I had a rough spill a few days ago - entirely preventable. I had been admiring the huge, rough, romantic waves on the beach here in Provo and underestimated their force. I was ok getting in the water but was trapped in a huge wave getting out and essentially put in a spin cycle with some rocks. Again, I should have known better. Thankfully, I emerged with just a few scratches and bruises, but awoke two days later achey all over and tired all day. This phenomena reminded me of a time I once went down a flight of marble stairs on my butt, and I've heard similar complaints from friends and students, so I felt it merited some research.*
This is called delayed onset muscle soreness. It is a result of us instinctively and protectively contracting our muscles at the moment of injury and overall soreness (beyond localized injuries) is due to the toll this exertion takes on both our musculoskeletal and nervous systems and also on our brains and our bodies being flooded with stress hormones. Not only are a plethora of muscles recovering from this violent spasm, but the system also has to cope with redressing this chemical imbalance.
This morning I felt tired, but I was ok teaching - probably being absorbed in other people's issues distracted me. But I was intending to do an afternoon Pilates session and found I could do little more than lie on the machine. My regular run was out of the question. I could have pushed myself to swim, but a night in felt more like what my body and nervous system needed. After a physical trauma, tuning in and relieving physical tension is paramount. Of course, it's ideal to be as active as possible, but if your body is extra achey, give it some TLC. Probably for many of you, this is a no brainer. But it's taken me some time to be this kind to my body and I feel extra justified in it knowing the science behind why. May it be of benefit to you as well.
*Waking the Tiger: Healing From Trauma. Levine, Peter. 1997.
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
I'd heard of Glennon Doyle Melton but not really followed her, as I didn't really consider myself her target demographic. But she's recently published a memoir which is getting a lot of press and I'm realizing all of humanity is this wonderful woman's demographic. I caught a caption that enticed me to watch most of the above interview (recommend!). The caption was something to the effect of pain and reactiveness being a sort of "hot potato" that we are eternally shunting off to somewhere or someone else. That we so rarely sit with feelings before we react, deny, or suppress, and thus end up kind of backed up and blocked.
I sometimes catch myself and my students (both music and Pilates/Yoga) holding our breath, which results in constricted lungs and diaphragm and increased physical tension in general. And, in the context of GDM's hot potato metaphor, it is clear that this is the somatic (bodily manifestation) effect of shunting off not just pain, anxiety, and shame, but even simple moment-to-moment awareness and presence. It's so easy to get ensnared in doing, going, and getting throughout our days, thinking of our next task or reflecting on a past conversation, even in moments where we truly can pause. It's often in these moments - washing the dishes, for instance - that I realize my mind is still going a mile-a-minute, planning, rehashing, and the physical effect is that my breath is shallow and thus that I am not truly inhabiting my body, in which this lack of awareness manifests as tension and/or counter-productive movement patterns. This somatic signal of breath awareness can be not only a canary in the mine of our emotional life, but also an anchor. By heeding our breath more often, and holding the hot potato, we can be more present both physically, emotionally, and spiritually, which allows our bodies and minds to heal and remain healthy. At the very least, our bodies will be less constricted, which has pretty profound implications for mental and physical health and conditioning. Thank you, Glennon, you have a new fan!
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
So Mozart has become my gold standard this Fall. I'll stick with some of the flashy stuff, but adding a Mozart Quartet and an old favorite Concerto (5!) back to my repertoire will hopefully serve as a...purifier, for lack of a better word. The Mozartean elements that seem to be most alkali to my sloppy technique acid are:
1. tension: you just can't hack your way through Mozart! It's only pretty of you stay relaxed and responsive.
2. phrasing: notes look deceptively simple, but it's all in how you string them together. Long phrases without herky jerky or trashy accents are so difficult but make all the difference with this music.
3. intonation: this music is so exposed! Both texturally and harmonically. Sloppy intonation sounds even worse in Mozart than it does elsewhere (and, of course, it's never ok!)
3. Listen like crazy! It's taken me a while to get back to listening as a daily practice - both of others and myself (I know: heresy!!). Again, the why is boring and, hopefully, behind me. But listening to other musicians - for ideas of both what to do and what not to do, is immensely helpful. Also, listening to oneself....it's hella painful, but it IS the magic bullet (just kidding, there isn't one! But this is the closest possible thing). Again, both for what is coming along ok and for weeding out whatever unappetizing habits might have snuck in.
Finally, there just has so be some acceptance. I don't sound audition-ready yet. But denying and trying to sound like I am slick prematurely is only going to create more tension. Sometimes, just allowing the sloppiness, really hearing it, actually allows for faster progress.
If yoga is self-soothing church, then Pilates is work church. This is how my personal ecosystem works, but may be it's more universal than I realize that we all need those times of turning inward and self-nurturing but, hopefully, that culminates in strong drive to put on work boots and effect some change. For me, that's what Pilates is, in my physical practice. It's smart, pragmatic, frickin tough, and effective. Up today: fixing a nagging psoas/hamstring imbalance with some hip articulation and back work. This one addresses the role of the QL.
