Because it has become more acceptable to talk about health as it relates to musicians, you may have noticed more injury statistics related to the frequency of injuries showing up on social media and in publications, as well as statistics about the average amount of pain that musicians are experiencing at various ages and stages in their journeys.
These statistics provide extremely useful data toward the case that we must include health and wellness in university music programs, especially when we consider how long this crucial piece of playing development and career longevity has been overlooked. However, I think for the average musician having a variety of experiences of brief or prolonged discomfort, this data-driven sharing is missing the mark.
While we’re moving in the right direction educating musicians about both preventing and addressing injuries, we need to teach students and professionals not just that they could become injured, but to recognize the signs of an incoming injury.
Signs of overuse or injury can be as benign as light muscle tension, headaches, or a faint tingling sensation. Musicians might find that they are clenching their teeth at night, locking their jaw, or waking up in the morning clenching their hands into fists. Not being able to play for as long as usual or a decrease in stamina or breath control may be another sign that something isn’t right. Even simple indicators that we are over-tired are important as we can practice with bad habits that lead to injury when we are unrested for long periods of time.
One of the best indicators of an incoming injury may be the most subtle of all - a simple decrease of our ability to be aware and notice or embodied - and it could cause us to miss all the signals listed above. To understand it though, we need to learn about how it is that we recognize what is happening in our bodies.
Proprioception is the sense of our body in space (body position, movement, and the ability to feel what is around us).
The connective tissue of the body (fascia) is largely what allows us to have proprioception. Growing our felt sense of the body (embodiment) can also help with proprioception.
Fascia is everywhere in the body - around, in, and through our muscles and fat. Fascia’s ability to slide and glide as we move is an important part of how our body works, and when a muscle is injured or stiff or a movement pattern that is unhelpful or unhealthy is reinforced, fascia can become dehydrated and harden.
Proprioception is something we all have, but the quality of our proprioception is not guaranteed and is actually directly linked with both our sense of awareness and any pain we are experiencing.
Nociception is the body’s perception of pain, as translated through our sensory nervous system. It is how the body sends the brain signals to create appropriate defensive responses to injuries or illnesses.
You may already have the impression that proprioception and nociception are at least peripherally related. The connection between these two types of awareness runs deep, however, and is enhanced or dulled by our sense of embodiment.
When we experience pain in the body, it uses up our nervous system’s attention and energy which leaves less available for other systems and actions. As our sense of nociception becomes more and more elevated, our proprioception will continue to deteriorate. This is why we often seen older people or people who experience a lot of chronic pain becoming more and more clumsy.
As musicians, we tune in to what’s happening in our bodies much more than the average person. This can make us hyper aware when something feels different or we experience some discomfort. This works to our advantage as all of our experiences of pain and discomfort play into the relationship between our proprioception and nociception.
It may seem simple or obvious, but our sense of awareness is one of our best tools in injury prevention. This is an often under-celebrated reason why things like yoga, strength training, and massage can be so beneficial, as they help us become more familiar with what feels normal and abnormal in our bodies.
In a recent blog, I talked about what I think is the secret ingredient for putting your knowledge of anatomy and the body to use: your felt sense of the body, or your sense of embodiment, and this is where we put it to work. Proprioception is where embodiment meets action.
If you are experiencing pain, even at a very low level, if you allow it to continue you are allowing it to affect your general awareness, coordination, and overall energy level. Staying healthy as musician requires putting in the effort of building awareness and taking action when we notice something has changed.
Earlier this year I took a certification in self myofascial release, which is essentially self massage with tools that are safe to be used around all our muscles and joints. If you have ever used a foam roller or lacrosse ball on a sore muscle, you have practiced self myofascial release. (If you’ve ever used a foam roller and found it way too uncomfortable, you might need a softer tool. If you are using a lacrosse ball, you definitely need a different tool as they are much too hard to be safe for all the muscles of the body!).
One of the biggest benefits of regular fascia work, which encourages the tissue to function correctly in the body, is a decrease in nociception and increase in proprioception. Even if you are playing your instrument a lot without experiencing pain or discomfort, you should still be addressing the muscles that are involved through fascia work or massage to keep them hydrated and working together in healthy ways.
As someone who regularly does yoga, I was fascinated to see what else myofascial release had to teach me about embodiment and proprioception. During my training I had amazing experiences of really feeling how various parts of the body work together where my previous knowledge had been very logical and textbook.
