How often have you looked back at things you wish you would have done?
Laying awake at night thinking about what we wish we hadn’t said or done has become a bit of a standard joke, but in an achievement driven culture or field it can feel awfully relatable.
Even if it’s not keeping you up at night, I think it’s safe to say that most of us have choices we wish we would have made differently or situations we wish we would have handled differently in our past.
Regardless of how often you find yourself thinking about these past experiences, most of us probably spend much more time with the negative ones than the positive ones. To some extent, that’s likely for a positive reason. We all have a desire to grow, and using previous failures is a valid way to consider how we would like to move forward.
However, it might also be healthy to do the opposite.
When was the last time you drew some inspiration from yourself?
When was the last time you really thought about something you did that took courage, or something you prepared well for that had a positive outcome?
Even if your look back at yourself is neutral, rather than negative, there is a lot to be gained. It might be as simple as realizing that you weren’t as far behind as you thought.
As with most things, balance is key. Always seeing yourself with a super negative view would be unhelpful, but the same is true for viewing yourself in an inflated positive way all the time.
The next time you feel motivated to critique your past behaviors, consider also what you did right. Could you list both things and see them as just that…a list? Objective data on the situation that might come in handy later is a lot easier to work with in the future than a late night binge of self judgement.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the prevelance of “hacks” on the internet - both the type of person and the incessant shortcuts that are supposed to make things easy and effortless. The dictionary defines a hack as a “person who does dull, routine work.” Seems fitting for the endless internet articles about hacks for cutting avocados and streamlining our workflow.
Hacks play into our cultural desire for speed, efficiency and multi-tasking and our lack of attention and time for deep work. Any creative (and anyone who read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) could tell you, though, that mastery takes time above most else.
As my students begin their school year, especially those in college, I am acutely aware of how much is being asked of them. Students beginning their first year in a new building or location, like middle school, high school, or college, have an especially big job of acclimating to new social and learning environments. First year college students are learning to fully fend for themselves for the first time, and all college students are learning over and over again to motivate themselves without the help of their families.
Anyone who is in school, and all of us who teach, are managing distractions. Our devices, social gatherings, that long lunch you’d like to have, etc. All of these things can zap time in an instant and contribute to the feeling of not having enough hours in any day.
As I observed my students hit the ground running this week, I could already start to see their feelings of overwhelm when it comes to time management. How, exactly, is this all going to fit?
The answer is the opposite of a hack. An anti-hack if you will. It lies in perspective.
Pay attention to your schedule. Where are their gaps that can be used for meals? When are you in the music building with a break that could be used for practicing? The random pockets of time that occur in your schedule are key for productivity in school. Use them to carve out space for intentional deep work.
Be aware of distractions
This includes your phone, iPad, laptop, Apple Watch, friends who are distracted practicers, and all the time you spend lamenting how much you have to do. Try to remain aware of what’s distracting you. Acknowledge those distractions, then forget them. Pick one thing to work on and get started.
Keep your deadlines in view
Make a list of important projects, performances, tests, and other deadlines you have throughout the semester and put it somewhere you will see it often. This list isn’t meant to scare you. Use it as a reminder to do what you can now instead of putting everything off until the last minute.
Find an honesty buddy
Everything is better with a friend. Find a friend who has a similar workload or schedule to you, and ask them to keep you honest. Have them give you a nudge toward what needs done if they catch you faffing (doing things in a disorganized way and generally not achieving much).
Make time for reflection
When it comes to perspective, reflecting on our habits and actions is the MVP. Debrief yourself each week - where did you overwork yourself? Where did you get a little lazy? How’s your sleep schedule?
It’s important to give your mind a break. Make sure you do things you enjoy that are unrelated to your work and studies. Much like sleep, doing fun, restful things allows our brain to process all of the other information it is managing.
None of these points on their own will miraculously make school easy, and they all take time to become habits. They might be a bit obvious, but they are not over simplifications.
Learning is all about effort. You get out of it what you put into it, and gaining a little perspective goes a long way.
Every year as summer ends and a new school year is about to start, I find myself reflecting on the nature of teaching and learning.
