Many musicians feel like playing their instrument is home - we are encouraged to view our instrument as an extension of ourselves, a part of our voice. And truly, it can be a very organic expression of our thoughts and feelings.
But what happens when playing your instrument doesn’t feel comfortable?
When you are growing as a musician, inevitably, you will have periods of time that you are making adjustments and questioning how you play or what you want to do in your career. Those times of experimentation and discovery are crucial for growth, but they can leave us feeling unsettled.
If you’re a student who is about to graduate or someone who has newly entered the “real world” after music school, you may relate to that feeling of being misplaced in a big way. We are offered so many amazing resources in school - ensembles, mentors, peers, chamber music, plentiful practice time - that when we are suddenly removed from that environment it is quite jarring.
In my own life, I’ve gone through several of these moor-less periods, both in and out of school. They are often connected to times when I feel my playing is shifting and changing. Somehow, it seems that feeling a newness or discomfort in my routine of flute playing reflects a much bigger shift in my life.
And I suppose that it’s true - we grow and change over the course of our lives, and that affects the way we approach being a musician.
There are obvious examples and many, many more subtle ones. Leaving school and still needing to grow as a musician without somewhere to perform is a large hurdle. Realizing that you have dedicated a lot of time to something that hasn’t helped you grow as a person or musician the way you’d hoped feels like a monumental observation. Dedicating time and effort to your health will change how you feel in your body and affect your playing.
In the past, and especially when I was a recent graduate, this feeling that a tether, to a place or the way I did things in the past, had been severed seemed to present only one option. To dig in with resolve and forge ahead doing what I was told to do in school or to keep doing the same things I had been and wait for the feeling to pass.
But now, I’m realizing that these phases are a call to create a new home in myself. A new sense of belonging, whether that is in leaving something that has run its course behind or trusting the musical skills I have cultivated as a flutist over my life since I was eight.
One of the most exciting things to me about a life in music was that I had choices. I could build a career out of the things that spoke to me, create a unique schedule and follow uncharted paths.
But as music students and young professionals, there is a distinct message that to be respected and successful you really must follow the things that speak to you on a sometimes unspoken but traditional path … orchestral work, music administration, college teaching, etc..
In choosing to deviate from what's expected, it can become hard to resist the feelings of self-criticism or concern about how you will be viewed professionally, even when you know you don’t want to do something that is admired.
I have challenged myself this year to pursue the things that really speak to me. I have left a few things behind or said no to things that I would have jumped at five years ago. In some ways, it has made me feel much freer to understand the parts of music that I am not meant for right now. In other ways, it has handed a microphone to that tiny critical voice that says things like “you are only doing something else because you are not good enough to truly be 'successful'.”
What I wish I would have realized as a young musician is that the tiny critical voice, that sometimes shouts very loudly, is usually just fear.
When you pinpoint what it is you truly want, is it surprising that fear shows up to say, “but what if you can’t actually do it?”
If you are facing big decisions, allow yourself to sit with your fear. Will you be guaranteed to succeed if you make a change? No, but will you grow and learn? Will you be doing something you can genuinely be invested in?
If you are a student or a new graduate, allow yourself to sit with your fear. Ask yourself what careers and who you admire, then ask yourself why.
If you understand your why, then you will be able to follow it to the path that’s meant for you.
Find a quiet space where you feel safe. Close your eyes and feel your breath, listen to the sounds around you and then go inward. Be open and notice what shows up.
It’s not simple, but you have to remember that in life and in music, no one holds all the answers for you. You have what you need to create the space that feels like home, but you have to be willing to hold that space for yourself. No one else can do it for you.
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.
Failure is both a celebrated and taboo topic in performative disciplines.
You will see many athletes, musicians, actors, etc, discuss failure as a pathway to success, and the internet is littered with inspirational quotes about failure and its necessity as part of a successful career or life.
You will also notice that these same performers, and most everyday run-of-the-mill humans, will hide their failures behind the veil of their successes, showing only the positive event that came after what we can assume was many less desirable outcomes.
