During this Mental Health Awerness week, I’ve decided to share something I wrote not so long ago at an extremely difficult time for me mentally. I share this in the hope that those fortunate enough to not have expierineced such difficultes can perhaps come to appreciate some of the effects mental health conditions can have on anyone, and, at this difficult time for us all due to the global pandemic, will be encouraged to support the arts in any way they can so that the power they bring to our lives as both performer and listener can continue to be felt.
“…I stopped playing and just held my flute in my hands. I’ve spent many hours with this beautiful instrument yet it felt like this was the first time I was really feeling it. It had always been there for me, like an old friend, and now I knew I needed it more than ever.
I pulled out my old copy of the Telemann sonatas – on old favourite which I’d explored many years ago. I’ve turned my back on this style of music as a performer, perhaps due to the feelings of not performing it correctly (whatever that means) but I knew it was this that I needed to play right now. The notes were fuzzy from the start, some barely audible, and there were many more incorrect than right, but that didn’t matter. It was still my voice and my heart which was carrying through them. Even though my out of practice lips were screaming at me to stop, I just kept right on going, not allowing anything to get in the way, least of all my failing fuzzy brain. I surrendered to the fact that it didn’t matter, this was for me, my therapy, like my music always really had been. And I vowed to hold on to this feeling – a feeling of enough, of contentment in knowing that allowing myself to share my musical self is ok, and that it doensn’t need to be anything more.
Thank goodness for music, for what it can do to us if we only let it, and for the ability to see it for what it is. I know that my playing will get me through this, now and probably again in the future, and I also know that this will help me honour it during the good times as well.”
This coming Tuesday (26th May) I’ll be playing the Telemann Sonata in F major in full live on my YouTube channel. To be able to perform it now, honouring the music as it was intended from a place of stability and quiet confidence is something that I feel so grateful for. And if you’d like to join me to hear it I’d be even more thankful.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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 working 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.
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.
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.