When I decided not to pursue a music education degree in college and focus on performance, I knew deep down that I wanted to teach. What I had realized was that I wanted to hyper-focus my own time (and the time that I would hopefully spend teaching in the future) and development on the flute.
Making that decision meant there was potentially a lot less structure to my future, but also the guarantee of a lot more creativity involved in figuring out how I was going to become, quite specifically, a flute teacher.
Good teachers have so many traits. They are skilled, knowledgeable, students in their own right, patient, creative, well-spoken, dynamic, and so many other things. Some of these great traits I certainly don’t have, and I highly doubt anyone has them all.
Teaching music is a singularly unique thing. Many people and schools don’t understand its value or place in education or modern culture. Music teachers work long hours, well beyond the school day, and fight for every ounce of funding they get. Those who dedicate themselves to this kind of teaching do it out of sheer love of music and the impact it makes on people’s lives.
Teaching music outside of any structured school system (like in a private studio of your own creation), and pursuing your own abilities in music, takes another special (insane?) type of personality.
We build our own schedule, structure, and rules. We set our own standards and expectations for both our students and ourselves. We are evaluated by the parents and organizations who pay us, but without a structured system of evaluation. We create our own curriculum - it’s up to us what and how we teach. Even now as an adjunct at a state system university, there are structured expectations of what my students will be able to do, but I am the only person teaching flute and so the curriculum in my studio is still very much my responsibility and creation.
I love doing all of these things. They take time, and some are quite difficult, but I appreciate both the challenges and the freedom to do something in a way that I think is effective and worthwhile. I feel a great deal of responsibility to continue growing and adapting so that I can offer my students my absolute best.
This past weekend, I attended an event that epitomizes much of what we do as flutists - the National Flute Association Convention. This happened to be the 50th anniversary convention, and was held in Chicago. I attended my first NFA convention in 2003 in Las Vegas, and have since been all over the country for NFA conventions from San Diego to Orlando. In total, I have attended 11 of these unbelievable gatherings.
I call it an unbelievable event because to anyone who isn’t a flutist, it really is hard to fathom. Attended by thousands, you are inundated with flute from the moment you arrive. Exhibitors, performances, lectures, masterclasses, workshops, and research are all at your fingertips for five days. Growing up in an era with much less internet made me even more amazed at everything an NFA convention had to offer and the distances people traveled from around the globe to attend.
As a student my wonder had to do with the overwhelming amount of new information and the unbelievable level of artistry. As a professional, I have an intense feeling of wonder that we all choose to love this one instrument and everything it can do and represent so much.
One of the things I enjoy in life is meeting people who aren’t close to any musicians and the reactions they have to what we do, or to the fact that you can attend a flute convention with thousands of other flute enthusiasts. It speaks to the bubble we exist in because of this particular thing that we are devoted to.
This year, after three years off due to the pandemic, what I wanted most from my convention experience was to socialize. I wanted to be with my friends from all over the world who also have decided to pursue this one particular skill in such an intense way. I wanted to talk about how we teach, and how we make a living while balancing our unique work with the world around us.
I realize that by now it may seem that I’ve diverged from my original topic of teaching and learning entirely. But I think that the NFA convention is a really beautiful example of all the things that education is and should be.
At these conventions, you find everyone from absolute beginners of all ages, to accomplished hobbyists, students, orchestral flutists, university professors, and genuine virtuoso performers. They all accept and entertain each other. There is no judgement about what level of flutist you are - everyone is welcome to fully immerse themselves in the rich history and scope of the instrument and learn as much as they can absorb.
For those of us who are no longer students, the convention offers a space for us be enriched. I always leave with new music to learn, new ideas to share, and better equipped to help my students navigate their abilities and purchasing new instruments. As in education, you get out of it what you put into it - your attitude and willingness to interact make a significant impact on your personal experience and how much you benefit.
There is camaraderie for everyone. As a flutist, it’s truly one of the only places that you can find someone who shares the same job as you. Whether you are a freelancer and adjunct or a private teacher who works a “day job” you will likely find someone who is or was in your shoes. We can learn so much from our peers.
