inclusive awareness

When Good Intentions Stress You Out: Learning The Difference Between Freedom and Forcing

I’m constantly looking at all my moving parts while playing to inspect areas where I’m holding tension or using myself in a way that’s holding me back from finding ease, and this helps me problem solve on a daily basis!

 

For example, if I scan my abdomen and realize it’s holding a lot of tension, I can direct myself to let go, and often find freedom for more efficient breathing, and therefore, I’ll find a more resonant sound.

 

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However, I’ve come to notice that there are moments where I am naturally allowing freedom, but other times, I’m forcing myself to let go.

 

Forcing freedom is not the same as freedom.

Forcing the abdomen to be free is not the same as allowing it to be free.

 

Focusing only on the abdomen to ensure it's free at all times does not create freedom because my focus becomes too narrowed.

 

I've become overly cautious, and now I’m stressed.

 


Stop Thinking In Parts, and Remember The Whole!

 

When I realize that directing individual moving parts doesn’t work, I remember an initial, key lesson in Body Mapping:

 

Inclusive Awareness.

 

Inclusive awareness is key in allowing the entire body to work together from a place of balance and fluid, natural movement:

 

  • It invites in all the senses.
  • It invites a widened awareness of the space surrounding you in all directions.
  • It allows the gaze to soften, the ears to open, and the entire body to feel supported by space.

 

(Remember that time I remembered Peripheral Vision? Here I am remembering it yet again! Click here to read "How 2 Words Instantly Took Me From Frustration to Freedom!")

 

By definition, moving only a few parts is the opposite of using the whole, and therefore, it doesn’t always work if you’re looking for free, natural playing.

 

Analyzing one part, like the abdomen, without addressing the whole body feeling of support from the floor can turn good intentions of allowing freedom into forcing freedom.


Are You Overly Cautious?

 

Inclusive awareness also releases the mind from its overly critical and cautious state.

 

Where do you feel the most confident and natural?

 

For me, it’s improvising or playing from memory in front of the window:

 

  • I’m moving towards the window and starting notes before I even get there.

  • No need to stop and "set-up," No self-directing or caution.

  • No pressure.

A Simple Direction for Accessing Your Natural Self

 

An idea from Missy Vineyard’s book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live: Learning the Alexander Technique to Explore Your Mind-Body Connection and Achieve Self-Mastery:

 

“I’m not playing the piano.”

 

  • When I “play the flute,” I set-up, direct, and feel cautious. I stop using myself in a natural way.

 

(I noticed this in A Simple Trick For Better Breathing!)

 

  • Trying out this direction:
“Smile, dive in, I’m not playing the flute,”

I could access my natural, whole-body self, and therefore, found more freedom in my playing!


In Conclusion

 

It’s key to understand how you use yourself while playing, and whether certain patterns of tension are present and preventing you from feeling and sounding how you want.

 

However, constantly living in this critical space makes it more difficult to turn it off for performance mode. Releasing criticism and flipping the switch to inclusive awareness and observation needs to occur most often!

 

When the intention is to maintain awareness of the surrounding space, music-making is free.

Invite all the senses to the experience.

Release into the space, release into listening,

Remember the whole.



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Surviving the Warm-Up Room (2 Things That Helped Me Play My Most Confident Audition Yet!)

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In the last audition experience I wrote about, I had discovered the importance of simplifying my pre-performance routine to remove crippling over-thinking in the crucial moment just before beginning an excerpt. It helped tremendously. (Read all about that here!)

This time, however, I wanted to address another issue.


Confidence

...and how it all went out the window in the warm-up room.

Any confidence that I had mustered up on my way to the audition had crumbled once I stepped into the warm-up room and started hearing 20 flawless Peter and the Wolf excerpts from every corner.

It got worse once I heard the flutist in the corner telling someone else she just got her degree from fill-in-the-blank-conservatory and has been playing with such-and-such wonderful orchestra. 

I made my best effort to say: Don't listen...just warm-up...who cares...I'll be fine... but I spent so much energy trying to block out everyone else that I had lost myself completely. 


