Tomorrow, I'm heading to Kripalu for a five-day training in trauma-sensitive yoga and its uses in clinical practice. It's dawning on me today what a full-circle moment this is.
Three years ago, I was suffering from (comparatively mild) PTSD symptoms, and had no idea what was going on with me. I was fortunate to stumble across Bessel Van Der Kolk's work around trauma and the nervous system. Like many people, I recognized myself in his work, and was transformed and inspired by what I learned. That book was the beginning of an amazing journey not only towards my own healing, but also towards a new dimension of my professional life.
Today, I'm a social work graduate student. I'm an intern in a residential facility for teen mothers, two of whom are my psychotherapy clients. Almost all of our residents have suffered enormous traumas in their young lives—things I'm not sure I myself could have survived. My clients struggle mightily with the burdens of these experiences. And just as Van Der Kolk and so many other advocates have described, traditional trauma treatment pretty much ignores their physical bodies.
As soon as I started working at my internship, this training began to call to me. Very loudly. And repeatedly. So I put the damn thing on my credit card and I'm missing a week of class and internship to do it.
Every day I ask myself where exactly I am going. I wonder constantly how these threads of art-making, creativity, music, service, contemplation, embodiment, healing, and justice—all so important to me—will weave themselves together in my life and work. At times it creates a lot of anxiety, but at this point I'm trying to give up my analysis and just follow my nose.
Every day while at Kripalu, I will visit my mom's memorial bench and give profound thanks for the gifts of life, growth, spirit, and renewal.
I got back from meditation retreat more than three weeks ago. A week of silent practice, bookended by sweet time with my Dad and stepmom. These should have been the perfect circumstances to write to you—the ideal, gritty conditions that yield a Pearl. And yet each time I considered writing, the keyboard seemed too cold to approach.
The truth is, I'm a little more discerning about what I send you than I once was, Oysters. You're a pretty smart crew, all told. I can't just squeeze something out for the sake of it. You'll notice.
With my reticence, I'm also protecting myself. What if the deepest, most important little Pearls aren't ready to share yet? What if they need to take a few more spins around inside the shell, growing bigger and brighter and more sure?
Apparently it's a fine line between pompous productiveness and paralyzed perfectionism.
Speaking of which. Here's a beautiful poem I encountered while reading Krista Tippett's latest book, Becoming Wise. It's by Father Kilian McDonnell.
I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.
As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you
It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green
Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its
Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can't be won, concedes the
I've handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I
Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo's radiant David
the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
This morning, I sat outside in my backyard, meditating. I sat on a somewhat dilapidated wooden bench, facing a stagnant little man-made pond, which hasn't been "turned on" in weeks and has a layer of green scum growing on its the surface. The late rush-hour traffic whizzed along Piney Branch Road, just behind our rickety wooden fence. My iPhone timer ticked down from 30 minutes. I only sat for 20. A delicious breeze tickled the leaves of the sycamore tree next door, and I carried my cushion back inside.
It was good enough.
May we delight in the present moment and be free from perfectionism. Also, may I take my own advice, and may the fruits of this advice include writing y'all a little more consistently. :)
I just returned from what was, I think, my first “academic” conference ever: the Society for Minimalist Music's 2017 conference at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. MinSoc was hosted this year by Nief-Norf Summer Festival, an annual festival which gathers young composers and performers to study and perform together. The whole thing was masterminded by my friend Kerry O’Brien and her awesome partner in crime, Andy Bliss, percussion professor at UTK.
My collaborator Sam Scranton and I—also known as Handful of Smoke—gave our first joint talk. We talked about auditory scene analysis, Buddhist meditation pedagogy, Pauline Oliveros, and our music. People laughed at Sam's jokes as hard as I usually do. Then we played a 20-minute set.
This was my favorite conference I’ve ever attended. Here are some takeaways:
Performers and composers can gain a tremendous amount of insight from the work that music scholars do. Throughout the conference, I was deeply impressed by the rigor, commitment, and diversity of scholarship being done on music. This was an environment where it really felt like music mattered—but in a completely different way than it might in a “performance-only” environment. While the Minimalism Society conference was a special event, Nief-Norf has a scholarly component every year, bringing the performance and composition fellows together in dialogue with the scholars.