There are challenging moments as well. We often realize just how well so many people play and perform. We might question our own habits and approach, but with the right attitude can walk away inspired to do more rather than succumbing to comparison and shame over what we feel we might lack.
As a teacher in recent years, I have seen so many of my students quit the extracurricular activities they love because they feel overwhelmed by a schedule full of AP or honors courses, or because they need to diversify their college resume by participating in every type of activity. The standardized testing they endure at school leaves them feeling like there is little room or value for creativity. I can’t blame them when they spend their earliest years in an environment that praises grades on tests over creating something beautiful.
I wonder how I can continue to show my students the value of playing an instrument - self expression, community, deep learning, focus, and personal enrichment - in a world that doesn’t seem to value those things at all.
After the convention this year, it occurred to me that what I want to create for my students is exactly what I experienced. An environment where you can be inspired by others, express yourself openly, and find value in a pursuit not because someone will give you a grade or praise but because it enriches your experience of life.
The freedom of creating my own curriculum and environment for my students outweighs so many of the challenges of being a musician who teaches. My deep love of learning and being challenged is why I ended up on this path, and I want my students to understand that both of those things always have value. I want them to always feel it’s worthwhile to pursue what they enjoy and grow through even if it’s not a “useful” or “practical” job or skill.
The pursuit is what matters most - that we are trying. That we have something we care about. That we share our skills and knowledge with others. Talent and achievement are nice, but not important.
A certain level of mastery might be required for what we’d like to do, but mastery and recognition are not synonymous. All of us are teaching through our actions, whether we aim to or not, and even on a small scale we can make a big difference.
So while I’m especially glad to have seen my friends face to face that I have not seen in person in at least three years, I am inspired by the level of performance demonstrated by my peers, and I am glad to have found new music to learn and teach, this year I feel a different sense of gratitude and perspective returning home to a new school year.
Maybe what I knew deep down years ago and am just now able to articulate is that I didn’t want to teach music in the first place. What I wanted was to at least try to experience and teach the satisfaction of depth and exploration.
I am grateful to this community of people that all agree it is worthwhile to pursue something in earnest just because you love it, whether you make a living doing it or not, and whether or not the rest of the world says it has value.
I am looking forward at my school year with a renewed commitment to creating a pocket of this community for my students. An environment for deep learning and exploration of something we know has tremendous and lasting value.
Last Friday I had the chance to perform the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto. It was a transformative and rich experience, but the performance was just a small piece of the whole.
Side bar: There will be some backstory here, and it’s for slightly selfish reasons because I want to catalog this period of time so that I can revisit this experience later and fully remember the months leading up to this performance as well as the performance itself. If you’d like to skip ahead, I won’t be offended - jump to the bullet points further on in the post for the lessons I’ve learned that I think could benefit anyone preparing for something big.
The performance fell in the middle of an extremely busy summer festival, and an especially busy week and a half of performances. The run down went something like: Friday - Peter and the Wolf; Monday - Flute and Harp Recital; Wednesday - woodwind sextet performance; Friday - Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto; Saturday - Beethoven 5 and other pieces.
Now, I knew well in advance that I would be facing that timeline, as well as the repertoire I would need to have prepared. I had from roughly January to prep the concerto and late spring to prep the other pieces. It just so happened that I played Peter and the Wolf in March (on only a week’s notice!), so it helped to have that one fresh in my fingers.
What I could not have predicted was the fact that we would buy a house this spring (we were not planning on moving!), do some quick construction on our old house, and move all before the festival got here in mid-July. Add in hosting the first Flute Day at MU and a concerto with the MU Wind Ensemble, and it made for a wild ride in the first half of 2022!
Any one of these things could have completely thrown me in a tailspin not that long ago, but I had a few things working to my advantage. Like most freelance musicians, I have gotten good at learning music in a pinch. Years of filling in and jumping on board have made me confident in my abilities to make it work when I have to.
What that really equates to is squeezing in practice anywhere you can, because you have to. I took my flute on family trips or any time I was away from home for more than a day, squeezed in ten or fifteen minutes any time I could between lessons, and listened to the pieces I would be performing while I was painting walls during our moving and selling process.
