Rough times happening? Oh look, there you are making gold out of it. Here’s 3 heartfelt observations about your playing to get you through the storm

As I’ve eased back into my teaching again after my maternity leave, you’ve caught me at a really nostalgic place. Now in my 20th year of giving flute lessons, I’ve been reminiscing about the hundreds and hundreds of students I’ve taught over these past two decades–it must be thousands of flute lessons that I’ve given at this point.

(Maybe you’ve been one of them?!)

The individuals that stick out in my mind are the ones who have faced incredible challenges, messy hardships and unexpected setbacks in their personal lives. And yet, despite it all they still showed up to their flute playing regardless of the manic life-storm brewing around them.

For example, I have had students face these challenges while we’ve worked together:

Has Multiple Sclerosis so their playing deteriorates month by month

Suffering music career burnout and wanting to give up the profession

Giving palliative care to their parent

Battling glaucoma and vision-loss

Going through chemotherapy

Grieving the unexpected death of their spouse

Hiding their sexuality from their parents for fear of being disowned

Has a partner that does not encourage their flute playing, who urge them to frequently ‘give up’

Is going through a traumatic divorce after 25+ years of marriage

Dealing with the fallout after discovering their partner had an affair

Suffering from anorexia, in and out of rehab centres for it

Being bullied at school for playing flute because they are a boy

Suffering from severe depression and anxiety, on long-term sick leave from work

And those are just a handful the resilient courageous warrior students that come to mind after a few minutes — no doubt there have been many more.

Sure, it’s easy to play flute when the good times are rollin’, your chakras are aligned, and your kids are behaving like they’ve had a visit from Jo Frost. But when times get hard? Sometimes playing your flute is that last thing that you want, or need. In fact, let’s be honest, sometimes it becomes plain inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Cases that I’ve witnessed from my students where this has applied include: practicing despite a sore, dry mouth while undergoing 3 rounds of chemo. Playing even though their partner continually nagged on about ‘the annoying noise’ they made. Playing for a precious 5 minutes in the same week they also planned a funeral. Playing while propped up on some pillows because they couldn’t’ easily get out of bed. Playing even though the notes on the music stand seemed blurrier to their eyes than the time before.

When such unfortunate and unlucky things happen I think the choices are to a) give up altogether and hide in a corner eating the family pack of Doritos (oh wait, maybe that’s just me) or b) try something that might keep your playing going despite it all. If the latter sounds attractive, keep reading.

Observation no. 1: You and the love affair

The first observation I’ve noticed is that the players who continue to show up to their music have two things in common:

  1. In order to get through the muck and to motivate themselves to turn up to their music, they choose to focus on playing what they love. Adore. Are crazzzzy wild about practicing. Yes, even if that means ‘Amazing Grace’, a Bb chromatic scale, the opening bars of Quantz’s ‘Concerto in G Major’, and ’ and ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ —-on cyclical repeat.
  2. Likewise, they put on hold anything that they don’t love playing. For some, it’s stressful scale exercises, boot camp tone studies or any pieces that garner an ‘indifferent’ reaction. For others it’s anything by Mozart, in the key of G# minor or… ‘Hit me Baby One More Time’. Whatever it is that doesn’t elicit joy seems to get placed high on a shelf where the dust gathers— even if it is just a temporary removal of these things from their practice.

The two behaviours listed above are wise choices— because when crisis hits your life, the last thing you need is for your playing to be yet another burden to what you are already carrying. It totally makes sense—it has been said for centuries by sages, prophets, mystics and Pee-wee Herman that your power lies in the very pleasure that you seek. Let me remind you, lovely, that your playing is not supposed to be another thing in your chaotic and stressed out life that drains you of your power, energy or confidence.

Observation no. 2: The four A’s

This leads to me to notice that when life hands over those demon lemons, quantity seems to be more important than the output itself. Notice that I am leaving out the topics of ‘beautiful playing’, or ‘flawless mastery’, or anything at all about how your music might ‘sound’. Again, artistic survival means that none of this matters at the moment–and by the way, don’t you have bigger fish to fry, anyway?

All you need to remember to get through your storm is the four A’s: Anything, Anywhere, Anytime and Anyhow.  The act of playing anything (as long as you absolutely love it), anywhere (like in the kitchen, even with Doritos on your breath), anytime (for 5 minutes—hey, it’s better than nothing) and anyhow (even if it sounds like you have a flute made of cement) becomes a bridge to transcend the horrid-ness of it all. The four A’s in your playing ensure that the rest will take care of itself. Even if your life biggie isn’t solved, at least it is numbed, albeit briefly.

Observation no. 3: There’s a flutey solution, trust me

Next, students going through harrowing times in their personal lives might turn up to our lesson and complain about things like:

…My High B sounds screechy. The cat leaves the room when I play. My tonguing is too fluffy in the low register. OMG I messed up that passage AGAIN. I didn’t practice enough this week. I didn’t make the principal chair this term. My low C’s aren’t speaking properly. My ring fingers are so dang slow. I bombed my post-grad recital. I am always out of tune on my high F#’s… (And so the list goes on).

When I hear complaints like these —while I also witness you bigger life hardships— I want to gently place my hand on your shoulder and remind you of Observation no. 3:

Please don’t sweat your flute problems. They are TINY compared to what you are already overcoming in your life right now! Just look how you have been managing to deal with (fill in life disaster here).

This is why: I fully believe that you can stop stressing about flute problems because a highly-skilled teacher, who truly knows their craft, can help you find a solution for all of them. It’s not that I discount your flute worries, or feel they’re trivial. But trust me, as a teacher dedicated to serving their students for TWO decades I have witnessed it all when it comes to your flutey issues. Yet, if I know one thing for sure, it is that there will be some kind of intelligent solution for any issues you are having. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘quick-fix’, or a ‘one-size-fits- all’ solution. It might be 5 minutes or 5 months before it’s ironed out. BUT IT WILL HAPPEN.

What this really means is that whatever you happen to be struggling with in your playing can be fixed! Save your emotional energy for something more vital in your life that needs your attention, care and devotion (now doesn’t that thought alone make you breathe just a little bit easier?)

In closing, I offer the gorgeous words of Rupi Kaur from Milk and Honey:

The world

gives you

so much pain

and here you are

making gold out of it

there is nothing purer than that

Every time you play music (that you are crazy in love with, mind you) sees you making your gold. This act alone is the most glorious thing you can do in the tough moments.That’s how your playing becomes a means for you to rise to your light in order to access something greater in yourself. I‘ve seen it work for my warrior-like, resilient courageous students in the toughest moments. Not just once, but dozens and dozens of times across the decades—- and it will work for you, too.


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