Did you miss me?

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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!

A letter from the future

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Dear present Hanne, this is your future self.

First and foremost, I know you are going through a bit of a tough time right now. There’s some wonky old thought patterns, there’s some brain chemical fuck ups, and there’s some financial strain. You’re feeling a little shaky, and finding it difficult to get to work. But I’m here to tell you that it gets easier. It really does.

That’s not to say it gets easier easily. You put in a lot of work. You set yourself some strict guidelines. You set your bar too high and you failed, multiple times. You set it too low and you didn’t even get off the ground. But eventually it starts to pay off and you commit to a routine that will probably form part of your everyday for the rest of your life. This commitment is something you can do, by which I mean you do start to achieve a real consistency, something that might seem impossible from where you are sitting right now.

The key is self-compassion. Here’s a few pointers.

Stick with the Bulletproof Musician stuff. Do every exercise. Bug Latham to do them and then keep each other on track. Send Alethea the occasional reminder as well. It may seem like a lot to take on, but just add a little habit to your program every now and then. The confidence chapter is especially important. You can in fact do what you are setting out to do. Keep at it.

Look after your body. Make this a real priority. Exercise and movement is more important than what you eat, although don’t neglect that either. Pay attention to your posture, do your pilates, do some yoga. Go for walks. Moving is absolutely essential to your wellbeing. If you’re feeling foggy or low, even if you achieve nothing else just move yourself, sweat for ten minutes. Move first thing every morning, without fail, no matter how late you crawl out of bed. Drink more water than you are presently. Do Helen’s Tai Chi finger exercises.

Make the most of your lessons with Helen and Camilla. You will come to see this period in Cologne as the beginning of a major turning point in your life. It doesn’t happen straight away, but these teachers and their support and belief in you, as well as their knowledge of the repertoire you are throwing yourself into, are the best cheer squad you’ve ever had. Maintain your friendships with the Aussies of the Köln new music scene. Enjoy your time in Belgium and be on top of your game. Playing with that ensemble (now … and next year) will be really rewarding for you.

Your two years at Ghent are really really good for you. Take my advice, go with the cheaper one bedroom apartment and practise at the Conservatorium. Book rooms in advance and just be there. Make friends with as many of the other students as you can. Practise your French.

Some days are harder than others. Come up with more lists like your 30 Things. Have a list like that for a number of possible feeling-not-so-good scenarios, or other cases where you’re for some reason unable to do the amount of practise you’d envisaged (long day of train/plane travel, important meetings/classes/rehearsals, massive to-do list). These are the things you never get around to anyway, and they matter.

Helen is the kind of teacher that leaves some things open, but in a way that doesn’t leave you hanging with questions. Come prepared to lessons. List down questions in your practise notebook and throw them at her. On the occasion that you are underprepared (it happens, but it happens less and less), admit it. Tell her when you’re struggling with a big load of notes to learn. Eventually you’ll tell her when you have days that just never get going. She understands.

Oh, I should say that Darmstadt is crazy. Try not to get overwhelmed by all that is going on! There’s a big class of flutes, but Eva Furrer really enjoys working with you and Alex on Presto, and she is impressed with how far you’ve come. It’s daunting, it’ll exhaust you, there’ll be tears, but you can do it.

And – you finally learn Cassandra’s Dream Song! It’s another big step for you, like the Furrer was, and like the Hurel. It takes you a bit longer than you hoped to feel really comfortable with it, but once you do that the possibilities really open up. You can tackle anything.

My final bit of advice: try not to compare yourself to others. I know, I know, it’s a pretty thoroughly ingrained habit. But the more you stay focussed on just getting yourself to your next step the better it is for your mental health.

I don’t need to wish you luck. I am the living proof that you did it and will continue doing it, and also, it’s kinda awesome.

Much love,

Hanne xx
June, 2016

Struggle #3

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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

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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

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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.

Reflections on a solo performance

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Of which the lead up was pretty awful, but the performance itself was good.

I had a bit of a bad run coming up to my set in the inaugural EBCC (East Brisbane Community Centre) Music Arts Festival. On top of general procrastination and practice struggles, I found myself exhausted by teaching in the days leading up to the show, was surprised by a bit of a family crisis, and had to drop a work from my program at the last minute due to instrument failure (my alto flute magically broke while in its case).

Saturday dawned with my having barely touched the Carter and Takemitsu I was revisiting, and along with the other stresses I experienced several bursts of panic. I handled interpersonal relations poorly (very poorly in some cases) and struggled not to beat myself up for how behind I was. Practice was a huge battle, but I brushed things up as much as I could. I am, of course, bitterly disappointed I didn’t give myself the opportunity to further develop my interpretation of the works, building on previous performances and lessons, using new skills and approaches I have encountered or experienced in the meantime.

I had planned to print flyers for Kupka’s upcoming America concert days before, but ended up doing it on the way to the venue – a recipe for disaster. Of course the first machine I tried at Officeworks was broken and then my card was refused and I had to buy a new one (I was by now in a hurry, and the store was understaffed – there was no one to help). When I finally printed half the number of flyers I had hoped to do (I was charged for colour on both sides of the page despite one being in black and white), I went to ask a staff member to guillotine them – two cuts, which would apparently take over an hour due to a long line of print jobs. I walked out swearing.

Luckily the Judy had a guillotine so I could get them cut when I arrived. There was not, however, any warm-up space made available (it seems jazz musicians don’t find this so necessary as us anal classical types), so Luara and I ran our duo in a hallway, and I sped anxiously through some scales and tricky passages.

Several times I felt completely overcome by how hopeless the situation was. I blamed outside disruptions – people and events – as well as myself, and felt suffocated by my misfortune. I felt quite abandoned (by who, I’m not sure) at the moment I most needed some support. Somehow I managed to pull myself back together each time, and after enjoying some of the previous acts and some particularly good cold rice paper rolls from a wonderful little Vietnamese joint (Ho Chi Mumma …!) I was in a good enough mood to just get up and play the best I could.

Were there wrong notes? Oh yeah. Could I have done better? Most definitely. But I held it together. I directed some of my stress and anger into voice and breath attacks in the Takemitsu. I closed my eyes in my short improvisation and shut myself off from the outside world completely. I shrieked out fourth register interjections in the Carter and ignored the occasional wrong note in the sextuplet passages. I breathed. I had no memory slips in the Kate Soper (and also Luara was magnificent). I felt virtually no nerves, perhaps because I had already expended all my nervous energy! And afterwards people congratulated me, expressed surprise that this music was getting played in Brisbane and admiration at how I had played it. The next day I got further congratulatory messages. I also apologised to those who I was short or overly emotional with, and my apologies were well received.

None of this excuses the problems that led to how Saturday went for me. I want much more for myself, and also a lot less stress, for myself and others. There is much work to be done. But one positive is that I don’t feel like too much of a fraud. It was a bit of an unfortunate series of events, which is going to happen sometimes, and I’m happy to find I can still pull off a convincing and fulfilling performance. I’m very grateful for the support I had, without which I most likely would have failed. And there is always next time…

Writing music: a preliminary step

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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.