Instituted by the United Nations in 2015, June 21 marks the International Day of Yoga. Last year I happened to be teaching yoga on this date, and built my class around gratitude and pillars of yogic practice. At the time, it still felt surprising to me how much I enjoyed leading others in their practice.
As I reflect this year, I am admittedly surprised to see clearly all the new, often subtle, ways that my personal practice is showing up in my life with impact each and every day. Science is only just beginning to confirm what practitioners of yoga and mindfulness have know for thousands of years, and what I am just barely beginning to scratch the surface of.
This year, as I reflect with personal gratitude on the International Day of Yoga, I felt compelled to write a little love letter to my practice to see if I could articulate just a little of the heartfelt gratitude I have that yoga found me and continues to teach me.
It has been roughly three years since I started to practice regularly again. Getting back on the mat felt difficult - I was inflexible, uncomfortable, and distracted. Even though I was practicing at home, my mind wandered…”Do these pants fit differently than they used to? I bet this top looks weird. I wish that I could comfortably do such-and-such pose. I will probably never be able to do x,y, or z.”
My personal practice rattled around like that for six months or so before I started my teacher training. I wondered how far out of my depth I would be. Although I was more athletic than before, would I be able to keep up? It had been some time since I had a regular yoga practice - maybe I wouldn’t be able to glean enough basic knowledge.
Part of what prompted me to pull the trigger on doing a 200 hour teacher training was the multitude of free hours left by the pandemic. Some of the reasoning was a desire to learn about anatomy in a way that might help my flute playing and instruction. But deeper than that was a tiny glimmer of an idea that yoga had felt like home once before, and maybe there was more it could teach me about me and the way I show up in the world.
That seems like a lot to expect though - could I really learn so much from these poses?
As I moved through training, I can’t say that I found any more comfort in myself…”I definitely look weird in this outfit. Everyone can see how weak and inflexible I am. I don’t like sharing this much about myself.”
But objects in motion are able to stay in motion, so I continued.
I learned that the postures, or asana, are only a tiny portion of yoga. I learned about the eight limbs of the practice and the way they encouraged kindness to ourselves and others. I learned that yoga is not about our own movements on the mat, but community. I learned that yoga can be translated as “unite.”
I learned that yoga in the fullest sense is meant to teach us humanity - to help us observe the ways in which we are alike and connected, and how we can treat both ourselves and others better.
And then, I started to see these other pieces of the practice outside of asana come to life. I made friends with my other trainees. We shared our fears, our aspirations, and what we were proud of. We celebrated each other. We bungled our practice teaching and landed awkwardly together in postures that were out of place. We forgave our mistakes. We practiced, meditated, and breathed. I felt my heart loosen in the safe space on my mat.
As we left our teacher training, I could already see how differently I recognized the stories I was telling myself. I was starting to push through the superfluous judgements of “good” and “bad” and finding greater equanimity - certainly not with any perfection, but simply a budding knowledge that nothing is black and white. I had learned that I could change, that my thoughts were not my true nature, that my flexibility did not impact the depth of my practice.
When I started to lead others in yoga, all the insecurities came back. There was so much to learn, so much I didn’t know, how could I possible help to guide anyone? I studied and studied, over prepared and read book after book. In the ways I always have, I leaned on my ability to learn to cover up my insecurities.
Inevitably, I gave an incorrect instruction during class, told my students to use the wrong hand, or said something that was so awkward and bumbling I was sure people wouldn’t come back to my class. But I had new tools to lean on - humility, equanimity, and self-acceptance - and nothing terrible happened. People kept coming to my classes.
Recently, I noticed that my inner commentary on my appearance has changed. It’s not totally gone, but when I sit on my mat I no longer worry so intently about how my leggings fit. I step into my practice with the intention to meet myself below the surface. One of my favorite teachings in yoga continues to be that we can and should meet ourselves exactly where we are. What we could do yesterday or what we will do tomorrow simply doesn’t matter, but what we can do in this exact moment does.
That particular lesson is one that I have tried to carry off the mat. Not only will I be different in each passing moment, but so will the people around me, and that is neither good or bad. As I begin to see myself with more depth, I am able to do the same for others. We are all unique and complicated and yet we are all the same. Community.
There is so much left to learn, but I feel more like I am not behind than ever before. That this place is just right even with its imperfections.
Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson I have learned - that imperfections are not problems or things that need added to a to-do list. I don’t mean that I love my imperfections either, because I certainly do not. I still have plenty of thoughts about how I will fix this part of my appearance or that part of my professional life. The difference now is that I have tools.
Yoga has given me tools not to be used to fix or change myself into something different, but to see myself fully and honestly. To help weed out the superficial noise and thoughts and discover my true priorities. To seek out what carries the deepest meaning and purpose and to be kind to myself and others while seeking.