Since completing my training, I’ve used myofascial release to help alleviate migraines, tension headaches, and forearm, shoulder, and back pain. As someone who is obsessed with having the tools to navigate whatever challenges come up, learning how to address my sense of awareness and experience of discomfort this way is empowering and useful.
If you’re interested in how to build a greater sense of proprioception, I’d suggest checking out www.therollmodel.com. Or, send me a message! I love introducing these concepts to musicians and answering questions about their applicability and use.
If pain blocks awareness, then maybe the reverse is true - building awareness builds proprioception, which in turn builds the effectiveness and ease of the skills we work so hard to develop and maintain.
Without our bodies, we could not play our instruments.
When I studied with Jean Ferrandis he would say that everything has a frequency, and we shouldn’t disrespect the natural frequencies. Meaning, for example, that if we blow way too much or too little we’re not respecting the frequency of the instrument.
In the time since I studied with Jean, I’ve also come to realize that this also means we have to respect the frequencies of our body.
I think about this concept a lot now. If we over or under use parts of the body in our playing, we will compensate somewhere else, creating tension, extra effort, and blocking resonance.
If our body feels unnatural or is used inefficiently, it will translate not just to the way we sound, but also to our mind state.
Elaborate briefly on movement benefits - concept from yoga of meeting yourself where you are. Perfect for building a warm up routine
We’re all aware just how important exercise is for our health. At the root of it though, it doesn’t matter if you run, lift weights, hike, bike, or do water aerobics.
Movement is what matters.
There is an intersection here with yoga that I particularly love. Yoga encourages us to meet ourselves firmly where we are. It asks us to move with what we have, with acceptance and an understanding that we are not moving to change but to know ourselves better. It’s an approach to physical movement that is particularly relevant to playing an instrument.
When we consider how our physical body impacts our playing, it is important to do so from this place of meeting. Meeting ourselves where we are, and understanding what we need.
Consider how it feels to play your instrument when you are in an optimum physical state - no tension, no restriction, everything is free and resonant.
Now think about the difference when you feel tense.
With those two different experiences in mind, imagine yourself performing. What happens to your body when you are on stage? Does your breathing remain free? Do you feel that familiar tension? Or, maybe something different happens entirely like shaky hands or dry mouth.
Most of us are intimately familiar with our physical ticks and habits as they relate to playing our instrument. Not very many of us have a regular movement routine that addresses our strengths and weaknesses as they relate to playing, though.
Imagine the amount of concentration and brain power you could waste thinking about a tense muscle, or worrying you won’t get enough air in your next breath because your chest feels tight on stage.
Not only do physical issues limit our actual performance, they limit our mind in performance.
So how can you respect your frequencies?
A good place to start is by simply noticing:
Building a base level awareness of what’s happening in our bodies is the first step toward finding neutral and creating efficiency.
I hope you’ll join me for the Warm Up to Flow workshop to meet yourself where you are, acknowledge yourself under pressure and identify helpful elements to add to your warm up to find your peak physical performance state.
If I don’t meditate - how could mindfulness become a regular part of my warm up?
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are huge, broad topics. There is a tremendous amount of information to digest. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness or mindfulness meditation you know that, like playing an instrument, it’s a slow and often internal journey that requires consistency and dedication.
So how can we take these far-reaching concepts and pare them down to fit our specific needs as musicians, while still respecting these disciplines and what they have to teach us?
As a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, I have a great appreciation for the amount of work it takes to meditate and grow a meditation practice, and for the ups and downs that come with such an introspective practice.
However, the fundamentals of mindfulness practice are accessible to all of us, whether we are seasoned meditators or not.
Conceptually, it’s not a far leap from the focus required to be a musician to mindfulness. We already have some experience wrangling the mind away from distractions so that we can get work done in the practice room and so that we can focus in performance.
Even though as musicians we might be more mindful than the average person, I would guess that most of us still have plenty of distractions like self-critiques, concern about the judgment of others, or stress over the situation that bombard our experiences of practice and performance. Which is exactly why taking the time to address our mindfulness can greatly benefit our work.
I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage the development of a regular mindfulness practice here. In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research about how much practice, or how little, is required to make an impact. (Amishi P. Jha’s book Peak Mind is a great entry point, and suggests that about 12 minutes a day is all it takes to help create our peak state of mind more frequently).
