At the gym today...
"I don't like testing my one rep max. It makes me nervous."
Coach: [exasperated look] "You're a performer."
"True. And so I get enough of that shit."
But then, I kept thinking about it, and my response was just one of 7am-roll-out-of-bed crankiness*. It wasn't really true, because it's actually a completely different issue.
When I'm playing the flute (ahem: when I'm playing music), performing isn't a problem. It's fun. But, that's because I'm confident in my abilities on the flute. I don't have to be the best, but in almost all cases, I know what I'm doing, and I know what I'm going to sound like. I'm consistent, and I feel like I'm expressing myself. Really, the only time I'm insufferably nervous is when I'm unprepared. (Not that that ever happens, of course.)
But with weight lifting, I never know what the hell is going to happen. Sometimes it feels natural, and almost easy... and then other times the stark reality of my klutzdom smacks me in the face over and over again.
So, when testing a one rep max, I get nervous. I don't like to fail. (Who does, right?) So, I avoid it. I can tell myself that it doesn't matter and to just get a grip, but somehow, that doesn't work. It makes it worse, actually. And that makes sense; consciously or subconsciously, no one likes to think that something they're doing doesn't matter. I don't think that way of thinking really ever takes pressure off of a situation. It's the defeatist way around a problem, and leads to a comical and uncomfortable version of nihilism.
If a flute student came to me saying something similar [If I had a nickel for every time I heard... "I can't play at the flute recital this semester. I don't like to play in front of other people."...], I'd tell them to be more self-aware. I'd tell them to figure out exactly what it feels like when things sound good, because that's what needs to be recalled when things don't sound good. It won't be the same problem each time, of course, but the more tools you have in your toolbox, the more issues you'll be able to solve in the moment - when in a practice room, at a lesson, or on stage,... and that's actually one of the most fun and interesting things about music and performing.
And so of course, the advice would be similar when lifting weights, but the question I'm left with is this: Do I care enough about lifting to put that type of energy and self-reflection into it? I'm not sure. Not everything has to be done to 1000%; the most extreme version of yourself is not necessarily the best version.
I could easily continue to go to the gym and slowly get stronger (or plateau) and stay in healthy shape... and shouldn't that be enough? I'm never going to be a remarkable athlete, so why bother with all the semi-crazed intensity?
I suppose as I write this I'm realizing something else: I enjoy pushing myself. I can be mediocre in the grand scheme, but I want to feel like I'm gaining something as I'm doing it. I want to learn (about myself, sure, but also about so many other things...), and right now weight lifting is fun, challenging, and empowering. It doesn't have to last forever, but right now I love it.
So, there we go. Nothing solved; I'll still get nervous sometimes at the gym, and to some extent I'll probably still avoid one rep maxes. But, at least now I kind of know what's going on... and self-reflection is the first step toward solving a problem, right?
*You know you need more sleep when the entirely well-meaning coach says "Head through the window at the top of the thruster," and your internal reaction is "It's not a fucking window."
I believe in cross-curriculum learning, and I believe in arts integration. But, buzzwords aside, those terms and concepts are dangerous. Art is important not only because it helps with science and math and literacy. Art is important as it is, but... that's also not enough. I don't believe we should prescribe to 'art for art's sake.'
It's more than that.
Art is important because we want and need citizens who have a broad and complete sense of who they are within the context of our community and world.
This is [part of] what a teaching artist does: A teaching artist helps people learn to appreciate something they didn't previously understand.
From my music-centric perspective, I ultimately don't care if my kids in Camden remember how many symphonies Beethoven wrote, or who wrote the Hallelujah chorus. Instead, I want them to remember the power of the arch of a symphony within Beethoven's 5th, and the way the different musical textures interacted to create a meaningful conversation in Handel's Messiah. Then, I'll have succeeded.
For many, not understanding is scary. We don't understand, and we tend to shut down. This inevitably leads to polarized and uninformed viewpoints and ideals. The most extreme versions of this creates the end of culture, and the end of a society that has any hope of progressing. Bridges can't exist and we stand on isolated and insulated islands.
Example: I believe in social programs. I don't understand when they're not supported. I think that fiscally conservative people are jerks and I don't want anything to do with them.
And then there are those who don't understand, but don't quite submit to the fear. We take a gulp and figure out how to look across the gap. We, at the very least, try to learn the 'other.' This means we can begin to see the full picture, and we can begin to figure out where the middle territory might exist.
Example: I understand that fiscally conservative people still value humanity (of course they do!) and that they have other ideas as to how to create the most successful society. I will read as much as I can in order to fully understand.
