Tag: self-care

Take Better Care of Yourself By Making Small Changes

A cream coloured mug filled with coffee and the word "Begin" written on the front

These days, being a musician usually means managing many aspects of our careers: performer, educator, composer, etc. Then, each one of those inherently comes with many different job descriptions: content creator, marketer, bookkeeper, project manager, writer/blogger, graphic designer, and administrative assistant!

Many of us are doing all of those things ourselves, and it’s not easy. So it’s not surprising that it can feel hard to add healthy habits to our lives when not dropping one of the balls we’re already juggling is quite a feat.

Making lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming, especially if you tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. I definitely can be, and I’ve attempted many failed “life overhauls,” which of course didn’t work, because I was trying to do everything at once! It’s much more helpful to think of change as a process, and approach it patiently and incrementally, instead. (This is also a process.)

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests that you think of a ridiculously small way to implement a new habit, such as flossing just one tooth, making the task so small that you can’t possibly rationalize not doing it. I admit, when I first read that, I scoffed, because how is flossing one tooth going to help with overall dental health? But while forming a habit, it’s actually not about the amount of action taken, it’s about the fact that you are consistently taking an action.

So where do we start with making changes?

If you’re an ambitious person (and I bet you are), you probably have lots of things on your list that you’re going to start “once you have time.” That can be a losing proposition, though, because rarely do things actually calm down. For me, the answer has been to schedule the things that I find most important, since urgent tasks often crowd out important tasks. But figuring out what’s important can also be a big question to answer.

I highly recommend the exercise that Megan Ihnen outlines in this article to get clearer on what your long-term goals look like and, by moving backward from there, determining how you’ll reach them. The next step is actually scheduling small actions that will move you toward each of those goalposts, because small bits/actions add up to big things. I happen to be really good at making detailed to-do lists, even broken down into small tasks. For a long time, I wondered, since I was so good at setting goals, why I wasn’t making much progress toward them. It turns out that we actually have to make time to do things in order to get them done, which can especially be challenging when there might not be a consistent routine or a “typical day” (more on that later).

You have a body

Everyone’s top priority goals are going to vary, but every single one of us has a body. Many of us view our bodies as inconveniences, at best, being annoyed about having to stop working to eat, drink water, go to the bathroom, etc. Lots of factors (being a music student, an American, a busy person) encourage us to get really good at living in our brains and ignoring our bodies. However, we have to take care of our bodies, or they will let us know via illness—and our brains certainly won’t work optimally, either!

Making friends with rest

Burnout is rampant among musicians. I hosted a Musochat last August on the topic of wellness and creativity, and nearly everyone replied that they had experienced burnout or were currently experiencing it. I certainly have, too, more than once, and last year it caused me to lose months of productive work due to anxiety (on the outside it looked like I was functioning, but I was only able to complete my work commitments each day, and was too exhausted to do much else). Now I am increasingly suspicious of the glorification of “hustling” and working all of the time, because it’s just not sustainable.

As a result, I had to renew and step up my commitment not just to self-care (I’ll get to that in a moment), but to rest. As the descendant of Midwestern farmers and a former music student (at a school where my peers were bragging about how many classes they were taking and how little sleep they were getting), I have always tended toward workaholism. This is also reinforced by our culture, which praises hard and even constant work. So, it makes sense that rest and taking time off can seem subversive!

Ironically, as I was creeping into the worst bout of anxiety and burnout that I’d had in a long while, I was simultaneously taking an online class on rest with Mara Glatzel, whose podcast Needy I also highly recommend. I know that it says something about me that I had to take a class on rest, but it also says something that I did not actually find real time for rest while taking this class! Now I better understand what my limits are, and I make sure to set boundaries on my work time. I also actually schedule rest time on my calendar.

Self-care is not just a buzzword

Self-care is not just about bubble baths and spa days (although those can be great). It’s about giving yourself what you need, which is going to look different for everyone. If you don’t know what you need, try starting by creating a five-minute daily practice during which you ask yourself what you need. I like to do this while I’m on my daily walk each morning (exercise + mental self-care: 2-for-1!)

