Invitation to Unplug, #1: Pen and Paper

Recommendation: Get a piece of paper. Get a pen. Put your phone in Airplane mode. Sit and write in silence for twenty minutes. Write something, anything, or nothing. See what happens. 

Because: In the past couple of weeks, my notebook—a basic, spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook from CVS—has emerged as an actual place that I can reside. It is a life raft. It is a quiet room before anyone has entered it. Most importantly, my notebook is a portal into the tactile experience of a simpler time. 

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If the Internet demands that our every thought become public, the notebook allows us privacy. If smartphones are teleportation devices—blasting us instantaneously from city to city, from war zone to beach resort, from Congress to our friend's apartment, from Ferguson to Syria—a pile of lined paper does the opposite of that. It sits still. It waits in silence. It is a place where there is nothing to consume; there is only space to create.

Before I was capable of teleportation, before I was omniscient, before I could reach any of my friends at any time, I had my notebook.

I was a college student, walking across campus at dusk, taking in the tall magnolias the whisper of Spanish moss, my heart brimming over with the poetry of it all, my fingers itching to open the notebook and write.

I was a teenager on a trip to Vermont with my family, sitting on a fallen log, scribbling. 

I was a ten-year-old, in love with my new porcelain doll, singing her praises in the pages of my new soft-covered journal. 

For me, a notebook is youth, it is freedom, it is undistractedness. Paper and pen is where I learned to say my piece. And, just as we will return faithfully to the place where we first found a sense of God—for ourselves, not for anyone else—we will return to the place where we first learned to speak truth. 

Even now, writing these words in my notebook, I can feel the impact of the last ten years. I know that these words are destined for "my audience," "my networks," my website. These words will find new life in the digital realm. 

My generation is not made up of digital natives. We had analog childhoods, after all. We have adapted quickly to all this new technology. We've learned to reach out to each other through magic and teleportation. But we still need a little help reaching out to ourselves. Remembering our true home.

Let me know if you try it. Or if your handwriting has deteriorated. Or if you're already happily living in your notebook ... or your Macbook. <3

Need more creative confidence? Make a Praise File.

If I've learned one thing from my own creative endeavors, and from coaching others, it's this: Engaging in a major creative project, on your own, for months and even years, is not an easy task. And one of the hardest things about it is that in order to move forward, you must actually believe in yourself. Confidence, gusto, and—dare I say it—swagger are key ingredients that keep the creative cylinders firing. If you don't have a little swagger in your tank, it's hard to make the project GO.  

So the essential question becomes: what gives us confidence, gusto, and swagger? How about ... a little love? 

I'm only one day late. 

I'm only one day late. 

This week, I was in a meeting with one of my coaching clients—a brilliant writer in the midst of a major project. I wanted to help boost her confidence and belief in her work, and had an idea that I thought might be helpful, but I was a little nervous to suggest it. I gathered up my courage, and began. 

"Have you ever heard of a Praise File?" I asked her. 

"No. What's that?" she replied. 

The Praise File is a concept I learned from The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron's seminal book on creative "unblocking." As she describes it, you create a file—whether digital, or hard-copy—of all the best, nice things people have ever said about you. You gather these bits of praise into a single place. And then, whenever you need a boost, you read it. 

If you're cringing internally at the idea of doing this, you aren't alone. As psychologist Rick Hanson has demonstrated through his research, the human brain is like Velcro for criticism and Teflon for praise. Negativity cuts to our core, while positivity rolls off us as quickly as it arrived. We often dismiss our fan mail, or forget it altogether. The Praise File is a way to counteract this pesky evolutionary bug. 

Ready to give it a try? 

1. Sit down and make a list of (at least) ten important moments, in which you were praised, affirmed, or validated by someone you respect. If these are emails, texts, or Facebook messages, retrieve them. If they are memories that you haven't yet recorded, write down what each person said to you, as accurately as you can. Gather these memories into a single document. For each entry, include a brief note about the date and circumstance of the praise.

2. Review this Praise File each morning for the rest of the week. If more memories of affirmation come to you, jot them down as well. 