But if you’re still skeptical, I understand. Most of us find the idea of sitting in stillness and silence with ourselves laughable.
As with most challenging undertakings, we need a relatable entry point. Something that is attainable, but also shows us the potential benefits. One of my favorite mindful practices is below. It’s short, simple, easily repeated, and never loses its impact. Even now as a more seasoned practitioner of mindfulness, I still use this one all the time.
Following the breath:
While at first this may seem like a breathing exercise, the breath is really just an anchor here. It is a place to rest our attention that doesn’t require any action from us. The breath provides somewhere to place your attention when you begin and when you realize you have become distracted again. It simply provides a resting place for your mind.
Try it out for yourself. Try not to judge your ability to follow the breath - that’s not the point of the exercise. Make sure you do this exercise a few times, for at least a few days before you pass judgment. Continue to note how you feel after each practice.
There are many more ways to bring mindfulness into our warm ups and the way we approach our instruments. We’ll go in depth in the Warm Up to Flow workshop!
What does the breath have to do with finding a flow state?
Our health, both physical and mental, is deeply intertwined with our breath. Oxygen, quite literally, keeps us alive. Our breath circulates nutrients and removes toxins from our body. Science has backed up that breathing also stimulates our nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, and can agitate or calm us depending on the stimulation.
Anyone who sings or plays a wind instrument, enjoys long distance running, lifting weights, or practices yoga regularly understands the integral role the breath plays in helping us do some pretty amazing things from running marathons to performing concertos.
Many of us, however, still don’t realize what an integral role our breath plays in our day-to-day sense of ease and the way we handle stress.
It’s impossible to briefly state the impressive list of ways our breath affects us (I highly suggest reading Breath by James Nestor to develop a better understanding). So, to completely over-simplify, if we become participants in our breath instead of passive users, there is great potential for our overall health and performance.
If you haven’t already gotten the impression that the breath can do impossible things, it’s also been shown that the practice of pranayama (one of the eight limbs of yoga) or other breathwork techniques can even help us rewrite neural patterns we have developed over time.
It is common in our culture to over-breathe or breathe too quickly and rapidly, both of which are actually quite shallow. Mouth breathing is also wide spread. Both of these habits can negatively impact our health and mindset, and while you would think most musicians would have a good handle on healthy breathing, how we function in real life is very different from how we play our instruments.
Having gained just a little perspective on the major player the breath is in our overall wellbeing, it becomes easier to see how crucial it is for all of us and especially those in high performing or high stress situations to make sure their breath is working for them, not against them. Beyond that, learning how to use the breath to help regulate our nervous system and focus is something we all can and should do.
The absolute best thing about breathwork, though? We all breathe already. It’s something we can all do, with a tool that absolutely everyone has at no cost.
There are many types of breathwork, and you may have already learned some simple breathing exercises without realizing the potential scope of their impact. As with all disciplines, each exercise won’t speak to you, and it’s possible to find one that suits your specific sensations and needs but later connecting more with a different exercise.
Box breathing is a common approach to learning how to meter our breath, extend our inhales and exhales, and build CO2 tolerance.
A simple box breath follows these steps:
Another commonly used yogic breathing practice (pranayama) is alternate nostril breathing.
Also known as Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing is a yogic pranayama (breathwork) practice known to help with stress and anxiety. The sanskrit name nadi shodhana translates to "subtle energy clearing.”
To try it:
You can test out both of these techniques for yourself - how do you feel afterwards? What changed in your mind or body? How does your breathing feel after trying these compared to before?
We’ll explore several more breathwork techniques in the Warm Up to Flow workshop, and also how to discern what practice might best suit your individual needs and warm up routine as you build your way to a flow state. I hope you’ll join me!
Anyone with hypertension, a history of aneurysms, osteoporosis, cardiovascular issues, or vision issues should consult a doctor before seriously undertaking breathwork.
I’ve learned a lot as a musician about anatomy, movement, mindfulness, and how our brains work, especially over the last two years since being trained in yoga and mindfulness meditation. These are endlessly fascinating topics to me, and they have completely rejuvenated my experience of being a musician and a teacher. As I’ve contemplated the connections between these topics and music making that could help my students, certain ideas stick in my mind as being useful for all of us.
