I can't remember when, exactly, I started playing an instrument, but I know it's been a while. Throughout the years, I've learned so much more than how to form an embouchure and read a treble clef. If music is about living, then here are some life lessons it has taught me.
1. Show up.
I live three blocks away from the music building and my bed is very comfortable. The idea of not doing anything constantly appeals to me. Easy mindlessness is endlessly alluring. The Resistance in me whispers how nice it would be to relax, to be able to breathe deeply without responsibility.
But for me, not showing up is what creates chaos in my life. Getting up and getting to work is the surest way to ease my anxiety and put me in a better mood.
There is nothing more important than the first step, the one that puts you into the hands of a creativity with its own gravity. Know that inertia has a light and a dark side. It can carry you through a whirlwind day of productivity, keeping you moving forward, or it can pull you to the ground and keep you there.
Take a step.
It’s the most important step you’ll ever take.
2. Get back on the horse.
Nothing festers like discouragement. Given any opportunity, it will. Don’t let it. I’ve learned to treat my instrument like a friend and never walk away angry. We tend to avoid situations which have the potential to cause us pain. If the last thing we remember about a certain task is feeling discouraged and frustrated, we won’t want to go back, afraid we’ll experience those feelings again.
Let go of that fear.
It doesn’t serve you.
Life is full of downs but that doesn’t mean you have to submit to them. You are in control.
Each time I get frustrated with my instrument, I remind myself threefold of things there are to love about playing it. The feeling of standing up after a solo. Learning a new technique. Finally getting that passage up to speed. While I never push myself to the point of practicing poorly or unproductively, I also do my utmost to find something to learn from - something good - in the midst of the frustration. If I let go of my discouragement and find something positive about my practice session, I can start with a clean slate the next time I sit down with my instrument.
3. It is easier to grow than it is to recede.
One of my favorite (and least favorite) exercises on my oboe involves finding the extremes of my dynamic range. I’ll put on my metronome and gradually move through a scale note-by-note, finding my softest and loudest volumes on each pitch. I give myself 8 seconds on each note to stretch myself through my widest dynamic range, controlling either a crescendo or a diminuendo.
What I have discovered is that getting gradually louder is always easier than becoming gradually softer.
There are two sides to this lesson:
First, that life isn’t always about being the loudest, the most powerful, or the strongest. It isn’t always about being seen. It takes incredible discipline to know when to back off, when to take things easy. Acknowledging that softening is the most difficult part of any process was an integral breakthrough for me, both in my personal life and in my musical practice.
Secondly: Allow yourself to grow. Let go and reach for it.
4. Strength ebbs and flows.
I am the first to admit that I am not always in tip-top shape when it comes to my musical abilities. As much as I want to have perfect endurance, intonation, and musicality all the time, I know that achieving that is impossible. Improvement involves rest. Getting better demands messing up – a lot.
I have been to weekend-long events where I have been in the zone 100% of the time. At these events, I rise to the challenge. I play exactly how I want to play; everything comes together seemingly without effort. The feeling is exhilarating.
Yet when I come home and get out my instrument for a standard practice of scales, etudes, and exercises, I find myself falling short. I feel like I can’t do anything right. Everything seems off. I become frustrated and discouraged very quickly. How can I be on top of the world one moment, and bottom out the next?
The reality is that I am just tired. The body and the mind need time to rest and recover. I have learned that while you never run out of creativity, it may present itself in different ways. Sometimes it flows easily; sometimes it offers more of a challenge.
Each ebb and flow connects to the other, creating a gradually rising pattern. Lows do not remain at the same level throughout time. They rise, just as the highs do. With this, I remember that every movement forward is progress, no matter what it may feel like.
Musical expression requires contrast.
Light and dark. Soft and angular. Quiet and loud.
But it also requires balance and blend.
Something may be light and dark, angular yet still soft, and quiet with a powerful presence.
In an orchestra, it is my job to find a balance with the other musicians on stage. I must find a place in the fabric of the music in which to situate myself. Sometimes I come out of the texture for a moment, yet other times I retreat and find comfort and beauty in the collective.
Playing an instrument is about finding balance within and without. It’s about finding the edge yet still being comfortable, about pushing boundaries and adopting new styles. But it’s also about finding time to breathe between activities, learning to respect your body, and developing an appreciation for every moment of creativity offered to you.
6. There is always more air.
I have held one note for 60 seconds and still managed to find breath in my lungs to exhale when I was finished.
Lungs are incredible organs. They carry a reserve of air in the body at all times and stay inflated even when exhaling. Playing the oboe has taught me that I will never run out of steam. My air is always there for me, waiting, filling my body as it fills the space around me. If my music is made from air, then the music has found a home inside lungs that will never fail me.
The attached image was taken at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, PA. It truly warms my heart that my favorite sculptor and one of my favorite composers were acquaintances and that they grew to appreciate each other's art.