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: 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!

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.