Raise your hand if you have ever felt depleted, over-scheduled, or exhausted with lots of responsibilities that still need your attention?
Everyone? Ok. (If this has never been you, I’d love to hear how you do it. Please write me!)
Hopefully you’re not experiencing this type of exhaustion or burnout all the time, but it is incredibly common among professional musicians and music students (a topic for another blog, or many!).
So what do we do when we’re feeling tapped out but we have a lot of work to do? Especially if we need to practice our instruments and don’t want to indulge bad habits or sloppy work that will do more harm than good?
Short of a caffeine drip - which I have considered on numerous occasions - there are some real, actionable things we can do to infuse our practice with energy even when we are feeling more like taking a nap than opening our case. Some of these are quite obvious but perhaps still places you could refine your approach, and many are things I overlooked for too long as a younger player and student.
* Plan/Block your time:
This is not a scenario of “I will always practice for an hour at 8AM.” Rather, if you are feeling over-extended or burned out, think of this as survivalist time blocking. Look at your busy schedule for the next week or two (more than two when we are truly up to our ears in busy becomes too overwhelming). Consider each day’s activities and when you will have the most time/energy for practice. Prefer morning practice but can’t fit it in? Plan for the next best window you can find on each day. Don’t aim for perfection - when we’re truly short on time, twenty good minutes are infinitely better than no minutes at all or an hour of terrible practice at the end of an already long day.
* Use the time you have set aside wisely:
Maybe you played for five hours the day before (not uncommon if you have a double rehearsal or a student schedule) and your muscles are fatigued. Could you dedicate half your allocated practice block to listening, score/part study, and visualization exercises? Especially for students, these element of learning music are underrated and typically underutilized - we can save a lot of struggle if we understand the piece, how we fit in, and what sections genuinely need our attention. Using these practice strategies also helps keep us from unintentionally creating bad habits by over-playing.
Related to using your time wisely, there are many things we can do that don’t require putting the instrument together at all, some of which I listed above: score study, listening, researching the context of the piece, imagery/visualization practice (athletes truly understand the value of this last one and we musicians are missing out), eating a good meal, and getting an extra hour of sleep.
Yes it’s annoying, yes it seems like we could probably skip it, yes it is absolutely necessary. When we are playing more than normal we might feel as if our muscles are ready to go all the time, which is precisely what will lead to overuse injuries and bad habits. Even five minutes of smart stretching split at the beginning and end of practice is productive, although I would encourage you to find room for more or to develop a small, manageable, and regularly repeatable routine of stretching and myofascial release.
* Eat well:
When we are busiest is precisely when we struggle with decision fatigue. Our mind has enough to manage, so eating junk food is not only an easy way out, but what our tired mind would prefer because it requires less choice and tastes great. Make this easier on yourself by stocking up on healthy snacks/leftovers before a busy week begins. It’s annoying, I know, but you will thank yourself later.
* Focus on your sleep:
One of my biggest personal struggles when I drive a lot for gigs is staying on track with rest. Often when I get home late after a long drive I need time to unwind and I’m usually hungry (see above re: healthy snacks). I have to really set boundaries after these long, late drives by planning ahead not to doom scroll on my phone or watch TV while eating cheese and crackers when I do finally get home. I feel whiny and irritated about this every time, but make a plan in advance for rest just like you would for food and stick to it. Trust me, it’s worth it.
* Practice in smaller, well-planned time blocks:
We all have our own struggles, and this is one of the most effective strategies for me personally. When I am over-scheduled my focus is often not up to my usual standard. I can be more productive in my practice by working in shorter blocks of time. Instead of a thirty minute warmup I will consolidate it down to ten. Later in the morning I might spend fifteen minutes running through some challenging passages to get a baseline of where they’re at. Even later in the day I will spend fifteen to twenty minutes on a few of those challenging technical sections, being very detailed in how I work through the challenges (with a metronome, grouping, etc.). Later yet I might do a five minute power session on something I’m struggling with, like high register, by doing focused exercises and working on tricky high register tuning passages.
* De-brief your practices and rehearsals:
With limited time to prepare for the next lesson, rehearsal, or performance during your busiest weeks, we can only plan as well as we reflect. During college I got into the habit of keeping a practice journal and recording what I needed to get done and what I had already practiced. Taking this a step further can level up our practice, limited though it might be, in a big way (this bullet point works whether we are in a busy season or not). As suggested by Terry Orlick in his book In Pursuit of Excellence, I started to “debrief” after each performance or practice session. What went well? Why? What didn’t go well? Why? These reflections inform how I use my limited time the next day. I keep a running note on my iPhone Notes app where I jot down points and observations to be revisited later.
* Have fun:
This doesn’t have to be anything monumental, and is probably best if it's not related to your instrument or work. For me, during the weeks where I have to drive a lot to rehearsals this means listening to podcast episodes I’ve saved and my favorite non-classical music that I can sing out loud to in the car. It’s cathartic and helps clear out my brain before and after demanding rehearsals. I also try to spend a little extra time with my cats and making coffee at home - two things that bring me a lot of joy that have absolutely nothing to do with work! Consider the little parts of your day and what small things make you happy, and then deliberately focus on those joyful moments to break up the monotony of your busy day.