So far, none of this is earth shattering information - these are the regular things we do to prepare for performances when we’re busy.
In this case though, I was preparing for an important performance of a concerto that is both famous and long (roughly 30 minutes), just a few years after a major run-in with performance anxiety/regular anxiety/stress.
I’ve spent the last two years learning about why I feel nervous, what I can do before, during and after performances to help with that, and implementing that knowledge so that I am able to give a strong, confident performance that I can enjoy.
That’s no small order, no matter how much experience we have performing, competing in a high performance activity, or putting ourselves out there as creatives.
There are many things that have helped me balance my time so that I can focus on what’s important, which include a willingness to say no to things that might be good (or less than good) but not great; getting enough sleep and eating well; hydrating; making time for things that help me unwind both physically and mentally (like yoga, reading, meditation, and family time).
But there are also some very concrete things that help me tackle feelings of worry and stress, concern about being judged, perfectionism in performance, and my ability to enjoy the moment that I know could benefit anyone who finds themselves in my shoes.
I have to give credit here to a few sources that inspired most of the items in the following list - my teachers who planted pedagogical seeds that have grown into both saplings and strong trees, yoga and mindfulness meditation which have allowed me to begin to understand what it means to be embodied and not just in my mind, George Mumford’s Mindful Athlete course, and Terry Orlick’s book In Pursuit of Excellence.
Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned about trust and preparation:
The most impactful part of this concerto performance for me was that I enjoyed the entire experience. I enjoyed being able to work through difficult practice days and remind myself that nothing is just right from the very beginning. I enjoyed visualizing myself in the moment and thinking about what my best performance could sound and look like. I enjoyed collaborating with the other musicians tremendously - what a treat after months of prepping alone. I even enjoyed feeling nervous on stage because I was able to see my thoughts and nerves for what they were - events, not facts.
What I’ve learned over the last few years is that I’m not actually looking for perfection or virtuosity - I’m looking for balance. Balanced thoughts, balanced embodiment. And this time, I think I found a little of both.
I’m currently approaching the first weekend of a three week orchestra festival. Our first concert is tomorrow evening, and I get to play Peter and the Wolf as part of the program.
In the meantime, I’ve also been preparing for next week’s concerts because they include a flute and harp recital, a woodwind sextet performance, and a performance of the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto.
This three weeks in the summer is always intense, but this year is extra so!
As I was planning and packing, I was preparing to feel a consistent sense of tension and anxiousness just based on the sheer amount of performances I would have. Now that I’m here and settled in, though, I feel an overwhelming sense of calm.
If I take a step back and look at it from a distance, it makes so much sense, and I feel it every year when I arrive. Although I have a lot of musical plates to keep spinning, my other usual life responsibilities have been temporarily taken off the table.
I have as much time as I need to practice, I can spend time in quiet reflecting on rehearsals or visualizing aspects of upcoming performances, and if I want to listen to the repertoire I’m performing I don’t have to find a place to be isolated at home to do so or squeeze it in between lessons.
The simplicity of my days here - a predictable timeline of commitments, having only the flute to really focus on (although I’m doing other work here and there), and even knowing exactly what and when I’ll eat creates an underlying calm that I appreciate so much surrounding these big concerts.
Musicians, athletes and performers often talk about being in a flow state. Usually they mean a time in a performance or a game that doesn’t last for a long extended period where we are so engaged in the moment that everything else falls away.
Having access to this simplicity of lifestyle, even for a few short weeks, creates a sort of overarching flow state for me that makes it so much easier to get to work, go to bed early, and generally do all the things I wish I usually had more time for when it comes to practicing.
Eventually, though, I’ll head home and back to reality (and I am always glad to do so when the time comes!). The question, then, is how do we create a little of this life flow in our regular day-to-day?
I’m reminded of all the stories of CEOs who own only one type and color of shirt and the same with their selection of pants so that they never have to consider their outfits, or celebrities who eat exactly the same meals every day. I have to admit, that sounds a little boring to me, but I do love a good routine and maybe this is why.
It certainly could be that a key to creating this flow on a regular basis is consciously creating a helpful routine around the basics - groceries, taking our vitamins, knowing when we will sit down to do our deep work so that it’s easier to shut out the noise, etc..