We all really need some time each day to check in with ourselves, and introverts and highly sensitive people might need even more processing time. I’ve often viewed my own sensitivity as a weakness, since it makes me more susceptible to anxiety and depression, but it’s also a superpower. It’s what allows me to be a perceptive musician, composer, and creator. If you struggle with mental health, you are absolutely not alone—you can read more about my journey in this blog post and my episode of the Essential Omnivore podcast. There are also some great perspectives in this Musical Creativity and Mental Health series.

As I worked my way out of that period of burnout and anxiety last year, the biggest game changer was self-compassion. A lot of us tend to be really hard on ourselves, especially when it comes to being realistic about how much we can get done in a day, but we can practice being nicer to ourselves. I really like the meditations by Dr. Kristin Neff, which are free on her website and range from 5 to 25 minutes in length, so they’re easy to fit into a busy schedule.

I also recommend watching Day 2 of Angela Beeching’s Creative Productivity Challenge about negative self-talk and being more aware of our thoughts and feelings. She wisely reminds us, “It’s easy to imagine that other artists have all this figured out and that for them, creative work is a joy and ideas and solutions come easily.” The truth is that we all struggle with creative work and it is always a process, but we don’t have to feel bad about it (and if we do, that’s okay, too). Social media shows us a highlight reel of the work others are doing, without a full picture of the messy process of creating something. We don’t need to compare ourselves to an unrealistic image of only success; it isn’t helpful in any way. The longer I’ve been in my career, the more I realize that my mindset is almost the only thing that truly holds me back.

Do it motivation

Now I invite you to pick one (yes, just one!) small change that you’re going to make over the next month. Focusing on one change at a time will drastically increase your chance of successfully integrating it as a habit.

This is going to look different for everyone, but maybe your ways of taking care of your body will involve food, aerobic exercise, yoga, or taking five minutes to stretch before bed. Perhaps your ways of taking care of your mind will look like adding five minutes of meditation to your day, a morning or night self-check-in with what you need, or a mantra that you come back to throughout the day. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that you truly feel you need, not just something you think you “should” do because of external forces.

No matter how chaotic your routine (or lack thereof) might be, there are a few things that happen every single day: waking up, eating meals, and going to bed. You can pick one of these, or something else that you always do every day, and attach your new habit to it, scheduling it right before or afterward.

Now, actually put it on your calendar, or create a repeating alert on your phone, so that it has a tangible place in your life. As Dennis Tobenski shows in his article “Pitfalls of Living the Freelance Life,” you could use a bullet journal, or whatever system works for you. He also takes time each weekend to schedule out the week, and schedules breaks and vacations, which is crucial.

Then, find a weekly time to check in with yourself about how it’s going. My weekly check-in consists of just three questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not working?
  • What did I learn this week?

(I’ll be honest, when I tried to do a more extensive weekly check-in, I just stopped doing it, so don’t be afraid to keep it simple.)

This check-in is incredibly helpful because it allows and encourages me to make changes and tweaks as they are needed. If I failed to do my new habit that week, why did that happen, and what can I do differently next week? (Go back to those self-compassion exercises if you need to.) We can give ourselves permission to start and re-start things as much as we need to.

I’m wishing you success in your new habits and all of your endeavors! If you’re looking for some outside perspective on wellness as a creative person, feel free to get in touch. I offer free Virtual Office Hours in addition to coaching services.

Buddhist music-making: how meditation could transform the way you work

Tian Tan Buddha

Tian Tan Buddha
Photo by Molly Sheridan

The last concert I heard before I went on a silent meditation retreat was the DePaul University Chamber Orchestra’s all-contemporary program. The first-ever performance of its type at DePaul, the concert generated considerable excitement among the Chicago listening community. The evening was an ambitious tour of 20th-century orchestral monoliths, designed by conductor Michael Lewanski to make a strong statement of advocacy and artistry. The young ensemble opened with Xenakis’ Tracees, closed with Berio’s Sinfonia, and played Ligeti’s Lontano and the US premiere of Gerard Pesson’s Aggravations et Final in between.