It strikes me how often I hear from friends, colleagues, and students that a challenging life situation drives them to yoga for healing. It's not only because yoga truly is therapeutic in intent (the asanas explicitly address both our physical and emotional bodies), but also because the western yoga studio has been so effectively marketed as a sanctuary. It's not that other movement modalities don't assuage us physically and emotionally, to be sure, the transformative power of movement therapy is common knowledge. But the words and mindset of the environment and practitioner do matter. Our bodies are immensely suggestible.
How nice it would be to remind ourselves of the myriad ways we can bring an cadence of healing to our lives by borrowing many techniques that yoga studios employ? The gentle lighting and essential-oil scented air, the careful tone and timbre of our speech, the slowed pace. For many of us this is going to feel pretty precious and contrived. But when that old hobgoblin of mine appears - the judgey ascetic - I know that this is a path that merits more exploration. If people for whom we care always excel when we attend to them with more love, why ever not shine some of that that light inward?
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
I think so many of us do this: we have a quick query, grab our phone, boom, get an answer and a little dopamine rush. And yet we know that the answers to life's bigger questions are in our bodies, our tissues. And we know that those answers, this deeper awareness, comes slowly, and in silence. My meditation practice has been a slow, long bloom. It's not easy, but it works. It's become the thing that I most look forward to every morning. I won't say more about it than that - people far better versed than me in both the spiritual and neurological benefits of the practice have already written enough to help you get started (I highly recommended 10% happier and headspace if you are looking for some online resources). I'm still a pretty anxious, type-a personality, but tuning in a bit more has helped, and continues to help me down a healthier path. I hope my small story can help someone else.
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
Teaching both bodywork and music are deeply rewarding. But because they are professions that call us to give so very much of our hearts, minds, and bodies, it can be hard to "leave the studio," as such, and burn out can definitely be an issue with which teachers of all degrees of experience contend. I'll be the first to admit that I've learned this the hard way. As a young teacher, I was often "on call" for my students, thought about them extensively during my off hours, and, without really even noticing that I had done so, often put their needs before my own.
Our students don't so much learn from what we say as from who we are, so it is important to model the behavior - both as healthy humans and athletes and musicians - that we would like them to learn. Instead of trying so hard to please them in the moment, we may lead more effectively by modeling healthy boundaries and self care.
I find the following three guidelines helpful. They sound stringent, but I've found, in following them, that I'm able to give more to my students and I feel much more positive and energetic about teaching and my own life in general:
1. No. Such a small word, and yet so impactful. I think I barely used it during my first few years of teaching. It's super important to know what's too much for you. I know we all want to help, but, on occasion, parents, kids, or clients ask more than we can give. On these occasions, a firm "no, I'm afraid I don't have time for that" not only makes you feel better because it's truthful, self-preserving, and empowering, but the parent/child/student learns to think twice before asking you to go above and beyond next time - which not only helps you out, but also models healthy behavior.
2. My work-your work. It's so often the case, especially with music, that children come unprepared to lessons. This is less an issue with bodywork, but occasionally one can find oneself with clients who will "phone it in." Setting your personal standards early on is crucial. For music students this means that students must understand from the outset that if they don't follow my guidelines and practice efficiently at home, they simply won't progress, and this will not be a functional student-teacher relationship. The guidelines are my responsibility. Enacting them is yours. An understanding of these responsibilities is paramount. With bodywork clients, I find this responsibility standard more subtle - it takes some time to truly tune in to our bodies. I notice that, especially with people who are not super body aware, this tuning in and assuming responsibility for one's corporeality can take some time. Moreover, the western healing paradigm is one that urges the client to hand their physiology over to the healer. In my opinion, and that of most in my profession, this paradigm is inherently flawed, and takes some unbraiding. But most of my clients get here naturally and joyfully. I often find with new bodywork clients that I must work on grounding my own energy more firmly during their exploratory weeks/months, and avoid rushing in and over-assisting them in this process of assuming responsibility for their physicality.
3. Off hours. This one's pretty basic. Now that we're all essentially on call 24/7, it takes will power to protect your off hours - and trust me, if you're going to be a teaching dynamo, you've got to make the most of those! Personally, I turn off alerts on my devices and try to only check them regularly during work hours. But I'm not great at this yet - especially because my current job does involve being on call. But most of my students now know to only contact me for true emergencies, so I am pretty quick to respond. See!? Boundaries as a win-win!
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Speed (especially on the violin, less so on the viola - I chalk it up to the rep being easier) has always been my nemesis. Getting violin showpieces up to tempo has been a bloody, tear-stained battleground. It's still probably one of my top struggles with the instrument. But through (I can finally say this) many years of playing and teaching, I think I've found a few things that help a bit.
1. Practice slowly to play quickly. Practicing in a slow tempo but with attention on quick-twitch actions teaches your muscles to be fast but without the emotional, mental, and physical pressure of having to do clumps of notes. Also, we can often discover sloppy spots (spots we wouldn't necessarily catch if we were plowing through at an ambitious but earless speed) in slow tempi and nip 'em in the bud.