What I’m experiencing for the next three weeks is the supersized version of this life flow, but it does serve as inspiration to find a little more space in my day to day life when I head home.
How do you create space to flow in your daily tasks?
When I started blogging regularly near the end of 2020, I was just looking for an outlet - I had just started my yoga teacher training, was teaching completely online, had no gigs to prepare for because of the pandemic, and more free time than I’d had in years.
It was great to have somewhere to flesh out ideas about teaching, yoga, being a musician - whatever was on my mind (the benefits of writing something I wasn’t sure anyone would read was feeling that I could freely take my choice of topics)!
I wasn’t sure if I would continue writing when things went “back to normal” (what is normal now, anyway?) - I was writing a lot during the time that everything was shut down.
As we all got busier again I realized that I didn’t want to stop writing, but I needed to give myself a few perimeters so I could stick to it (keeping up with the topic of last week’s blog here, I needed some constraints to keep writing creatively).
I settled on a weekly blog, published mostly on the same day each week, and for the most part that’s worked well with my schedule and lifestyle now that my calendar has filled up again.
One of the things that I wasn’t expecting to come from sitting down to write each week is the way my willingness to be open with others would change. By allowing myself to write out my teaching methods and philosophies, feelings about career choices, ideas about yoga and meditation, etc., I have been able to solidify concepts, ideas, and goals for myself.
Blogging has given me a space to practice talking about things that are important to me, which in turn lets me feel confident in conversations with my colleagues and students.
As someone who truly enjoys their privacy and solitude (only child here!), I’m still surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed making new friends online and putting myself out there a little bit more. It helped that I did it in a way that felt genuine to me - I love writing, and am sure I never would have considered or stuck to a video blog, YouTube channel, etc..
Beyond feeling like I’ve given myself more time to think about important topics in my work, the most enriching thing about engaging with other musicians has been learning the similarities of our stories. For all the ways we’re different, there are so many commonalities that come up in our training, performance, personal struggles, and interests.
I think as musicians we can often feel alone - most non-musicians have a hard time understanding our work hours, the types of jobs we have, and the pressure we feel around our performances and skills.
But I also think that as musicians we often tell ourselves we are alone - that everyone would judge us or disregard us for feeling nervous or debating a different career, that no one else feels those things or was a late bloomer musically.
The reality though is that it’s all in our heads. If we really start to listen carefully to others and open up to them in genuine conversation, it becomes clear that what makes us all the same is our humanness - we feel pressure, have fears, live for a great performance, question our choices, commit to doing something unique and demanding - and the way we reconcile that with our work and artistry.
I suppose I’m sharing all of this as encouragement - that if you feel like you want to share somehow or get to know those around you more, it’s worth it. Listen to your gut and find genuine ways to start putting yourself out there that aren’t just performances. There is so much to gain from enriching our lives professionally not just in performance, but in communication and building rich support networks.
Some of the things I’ve started doing over the last two years are still surprising to me, and might even feel a little silly, but it's hard to imagine not doing them now:
I hope that this leaves you a little inspired to try something new and find outlets for yourself. What are the ways you could explore your unique interests and skills to connect with others? I would, genuinely, love to hear about them.
Do you ever notice that when you are busy you somehow accomplish a wild number of things in one day, yet when you have all the time in the world it can be hard to get any one project done?
With deadlines looming or people counting on us, it becomes quite clear how we need to use our free time.
I always thought that I was someone who thrived under a little pressure. As a student I would procrastinate just enough on papers and studying so that I would feel the pressure of my deadlines, and then I would sit down and crank out the work that needed done.
In hindsight, what I was creating for myself were constructive time constraints. Knowing I only had two weeks until the exit exams for my Master’s degree meant that instead of sitting and chatting with friends over coffee I needed to study over my many daily caffeinated beverages.
As a freelancer, this means that when I have a half hour break from teaching and there is a gig coming up I practice instead of faffing on the internet.
It turns out that I don't have remarkable self control, I just have constraints.