But, that isn't enough. It's not enough because it doesn't allow for problem solving, or the creative process. It assumes that the shortest path between two points is a straight line. Anyone who knows any geography or geometry knows that's not necessarily the case.
So, appreciation. There's the most important step. Learning to appreciate something you didn't previously understand means that you've reached inside yourself. You've examined who you are and what you believe, and you've allowed yourself to be open... not only to the ideals of others, but to new ideals that have yet to even exist. And when that happens, you become open to discovering new solutions, artistic creations, and pathways yourself. You become an evolving culture.
'You learn to look at things as if they could be otherwise... to see beyond necessities and imagine the possibilities" - Maxine Greene
Back to music (an anecdote that I think aptly describes what a music teaching artist can do): One week shortly before the winter holidays with a 3rd grade class in Camden, I led a lesson plan on Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and the different musical textures. We started out by feeling our shirts. What's the material like? It is one piece of fabric? (monophony) Is it knitted? (homophony) Are we wearing more than one layer? (polyphony) We talked about the words for texture in music (monophony, homophony, polyphony) by breaking apart the word and defining it by root and prefix (phony=sound, mono=one, homo=same, poly=many). We wrote all the definitions in our journals and then thought... What could this mean within music?
Brace yourself: To discover musical textures, we learned the Ha-lle-lu-jah refrain on recorders and first created a monophonic version, where we were all playing the same part. Then, the classroom teacher added a supporting chord on the step bells underneath our melody, and we had homophony. Finally, I took out my flute and played a different part of the chorus while the classroom teacher lead the kids in the Hallelujah refrain... and we had thus created our own polyphonic version of the Handel's Hallelujah chorus.
I am so glad no one ever heard those little performances because they sounded exactly the way you'd assume: horrible (but somehow, also hilarious).
We ended the class by listening to Handel. We separated into three groups and slowly worked our way through his chorus. The students wearing a simple shirt raised their hands together when they heard monophonic music. The students wearing more knitted material raised their hands when they heard homophony. And of course, the students wearing layers raised their hands when they heard polyphony. To further reflect, we talked about how we knew what we were hearing, and if we could switch groups and still identify the musical texture.
I was happy with the lesson. We had cross-curriculum success with the talk of root words and prefixes. We got (a little) better at the recorder. We learned an important (and seasonally appropriate) piece of music and created our own music. We practiced and we performed. We understood and could identify musical texture within both Handel's and our own version of that music. We worked in groups to identify those different textures when listening. I felt as though it was a strong and successful 45 minutes. This, I thought, is being a good teaching artist.
And then, we were packing up and an argument began between two students about who was going to pick up the recorders and journals. The classroom teacher and I both moved toward the students to fix the problem. As I'm beginning to talk to the students, another little girl tugged at my shirt and said "Miss Susanna, Miss Susanna." I turned briefly to her, but then continued to pay attention to the arguing students.
"Miss Susanna, Miss Susanna!" The little girl was persistently tugging on my shirt. "Yes, Destiny? What is it?" I finally answered her; the classroom teacher was dealing with the argument.
"Miss Susanna. They're doing polyphony," she said as she pointed to the students arguing and talking over each other and the teacher.
And see, THIS. This is what a teaching artist can do. While information was gained, Destiny was not simply memorizing facts. She instead was engaged enough to internalize the information herself without being asked. She understood that polyphony, and texture in general, was not something that merely existed within Handel, and it wasn't even something that was solely in music. Texture (musical and otherwise) is all around us, and she got that. She appreciated something she didn't previously understand, and now she could begin to experiment with new textures, new ways of thinking about music, and so much more.
And that is the meaningful type of assessment; all the graphs and charts in the world can't possibly describe the life changing experiences these students gain. I'll probably get into trouble for saying this, but... while I know playing an instrument is valuable (I obviously love teaching flute and playing flute and everything else flute), delving into music like this at such a young age (oh, at any age) is something completely different; from a humanistic point of view, I'd venture to say it's more important.
If Destiny can have that experience with music, she can have it in every other aspect of her life. Once you can learn to appreciate something you didn't previously understand, once you understand the value in being able to do so... then you can not only learn in a complete way, but you can also discover and invent.