When I step on my mat now I know that I am helping my body and my mind. That this work of bringing the two together opens up a whole new view of life and the ways that we are all connected. I never expected yoga change me so deeply, which is maybe why it could.
I always use the same closing when I end my classes, because I think the community of yoga is the heart of the practice:
“…with a deep bow of gratitude for your self, your practice, and everyone who practices with you.”
The inkling I had three years ago that yoga could feel like home was only partially true. It does provide a home base, but where I actually am beginning to feel at home, for the first time ever, is in myself. And this is where I am, with a deep sense of gratitude.
Because it has become more acceptable to talk about health as it relates to musicians, you may have noticed more injury statistics related to the frequency of injuries showing up on social media and in publications, as well as statistics about the average amount of pain that musicians are experiencing at various ages and stages in their journeys.
These statistics provide extremely useful data toward the case that we must include health and wellness in university music programs, especially when we consider how long this crucial piece of playing development and career longevity has been overlooked. However, I think for the average musician having a variety of experiences of brief or prolonged discomfort, this data-driven sharing is missing the mark.
While we’re moving in the right direction educating musicians about both preventing and addressing injuries, we need to teach students and professionals not just that they could become injured, but to recognize the signs of an incoming injury.
Signs of overuse or injury can be as benign as light muscle tension, headaches, or a faint tingling sensation. Musicians might find that they are clenching their teeth at night, locking their jaw, or waking up in the morning clenching their hands into fists. Not being able to play for as long as usual or a decrease in stamina or breath control may be another sign that something isn’t right. Even simple indicators that we are over-tired are important as we can practice with bad habits that lead to injury when we are unrested for long periods of time.
One of the best indicators of an incoming injury may be the most subtle of all - a simple decrease of our ability to be aware and notice or embodied - and it could cause us to miss all the signals listed above. To understand it though, we need to learn about how it is that we recognize what is happening in our bodies.
Proprioception is the sense of our body in space (body position, movement, and the ability to feel what is around us).
The connective tissue of the body (fascia) is largely what allows us to have proprioception. Growing our felt sense of the body (embodiment) can also help with proprioception.
Fascia is everywhere in the body - around, in, and through our muscles and fat. Fascia’s ability to slide and glide as we move is an important part of how our body works, and when a muscle is injured or stiff or a movement pattern that is unhelpful or unhealthy is reinforced, fascia can become dehydrated and harden.
Proprioception is something we all have, but the quality of our proprioception is not guaranteed and is actually directly linked with both our sense of awareness and any pain we are experiencing.
Nociception is the body’s perception of pain, as translated through our sensory nervous system. It is how the body sends the brain signals to create appropriate defensive responses to injuries or illnesses.
You may already have the impression that proprioception and nociception are at least peripherally related. The connection between these two types of awareness runs deep, however, and is enhanced or dulled by our sense of embodiment.
When we experience pain in the body, it uses up our nervous system’s attention and energy which leaves less available for other systems and actions. As our sense of nociception becomes more and more elevated, our proprioception will continue to deteriorate. This is why we often seen older people or people who experience a lot of chronic pain becoming more and more clumsy.
As musicians, we tune in to what’s happening in our bodies much more than the average person. This can make us hyper aware when something feels different or we experience some discomfort. This works to our advantage as all of our experiences of pain and discomfort play into the relationship between our proprioception and nociception.
It may seem simple or obvious, but our sense of awareness is one of our best tools in injury prevention. This is an often under-celebrated reason why things like yoga, strength training, and massage can be so beneficial, as they help us become more familiar with what feels normal and abnormal in our bodies.
In a recent blog, I talked about what I think is the secret ingredient for putting your knowledge of anatomy and the body to use: your felt sense of the body, or your sense of embodiment, and this is where we put it to work. Proprioception is where embodiment meets action.
If you are experiencing pain, even at a very low level, if you allow it to continue you are allowing it to affect your general awareness, coordination, and overall energy level. Staying healthy as musician requires putting in the effort of building awareness and taking action when we notice something has changed.
Earlier this year I took a certification in self myofascial release, which is essentially self massage with tools that are safe to be used around all our muscles and joints. If you have ever used a foam roller or lacrosse ball on a sore muscle, you have practiced self myofascial release. (If you’ve ever used a foam roller and found it way too uncomfortable, you might need a softer tool. If you are using a lacrosse ball, you definitely need a different tool as they are much too hard to be safe for all the muscles of the body!).
One of the biggest benefits of regular fascia work, which encourages the tissue to function correctly in the body, is a decrease in nociception and increase in proprioception. Even if you are playing your instrument a lot without experiencing pain or discomfort, you should still be addressing the muscles that are involved through fascia work or massage to keep them hydrated and working together in healthy ways.