The way being busy makes us feel and what we need to do to cope with high-demand periods of work will change as we get older and more experienced, but I don’t know a single musician (student or professional) who can get through a busy season successfully and relatively unscathed without at least some intentional planning.
What works best for you when you are feeling stretched to the limit? Where is an area you could make small adjustments that would have a big impact on your overall wellbeing and energy level?
This month I tackled some books that I have been saving for when I could really take my time and dig in to them. Many of them were about the creative process, some were about yoga/meditation/breathwork/mindstate, and a few were novels I wanted to savor.
I've made it most of the way through this month's to-be-read pile, and it just so happened that I read three books about developing the creative process back to back. I found them all interesting - worthwhile in their own way - but not created equal, and thought it would be fun to break them down here since I am in the midst of what feels like a mini-evolution of my own work process (pictured below during my stay at the Endless Mountain Music Festival).
The first book I read was one I have been saving and looking forward to - it has a beautiful cover, the layout is inviting, and I was expecting a lot of nuggets of inspiration from this one, based on what I had heard about it so far.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
If I'm being really honest, I was totally disappointed in this book. If you have never read anything about the creative process, I actually think it would make a great, easy to digest introduction. But if you are a seasoned creative, this book falls flat for inspiration. It's full of platitudes and empty statements about creativity, and doesn't contain any truly actionable ideas about the creative act as the title suggests. It might be a nice to book to leave out and flip open if you're in need of a shot of motivation, but it definitely didn't live up to my expectations for an author with such an interesting and varied career.
I originally shared these reviews in my monthly newsletter (have you subscribed yet?), and realized after it went out that I completely forgot one of the books I read about the creative process. I suppose it didn't make much of an impression...
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
I liked this book more than Rubin's Creative Act, and while it did have some useful nuggets of reflection on the things that keep us from moving forward creatively, it didn't break down any major thought barriers for me around my own creative process. Like Rubin's book, however, I think this could provide a good stepping off point for creatives who haven't explored outside inspiration for how they could approach their work.
One thing I think Pressfield did well was share openly the distractions we face and the need for discipline and intention around our work. I appreciated the portion of the book about the resistance we all feel the most.
The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp
This book surprised me in its practicality. I didn't know more than the basics about Tharp before reading this, and was impressed at the discipline of her creativity. It's always interesting to catch a glimpse behind the curtain into a successful creative's life, and this was no exception. Tharp discusses her own habits and disciplines, how specific projects came to life, and provides exercises for the reader to consider what matters most to them and to help lay the ground work for better creative habits. Both practical and interesting, I think this one is a must read if you are interested in strengthening the creative acts in your own life.
Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
I had procrastinated reading this book even though it was recommended by one of my absolute favorite newsletters because I wasn't sure how much it would be about the actual act of improvisation (something I avoid like most classically trained musicians!). Although improvisation is discussed, the book is truly about how we create and quickly became a new favorite for me. It is relatable and inspiring, and somehow takes a huge, ambitious topic and boils it down into useful, encouraging, and relatable ways to address blocks and the way we think about creativity. As I read, I found myself writing in the margins and dog-earing pages the entire time. While not as clinically practical as Tharp's Creative Habit, Free Play is what finally helped me start to shift out of my own creative rut.
The most important takeaway for me is that we're all at different stages of our creative journeys and processes. Even though I didn't love Rubin's Creative Act, it felt useful to read these four books in succession, although unintentionally. They are an excellent representation of how differently we all approach creativity, and a reminder that we won't relate to everyone's art or approach to making it. But for the same reason that we study our instruments with many teachers and rarely love every single thing they ask us to do. There are useful takeaways everywhere if you are being vigilant, even if they are simply things you are making a note that don't want to replicate (right now). Just like we each have a unique voice in our music or art, our methods in the end will, and should, be unique to us.
When you think about fear or anxiety, do you ever consider their timeline?
When did the fear arrive? How long has the anxiety been here (and has it always been the same)? Has it ever left or subsided? Could you picture it ending?
Before we can address the lifespan of fear, though, we have to unwind some terminology…
When we talk about fear or anxiety, we are often imprecise. Culturally, anxiety has become a bit of a blanket term that represents so much it is hard to pin down a definition. If we’re discussing performance anxiety, that’s a more specific type of fear, but it can still mean a great many things.
Even by using the words fear and anxiety interchangeably here I am muddying the waters while simultaneously proving the point that these words can mean many things and have varying degrees of severity. Stage fright for me might have a very different root cause than it would for the next person.
We might be afraid of performing for crowds because of the sheer number of people or we could simply be anxious about messing up in front of a lot of people who will remember. Perhaps flying gives us anxiety over a lost bag, or a greater fear of something catastrophic. You might know someone who is afraid of riding a bike, or perhaps someone who has anxiety about riding their bike around cars in the city.
It’s important if we feel fear, anxiety, or tension about something in life to understand what is actually scary.
Do we worry about the judgements of others? Are we afraid to mess up something that matters deeply to us and has taken up a great deal of time and effort? Maybe we are anxious that our efforts will not be deemed worthy of whatever we are striving for. Do you fear losing those who are important to you? Maybe you are afraid of letting someone down. There are many different hats our worry and dread can wear.
As musicians, I think it’s common to move through a variety of different versions of the anxiety and fear that can come along with auditions, performing, and all the various aspects of music making.