I think most of us can put ourselves in both of these camps. I often share stories of failed auditions or subpar performances with my students as a means of showing that we all have them and they are one of the ways we learn. But I also rarely share failed outcomes - or even that I'm making an attempt at something scary - publicly. What's the expression about holding your cards close?
My point here is not that either of those ways of viewing or hiding failure is right or wrong. Rather, I think we all need to consider our relationship to failure more closely and sincerely as a window to how we're approaching and living our lives.
It's important to define what you mean by failure - it's an awfully broad term, after all. When you think of failing, do you mean that you completely fell on your face and made a fool of yourself, and that you had absolutely no idea how to do the thing you were attempting? Or, maybe more likely, failure could mean that you made a concentrated effort toward something using your accumulated knowledge and skill and it didn't work out. Those are two very different things!
It's also important to differentiate between a few things:
- Did you actually "fail" (By your definition? By someone else's?) or were you simply not the first pick?
- Does your "failure" negate any of your skills, knowledge or worth?
- Do you truly feel like a failure or are you simply disappointed? (More on this in a second)
- Can you try again? (Do you want to?)
- Did you learn something? (This sounds cliche - try to be very specific about you want to improve on)
As I experience more failures and successes, I am beginning to think we have our definitions and priorities all wrong. Failure is more of an experience than a thing.
First of all, we have to dedicate ourselves to something and then be willing to take a risk to even have success or failure. Maybe we should try harder as we become more skilled to maintain focus on the process and objective.
Second, we learn from every experience in life. We learn what we did well, not well, or what just plainly needs to be different. Most crucially, we should learn what is important to us and why it is important for us to share.
Third, we need to understand what failure (or success for that matter) does and does not do to us. Failure does not inherently change us - what we learn helps us change ourselves.
Finally, a "failure" does not mean you're incapable, terrible, unseen or any other negative adjective. Just because you weren't the "winner" doesn't mean you lost anything.
(A side note that "success" could be redefined in a similar way - as a gratification of a tremendous amount of effort or a positive outcome of something we have invested in, etc.)
Most importantly: We need to learn to differentiate between our feelings of self worth, the feeling of failure, and the feeling of disappointment.
There have been many devastating disappointments in my career - or at least I thought they were at the time they occurred. Eventually I had to decide, like we all do, if I would keep on trying or not. As I drove on to new objectives those feelings of failure were left further and further behind, and in the rearview mirror they often look a lot more like hurt and disappointment.
I think for most of us, part of our struggle in dealing with failures is that we don't understand them by the correct definition. When was the last time you truly failed? Like, first time riding a bike fell off and skinned your knee because you were clueless failure? In your musical career, this type of "failure" probably hasn't happened since back when you were a beginner.
This understanding doesn't make it easier to deal with a failure (or rather, a disappointment) in the moment, but I believe it can make it a healthier process for all of us. One that we can weave into the overall fabric of our experiences, rather than allowing it to be definitive.
I don't mean to say that the disappointment that comes from a "failure" or outcome we didn't want is insignificant. It is still a huge feeling to be grappled with. But, like most feelings, it only becomes easier to deal with if we call it for what it is, face it head on, and allow ourselves to feel the visceral experience of it. Eventually we'll tire of that exhaustive disappointment, begin to see the experience clearly and start looking forward.
We're often not privy to the things that happen when others get to decide if we have "earned" a place. However, any insight you gain won't matter if you don't learn to understand your feelings, value yourself and your efforts, and believe in your capability to grow.
Seeing failure for the disappointment it really is softens the blow and helps us accept the situation without unecessary self-degradation. In this way we can continue to learn and grow, to understand ourselves better, and move on to the next project (which, as you might expect, will inevitably bring some disappointments and some successes).
Understanding our true experiences, whether they are positive or negative, can bring us a more realistic, satisfying, and fulfilling approach to work and life.
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.
If you're a musician, you're likely not a stranger to perfection or perfectionism, or to the feeling that you have to get it right.
