Did you miss me?

Standard

So I have neglected this blog for a full year. It’s not like I haven’t been writing elsewhere, but I certainly haven’t been spending the time properly documenting my progress and my struggles in a forum with public access… And you know what? I’ve learnt a few things, so maybe it’s time I get back into it.

I have got a more eclectic tumblr blog going on over at hanneflute.tumblr.com, which has given me a bit of access to younger flute players from around the world (but particularly America), and has made me think about sharing some of the tools I use to cope with my musical and psychological struggles. So I’ve started a series of posts on what I’m calling “practice anxiety”, which I’ll start sharing here as well.

Over the next little while I’ll clean up this blog a bit, maybe get a new theme happening, and then I’ll start to write some more about where I’m at in my life right now, some of my experiences studying in Europe this past year and my hopes for the future (near and distant). I hope there’ll be something for my readers in all of that!

Advertisements

30 things to do when practise feels like an impossibility

Standard

20140505-180116.jpg

Anyone who has ever read a post on this blog will know that I struggle with avoidance of the one thing that means the most to me in my life: music practise. Well, yesterday I read two great articles (this one and this one) and then I wrote this list. I printed it out and stuck it to the wall. Maybe there’s something in it for other music students.

1. The usual: listening. Listen to a new piece for 10 minutes.

2. Listen to a piece you’re working on for 10 minutes.

3. Listen back to a recording of a lesson or performance practise and take notes.

4. Write down repertoire list and plan out how to prepare for upcoming concerts and events.

5. Search for dream repertoire – solo/ensemble.

6. Listen to a recording of Manuela Wiesler/Emmanuel Pahud/Felix Renggli/Sophie Cherrier and try to emulate something of their sound/vibrato/anything.

7. Do 3 rounds of sun salutes.

8. Do a mental rehearsal of a piece you’re working on – could just be a section or could be a whole piece.

9. Do a set of 21s (mental rehearsal technique) on a sticky section.

10. Set a timer and improvise for 10 minutes, noting down any fun sounds you find.

11. Simulation training: run around the block/do wall sits or hold a plank/do some of those crazy push-ups-plus-jump and then try centering and beginning a piece or a section.

12. Write down a list of everything you’re feeling bad about right now, then find something good for everything bad.

13. Write a short story about one of the pieces you’re playing.

14. Come up with an affirmation and say it to yourself 15 times.

15. Turn on Björk really loud and dance.

16. Make a Spotify playlist for your next long train trip, and download it on your phone for offline access.

17. Do 20 mins of rhythm practise. Nail 7s over 5s or 9s over 4s.

18. Write a progress report addressed to someone really inspiring, but don’t send it.

19. Write a note to your past self about how far you’ve come.

20. Write a note from your future self to your present self about how far you’ve come.

21. Go for a walk in the woods/by some water with your headphones in, listening to a big energetic symphony (Schumann 2, Brahms 3, Mahler 1).

22. Reimagine one of your pieces with different rhythms or spatial notation, try to feel tension carry through different rhythmic outcomes.

23. Sing the whole way through one of your pieces. If you’re unsure about any section go over it a few times.

24. Imagine the perfect snack that one of the composers of your pieces might eat and make it for yourself before playing through the work.

25. Practise mindfulness with Liam for 5/10 mins.

26. Breathe into your lower back while lying/sitting/standing in various positions.

27. Get all of the to-dos out of your head and onto paper. Then do just ten minutes practise and think of a reward before you try to tackle anything on the list.

28. Compile a bookmark folder of inspiring articles. Read three of these then see if you feel like practising.

29. Message Latham. Tell him you don’t feel like practising. He’ll send you good vibes.

30. Vomit-write 750 words. Get it all out of your head. Work it out after then, don’t let it all stew in your brain and give you brain poisoning.

