Lose your GPS

While in Edinburgh on a study abroad program last month, one of my twenty-something students told me the details of her day exploring the city. She had arranged to meet friends in a café for lunch but lost access to her phone and therefore her GPS. She tracked down a paper map, found the street she was on (“just by looking at the map!”), and wound her way through the streets to her friends at the café.

Depending on the year you were born, you may be thinking – “What’s the big deal about using a paper map for navigation?” or maybe “What?! How could she get around without her phone?”

In her article Ditch the GPS: It’s Ruining Your Brain, Washington Post science writer, M.R. O’Connor explores the drawbacks of never allowing ourselves to get lost, without a map. “These gadgets are extremely powerful”, she writes, “allowing people to know their location at all times, to explore unknown places and to avoid getting lost. But they also affect perception and judgment. When people are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them. They pay less attention to their surroundings.”

O’Connor’s article got me thinking about how we rely on printed scores in the same way we rely on our GPS apps, never allowing ourselves to get lost. Here’s a fun way to practice getting lost thereby gaining more confidence to express your own musical ideas.

Choose a piece off your shelf to play. Begin in the style and key written, but within a phrase or two, improvise in the style of the work. The idea is to communicate musically, but not in sequences or patterns and without repetition. This is not a challenge to play your piece from memory, but to put the communication of expressive ideas ahead of the need for note accuracy. Another way to experiment with this idea is to improvise a soundtrack while watching cartoons with the sound turned off. Allow yourself to get lost in expressing character without the road map of a score.

Reading scores 100% of our practice time can affect our perception and judgment. We pay less attention to our surroundings (including any extra muscular effort in our bodies) and we lose the ability and need to create and remember patterns, or, to put character front and center by playing without any patterns at all.

O’Connor writes, “Finding our way on our own — using perception, empirical observation and problem-solving skills — forces us to attune ourselves to the world”. Encourage your students to attune to their musical worlds by playing, at least for a few minutes of every day, without a score.

Regimen: from Latin, regere (to rule)

I remember seeing my teacher leave his instrument on his chair during intermission of a concert where he had a huge flute solo that began the second half. He was backstage chatting with his colleagues, enjoying the break, while I was sitting in the audience, staring incredulously at his flute on his chair on an otherwise empty stage.

After congratulating him on a beautiful performance, I had to ask, “How was it possible for you not to play the excerpt during intermission, just to make sure everything was in place before the solo?” He responded pragmatically, “Andrée, did you think I would forget how to play my flute in those 15 minutes?”

At that time, drilling problem spots in repertoire was inspired by my all-important daily regimen. I was religious about my routine, always playing the same exercises for the same amount of time. De la Sonorité was like a morning coffee, without which I didn’t feel like I could manage the day. I was taught to emphasize tone and technique over repertoire (a philosophy to which I still adhere), but that philosophy turned into ritual and then to obsession. Taffanel and Gaubert E.J. 4 and 12, Moyse’s Tone Development, 24 Little Studies, and Gammes et Arpèges are among the staples of our fundamentals, but for me they were a daily required rite of passage before practicing repertoire, making practice sessions much longer and less mindful than was healthy.

How do I help my students avoid my mistakes? I assign broad categories for work, allowing them to choose patterns that achieve similar goals. Breaking the routines in our practice rooms is crucial to keep listening (honestly) to our playing and to our bodies, something my teacher understood intrinsically.



This Northern Exposure “Maybe” clip (below) has stayed with me since I first saw it. Here, Marilyn is recounting a fable about equanimity, which Merriam-Webster defines as “evenness of mind, especially under stress”.  It requires the ability to suspend judgment by being unattached to an outcome. This ability allows us to react to a moment with grace and real emotion, rather than smugness if things go our way, or disappointment if they don’t.

Cultivating and practicing equanimity is a necessary skill in the retraining process after a diagnosis from focal dystonia. It would also help all musicians as we work. Yoga teacher Anne Cushman describes this “suspension of judgment” in her article “Calm, Clear Mind”.