3. Feelings of being egotistical, or a phony, or "coddling" yourself may come up. For now, set these reservations aside. See this as an experiment, noticing how positive affirmation affects your ability to work. 

I'm going to do it, too. If I ever had a Praise File to begin with, it's been years since I looked at it. I'll update you on how this goes for me, and I look forward to hearing how it goes for you too!

Speaking of positivity: look how my amazing wife helped me countdown to the GRE!

Speaking of positivity: look how my amazing wife helped me countdown to the GRE!

PS: If you're ready for a creative cheerleader—someone dedicated to keeping you creatively accountable and inspired—please get in touch. I have a few more spots on my client roster right now, and it's some of the most fun work you (or I) will ever do! <3

 

Can music education help with kids' chronic pain & disembodiment?

This past weekend, I finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Over the past five months, I had an amazing experience training at Flow Yoga Center. What I especially loved about my training was simply the chance to understand the human body better: from anatomy and alignment to our bodies’ capacity for change; from diet and digestion to the physical impact of stress.

My wonderful teacher training classmates and teachers

My wonderful teacher training classmates and teachers

I’ve come to see myself not just as a yoga student and yoga teacher, but as a lifelong student of the body—and as a mind-body educator, both inside and outside the field of music.

One of the most empowering things we can do for ourselves is to increase our knowledge about, and respect for, our bodies. I truly believe that some of our biggest physical and mental health problems as a society can be traced down to a basic misunderstanding—and maybe even a rejection, a denial—of how the human body functions. We have a pretty messed-up view of how the body “should” function: working as long as possible; sleeping as little as possible; never getting old, sick or injured. And when our bodies “fail” us, we’re annoyed.

With our adversarial, do-what-I-say attitude towards our minds and bodies, it’s no wonder we’re facing epidemics of anxiety, depression, pain, chronic stress, and dependence on all kinds of drugs to get us through our days and our lives.

But what’s been really grabbing my attention lately is that it’s not just adults who are suffering major pain and discomfort in their own bodies. It’s children. Specifically, my students.

Each week, I see about 13 violin students, from third grade through ninth grade, in a variety of settings. About 50% of them regularly report some kind of chronic pain. Three have persistent low back pain (fifth and sixth graders); another regularly takes 600mg of Ibuprofen for muscular pain. Several—especially my middle schoolers—arrive to class exhausted, sleep-deprived, and poorly nourished. Admittedly, my sample size is small, but the proliferation of orthopedic problems in children from, say, extended sitting and poorly designed school furniture is well-documented.

I usually make them stand up. But sometimes we sit ... and sometimes this happens. 

I usually make them stand up. But sometimes we sit ... and sometimes this happens. 

As a musician and a yogi, I know that the overall health of the body is essential to being able to live fully—never mind learning to play the violin. So, I’ve come to feel that I’m not doing my job if I don’t attempt to address some of the overall body issues that my students are bringing to their lessons. Not as a doctor, but simply as a body educator.

Music education is rarely talked about in this way. But is it possible that music teachers actually have a fantastic opportunity to bring greater embodiment to our students’ lives? I think yes. In part, because:

  • We teach an embodied practice. We have an opportunity to teach healthy movement: to shape and observe how our students’ brain, bones, joints, muscles, breath, and voice are interacting.

  • We teach an active, movement-rich subject. Our students don’t need to be trapped at desks or computers. Many instruments can accommodate sitting, standing, and walking.  

  • We teach a joyful, creative practice that can get positive hormones flowing in our students’ bodies, helping to counteract the adrenaline and cortisol created by high-stress, high-stakes educational settings.

  • If we’re lucky, we have the chance to work with students one-on-one. We can offer them personalized feedback and give them healthy practices to take home.

 

My challenge to us as music teachers is to check in about whether we are making the most of this opportunity to build healthy embodiment into music education.

  • Are we merely replicating traditional classroom circumstances (prolonged sitting, sedentary learning, poor attention to body mechanics) that cause our students pain?

  • Do we understand children’s need to move? Are we staying conscious of the “movement diet” of our classes?

