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?
I have been reading, and thinking, a lot about time lately. Then again, doesn’t it always seem like we are thinking about time?
How much can I get done today, how much is left to do, there’s not enough time to cook or do laundry, how many more students could I teach, etc…
I’ve just started reading Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, and already it has made me reconsider the way we perceive time and how we’ve come to interact with time the way we do.
Just before starting this book, I had a conversation with my husband that I never imagined I would have - I actually said out loud that I would like to be less busy.
As musicians, we’re primed from an early age to know how to be busy successfully, and that to be busy is to be successful. But lately, as my plates continue to fill with activities that feel an awful lot like busywork, I’m wondering how much of that actually equals success?
If I am constantly teaching but never have time for the deep, intensive practice that is required to perform the way I want I am busy, and maybe successful? What if I consider the type of students am I teaching, how well I am teaching, and how much my performance abilities suffer - do I still feel successful?
If I never have time to sit down and flesh out new ideas for classes and workshops or to codify what I am learning from teaching and performing, I am definitely busy but what about successful?
If I can’t enjoy time with my family or doing activities I love because I am working so much, it’s possible I am both busy and successful, but not content.
All of these questions are very personal - we all want different things, and we've all reached varying levels of achievement to this point.
As I was reading Four Thousand Weeks last night, I came across two passages in the book that really made me pause:
“…you have too much to do, so you try to fit more in, but the ironic result is that you end up with more to do. The worst aspect of the [efficiency] trap is, though, is that it’s also a matter of quality. The harder you struggle to fit everything in, the more of your time you’ll find yourself spending on the least meaningful things.”
“The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use of a portion of your time.”
I can relate to these statements at my core. I’ve had that feeling so often that time is slipping away and that I never quite get enough done to really treat myself to spending time on the important stuff.
It’s exactly how I was feeling when I said I’d like to be less busy (it’s still seems weird to say that out loud!). Isn’t that why we work so hard in the first place? Not to add more to our plates, but to be able to choose what’s on it in the first place.
Even in just the first few chapters of Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman makes the point that as we get more skilled and gain more resources our culture does not reward us with time - it rewards us with more to do and higher demands.
I feel a strong urge to release things right now - even some good things - to have space. Space to be still, to sit and think, to practice and not be rushed.
What would it be like if we weren’t constantly chained to exterior time keepers like the demands of others and the sense that we need to be everywhere and everything to be worthwhile? I think it would feel luxurious, and probably also incredibly challenging because it would require directly opposing the cultural norm: busy = value.
Isn’t it interesting, too, that just talking about doing less sounds lazy, selfish, and entitled? Or at least that’s how I’m feeling talking about it. Not to mention the financial factor here - there’s only so much we can choose not to do before the bills pile up, so some of this is daydreaming for sure.
And still, I’d like to cancel a few things this week. Free up some time to practice, to plan, to write…maybe even to do nothing.
Is there a way to shift how we relate to time in our current culture? I’m not sure, but it’s fun to think about.
The mind-body connection is both simple and straightforward and incredibly complex. It makes sense that our thoughts and our physical body would be intertwined (we do carry our brain around in our body all the time!), but the ways they affect each other are many and it can be overwhelming to consider how we might address this to improve our day to day life, performance, and ability to play and communicate through our instruments.
I love exploring the mind-body connection through yoga. I’ve learned so much about anatomy through my yoga practice and teacher training, and I have gained a lot of understanding about the way our fascia, muscles, and bones work. (I’m still learning, of course - this is not a small topic!)
No one part of the body operates alone.
As an example, recently I was finding that one side of my jaw/tongue felt stiff and immobile when I was practicing. My initial thought was that I must have been clenching my teeth throughout the day or while sleeping. As I observed myself, though, that proved not to be the case.
Further observation led me to notice that when I turned my head I could feel strain/tension in the muscles around my collar bone that connect the shoulder and (surprise!) the jaw on the side of the tongue where I was experiencing limited mobility. By following up with some simple exercises for the point of origin in my shoulder and neck, I was able to relieve the tension inside my mouth.
It’s not just our physical body that benefits from this kind of knowledge and attention. In the situation I described above, understanding that the limitations I had been experiencing in articulation and mobility around the jaw were coming from something clearly temporary and fixable gave me a peace of mind in practice and the ability to plan well to alleviate those issues.
