The simple act of changing your focus and becoming more aware in your flute practice has the power to silence negative self-talk and can be a real game-changer
As musicians we are taught to listen to ourselves closely and with a critical ear. Knowing the areas that we need to work on is how we improve. But we often give that critical voice a bit too much power and find ourselves littering our practice sessions with negative self-talk cunningly disguised as constructive criticism. But it’s important for our critical ear to remain non-judgemental—otherwise we actually hold back our progress with damaging self talk.
In this blog we’ll look at how non-judgemental awareness can be one of the most powerful tools against that negative self-talk and can be a complete game-changer in your flute practice. I’ll offer a couple of exercises you can try into your own practice to test this out and offer some further reading if you want to explore more!
The voice in your head
Try to think back to when you were a kid and everything was exciting and new. You would boldly try new things, and often you would fail. But that was half the fun. And you were never shy about showing others what you had learned.
My favourite example of this comes from a young 5-year-old student I once had. I had asked her to play a short piece from her beginner book. She was missing notes all over the place, and rhythms were dodgy to say the least. Halfway through the piece, she put her flute down and looked at me. Her face was full of joy and she said, “I am SO good at this!” And then went back to playing her own rendition of the song.
As we grow older we absorb and internalise ideas and attitudes around us. We learned to be critical of ourselves, which is a necessary social need. But often, we give that inner critic a bit too much power, especially when it comes to music.
We learn to cultivate a critical inner voice, which helps us improve as players. That voice often thinks it is being helpful, offering all the advice we’ve learned, but when we constantly hear that inner critic tell us where we need to improve, we can quickly start to feel daunted and frustrated with our practice sessions.
Change your focus
By redirecting your focus away from that inner critic and onto your body or the sights and sounds around you, you can begin to tune out the negative self-talk. This shift of our awareness can have profound effects on our playing.
This is one of the core principles of the Inner Game approach to playing—if you haven’t yet read Barry Green & Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Music, go read it now! In the Inner Game, awareness is used to divert the attention away from the nagging inner critic (which they call Self 1) and quiets other distractions.
How awareness can help us improve in a healthier way
Here are some of the ways that awareness can help us improve without listening to the negative self-talk.
- Just being aware of the problem can help. Sometimes we just don’t realise what’s happening. For example, if you just can’t seem to shape a phrase in a the way you wish, by playing the phrase again and really objectively tuning into what’s happening, you may realise that your vibrato is actually climaxing in the wrong place, which is an easy fix! Often, simply being aware of the issue can lead to its resolution.
- Awareness can help us notice subtle changes in our playing. Slight changes to our tone or finger technique can have massive effects on our playing and being attuned to these nuances can lead to significant improvements.
- Help us discover the root of the problem. Many times, what appears to be a surface problem in your flute playing is just a symptom of another underlying issue. For example, perhaps you feel like you’re struggling with keeping the rhythm steady and even in a run of articulated notes, but as you turn your awareness into what’s happening, you may realise that it’s actually an articulation issue. A slight disconnect between your fingers and tongue was leading to uneven rhythms.
- Awareness can allow us to accept issues. Awareness can be a way of getting to know a problem, and by giving it permission to happen, we may find it solves itself. For example, if you get the shakes before a performance, if you tune into the sensation, feeling it in your body and allowing it happen (ie not trying to force it to stop), you may find it just goes away. (It’s a bit like hiccups. The harder you try to stop them, the more painful they get, but if you just let them happen, they often go away much quicker.)
“Trying fails, awareness cures”
This is a quote from Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls, who Green quotes in the Inner Game and it has stuck with me ever since I first read the book in university. When we try too hard, we often make things more difficult than they need to be. This is applicable to everything in our lives (for example hiccups, or that time you searched everywhere for your keys, but it wasn’t until you stopped looking that you found them).
‘Trying’ comes from an anxious or frustrated place and is rooted in self-doubt. If we truly believed that we could do what we were ‘trying’ (stopping our hiccups, finding our keys fast, playing a scale), we wouldn’t feel the need to try so hard. And think about the things you know you can do, maybe like playing a C Major scale or a simple B-A-G pattern: you don’t ever have to try playing those. You just play them.
Exercise: Try walking
Try walking around your room while trying—really trying—to maintain an exact and steady rhythm. Every step to be in such precise rhythm that you could set an atomic clock to it. Keep it steady. Keep it even! Make sure you subdivide in your head (1+2+3+4+) and each one of those half-beats should be at EXACTLY the half way point between your strides. Don’t slow down! But don’t rush either! Keep it steady!
Was that surprisingly hard? Were you even able to manage a steady beat?
Now, repeat the exercise but instead of trying to stay in rhythm, listen to the rhythm your feet make as you walk. Pay attention to the physical sensation of your stride, the weight distribution between your feet, and the rhythm of your footsteps. Allow yourself to sink into the natural rhythm of your movement.
Was that much easier? And more even?
Awareness is mindfulness
If you’ve ever practice mindfulness, you might have already noticed some similarities. Mindfulness asks practitioners to be present in their bodies, to nonjudgmentally direct their wandering minds back to the present, often focusing on the breathing.
In a similar way, by tuning into our sense of awareness as we play, we’re staying present in what we do, and staying rooted in the experience. We can nonjudgmentally assess what’s happening and tune out our inner critic.