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

30 things to do when practise feels like an impossibility

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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

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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.

Resolution time

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This year, as per Dr Noa Kageyama’s (the Bulletproof Musician) suggestions, I wrote down some 83 possible New Year’s resolutions then whittled it down to just three:

  1. Read a novel per month
  2. Record myself every week and have a ‘lesson’ with myself
  3. Go swimming in the Nordic sea

Yes. That last one is completely ridiculous. But I’m determined to make it happen.

So next I must determine the smallest possible step I can take towards achieving these three goals, things I can do today/tomorrow (tomorrow is a little difficult as Liam and I will be spending the day at Woodford Folk Festival).

1. Brainstorm novel possibilities for the year
2. Buy a Zoom H4N recording device (this is cheating: I have already done this yesterday courtesy of ArtStart grant money)
3. Look up the Nordic sea and any swimming possibilities

Here’s to 2014!