“Practicing upekkha [or equanimity] …means our effort is not fueled by obsession with the outcome but by the integrity of the effort itself.” (Yoga Journal August 2007)

Cultivating equanimity might begin with small opportunities for change (suspending judgment when late because we are caught in traffic or when a car cuts us off ) which allows us to suspend our habitual reactions to larger events (like experiencing dystonic movement), thereby providing more physical control in that moment.

The Observer Effect

The “observer effect” or “Hawthorne effect” refers to the idea that people modify their behavior when they know they are being observed. Penalty kicks at any World Cup soccer game is instant proof of the pressure a player feels from this effect!

For musicians, the observer effect can determine the way we work to prepare for public performances. In order to deal with the nervous energy that comes from performing for an audience, we are taught early on to block out the audience, to ignore the body’s sensory reactions to fear, or even to pretend we are in the practice room when we are actually on stage.

In her article on performance anxiety, Barbara Conable suggests we do the opposite: include the body, the hall, and the audience in your awareness with the understanding that blocking out takes more energy and splits the attention of the performer, thereby reducing the powerful presence and communication of the performer. She writes “Many people make the mistake of trying not to feel their fear, terror, dread, panic, or they try to diminish it, or they try to ignore it. This turns them into two people, the person who is feeling the fear and the one who is suppressing or ignoring it. You can’t perform split. It just won’t work….Feel the fear. Embody the fear. Truly arrive in the performance space. Truly relate to the space, the music, and the audience.”

For those of us retraining after a diagnosis of focal dystonia, adding an audience can set us back in what might otherwise feel like a progression of the control of our motor skills. I have experienced months where I was more and more in control of the dystonic symptoms every day, only to be sidetracked by a performance where the symptoms are suddenly much worse.

We spend hours retraining in a specific setting (alone, in the practice room) but have not retrained for a performance setting, with the observer effect in place.

Replicating the observer effect as you gain more control, or have reduced dystonic symptoms, can better help prepare for a performance. Create a transition period between the work in the practice room and the performance by retraining in public: play in a room of musicians warming up themselves (but not listening), play for a loved one (even with ear plugs in), read very simple chamber music with trusted friends, or play for a video camera. We tend to create this scaffolded process for our students by having them play in studio class or in a dress rehearsal setting before a competition, but we forget do do it for ourselves.

One creative solution to this problem was shared by flutist / violinist Melissa Carter who writes, “My FD symptoms act up if I think someone is listening or watching….so I added an audience to my music stand to help me get over that fear!”

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Doorway Into Thanks

“…this isn’t a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.”

-Mary Oliver, Praying

Thinking about music as a “doorway into thanks” instead of a “contest” comes late for many.  There are countless structures in our systems of teaching music that encourage the latter. Chair challenges, auditions, graded contests, competitions, and festivals with prizes inspire young musicians to think about music as accomplishment instead of music as communication. It’s true teachers see results that come with intense competition preparation by a self-driven student. Still, I often wish for and imagine a system where students are encouraged to participate, to communicate, to express their musical ideas, and to perform without a hovering sense of competition surrounding their work.

This system exists, in the world of choral singing.

Choral conductors do not rank performers who vie for each other’s position in the ensemble. There is an all for one, one for all attitude that permeates a choir, leading to a “general feeling of being connected with the group, leading to our sense of increased community and belonging”, according to Oxford-based music psychologist, Dr. Jacque Launay. His article “Choral Singing Improves Health and Happiness – and is the Perfect Icebreaker” discusses various studies showing how choral singing is proven “to improve our sense of happiness and wellbeing.”

Would thinking of music (and, more importantly, being raised to think of music) as a “doorway into thanks” invite less judgement and thereby more physical release as we play? What if we approached orchestral and band experiences like choral singing, emphasizing the communication among musicians and thereby creating that “silence in which another voice may speak“?