This is a small example of how growing our understanding of the way the body works can help us solve problems in our practice and understand barriers that come up in playing and practice.
I always try to be on the lookout for ways to deepen my understanding of how the physical and mental aspects of playing are connected.
Recently, I’ve been discussing the role of the sinuses and soft palate in tone production with a lot of my students. I once had a teacher explain this to me by saying that you should raise the space just above the center of your eyebrows inside your head. (Did you try it? It’s possible! Kind of weird, right?)
You can create a similar feeling by breathing in quickly through the nose, or by mimicking the beginning of a yawn (are you yawning now from trying that?).
Doing this helps us create resonance by using open space real estate already available in our head - the sinuses!
As I was working through this concept with a student, I was thinking about how that space above the center of the eyebrows is also the location of the third eye or anja chakra.
In yoga, the third eye chakra is our seat of knowing or intuition. It acts as our center of wisdom and consciousness. This chakra allows for clear thought and self-reflection, and when it’s balanced trades “me vs. them” for a more interconnected approach to thought.
When this chakra is blocked or out of alignment we might notice tension around the brow or headaches, sinus issues, or trouble concentrating and sleeping. Emotionally, we might feel a lot of self-doubt and worry, or find ourselves overthinking a lot if the third eye is out of balance. A blocked anja chakra can impede our ability to be confident.
Have you already noticed some connections between the third eye chakra and what we do as musicians? At our best, we want to be able to connect with our audience and our fellow musicians - we strive to stay open to others in performance. Not to mention that I think we’re always in need of clear self reflection and the ability to trust our intuition and abilities without overthinking.
I don’t think it’s a far stretch to consider how the third eye chakra and the same space in our physical body might be connected in the creation of resonance and our sound, not to mention our phrasing and clear communication through music.
So, how can we bring this concept into a more concrete application? How can we balance this chakra that it will benefit our musicianship? Some of these ideas may be things you already do in your practice and performance. If that’s the case, focusing on them in a new way might help to bring about new benefits or a greater understanding.
Visualization is a great way to focus the mind.
Try visualizing yourself in detail, playing at your best and connecting with your audience and fellow musicians. Or, visualize tension leaving the area at the center of the forehead, like a light flowing through allowing you to open up resonance and the third eye.
Moving your body is a great way to balance any of the chakras.
To bring the third eye back into balance, try child’s pose. Rest your head on a block, blanket, or the mat/floor and gently rock the head from side to side. Any gentle neck stretches will also help with opening up this part of the physical body.
Meditation is a powerful way to balance the mind and the third eye.
Try a guided mindfulness meditation. Or, simply sit quietly and with stillness, allowing yourself to be present to your thoughts and feelings.
At first it can feel like a far stretch to combine the chakras with an aspect of musical performance like tonal resonance. As we grow our understanding that the body and mind are always intertwined, we close the gap between thinking of them as two separate entities and open up new resources for ourself as musicians.
At the end of a semester, a school year, or a long project we might notice ourselves lacking in energy. How inconvenient that we often hit this energy lull right when we need to push toward the finish line.
Lately, I’ve noticed this in my students as their energy levels drop and their attention to detail goes along for the ride.
This is the end of the first “regular” school year post-pandemic; we’re busier than we have been in two years, bouncing right back to the same expectations as the before times.
Is it any wonder that we feel a little tapped out?
It’s not just my students that are running low on energy - I am also finding myself feeling drained at the end of each day, and wishing for an extra hour of sleep when my alarm goes off.
Fortunately I am more aware than I used to be of the ways I can help bolster myself for a busy life. I know that practicing yoga, meditation, eating well, and making sure I have time to practice the flute all help me feel prepared, calm, and generally well. But knowing these things help doesn’t make it any easier to fit them in when my schedule feels stuffed to the brim.
I would guess I’m not the only person who can feel even more stressed about fitting in the “good stuff” when time is lacking. It can easily become just another thing that we have to check off the list each day.
The necessity of our responsibilities isn’t going away any time soon, so how can we find the extra boost we need to recommit to finishing a task well?
By making time to have fun.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? Thinking, “I’m busy and tired and she is really suggesting that I have fun?!”
Well, I am.