Struggle #3

Standard

Things I got done today:

  • decided on Cologne dates and booked apartment
  • 10,000 emails (by which I mean about five)
  • skyped my sister
  • booked Ernie in to get clipped and organised a lift there and back
  • went to print shop and printed a million things that needed to be printed, plus bought a new print cartridge
  • planned meals for the week, and made a shopping list (sent Liam out for a shop)
  • made a lot of lists
  • 20mins centering practise
  • wrote a practise plan
  • 30mins teaching
  • took Ernie for approximately four walks + plays in the backyard
  • stressed about Ernie being a bit off colour yesterday and today (pretty sure he’s fine)
  • several other odd-jobs
  • cooked dinner

Things I didn’t get done today:

  • actual practise.

Struggle #2

Standard

Writing that title, I just imagined myself writing a blog post entitled “Struggle #46”, which is in fact just about the most positive thought I’ve had all day. You see if I make it to “Struggle #46”, I’ll have pushed through, for probably three months or more, and dealt with each point of struggle as it arises.

Today has been hard.

Yesterday the little anxiety knot was sitting just over my stomach. Today it was a heavy wash all through the front of my torso, pulling my shoulders forward – no longer nervousness, just the sads.

Identifying the thought pattern that leads me to this kind of depression is difficult – the sads don’t like me thinking about why I’ve got the sads, and they intensify the feeling if I try. The feeling screams at me to NOT PRACTISE and when it reaches fever pitch I’m all fetal position and cranky and hating on the world but mostly on myself.

The thoughts I did identify were still anxious in nature, but with a depressive undertow. All the things I need to do swirling around in my brain (I’m applying for some funding for my second-masters-in-Europe plan and the application is due Monday – I’ve made a good start, getting reference letters and the like, but there’s still recordings to edit and a CV to be updated and why-this-is-such-a-great-thing-for-both-me-and-my-community to be written and and and). I tried to clear my head, to stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand. I planned a practise session out and cleared the rest of my schedule so that I had nothing else on today except two measley hours of practise before my student arrives at 4. (But of course I didn’t let myself off the hook, and did some more emailing and drafting support letters because, hey, I don’t want to be putting anyone else out or pushing my luck asking for things too late in the piece.)

The idea of ‘getting on a roll’ is in itself oppressive. Today is the fifth day of my schedule, and despite all the chiding myself, I’ve done pretty damn well (I mean, what am I comparing to? If the past two months, then this is a goddamn revolution). Now the pressure to CONTINUE is building. My mind anticipates the inevitable ‘falling off’ and subsequent fall out, which has in the past lasted anywhere from a few days through to (more commonly, especially of late) several months, and freaks out, although subtly, in such a way that I notice the physical sensations before my mental notes.

I did do a solid hour this morning, and in thinking about how to make such practise less intimidating Liam and I came up with what I think will be quite a useful method.

Generally, I am the sort of person that only counts one hour of practise as ONE SOLID HOUR OF SIXTY MINUTES OF NOTES COMING OUT OF MY INSTRUMENT AND BRAIN VERY FOCUSSED ON SAID NOTES. Liam finds that funny, because when he was practising guitar he would do 45 minutes and count it as an hour. I find I practise most productively in 10 minute ‘sprints’, on a pre-ordained task, such as “10m Wye RH dig ex” or “10m Karg-Elert in dotted rhythms” or “10m clocking Hurel mvt 1” (all actual entries from my practise notebook). I set a timer for these blocks, so don’t ever do less. With the occasional breather in between (or sometimes a significant break because I can’t right at that moment face the three further blocks I’ve planned for myself), 60 minutes generally becomes something more like 75 … or 90. But I only ever count it as 60.

As I am spending much time working with and reading the information made available on the Bulletproof Musician blog (in the past I’ve been way sus on sport-psychology-for-musicians, but I’m coming around), I was forced to question this thinking when it was said that there is a limit to the amount of time we can be truly productive when practising in a very focussed manner, and that limit is probably around 45 minutes.