With summer just starting here and school finally ending for almost all of my students, I see them relax at the evaporation of the rigid constraints of school. They have space to sleep in, see their friends, go swimming, and get outside - all things that are necessary for kids who have spent so much of the year stressing over grades and standardized tests.
But as necessary as this space to play, daydream, and relax is, the lack of schedule often wrecks some havoc on practicing.
I’ve made some adjustments over time to how I teach in the summer to help my students keep improving without feeling like I am sucking the spontaneity out of their time off:
We take a break! Each summer begins with a week off from lessons and ends that way, too. If you’ve been a student at any point, you know how special and bittersweet the transition in and out of summer can be. Add in the time I am away for summer festivals and conventions and we average a decent amount of lessons without the requirement to be present each week.
I encourage creative practicing. During the school year most of my students squeeze their practice in during study halls or at night, but in the summer they can practice at whatever time of day feels right to them. Do they enjoy playing outside? Perfect for the nice weather and neighborhood enjoyment. Do they have a friend from school they could visit and practice with? Who says practice can’t be social sometimes! Do they hate sitting down for a full hour of practice? Divide it in half or thirds!
We have an end goal in mind. Although we are more relaxed in the summer, we’re still focused in lessons on moving forward in our skills. Having a recital at the end of the summer gives my students both an objective and something to look forward to. I make the recital on the same Sunday each year so that families know to plan for it well in advance.
We play something fun. I have a fairly structured curriculum I like to use in lessons, and although I adapt it to each student, they don’t always get to pick their repertoire. In the summer, I encourage them to find pop music, movie music or write down a song they like by ear that they could play at our recital. Getting to exercise choice after school and standardized testing season can feel like a real treat.
There are many applications of healthy constraints in our lives (personal boundaries being a great example) and in our practice rooms (using a timer and setting specific objectives for each session) but I was inspired to think a little differently about how constraints can help us by my old house and renovation projects.
When you live in a historic home built in 1900 or before, there are quirks - odd sized rooms, rules about keeping certain historical features, and old wiring are a few examples. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to change the space the way you might think is ideal, but there is always a creative solution to make the best of the space you have.
Having an old house is a lot like our playing and musicianship. The old foundation of how we’ve learned is there, but there is always a way to update the space and use our perspective and knowledge to make it better.
Our culture pushes make-your-own schedules, self-employment, and autonomy as the ultimate freedoms, but we’re missing the mark thinking that everything should be unbound. Healthy structures help us achieve our goals and enjoy the time we spend in work and activities.
Remember that even if you can't change your schedule, you can always exercise control over how you spend your time. Even if it’s just deciding how to divide those thirty minutes of practice.
Tuning is something I address often in my teaching, partially because I feel like it was missing in my early music education. With so many things to address in young players, it’s not surprising that intonation gets left for later.
As a young player I knew I didn’t really understand tuning. I could tell if something was really wrong, but I never knew if I was sharp or flat and it took me what felt like forever to remember if you push in to be more sharp or flat. (If you’re reading this and you don’t know: to make the instrument higher push in to be short and high like a piccolo; to make the instrument lower pull the headjoint out so the flute is longer and lower.)
What I did know as a young musician was that if I tried something - rolling in, rolling out, pushing the headjoint in or pulling it out, I could figure out the right way to adjust (it becomes pretty clear if you go the wrong way!)
A few of the tools that truly helped me along the way to develop practical skills and understanding of intonation were playing long tones with the tuner, harmonics, and playing duets with others.
My skill in intonation improved steadily but slowly as I went through high school and college. Along the way I learned the difficult lesson that if we play a note out of tune long enough, our ears memorize that incorrect tuning as where the note belongs.
For example, as flutists we often struggle with the intonation of notes that are quite flexible like C# and high G. Not only does that mean we end up memorizing the placement of those notes out of tune, but also that we memorize the distance of intervals involving those notes incorrectly as well.
As you might guess, one of my major tasks was to correct my ear’s memory. I needed to really understand where each note belonged.
I knew leaving undergrad that I was still facing much of this task, and during my Master’s degree my teacher Stephanie Jutt helped me tremendously with this by catching the places where I had a wrong relationship memorized, and by reinforcing the usefulness of playing with a drone.