1. Finding Confidence Earlier in the Process

On Day 79 of #100DaysOfPractice on Instagram, I made an important realization when I started warming up just before going to get lunch one day.

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I had been listening to inspiring recordings by my favorite artists that morning. When I went to play, I waltzed right up to the big window in the living room, started playing, and I realized that I was uninhibited

I was not over-thinking any aspect of my playing, and I realized this is what confident playing feels like.

I knew that performance mode can't thrive when you're still in analyzing-practice-mode, but experiencing it in this moment was illuminating. This was a whole new level of letting go and simplifying my effortful thoughts and actions, and I wanted to access this every day leading up the audition.


2. Headphones

After understanding how I could access confidence through spontaneity and turning it into a daily habit leading up to the audition, I needed a new tactic for holding onto confidence in the warm-up room. 

Several books, articles, and friends told me to wear headphones. (Why wasn't I doing this before?!) I made a playlist of comforting and uplifting songs paired with about 50% Beyonce, and I warmed up with headphones on. 

I was already comfortable using ear plugs while warming-up, but I also made sure to practice warming up with other songs playing to get used to the feeling before doing this on audition day.

In the actual warm-up room, I still heard Peter and the Wolf, but I also heard songs that remind me of who I am and what I enjoy outside of a warm-up room.

This is the part that made a world of difference in allowing me to remain confident: not just blocking out everyone else, but also fueling my own identity and connection to confidence outside of playing an instrument.

 

The Bulletproof Musician just shared an article on the subject of using music to ease anxiety this morning: Click here to read it!


In Conclusion

With each new audition experience, some new part of the preparation process comes into focus, especially regarding the mental aspects of performing under pressure. 

Confidence comes with every new learning experience, and the ability to simplify and trust is key in removing mental obstacles.


How do you remain confident in auditions? Do you use headphones in the warm-up room? Tell me in the comments below!


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How 2 Words Instantly Took Me From Frustration to Freedom

After refining my Fundamentals Workout Plan over the past week, I found myself pulling out all the old exercises I could find. I opened a folder and pulled out a treasure.

It was sheet of scale exercises I received from Vanessa Breault Mulvey during my summer studying Body Mapping with her. She had written two magic words at the top:

Peripheral Vision.

Inclusive Awareness

Body Mapping introduced me to Inclusive Awareness, or the idea of introducing a wider scope of awareness that includes the body as a whole, all the senses, and the space surrounding you in all directions.

Frustration

While practicing orchestral excerpts this week, I did not realize how small my scope of awareness had become until I invited peripheral vision back into my playing. My desire to perfectly play the first few notes of the excerpt led me to focus intensely on the page, and ultimately, I was inconsistent in executing exactly as I wanted to. Frustrating.

Freedom

Releasing my vision to include the whole page, the whole stand, and the whole room immediately filled me with the comfort of clarity, and the freedom to play as a whole. 

"Peripheral Vision" is now displayed right where I can see it while practicing!

"Peripheral Vision" is now displayed right where I can see it while practicing!

Letting go and allowing my eyes to be soft, seeing the ceiling, the floor, and my fingers moving, I was able to trust and produce the desired sound with ease. I was overwhelmed with a sense of confidence during the silence before beginning each excerpt because I was taking in the whole picture, rather than trying to make each part fall into place.

The benefits of peripheral awareness don't end in the practice room. On stage, opening your visual awareness to include the entire space allows you to fully connect with the audience and project with ease. 

Are you aware of your scope of vision as you play?

Can you see your fingers moving while you play?

Are your eyes soft or working hard to focus?

Experiment with peripheral vision and tell me about it in the comments below! 

#practiceroomrevelations

As always, I love seeing your own Practice Room Revelations and what's inspiring you throughout the month! Use #practiceroomrevelations and tag me @joleneflute to share!