So, the idea is thus: I do 50 minutes of 10 min blocks, and intersperse them with 2 minutes of down time. This makes the whole thing that little less intimidating, and is also protecting my physical wellbeing, edging me closer towards sustainability (not something I am good at). Some of my down time ideas:

  • Bettina’s arm stretch
  • green dooby trigger point massage
  • breathing exercises (such as Riley Lee’s)
  • neck and pec stretches
  • Ernie cuddle
  • walk to the back stairs and look at something green (tree) or blue (sky)
  • handstand or shoulder stand
  • centering practise

Of course the rule is most definitely still no internet/phone (I’ve been flight-moding my practise sessions lately, which is most helpful). But these things are enough of a different focus to my practise to give my brain a break, and many give my body some help too.

So practise hour #1 I got through eventually (there was a danger point, which was heavily exacerbated by low blood sugar – scheduled snacks are so vital for me), but practise hour #2 did not happen. The sads reached such a point that I wanted to just stand and scream rather than practise. Instead I decided to write this and to also do some centering practise maybe after my student. Tonight we are going to have a night off the schedule, seeing a movie with old friends, and then tomorrow is, once again, a new day.

Struggle #1

Standard

I’ve scheduled out this week, starting last Saturday, fitting in three practise sessions each day and the rest of my life around that. But two-and-a-half days in and I’m starting to struggle.

Saturday I was just starting out. Getting back into practise after a break (and before that a period of chaotic and largely damaging panic practise) made me feel a bit rusty. But I was forgiving of myself. Then Sunday I was elated! I’d successfully got through one day, and this second day everything was easy! My flute sound was great, the minutes flew by in my practise session – it was only in the very last one at the end of the day that I slowed a little – and I was excited about my new program.

Alas, today things started to go awry. Whether because I’d overdone it the previous two days, or some other reason, I was tired today. Practise was hard. My stomach muscles felt fatigued, and my blood sugar dipped. It was the first time I encountered that niggling little voice that says “I don’t want to practise”.

Determined to make the day go well anyway, I made my mantra “stay with the discomfort”. I had some success – I did an extra half an hour this morning when I really felt like doing nothing more – but this evening after teaching I failed to pick up the flute again. It stands, glaring at me from its perch. I’m cleaning it and putting it away now.

What happened?

I didn’t waste all my time, I spent it doing tasks that did need to get done: contacting referees for my Lord Mayor’s Fellowship application, looking up accommodation options in Cologne for my stay April through June. But I did get disheartened by little things, like when I went to start making dinner and the kitchen was messy, I just turned straight around and didn’t go back in there. The idea of having to teach (more than the act itself) was a funny kind of draining. I watched the storm and after it was done I took Ernie for a walk in the drizzle and golden sunlight through/under the clouds and marvelled at the sometimes beauty of this city, this street. At a certain point I decided I could do maybe 30mins more practise. But I didn’t (willpower is a finite resource). And I feel kinda sad about that.

Still, tomorrow is a new day. And what can I do, if I don’t feel in to and up to it one hundred percent? I’ve been practising centering, scheduling it in, and I feel it could be super helpful once I’ve really got the hang of it. It could bolster a sudden flash of determination, give it the strength it needs to turn into actual practise. Likewise breathing exercises and meditation and a cup of Holy Maté or roasted dandelion with soy (if I’ve hit my caffeine quota).

Tomorrow is full of hope because there are no appointments or commitments (asides pilates in the morning, kind of relaxing in its own right), just me and some quiet reading time and Ernie B and plenty of flute.

Also, an idea: if I skip a practise session I have to write a blog post, questioning why did I do that and how can I not do it next time? Kinda like this one.

Writing music: a preliminary step

Standard
This is a piece that I'm working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

This is a piece that I’m working on, a kind of guided improvisation.