  • Are we listening to, and taking seriously, our students’ reports of pain and discomfort?

  • Are we telling ourselves that we “don’t have time” for movement breaks, stretching, and even periods of quiet rest?

Some people have more time to stretch than others.

Some people have more time to stretch than others.

For me, this is really the beginning of what I hope will be a life-long inquiry, and I look forward to hearing your ideas. Some good resources I’ve enjoyed checking out:

  • The Gokhale Method, also known as Primal Posture. The amazing anthropologist and physical therapist Esther Gokhale traveled all over the world, learning the principles of movement still present in those communities that don’t have chronic pain epidemics. I’ve used a couple of her sitting principles myself, with great results, and have also shared them with my back-pain students. I hope to eventually take a full Gokhale course.

  • Stand up Kids. This organization is dedicated to creating healthier, “movement-rich” classrooms, and has an awesome list of movement breaks that you can try with your students. The founder was interviewed on Liberated Body, too.

  • Another episode of the Liberated Body Podcast, on movement-friendly classrooms.

 

 

 

How to live with the worst thing ever

There is a distinct possibility that the election of Donald trump to the presidency is one of the most painful experiences you have ever had. That's certainly true for me. I've given doses of morphine to my dying mother; I've left a partner whom I loved, but couldn't stay with; at times I've felt close to losing my mind. But this? This is up there. Seeing this scary guy come to power, and seeing him appoint other scary guys to positions of power, induces profound feelings of panic, overwhelm, and helplessness.

To make matters worse, because it's 2016, you have access to a constant stream of other people's panic and helplessness. That is, you have access to social media. With just a few clicks, you could spend your entire day reading terrifying articles and flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol. (Those are the stress hormones our bodies produces when they think we are in mortal danger.) 

So maybe, given all this, you're feeling like hell.

I spent a lot of my late twenties feeling like hell, because of my mom's death, and going through a divorce, and the depression and spiritual confusion that came along with those things. This may sound weird, but over the past several days, watching so many people going through their profound (and well-placed) grief, it's like everyone finally joined the sad, shitty party I've been at for years. The theme of the party is "Worst Thing Ever". Only I don't hang out there quite as much as I used to.

Whiteboard journaling from my own recovery from a life shit-storm. 2015. 

Whiteboard journaling from my own recovery from a life shit-storm. 2015. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm at the same Donald Trump grief-party you are. But because I've spent a lot of time at the Grief Party, I'd like to tell you a few things that I learned while I was there. Because I think grief is a halfway decent metaphor for what we're facing now. 

The thing about going through a major loss is that, at every moment, there is an enormous well of sadness and loss which lies beneath the surface of your life. Grief is an underground geyser: at some point, you know it will erupt. But it's not Old Faithful; it's touchy and unpredictable. You don't know at what time of day, month, or year it's gonna blow. (This might be why, this week, you're crying in your car—or punching the wall—for reasons that are unclear to you.)

Grief is also like having a sleeping tiger for a roommate. As a griever, I've often felt that I have a choice about whether or not to wake this tiger. When stumbling upon a years-old email from my mom, I can opt to look at it or not. When lying on my yoga mat at the end of a practice, I can linger on the image of my mom's face as it rises before me ... or I can return to a more neutral object, like my breathing. On the phone with my dad, I can steer our conversation towards—or away from—how our lives have changed since her death. 

There's an accelerator, and there's a brake. If you always turn away from your grief, you'll stay in the parking lot forever. But if you're constantly leaning on the accelerator, things can get out of control. 

So here's what I've learned from living with the worst thing ever.

1. Take small bites. This election, like any cataclysmic loss, is a shit sandwich. You've got to decide how big of a bite you can handle at any one time. Titrate the amount that you take in. Protect your inner resources. Personally, I'm actually considering a subscription to a paper newspaper so that I can stay informed without getting overwhelmed (i.e., get my news from someplace other than Facebook).

2. Don't fry your nervous system. Get educated about the physiological effects of stress on your body. If you subject your mind and body to a constant stream of terror, you will short-circuit your body's ability to respond to stress, and eventually experience collapse.

