Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Mindful Music Maker

The Mindful Music Maker

In my “spare” time, I have a professional hobby that I take very seriously.  I am a qualified fitness instructor.  I teach Les Mills exercise-to-music courses of Body Pump (weight training), Body Balance (yoga/pilates), and Body Attack (High energy cardio sports training).  Learning how to deliver these three very different programs in their own distinctly different essences has been a delightful journey for me.  It’s a privilege to interact with the public throughout the week, and the reward I get back is immense.

Teaching these classes has given me so much.  I have gained an enormous amount of confidence.  I have learned how to move and perform various activities with great attention to detail.  Delivering these classes has also helped me train my memory, helped me to focus outwardly on the people in front of me and what they need, and I've learned a lot about how the body works.  I have worked hard to become a more effective coach, pushing when it gets tough, encouraging when needed, and compassionate when someone is trying hard but struggling.  This has all helped me be a better music teacher.  

It is Body Balance (hybrid of tai chi, yoga, pilates, and meditation styles) that I will relate to being a performing musician and educator.  Body Balance and the mindful practices it draws from not only makes a person fitter, stronger, more flexible, with better posture and mental clarity, but it can help a person fully engage with the moment, enabling them to feel great detail in the body while breathing with awareness. The training I went through to deliver these classes has taught me how to use the breath in order to accept the feelings of the moment in the body, how to fuel movement, and how to “be” with whatever there is.  

It’s exactly what we need every time we pick up our instrument.

I can’t express enough how becoming a fitness instructor has lifted my musicianship, my performance mindset, my ability to connect to people and speak well in front of others, and my effectiveness as a teacher.  Obviously, not every musician is going to run out and become a fitness instructor. However, a personal practice of being mindful could transform one’s ability to perform under pressure.  By acknowledging the honesty of any feelings of tightness, tension, shallow breath and by allowing it to be there, you end up diffusing and disarming those feelings, thereby freeing up energy for what it is you want to create. Relaxed awareness is a peak-performance state and mindfulness practice is fantastic for helping us achieve that.  

Mindfulness can help a person analyse their own playing by bringing heightened awareness to the detail of playing the instrument and its pedagogy. When I practice, I often start by getting a sense of how the vibrations feel with a long tone.  I feel the breath travelling down the length of the clarinet.  I scan my body for any tightness.  I try to pull breath in mindfully, experimenting with different ways of drawing in breath, i.e.:  pulling the breath in from the soles of the feet, pulling it into the lower back, the side ribs, etc.  Then I start to let things happen but I move my awareness around so I’m really feeling it.  What does the shape of my fingers feel like?  What’s my embouchure doing?  My oral cavity? Can I do anything better?  More efficiently?  Where is my tongue position?  Once I have things flowing, I’m then aware and grateful of how wonderful it feels to play.  I love the sensation of the breath moving through the length of the tube, fuelling my music making.

I took an eight week long mindfulness meditation course a few years back.  It was very hard for me at the time.  I wasn’t in a great place within myself and found it difficult to sit with myself and my flaws.  I often became emotional.  However, there were epiphanies, too.  I started to believe that I didn’t have to perfect to be acceptable.  I could give myself kindness.  I could relieve pain.  In time, I was able to apply the skills of mindfulness to playing my instrument.  I started to really feel myself playing the clarinet.  I was able to listen better to what was actually coming out.  From my course I also learned some effective breathing techniques for achieving a sense of calm and relaxed awareness in a relatively short amount of time.  This was great for when I would get a wave of performance anxiety, or even when I struggled to fall asleep.  It worked a treat!

Through mindfulness practice, I have developed better personal clarinet practicing habits for myself which I try to pass on to my students.  

A mindful practice starts with being aware of the physical sensations of playing that I mentioned earlier, but it moves somewhat into the direction of goal-oriented practice. This includes other habits such as asking myself:

How do I want this to sound?

What could I do more, or better?  

Was it accurate?  Why not?  Analyse.  How can I fix it?

Did I look for all the detail in the music?  Tempo markings, dynamics, accents, articulations. Have I looked at the bigger picture?  The longer line, the structure, the atmosphere?  What is this line trying to say?  With whom am I interacting?

Am I breathing with awareness and taking big enough breaths to fuel the music? 

Practice is never boring when there’s so much you can bring awareness to!  You can work on a single bar or scale on so many different levels.

Finally, if you’ve never tried a mindful meditation, could I suggest this one here by the famous Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of secular, modern, mindful meditation.  It’s a beautiful, highly detailed body scan that’s well worth the time it takes.  

Happy mindful practicing.  

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

So much music, so little time!

