Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Only Resolution You Need to Make in 2015

Happy New Year!
Hopefully you had an enjoyable ringing in of the new year with friends and/or family. Maybe you went to dinner or maybe out for drinks, maybe you played games with your family, or watched the ball drop in Times Square. Maybe you just watched a movie and went to bed before midnight. It was your choice and I am sure you chose wisely. Now we’re on to one of the least successful times of the year. Yup, New Year’s resolution season. We all decide to do something that we’re going to do for the next two weeks and if it doesn’t stick, oh well. There’s always next year.

Building New Habits
I was having a conversation the other day with some friends about building new habits. Though the conversation was completely unrelated to music, I found myself (as I often do) applying some of our conversation to music. We talked about what was required to build a new habit and how long it takes. Different numbers were thrown around, so I decided to do some research. For many years, exercise gurus, dieticians, doctors, and educators sold the notion that you could create a new habit in 21 days. There have been plenty of articles about that, so I’ll just say that the origin of this magic number actually claims it takes a minimum of 21 days depending on the person and the habit. Here's some interesting and much more recent information on developing habits which claims it takes anywhere from 18-254 days to change a behavior.

So, let’s apply this to breathing while playing a wind instrument. Back in 6th grade, my band director told me to take a big breath and blow. Not realizing that I was basically tensing up my entire body on both the inhalation and the exhalation, that’s how I played for three years until I started taking private lessons, then went to college, etc. The point is that I breathe differently now than I did as a sixth grader and it was not a magical 21-day fix.

I use the words “free, easy, relaxed” when I describe the breath I want to take and I am fairly successful breathing that way in my practice. However, I struggle some days when my body or my mind is tired and I find myself taking less than ideal breaths. So, I must always choose to breathe the way that I know will help me sound best, no matter how difficult or easy the decision is that day.

Test Your Product
So far, I’ve only been talking about my practice sessions, so now let’s take into account the times that I am in various settings with different levels of stress or pressure. Should I breathe differently? No. Do I? Sometimes. I know that I did for a long time and there are still situations where I have to remind myself to be free, easy, and relaxed. When I was in orchestra or brass band or playing as a soloist, I’d be more nervous, and the first thing to go was my breathing. When your breathing goes, you use more muscle. When you actively use too much muscle, fatigue sets in much faster. When fatigue sets in, your brain starts to focus on how tired you are instead of on the music. I needed more opportunities to be in a pressure situation and be able to teach myself how to breathe, think, and relax in that setting. Thank you, Mirari! I perform way more now than I have in the past few years and I plan on keeping it that way.

There is a reason we stress to our students that everyone has to perform for people. You aren’t just getting another performance under your belt, you are teaching yourself how to behave when you are performing. It gives you a chance to get worked up but still breathe and play in the same way you do in your practice. How many times have you heard someone sound amazing in their warm-up and then like a completely different player when they perform? It’s because they are not testing their product. Can you imagine if your job was to build a boat for someone and you never tested to see if it would float before you gave it to the customer? You’ve got to see if it can withstand heat, cold, crashing waves, etc. Can you say “lawsuit”?  

I was fortunate to have Krista Jobson (flute, UT-PA) as a friend while earning my doctorate in Kansas City. I remember having a dress rehearsal for my lecture recital and Krista came to watch because she couldn’t make it to the actual recital (what a kind choice she made to support me, right?). My lecture recital was on unaccompanied trumpet pieces and I was playing some of the most technically challenging music I had ever attempted in my life. Having just one person whose opinion I valued made me ridiculously nervous. I had a pretty big breakdown on the first movement of Henze’s Sonatina. I asked if I could just have some time to work a few things out and she said, “sure, should I leave?” I said, “no, I need to do this while you are here.” She patiently waited as I refocused my brain and got back to playing the trumpet the way that I can. I played again and it was exponentially better than the first time, though it made me wish I had done that months prior. Live and learn. And I have not forgotten that lesson. I play for people as much as I possibly can.

Choose to Choose
One of the important words in the aforementioned study is the word “daily.” Someone in the study decided they wanted to drink a bottle of water with lunch. That means every time they ate lunch they drank a bottle of water. There was no lunch without a bottle of water. Do we really breathe the way we need to every single time we play our instrument? If we don’t, how can we expect that it will ever be a default behavior? That is not to say that if we forget once or twice, we’re screwed, and we’ll never be able to do it, but if we spend more time breathing the way we did in high school than the way we know we should, how will we ever get there?

My thought is that we won’t ever get there. We have a choice to make every time we pick up our instruments. We are choosing to breathe well, choosing to create the best possible tone, and choosing exactly how we want every note and phrase to sound. If we focus on consistently choosing what is best, a very strange thing happens after a while (yes, my ambiguity is intentional)--you get to the point where you can’t play something incorrectly unless you really try.

This new year, I have a new outlook. I believe that we would be more successful affecting change by focusing on the process of creating the habit than on the end result. You know, “oh, I changed my life in three weeks! I am a new person.” That rarely works. Instead, commit yourself everyday to making a choice, and then choosing what is best for you will become your habit.

Cheers and here’s to good choices in 2015!