Maximizing Improvement With Video Recordings

If you've been following this blog, you may notice the theme of focused self-improvement. I approach my practice sessions with great awareness in observing from within, but often have difficulty perceiving myself from the outside. I know how it feels to play, but how am I coming across? Am I effective musically?

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Video recordings are a perfect solution. Many of us dread listening to ourselves, or dwell on mistakes from recordings of live performances. Rather than judging the performance, choose to use it as information and focus in on smaller chunks, either from a performance or from a practice session, and examine specifics. 

BOEHM GRAND POLONAISE

My example is from Boehm's Grand Polonaise. I recorded an early progress video of this small section, and when listening back, I noticed several things right away that could be more effective.

1. Listening and Score Study

Identify the Bigger Picture of the Piece. What is the context? Allow the score to guide musical choices. Commit to the character of each section, you will then use your own recording to measure whether your contrasts are effective.

Listen to as many recordings as possible of these few measures. Search on YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, and more, to hear a range of interpretations, and take notes on how the character is achieved, as well as details that make for an effective (or less effective) performance. It won't take long to hear 15-20 recordings when comparing only a small section. (Observe the ideas of others to learn, do not judge.)

  • Here are my notes from the many different recordings I studied: 
    • Maintains a flow and grace through the fast moving notes and resonates through each - every note can be heard without sounding overly athletic or held back - flows forward with solid tempo rhythm.

    • Follows the piano as a guide for taking time, growth, direction, and “punctuation” of phrases.

    • Flows, effortless in the upper register, not forced, stays graceful throughout, even through technical passages. Takes time and makes a statement when piano drops out.

    • Peppy and Bright! Faster than the others, but with clarity and always energetic in character.

    • High notes sing and connect as melody notes. Brings out style contrasts within this small section by singing on the higher notes. Push and pull of tempo to shape the phrases, moving forward with the piano, and lingering when along (high notes), punctuating each as a statement.

    • Flows - Second phrase begins small and graceful, tension and release but always graceful and singing - every note is heard, and each has the supple and warm tone, never forced. Triplets flow and move forward, not static.

    • Effortless light upper notes, she has lots of flexibility to shape them and keep them singing, warm, and alive at soft tempo, never forced or closed, and moves effortlessly through all registers with consistent sound.

    • Other performances that seemed less effective did not let the longer, high notes ring out at the ends, could not hear every note projected and placed as clearly. High notes may feel too aggressive and less resonant - maintain AHH openness and add vibrato to these notes to keep them warm. The last notes of phrases should ring and have vibrato, even the shorter notes at the bottom of runs.

    • Drive through the triplets if lingering on the higher notes to keep energy up and to make a contrast and add character! Don’t let it slow.

    • Effective to make choices on how the longer notes relate to one another. Where do we want to come in lighter.

2. SELF-RECORDING + NOTE-TAKING

Listen back to your recording and identify specifics of what was unclear, not effective, out of tune, not in tempo, and so on. Some of the notes I made were:

  • I made note of the dynamics - the opening is 'mp' with no written crescendo in the repeated triplet figure. Measures 13-14 feature a crescendo to the height of the phrase, the high G, and decrescendo down to the end of the phrase at m. 16. The new phrase begins at piano, and should feel much lighter and contrasting. 
  • Allow the high notes to sing effortlessly, translating the same open sound to each, rather than closing down just before leaping up to the high notes.
  • Lengthen the last note in m. 16, and maintain intensity to avoid losing presence and pitch.
  • Make a contrast in beginning the new phrase at m. 17 by coming in with a new color at a distinct dynamic level lower than the opening, and keep the notes short and light.
  • Make a greater distinction between the articulation noted in m. 9 and m. 13.
  • Clarify the first note of measure 12.

3. Practice, record + repeat

Address and practice the ideas listed. Find solutions to each through trial-and-error or personal reminders, and record the selection again. Listen back to hear your progress and repeat!

