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.

Fluteboxing – what the ….??

Fluteboxing, or flute beatboxing, is something that you may or, more likely, may not be familiar with. Simply put, there’s playing the flute and then there’s beatboxing (or the art of mimicking drum beats with the mouth and voice). Put them togethFlute Neon 1er, at the same time by the same player, and you get fluteboxing. This results in the player effectively becoming an entire band all by themselves, producing a beat with their lips, teeth, tongue and breath whilst maintaining a melody using traditional playing.

Fluteboxing very much sounds, and is, a recent concept (the term beatboxing only began to be used in the 1980s) however combining traditional flute playing with singing and other extended techniques can be traced somewhat further back with flautists such as Ian Anderson, Robert Dick and Ian Clarke developing new sounds and techniques for the instrument (which will be explored in a future post). Indeed, it is possible to use extended techniques when fluteboxing, adding yet another layer of sound and difficulty into the mix.

As a flautist, this is not for the faint hearted! Both the skill of playing and of beatboxing are not easy to produce on their own and because the two involve using and controlling many more parts of the body when you put them together than you would use when producing them on their own, it really does feel like an impossible task when you begin.

Without a doubt, the most well know fluteboxer is Greg Patillo. His youtube videos show the energy, versatility and creativity which is required to flutebox at the highest level yet he makes it look so easy! His desire to share not only his own playing anywhere and everywhere but to inspire others to have a go too (Greg has also produced a number of videos for players on where to start with fluteboxing) is really something to be admired and shared.

Just like playing other contemporary flute music with extended techniques, I’ve fallen in love with fluteboxing. The energy, imagination and time that is takes to get each piece working is immense and totally addictive. Because of the use of breath and the necessity to maintain a beat throughout a piece, fluteboxing requires stamina and strength like no other playing and forms a full on workout for mind and body. I love the way in which it allows any piece with a beat to be played as a solo, and gives endless possibilities for beats and rhythms to be changed to become more ‘edgy’ – something that is not easy to explore and put across when you are simply playing a melody alongside an accompaniment. It opens up mainstream repertoire – songs, jingles, film themes, computer game music – all become possible, as well as gives a new take on traditional pieces. And above all, I love the reaction of audiences when performing – so far I have always been met with big smiles and looks of disbelief every time I have performed.

It’s a whole new instrumental world and one which I hope will to continue to grow and be explored.

Breathing for life

yoga-422196_960_720Breathing. We all do it. So why do we need to think about it? Unfortunately our modern lifestyle has led us to become pretty lazy in this most natural of functions, so much so that we really are missing out on the many benefits that it can bring.

Breathing fully from the bottom of your lungs upwards gives you an instant feeling of openness, relaxation and strength, right from the first time you do it. It’s almost like opening your eyes for the first time. However, I’m yet to meet a new student who already does this habitually of their own accord unless they already practice something else which encourages it, such as swimming. What I mostly find is that new students have become satisfied with only filling the top part of their lungs, meaning that they often create tension in this area and are missing out on the true feeling of what breathing should be like.

As a singer and flautist, breathing is a fundamental element of what I work to improve, and I encourage my students to thing about it right from their very first lesson. Without this full breath, we can’t create the beautiful sound which we crave for. But this awareness of breathing has given me so much more. I am able to experience a feeling of calm whenever I feel just by taking in air, alongside knowing that I’m improving my general health by doing what nature really intended.

It takes time for full breathing to become automatic, as does every other aspect of singing or playing. However, I believe breathing is element which really gives us one of the greatest benefits to other areas of our lives, and which, as musicians, we should be grateful for. Full breathing really does feel like a joy, and it only takes our persistence and effort to find it.