I’ve discussed this before, but over my life as a musician, I’ve gone from having no performance anxiety, to feeling the fear that I won’t be accepted at an important audition. I’ve had dry mouth, shaky limbs, a twitchy embouchure, and brain fog on stage among other symptoms. I’ve felt distraught over how I do or don’t measure up to others and found myself ruminating on these useless worries instead of getting work done in the practice room. I’ve been intimidated by many conductors and timid in my playing.
Luckily, I didn’t have all these symptoms of fear at once. They have ebbed and flowed throughout my musical life and, fortunately, have been intermingled with feelings of extreme focus and free, unburdened music making on stage.
It wasn’t until I was older and more experienced that I started to realize how much I actually got to decide about my fear and anxiety in both life and music. Meditation and yoga have helped me tremendously with this, as well as several books by performance coaches and elite athletes.
It only takes a little research to realize that everyone has some version of this to deal with, and that even if someone doesn’t feel fear, we are all responsible for sorting out the distractions that come with doing something performance based.
Perhaps it is only with enough time that we can gain the necessary perspective, but I do wish that someone had laid it out succinctly for me when I was younger that I’m in charge, and fear has a lifespan. It might be around for the long haul, but we can certainly outlast it.
So, what are the major events along the lifespan of fear?
*Feeling anxious, worried, tense, or afraid
The arrival of a fear can come out of nowhere - maybe even in the middle of a performance as it did for me once! This is no reason to live with the fear of fear, but rather the acknowledgement that many physical and mental factors play into our experiences of anxiety.
*We need to identify what is actually scary
When we experience stress or anxiety, it is common to make mountains out of molehills. A whole concert might feel paralyzing, but if we take a step back to consider the music we’ve prepared, perhaps we are preoccupied with a scary entrance or quiet high note and are letting our worries wash over the entire concert. Perspective goes a long way toward deflating a general feeling of anxiousness.
*Can you do the thing anyway?
Sometimes, if we are really lucky, identifying what is actually at the root of our nervousness will bring us back to a more manageable base line. If you’re not that lucky, you can still use the identification of the fear or anxiety to help you. Instead of just feeling the fear (racing heart, clamminess, unfocused thoughts), you’ve now established a culprit. When you catch yourself identifying with the feelings, label them and note the root cause then get on with the task.
*Shift your focus to right effort
A side stop on the last life span event, this is where we focus our energy and efforts on what we are doing rather than how we are feeling. This stop requires effort, but it’s right effort rather than feeding even more energy to our feelings and thoughts of nervousness. If you catch yourself re-investing in the anxiety, simply shift again and start over.
*Realizing fear doesn’t have a grip
Even a brief moment of success pulling our attention away from our feelings of fear is a success. Celebrate your successes and the knowledge that fear does not control you. Each time you succeed in redirecting your attention, you build resilience and the muscles of your attention. Moving through your fear is what opens up the space for better things
*Do (new) hard things
This saying gets used a lot, but it’s useful and an important stop along the life span of fear. Once you have realized you can do things while you feel anxious and have had some practice shifting your focus to right effort you can start to take on new, harder tasks. Even if some of the fear lingers, you can keep growing.
*Not feeling the fear anymore
Some fears have a much longer lifespan than others, but they will all come to an end if you persevere. Recently, I had an experience where something that had been a cause of anxiety for many years no longer felt scary. It was an unexpected relief that was the result of a lot of right effort and personal work.
A note of caution here, that we never want to become complacent. An old fear that has lost its power over us may still find a way to rear its head. This is why it’s important for us to stay detailed and vigilant in what matters to us. Your methods for dealing with the stressors and tension in your life will change over time, but maintaining awareness helps our successes stick.
How you choose to work through your fear points in life will be unique to you. Yoga and meditation have truly changed my relationship with my instrument, but I also rely on smart preparation, having a deliberate and detailed focus in my music making, and honest, frequent self reflection in both practice and performance.
I love hearing about what works for others because we never know when we’ll find another tool that fits just right in our box of resources.
Our lifetimes are long, and it’s absolutely worth the effort it takes to address the things that make us feel anxious. Because it’s so acceptable to discuss stress and anxiety now, there is also a comfort in relating to everyone having it rather than taking the sometimes tedious and mundane steps toward overcoming what stands in our way.
Timelines always look so different in hindsight. When we learned to ride a bike as children, it seemed the training wheels would always be there. The prospect of taking them away was scary (for most of us) and it might have felt like riding confidently without them took forever. In reality, that experience was a blip on the map. Even if a fear is with you for many years, there will be a time both before and after its lifespan.
Instituted by the United Nations in 2015, June 21 marks the International Day of Yoga. Last year I happened to be teaching yoga on this date, and built my class around gratitude and pillars of yogic practice. At the time, it still felt surprising to me how much I enjoyed leading others in their practice.
As I reflect this year, I am admittedly surprised to see clearly all the new, often subtle, ways that my personal practice is showing up in my life with impact each and every day. Science is only just beginning to confirm what practitioners of yoga and mindfulness have know for thousands of years, and what I am just barely beginning to scratch the surface of.
This year, as I reflect with personal gratitude on the International Day of Yoga, I felt compelled to write a little love letter to my practice to see if I could articulate just a little of the heartfelt gratitude I have that yoga found me and continues to teach me.