3. Strategically create conditions that make you feel good. Yes, this is allowed. Even while awful stuff is happening all around you. We must balance all this negative stimuli with as much positive feeling as possible. Seek out practices, environments, and people that give you a felt sense of safety and well-being. This is not escapism; this is for your physiological benefit. Your mind and body won't be able to bounce back from all this stress unless you give them the opportunity to rest, and have the physical, bodily, felt experience of safety. Perhaps you can make a list of all the people, places, and things that make you feel like you are in a wonderful happy cocoon. And then go to that cocoon, each and every day. (Last night I left my lights off, and lit 6 candles instead. It changed the way our whole evening felt, even though we absolutely talked about politics.)

Just one of many ways to help your body recover from the 1,000 blows of Facebook.

Just one of many ways to help your body recover from the 1,000 blows of Facebook.

Basically, by writing this I'm trying to affirm what a big deal Trump's victory (and the ensuing chaos) really is. I want to affirm that this very well may be one of the hardest things we've all experienced ... and just share a few lessons from my years of living with a tiger. 

 

If you'd like to read more of my writing, you can subscribe to my weekly email letter right here.

Greed, hatred, delusion, and the quest to free all beings

In the Buddhist teachings, there is a way of understanding earthly life called samsara: an endless cycle of human births, deaths, and rebirths; a wheel to which we are eternally tethered until we achieve spiritual liberation.

Some Buddhist practitioners take these teachings fairly literally, as part of broader cosmological beliefs; for me, it is simply a helpful illustration of the human struggle. Today, I find myself with an unusually stark awareness of samsara. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is a fresh iteration of a painful pattern of suffering we have seen before. It is raw and shocking, yet it is also familiar.

Our pain is deep because Trump has demonstrated personal qualities which exemplify what the Buddha called the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. It is important to remember that we all possess these qualities, to some degree. In fact, they are so upsetting in part because we recognize them from our own selves.

In understanding our fellow Americans who supported Trump, the three poisons are also a useful frame:

  • greed may have motivated white individuals of wealth and privilege, who hoped to consolidate their material security. It may also have motivated working-class people who feel that their jobs and way of life need to be protected from “outsiders.”
  • hatred may have motivated some voters, whose fear of the “other” creates racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny.

  • delusion is also an important factor for many voters: paranoid or misguided beliefs about government; misinformation created by an unbalanced media diet; or the blind hope that Trump would protect their interests in spite of his myriad personal failings.

Every once in awhile, a moment comes along which is a lightning bolt of awakening. I think this is one of those moments. It is profoundly painful, and we all want to pull the covers back over our head and hide. Yet this is also a moment of awakening—and a moment of fresh commitment. Greed, hatred, and delusion are real. How can we combat these poisons? There are many ways.

Getting back to the Buddha for a second: there’s a happy follow-up to the truth of samsara. The Buddha taught that there was a path out of suffering and that some of us—not all, but some—will work, over the course of many lifetimes, to bring suffering to an end.

That kind of person is called a bodhisattva. Basically, a warrior of compassion. The bodhisattva vows take many different forms, but the one that’s arising for me today is the one we chanted back at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago.

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it.

"While realizing the apparent impossibility of accomplishing these tasks," one Soto Zen website comments, "the practitioner begins to appreciate the opportunity to have such a rich task with which to engage his or her entire life." 

Those first two are pretty self-explanatory. The second two are a little trickier, right? But, in our interfaith-post religious language, think of it like this:

There are many paths towards truth; I vow to seek them.

A light dwells within each of us; I vow to uncover it.

The truth can be an excruciating place to live—but nothing wakes us up quite like pain. Today, I won't try to numb the pain. Instead, I take refuge in the deepest teachings I've been fortunate to receive. With the truth of greed, hatred, and delusion staring me in the face, I renew my vow.

I rolled out my yoga mat this morning. Thinking of my African-American violin students, I cried halfway through my Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations. You know what surya namaskar can also be translated to? "Denial of ego; affirmation of faith." 

