This page has moved to a new address.

The Sensible Flutist

The Sensible Flutist

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Removing barriers to musical freedom...with nail polish remover!

I'm on an unending quest to uncover freedom and ease of movement when I play. How do we find the physical and mental freedom to uncover and enjoy musical freedom? This post will recap the latest discovery that I experienced.

I had a COA completed on my flute recently and while the work done was fabulous, the technician took my nail polish off! I had a strip of polish on the barrel and on my headjoint so that I could easily assemble the flute and know that the headjoint was in the correct position. The nail polish was a prop that once removed, moved me along in my discovery process. Initially, I wasn't so happy about this.

Although I know where the headjoint "feels" good and had marked it with the nail polish, I had to experiment a lot with rolling in and out to find the best place for a sound I liked. As I did this, I had good tone days and bad ones. I also noticed some stiffness and tightening in my neck muscles as I experimented but the reason for this wasn't completely clear. I stopped playing each time I noticed my neck stiffening up.

On one particularly good day, I looked in my mirror as I played and noticed that my keys had rolled back and I hadn't even noticed. What element dominated my awareness so much that I wasn't aware of my hands rolling the flute in?

In a recent Body Mapping lesson with Lea Pearson, she noticed that I appeared to be lacking freedom at my A-O joint when I played. For perhaps the first time ever (now that I was aware of it!), I experienced a free A-O joint during that lesson. What I didn't think about at the time was the connection of embouchure to hand position, the source of my latest discovery.


Flutists, like singers, become mesmerized by their sound and a good sound day is fantastic and a bad sound day can make you feel like the world should end. Locking in to the sound and setting to hang on to that sound can create physical changes in the body like muscle tension. It can also diminish our inclusive awareness.

Music is sound, but when we lose awareness of the elements that create the sound, we run into trouble. Our sound is connected to our embouchure which is connected to our hand position. Our entire bodies are connected to the sound. Resonating chambers inside the body (chest, mouth, nasal passages, sinus cavities, etc.) impact a flute's sound just like a singer.

What I experienced in the practice room is locking up even in just one part of the body can impact your sound and cause automatic adjustments to occur (such as rolling the keys in). If we bring the flute to our lips with awareness of the A-O joint and we immediately settle and lock into the sound, we're restricting access to that place of balance and impeding whole body balance.

While the headjoint position felt correct, I was not able to maintain the comfortable angle to produce a good sound across the low, middle and high registers. My hands then became involved in the correction process. Losing freedom at the A-O joint created tension which I was able to feel. My discovery reminded me of how losing awareness of the A-O joint made finding a good sound more difficult. This led to the adjusting which I noticed only when I looked in the mirror.

I am on a mission to find freedom at my A-O joint (and always putting discoveries within the context of the whole). I am reading and researching to find the freedom necessary to connect a free and flexible embouchure to a balanced hand position that supports the flute but also allows me technical facility. Consistent practice is the first step in this process, which I'll write about next.

When you find a good sound, trust it (don't be afraid!). Let awareness of your A-O joint enter into your inclusive attention and let it rest there as part of your sound awareness. Remember that the A-O joint is a place of balance in the body. If we lose awareness or we lock ourselves into a "proper playing position" to keep a good sound, we will go out of balance in other places of the body.

The hands and mouth are two parts of the body flutists may take for granted and link to good sound production, but what would happen if you included them in the whole? Effective practice sessions can help us keep removing the barriers to musical freedom.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Become more present by acknowledging the uncomfortable

Avoiding pain, embarrassment, humiliation. We all do our best to avoid uncomfortable emotions. When we're angry or hurt, we try really hard to get back to a more peaceful state. What would happen if we chose to remain with the painful feelings and acknowledge their presence? What would happen if we realized that we have a say in the matter and that we have an array of possibilities to choose from, rather than the ones that emotion may dictate for us?

Life, with all its twists and turns, can not stay in homeostasis like our biological systems. Life instead seems to have more bad moments than good. Personally, 2012 wasn't a particularly good year but I learned a lot of lessons that I will strive not to forget when the times are good.

What does this have to do with music? The image of the suffering and starving artist is a widespread one in our western culture. We become artists not to make money but to create and move people towards change. Some of the most powerful music has been born from misery.

If you would like to become more present or mindful, accepting rather than fighting what is happening at any given time is a critical skill to develop. The hardest lesson for me in all this has been accepting that while my emotions are real, they do not define me. You can accept difficult situations for what they are, but you can simply notice the emotions they produce. They do not have to control you. Biologically, we feel emotions but research tells us that they take about 90 seconds to pass through the body (if we choose to let them go).

Acknowledge and accept. There are so many ways we can apply this to practice and performance of music.