Using a drone for practice was not new to me, but making a point to do it consistently was. Like most things that are worthwhile, it takes time and patience to start to hear more intricately what is happening with tuning beyond just the large, glaring discrepancies. Although it may seem mundane, one of the greatest benefits of doing scales and chords with a drone is learning to hear and feel the correct relationships between the notes in a scale, a chord, or a specific interval.
When I was in school we used “The Tuning CD” (yes it was an actual CD) which had midi versions of chords that you could play along with. It worked, but if you’re familiar with earlier midi sounds, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing to listen to for a long period of time.
One of my favorite resources for playing with a drone now in teaching and my own practice is on Spotify (and probably other music services, although I haven't checked): Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation.
Playing with the cello sound is not only more pleasant than midi, but I think comparing our tuning to a natural timbre is helpful with providing perspective on how tone color and quality can impact our intonation.
When we practice with a drone, or any time we practice intonation, the activity we’re taking part is a simple and obvious one: listening.
What makes this particular type of listening so different from our day to day listening is the depth we are cultivating. When we intently listen with intonation in mind, we are listening for the slightest variance we can detect in that moment. We are actively growing our capacity to hear smaller and smaller details.
Intonation is all about relationships.
We can’t tell if we’re in tune or not if there is nothing to make a comparison to. When we are playing by ourselves, this means we need those note-to-note relationships to be accurate, and we need to use them as a guide. When we play with others, it means committing to listening without making the assumption that we’re the one who is right and then being willing to adjust as necessary.
A willingness to listen deeply and adjust are the prerequisites for good intonation.
Ultimately, this requires us to get outside of ourselves and experience what we’re hearing both intellectually and physically (Most of us have encountered the physical feelings of dissonance - when you can actually feel the vibration of the notes fighting against each other).
Playing in tune also requires us to let go - to release the previous placement of notes that we committed to if we can learn a new and better way. And, to let go of the need to be right (does it matter if your intonation is right if you sticking to where you put the note makes everyone sound bad?).
Being a musician who plays with good intonation looks a lot like being a human who plays well with others - both require us to learn to trust ourself and our ears fully but not blindly.
As I was sitting here staring at a blank page thinking and thinking about how I didn’t have anything to write, it occurred to me how much time I spend thinking so hard about so many different things that don’t really matter very much, or maybe aren't even real.
Why did that one G come out so funny in rehearsal last week? Why do I feel so disorganized about what I need to practice? Why can’t I remember to water my plants? Why didn’t I plan better before I went grocery shopping this week?
I would guess not everyone does this to the same extremes, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in the amount of brain space and time I can spend considering a lot of important (and unimportant) things ad nauseam.
A few days ago I caught myself doing this while I was practicing. I’ve written about different scenarios of this before, but for some reason it sparked a light bulb moment this week, even though I’ve already experienced similar realizations. (We keep being given the same messages until we learn what we need from them, I think.)
When I’ve written about this before it was about overthinking that happens when we have so much on our to-do lists that we catastrophize all of it to the point of not being able to get started. My experience this week was different in a subtle, but important way.
As I was practicing, I was honed in on something that felt a little weird or “off” in my playing - something that, I kept thinking, I should be able to do effortlessly and that I shouldn’t ever have to think about at this point. I caught myself thinking that this particular aspect of my playing was so solid and easy before, how could I have regressed so that it wasn’t?
As I was ruminating, out of nowhere and for a brief moment, I had a sliver of outside perspective. I remembered the reality of previous practice sessions days, months, and even years ago. I realized that I might not have been paying much attention to this aspect of my playing before, but that wasn’t because it was perfect. I remembered clearly other times that I had off-days with this particular skill.
This tiny moment of clarity allowed the thought fog to lift and reminded me that we really can’t believe everything we think.
I had been understandably frustrated with something that doesn’t usually require my attention, but in allowing my frustration to run rampant I had started telling myself stories that went well beyond the actual experience at hand about my abilities, approach, and playing without even realizing how far into the fabricated future I was letting my thoughts travel.