I have been very lucky.  Sometimes, you get what you wish for, though usually you get what you work for.  And, it seems the more you work for it, the luckier you get.

It seems to have turned out this way for me, as I am trying to focus my playing on chamber music and it looks as though I will not be left wanting for some time!  My summer of chamber music, from now through to August, looks a bit like this, in order of this week's practice urgency:

So, that's me signing off for now.  Back to work…..

P.S. Nearly forgot the Mozart Quintet for August!  

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Coping with injury. My turn.

31 January, 2015.  Broken Finger, Smashed face.

Winter in Edinburgh.  It's a beautiful time in the city, but walking around the city's cobbled streets can become treacherous by adding just a touch of ice. After coming to the end of one especially boisterous night out with folks from my gym, I embarked on the short walk back to my home.

I think that the toe of my shoe caught under the uneven terrain of cobblestoned road, and in a flash I tumbled face-first onto the cold, unforgiving stone.  It was a hard landing.  Ouch, my lip.  Ouch- BOTH my lips!  I could immediately feel that my upper and lower lips had deep gashes on the inside of them and I could taste the stream of blood that flowed freely.  I touched my hand to my face and took it away to get a look at it.  Blood.  Lots of it.

I got up quickly, mostly mortified from embarrassment, and walked the rest of the way back home with my hand over my face, hiding my mouth and nose.  I soon became aware that my finger hurt quite a lot too.  Broken blood vessels, swelling, turning black and blue.  Never mind.  I'm not all that precious with my hands, and it didn't worry me.  The cuts on my lips, however, aligned with cruel accuracy over my embouchure.  This wasn't good.  I had a Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time rehearsal just hours away in the morning.  What was I going to do?!  How was I going to play?  How was I going to play forte?  No time to get stuck. I swished my mouth out with a big gulp of acrid TCP disinfectant, held a frozen pizza to my face for 5 minutes, and went to bed.  With quick wit, I went back to the freezer and grabbed an ice pack for my finger, too, just to be thorough.  I'd probably be alright in the morning.

1 February, 2015.  I am invincible!  Denial to acceptance. 

I woke up around 9am and had a look in the mirror.  I'd become a thing of horror in a few short hours.  Over night my lips had grown and protruded a considerable inch or more away from their usual geography.  I had scrapes all over my face, especially around my mouth and nose. My finger was quite black and blue and, I had to admit, pretty damn sore.  Still, I could move it.  I took some ibuprofen.

People would be arriving to my flat for Messiaen rehearsal in less than an hour.  How would I play?  Nevermind- I'd figure it out!  I picked up my clarinet, still assembled from the day before, and attempted an embouchure.  I could feel the gash on the inner lower lip open like a great chasm of a UNESCO Site.  Hmmm, there had to be another way.  I tried angling the mouthpiece off to the side.  Yes, yes, I could play!  I was making a sound!  With the mouthpiece off to the side I not only looked like a retired Dixieland band member, but sounded like it too. But hey- I was playing.  Phew-  I'd got away with it.

After another half hour of coming closer to my senses, it was becoming painfully clear that I was not going to play this rehearsal.  My friends arrived, one by one, and I couldn't hide the mess I had made of my body.  As you might imagine, they didn't hesitate to encourage me to sit the rehearsal out, to which I obliged, but with heavy guilt.  Anyway, I knew I would be ok by our Thursday concert.  After all, it was only Sunday morning.

After the rehearsal finished, my musician friends had to leave to carry on to other jobs.  I might have started feeling even more sorry for myself if it weren't for the kindness of still more good friends.  Most people kept suggesting that I get my hand checked out, though I really didn't want to go.  (I famously don't trust doctors.  Whilst I have no medical training, I obviously know more than they do, and that's final.)  However, my friend Mike, the husband of our Quartet's violinist, Aisling, generously offered to take me to the A&E (or ER, for the Yanks) and strongly encouraged me to just let him do this for me.  I agreed, you know- for the sake of others really, that I would get an x-ray just to prove that I was fine.  So, Mike kindly drove me there and patiently stayed with me at A&E, commiserating with me in boredom for several hours while I had x-rays and consultations. Eventually I sent him home while I waited for the x-rays to be interpreted, because I was told it was going to take a while.  Apparently Sundays are famously busy days at the A&E.

