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.
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.