The Takeaway

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD PDF GUIDE

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD PDF GUIDE

In choosing to focus on a very small section with heightened detail and immediate feedback, we're ultimately learning more in less time. I am guilty of listening back to my recordings of live recitals, wishing I would've spent more time studying recordings ahead of time. I always find sections where I regret not having been more intentional in my musical choices, finding out too late that I needed to do more to achieve the appropriate character. Taking it section by section requires you to make musical choices and practice with intention. 

 

FREE DOWNLOAD

CLICK HERE to download the Self-Lesson Guide for Improving with Recordings! 

Turning Awareness Into A Habit

Choosing to be intentional, mindful, and observant while practicing can expedite our learning process and lead to a number of benefits in our playing.

In our time away from our instruments, do we approach life in a similar way? Are we as methodical? As emotional? As focused? As accepting? As regimented? As nervous? As judgmental?

 

EMOTIONAL AWARENESS

Choose to observe your thoughts as they occur. Notice how you feel in an array of scenarios, and let yourself be. Practice observing yourself with whatever emotions you're feeling, noting that any feelings you have a visitors that do not define who you are. When it comes time to practice or perform, we can access the power of observation. Freedom from fear and negativity stems from observing and accepting.

 

physical awareness

We can notice things an array of things when practicing mindfulness. Use all the senses. 

When I first began studying Body Mapping, my teacher Vanessa Mulvey told me to find a trigger action that reminds me to check in, and two of them stick with me:

  • Every time I stop at a red light, I'll check in with my jaw to see if I've added tension.
  • Every time I'm standing in line at a store, I can check in with balance.

 

Cultivate your awareness habit

As you continue through the week, find a trigger action that speaks to you and your own goals. In addition, make it a point to observe, allow, and accept the emotions that come with the ups and downs of the day.

3 Lessons In Teaching Awareness

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In a recent lesson with one of my students, we spent a great deal of time playing simple arpeggios followed by questioning: 

"Did you notice what your cheeks felt like that time?" 

 "Is one side more tense than the other?"

When I first ask students questions of this nature, they sometimes smile and say, "What are you talking about?!" 

Others feel discouraged that they aren't sure how to answer, since they've never been asked to consider such questions. 

With this question, the student is given the opportunity to say "I don't know," free of judgement, to which I respond, "Great! Let's try it now!" 

In our lesson, I asked the student to play her simple arpeggio as many times as needed to articulate a clear picture the shape and location of her tongue while slurring, and any tendencies to move during the arpeggio. Each time she played, she was able to add in more detail about the exact location and shape of the tongue in her mouth. 

I asked her if she'd ever thought about it before and she said she had not. 

This reminded me of several things.

 

Perception

First, not everyone has the same experience with self-perception. A similar exercise with another student, regardless of age or experience level, might look very different. The degree of detail and quickness to respond is not something available to everyone, but can improve with practice. 

 

A Clearer Basis For Teaching

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What else did I realize? As a teacher, I cannot see what is going on inside the mouth of another musician. We can see shifts visible on the outside and make assumptions about changes our student can make to improve, but asking the student what her current set-up is like before offering a suggestion for improvement can provide great clarity for both the student and teacher. We were both on the same page and speaking the same language. I could speak in very specific terms knowing the student would understand.

We Are Not Clones

I also tried to mimic her set-up myself to gain more insight into her experience, but the shape of our mouths are not the same. The size and width of our tongues and spacing of our teeth prevent us from creating the exact same experience. (Another important realization: our differences provide an even greater opportunity to express our individuality. No one else sounds or plays like you, and that is exciting to remember.)

The Takeaway

Everyone is different. Guiding students to explore and patiently observe can lead to greater understanding from both parties.

Perhaps the inside of the mouth is difficult to perceive at first, but the fingers or the feet are easier for the student. Gauging self-perception in the student is key.

The student is an important part of the lesson! It's my job to help them improve. I always aim to lead my students to improve the foundations of their playing by finding easy, natural movement, but the specifics of this do not translate exactly from student to student. Once awareness is accessible, more is possible, and more exacting and specific instructions can replace vague ones. The entire experience is more vivid for the student, and exploration and experimentation become a tool available to them at any time.

