September musings on self-care in academia (or not!)

As the month of September rolls to an end, things are in full swing for me back at school as a student and a teacher. Below are a few self-care tips geared towards those in school, but can also be applied to anyone, really!

Self-care tip #1: make plans with people who understand exactly what you are going through.

Entering the second year of the DMA program feels really different than first year; one of the biggest differences is that my “classes” right now are independent research projects. That being said, it is very easy to not bump into any other DMA students, which can create a cycle of isolation. As both a teacher/TA/student I do have contact with many people every day, but having a quick wave with an acquaintance is very different than having a coffee (or going for a walk, or having a glass of wine) with someone who understands the ins and outs of the program you are in and is going through a similar experience as you. It feels really cathartic to talk with someone who truly understands what you are experiencing, whether it be in school or in another aspect of your life. A lot of people half-joke about grad school making them “crazy”: grad school can be a breeding ground for isolation, competition, depression, and anxiety. This is a very real situation for many people, and the more it can be talked about openly, the better.

For an interesting article on grad school, mental health, and burnout:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/why-do-so-many-graduate-students-quit/490094/?utm_source=atifb

Self-care tip #2: Cross-train!

As creatures of habit, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to switch up our regular patterns and habits. This can be applied to all aspects of life. If you have an exercise/movement routine that consists mainly of yoga and running, experiment with doing Pilates and swimming. If you always go for massages, try acupuncture or osteopathy. To apply this to music school: if you always take lessons from the same instructor, seek instruction from a different teacher (and possibly even a different instrument! See my last blog post on my lessons with a vocalist). It can feel so refreshing and insightful to get a different perspective than what you are used to. We all have “blind spots” in our performance habits, our movement patterns, and our mental processes – switching up the method of training we use can help eliminate these blind spots.

Self-care tip #3: Sleep well. Eat well. Exercise. (Duh?!)

Sounds so trite, but did you know that leading up to a big game/match/race athletes will get a lot of extra sleep and carefully plan out their meals. What do you do leading up to a big recital (or presentation/audition etc…)? Usually sleep, food, and exercise are the things that get shoved aside right before a busy time period or intense practice period, when in reality, these are the types of things that need to be prioritized if we want to be at the top of our physical and mental game in order to ace our recital/presentation/audition. So how can we shift our thinking as musicians to include the whole instrument and prioritize things like getting more sleep and nutrition? We all know that exercise is proven to be extremely beneficial for alleviating anxiety, depression, or just general stress – how can you “stack” your daily activities so that you are moving more throughout the day? (For more information on the queen of stacking, Google “Katy Bowman + Stacking”).

Self-care tip #4: Take time off.

As musicians we are often afraid of stopping. Taking regular time off is crucial for avoiding burnout and giving our body and mind a time to rest and assimilate information. I recently read a great book that I would highly recommend for any artists: Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear. The book is like a little meditation. At one point Maclear writes about how artists are afraid of “lulls.” She says:

“A lull can be soothing, tranquilizing, and even restorative. It can be a time to retune and replenish. A lull can suggest a state of peaceful hovering, a prolonged mental daydream, a weightless interval. On can be lulled to sleep or lulled into a trance.
Yet for many artists I know, the word lull signifies the exact opposite: the absence, the flaw, the incompleteness, something lethal and dangerous, a source of fear and melancholia.”

She goes on to explain the reasons for this, and then says, “What if we could imagine a lull as neither fatal nor glorious? What if a lull was just a lull?”

For sake of keeping this (relatively) short I’ll stop the list here, but of course there are numerous other self-care tools – what are some of yours?  

 

My Lessons with Angela

I recently began taking lessons with vocalist and somatic (fancy word for mind-body) pedagogue Angela Haweleshka. She was highly recommended to me as part of my performance and research quest to play with less tension, breathe with more freedom, and become a better teacher in the process. Angela is well known for her work in the vocal community but also as a coach for wind and brass members of the TSO and other professional orchestras. On our first lesson Angela said, “your instrument is your body, and I am interested in dealing with your whole instrument, so the first few lessons we will not touch the saxophone much.” I knew I was in the right place.

My first lesson was 90 minutes, the first half of which was spent as if I was at a very thorough doctors appointment. Angela had a long list of questions for me ranging from my diet, past injuries, sleep habits, stress levels, hobbies, exercise, and so on. She documented everything in a giant binder and through my answers and actions she assessed my overall physical and mental state. Then she looked in my mouth with a flashlight so we could see the size of my oral cavity, and felt my larynx to see how it was moving. She assessed my breathing and taught me a series of breathing exercises, which I was instructed to do daily to stretch and strengthen the main breathing muscles. An elderly lady with a British accent, Angela manages to be both firm and direct while also sweet and caring. She feels like part therapist, part teacher, part health-care practitioner, part fairy godmother.

