Life and music: it’s all about balance

I’m writing this today whilst basking in glorious sunshine in my garden (well, I call it a garden, it’s more like a yard really). Whilst that might not seem like something to even give a thought to, to me it’s a Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/Free-Photos-242387/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=1209837">Free-Photos</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=1209837">Pixabay</a>breakthrough in choosing, no, allowing myself the time and space to just sit and enjoy life without feeling the need to be doing anything (ok, so writing this can indeed be classified as ‘doing something’ but I’m sure you get the point). For someone who for most of their life has felt guilty for even taking 5 minutes out of the working day to get some fresh air, how have I finally come to the point where embracing doing nothing is ok and even feels good? It’s all to do with my new found understanding of balance. For, in this instance, I’ve just spent the past hour and a half engaged in flute practice, toiling away at technical exercises and repertoire for forthcoming concerts in the sweltering heat. Which, whilst  I would be the first to say I enjoyed it, it can only be described at best as pretty uncomfortable when you have to keep stopping to prevent your instrument sliding out of your hands for the 20th time. So to achieve balance, I’m now enjoying the heat outside with my favourite mug full of coffee (something else which isn’t compatible during flute practice!)

We all know that balance in most aspects life is something which works on paper but is damn well near impossible to achieve. Despite this, it is something that I believe should always be at the forefront of our minds. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the busyness of the everyday without taking stock of where we are going and what we are trying to achieve. Ultimately then, it is only when we consider how to find a sense of balance that we begin to find that life flows better and we get the results we are looking for.

Not only do I think that our lives can benefit from this philosophy, but also our music making. I’m sure the musicians reading this would agree that everyone has aspects of their playing that they naturally find easier to achieve than others, be it dynamic contrasts, articulation or rhythmic precision (the latter is certainly not something I can boast about!) Therefore it’s probably not new advice to you that the remaining elements (finger work, scales, tone etc.) will require more focus to bring them up to standard. But beyond this, where else is balance important? Well, even choosing repertoire and exercises requires balance – does it provide the right level of challenge for me as a player at this moment in time? Then, how are we going to choose which pieces to select for an upcoming performance? Surely the balance between styles, moods and keys alongside audience expectation and setting should always be paramount here.

Beyond this then, how about the approach of a piece of music itself? Surely the biggest balancing act of all concerns technique and interpretation. In a recent episode of the brilliant talking flutes podcast, flutist Elisabet Franch, in conversation with Jean-Paul Wright, raises this point beautifully when she talks about the balance between technique and ‘passion for the music’ (you can listen to the episode here). Often I think this is overlooked, with the emphasis being too firmly placed on technique and ‘getting it right’ above what we as performers wish to express.

So the next time you’re practising, or even find yourself contemplating life itself (both equally important pastimes!), remember to consider how balance, in so many ways, can provide the key to getting the results you desire.

Book Review: Light is the New Black

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Why do you continue to play music? Is it because you found that you could earn a living through performing or teaching? Is it because you want to see how far you can improve your technique? Or is it because you want to share your talent with the world?

Even if it’s for any of those reasons it’s also because of this. It lights you up.

In light is the new black, Rebecca Campbell tells of her journey which led her from being a successful creative director in advertising to spiritual guide thanks to one enlightening moment. The moment she realised she was on the wrong path. Her real path is where she can express her light, her true calling, and this book is her way of inspiring the reader to do the same.

Even if you don’t see yourself as a spiritual person, light is the new black has plenty to offer anyone who needs the encouragement to follow their heart. It’s overall message of being true to yourself and following your calling is one that we can all do with being reminded of from time to time. For the moments when our minds begin to question ourselves, Rebecca offers some simple meditations to try which aim to deepen the connection with your inner calling and which are a good place to start if you’ve never tried meditation before. Overall, I think this is a book that everyone can connect with in some way, and whether you feel like you are shining your light or not, you’ll find something in here that inspires you to do so.

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking

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In my experience, the vast majority of musicians and people who perform in some capacity or another are introverts. Whilst this may surprise many who themselves are not, it actually makes perfect sense that those who enjoy sharing their creative talents with the world  and, in order to prepare for this, are more than comfortable with spending a large amount of time in their own company, allowing them the space to think, explore and grow their interests to the full.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain not only provides a in dept insight into why those who identify with the concept of introversion do so, but she also explores how this can produce an array of valuable traits which can be applied to many different situations which are predominantly seen as only being successfully handled by so called extroverts.