One of those “sticky” ideas turned into my Body of Sound workshop, which incorporates movement into some of our standard flute warm ups with the intention of helping us understand what truly creates resonance in our sound, and how we generate our unique tone quality at a fundamental level.
Another idea that has truly stuck for the last few years combines my fascination with the feeling of playing when we’re in the zone and my experiences of struggling to find an optimum head space under pressure. The intersection of these two things? Warm ups.
When I decided to host a workshop online it seemed obvious to address this idea of warm ups, the relationship we know they have to the flow state, and how we can tweak our individual warm up to serve us best in our quest for an optimal mind state.
What is a warm up?
A warm up is the signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wake up and do what you have trained to do.
Even for seasoned musicians, remaining in the moment during challenging rehearsals, performances, recording sessions, or even practice can feel elusive.
On top of this dodgy attention, we might layer self criticism about the fact that we’re not being more focused, accomplished, productive, or achieving. This self criticism is often not fully founded, but just another distraction.
There’s more to it, though, than just being “distracted.” Have you ever considered whether it’s realistic that we expect ourselves to hop out of real life and straight into a hyper-focused rehearsal or practice session?
We expect a lot from ourselves when it’s time to perform and spend hours preparing the music, but prepping ourselves for performance requires more than just learning the notes.
It is possible to get into the flow state more consistently. Athletes do it all the time. Dancers. Popular bands and singers. High performing classical musicians and opera singers.
So what do they all have in common?
Not the same one across disciplines, but likely the same principals, and above all the consistency of the warm ups they do.
These performers have found something that works for them and revisit it every time they need to be “on.”
It could be a conscious action like a particular muscle or vocal warm up, or an unconscious action like a tick (think of a baseball player who might always tap their shoe with the bat twice before batting). On a deep, subconscious level the performer relates this action to the task at hand. At the end of completing the warm up, their mind and body know what is about to happen and are primed for right effort toward the goal.
Creating a useful warm up is not unlike the habit stacking that James Clear discusses in his book Atomic Habits. It’s building incrementally on something that we know is successful and capitalizing on the outcomes.
In fact, the basis of this workshop was inspired by Clear’s writing on using a pre-game routine to get motivated. One of the best points that Clear makes on this topic is that when we are required to do something (like practice or rehearsal) so often there are bound to be days that we’re not motivated or focused.
According to Clear, every action that is part of the pre-game routine matters (even how you put on the baseball glove, or, how you put your instrument together), and the routine should be done in the same way every time.
From Clear’s perspective there are a few non-negotiables to this routine: starting with something so easy you can’t avoid it (like getting out your instrument) and following that with actions that move you toward your goal.
The first time I read about this pre-game routine, my mind instantly went to my warm-up. The methodical way I put the flute together each time I play, and the playing warm ups I repeat daily because they feel good, and effective. There was way more to it than I had ever realized!
So over the years after making this connection between pre-game routine and performance, I kept thinking about how it applied to musicians. How we all already warm up to play, and how it’s at least somewhat the same warm up each time we put the instrument together. Also on my mind was how performances went when I did and didn’t allow time to warm up in the way I like and know is useful.
The next obvious question was, can we tweak our warm ups to be even more preparatory?
Of course we can!
By way of our training we can identify what we need on a large (long term goals) and small scale (specific to the day) to be successful players. Our warm ups already naturally address our personal needs, strengths and weaknesses. For example, if I am feeling sluggish I will play something that really gets my air moving, or do some physical exercises.
The act of warming up already primes us to be in the zone by the nature of its repetition, but based on what we know from self inquiry, we can actively prime the warm up to produce our optimum flow state.
Doing something like warming up without a plan can be helpful even if we lack a clear intention or goal. Similar to repeating a section in the music over and over without listening carefully, we might end up with some positive results but there is a better way to get there (and beyond) if we spend a little time in reflection prior to beginning.
There are three pillars of a musician’s warm up that can help us reach an optimum state of body and mind:
By addressing our strengths and weaknesses in these areas and exploring proven exercises, approaches to mindfulness, and specific physical aspects of playing we can discern what our individual "pre-game routine" needs.
I hope you’ll join me on March 5th to deep dive into your warm up. Using self inquiry and these guide posts we will each craft a unique warm up that is highly functional, repeatable, and can continue to be developed over time to meet our evolving needs.
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.