Mental Shifts to Improve Double Tonguing

Double-tonguing is an important and popular topic for flutists, and can present quite a challenge. We are constantly looking to improve speed, clarity and evenness, especially in the notorious excerpt from Mendelssohn's Scherzo from a Midsummer Night's Dream.

While working on my next etude from my Repertoire Action Plan (Update: So far I've been committed to what I've assigned to myself!), a double-tonguing etude, and the Mendelssohn excerpt, I noted that I was having difficulty maintaining clarity for a length of time. 

I know that a consistent, supported airstream is the most important aspect for optimal double tonguing, and slurring the entire passage is the first thing I did to achieve this. Without the interruption of the tongue, we can let the air move through with ease. Sometimes, this helps right away, but today, telling myself to "support" or "maintain the airstream" was not putting me in the right mindset to achieve what I was looking for once I added the written articulation back.

 

I decided to observe. Here's what I discovered:

First, I noticed the amount of air in the mouth and cheeks. I have been playing with air in my cheeks for a long time, but for the first time, I really noticed it! I mainly hold air in my left cheek, not the right, so I played around with switching cheeks, filling the whole mouth, and playing with no air in the cheeks. 

With a wider awareness of the mouth, I also noticed the feeling of the airstream moving across the roof of the mouth. While single and double tonguing, I really began to feel when I stopped the air by watching the roof of the mouth closely! 

Going along with last week's notes to maintain the "ahh" feeling, versus closing down inside the mouth, I added in the following intention:

"Feel the airstream moving continuously across the roof of the mouth."

Instead of trying to support and maintain the airstream, I simply observed the air traveling through the mouth. The effortlessness that comes from observing versus trying always leads me to feel capable of doing more and expressing exactly as I want to!

 

Double-Tonguing SyllableS + MENDELSSOHN

I find double-tonguing with short, lighter notes to be more difficult than legato double-tonguing, which naturally encourages a more supported airstream. I tend to go for D-G-D-G whenever double tonguing is required due to its reliability, but sometimes, the notes need to be staccato. In the case of the Mendelssohn Scherzo, I felt the need for greater clarity, lightness, and bounce. I felt brave enough to try T-K-T-K now that I felt more secure in my airstream! Normally, I cannot maintain this for a long time, as I begin to feel my mouth closing in. Shifting my focus to feeling openness and watching the movement of the air through my mouth allowed me to maintain the short, light, crisp T-K-T-K double tongue for the entire excerpt!

How exciting to have options!

Feeling a great awareness of how my airstream moves allowed me the choice to let the air stop or continue flowing, and the greater sense of confidence in support allowed me the flexibility to interchange syllables.

 

PRACTICE TIPS:

1. Airstream is Everything. The number one idea for improving double-tonguing is to maintain a supported airstream, and nothing is more helpful than slurring the passage and getting the tongue out of the way. While slurring, use the opportunity to observe. Observe the journey of the air and find ease in maintaining expansion in the ribs to encourage support.

2. Next, slur the first few notes of a phrase, then sneak in double-tongue to the remainder of the phrase. We may find that the moment we begin the note after inhaling is the point where we lose space in the mouth and compromise ease of the flowing airstream. Getting to know the feeling of openness that the slur allows right away helped me continue the phrase with the same feeling. 

3. A third exercise that I love (introduced to me by flutist Angela Kelly!), is to blow through a straw with a large and very fast amount of air, then add in a double-tongue. Getting the air out very fast and intensely with the straw naturally encourages a faster airstream once we go back to the flute. In addition, the straw allows us to hear the air alone, rather than a note, and we can hear whether or not our airstream loses intensity when we add in the tongue.


MORE INSPIRATION + TIPS

I had double tonguing and the idea of short versus long on the brain after being inspired by Mimi Stillman's wonderful double tonguing videos! 

She perfectly outlines lots of exercises for getting faster and clarifying syllables. I especially find backwards double tonguing and "K" only to be very helpful!

What are your favorite ways to improve double-tonguing?