In fact, perfectionism can often breed a lot of success for a musician......for a while. The drive to continue working to get it "right" can push us forward. Often, until we are right up against a wall of frustration or stalled development.
There is a certain amount we need to be able to do right in music and in life - our scales, the etude for our next lesson, eating three meals a day, driving safely on the highway, and maybe those orchestral excerpts you want to be especially perfect for your next audition.
At some point, perfectionism becomes straight up self-criticism and causes us to question a lot about our playing and performance. It might cause us to think things like: "If only I could have done it right like so-and-so....I bet that they don't struggle with breathing like I do," or "I bet they don't miss a day of their workouts or binge Netflix instead of practicing."
Thoughts of how everyone else is "doing it right" can permeate our preparation for auditions, job interviews, our practice sessions, and even our daily life.
In the age of social media, it seems like everyone's practice routines, strategies for success, and endless accomplishments are on full display.
Of course we start to wonder if we're getting it anywhere close to right. It's only natural to question your intuition when the messaging says that everyone else has the answers.
There are a few realities that evade us in the messaging we often receive. When you have a moment of self doubt in practice or in life remind yourself that:
When you see other musicians/people succeeding you see only the tip of the iceberg.
Only you understand what works for your life.
Your aspirations can be different than others.
You are the only person who can do what you are dreaming of,
Only you know what message you'd like to share, and being honest is different than being right.
Messy is way more interesting than perfect.
There are enough people "doing it right" in the world. Trust yourself to do it your way, to follow your intuition, and to share your message even if it's messy.
Also, it's not normal to feel obligated to influence thousands of people online every day. Focus on making a difference for yourself and those around you.
Trust yourself to do it right....for you.
We have all heard the talking points about music education and why it’s crucial for students: they become better test takers, better at math, their overall grades are better, they learn to be a team player, etc. This list goes on and on and frankly, if you are already an advocate of music education, these things seem quite obvious.
Students who study privately get an extra layer of benefits. They receive one on one time with an adult who is invested in them and gets to know their personality and interests. They’re given opportunities to try new things that are challenging in a safe environment, which teaches them to be able to continue taking calculated risks going forward in life.
My students also build confidence in so many ways. They have small wins and improvements every week that show how even a little built of effort creates results. They learn that their interests are worthwhile simply because they enjoy them which helps them confidently explore their creativity and capabilities. We consistently work through difficulties and come out on the other side ensuring to them that with the right approach they can do difficult things.
From my perspective, all of this is already making studying an instrument sound pretty awesome. But, as many public school and private music teachers know, it’s a hard sell to keep students in music programs and lessons. School is very demanding with AP and honors classes, expectations for how many activities students will be in, volunteering, growing social lives, social media and peer pressure, and then more recently, a pandemic layered on top.
It’s not surprising that it can be hard for students to see why spending an hour practicing flute or violin or any instrument alone while all of this looms over you is worth it.
So, how exactly is practicing like real life?
There are several direct connections between practicing and real life that I think show its value in a different and more accessible way.
Analysis and calculated action
I reference creating a tool box a lot in lessons. Take warm-ups for example: we learn a variety of warm-ups consistently in lessons like harmonics, long tones, tapers, arpeggiated exercises, tone exercises, and the list goes on.
Students can often view these warm ups as the tedious thing they have to do with the tuner or metronome before they can practice the “fun stuff.” But the reason they feel this way is because they haven’t connected them to the rest of their practice.
Enter the toolbox. It is your individual collection of approaches and tactics that tackle specific issues you know are problematic for you. When you are practicing on your own and run up against something difficult, you can reach into this toolbox and try on a few possible ways to fix the problem.
This requires awareness that there is a problem in the first place - recognizing that is half the battle. Then, an analysis of what might be causing the issue. (Pitch dropping or going flat at the end of a note? Perhaps the air is not fast enough or strong enough.) To do this analysis you have to step back and observe, not take immediate action. We live in a society that demands instant - instant response to emails, instant reactions and responses to text messages. This analysis of our challenges and available tools takes patience.