As I sat during the Xenakis, utterly annihilated by the sound of the tam-tam, I wondered what it would be like for a musician, in particular, to pass seven days in silence.

We musicians know that silence is as precious as sound itself; we try to care as well for the rests as we do for the music in between. But we also, like most human beings, fear the idea of a long silence. Is it safe—is it even possible—to pause our perpetual inner soundtrack and be truly alone with our chaotic thoughts, our chaotic selves?

As it turns out, a week spent in silent meditation is difficult, but quite survivable—even wonderful. I was very fortunate that two of the foremost Western teachers of Buddhism, Christina Feldman (whose phrasing I use below in quotes) and Narayan Liebenson, led the retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Both teachers spoke about how ancient teachings on mindfulness and compassion can illuminate our modern lives. Now that I’m speaking, reading, writing, and playing the violin again, I’m reflecting on how these teachings could transform our work as composers and performers. While meditation is not a self-improvement or life-fixing project, the principles and guiding intentions behind the practice have the capacity to gently and completely transform the way we live.

Learning to live within our bodies. One of the primary trainings of a meditation practice is to notice how often we are lost in thought, and to redirect our awareness inside the physical body. The first foundation of mindfulness is to “know the body as the body.” For the performer in particular, this is a powerful tool. As we sit onstage, surrounded by a swirl of sound, activity, anxiety, and many other human beings, we can anchor ourselves in awareness of our breath, physical contact with our instrument, or where our body makes contact with the floor or the chair. We can recognize that we are here, and fully inhabit our bodies as they perform their complex tasks.

Learning that each moment disappears and is followed by another moment. This teaching—that all things are impermanent—might be one of the tidbits you learned about Buddhism during your middle-school survey of world religions. Or it might resonate as a kind of New Age cliché: this moment is all we have! Yet performers and composers already inhabit this reality, because impermanence is inherent to our art form. A beautiful chord, a nicely blended timbre, a favorite melody, or a facepalm-inducing mistake onstage: whether pleasant or unpleasant, they’re here and then they’re gone. Getting in better touch with the ever-changing nature of our experience might increase our sensitivity, relaxation, and appreciation of what we’re doing—and help us let go of what wasn’t perfect.

Learning to “cultivate non-distractedness.” What’s the point of sitting still on a cushion for several hours a day, doing absolutely nothing, paying attention to what we are experiencing internally? Perhaps we could consider it a kind of practice session for being present during everyday life. I still remember being a teenager and hearing a professional musician say that he sometimes thought about what color to repaint his kitchen during orchestra concerts. Distraction and boredom are utterly human, but they unfortunately can keep us from being present during the very moments in our lives and careers that we want to treasure most.
Learning to balance between “agency and receptivity.” In meditation and in life, this means striking a balance between doing something and letting things be. For chamber musicians in particular, this is such a huge part of our work. When do we lead? When do we follow? When do we seize control of the tempo to avoid it sagging, and when do we allow the music to simply unfold, trusting that it will do what it needs to do? A silent meditation practice is a kind of training ground for precisely this.

Learning not to be at war with ourselves or others. For about an hour each day on my silent retreat, we did a practice called metta, or loving-kindness, in which we set an intention for the happiness of all beings. During metta, you gradually widen the circle of good intentions: beginning with ourselves, then those we’re close to, then those we don’t know, and finally, those we struggle with. This insight meditation practice acknowledges that we spend much of our lives dwelling in the emotional equivalent of toxic waste, and that we need an active practice to create a more safe and nurturing emotional environment for ourselves and our awareness. In case you haven’t noticed, life in music can be difficult at times. The challenges often lead us into mind-states of competition, criticism, and anxiety. I’m hopeful that my own metta practice will help me make a shift in perspective from separateness to togetherness, and from scarcity to sufficiency.