It has been roughly three years since I started to practice regularly again. Getting back on the mat felt difficult - I was inflexible, uncomfortable, and distracted. Even though I was practicing at home, my mind wandered…”Do these pants fit differently than they used to? I bet this top looks weird. I wish that I could comfortably do such-and-such pose. I will probably never be able to do x,y, or z.”
My personal practice rattled around like that for six months or so before I started my teacher training. I wondered how far out of my depth I would be. Although I was more athletic than before, would I be able to keep up? It had been some time since I had a regular yoga practice - maybe I wouldn’t be able to glean enough basic knowledge.
Part of what prompted me to pull the trigger on doing a 200 hour teacher training was the multitude of free hours left by the pandemic. Some of the reasoning was a desire to learn about anatomy in a way that might help my flute playing and instruction. But deeper than that was a tiny glimmer of an idea that yoga had felt like home once before, and maybe there was more it could teach me about me and the way I show up in the world.
That seems like a lot to expect though - could I really learn so much from these poses?
As I moved through training, I can’t say that I found any more comfort in myself…”I definitely look weird in this outfit. Everyone can see how weak and inflexible I am. I don’t like sharing this much about myself.”
But objects in motion are able to stay in motion, so I continued.
I learned that the postures, or asana, are only a tiny portion of yoga. I learned about the eight limbs of the practice and the way they encouraged kindness to ourselves and others. I learned that yoga is not about our own movements on the mat, but community. I learned that yoga can be translated as “unite.”
I learned that yoga in the fullest sense is meant to teach us humanity - to help us observe the ways in which we are alike and connected, and how we can treat both ourselves and others better.
And then, I started to see these other pieces of the practice outside of asana come to life. I made friends with my other trainees. We shared our fears, our aspirations, and what we were proud of. We celebrated each other. We bungled our practice teaching and landed awkwardly together in postures that were out of place. We forgave our mistakes. We practiced, meditated, and breathed. I felt my heart loosen in the safe space on my mat.
As we left our teacher training, I could already see how differently I recognized the stories I was telling myself. I was starting to push through the superfluous judgements of “good” and “bad” and finding greater equanimity - certainly not with any perfection, but simply a budding knowledge that nothing is black and white. I had learned that I could change, that my thoughts were not my true nature, that my flexibility did not impact the depth of my practice.
When I started to lead others in yoga, all the insecurities came back. There was so much to learn, so much I didn’t know, how could I possible help to guide anyone? I studied and studied, over prepared and read book after book. In the ways I always have, I leaned on my ability to learn to cover up my insecurities.
Inevitably, I gave an incorrect instruction during class, told my students to use the wrong hand, or said something that was so awkward and bumbling I was sure people wouldn’t come back to my class. But I had new tools to lean on - humility, equanimity, and self-acceptance - and nothing terrible happened. People kept coming to my classes.
Recently, I noticed that my inner commentary on my appearance has changed. It’s not totally gone, but when I sit on my mat I no longer worry so intently about how my leggings fit. I step into my practice with the intention to meet myself below the surface. One of my favorite teachings in yoga continues to be that we can and should meet ourselves exactly where we are. What we could do yesterday or what we will do tomorrow simply doesn’t matter, but what we can do in this exact moment does.
That particular lesson is one that I have tried to carry off the mat. Not only will I be different in each passing moment, but so will the people around me, and that is neither good or bad. As I begin to see myself with more depth, I am able to do the same for others. We are all unique and complicated and yet we are all the same. Community.
There is so much left to learn, but I feel more like I am not behind than ever before. That this place is just right even with its imperfections.
Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson I have learned - that imperfections are not problems or things that need added to a to-do list. I don’t mean that I love my imperfections either, because I certainly do not. I still have plenty of thoughts about how I will fix this part of my appearance or that part of my professional life. The difference now is that I have tools.
Yoga has given me tools not to be used to fix or change myself into something different, but to see myself fully and honestly. To help weed out the superficial noise and thoughts and discover my true priorities. To seek out what carries the deepest meaning and purpose and to be kind to myself and others while seeking.
When I step on my mat now I know that I am helping my body and my mind. That this work of bringing the two together opens up a whole new view of life and the ways that we are all connected. I never expected yoga change me so deeply, which is maybe why it could.
I always use the same closing when I end my classes, because I think the community of yoga is the heart of the practice:
“…with a deep bow of gratitude for your self, your practice, and everyone who practices with you.”
The inkling I had three years ago that yoga could feel like home was only partially true. It does provide a home base, but where I actually am beginning to feel at home, for the first time ever, is in myself. And this is where I am, with a deep sense of gratitude.
Because it has become more acceptable to talk about health as it relates to musicians, you may have noticed more injury statistics related to the frequency of injuries showing up on social media and in publications, as well as statistics about the average amount of pain that musicians are experiencing at various ages and stages in their journeys.
These statistics provide extremely useful data toward the case that we must include health and wellness in university music programs, especially when we consider how long this crucial piece of playing development and career longevity has been overlooked. However, I think for the average musician having a variety of experiences of brief or prolonged discomfort, this data-driven sharing is missing the mark.
While we’re moving in the right direction educating musicians about both preventing and addressing injuries, we need to teach students and professionals not just that they could become injured, but to recognize the signs of an incoming injury.