Two x-rays were taken of the offending hand and examined.  Woohoo!  Look at that! Nothing on it!  I was fine!  My nurse practitioner, Anna, muttered to herself that it wasn't quite the kind of x-ray she'd asked for, but that there was no sign of fracture.  She said I'd go home, ice my finger 4 times a day and take over the counter pain meds.  Yippee!  Though after a few more seconds she began doing something I didn't like. She kept looking behind her toward some of the other doctors.  Then, after an exaggerated intake of breath, she paused.  Anna admitted that there was one more view of my little finger that she needed to see x-rayed before she could responsibly let me go. (Damn. Damn. Damn, Damn!  I made the mistake of telling her I was a professional clarinettist, too.) She ordered one more x-ray.  

The image came back.  It looked good to me, alright!  But Nurse Anna kept enlarging it, then shrinking it, and then engorging it again, highlighting one little place on the side of the second bone of the little finger of my right hand.  I didn't like this part very much one bit.

Nurse Anna seemed to notice someone behind her in the ward. In a flash she vanished with my chart and left me on my own.  After 5 agonising minutes, she returned.  She had been speaking with a fairly high-level orthopaedic surgeon who just happened to be beginning his shift.  She had him look at my x-rays and he confirmed what her instincts told her about that sodding place she highlighted on this last x-ray.  

Without giving me even a moments notice (granted, with which I might have become difficult), Nurse Anna abruptly grasped my hand.  In a flash my little finger was being tied up next to its neighbour in tapes and gauze on bent metal.  I begged Nurse Anna for another way to resolve our differences but she invoked the surgeon to come talk to me.  He said that even if the splint was 'overkill', if it was rested now it would be a very quick, easy fix as opposed to the risk of needing a more complicated surgery later if I carried on without a splint.  Wait, what?  Did he just say 'Surgery'??? 

The blood drained from my face and, with a quiet humility, I accepted my fate.  In this moment I knew there was no choice but to let my colleagues down and admit I couldn't play these concerts with them.  I would have to pull out of 4 performances of Messiaen's monumental Quartet which I had been practicing so diligently much of January.  I'd have to sit on the sidelines instead of play music I love, and miss out on collaborating with these lovely people.  I felt truly sad.

19 Feb, 2015 Getting my life back.

After more than two weeks of my hand immobilised in a stinking gauze claw, my splint has finally come off!  I feel as though I have been let out of prison!  I had my finger reexamined on Tuesday, and while this story is not entirely over for me, I can play, and I can have my life back!

I'm going to need some physiotherapy.  The finger is swollen and stiff, and the swelling may persist for months, I'm told.  I have exercises to do that should improve the current range of motion from its current 70% to something better than that.  I am struggling to get my little finger to contribute to making a fist, but as for playing, I would say that even with less range of motion I could play without impairment.  The biggest challenge will be getting used to, and accepting, this finger as it is now, rather than how it might be someday.  

All of my musician friends who have had serious injuries have told me of their similar experiences with getting out of the splint/cast/pins and they are all the same.  It is really, really stiff for a while.  

I think there is part of me that has always felt invincible, and even capable of controlling my own health, immunity, and healing.  However, this has been a more humbling situation for me.  I got injured, and there might not be any kind of fast track to recovery.  I will have to do my physiotherapy exercises religiously, and even if I do, it will still take some time.  I might not regain exactly 100% of the range I had, ever, and there might not be anything I can do about it.

Acceptance has been a recurring theme for me in the last two weeks.  One of the things I do outside of music is that I am a Body Balance instructor in my spare time (a fitness class mixing yoga, tai chi, and Pilates) and I always end class with a meditation.  I try to help my class members experience acceptance of whatever is going on within them that day and to feel a loving kindness towards themselves.  I realise this week that I am really struggling to treat myself this way.  Instead, I found ways to convince myself that my splint was needless, redundant, over the top.  Now that it's come off and it's not the slender, agile, finger I had three weeks ago, I am reminded that I am am just as fragile as anyone else.

Feb 20, 2015 Lessons

The first lesson from this experience nearly goes without saying: best to reconsider my footwear on Edinburgh's wintery cobblestones. The next lesson moves into the area of gratitude. It's important to appreciate what we've already got- whether it's health, family, steady work, or the use of all ten fingers.  I'm more and more convinced that gratitude for what we already have is the key to happiness.  I realise I have always taken my physical robustness for granted, not appreciating often enough everything that my body can do for me so well.  It is well worth remembering that if you are healthy and fit, that you have tremendous wealth.  This experience has also heightened my compassion and empathy for those who have been injured or who are unwell, rendering them unable to work or do the things they love. I have also had to reexamine my own sense of value to others outside of the ability to play my instrument.  Self-esteem based on applause is no such thing, and it is how we care for ourselves and each other that really matters.    Finally, I am reminded that I am as vulnerable as anybody else.  Sometimes I have delusions of invincibility.  You'd think by now I'd have learned that that couldn't be further from the truth.