Adaptation Game

My daughter came home from school one day this semester excited about an experiment their teacher had them do in their third grade class. They were learning about an animal’s ability to adapt to its environment. The teacher had her students tape their thumbs to their palms in order to practice adapting to turning pages and writing without using the thumb. My daughter was so excited; she and her friend loved the experiment so much they decided to leave their thumbs taped down during lunch, just for fun!

Alexander Technique teaching encourages recovering the physical alignment and balance we had as children. What if we could also recover the willingness to adapt to new experiences with the same curiosity and joy we once had, just as my daughter and her friends did? What if we could make the process of adapting a game instead of work?

Retraining from focal dystonia asks that we continually adapt. In fact, the process of adapting to new sensory input like adding sandpaper to a key (see Feedback Loops) or switching from a gold flute to a wooden flute (see Examining Resistance) can wake us up from dystonic movement and habitual clenching on the instrument, even for just a moment.

One tool that allowed me to observe my own plastic brain adapt by balancing out the sensory perceptions of my right and left hands was a mirror box. Invented by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, mirror boxes were designed to allow patients who had lost a limb recover feeling, eliminate learned paralysis, and in some cases, reduce or put an end to constant pain in that phantom limb. Mirror boxes have also been used for stroke rehabilitation.

I placed my left hand (the one with dystonic symptoms) into the box, while looking at a reflection of my right hand, the hand that demonstrated free movement.

Image result for mirror box

My first experience using a mirror box was an emotional one. At that time, my left hand was very often clenched in a fist while the right was active, even away from my flute. The relief from the dystonic clenching and movement patterns while using the mirror box was immediate. I was suddenly awake to muscular clenching on my whole left side that I hadn’t been able to feel before; feeling it helped me to learn to release it.




Motions of the Mind

Is his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson explores artists’ abilities to portray “not only moti corporali, the motions of the body, but also how they related to what Da Vinci called “atti e moti mentali”, the attitudes and motions of the mind”.

In painting, displaying the connection between a thought and a gesture, according to Isaacson, had been discussed in artists’ pedagogies for centuries. He quotes 15th century Italian “Renaissance Man” Leon Battista Alberti, in his On Painting, who wrote “Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body”. This thoughtful treatment of how the body reacts to a thought is a missing piece of our pedagogy as instrumentalists.

It is ironic that the connection between thought and movement is central to visual artists’ pedagogies even though their final subjects have no actual movement, whereas it is ignored for musicians who are required to move to create sound and expression. Why don’t we allow for and teach those movements (both macro and micro) when playing an instrument? In many instruments’ traditional pedagogies, whole body movement is ignored. We may, as flutists, emphasize hand position or embouchure shape, but not notice hip joints pushed forward or a twisted torso, limiting freedom of the whole body and the movement of the breath.

There is an unusual polarity between the communication of expressive, musical gestures (or, as Da Vinci called them “the attitudes and motions of the mind“) and our habits of freezing muscles and, in many cases, actively inhibiting physical movement while practicing and performing. Freezing and inhibiting movement, as well as my lack of awareness that I was even doing it in the first place, was one of the things that got me into a destructive cycle of blocking out my physical response to my musical intention, leading, eventually, to a diagnosis of focal dystonia.

This is a call for language in our musical pedagogy to teach movement. We must balance feedback for our students by including movement information and not provide a hierarchy of feedback crowned with the auditory sense.


Restless Creature

The documentary “Restless Creature” about the great American ballerina Wendy Whelan focuses on her transition into retirement. Every scene was shadowed with angst-ridden trepidation. She seemed incredulous that her career was nearing the end until, finally, she wasn’t.

She was suddenly done worrying, done wondering, and was planning for the future, with new works and collaborations. “I think I came up with the idea for my last show”, she says to her friends over lunch, “I woke with a really clear mind. I’m having a new piece created for that night only”.

The end of the documentary follows Whelan’s preparation for that final performance. She commissioned pieces from her favorite choreographers, learned new works with her dance partners, and performed to her devoted fans. Her fears were brought to a natural end and closure with a huge public party. She marked the evening with colleagues, family, friends, and fans. She said goodbye, and honored her role of 30 years with the same ballet company. There was a shower of flowers; she celebrated.