Signs of overuse or injury can be as benign as light muscle tension, headaches, or a faint tingling sensation. Musicians might find that they are clenching their teeth at night, locking their jaw, or waking up in the morning clenching their hands into fists. Not being able to play for as long as usual or a decrease in stamina or breath control may be another sign that something isn’t right. Even simple indicators that we are over-tired are important as we can practice with bad habits that lead to injury when we are unrested for long periods of time.
One of the best indicators of an incoming injury may be the most subtle of all - a simple decrease of our ability to be aware and notice or embodied - and it could cause us to miss all the signals listed above. To understand it though, we need to learn about how it is that we recognize what is happening in our bodies.
Proprioception is the sense of our body in space (body position, movement, and the ability to feel what is around us).
The connective tissue of the body (fascia) is largely what allows us to have proprioception. Growing our felt sense of the body (embodiment) can also help with proprioception.
Fascia is everywhere in the body - around, in, and through our muscles and fat. Fascia’s ability to slide and glide as we move is an important part of how our body works, and when a muscle is injured or stiff or a movement pattern that is unhelpful or unhealthy is reinforced, fascia can become dehydrated and harden.
Proprioception is something we all have, but the quality of our proprioception is not guaranteed and is actually directly linked with both our sense of awareness and any pain we are experiencing.
Nociception is the body’s perception of pain, as translated through our sensory nervous system. It is how the body sends the brain signals to create appropriate defensive responses to injuries or illnesses.
You may already have the impression that proprioception and nociception are at least peripherally related. The connection between these two types of awareness runs deep, however, and is enhanced or dulled by our sense of embodiment.
When we experience pain in the body, it uses up our nervous system’s attention and energy which leaves less available for other systems and actions. As our sense of nociception becomes more and more elevated, our proprioception will continue to deteriorate. This is why we often seen older people or people who experience a lot of chronic pain becoming more and more clumsy.
As musicians, we tune in to what’s happening in our bodies much more than the average person. This can make us hyper aware when something feels different or we experience some discomfort. This works to our advantage as all of our experiences of pain and discomfort play into the relationship between our proprioception and nociception.
It may seem simple or obvious, but our sense of awareness is one of our best tools in injury prevention. This is an often under-celebrated reason why things like yoga, strength training, and massage can be so beneficial, as they help us become more familiar with what feels normal and abnormal in our bodies.
In a recent blog, I talked about what I think is the secret ingredient for putting your knowledge of anatomy and the body to use: your felt sense of the body, or your sense of embodiment, and this is where we put it to work. Proprioception is where embodiment meets action.
If you are experiencing pain, even at a very low level, if you allow it to continue you are allowing it to affect your general awareness, coordination, and overall energy level. Staying healthy as musician requires putting in the effort of building awareness and taking action when we notice something has changed.
Earlier this year I took a certification in self myofascial release, which is essentially self massage with tools that are safe to be used around all our muscles and joints. If you have ever used a foam roller or lacrosse ball on a sore muscle, you have practiced self myofascial release. (If you’ve ever used a foam roller and found it way too uncomfortable, you might need a softer tool. If you are using a lacrosse ball, you definitely need a different tool as they are much too hard to be safe for all the muscles of the body!).
One of the biggest benefits of regular fascia work, which encourages the tissue to function correctly in the body, is a decrease in nociception and increase in proprioception. Even if you are playing your instrument a lot without experiencing pain or discomfort, you should still be addressing the muscles that are involved through fascia work or massage to keep them hydrated and working together in healthy ways.
As someone who regularly does yoga, I was fascinated to see what else myofascial release had to teach me about embodiment and proprioception. During my training I had amazing experiences of really feeling how various parts of the body work together where my previous knowledge had been very logical and textbook.
Since completing my training, I’ve used myofascial release to help alleviate migraines, tension headaches, and forearm, shoulder, and back pain. As someone who is obsessed with having the tools to navigate whatever challenges come up, learning how to address my sense of awareness and experience of discomfort this way is empowering and useful.
If you’re interested in how to build a greater sense of proprioception, I’d suggest checking out www.therollmodel.com. Or, send me a message! I love introducing these concepts to musicians and answering questions about their applicability and use.
If pain blocks awareness, then maybe the reverse is true - building awareness builds proprioception, which in turn builds the effectiveness and ease of the skills we work so hard to develop and maintain.
What do you think of when you think of self care? Even as someone who is certified in wellness practices (yoga, mindfulness, myofascial self-release), I instantly think of a million cringy Instagram posts, journals, and bubble baths.
I find that I try to steer clear of the words “self care” when I write about the practices I teach and implement partially because of the connotation, and because what we need to do to care for our well-being is different for everyone. What feels like self care to me, like a yoga practice or sitting for 30 minutes of silent meditation, might be tedious and stressful for someone else.
The other reason I don’t like the term “self care” is that I think it grossly undermines what we really need to be doing in order to lead healthy lives. Taking care of ourselves is not participating in a relaxing activity once a week. It’s doing boring, monotonous things day in and day out so that we can operate at a healthy base level.
Where the internet would tell you that self care is shiny and satisfying, I believe that if we are really caring for ourselves and our basic needs, it feels a lot more like tedious maintenance. Think grocery shopping, laundry, and cleaning your house.