March 13, 2015.  Gratitude.

This accident is starting to feel more and more behind me now.  I have had a couple of successful performances which were great for getting my confidence back.  My once grossly swollen finger joint capsule is slowly shrinking down and resembling its original size.  The bead of scar tissue in my lower lip also seems to be diminishing.  I am currently preparing for chamber work next week and recital work at end of March without any complications from my injuries.  There's much to be thankful for, and it's worth remembering that there would be no matter what the outcome might have been.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Articulation for Character in Music Making

Often when young players interpret music, there is a lot of playing "by eye".  In other words, they play what they see on the page according to a kind of "rule", but without translating it into what they think the composer might have wanted it to sound like. They often struggle to hear what is really coming out of their own instrument, and many don't spend enough time in curiosity thinking about what they, themselves, might want the line to sound like. Furthermore, if there is an absence of expressive articulation marks on the page, such as staccatos, tenudos, or accents, the problem gets exacerbated. There will be a tendency towards "facelessness" in the articulation, playing with a kind of non-descript stylelessness. Perhaps it is born out of a fear of being "wrong". ("You mean, play it short? But there are no dots!") We as players and teachers need to make sure one of our top priorities is this search for character, and one way to communicate that is by having lots of clear detail in how we articulate.

Entrances lacking in clear consonants are something of a clarinet disease (or at least I'll speak for myself as a young player.) The instrument is famously good at fading out, but also does a fair bit of "fluffing" in. What if we asked ourselves what the quality of every entrance should be? What consonant will we aim for?  What word might we liken it to? What then is the first letter, beyond just "thwack"?  For melodic music to have meaning it must communicate character. How do we bring character to music? Surely there are many answers, but one of the most compelling ways to directly express character in music is through our choice of articulation.

Again, I am mainly exploring music with clear melody, through surely my concept has broader applications, too. Musical sentences and phrases can so often be likened to speech. (Many melodies of Brahms, Schumann, Weber, Mozart and much of jazz music comes to mind.) We must always be asking the question, what is the character of the music and what we are trying to say?

To help us get there, let's explore.  How might we soothe a baby to sleep with our voice? How do the consonants soften? How do we speak when we are frustrated? How do the consonants become exaggerated? How do we enunciate on the operative word in a sentence? Finally, how can we apply that to our performance of the melodic line?

If we can identify the character and emotional intention of the music we are playing, then we can begin to apply articulations that are meaningful and grounded in something human and organic. This will add another level altogether of clarity, expressiveness, and personality to our playing.

-Jean Johnson, 2014

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Arts Advocacy: The Potency of Chamber Music

We are in an age of smartphones, constant stimulus, instant gratification, and relentless technology.  All of our modern advancements are incredible and I wouldn't want to live without them, but we talk less and less to each other anymore.

We've all been to a party that looks like this:

What does this do to people, relationships, and a society over time?  How will the progeny of the smartphone generation learn to make genuine eye contact and meaningful 
human connection?  How will they learn empathy, interaction, negotiating, compromising, critical thinking, diplomacy, deductive reasoning- nevermind explore depths of loneliness, develop their ability to think, feel, empathise, and examine their innermost selves if they are addicted to handheld electronic distraction?

The arts, and specifically small-group creative activities, just might facilitate a real improvement in our ability to connect to each other.  In my experience, chamber music, performing in it or attending a live event, can provide an arena for creativity, imagination, human contact, and bonding.

Music is a superior connector.  Human beings around the world feel the same range of emotions- love, rage, despair, elation, fear, sadness, loneliness, joy.  For me, music, and specifically classical music, has the power to bring sound to those universal feelings, helping us empathise with each other.  It can evoke powerful imagery and explore the gamut of human emotion to create a cathartic experience.  We are far more alike than we are different, and in music we can celebrate our uniqueness while relating to each other through our sameness.

Musical performances offer us a space where we put down our smartphones and marvel at what differences do exist among us in a way that brings people together rather than divides.  In this modern world we're living in, we need to do everything we can to facilitate greater humanity, communication, and understanding.

I self-identify these days primarily as a chamber musician.  It wasn't always like that.  When I was younger, I thought I might like to be either a Broadway singer or a clarinet soloist but I didn't really pursue those particular paths in a serious way.  I did, however, take orchestral auditions for clarinet jobs while I was in graduate school and I was lucky enough to get myself a job in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra where I remained for over 7 years.  In addition to my life as a full-time orchestra musician, a side perk of the job were occasions for playing chamber music with some of my colleagues. I thrived on those creative opportunities. There is greater potential for each player to find their voice and sculpt the music themselves in a small, unconducted group.  I was determined, then as I am now, to keep as much chamber music in my life as I could.