At my second lesson Angela added on to my breathing exercises to include a series of physical and vocal exercises and self-massage techniques. She instructed me to do this warm-up routine each day before I practice. The routine takes about 20 minutes and includes breath work, physical exercises (based in Alexander Technique), and targeted self-massage points for jaw, neck, pecs, and sternum. She asked me if I normally would warm up physically before I played, to which I sheepishly answered “sometimes” and she looked me straight in the eye and informed me that I would never play again without warming up my body first. Yes ma’am!

The next few lessons we focused more on playing the saxophone and connecting all the physical work we had done. Everything Angela teaches me is very much rooted in physical anatomy, which I love -- it is a nice change from the sometimes overly flowery/hippy descriptions that some teachers use when talking about the body. She commonly comes back to the anatomy of breathing, and recently we have been discussing the five physical resonators in our heads: where they are located, what they do, and using the resonators to create a different palette of sounds and colours on the saxophone.

I am enamoured with Angela and feel a huge difference in my body and my playing. However, it can be frustrating at times…. I can feel great doing my physical routine without the instrument and I can see the connection when I play long tones or scales, but to be able to play in this free manner while performing Berio… that is a whole different story and will take time and patience for the two roads to converge.

It is interesting how many “thirty-something” musicians are at a point in their careers where they are feeling excess tension in their playing and investigating ways of dealing with this. Habits creep in slowly and sneakily, often unnoticed by even the best teachers, until the toll of age, years of playing, and physical/mental stresses bring tension to the forefront. I cannot count how many similarly-aged musicians I have talked to recently who identify with this statement.

My takeaway thoughts from my first few lessons with Angela:

  • We know that the body is the instrument. So why are we so resistant to spending time warming up and working on the body? Why, as someone who is so involved in the world of musicians’ health, am I still somewhat resistant to spending the first half-hour of my practice session without the horn? I have since discovered the sheer importance of the physical warm-up and now I will not practice without doing my routine first. How can you incorporate a routine that will actually be enjoyable and realistic?

  • How can teachers help students so that these physical habits do not creep in? It is easy to create compensational patterns that hide or mask habits. I have studied with the top teachers on my instrument, and still the tension in my breathing and upper body has gone largely unaddressed. Part of what I am interested in is looking at how the music education system can place more value on movement and awareness at a young age, and whether this could lessen the number of tense and injured “thirty somethings.”

  • I have found it extremely helpful to take lessons from teachers outside of my own instrument – I would encourage anyone feeling like they are in a “rut” to expand their ideas of who they might study with. During this coming year of my DMA program I will take lessons from a vocalist, a cellist, and a saxophonist. I wish it were more encouraged for grad students to take lessons from teachers of different instruments: it can provide a totally new perspective.

  • There is no shame in being a professional musician and still continuing to work on physical and/or mental performance habits. Many professional musicians, actors, and athletes take “tune up” lessons from their peers and mentors. Learning is continuous: there is always more to learn. Let’s open up and talk about it!

 

Yoga Ramblings

It can be a confusing time to be a yoga teacher and/or practitioner. Don't get me wrong - I love going to a good yoga class - but more and more I am aware of the controversies.

I began my yoga practice about 8 years and it was exactly what I needed at that time. I fully "drank the Kool Aid", and when I attended my yoga teacher-training and was told that it would be a "life-changing" course, I jumped right in. About a year after finishing my training I took a substantial break from yoga. I was dealing with imbalance and pain issues in my body - (these issues were not caused by the yoga, they were already present) - and I had begun to realize that doing countless sun-salutations with not enough strength was probably not what my body needed at the time. When I returned to yoga a few years ago, I approached it quite differently. My teaching now tends to focus on gentle movements and poses, breathwork, and meditation. When I attend an active class I try to stay in tune with how I am feeling and I avoid and modify certain poses. 

As I've learned more about my own body and yoga practice, I've become inspired to actually do more teaching and learning. My hope is to be able to intertwine different types of movement practices and therapies.

Here are a couple of my current thoughts/ramblings. 

1) The idealization of yoga. For some reason, yoga has been idealized to be a cure for anything and everything. Sure, yoga can be very helpful for many ailments (stress, insomnia, headaches, just to name a few) but anyone with existing injuries should proceed with CAUTION. It is no secret that yoga can cause injuries or worsen pre-existing injuries, but I feel like this is a bit of a hushed subject. Just like in any field, there are tons of great yoga teachers and also some not-so-great teachers...you must dig a bit to find who and what works for you. Yoga is often recommended to musicians who are suffering from pain or tension, but traditional classes are often quite wrist-heavy and forward-motion heavy, which can be the opposite of what an injured musician may need. 