"Whenever I catch myself playing something that sounds mechanical but dead, it’s because either I’m not paying attention or it’s something difficult that I haven’t solved. Sort of like a physicality issue that, you know, sudden tension, so I freeze up and become more internalized, so I can’t love it. Loving something implies going outside yourself and fear means retreating into yourself. I’m scared. Well, go back into yourself. That’s a metaphor for societal fears when a whole people are scared of something that they can’t control and sort of hits them, what do they do? It becomes more tight, they will make much, much more conservative decisions. The counteracting of that is culture." - Yo-Yo Ma
First and foremost, I am a musician. I enjoy performing, and I play at a high level. I imagine that (barring something unforeseen), performances will always be part of my life, and will be something I love. (Creating musical meaning with a group of people, connecting with others through your most powerful outlet... what could be better?)
I have also come to both understand and appreciate that I am most complete through teaching artistry in its many different shapes and forms. (And yes, I fought and struggled with this at first.) This does not mean I teach because I can't do. It means that within music, and within teaching, I'm searching for more outlets (those that work for me and those that can work for others), and I'm trying my very hardest to make sure the next generations keep their minds open.
We need those minds; we need new solutions, and we need art.
The thing is... I'm trying hard to be okay. And sometimes (most of the time), I am very much okay. I am happy. And then there's the other times when I have to fight what might be defined as severe depression. (Sidenote: Depression does not equate unhappiness, and it doesn't mean I dislike myself. It doesn't mean I'm not fun, or that I'm crazy or a mess. It only means that sometimes, I feel depressed.)
And let's be clear. I'm not throwing any sort of pity party or playing the martyr. I don't think that anything I experience is any different from what many other people feel. The only real difference is that it's actually me experiencing. Because, I can empathize and relate to other people, but I can then only feel (deeply! intensely!) as myself. (Sidenote: Let's not get into a semantics discussion of the definition of self. All I know is that I wake up in the same capable/strong/perfect-and-flawed body every morning and do my best to go about my day.)
But, when I fight depression, I have coping mechanisms. I don't allow myself to just climb into bed and stare at the ceiling, even if that's the inclination. I exercise. I delve into flute-music-teaching, or a book, or writing. Or I start a new project. These things help; I rely on them. And you know, some of the things that have come out of a depressed period are accomplishments that ultimately make me feel very good.
Overall, I am slowly becoming the person I want to be.
And then, of course, there are the not so great coping mechanisms... sometimes I drink too much.
Sometimes, I fuck up.
But, these screw ups should not define who I am, any more than the accomplishments necessarily should. It's all just parts that make up a whole, right? I am a conglomeration of the goodbadmediocre, and I wouldn't want to wholly identify as any specific part of that.
But birthdays... they're difficult not because of getting older, although that's obviously very much a reality (grey hair and eye crinkles be damned). They're difficult for me because I feel alone. I knowknowknowknow I have so many friends and family that care about me and love me and I have plans for the rest of the week because people care and love... but still, I feel lonely, and for some reason, slightly homesick for a home I can't quite define.
And damn, birthdays/holidays... so much pressure to have a 'good' day, but it's just a day, and it might be good, but it might be not-as-good. It's just a day.
But hell, even writing it down helps, and today is a beautiful sunny day and I'm about to go to a job I love within a career that is pretty damn awesome. I am a lucky person, and I am proud of who I am and what I'm doing with my life.
So, here's to year 34, and a lot of good days.
Sidenote: I pretty much always want cake, but today (and maybe tomorrow)... I'm definitely going to eat some.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was dutifully playing my daily exercises, I realized that I had been doing this same collection of exercises for... oh, 10-15 years.
It's about an hour and 20 minutes of long tones, scales, arpeggios, excerpts, and harmonics.
The routine works; it keeps me completely in-shape. My fingers move fast, my pitch stays secure, my tone is strong.
And of course, if I am having trouble with something in particular in my current repertoire, I temporarily add new exercises that conquer the specific problem. But, for all intents and purposes, my routine remains the same. And to be honest, I like it; it feels good, and it's comforting. After it's done, I feel like my day can start.
But then, here's the obvious problem: If I do the same thing every day, how the hell do I expect to get any better? (And I want to keep getting better for as long as I possibly can.) We know Einstein's definition of the insane: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Experience spurs improvement, of course, and I know that as the years pass, I have continued to become a better flute player and musician. But... shouldn't there be a way to expedite an upward trajectory?
Over the past year, I have become completely and hopelessly addicted to CrossFit. I love it; I look forward to the time I get to spend at the gym each day. When people ask me why I love it, the answer is easy... I can see that I'm getting better. I'm stronger physically, but also mentally. I feel better about myself than I ever have before. I'm finally comfortable in my own skin, and I never realized just how valuable that is. There are other notable elements too, of course. I like the [healthy, happy, encouraging] community. I think the coaches are great. There is a feeling of team work and camaraderie, yet at the same time, each athlete continues to work along their own path.