Here's a way to start in the practice room: when you're having a bad day, it's incredibly difficult to not judge yourself. Any element that isn't going well becomes the focal point of your attention and you gradually pull yourself more and more away from the music itself.

When you notice frustration creeping in, stop and take a moment to notice that frustration and accept it. This doesn't mean that you have to stay with the frustration but instead, you can make a choice about what it is you want to do next. If you choose to stay frustrated, you will choose to remain focused on the element that isn't flowing (such as your tone). Another choice you can make is to step away from the instrument and go do something else for a little while.

Finally, a third choice could be to focus on the wider picture and find something positive in your playing. I can guarantee that you're not going to feel comfortable or even happy about having to play in a frustrated state, but if you choose to not let the frustration control your choices, the negative judgmental voices will dissipate. You may even be able to end the practice session in a productive groove.

Life is all about how we choose to respond to curveballs. Practicing is all about how we choose to respond to our expectations. If we let our emotions control us, choices get made for us. Conscious, mindful decision making can keep us in the game.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 7, 2013

Unpacking Musical Memories to Ring in 2013

I rang in 2013 in a new house surrounded by boxes. I consider this to be one of the ultimate ways to ring in the new year: a fresh start in a new location and in an idealist way, it actually had the potential to be pretty empowering. In reality, the first week of 2013 put me in a funk because instead of thinking about projects (and starting) that I would like to accomplish this year, I had to acknowledge that the week was all about unpacking and settling in.

There's still unpacking left to do, but this is the week to begin piecing together what will make 2013  a successful year. While I unpack, I'm reminded of myself and nothing fired up the spark more than unpacking and organizing my music library.

As I sorted through all the music, I thought about why I owned the piece, if I've learned it (or asking why I haven't learned it yet) and finally thinking about the times I've performed each piece.

I put away my copy of the Reinecke Sonata and I smile at the memory of performing it with Erica Sipes in 2012. For the first time in a long time (and perhaps ever), I collaborated with a pianist who truly and happily supports the musicians she plays with.

On stage, I felt that I could do anything and Erica would respond to me. I felt safe and cocooned and the Reinecke is the perfect memory of 2012 and future performances with Erica.

I was first exposed to the Telemann Fantasias in high school when I learned the second one. I returned to them in college and I have regularly returned to them ever since. I love them for their complexity and the way Telemann transformed the flute into a harmonic instrument with harmonic and melodic material written on a single line.

Perhaps the most amusing memory is performing No. 2 during a church service back home in SW Virginia, and people not quite knowing what to make of it since it wasn't an overtly sacred choice. I think it was the closest I've ever come to hearing crickets chirp after I finished playing.

Finally, the copy of Robert Beaser's Mountain Songs for flute and guitar. I programed several of the movements on my senior recital to honor the memory of my grandfathers who both died in 2006. I appreciate the guitarist that came to my aid to learn the difficult part in a short amount of time and allowed me to keep the piece on my program.

Mountain Songs blends Appalachian folk songs and sets them within the classical tradition, blending my two sound worlds together that meshes my identity with that of my grandfathers'.

Just looking at the music brings forth these memories, and I can keep making more memories with the music in my library. Every move is attached to a specific memory and unpacking my music library will stick with me for this move.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is fear holding you back?

As musicians, overcoming our fears is one of our biggest challenges. Allowing ourselves to become vulnerable vehicles for the music we wish to share is a momentous task, immediately peeling away the layers to expose our truest selves to an audience full of people we may have never met.

After the performance, however, no matter how fearful you were prior to or during it, it's a time of intense exhilaration. You can't wait for the next opportunity to perform. How can we cultivate that fearless feeling in the performance itself and live life as it's meant to be lived?

A few weeks ago, I began reading Madeline Bruser's The Art of Practicing for a second time. This time, I've been able to get through the book much more quickly and it's been a surprise to find that I've absorbed so much of the information in the book and am applying it to my music making. It's such an excellent resource to have, and obviously worth re-reading every now and then.

Near the end of the book, in Chapter 14, Bruser speaks about transforming fear into fearlessness. In the section, she discusses how fear may keep us from discovering a new way of identifying ourselves. 

I took this away - each time I experience self doubt, I am fearful. I'm experiencing fear in the times that I don't feel capable of performing to my fullest potential. Instead of waiting for a "big break" to come, start transforming performances with fearlessness. Don't limit your performance to what fear dictates you can handle.

I know what it feels like to be fearless. My study of Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique has enabled me to slowly integrate a complete mind-body connection into my awareness as I practice and perform. In choosing to live my life with awareness, I am choosing to let go of the fears that can restrain me in performance.

Transforming fear into fearlessness is the first step to performing with freedom and true artistry. As your performances come to life, your confidence will blossom and your identity may shape into something more powerful than you ever thought possible. This will bring more opportunities your way.