Eating well is a excellent example of this. Cooking is work, buying fresh food means planning to use it so it doesn’t go to waste, and all of that takes a lot more effort than just pulling into a drive-through or heating up something you bought frozen. For most of us though, once we realize that eating well makes us feel better it genuinely gets easier to put in the effort.
Of course our relationship with our phones, streaming, and social media puts a huge demand on our self maintenance efforts. It’s so easy to lose ourselves mindlessly scrolling for an hour or watching Netflix well into the night. It’s not just that those are hours you could do other productive things - they may just be hours that should be spent resting or sleeping. Layered on top of that is that we end up viewing lots of people engaging in “self-care” as we scroll, perpetuating the myth that it’s something fancy and special.
What prompted me to think so much about self maintenance recently was that I downloaded a sleep tracker for my apple watch. I had a nagging feeling of always being tired, but was convinced my sleep hygiene was good and I wanted to get to the bottom of the issue.
There is absolutely nothing like data to absolutely knock you off your high horse. While I was, in fact, in bed for seven to eight hours a night, I was sleeping for only five to six of those and rarely in a deep sleep. Since I usually read before bed, put my phone on sleep mode, etc. this was shocking to me. How was I still sleeping so little? Beyond that, there was no fancy reason I was so tired. I simply wasn’t sleeping and my habits needed a reboot.
I’ve made a few changes, all of which require self maintenance, and I do already see a difference. Is it annoying and effortful? Sometimes. There is nothing even remotely shiny and internet worthy about cleaning up my sleep habits, but it did make me feel better and more energetic each day. As time goes on, I am starting to look forward to the changes I’ve implemented, like going to bed earlier each night, adding more exercise into my days, and taking more care in the routine of my evening hours.
So as I’ve been reflecting on all of this, it’s really made me consider how we talk about self care in our culture, and how much discipline it actually takes to instill healthy personal habits.
There is a concept in Ayurvedic medicine (the sister science of yoga) called dinacharya (dina meaning ‘day’ and acharya meaning ‘activity’). Translated from Sanskrit, this word means the daily routine that promotes nourishment and self care. In Ayurveda it’s considered one of the most powerful tools for cultivating health and well-being.
Dinacharya encourages us to become more in tune with ourselves and our unique biological clock, doing the same things at roughly the same times each day, with a focus on creating the sense of routine over the perfection of the activities. It’s not about creating a grand schedule or adding more to your schedule, rather it’s about finding and engaging in a routine that helps you feel nourished and more self aware.
In its truest form, dinacharya refers more to our morning routine, but it applies to the whole day, and I love the idea that the little tasks we undertake repeatedly become the foundation of nourishing ourselves and staying in sync with the rhythm of life.
And while the practice stresses the steady repetition of things that are good for us, it comes with a disclaimer that an appropriate routine will look different for each person. Dinacharya can be as simple as making your bed each morning or sitting to savor the first sips of your coffee without any other noises or distractions. Even washing dirty dishes can be part of our daily outine of nourishment if we take the time to appreciate the food that was eaten on them, our running water, and the freshly cleaned kitchen in which we are standing.
Engaging in a daily routine in the attitude of dinacharya can encourage connection, release stress, and build peace and happiness into our lives in simple ways that are attainable each and every day.
If you want to implement dinacharya into your day, start with your mornings. You might wake up at the same time each day, begin your day with a hot beverage (Ayurveda suggests hot water with lemon), brush your teeth and wash your face, make your bed, and spend a few minutes in meditation or exercise. Nothing Earth-shattering - rather, simple and nourishing.
What we are willing to lovingly layer into our every day life with consistency is what will create the greatest impact in our well being long term. Just like my experience with improving my sleep, the generic and mundane can become special and meaningful when we understand that it helps us to feel more energetic, more present, and more connected with our lives.
Without our bodies, we could not play our instruments.
When I studied with Jean Ferrandis he would say that everything has a frequency, and we shouldn’t disrespect the natural frequencies. Meaning, for example, that if we blow way too much or too little we’re not respecting the frequency of the instrument.
In the time since I studied with Jean, I’ve also come to realize that this also means we have to respect the frequencies of our body.
I think about this concept a lot now. If we over or under use parts of the body in our playing, we will compensate somewhere else, creating tension, extra effort, and blocking resonance.
If our body feels unnatural or is used inefficiently, it will translate not just to the way we sound, but also to our mind state.
Elaborate briefly on movement benefits - concept from yoga of meeting yourself where you are. Perfect for building a warm up routine
We’re all aware just how important exercise is for our health. At the root of it though, it doesn’t matter if you run, lift weights, hike, bike, or do water aerobics.
Movement is what matters.
There is an intersection here with yoga that I particularly love. Yoga encourages us to meet ourselves firmly where we are. It asks us to move with what we have, with acceptance and an understanding that we are not moving to change but to know ourselves better. It’s an approach to physical movement that is particularly relevant to playing an instrument.
When we consider how our physical body impacts our playing, it is important to do so from this place of meeting. Meeting ourselves where we are, and understanding what we need.
Consider how it feels to play your instrument when you are in an optimum physical state - no tension, no restriction, everything is free and resonant.
Now think about the difference when you feel tense.
With those two different experiences in mind, imagine yourself performing. What happens to your body when you are on stage? Does your breathing remain free? Do you feel that familiar tension? Or, maybe something different happens entirely like shaky hands or dry mouth.