And here's the important part: I'm getting better because the workouts are always changing. We never do the same thing 2 days in a row. You track your progress when certain workouts come back around weeks or months later, but the idea is to systematically address all aspects of physical competence. From the founder: "Those domains are: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy."
It's an easy comparison; I've always felt that athletics and music are two different mediums with a very similar skillset. Beyond the 10 domains of physical competence, both athletics and music require... diligence, perseverance, patience, self-awareness, problem solving skills, team work skills... and the list could certainly continue.
Now, I know I'm a good (ahem: sometimes, great) flute player. I am confident in my flutistic and musical skill-set and potential. It's what I do for a living, and I do it well.
I will never be a great athlete. I don't have the body type or coordination. Any athletic accomplishments of mine [IronMan triathlon, marathons, biking across the country] have been met out of stubbornness, but also because the familiar Type A musical mindset is tapped... I can follow a schedule, whether it be a practice routine or a coach's workout. I can work toward a goal, and then continue to the next milestone once the goal is met. I can monitor my body and adjust accordingly during the performance/race/event. (I never quite figured that out for auditions, but that's a different issue.)
So, all of a sudden when I was playing scales in modes for the millionth+ time (I don't think I'm exaggerating there), I thought... well, if CrossFit works for me athletically, why aren't I applying the same concepts to the flute?
With a slight giggle, I decided to go for it. I realize it sounds ridiculous and oh-so-dorky, but I created a CrossFlute program. For every CrossFit exercise, I assigned a flute exercise. I structured the 'workouts' the same way: Joint Prep, Mobility, Warm-Up, Strength WOD, Conditioning WOD. And then, so that I can monitor progress, I made a spreadsheet modeled after my gym's workout log (thanks, Fearless Athletics!).
And holy shit, it works. (Of course it does. It can't not.) I've seen more tangible and undebatable progress in the past 2 weeks than I've seen in the past 2 years. My scales are faster, my breath control is stronger, and my sight-reading is better. And most importantly - the daily practice routine is not only comforting, but it's also interesting and fun.
Ok, so there are some caveats. One of the great things about going to the gym is that someone else tells me what to do. I don't have to worry about whether or not I'm doing the right things. I trust the programming. At first, I was creating my own daily practice workouts, but then I thought... sheesh, this is a pain in the ass. Why don't I just follow the gym's daily workout when I practice?
That works too. It's great to not worry about conquering a rotation over any set amount of time. It's done for me.
As I mentioned, one of the great parts of CrossFit is the community, and the daily encouragement from people I've begun to consider friends. Now, this part doesn't quite work for individual practice sessions, but of course musicians have a community; in ensembles, we experience teamwork and the feeling of working toward a common goal to create something exceptional. So, while daily practice isn't particularly social, music undoubtedly spurs a supportive group of friends with common interests and ideals.
The only CrossFit attribute that I haven't been able to replicate is necessity to sign up for class times... Many times, the fact that I had signed up for a class was the reason I got myself to the gym. I'm not going to sign up to practice in my own house, so a bit of "Do This Now" will-power needs to be called upon...
But, that's not a problem. I've been carving out practice time in my daily life for as long as I can remember. I don't need an online scheduler to make me understand the importance of picking up my flute every day. And besides: I love it, remember?
Maybe it sounds silly, I'm excited about all of this. It works, and it's fun. I'm going to keep doing it myself for another month or so to track the results and work out some kinks, and then I'm going to introduce it to my students. I've even imagined posting the 'workouts' online so students can see what they should do. Instead of WODs though, they'll be PODs -- Practice of the Day. (Again, I'm acknowledging the ridiculousness.)
Let me be the first to say that just as CrossFit isn't the right sport for everyone, of course practicing this way won't be the best method for all flutists or musicians. But again, for anyone who has at some point identified as a Type-A, I think there is tremendous validity. At the very least, it's a new option, right?
So, stay tuned (ugh, pun regretfully intentional)... CrossFlute is on its way.
Oh, and if anyone wants to see what I've put together so far, feel free to contact me; I'm more than happy to share, and to receive feedback.
Music careers, in our current 21st-century world, are difficult. We have to learn that they won’t necessarily take on the form as that of our role models, our idols, our classical music rock stars. And you know? That can be hard to accept. But once you do, once you realize that you really can make your own opportunities, the musical world is large and bright. You can create situations that truly fit who you are, personally and musically; you can shape your career and teaching to be exactly what it needs to be. Because, no matter what the model, our world will always need music. We’ve evolved as musical beings, and that’s not going to go away. If anything, humanity is starving for more; it’s up to us to put it out there.