Once you have evaluated your situation and what you have at your disposal, then you can take calculated action trying on one or several tools in the format you learned them, or adjusted and adapted to the specific situation. (To work on air speed and droopy note ends, you might work on tapers and harmonics, for example.)
This ability to pause and observe, catalog what we have at our disposal, and then act is a skill we all need in real life.
In a world that would imply we need to exist only on snap judgements, we all should be able to give ourselves the space to make good choices and apply the tools we have learned.
Self-reliance and independent thinking
There is a lot of pressure to succeed in specific ways now, not in the least because other people’s success and ideas are so visible to us around the clock. Students and professionals alike are constantly bombarded with what our peers are doing and, subsequently, with what we are not doing.
There are constant messages in all professions and parts of life that if you do this journaling exercise you will discover what’s holding you back, or if you take this course you will suddenly know how to sell your skills, or if you bought that shirt and wore your makeup differently you would be more likable.
Not only is this messaging exhausting, it also subliminally tells us that we are missing something we need. You might have experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you felt knowledgable about something and then found yourself wondering what everyone else would think if they saw you doing that skill on display.
When we practice, we are essentially forced into quiet time alone with ourselves. This can seem overwhelming when we are used to so much input, and students may find themselves practicing and thinking that they couldn’t possibly know what to do. Perhaps they get distracted thinking how their embouchure looks weird, or their hand position is different than that other person’s, or that they have no idea how to fix that weird thing about their tone. It’s no wonder when the internet would have us believe that we can buy the answers to almost anything.
This is where we must exercise independent thinking and self reliance. As a musician, and a human, you are unique. Your bone structure, your embouchure, your sense of holding and playing the instrument, the inner working of your life, is unique to your experiences.
We can build self-reliance with independent thinking. Taking what you know about yourself, and releasing any concerns about other opinions, you can revisit the toolbox you are building and rummage through what you have available to you. Maybe you’ll find what you need or it will produce a question you take to your next lesson or research on your own. Or, maybe you will find that you’ve created a challenge for yourself where there isn’t one and what you need is to relax into focusing on the music and expressing yourself.
Building confidence in this independent work is where practice prepares us for real life. No matter how connected we are online, how popular someone seems, or how far we feel like we have to go, the lesson to be learned from practice is that you have to live through your own version of the task and remember that no one holds the answers for you.
To practice and live well we must exercise trust that we are the expert in our experience.
Reinforcing and sharing your work and discoveries
Sometimes students shy away from lessons because the idea of performing in recitals scares them, or taking auditions seems too intimidating. Maybe they don’t like to play in band because they feel judged by those around them.
Most of us have had the experience of doing really well in our own practice, then going to a lesson and not doing even half as well. Often, it’s because we aren’t as focused or we are nervous or anxious about sharing what we’ve done.
Practicing to reinforce your analysis and calculated actions through self-reliance and independent thinking requires us to repeat the skills above over and over. To build the muscle memory of “right efforting” into our practice and daily work.
Sharing what we’ve practiced and explored can feel challenging, but I think this is most important step in the process of practice. In fact, it can even be viewed as a practice. If you become used to sharing (in your lessons, performances, online, in writing, in teaching, etc.), then it is another muscle you exercise.
Deciding to consistently share what you practice proves to you that it becomes easier the more you do it, that you can work independently and have success, and that even if something doesn’t succeed a failure is a bump in the road, not a dead end.
Practice = real life:
These skills are something students can learn from the very beginning of studying music and develop all the way through becoming working musicians or moving on to other fields. No matter how long you play your instrument for, the mastery of these abilities that come directly from practicing will benefit you.
We will be called over and over again in life to be present in difficult situations in both work and personal circumstances, and these skills that encompass our practice are what makes it most valuable.
Our awareness, self trust, and the tool box we build can aide us in navigating both music and life with ease.
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.