 

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The revolutionary joy of teaching & learning

This past weekend, as part of my yoga teacher training program, I had an experience which powerfully reminded me what it is to be a teacher, and what it is to be a student. 

Cory Bryant was the guest teacher for the weekend, and I felt an immediate connection with his teaching. His knowledge of yogic texts, his interest in Buddhism, his directness and humor all resonated with me. In his presence, I felt attentive and joyful. I sat bolt upright on my cushion, taking notes, listening, completely tuned in to what he was saying. 

There are many mystical ideas floating around, about teachers and students. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are descriptions of students attaining full enlightenment—as if struck by lightning—simply by hearing the Buddha speak certain words. There is the concept of the "root teacher." People stumble on a meditation teacher and feel a deep, intuitive voice say: This is my teacher! They feel as if the teacher is speaking directly to them; the words land in a way that they haven't landed before. Worlds of knowledge and possibility begin to open up. 

It's important to point out here that this isn't about guru worship, nor is this phenomenon "about" the teacher per se. Rather, in these moments of awakening, the teacher—thanks to her/his years of dedicated study and personal practice— becomes a channel for universal truth. The student, through openmindedness, respect, and sincere effort, can receive what is being offered. (If you've ever taught in any discipline, you can feel this difference. When a student is truly listening, trying things with an open mind, our knowledge flows from us easily and intuitively. We are a "better teacher" when the student is ready to learn.)

What I realize after our weekend with Cory is that it is deeply nourishing to the spirit to be well-taught. Teaching anything is an act of generosity and caring. When Cory helped me personally with the alignment of a pose, or responded to a question I asked, it felt so amazing! I felt like a child in one of my group classes, raising her hand and hoping to be called on. My heart was calling out, Help me grow! I could see this sincerity and excitement on the faces of my fellow trainees, too. Through this experience, I could see clearly that I really just want to learn. Therefore, to receive individual attention from the teacher, and to see my practice grow as a result, is tremendously exciting.

Simply put: the student wants help. When the teacher has the patience, knowledge, desire, and sensitivity to help, all is well. I had this relationship with my violin teacher, Olga Kaler, at DePaul. Her knowledge was so deep, and her ability to share it with me so skillful, that my playing was really transformed.

From my experience in yoga this weekend, I can see that the teacher needs a teacher, too. Cory is constantly learning, regularly going to see his Ashtanga teachers in different parts of the country. He is being nurtured by his teachers, and in turn, he can nurture his students.

Although I am not teaching yoga at the moment, I am teaching violin five days a week. As you can imagine, what I experienced this weekend immediately changed how I approached my group of four violin students on Monday. I was more strict, but also more kind. I gave each of them my individual attention, breaking things down for them and making it clear what skills they needed to gain next. Sometimes, I have behavior problems with this group. Yesterday, I had almost none. There was a clear atmosphere of serious learning, and I know that the tone I set for them had made a huge difference. Believing in my students, challenging them, and giving them the tools to grow can be an act of generosity, and can demonstrate my respect for them as humans. 

You guys ... I'm so excited. <3

When did playing Tchaikovsky start to feel like being in drag?

About a week and a half ago, there was a lively thread on the Facebook page of composer Matt Marks. To launch the conversation, Matt wrote:

So like, ok: I know hundreds (if not thousands) of musicians who focus almost-exclusively on new music, to the point where it's practically become a distinct sub-discipline from *classical music*, as different a set of skills, study, and practice as classical and jazz.

Q. Where is the point where this sub-discipline should just break off and become its own independent field of study?

Q. What institutions already have programs where students can major in this field of study, particularly at the undergrad level?

Q. How can we make this more of a thing?

This line of inquiry was unexpectedly emotional for me. To be honest, I rarely think about—rarely let myself think about—just how different "new music" and "classical music" can be from each other. After all, I live on the fault lines between the two, so I spend a good bit of mental energy trying to smooth things over. In Chicago, I could do a Saturday night show at Constellation singing an excerpt from Dave Reminick's pizza delivery musical (fee: $0), and then do a Sunday matinee of Beethoven 8 for a white-haired audience as part of an orchestra whose dress code discourages women from wearing pants (week's work: $750). The first event felt exciting, life-affirming and full of possibility; the second had its moments, but was overall a little hard to get through.