2. This is kind of a fancier versions of #1: Rhythms. This involves playing long-short in various permutations in order to accelerate individual connections in "real time" but with enough under-tempo time to keep your cool. A subset of rhythms, or may be even an equally valued sibling, are playing with stops, or in bursts - ie. a few notes very fast (the "burst") followed by a stop to relax (the relaxation is critical - trains into you the soft, relaxed hands and chill parasympathetic nervous system that you need to play fast for extended periods of time). You can vary the number of notes in your burst, building progressively longer bursts. But if time is a factor, a two note burst can be fantastically effective. The main difference between rhythms and bursts is that, in bursts, your bow actually stops moving.
3. Repeated bows: change bows several times without changing the left hand (in the Suzuki Method, we sometimes call this tool "crickets" or "doubles"). This helps to accelerate the coordination but with enough time between individual changes to prepare the change.
4. Legato: play running notes under one bow - this allows you to focus on the left hand without the distraction of bow changes. Similarly, if it's a legato passage that's troubling you, sometimes practicing with separate bows can help you to see where the left hand may not have a coordinated transition.
5. When all else fails, inch up that metronome incrementally - and with as puny metric subdivisions as you can endure (which will help keep note values even). This is a good way to track progress and recent research shows that keeping the metronome on improves focus.
With continued use of these tools, you should be playing faster...faster! All that said, courage helps! So once you've done the dirty work be BRAVE (that was my personal discovery from alto clef land) and you may surprise yourself:)
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
I was actually a little bummed that I bailed on my regular TCI gig this past Sunday (I had friends visiting, so it was a great reason) - I just realize how gratifying it's been, getting back to performing regularly. Before June, I hadn't really performed since my graduation recital in April (well, no, I guess there was Bach double in May, but that was pretty low key) so I was initially a bit jittery about getting out there. We musicians are usually holed up in practice rooms and, quite honestly, it's hard for many of us to be really driven in our practicing without the impending prospect of a public performance. As I feel I'm so often telling my students, practicing is not performing - and vice versa! So I've been needing to get clear and remind myself (and my flock!): what is the difference between practicing and performing?
Performing is easier and more fun imho, so let's deal with that first:
Performing is not obsessing about technique, but rather, having spent some time with the work and having a sense of what you and the composer want to say, trying to express the meaning of the work to an audience (or, for a variety of reasons, it may not help you to think of the audience in particular, so let's just say, trying to give birth to the work in its entirety, to put it out into the ether).
That's all well and good, but in the moment lots of things can arise (ego, frustration, tension, etc) and letting all of that go is part of what keeps you in the flow, creating continuous phrases. If you start beating yourself up about a gaffe, or admire that last shift you played, or your hand cramps up, the audience will feel that you're no longer present and they'll turn off as well.
Performing is also helpful because it shines a spotlight on what we've been neglecting in the practice room. Some things don't come as a surprise; I know my left hand can be sluggish, my vibrato inconsistent, but there are also those slippery little mistakes - the ones that went just fine in the practice room - but passages that, on stage, will not get under your fingers. And you won't know until you put yourself out there.
Practicing, on the other hand, is being a mindful detective. Staying absolutely present and noticing each note, assessing each phrase for technical errors, effective and musical phrasing, unnecessary physical tension. This can sometimes mean beginning your practice session with a play through to find the weak spots (and to practice performance - ie. physical and artistic endurance), but it most often involves dividing your piece into small chunks so that you can really break down your analysis into four distinct categories*:
(I would add a fifth, the awareness of one's body and the prevention of physical tension)
Basically all musical hindrances fall into one of these categories. And our brains and bodies focus most efficiently when we break problems down. So begin by grouping your piece into tiny phrases (later you should make longer ones - when you're truly working on phrasing). Play the small phrase with an ear to what aspect may not be most reliable. Figure out why (easier said than done! But this is really where the fun work lies. I think it was Dorothy Delay who once said that errors only lie between two notes, so try to isolate an issue to two notes max). Once you've come up with a solution, repeat it a few times - enough that it begins to feel more solid, but not so many times that you go into autopilot (that's something that only comes after several days of this kind of isolation and repetition). And move along to the next mini phrase! After you've done enough to make a long phrase, you can play it through for musicality and just cause that's the fun part - reaping the benefits of your hard work!
Many people have already written voluminously and compellingly about practicing, so please forgive any errors of omission, and please comment below if you'd like to add or disagree with anything!
Finally, on the subject of practicing, for a long time, I've been wanting to write about the different ways to practice (ie. exactly how to solve these errors once we've uncovered them). Michael O'Gieblyn's YouTube video about the 17 ways to practice is pretty awesome for advanced players, and I highly recommend watching it and putting it into practice. But I was thinking of something more encyclopedic and maybe organized into categories (eg. speed, shifts, intonation, etc). Please feel free to comment below about things you would like help practicing and/or practice techniques that you find helpful.
I love performing so much! Even my little gig here - where no one's really listening - makes me so very happy to send these notes out into the universe, so thinking this way really helps me - and I hope, you too!
copyright © cicely nelson 2016