The good teachers are beginning to think outside of the box and realize that certain yoga practices may be doing more harm than good. The good teachers explore subtle movements and strength, rather than forcing the body into an awkward pose that perhaps were once considered "traditional". Everything evolves with time and research, and yoga should be no exception. Recently I've been following the blog posts of Matthew Remski, who is a fairly well-known Toronto yogi and Ayurvedic practitioner. He started a new blog series a couple years ago called WAWADIA: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? He has some interesting thoughts and numerous interviews. If you scroll to the bottom of his page, you can find an archive of all his blog posts from this series: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/multimedia/wawadia/#archive. Two of my favourite posts that I've read so far are: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/am-i-even-teaching-yoga-anymore/ and http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update-20-the-kaminoff-matthews-interview-full-transcript/.

2) Striving for headstands. The other day I went to a class where the instructor led us through many advanced poses. As I glanced around and saw so many struggling bodies in awkward positions, I wondered why the teacher was not giving modifications or suggestions. And also wondering -  even if she was giving modifications, would anyone actually take them?

For many people, headstands and other inversions are the "end-goal" of yoga (of course, there isn't actually supposed to be an end-goal). When I first did my yoga teacher training, I initially also strived for headstand and felt embarrassed that some of my fellow classmates could do this pose but I couldn't (and then would get mad at myself for thinking this thought, as it totally goes against the yoga philosophy!). I tried and tried, until finally I realized that I did not care about going into headstand and it did not even feel good when I was in the pose! Kind of like when I realized I did not want to learn jazz (but just felt like I "should") this realization was like lifting off a weight. 

With more research showing that poses like headstand and plow can be fairly dangerous for many people, one studio was the centre of much debate after they posted a sign asking their students to refrain from doing headstand or shoulderstand in the studio.  With some really insightful information from top yoga teachers, I suggest you read the article here:
https://yogainternational.com/article/view/king-and-queen-no-more

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In a few weeks, I am going to be taking a weekend Yoga Tune Up® course called Integrated Embodied Anatomy, from a studio in Toronto called Connect Studio. I am super excited to take this course, as I've heard amazing things about Yoga Tune Up therapy. As stated on their site, "Yoga Tune Up® is a fitness therapy format built around the three P's – Pain, Posture and Performance. It helps eradicate pain, improve posture and enhance performance through a unique blend of yoga, Corrective Exercise, Self-Massage, and Breath Strategies."

The funny thing is, the more I learn and research this area, the more it seems that there is to learn! (Just like music...or any subject, really...)  
To end with a quote: "Anatomy is not reality. Anatomy is a construct, that we have all bought into, to describe experience...It’s just one set of ideas, one paradigm... But we take it as reality, so we think we can’t teach without talking about anatomy, but I think you can be an amazing teacher without referencing anatomy at all." - Amy Matthews

#1

 

The end of April marked the end of my first year of the DMA program at U of T. Many ups and downs, but overall a very positive experience. Daily reminders to myself that grad school is a marathon, not a sprint!

Highlight of May was spending three weeks exploring NYC: what an incredible city! 

 While my work slows down quite a bit in the summer, I am  spending the extra time preparing my next recital and working on research for school (and of course, taking time off...). 

For my research and for my own personal interest (isn't it great when those world align?!) I've been been digging deeper into the realm of posture, anatomy, and mind-body therapies. 

I've gotten really into the philosophy of Tom Myers' Anatomy Chains. The philosophy behind his research is that for many years anatomists have been breaking down the body into smaller parts to examine each part, which is great and necessary, but it creates an incomplete picture. As living, moving beings, we have to look at the whole experience and reaction. 

Fascia is the connective tissue network in our body, and is extremely important for how we live and move. Myers uses connective systems of fascia to add a new perspective to anatomy and movement. More and more manual therapists (i.e. masage, physio, osteopath) are beginning to refer to his textbook, which is great news!

Based off Myers' system of fascial connections is a bodywork manual therapy called Kinesis Myofascial Integration, which is based off of another older type of bodywork therapy created by Ida Rolf, known as Structural Integration, or "rolfing". I am taking KMI sessions this summer, and will have more to say about it when I am finished the 12-session series. 

For more detailed information about Anatomy Trains: anatomytrains.com

A quote I love from the introduction to Myers book: "The heart of healing lies in our ability to listen, to see, to perceive, more than in the application of technique."

Currently:

Working on: Berio Sequenza IXb

Excited about: Leading three yoga sessions in June for the participants of the Toronto Creative Music Lab, a wonderful contemporary music workshop led by great people!

Reading: The New Rules of Posture, by Mary Bond

 

Welcome

Welcome to my blog! Here I will write about my upcoming projects, latest discoveries, and what I am up to now. 

Credit and thanks to Ida Toninato for the photo on the main page, and Alison Gray and Jeff Higgins for videos on the Listen and Watch page.