Hear me out - it’s not as trite as it sounds.
I am not saying to drop everything and take an island vacation. In fact, I’m almost suggesting the opposite. Find somewhere in your day that you can genuinely enjoy an activity. Preferably, an activity that has nothing to do with your to-do list.
Maybe it’s the ten minutes you read a book by your favorite author at the end of the day. Or, the time it takes to do the daily Wordle over your morning cup of coffee. It could be driving with the windows down and the radio turned up or taking a walk to get some fresh air.
As you might have guessed, those are some of my current favorites. Your list might be completely different. Identifying the things that genuinely bring you joy is an important step in helping ourselves create more brain space for the tasks we have to do.
You are doing something good for yourself at a foundational level by identifying these every day things that bring you joy - you’re setting yourself up to have somewhere you can go easily when you feel your mind or body becoming weary. Not somewhere you can escape to in avoidance for a day or a week or in place of completion, but a place you can hold space for yourself on a regular basis.
Prioritizing these small pockets of joy works because it is when we allow our brain to take a break that it really gets to work. As we rest and relax the brain codifies information, correlates the things we have learned, and rejuvenates itself. Have you ever put down a difficult puzzle only to come back later and instantly see what you had been missing?
None of us like to acknowledge it, but when we really feel there is no time or energy is exactly when we need to carve out space for these small joys. Soak them up fully for a short time each day and carry the joy back to your work.
We are all aware that nothing is perfect. Logically, we know this is true and yet we continue to strive for perfection anyway. The dissonance this creates can be pervasive for musicians - we desperately want perfect response, performances, stage presence and technique even as we are fully aware that absolute perfection is impossible.
This disconnect between what we want and what we know is possible can leave us with a distinct dissatisfaction; a nagging feeling that we are not capable of what we hope to achieve.
So if we’re not really striving for perfection, what are we working toward?
In Terry Orlick’s book “The Pursuit of Excellence” he emphasizes connected focus. In a solitary sport or pursuit, this means being fully connected to the task at hand. But there are a variety of layers to this - in chamber music, it could be connecting to your fellow musicians; in teaching it might mean to focus on fully connecting with your students through what you are teaching. It could even mean focused listening when you are the audience and not the performer.
Having this connected focus in mind has proven incredibly helpful for me in tying together elements of mindfulness and yoga with my musical practice and performance, and particularly helpful in learning to work with and through performance anxiety.
Last weekend, I hosted a big event for around fifty flutists. Beyond organizing and coordinating, I had three performances spanning across the entire day - one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and a concerto performance in the evening. My biggest anxieties about the day were tied to my ability to maintain my focus with so many important things happening at once, and how my attention might hijack those performances.
Leading up to the day I made sure to stick to my regular meditation practice because I knew it would help me to manage racing and distracting thoughts (among other benefits), but I also made an added priority of connected focus. I imagined the ways I would connect with attendees, focus on the message of the music or the other musicians I was performing with, and how I would stay present to the overall message of the music and the day. When the big day finally arrived, I did my best to do all of those things in the moment.
Were my performances perfect? Absolutely not. Neither was the day. But they were both meaningful, connective, and engaged. I rolled with the punches in both performance and coordinating as best I could and focused on the desired outcome that a connected focus would bring.
Overall, I had an easier time accessing my focus and accepting the things that did not go as well as I might have hoped.
Of course I’m still a human (and a musician), and after the fact I found myself ruminating on some of those imperfections even though I was managing my emotions better than I might have in the past.
In the days following the event I was reading “Think Again” by Adam Grant, and in one of the chapters he talks about embracing imperfections - even going as far as to acknowledge or advertise them. (The book gives the example of applying for a job and not camouflaging things that you know might be viewed as detriments). Grant’s point is that by acknowledging weaknesses and getting them out of the way we can focus on emphasizing our strengths fully.
This connected with my recent experience in a small light bulb moment. I don’t have to get up on stage and announce my weaknesses to the audience, but I can take Grant’s advice when preparing for or reflecting on this situation and future events and performances.
If I acknowledge my weaknesses, noting what could have been better and, most importantly, what I can learn from them, I can move forward with more ease and more growth toward my goal of connected focus.