I’ve wanted to try my hands at a spot of composing for a while now. It’s hard, because as a committed flute player I can’t dedicate an awful lot of my time to thinking about writing music, and on top of that I happen to have a particularly thoughtful composer around me nearly always – I don’t want to do a half-assed job, it just wouldn’t stand up to my own ideals or to the work I see Liam putting into his music. But at the same time, just about every time I hear the work of a performer composer – especially wind players – I think to myself, “I could do that. And I’d probably do a better job too…”

When the opportunity came up to do a short solo recital as part of the East Brisbane Community Centre music arts festival (this coming Saturday, 4-10pm at JWC) I thought a lot about the program I would present. My general criteria for Kupka concerts seemed relevant here too, that is: the inclusion of at least one work by a female composer, and at least one Australian work. I also really wanted to play Carter’s Scrivo in vento again, and given the space (the shopfront) I think Takemitsu’s gritty, violent Voice would be quite striking. Australian composer Andrew Ford won that spot with his Female Nude for alto flute (to be performed with clothes on, the title is in reference to a Mondrian painting). And for the female composer, vocalist Luara and I are going to perform the first movement of Kate Soper’s Only the words themselves mean what they say – the whole of which we’ll be playing in the Kupka’s Piano concert on November 29.

Which leaves a 10 minute slot to be filled. There were other works I could have played, but given that the festival is a mix of experimental jazz and contemporary classical streams I wanted to be a bit creative – it’s a good environment to try something new! And so the idea came to me for a kind of guided improvisation, something that I worked on with Liam as an initial step into composition.

The process itself just kind of happened, but it worked very well. I have been scheduling my practice into 10 minute blocks, setting an alarm and just working on one thing at a time. I set aside one of these blocks in a practice session for improvisation, with only the scantest idea of what exactly I wanted to play with. Each new sound I came up with that I liked I noted down (see the notebook page above). After one successful session I tried two more, and then just elaborated on the material I found only slightly. Liam and I then spent about an hour going through this raw material and talking about how one set could develop and flow into the next.

Now with this blueprint in place I’ve just been working on two sections at a time, securing my ideas and the tissue between segments. I’m planning on performing the work with a stopwatch running to bolster the strength of the structure. Each section is very much sound-based, with less focus on pitch/harmonic development, although I think a bit of a rough, intuitive theme still runs through.

This has been a (pleasantly) surprisingly useful process, and in fact Liam and I are thinking we might propose to the whole KP gang that everyone gives this kind of thing a go. It’s extremely good I think for the performer of modernist art music, as we are often so consumed by learning other’s notes we lose touch a little with the sounds and effects we most enjoy playing. In addition, it’s great for Liam, as he gets to hear sounds that he might not otherwise have been able to conceive in his own ear, and the extension of the possibilities and limitations of the instrument.

Oh yeah, and new look blog! Maybe this signals a new direction, but I’m not entirely sure what that might be at this stage.

“Either it’s easy, or it’s impossible, in which case it’s easy”

Standard

Graeme Jennings on the phone to me today said something I’ve heard him say before, but which resonated with me especially well just now. I think I might make it a bit of a practice mantra over the coming weeks, given I’ve got a good many notes to be learning!

Either it’s easy, or it’s impossible, in which case it’s easy.

I spent the evening getting stuck into Mauro Lanza’s The Skin of the Onion, of which hitherto I’d only really looked at the bass flute section. This turned out to have been a good decision, as it’s by far the most difficult section of the piece for me – all the concert flute stuff is eminently playable. Lanza is either a flute player or has worked closely with one (I would probably guess the latter, and hope he has done the same for the other instruments in the piece!), as he has included a detailed fingering guide for all the quartertones used that is actually very useful, as the fingerings work very well in context. The work is also very repetitive in an off-kilter mechanical kind of way. Easy!

Here it is so you can have a listen to it (before the Kupka-Interface performance of it on Sept 27 & 28):

Other repertoire I am preparing for Interface’s (imminent) arrival includes Donatoni’s Arpège (also for pierrot + perc sextet), Maderna’s Honeyrêves, and some new stuff by Liam (Flenady) and possibly Luke Paulding (not sure if I have a part in that work just yet). And I’ll play Carter’s Scrivo in vento and Takemitsu’s Voice for Bettina, and for Laura Chislett-Jones in Sydney next week. Lots of fun things! Most of the notes I’m reviewing now (easy!), but the Donatoni still has a lot which I’m bashing my way through – some of which, due to some pretty extreme grace notes, probably qualifies as impossible (easy!).

Thank you Graeme for making everything feel that bit more doable!