musicians. The subject matter may seem more basic - it’s not necessarily intellectually challenging to focus on how many ounces of water you want to consume each day - but it’s often the simple things in life that allow us to reach our fullest potential.
Tools for our physical health could be sleeping enough, staying hydrated, and finding a type of exercise we enjoy enough to do regularly.
Filling our mental health toolbox might mean finding meditation practices we enjoy and benefit from, journaling or making sure we have a trusted friend to talk to when we’re stressed, and then making sure to do those things consistently.
Just like with music, when we build a “life toolbox,” what we keep in it will expand and change as we try new things and get to know ourselves better and better.
You’ll find that your musical tools and your life tools will actually overlap and you can probably keep them in the same box after all.
You have everything you need
The thing I want to stress most out of all this analogizing is that you already have every tool you need in this moment.
Every tool you have stashed away and used up to this point has allowed you to get here.
Will you learn new tools? Yes.
Will you throw away the old, worn out ones? Yes.
Just because you will continue to grow doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with where you are. And, just because you come up against a struggle doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong.
Go back to your box and take a look around - what can you use?
If you really don’t know the answer, go to someone you trust and ask for their favorite tool. Maybe you’ll borrow it or maybe you’ll keep it, but either way you will become more educated about what you need and what the right tools are for your job of building your life.
Remember, you are the only person that knows yourself inside and out.
The moment you realize that you have all these tools at your disposal is the moment you can access your full potential, and it’s available to you any time.
We've all experienced a lull over the last year.
Missed holidays, less work, maybe even unemployment. Slowly, things are creeping back to normal and I find myself with plenty on my calendar every day for the first time in a year.
While I'm thrilled to be getting back to work, recording and planning for performances on top of the online teaching I've done over the last year, I've become very aware of how it feels to start piling tasks on and my habits when it comes to work.
For all the negatives over the last year, the major positive is that I've realized I don't want to take on every last thing just to be busy. I've had enough distance to acknowledge and accept that keeping myself busy just to be busy doesn't prove anything about knowledge, skill, or success.
(Seth Godin has a great quick blog post about this here.)
The difficult part is sticking to that. As the world springs back to action, my work in administration, especially, has the same clamor and chaos as always. Emails are flying and distractions abound.
I find myself writing post its everywhere and scribbling notes to myself in the margins of my bullet journal. Fix this thing on the website, check that account balance, etc.
Some demands are unavoidable, but many are ones we create for ourselves. I'm a master at self-made busy. My intentions are good - it's nice to feel like you have a purpose.
BUT, maybe there is a better way.
Perhaps I don't have to jot everything down like a crazy person, but rather I could look for a better way to keep track of my responsibilities.
I can enforce more deep work time for myself, shutting out emails except for designated parts of the day where I can take care of correspondence.
Beyond the practical ways that we can take control over the noise in our lives, there is a broader view I think we should all take. We'll never have this distance and perspective over our work lives again.
Doing everything good takes time away from the things that could be great. Take practicing your instrument - we all know the difference between ten minutes of practice to get by and an hour to dig in (when it's done well).
Or, maybe it's continuing to teach that student that hates practicing and only takes lessons because their parents force them to. Is that the best use of your teaching skills and musical knowledge?
We're conditioned as musicians to say yes always, because, what if we miss out?
But what if the reality was that by choosing to say a few strategic "no"s you could create something really spectacular?
The "yes" of your choosing is waiting for you on the other side.
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.