My personal feeling is that this kind of gathering is deeply important and should happen much more often. For those of us who wear more than one hat—performer, composer, scholar, critic, entrepreneur—these gatherings give us the space to relate to music in a multi-dimensional way. For me as a performer, it’s inspiring to glimpse the big picture of how my musical labor relates to the bigger discourse that surrounds the art. I’m now inspired to see how I can help facilitate interdisciplinary gatherings like this in D.C.
Minimalism has been, and is, a deeply important repertoire for me. Although I didn’t realize it when I went to the festival, minimalism has had a profound influence on my musical development. When I was six years old, my father traveled to Australia to sing the role of Zhou Enlai in John Adams’ Nixon in China. Several years later, my mother mail-ordered the double-disc set of The Death of Klinghoffer; she and I both fell in love with its opening choruses. My violin teacher in high school, Rohan Gregory, coached my violin quartet and taught us Violin Phase.
The ethos of minimalism is, to paint with a broad brush, contemplative and embodied. It intersects with my deepest interests in all kinds of interesting ways. Dear friend Eddie Davis gave a great talk which changed my understanding of silence. My new friend Tysen Dauer shared his fascinating work, which here weaves minimalist reception history together with collaborative EEG experiments. This shot might tempt me to make a sexy summary of his project as "this is your brain on minimaism", but Tysen is much more rigorous than that.
It's also, as my scholar friends revealed to me this week, a complex dance of collaboration. Ryan Ebright beautifully illuminated how Meredith Monk's working methods (hint: barely anything written down; tons of rehearsal time) landed with Houston Grand Opera when they commissioned her work Atlas. Patrick Nickleson shared different ways that ensemble members influenced the work of La Monte Young (controversially, without being credited).
Why had I forgotten my love for this repertoire? Why do I feel slightly squeamish even talking about this? To be totally honest, I think my years in Chicago had a distancing effect on my relationship with minimalist music. As I perceived what the “cool kids” in Chicago were doing (and attempted to fit in), minimalism was definitely not it. I developed an aesthetic value judgment system which, looking back, was deeply influenced by the value systems of the musicians around me. It was influenced even more so by my own insecurities and my own lack of connection to what I liked.
In my early experiences with the Chicago scene, all-male groups of improvisers were wailing inscrutably away at some of the only experimental venues in town. Bearded men sat across from each other in stoic silence, fiddling with electronic contraptions I didn’t understand. “Hard Music, Hard Liquor” was the name of a concert series. For me, the transcendent, the tonal, and the feminine often felt taboo.
I believe Chicago is changing, opening up both in terms of its friendliness to women artists and its aesthetic openness. No condemnation is intended here; I’m just unpacking my own experience. As an artist, it’s important for me to acknowledge how I’ve related to various artistic contexts and how I can develop the muscle to create (and locate) contexts I’m passionate about.
But this brings me to my next point.
Seeing the work of women artists in this setting was a life-changing experience for me.
The keynote speakers and headlining artists were Amy Cimini (talking about her work on Maryanne Amacher), composer Mary Jane Leach, and Ellen Fullman, inventor and virtuoso of the Long String Instrument.
Pauline was everywhere at this festival, because she’s awesome, and also because of the expertise and advocacy of Kerry O’Brien. In fact, Kerry and I led mindfulness meditation and sonic meditation each morning of the festival. At 8 a.m. And people came.
I still grieve the years I spent thinking that musicianship had to look a certain way. It doesn’t. If the scene you’re in doesn’t feel friendly to women, I recommend spending as much time as possible in a scene that does. And if I learned anything at this festival, it’s that there are so many ways to be an artist, to be a scholar. You gotta do your thing.
Stay on it.
PS: I send out an email letter every couple of weeks. It's about life. Sometimes it's even about music. You can sign up for it here.
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.
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
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?
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.