Making a living! La la la, it's all music!! trilled my inner optimist. After all, I was supposed to be able to do both ... right? Isn't classical music—warts and all—my training, my lineage, my home? 

For the past week, I've been preparing for an audition, and I'm working up the opening of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for the occasion. When I played it through recently for my wife Susan, it was relatively clean, but it also felt embarrassing and artistically wrong. "Playing this music feels like being in drag," I suddenly blurted out.  "Like, I feel like I should be wearing a bow tie, and it should be 1945." (Just to be clear, I don't enjoy being in drag.)

"Do you also feel like you should be an old white man?" Susan suggested.

My god—when had this happened to me? My soul-deep discomforts with classical music's canon, institutions, norms and expectations were actually coming out in my performance. The arpeggios were in tune, but you could smell my skepticism and discomfort. 

Shit! I thought to myself. When did I become aesthetically incapable of putting on the costume of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto? And what the hell did this mean for my future as a gigging musician, aka Person Who Makes It Sound Good No Matter What It Is? What's gonna happen now—I stop playing music that "doesn't feel right"?!

On the train later, I scribbled in my journal to try to make sense of things. There were so many possible explanations for my discomfort. I jotted them down: 

1. Maybe as I'm growing closer to my true self, it's getting harder to fake interest in repertoire I don't love? 

2. Maybe as a bona fide queer woman, it's getting harder to cheer for the all-male canon and my limbs are refusing to cooperate any longer?

3. Maybe the more I learn about and care for the world around me, the more I am drawn towards artwork made by my fellow living beings—and the less enthusiasm I can muster for museum pieces and the conservative institutions that surround them?

While these reasons are all very clear and compelling in my own heart, each artist has their own set of values. For me, Matt's post launched an essential inner dialogue about how my training and economic circumstances connect with that truly matters to me aesthetically. The post, and the discussion that followed, allowed me to see that the artistic separation I'd been feeling was painful. I think it's important to keep in mind that: 

1. It's all well and good to "stick it to the man" and abandon classical music. But as players, our arts economy rewards us for staying in touch with our "classical roots." A lot of the stable, decent-paying work is in orchestras, playing standard repertoire. There's a financial cost to rejecting the conservative canon. This meme pretty well sums things up:

2. The norm for "being a good musician" pretty much means, as I mentioned above, making anything sound good—in three rehearsals. Matt shared a quote from Brian Ferneyhough, quoted via Jeff Trevino, that sums up the problem beautifully: 

"In general, one encounters two distinct types of performer; one that might be termed the "gig" musician - the player who, in a couple of rehearsals, is justly proud of producing a "professional" realization of just about anything. Often, such individuals are required to interpret vastly different styles in close juxtaposition and have, in consequence, developed a technique of rapid reading and standardized, averaged-out presentation in order to maximalize effectivity for the vast majority of works and contexts. ... It seems to me no contradiction in terms to presuppose a species of interpreter for whom a lengthy and intense involvement with the artistic and technical demands and assumptions of a particular composer or group of composers would be an essential prerequisite for adequate performance activity. That's the performer who's willing to spend six months or so really trying to penetrate to the roots of a style, to focus in on the mental development of the composer during the act of creation so as to be able to actively counterpoint this against his own personal learning and reproduction dynamic. It's true that, over a couple of decades now, I have developed a significant relationship of this sort with a number of soloists and ensembles. It would be a mistake, though, to concentrate overly on the quasi-virtuoso aspect of this: the spiritual relationship is always more important."

I'm sharing all of this in hopes of having a discussion with my fellow performers who have grappled with this conundrum.

For the record: playing Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Haydn, Schubert, and many other composers does NOT feel terrible/like a 1940's costume that I don't want to wear. And also for the record: hell yeah, I'm still taking that audition. I've gotta make sure all this "revolutionary" sentiment isn't just a grandiose manifestation of my fear of failure. Also, I need the money.