Life took me to Scotland in 2005 where I still do orchestral freelancing and the odd solo engagement. Yet these days I am putting most of my energy into my love of chamber music and enjoy playing with a variety of folks.  I am especially fortunate to play recital repertoire in a duo with my uber-gifted husband, Steven Osborne, but am also ever busy being a member of a chamber group called "Daniel's Beard" (yes, that's the name- read its story at ).  Our group is made up of violin, viola, cello, piano, horn, clarinet, and occasionally we recruit other instruments as well.  You can imagine the wealth of repertoire an instrumentation like that can cover with all of its many combinations, large and small.

Daniel's Beard plays its fair share of proper concerts in proper concert halls, but we also have played in the most rural of towns and small spaces, have done numerous workshops with children in schools all over Scotland.  In addition to more mainstream activities, we've worked with the differently-abled, the socially disadvantaged, performed at a hospital and even once at a grocery store.  We generally try to promote Scottish-based instrumentalists, vocalists, composers and we have collaborated with local actors and dancers to make the classical music experience engaging, inclusive, modern, and relevant.  There is no questioning the positive impact that this chamber group has had on the communities we've visited.  This is made evident by the fact that the average age of our audiences is actually going down.

Chamber music's greatest asset beyond the stunning repertoire is that it is a small group.  It's portable.  You don't need a massive concert hall, you just need a room, anywhere. That means you can take positive experiences and great music to people that might otherwise not have access and connect with them in a meaningful way.  A chamber group can easily visit schools and inspire students or bring cheer to people in hospitals.  The possibilities for potential venues are endless. For example, imagine what positive influence playing in a prison might have.

I have found that there is more potential for personal connection with the audience in a chamber music experience.  It's still somewhat possible in a large concert hall, but so much easier in a smaller space where there's a bit less formality.  When the chamber players take the opportunity to interact with the audience during the concert itself, it has the effect of breaking a bit of unnecessary tension as well as humanising the players to the listeners.  If the performers decide to share a little inside knowledge about the music, the audience often feels more possession of the music and more connected to the players as well.  This bit of contact does wonders to break down the divide between listener and the stage, making the music belong equally to everyone.

When you take time to connect to the people who have come to hear you, you build their loyalty.  They become more open to the music itself, more connected to the players, and the experience becomes unforgettable for them.

Chamber music in the school is an amazing educational medium.  If you're a music teacher reading this and your school doesn't have a big music program, it is still possible for your students to have a challenging and rewarding ensemble experience even if it's not possible to form a full band or orchestra. You can easily put together groups of three, four, or five people and find a wealth of stimulating repertoire, or self-arrange music to cater to their individual abilities.  In addition to the group practicing a piece until it's ready to perform, there are so many other skills that students develop as part of the process.

Small group playing develops confidence and musical independence while improving instrumentalism and promoting teamwork.  Not only will students become better musicians faster, but in time they will learn how to run their own rehearsal, how to negotiate, how to be diplomatic, how to tolerate ideas different than their own, how to compromise, to think better critically, to listen, to imitate, to contrast, and how to be more sensitive.

Chamber music for me has always been a platform where my own musical individuality, creativity, and personality can shine through.  I also deeply love the music that I have had the privilege to play:  Brahms Quintet and Trio, Mozart Quintet, Messaien Quartet for the End of Time, Schubert Octet, Bartok Contrasts to name just a few of the masterworks.  Playing chamber music is also a time for close connection, communication, and meaningful human contact with people I like being with, plus I find great reward in sitting down to perform in a concert that I've helped organise.  Making things happen for oneself is a very empowering feeling.  Furthermore, it can be an opportunity to connect with new people for the first time on the day of the concert.  It is enormously rewarding when audience members let you know how much they've enjoyed aspects of the performance, and if possible, it's a great time to get to know a little about them, too.

Through shared musical experiences, we look away from our smartphones and engage in a thought-provoking experience in a room with each other.  Chamber music is particularly good at making the concert activity something personal, enriching both participants and listeners.  Just a few energised musicians working together can make a tremendous impact on quality of life in our schools and communities, and feed their own souls at the same time.  So, if you're used to going to orchestra concerts anonymously in big halls, wonderful - don't stop doing that.  Orchestra concerts are exciting, enriching, and important cultural experiences.  But maybe you'll consider taking in a local chamber music concert sometime.  And when you do, make sure you say hi to the clarinetist.

Copyright © 2014 Jean Johnson