About 4 years ago, I had a boyfriend that changed my life.
He thought that I should not be going into schools to engage students musically; "They would get more out of learning to better use computers with that 45 minutes a week. Then they would have a marketable skill."
At the time, I responded with obscenities and hurt feelings; now, I can clearly articulate exactly why music is important...
Math, language, problem solving skills, study skills, teamwork, persistence and diligence, emotional capability, patience, ability to learn to appreciate something you previously did not understand...
(Think about that last one for a minute: how many of us are truly open to discovering/ understanding/ appreciating that which is completely foreign? It's hard; but, exploring music helps us figure out how to break down those barriers. Example: I used to hate Bruckner. And now, well... I still don't really like Bruckner, but I do appreciate it. I understand why it's good music, and every once in a while, I'll even choose to listen to it. Those sorts of experiences of being able to see past an initial lack of understanding will absolutely lead to openness in daily life, no matter the subject.)
...all these things are improved by the studying music. I could make a bullet-pointed list with sub-categories and footnotes and graphs and everything else; sometimes I want to do that and email him, just because thinking about the conversation still pisses me off.
But ultimately, I'm glad I had that mess of a relationship, and I'm glad he voiced his opinions.
Because... there is also truth to what he said, and I think about it often. As musicians, we really should think about relevance. Not everyone has to set out to change the world, but we should think about how we can be conscious members of society. At the very least, there are selfish reasons - if we're not relevant, we won't exist. More importantly though, we should think about how we can use our art to give to world. In Yo-Yo Ma's terminology*, it is not enough to be an artist - we have to figure out how to best be Citizen Musicians. (*Watch Yo-Yo Ma's "Art for Life's Sake" Speech. It's truly life-changing.)
And so, what is playing the flute in a practice room going to do? Not much. But, all that time I spent practicing has since produced a skill that enables me to share... as a musician, a teacher, and more recently, as an entrepreneur. Putting those three aspects of musicianship together, I've found, has created a career path that makes me excited and hopeful - not just for what I expect to do, but because I know it means so many future musicians will have those same hopes and opportunities.
Still, I struggle with wondering if I'm doing enough. I want to do the things I do well (god, I really want those students to be getting more from my classes than they would from a computer class); I want time to improve myself; I think I can still be a better flute player and teacher, and I know I can learn more as an arts entrepreneur.
There isn't enough time, and the hardest part for me has been giving up on something that just isn't working; the stubbornness in me wants to keep pushing until I fix it... but sometimes things just aren't a good fit, and you move on. [Insert obvious analogy about relationships.]
I don't think I've found my final answer yet... but I know that the past 4 years have brought a lot of positive changes to my life. Pikes Falls Chamber Music, Inscape, The Philadelphia Orchestra's School Partnership Program, Project 440... Within each, I get to use different parts of my musicianship to share with communities that are important to me. As my career twists with these various groups, I will continue to build skill sets, and I will be cognizant of my purpose within each organization. And, I also know that all of this work will lead me to find exactly what it is that will create my best version of a Citizen Musician.
After "Sprung Rhythm" in 2013, and "American Aggregate" in 2014, Inscape is heading back to the Sono Luminus recording studios next month to start our new recording project.
From the Inscape website:
In January Inscape returns to the Grammy-nominated studios of Sono Luminus to record a new transcription of Igor Stravinsky's beloved ballet, "Petrushka." Written in 1911 for Sergei Diaghilev and the famed Ballets Russes, the original Stravinsky work calls for an orchestra of over 100 players. For this project, Inscape commissioned noted composer David Plylar to transcribe "Petrushka" for the seventeen principal musicians of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra.
When I was at KU for meetings on Friday, I found my office decorated with post-its left by students at KU's Summer Chamber Music Camp. Very cute, and certainly made me feel good.
Looking forward to seeing them and my college-aged students as the semester starts. (Tomorrow!)
This quick promo for American Aggregate features a clip from our recording session of Steve Gorbos's work "what I decided to keep." Thanks to our friends at Sono Luminus for putting this together. Album release is Tuesday!
The 3rd season of the Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival is done (more on that soon), and now I'm in Saratoga working with students at NYSSSA on outreach programs -- how to create them successfully, how to deliver them, and of course their overall importance. The book Joe Conyers and Project 440 created this year is intriguing and useful; I'm proud that they used some of my words throughout the book, and are including me in their endeavor this week (and hopefully in the future).
I'll be here in NY for another week, and then it's back to Philly to get ready for the fall semester; somehow, the summer disappeared again.