We spend so much time seeking validation from external sources that we forget what is possible on our own. When you allow the validation to come from within, the chance of getting that "big break" will become more likely. As with anything in life, end gaining does nothing but cause despair when we get off track. Simply accepting what is and cultivating resiliency will benefit you in many more ways than endless start and stops.

You can transform fear into fearlessness by having the courage to share what is in your heart, enjoying the process and letting go of what you think you should be doing. Instead, live with passion, live with heart and most of all, live with the confidence that you are an artist in the present moment.

In the words of Bruser, "We can keep growing only if we face our fear and dare to step forward through it."

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Can't Fight this Feeling

Just like the REO Speedwagon song, there's a lot of feeling that you just can't fight in the middle of a performance and you shouldn't.

I was thrilled and honored when my brother-in-law asked me to play for his wedding. His fiance's mother, a music teacher and violinist, would be playing with me.

In my own family, I've always been asked to play for happy and sad occasions. I sang for my brother's wedding and I played my flute at both my grandfathers' funerals. Honoring and connecting to someone I love in this way has become a way of expressing happiness or dealing with grief.

My husband and I have been married for almost 9 and a half years, so I'm close to his family. I knew that I wouldn't be emotionally removed from the happiness of the occasion especially since I had grown close to the bride over the course of the past year.

These kinds of performances are the best way to witness and examine what happens when you're caught up in the moment as you're playing. If you feel a strong rush of emotion, how can you stick with it without overpowering your ability to perform? How can you use it to communicate more effectively with the people you're trying to touch and move with the music?

In the Alexander Technique and other somatic disciplines like Feldenkrais, there is no judgment but only simple acknowledgement of your movement. You can inhibit the movement and change your habit with direction, but the reminder to be present is a valuable lesson that carries into any facet of life.

So, as I played with the bride's mother during the ceremony, I let myself feel and as I felt myself beginning to fight the emotion so that I could continue playing, I acknowledged my feelings and let myself stay present. It was wonderful and I'm happy I could give my music to my brother-in-law and his new wife.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Less thinking, more doing

I've been quiet lately after having my most prolific year on The Sensible Flutist. One of my goals had been to have two new posts up a week but after a while, these began to feel contrived and forced. One of my favorite aspects of this blog is how I can write based on inspiration. If I don't want to write, I don't have to. Readers keep coming and I appreciate them greatly.

When I was in the throes of moving in the summertime, I was writing a lot on various life and musical lessons I was discovering in the process. I learned a lot about myself in those tumultuous months when my husband needed a job and we suddenly needed to find a new place to live. I felt I had something to share as I had to scramble to meet basic needs. Life wasn't comfortable.

Now that life is somewhat comfortable again, I'm trying to do a little more. I'm trying to better utilize the time I have available to make some other projects come to fruition. My output may be small, but I'm proud of it.

I have a project list tacked onto my corkboard that I look at daily. I purposely kept it simple. Life is a moving target and I know that I have to keep my number of projects small. This is easier said than done.

For the time being, I'm spending less time thinking about issues and more time putting my ideas into motion. Writing is an incredibly important tool for me, but I feel an innate need for concrete action.

Let's all do more, shall we?

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Demystifying movement

Photo: Gwen Vanhee
One of the things I love most about Body Mapping is how it helps demystify the body. Body Mapping within the scope of Andover Educators provides anatomical information that can help musicians discover freedom and joy in their performances. Discussing movement as it relates to music has been an abstract concept for me that, at times, has been difficult to clarify and translate.

Demystifying movement as it relates to performance is simple. How do you move with your instrument? What movement habits do you think you need when you play? How can you change those habits so that you replace your current automatic response with one with a correct body map?

When I realized this simplicity of movement, I was thinking about my hands. How can the structure of my hand maximize musical freedom? I can palpate the joints of my fingers and I can look at my hands as they type these words. I can look at pictures or examine anatomical models. All of these elements can contribute to changing the mental representation I have of my hands in my brain.

When I play my flute, I know from where I move my fingers and that awareness is freedom to engage more deeply in the music. As long as I play with awareness of how my hands are designed, I will play with freedom. This is the demystification of movement that I've been after for a long time. This is only the start, but I'm beginning to realize the simplicity that is there. There isn't some magical formula of movement that will help you play better. It's an ability to keep moving and the ability to bring yourself back to balance.

Pre-conceived notions interfere so easily with what we know. Art mirrors life so much that if we cannot apply what we learn through somatic disciplines to daily life, we are cheating ourselves of additional opportunities to learn more about ourselves. We are practicing every waking hour. We may move differently when we aren't playing our instruments, but we can learn just as much.

Awareness of movement enables us to be close to our art any time we choose.

Labels: , , , ,