Most of us are intimately familiar with our physical ticks and habits as they relate to playing our instrument. Not very many of us have a regular movement routine that addresses our strengths and weaknesses as they relate to playing, though.
Imagine the amount of concentration and brain power you could waste thinking about a tense muscle, or worrying you won’t get enough air in your next breath because your chest feels tight on stage.
Not only do physical issues limit our actual performance, they limit our mind in performance.
So how can you respect your frequencies?
A good place to start is by simply noticing:
Building a base level awareness of what’s happening in our bodies is the first step toward finding neutral and creating efficiency.
I hope you’ll join me for the Warm Up to Flow workshop to meet yourself where you are, acknowledge yourself under pressure and identify helpful elements to add to your warm up to find your peak physical performance state.
If I don’t meditate - how could mindfulness become a regular part of my warm up?
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are huge, broad topics. There is a tremendous amount of information to digest. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness or mindfulness meditation you know that, like playing an instrument, it’s a slow and often internal journey that requires consistency and dedication.
So how can we take these far-reaching concepts and pare them down to fit our specific needs as musicians, while still respecting these disciplines and what they have to teach us?
As a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, I have a great appreciation for the amount of work it takes to meditate and grow a meditation practice, and for the ups and downs that come with such an introspective practice.
However, the fundamentals of mindfulness practice are accessible to all of us, whether we are seasoned meditators or not.
Conceptually, it’s not a far leap from the focus required to be a musician to mindfulness. We already have some experience wrangling the mind away from distractions so that we can get work done in the practice room and so that we can focus in performance.
Even though as musicians we might be more mindful than the average person, I would guess that most of us still have plenty of distractions like self-critiques, concern about the judgment of others, or stress over the situation that bombard our experiences of practice and performance. Which is exactly why taking the time to address our mindfulness can greatly benefit our work.
I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage the development of a regular mindfulness practice here. In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research about how much practice, or how little, is required to make an impact. (Amishi P. Jha’s book Peak Mind is a great entry point, and suggests that about 12 minutes a day is all it takes to help create our peak state of mind more frequently).
But if you’re still skeptical, I understand. Most of us find the idea of sitting in stillness and silence with ourselves laughable.
As with most challenging undertakings, we need a relatable entry point. Something that is attainable, but also shows us the potential benefits. One of my favorite mindful practices is below. It’s short, simple, easily repeated, and never loses its impact. Even now as a more seasoned practitioner of mindfulness, I still use this one all the time.
Following the breath:
While at first this may seem like a breathing exercise, the breath is really just an anchor here. It is a place to rest our attention that doesn’t require any action from us. The breath provides somewhere to place your attention when you begin and when you realize you have become distracted again. It simply provides a resting place for your mind.
Try it out for yourself. Try not to judge your ability to follow the breath - that’s not the point of the exercise. Make sure you do this exercise a few times, for at least a few days before you pass judgment. Continue to note how you feel after each practice.
There are many more ways to bring mindfulness into our warm ups and the way we approach our instruments. We’ll go in depth in the Warm Up to Flow workshop!
What does the breath have to do with finding a flow state?
Our health, both physical and mental, is deeply intertwined with our breath. Oxygen, quite literally, keeps us alive. Our breath circulates nutrients and removes toxins from our body. Science has backed up that breathing also stimulates our nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, and can agitate or calm us depending on the stimulation.
Anyone who sings or plays a wind instrument, enjoys long distance running, lifting weights, or practices yoga regularly understands the integral role the breath plays in helping us do some pretty amazing things from running marathons to performing concertos.
Many of us, however, still don’t realize what an integral role our breath plays in our day-to-day sense of ease and the way we handle stress.
It’s impossible to briefly state the impressive list of ways our breath affects us (I highly suggest reading Breath by James Nestor to develop a better understanding). So, to completely over-simplify, if we become participants in our breath instead of passive users, there is great potential for our overall health and performance.
If you haven’t already gotten the impression that the breath can do impossible things, it’s also been shown that the practice of pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or other breathwork techniques can even help us rewrite neural patterns we have developed over time.
It is common in our culture to over-breathe or breathe too quickly and rapidly, both of which are actually quite shallow. Mouth breathing is also wide spread. Both of these habits can negatively impact our health and mindset, and while you would think most musicians would have a good handle on healthy breathing, how we function in real life is very different from how we play our instruments.
Having gained just a little perspective on the major player the breath is in our overall wellbeing, it becomes easier to see how crucial it is for all of us and especially those in high performing or high stress situations to make sure their breath is working for them, not against them. Beyond that, learning how to use the breath to help regulate our nervous system and focus is something we all can and should do.
The absolute best thing about breathwork, though? We all breathe already. It’s something we can all do, with a tool that absolutely everyone has at no cost.
There are many types of breathwork, and you may have already learned some simple breathing exercises without realizing the potential scope of their impact. As with all disciplines, each exercise won’t speak to you, and it’s possible to find one that suits your specific sensations and needs but later connecting more with a different exercise.
Box breathing is a common approach to learning how to meter our breath, extend our inhales and exhales, and build CO2 tolerance.
A simple box breath follows these steps:
Another commonly used yogic breathing practice (pranayama) is alternate nostril breathing.