As someone who regularly does yoga, I was fascinated to see what else myofascial release had to teach me about embodiment and proprioception. During my training I had amazing experiences of really feeling how various parts of the body work together where my previous knowledge had been very logical and textbook.
Since completing my training, I’ve used myofascial release to help alleviate migraines, tension headaches, and forearm, shoulder, and back pain. As someone who is obsessed with having the tools to navigate whatever challenges come up, learning how to address my sense of awareness and experience of discomfort this way is empowering and useful.
If you’re interested in how to build a greater sense of proprioception, I’d suggest checking out www.therollmodel.com. Or, send me a message! I love introducing these concepts to musicians and answering questions about their applicability and use.
If pain blocks awareness, then maybe the reverse is true - building awareness builds proprioception, which in turn builds the effectiveness and ease of the skills we work so hard to develop and maintain.
What do you think of when you think of self care? Even as someone who is certified in wellness practices (yoga, mindfulness, myofascial self-release), I instantly think of a million cringy Instagram posts, journals, and bubble baths.
I find that I try to steer clear of the words “self care” when I write about the practices I teach and implement partially because of the connotation, and because what we need to do to care for our well-being is different for everyone. What feels like self care to me, like a yoga practice or sitting for 30 minutes of silent meditation, might be tedious and stressful for someone else.
The other reason I don’t like the term “self care” is that I think it grossly undermines what we really need to be doing in order to lead healthy lives. Taking care of ourselves is not participating in a relaxing activity once a week. It’s doing boring, monotonous things day in and day out so that we can operate at a healthy base level.
Where the internet would tell you that self care is shiny and satisfying, I believe that if we are really caring for ourselves and our basic needs, it feels a lot more like tedious maintenance. Think grocery shopping, laundry, and cleaning your house.
Eating well is a excellent example of this. Cooking is work, buying fresh food means planning to use it so it doesn’t go to waste, and all of that takes a lot more effort than just pulling into a drive-through or heating up something you bought frozen. For most of us though, once we realize that eating well makes us feel better it genuinely gets easier to put in the effort.
Of course our relationship with our phones, streaming, and social media puts a huge demand on our self maintenance efforts. It’s so easy to lose ourselves mindlessly scrolling for an hour or watching Netflix well into the night. It’s not just that those are hours you could do other productive things - they may just be hours that should be spent resting or sleeping. Layered on top of that is that we end up viewing lots of people engaging in “self-care” as we scroll, perpetuating the myth that it’s something fancy and special.
What prompted me to think so much about self maintenance recently was that I downloaded a sleep tracker for my apple watch. I had a nagging feeling of always being tired, but was convinced my sleep hygiene was good and I wanted to get to the bottom of the issue.
There is absolutely nothing like data to absolutely knock you off your high horse. While I was, in fact, in bed for seven to eight hours a night, I was sleeping for only five to six of those and rarely in a deep sleep. Since I usually read before bed, put my phone on sleep mode, etc. this was shocking to me. How was I still sleeping so little? Beyond that, there was no fancy reason I was so tired. I simply wasn’t sleeping and my habits needed a reboot.
I’ve made a few changes, all of which require self maintenance, and I do already see a difference. Is it annoying and effortful? Sometimes. There is nothing even remotely shiny and internet worthy about cleaning up my sleep habits, but it did make me feel better and more energetic each day. As time goes on, I am starting to look forward to the changes I’ve implemented, like going to bed earlier each night, adding more exercise into my days, and taking more care in the routine of my evening hours.
So as I’ve been reflecting on all of this, it’s really made me consider how we talk about self care in our culture, and how much discipline it actually takes to instill healthy personal habits.
There is a concept in Ayurvedic medicine (the sister science of yoga) called dinacharya (dina meaning ‘day’ and acharya meaning ‘activity’). Translated from Sanskrit, this word means the daily routine that promotes nourishment and self care. In Ayurveda it’s considered one of the most powerful tools for cultivating health and well-being.
Dinacharya encourages us to become more in tune with ourselves and our unique biological clock, doing the same things at roughly the same times each day, with a focus on creating the sense of routine over the perfection of the activities. It’s not about creating a grand schedule or adding more to your schedule, rather it’s about finding and engaging in a routine that helps you feel nourished and more self aware.
In its truest form, dinacharya refers more to our morning routine, but it applies to the whole day, and I love the idea that the little tasks we undertake repeatedly become the foundation of nourishing ourselves and staying in sync with the rhythm of life.
And while the practice stresses the steady repetition of things that are good for us, it comes with a disclaimer that an appropriate routine will look different for each person. Dinacharya can be as simple as making your bed each morning or sitting to savor the first sips of your coffee without any other noises or distractions. Even washing dirty dishes can be part of our daily outine of nourishment if we take the time to appreciate the food that was eaten on them, our running water, and the freshly cleaned kitchen in which we are standing.