In the heat of performance this approach of accepting imperfections while maintaining connected focus helps me to release the past and stay in the present with my mind on the right things. When I’m working with a student it allows me to do a better job of staying a curious listener that is engaged in what they are saying and experiencing.
The most valuable thing we have to gain is the ability to see ourselves as musicians with more perspective and balance. To see both the things that need work as well as the things we do well. To have the opportunity to make sure that we are learning from both our imperfections and our strengths equally.
“If I’m suffering, there is something I’m not mindful of.”
Dan Harris said this on an episode of the Ten Percent Happier Podcast this week and I actually said “Oh,” out loud when I heard it. One of those moments where it feels like the author or speaker had you in mind when they thought to say this particular thing.
I want to clarify here that Dan Harris was talking about suffering in the Buddhist sense, not the type of human suffering we see in war or medical illness. In Buddhism, suffering (also called dukkha) is thought to exist because of dissatisfaction we create for ourselves - because we crave or desire things we don’t have and look past what is in the present moment. Not being open to change and trying to hold on to the past or an idea of the future can also cause dukkha. (This is paraphrasing, of course, and this is an interesting concept worth exploring more).
I’ve spent this whole week feeling tense and jittery, and also preoccupied with some big performances that are coming up.
All week I kept trying to push those feelings away thinking, I’ve worked SO hard on my mindset and focus for the last two years, why do I still feel like this? I am preparing well and I’m not unhappy with how I’m sounding, I’m meditating and paying attention to my mindset around performance, and I’m doing my best to maintain my sleep hygiene and eating healthy meals.
As I listened to this particular episode of the TPH podcast, it occurred to me that, yes I have done a lot of work, but there were so few demands on me as a performing musician during the early part of the pandemic and it was the least work I’ve had to do I the last, um, almost twenty years. So, although I feel like I’ve sorted a bunch of stuff out, I’m still human.
What was I not being mindful of that was leading to suffering? My suffering this week was coming from the expectation that I would never be frazzled again because I’d done some work (even typing that seems totally ridiculous!).
I wasn’t being mindful of the situation - yes I am applying things I have practiced, but in a completely new set of circumstances.
With a little perspective, it seems appropriate that facing my first concerto performance since the pandemic might feel a little stressful even if I’m mindful and focused.
So now the task at hand is applying the things I’m learning to do better while allowing myself to feel the stress.
It’s not bad to feel nervous or concerned - what matters is my ability to flip the focus around to the right things. To allow the emotions to come up and pass away because they are just emotions - not facts.
How many times have you caught yourself searching the internet for an answer? Or, just for "a little more" information?
Most of us use the internet this way all the time without even thinking twice.
You might want to know what spice to substitute when you are missing an ingredient. Perhaps you are looking for information about a piece or composer, or you aren’t feeling well and have taken a deep dive on WebMD looking for the reason.
We’re curious creatures, and there is a lot we want to know. Learning is for a lifetime. It's good for us, and helps us become better at our jobs and being human.
But I don’t really believe our desire to learn is the ultimate driver of endless internet searching.
What I really believe moves us to look endlessly for all these types of answers is our desire for an easy solution.
Surely with all the information that’s out there someone can tell me exactly why my high G sharps are not centered or consistent. There has to be somewhere on the internet that could solve that, right?
I am as guilty of this type of searching as the next person - self improvement newsletters, books, and websites are a dime a dozen. It is so enticing to think that the answer is already out there somewhere.
Why do you think everyone can make so much money online selling courses and programs?
On the flip side of finding the easy solutions is hours of time spent searching and very little time spent experiencing.
(Please don’t get me wrong, we can find a lot of helpful information on the internet - obviously I hope that my blog is helpful! - but at some point we need to try for ourselves.)
If I'm being honest, most of my internet searches leave me with a feeling of having all the information and no solid answer. That's because so much of what we understand and are able to do is dependent on our own personal experience.
Lately, I have consciously put a lot of energy and focus on stepping away from the unlimited resources that are available online and exploring my own personal resources: experience, the tangible feelings of practice, and investigating possible solutions by accessing the information I already have and my experiences in the moment.
Doing this hasn't gotten me anywhere quickly, but it has moved me infinitely further ahead than spending hours looking for someone to tell me how to fix those G sharps.
We don’t move forward by simply reading or watching how someone else has done it. We have to feel our way through. Only by building on our own experiences do we continue to step forward.