Even though this experience was subtle, it felt like a huge step forward. How long would I have created unnecessary frustration and distraction over this issue in my practice if I hadn’t been able to see what was happening with a wider perspective?
I believe whole heartedly that mindfulness meditation is what has created an increasing number of these very subtle “ah-ha” moments for me both in music and life.
Much like practicing our instruments, practicing mindfulness can seem slow to progress and sometimes tedious, but the growth is always available to you if you are willing to stick with the practice.
How aware are you of your thoughts in the practice room?
Can you really see where the division is between what’s happening now in the moment and what you’re predicting about the future?
How could you strengthen your mind to see the moment clearly?
Have you ever heard your teachers say their goal is for you to “teach yourself”?
It’s a common goal in music for teachers to discuss this concept, because at some point every student steps out on their own without a teacher they see each week to keep them on track. Although we can always choose to work with a teacher, no one knows us better than ourself. We all become independent learners at some point.
When we’re a student, growing the ability to teach ourself can look like taking our teacher’s advice about practice techniques, time management, listening, etc., and learning how to apply it appropriately in the practice room. During this time in our development, we still get to check in each week to make sure we’ve applied the tools correctly and are moving in the appropriate direction.
What about after school? We don't all go into teaching, but I've learned a lot about teaching myself from teaching others. I view my students very objectively - my goal is always to really see and hear what they are doing, notice what is holding them back, and find creative solutions that work for them specifically. (i.e. My mean inner critic never comes out when I’m listening to a student the way it does when I’m “teaching” myself.)
Beyond the reality that we are much meaner to ourselves than we are to others, there’s also the fact that we usually learn to guide ourselves at the same time we lose both our access to private lessons and the structure of music school. When it’s up to us to create our learning structure, that can prove a large hurdle in itself.
So when we really get down to practicing and improving on our own, how can we balance (or just plain shush) the inner critic who always has a lot of mean and distracting things to say but not nearly enough productive feedback to give?
I think there’s something missing from the whole process of the way that we are taught to approach teaching ourselves, and how we are taught to manage our fear and self criticism from the beginning.
This is a recent realization for me, brought on by a truly inspirational session of George Mumford’s mindful athlete course. During that particular session, it came up for a few people that they still feel so much doubt or anxiety doing the things they are skilled at. That as we build skill and expertise, we can often feel even more susceptible to outer judgement, and especially to self criticism.
In these scenarios where we know that we are able to do something, but afraid to realize our inner masterpiece (as George calls it), we can feel paralyzed. How do we keep moving toward our goals without getting distracted from right effort by our doubt and self criticism?
When we’re really being vulnerable and pushing ourselves it can often feel like our faith or trust in ourselves, and what we’re doing, has vanished. We can be distracted by the difficulty and demand of what we are trying to do. What we need is to cultivate trust in ourselves, our performance, our message, and our ability to show up in the way we need to.
Personally, I can feel overwhelmed by perfectionist thoughts, and this understanding that the mental barrier is arising from vulnerability and trying something challenging makes it easier to address.
How do we address it exactly, though? How do we cultivate trust?
See the moment in depth:
* Either reflect back on when you challenged yourself and felt vulnerable or try to experience that moment deeply in real time.
* Were you scared the entire time? As you look deeper, you will realize that there is a lot more nuance to it than that.
* Are you self critical the entire time? Or can you look with more intention to see beyond the self criticism and notice all the ways you know to help yourself practice well and grow your playing.
* As you start to see the truth in depth, see your fear and your inner critic, and also see how they intertwine with the entirety of your experience.
As you start to become aware of the truth - the depth of your experience - you will become more relaxed and observant which allows you to move forward moment by moment, doing what you know to do. You can focus on right effort.
Teaching ourselves is an exercise in mindfulness - how are we speaking to ourselves? What are we paying attention to, and do we need to shift our attention? How are deeply are we experiencing the moment?
The objective is not to remove our doubt, but to make doubt the tool for learning. Know that doubt shows you where you can grow.
At some point during the same session of the Mindful Athlete George said, “when you want to learn something, teach it.”
What better way could there be to grow as a musician than to learn to mindfully teach ourself?
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.