Also known as Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing is a yogic pranayama (breathwork) practice known to help with stress and anxiety. The sanskrit name nadi shodhana translates to "subtle energy clearing.”
To try it:
You can test out both of these techniques for yourself - how do you feel afterwards? What changed in your mind or body? How does your breathing feel after trying these compared to before?
We’ll explore several more breathwork techniques in the Warm Up to Flow workshop, and also how to discern what practice might best suit your individual needs and warm up routine as you build your way to a flow state. I hope you’ll join me!
Anyone with hypertension, a history of aneurysms, osteoporosis, cardiovascular issues, or vision issues should consult a doctor before seriously undertaking breathwork.
I’ve learned a lot as a musician about anatomy, movement, mindfulness, and how our brains work, especially over the last two years since being trained in yoga and mindfulness meditation. These are endlessly fascinating topics to me, and they have completely rejuvenated my experience of being a musician and a teacher. As I’ve contemplated the connections between these topics and music making that could help my students, certain ideas stick in my mind as being useful for all of us.
One of those “sticky” ideas turned into my Body of Sound workshop, which incorporates movement into some of our standard flute warm ups with the intention of helping us understand what truly creates resonance in our sound, and how we generate our unique tone quality at a fundamental level.
Another idea that has truly stuck for the last few years combines my fascination with the feeling of playing when we’re in the zone and my experiences of struggling to find an optimum head space under pressure. The intersection of these two things? Warm ups.
When I decided to host a workshop online it seemed obvious to address this idea of warm ups, the relationship we know they have to the flow state, and how we can tweak our individual warm up to serve us best in our quest for an optimal mind state.
What is a warm up?
A warm up is the signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wake up and do what you have trained to do.
Even for seasoned musicians, remaining in the moment during challenging rehearsals, performances, recording sessions, or even practice can feel elusive.
On top of this dodgy attention, we might layer self criticism about the fact that we’re not being more focused, accomplished, productive, or achieving. This self criticism is often not fully founded, but just another distraction.
There’s more to it, though, than just being “distracted.” Have you ever considered whether it’s realistic that we expect ourselves to hop out of real life and straight into a hyper-focused rehearsal or practice session?
We expect a lot from ourselves when it’s time to perform and spend hours preparing the music, but prepping ourselves for performance requires more than just learning the notes.
It is possible to get into the flow state more consistently. Athletes do it all the time. Dancers. Popular bands and singers. High performing classical musicians and opera singers.
So what do they all have in common?
Not the same one across disciplines, but likely the same principals, and above all the consistency of the warm ups they do.
These performers have found something that works for them and revisit it every time they need to be “on.”
It could be a conscious action like a particular muscle or vocal warm up, or an unconscious action like a tick (think of a baseball player who might always tap their shoe with the bat twice before batting). On a deep, subconscious level the performer relates this action to the task at hand. At the end of completing the warm up, their mind and body know what is about to happen and are primed for right effort toward the goal.
Creating a useful warm up is not unlike the habit stacking that James Clear discusses in his book Atomic Habits. It’s building incrementally on something that we know is successful and capitalizing on the outcomes.
In fact, the basis of this workshop was inspired by Clear’s writing on using a pre-game routine to get motivated. One of the best points that Clear makes on this topic is that when we are required to do something (like practice or rehearsal) so often there are bound to be days that we’re not motivated or focused.
According to Clear, every action that is part of the pre-game routine matters (even how you put on the baseball glove, or, how you put your instrument together), and the routine should be done in the same way every time.
From Clear’s perspective there are a few non-negotiables to this routine: starting with something so easy you can’t avoid it (like getting out your instrument) and following that with actions that move you toward your goal.
The first time I read about this pre-game routine, my mind instantly went to my warm-up. The methodical way I put the flute together each time I play, and the playing warm ups I repeat daily because they feel good, and effective. There was way more to it than I had ever realized!
So over the years after making this connection between pre-game routine and performance, I kept thinking about how it applied to musicians. How we all already warm up to play, and how it’s at least somewhat the same warm up each time we put the instrument together. Also on my mind was how performances went when I did and didn’t allow time to warm up in the way I like and know is useful.
The next obvious question was, can we tweak our warm ups to be even more preparatory?
Of course we can!
By way of our training we can identify what we need on a large (long term goals) and small scale (specific to the day) to be successful players. Our warm ups already naturally address our personal needs, strengths and weaknesses. For example, if I am feeling sluggish I will play something that really gets my air moving, or do some physical exercises.
The act of warming up already primes us to be in the zone by the nature of its repetition, but based on what we know from self inquiry, we can actively prime the warm up to produce our optimum flow state.
Doing something like warming up without a plan can be helpful even if we lack a clear intention or goal. Similar to repeating a section in the music over and over without listening carefully, we might end up with some positive results but there is a better way to get there (and beyond) if we spend a little time in reflection prior to beginning.
There are three pillars of a musician’s warm up that can help us reach an optimum state of body and mind:
By addressing our strengths and weaknesses in these areas and exploring proven exercises, approaches to mindfulness, and specific physical aspects of playing we can discern what our individual "pre-game routine" needs.
I hope you’ll join me on March 5th to deep dive into your warm up. Using self inquiry and these guide posts we will each craft a unique warm up that is highly functional, repeatable, and can continue to be developed over time to meet our evolving needs.
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.