Watching made me realize that one of the things we (musicians who suffer from focal dystonia or have other career ending performance injuries) don’t get to do is celebrate the end. There is no closure. The hope of recovery lingers painfully for years and years, without a party, without a final piece, without a goodbye to the career we once held dear. I am at a point of playing with dystonia almost as long as I played without it. There is almost 20 years on either side of the day of diagnosis.

This post isn’t meant to solicit pity but, rather, to offer that a grieving process needs to be acknowledged. Whelan grieved for the end of her career. She recognized the sadness and honoured it properly. She gave it a good send-off.

About fifteen years ago, my friend and colleague Amy Likar and I were talking about the end of my career as I then understood it. She wisely asked me “Have you grieved yet?” I can finally say yes.

What’s next? I’m planning a party.


Title from Martha Graham “A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” (borrowed from Maroosha Muzaffar’s Atlantic piece).


Carry That Weight

I sometimes take a maxim from our body mapping pedagogy and mull it over, almost as a mantra, to find more depth in the idea and more meaning for my teaching. One such idea “Anything that limits rib movement limits the capacity for a free breath” begs the next logical question, “What is limiting my rib movement?”. That question can lead us down a rabbit hole of awarenessing and somatic experience. To narrow our focus let’s start with the arms.

Studying videos of busy street scenes in both the Edwardian era and the present day allows us to compare how we have changed our habits with regard to arms in movement. These two short videos are particularly striking.

In the Edwardian-era video, people are rarely holding something in their hands or arms, except for a cane or umbrella, which seems to be used fashionably and expressively, almost as a tangible extension of personality through movement. There are no bags, purses, coffee cups, food, phones, water bottles, or books in the hands or squeezed between the upper arm and ribs. Their arms are free for arm movement and therefore their ribs are free for breathing movement.

We tend to organize ourselves to accommodate what our arms are doing and lose the sense of our whole bodies in the process. This is so relevant to playing an instrument or singing while holding a choral folder. Any extra effort in our arms can lead to whole body patterns of tension, including ribs held in place, thereby reducing the full excursion of the ribs on an inhalation.

How often do you walk without carrying anything in your hands or arms? Take an intentional moment to do so this week. Have your coffee before you leave the house. Go for a walk without your phone and let your arms swing freely. Let your muscles habituate to this free pattern of use. Allowing the ribs their full free movement in any activity will begin to translate to habit on your instrument.





Ring the Bell

I keep a wire basket on my office desk. Each time I find a new piece or movement I can play without dystonic movement, I write its name on a small card and place it in the basket. In my daily routine of playing, my intention is always to focus on musical gesture, which leads me back to this basket of repertoire and pulls me away from repeated patterns. It has been important for me to take the time to make music with what I can do now (regardless of how slow or how simple those movements are), and not spend every playing moment retraining and testing my capabilities with exercises.

In his “Gratitude (yoga) Flow” class, Jason Crandell discusses the dichotomy of the balance between, on the one hand, being goal oriented and on the other, taking the time to be grateful for where we are (See Crandell’s Gratitude Flow @yogaglo.com).

He states, “In yoga we embrace various paradoxes. You are working to facilitate change, and you are working to facilitate improvement. At the same time you are also working to accept and embrace the body as it is, to accept and embrace your personality as it is, and to accept and embrace your current station, wherever you are in this lifetime.

[We are] engaging in a certain amount of transformation, and not becoming an endless black hole of constant improvements and betterments…Don’t just accept where you are, embrace it. Accepting is still a subtle pejorative. Accommodate [where you are] and embrace it.”

This acceptance is a direct way out of the cyclical patterns of perfectionism, which, beautifully characterized by Catholic monk Kilian McDonnell, “straineth out the quality of mercy*”. Mercy for yourself, where you are, and where you’ve come from.

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

*mercy: compassionate treatment of those in distress (merriam webster)