As well as providing a feeling of relief for many, I feel there are many takeaways from this book which would resonate and provide food for thought for musicians and teachers alike. For example, Susan argues that it is vitally important for introverts to ‘find their passion’ in what they are doing so that they can see the purpose and gain from what they are trying to achieve. Perhaps this is something that everyone needs, but with introverts it always has to be continually present,  which in musical terms could translate into the need to choose music or exercises which the musician can always find connection to, or the need to have regular goals and targets to aim towards. Alongside this, it is noted that there is a need for projects to be manageable, not overly stressful and supported by others. Again, this is vital information to be taken into account when dealing with musicians and pupils alike. Even seemingly less obvious differences are explored such as the belief that introverts function better than extroverts when sleep deprived – so there’s no reason not to get that extra practice session in of an evening!

Whilst the book does provide a number of long case studies which may not relate directly to the areas which interest musicians, it provides a valuable insight to a anyone who wishes to understand those around them more and improve their communication skills. And, after all,  that’s what being a musician is all about!

Book Review: Daring Greatly

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If you’re a teacher, you’ll understand that more often than not, the biggest hurdle to getting your students to perform is the fear that they will face. Fear of making a mistake, fear of standing up in front of their friends and family, and fear of being called out as ‘not being good enough’. What is takes to overcome this is the ability to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability is at the core of the years of research undertaken by American author Brené Brown. Daring greatly is just one of a number of bestselling books that she has written, each highlighting an aspect of her research into the essence of what it takes to be your best self and live a life which is full and true to yourself. In it, Brené focuses on her biggest finding – than in order to live wholeheartedly, vulnerability is not something we can shy away from. Rather than viewing it as a weakness, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable builds courage, engagement and connection which could not be more relevant to our work as musicians, whatever aspect or level we are engaged in.

As well as offering many insights into how we can help ourselves to embrace vulnerability through her research findings, Brené provides a number of honest, sometimes hilarious and sometimes cringe worthy, personal stories which although may not be entirely relatable, certainly offer a perspective on our own thinking in situations when we are called to be vulnerable. Her style throughout is one which never makes the reader feel inadequate, yet gently persuades even the most staunch advocate for a stiff upper lip to explore to benefits of wearing your heart on your sleeve. And I think that’s something that the world could always do with more of.

Book Review: Big Magic

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As musicians, we are used to having to search for answers. How do we tackle a technical problem or best interpret the intentions of a composer are things that we happily spend time seeking answers about. But beyond this, there’s the bigger questions relating to what we do that are faced by everyone pursuing a creative interest. Am I good enough? Can I make a living from music? What should I do when I don’t feel inspired to keep going?

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explores these ideas and more in a frank and human way. Her own doubts are fears towards her writing are laid bare and through her own experience we gain a perspective which may not be one which we have encountered before. One such idea is the feeling that ideas are ‘out there’ just waiting to find the right person who is ready to work with them. If we’re not ready, they move onto the next available ‘host’. Whilst this may or may not be something that chimes with you, the sense that we are not entirely responsible or expected to create things completely on our own without any outside help is one that I certainly feel is important to understand.

I love the way in which many barriers seem to be broken through Elizabeth’s words. The complicated dance which we can mentally tire ourselves with seems to shatter through her words and as such, I felt a renewed sense of allowing myself to be myself as I took each of her points on board. Moreover, I gained a sense of trust in allowing projects to unfold as they need to, rather than forcing things to happen. Big Magic is so much more than this, but for those feelings alone, it’s worth a read.

Finding perspective: teaching and wellbeing

This mental health awareness week, I want to share my experience of how teaching has been challenging to my wellbeing and what I have found useful in order to remain healthy in and out of my work.

Several years into wmindset-743166_640orking as a teacher, I began to experience a significant crisis of confidence over my ability to do the job. Almost overnight, I began to feel that I did not have the knowledge or skills to guide my pupils appropriately and that I was not the best, and therefore did not have the right to be in the position that I was when so many other fantastic musicians were struggling to find work. And whilst I knew that this feeling was all coming from me, from the thoughts I was having, and not through any constructive criticism or feedback, it still felt like I would ultimately have to leave a job which I had somehow always felt I would always fulfil.

And this of course was coming on top of the ‘usual’ level of stress that goes with the territory. The pressure to keep pupils on track, especially leading up to an examination or performance, and the energy required to remain upbeat and positive through day after day of back to back lessons is not something I think that everyone is cut out to cope with.

Teaching one on one can also be a lonely business. The chance to discuss the challenges and highlights of the day is seldom there, whether you work privately at home or in a school or other organisation. The preparation and planning of lessons takes place alone and feedback from anyone other than your pupils themselves is rare.