Have you ever noticed yourself gearing up in a huge way for something - taking a shot in basketball, playing a high note or fast passage on your instrument, taking a really important test - only to not reach the outcome you wanted despite the intense amount of effort and energy you’re expending? You might have been tensing, bearing down, holding your breath, overthinking, etc..
This tendency shows up in lots of our activities, and often in the ones that are most important to us. Although I think it often feels like over-exerting, I’ve come to identify it as reaching.
If I relate this specifically to flute playing, I see it in my students (and myself) physically as lifting the shoulders, leaning forward, gripping or pressing too hard, or overblowing. It might also show up as predictive failure before an attempt is even made, or playing cautiously instead of really going for it.
What all of these ways that we over-exert or reach have in common with each other is that they pull us physically up out of our bodies and into our heads. They demand a lot of physical work from us, and trick us into feeling like we’re doing something productive. If we are reaching in a mental capacity, it makes the mind busy and gives us plenty to think about including all the ways we could fail.
If you don’t play the flute (or another musical instrument), and even if you do, you might relate this to gripping the steering wheel extra hard in traffic, leaning close to your desk to take a test, or clenching your jaw when you are stressed.
None of these actions make a particularly positive impact, but they can placate our nerves and give us a sense of working toward achievement.
In my own playing I see myself reaching when I am stressed or nervous, when I am putting a lot of pressure on the outcome, and especially when things are changing.
Over the last few years I’ve got through a growth spurt in my playing. (Yes, I believe this can happen any time in our playing careers - after all, we are always learning!)
After experiencing some intense performance (and subsequently some general) anxiety, I was reaching in a lot of places in my life. I was operating in survival mode which lead to some playing habits that were not in line with my desired goal of neutral ease.
Meditation, yoga, and especially understanding and shifting my mindset have helped tremendously for me. I see my playing changing and the mental fog lifting - no growing pains last forever. I still catch myself reaching, but it’s an exception instead of the norm way more often now.
So, what are the ways we reach?
Signs you might be reaching:
This list is not comprehensive. There are a myriad of ways we reach and overthink. Some of them are subtle, some are relevant only when we perform a specific action. Some of them may only be relevant when we play a specific passage or note.
As always, you know yourself best. You are probably already aware of these places where you consciously or subconsciously put on the armor of extra tension or thought. Observe yourself and let your own body and mind point you to places where you can let go and look for a neutral path.
My journey toward not reaching in my music actually began while I was still a student.
I was so fortunate to study with Jean Ferrandis, who is an incredible musician, but also a master of neutral. Jean’s way of teaching and playing the flute is built around using the body in a neutral and easeful way.
Even before I started practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation, I was learning to observe myself and become grounded from my lessons with Jean. When I find that I am reaching in music or life I am always drawn back to what I learned studying with him.
Below are some of my favorite ways to take things I am reaching for from effort to ease. They come from my studies with Jean, my practice of meditation and yoga, and my own experience pulling it all together. They work for flute, for music, and for day to day life.
Be On You: This is something that I heard again and again from Jean. It is the foundation of not reaching. He always insisted that we must remain who we are when we play the music, and that we physically stay on ourselves. No pretending, leaning, pulling, or reaching.
Don’t Search: Have a clear picture of what you want. In life, from a note, in a performance, from a conversation. If you know with vivid detail the color, texture, and feel of what you want the result to be your chances of obtaining it are much better.
Enjoy: This should be self explanatory, but when we are reaching we are rarely having a good time. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to understand and make music and to communicate through it. Even when we are working hard, we can enjoy.
Don’t Force: If you only think about blowing and you blow with aggressive force to create, the air will destroy your sound and phrase. The music and your air are one and the same. Move the air lightly and freely while keeping the music in your mind. Think ahead to where the music is going and hear it before you play it.
Right Effort: This is a term that I learned from George Mumford and I think of it often when I catch my mind reaching. If we’re allowing our thoughts to take over and run wild we are not in the present moment, and we’re probably not doing our best. We can be attentive to what our thoughts are doing and remind ourselves to come back to the present and make right effort.
Trust: Do the work to understand the music and yourself. Freedom comes from that work and understanding. Trust the work you have done. Trust yourself.