Engaging in a daily routine in the attitude of dinacharya can encourage connection, release stress, and build peace and happiness into our lives in simple ways that are attainable each and every day.
If you want to implement dinacharya into your day, start with your mornings. You might wake up at the same time each day, begin your day with a hot beverage (Ayurveda suggests hot water with lemon), brush your teeth and wash your face, make your bed, and spend a few minutes in meditation or exercise. Nothing Earth-shattering - rather, simple and nourishing.
What we are willing to lovingly layer into our every day life with consistency is what will create the greatest impact in our well being long term. Just like my experience with improving my sleep, the generic and mundane can become special and meaningful when we understand that it helps us to feel more energetic, more present, and more connected with our lives.
Anatomy and physiology are long and largely underrated topics and areas of understanding for musicians that are finally gaining traction as an important component in the regular instruction of how we both teach and become musicians.
Even with the sudden surge of popularity and acceptance both wellness and anatomy are experiencing among musicians, we have a long way to go to make up for both our lack of understanding and our deficit in awareness.
There are many entry points to developing your own understanding of your anatomy and its role in your music making. Playing an instrument can be one. Yoga, strength training, physical therapy, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, working with a personal trainer, body mapping, swimming, running…the list is seemingly endless. Anything that helps us draw a connection between what we are experiencing and how the body works is moving us in the direction of understanding.
Before we can really put our knowledge of anatomy and mapping to use, however, we have to learn how to read our body’s cues and become comfortable doing so. I’ve written before on embodiment, and it’s something that many of us lack in our personal experiences and in how we teach.
Embodiment by definition is the tangible form of an idea, feeling, or quality. If we are embodied, we are present to our emotions, mind state, and physical state, and able to stay engaged with them.
Modern life gives us many ways to escape the tangible form of ourselves - TikTok, Netflix, food, plenty of numbing substances - there is no shortage of methods or advertisements encouraging us to check out from whatever unpleasant or real thing is happening for an alternate reality.
Our cultural habits of escapism make it hard for many of us to truly “drop in” to our body and use the information it is giving us in a positive and beneficial way. Even for musicians, who do a physical and tangible thing for many hours at a time, the normal encouragement and instruction we receive when it comes to our craft is mostly cerebral.
The first step to incorporating any knowledge of anatomy into our playing should always be a development of our felt sense. We must learn to be open to what our body has to tell us and willing to feel whatever it is. Sometimes this is pleasant, and sometimes it is uncomfortable or even painful, but all of those varieties of somatic clues have one important thing in common - information. (It’s worth noting that the path to finding this comfort in sensation can look quite different from one person to the next.)
Are you feeling pain at it’s source of origin, or is your shoulder pain referred from the way you are allowing your hips to kick to one side? Do you feel suddenly tense and grippy in your hands because you are now on stage and in a nervous mindset? Our mental state can be manifested in our perception. and the appearance, of physical sensations.
Growing your felt sense of the body means that you can intelligently use the information you receive somatically about your very personal experience in tandem with your knowledge of anatomy. You can start to understand the reasons why your shoulder might feel the way it does, and whether there is a physical or mental habit or cause at the root of what you are experiencing.
The other, perhaps deeper and maybe even more important, benefit of pairing our knowledge of anatomy with our felt sense of the body is that we learn how quickly things change. If you’ve done yoga or meditation you know how much your thoughts and physical feelings can shift from moment to moment. Even if you haven’t done those practices but you practice your instrument multiple days in a row, it’s likely that you have realized each day feels different in some way and that all of those different sensations are in fact part of your experience of playing your instrument.
Being more in tune with ourselves means that we can see these ongoing changes clearly, recognizing what part of them might actually be a useful habit or pattern to address and what is simply a passing observation or sensation.
Growing your knowledge of anatomy is a must for every musician, but we stand to gain the most benefit by simultaneously growing our knowledge of ourselves and our internal experience. Anatomy is simple a template for understanding. By becoming more acquainted with ourselves we become more efficient observers and more accurate and efficient managers of our construction.
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.
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.
A regularly updated list of books that are excellent for musicians, yogis, mindfulness practitioners, and humans.
The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten
The Flute Book by Nancy Toff
The Listening Book by W. A. Mathieu
Uncommon Measure by Natalie Hodges
Self Development for Creatives:
The Practice by Seth Godin
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Originals by Adam Grant
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
Drive by Daniel Pink
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick
Range by David Epstein
Mindfulness & Meditation:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
The Posture of Meditation by Will Johnson
Lighter by Yung Pueblo
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
Eastern Body Western Mind by Anodea Judith
Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Breath by James Nestor
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.
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.
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.