I realise now that my crisis was fuelled mainly by the disease we call perfectionism. My desire to be the best at everything was still present from my years of studying as a singer and I was now transferring it to my teaching. I also failed to realise that teaching is just as much about personality and your ability to relate to a pupil as it is about your own musical ability, and that your own desire to continue to improve your musical skill is perhaps more important than your current level of expertise which is always much greater that that of your pupils.

Many years later, I’m now in a very different place mentally to where I was when I first started. I came through that difficult time by facing the fact that perfectionism is a damaging construct (and one which I explored in a previous post relating to performing here) and ultimately through my own strength to carry on whilst taking small steps in building my confidence in my abilities. I am now aware of how to mange my time and work load so that I don’t become overwhelmed – taking regular breaks and setting aside scheduled time to plan and deal with admin tasks is now something I wouldn’t sacrifice. I am also aware of the need to share ideas and experiences with colleagues and others in a similar position as often as possible and so try to become involved with events and discussions, even if only online rather than face to face.

In taking a wider perspective on my working life as a whole and making sure that I am always able see the bigger picture, I feel not only am I a stronger person both professionally and personally, but that my teaching has directly benefited greatly also.

When it’s ok not to practice

We all have off days. As a musician, this can be translated as those days when picking up an instrument in order to Practicework on the next challenging piece or to improve our technique feels so far away from what we want to do (ie. the sofa seems just that bit more appealing). My thoughts turned to this after reading a blog post on parenting this week which highlights the stigma that parents feel when they too just long for a day off. Should we as musicians feel stigmatised when we just don’t want to practice and is there anything we can do about it?

Practising an instrument, like parenting, is a real challenge. It requires constant focus, physical and mental energy and an ability to envision which expressive qualities the music requires whilst working out how to achieve them. It is not something that can be carried out any time and any place, indeed it requires a certain set of conditions to present in order for it to be productive. And that’s not forgetting that practice is just that. It is a process, a means to an end, and one which needs to be repeated over and over in order to gain enough knowledge and control to enable us to recreate sounds at will.

So it is not always appropriate to practice. But when it’s not, is that it? Should we just stop and give in to the sofa and render ourselves unproductive? When we are truly exhausted yes, but perhaps not every time. For if our practice time is used in the way it should be, there must be room for time when we can simply play. Time when we pull out those pieces that we have already gotten to grips with which bring us the most pleasure, maybe some that we haven’t shaken the dust off for a long time, and just play. For it is in doing this that we not only remember why we strive to meet the next challenge that we practise for in the first place, but we are probably at our most creative, free from the worries of technical challenges and able to express fully what the music means to us.

So the next time that the sofa calls, be sure to pause and ask yourself ‘do I simply want to play?’ instead. You may have just asked yourself a question which not only saves you from the clutches of sofa but more importantly helps you to take your playing to the level that you’re striving for.

Keeping it real

Today, we live in a instant world. A world which often feels like it takes place more often than not behind a screen than in reality. Not only is it possible to see someone who is across the other side of the world at the push of a button, we can access a wealtwelcome-to-reality-quote-1h of information on any conceivable topic at any time of the day or night. That of course has its many advantages, but when it comes the art of learning to master a musical instrument, it would seem that the dominance of our virtual and instantaneous world can be more of a disadvantage which can have a huge effect on our ability to strive towards real achievement in a real way.

For many younger students, their first experience of learning to sing or play may also be their first experience of having to coordinate their brain and body in such a way that it can only be truly learnt once frequent repetition and intense concentration have been practised. This, when combined with the necessity to find time and a quiet solitary space without distraction where their senses of sight, sound and touch can all be perceived together (ie. whilst not in front of the a TV or computer screen), can make learning an instrument seem like a completely unapproachable and alien task. This has of course always been the case for anyone, however I believe that nowadays, the frustration and desire to give up at the first hurdle is more sorely felt, in some cases to the point where students really can’t comprehend the idea that to be able to get it right every time, diligent practice really is the only way.

But this is conversely exactly why I love playing an instrument so much and why I love encouraging and helping others to do so. It’s raw and real, and requires my own mental and physical energy to be controlled in such a way that a sound can be produced and replicated as I when I want it (and when taken to the extreme, for example in fluteboxing, can produce a really powerful natural high). It takes dedication, discipline and determination to keep going when its difficult, and even if technology can aid us along the way, it can never fully take a humans place when it comes to playing. Alongside these aspects, my instrument and my voice are themselves devoid of technology – they require no plugging in or charging up – and whilst modern in their make up, have an element of history woven into their development and understanding which gives them a real feeling of nostalgia before the music even begins.

