Updated: Dec 30, 2020
If you've seen my angsty first blog on my experience with micro-managerial perfectionism with past music instructors, you'll know how hard I'd like to advocate for mental and emotional stability among musicians, from student to amateur to professional. Many musicians are fortunate to understand a relaxed, supportive background to their art from an early age, giving them a great advantage in dancing through the boxing ring of said artistry. I learned it all too recently, here in my mid twenties, when I, too, finally settled into an environment with free time and loving encouragement from everyone around me. I speak for billions out there in that learning to love yourself is HARD when not only are you not used to doing so, but by law of attraction, you've surrounded yourself with situations that make this even harder. How can you possibly express yourself through your artistry when you've never known a concrete foundation of self-love? Can you imagine one trying to build a castle without that first concrete slab? This is a metaphor I like to utilize in my music therapy sessions with clients dealing with addiction. You can build and build your repertoire under the instruction of many acclaimed masters, but without the love and respect that comes with self-care, it will just keep falling down.
I grew up in a largish family that lived like rabbits in a warren. We rarely left my parents' comfort zone of their Oklahoma hometown, and we were basically taught to fear everything - people, planes, cars, failure, judgment, etc. Think Watership Down, except I guess the plot of that story was that they left their warren. Funny enough, that was one of my mom's favorite books. She owned a rabbit in law school that she named Hazel. But I digress. I was nearly always discouraged from trying the things I wanted because they were viewed as either unsafe and/or unrealistic. So by the time I graduated high school, I didn't bother applying for scholarships or national merit societies because I figured there was just no point. This was the mindset I grew up with, and this is what I would be fighting with for many years to come.
I started on the harp through sheer desire, manifestation, and the support of my dear grandparents. My mother was not happy with their support. She often says they only give gifts with strings attached. She's not wrong, of course, but the worst that came from that situation is my grandmother voluntarily shares that I am a harpist from the moment she introduces me to a stranger. Faith and manifestation have been my best friends throughout my life. I grew up Catholic and still am, to a rough extent. I find it continues to play a huge role in my discovering the inner workings of the universe and humanity, and I truly believe what has inspired me to desire and manifest has come through my faith.
Learning the harp has been a spiritual and emotional roller coaster ride because surprise, your artistic expression is a direction reflection of your innermost self, and I think this is why I was given the desire to play. So for the first several years of learning, my playing was unstable, hesitant, and apologetic because that is also who I was. That was simply who I was taught to be. Of course this was discouraging. Why had I had such a burning desire to learn when I would only end up sucking at it? Like that one kid in your school band who's super enthusiastic about band, but is last chair. We've all known at least one. I didn't want to be that, but it felt like I was stuck there. To make matters worse, I was the only harpist available for a few years in my undergraduate music school. I played for everything. I only had time to project onto the harp what was given to me, and no time to take care of how it was being projected. My teacher, who actually played a pretty big role in my discovering a sense of identity, attempted a few times to show me what 'centering' meant and even threatened to drop my grade if I didn't go get a massage. All these things felt very secondary to me, and so the idea of making any of it foundational went right over my head, and I continued just to worry about the twelve rehearsals I had with five different ensembles that week.
I chose my grad school for the harp teacher because I wanted her to 'fix' my playing. By another twist of fate, I was given the desire to learn music therapy, and so I switched my study plan to that, whilst still being involved in the harp studio there. My teacher knew what my problem was, of course, and backtracked me to intermediate music so I could learn once and for all to relax my wrists. I was finally beginning to understand the importance of such stability, but the aim to relax was more of a fight because on a personal level, I still didn't know how. Additionally, within the grad school period, I ran into abusive situations that forced me to reflect on how I was affected by my past. One of these abusers was the harp teacher that filled in for the last year, and one thing abusers all have in common is they are accusatory. They will convince you that you are not worthy of love, let alone self love. Maybe that's one reason the devil himself is otherwise known as 'The Accuser.' They say hell is hell because it is devoid of love. So naturally, I developed a clinical anxiety disorder and was put on medication. This kind of suffering reached an all time peak. The thing that kept me going was yet another source of desire and manifestation. I would be marrying a loving, encouraging man that I, by the way, literally made up and wished for, and would be moving to Britain at the end.
When the time came, a few months after the wedding, and several months after graduation, I suddenly had nothing to do and nowhere to go. My harp didn't show up until December. (Thanks Worldwide Logistics, you maddening, negligent moles!) I had no choice but to reflect and figure out my own daily rituals. I had started doing YouTube yoga in that last year of clawing through grad school because I was doing too much desk sitting, so I decided it would be nice to make it a daily morning task. I had no idea it would totally change my musicianship from my center outward. It was only YouTube yoga. It was called 'Yoga with Adriene,' starring Adriene Mischler, a down-to-earth, dog-loving millennial close to my age. The philosophies she shared so low-pressured and nonchalant began to make their home in my head. In place of the frustrations and accusations of past harp teachers, I allowed myself to hear Adriene's regular isms instead. 'Move from a place of connect through your center.' 'Send breath to your wrists.' 'Listen to what your body is telling you.' 'Head over heart, heart over pelvis.' But most importantly, she always makes sure in her videos to extinguish potential for toxic thoughts. So in a short period of time, I began to flourish off the mat, including in the practice room.
I think the dilemma faced by musicians who teach is they let their emotion seep into their instruction and too often project their own insecurities onto their students. Because let's face it. A musician's career is never truly secure. But in the heat of the moment, they don't realize how truly toxic some of those words can be. Variations on 'Why don't you have this yet?' is a classic. Sure, it's easy to assume they just haven't been practicing and way more difficult to try and figure out what's stunting a student's growth. Not knowing how to adapt a teaching method reflects on the teacher. Not practicing is on the student. They are the subordinates who have learned to make excuses, so it's easier to just hang the problem and blame the student, right? This dilemma can truly throw the idea of a strong and relaxed center off its axis. We focus on whether or not we or our students are playing the right notes and dynamics, and not if they are doing so from a place of connect. Changing my perspective to this has truly improved my sense of musicianship, as well as my physical position at the harp. Yoga has been my best teacher, and I can trust that Adriene would never ever question my abilities, one reason being she can't even see what I'm doing, of course. But also because yoga enhances strength through careful, mindful movement by viewing every inch of the body as one moving part. Every session ends with honoring yourself and the people around you. Therefore, yoga sessions filled with projected toxic teacher thoughts are almost inconceivable to me. Let us start teaching this same philosophy in music with the instrument as a mere extension of ourselves and start to recognize when we are being harmful to ourselves and others. Let our lessons end with the feeling of our higher selves bowing to the higher self in the student or teacher. Because despite the classic classical musician self-deprecatory sense of humor we all hear, true musicianship REQUIRES a foundation centered on self-love.