Your Concentration Must Be Large: These are Jean’s words, but this could have just as easily come from Mindfulness Meditation teachings. The overarching idea being to see the whole space of the mind, or the whole scope of the music, so that we are able to be discerning, stay present, and keep going. If we focus on any one thing too hard (a note, an audition, a conversation) it overtakes everything and becomes so important that we lose our ability to have equanimity.
To Miss Is To Be Free: It is actually desirable to miss or make a mistake because we are trying, taking a risk, testing an idea, or saying some thing honest.
A Powerful Center Brings Freedom: I have this in my notes from a class with Jean. He was talking about our physical core being active to allow the rest of the body to be free. We could also see this from a mental perspective, that a strong mental center brings freedom from our thoughts.
You Are Always Powerful And Full Of Energy: This idea has found a place at the core of how I play and also how I think about life. We have what we need - we have the capabilities, the awareness, and the ability to grow. In playing, our body is already full of energy - there is no need to create more.
Of course knowing all these things and understanding these concepts doesn’t mean that we are always able to integrate them. Even though I learned them a long time ago, I still sometimes catch myself reaching. Like mindfulness teaches us, the moment of noticing is mindfulness, not the absence of something. From that moment we can move forward with awareness.
The next time you catch yourself reaching, take a mental step back. Assess the situation, be “on you” and try focusing on the outcome instead of the effort. It’s ok if you miss.
Usually when I reach the point in the week where I write the first draft of the blog I share every Thursday (or Friday if I'm behind!) I have had something on my mind…about teaching, mindfulness, performance, yoga, practice…that I want to explore.
Something that I feel needs discussed, that would be helpful to me, or helpful to other musicians.
Everyone once in a while I have to fish around notes I have made to myself of things I was saving to explore on a rainy day.
And then (thankfully not very often) there are weeks like this week where I feel like I have absolutely nothing to write about, unless the internet would like to read my to-do list(s).
My brain is overflowing this week. Full. Completely stuffed.
And not with good ideas. Well, maybe a few good ideas. But it’s also full of emails that need written, academic hierarchies I don’t yet understand, organizational concerns and tasks, overwhelm at parts of large projects that are out of my control, music that needs learned, and practice time that is lost to immediate tasks at hand like remaining mentally present in lessons with my students.
This week I solved very few outstanding issues, did not make much headway on my own projects, and still owe a lot of people emails.
I bet this is where you’re expecting me to say that it's totally ok, right?
But it’s not (I like to keep things spontaneous around here).
I’d like to think that I’m doing my best to keep up with what I expect from myself (and what I need to get done) but I’m actually just hanging onto my life raft with one pinky toe and splashing wildly this week.
It’s been several years since I’ve had this type of demand on my time, and the reality is that I didn’t adjust accordingly. Some course correction is now required.
At some point this week I realized the thing that wasn’t working right was me. (Note that I didn't realize I can't do it, just that I haven't been.)
I have been asking my brain to switch tasks too often, putting off easy emails that could have been done days ago, overthinking things just long enough to not make any headway before I had to move on to something else.
Ouch. It’s painful to realize we are working against ourselves.
There’s no grand moral to this story, other than the fact that I’m grateful I’ve been cultivating awareness in my life because if it could have taken so much longer to level with myself and who knows how far downstream I would have been then, life raft nowhere to be seen.
Once I figured out that it was me in the way, and how I was slowing myself down, it got easier to make better choices.
I bought a cube timer so that I wasn’t relying on my phone or Apple Watch, which meant I could put those items down or change the mode.
Along those lines, I finally set the work focus on my iPhone (I have been using the sleep focus since it came out and love it - why did it take me so long to set it for work?!)
I started waking up just a little earlier each day. Definitely not to workout at 5am or practice before the sun comes up, but just enough to shower and have coffee earlier so that practicing and other important tasks could also happen earlier, etc.
None of these things are going to get me on track right away, but combined with an awareness of what I'm doing they will help. I’m also not suggesting that any of these solutions are right for your predicament. If you're lucky, you don't even have a predicament!
Hopefully, you are having an awesome week and totally killing it at absolutely everything you're doing. That just wasn’t me this week. It’s not really ok, but it’s also not the worst and it’s definitely not permanent.
Except for this being an adult thing - that is going to stick around.
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.