So when faced with the struggle against our instantaneous hungry brains, the process of learning an instrument is one which can really teach us a lesson in stepping back and keeping it real.  And even if a student once having taken those early steps decides that learning an instrument isn’t for them, I would hope that they have a least gained the realisation that not everything is instant –  a most valuable lesson to have learnt.

Why a ‘perfect’ performance is not always the best

When analysing any musical performance, it is easy to focus solely on those elements which are traditionally seen as being the building blocks of music – pitch, rhythm and dynamics for example. Whilst these are no doubt fundamental in the accurate portrayal of any piece, and mastery of them alone may appear to create that ‘perfect’ performance, should these elements be allowed to be the ultimate goal when it comes to a musical performance?all-that-counts-in-life-is-intention-quote-1

I would argue not. Although I’m not a composer, I’m pretty sure that if you asked the vast majority of them what they would like a performer of their music to ensure that they get right when they perform, it has everything to do with intention and less to do with the actual instructions which have been provided in the score. For it is often those elements which cannot be fully notated – the length of a pause or breath, the exact use of an accented note or the way in which a crescendo is executed for example, which can only ever be controlled by the performer themselves in the moment and which require a thorough understanding of what the piece is really trying to say in order to bring a piece to life.

And because of this, there may be a price to pay when it comes to being ‘note perfect’. If the sole focus remains on the notes alone during a performance, then the real intention of the piece is not given any attention. Of course, the intention of some pieces is to be precise and that is all, and professional performers at the top of their game are quite rightly expected to never get a note wrong. But for those of us who are still striving to progress in our musical abilities, and particularly those who are new to performing itself, I feel that if the intention of the piece is allowed to be the overriding aspect of the performance, then it will be a successful one, despite any misplacement of notes or details which may take place. It will also be a personal one, where performer and perhaps teacher have worked together on what the intention of the piece is, from their own and the composers point of view, and have sought to use the performers current skill level and musical abilities to shape the piece in a way which is possible and suitable.

So the next time that you hear a live performance that you particularly like, try to think to yourself why that is? I can almost guarantee that it will go beyond the basic elements to deliver music which has it’s focus firmly on intention and not just on what it’s composer set down on a page.

 

 

 

Can’t sing, should sing!

Nadine Cooper was told by her music teacher when she was a child that she can’t sing and therefore shouldn’t join in with the school choir because she is ‘spoiling it for everyone else’ (as reported in this BBC article). Let’s think about that for a second. To me, it’s a bit like saying that you shouldn’t walk down the street because the way in which you place one foot in front of the other is not, in someone’s opinion, worthy of being classifiable as walking.can't sing

Everyone can sing. As a singing teacher I’m often asked to give this response to the first question that I’m faced with when someone’s learns what my job is. I’ve always given this same answer in my 9 years of teaching as I’ve never been proved wrong. Every student I have ever taught has been able to open their mouth a create ‘musical sounds with the voice’ (Cambridge dictionaries online definition of singing) right from the very first lesson and, more crucially, every student has made an improvement to this over time, even those who on initially hearing a note played on the piano are unable to internally hear it and therefore pitch it in their own voice. And that’s the main point here. Some people are born with an inmate musical ability and natural vocal technique which allows them to sing well with little guidance. But the vast majority are not, or at least have only a certain degree of these skills when they begin to sing more regularly. We wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to, for example, swim well, if even at all, the first time they try it, even though it only requires the use of our own bodies and no external equipment.

So learning how singing works is critical for anyone who wants to use their voice just like any other skill, with regular time needing to be spent on developing these skills in the correct way for the individual. If we go back to the walking idea, yes we can all walk (if we have no medical reason not to) but we could probably all improve our walking by looking at our posture, balance, fitness etc.

Nadine has decided to not let her music teachers words stop her and has formed a choir for ‘those who lack confidence or need more practice.’ I can’t applaud her enough. Often those students who have come to me with a seeming lack of skill as discussed above are really completely lacking confidence in their ability after being told they can’t sing, often by people who should know better. This is damaging, and can sometimes take years to reverse and have a knock on effect to other areas of their lives too. Singing as part of a choir is a great way to begin to combat this, allowing you to explore your voice in a relaxed way, whilst hopefully having some fun and learning something about vocal technique along the way. Of course there is no substitute for one on one lessons with an experienced teacher if you are serious about improving you voice, but we are not all fortunate enough to be able to devote the time and money needed to do this.

However you choose to do it, if you have been told/think you can’t sing and want to give it a go, then go for it – you can only progress, and you never know where it might lead.