12 Months of Practicing: April/May

12 Months of Practicing: April/May

If you’ve seen my most recent video, you know that it was almost exclusively about burnout, specifically how I experienced it during April & May of 2019. When I made that video, I felt very ashamed of myself for not having worked harder or having been more resilient in the face of hardship. I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted in any respect, and I would have been much more comfortable never admitting that to anyone and pretending everything was fine. When you’re in the throes of something negative, it’s easy to 1) not look at your situation objectively, and 2) forget about the times you felt a lot worse. And I realized that is exactly what I was doing when I was feeling ashamed about experiencing burnout. The truth is, compared to April & May of last year (which was an extremely difficult time for me professionally), I am doing super great now!

So what’s the difference? And if I felt burned out both years, why does it matter? Well, while it would be great to say, “Hey there, I have a cure for burnout! Just do the thing you need to do and stop complaining. Also, no one cares if you’re tired or depressed. Repeat every day. Solved it!” obviously this isn’t realistic or an actual solution, unless you’re willing to work yourself to death. And actually, I think it does matter that I’m doing better now than I was last year, even if I experienced burnout both times. The way I felt a year ago was truly awful. It didn’t just affect me while it was happening, but for months afterwards as well (spoiler alert: I practiced for 0 days in June 2018. Zero.). It took me a long time to recover from the hard work I put into my professional life at that time, not only because it was not rewarding, but because having my work end up ultimately becoming so de-valued made me feel worthless as a musician and as a human being.

What I’ve realized is that a year ago, I gave other people agency with my career. Now, I am not willing to do that anymore. I do things that I care about. Do they make money? No, so I still have to freelance and take gigs that I may or may not enjoy. But that’s okay, because I have projects of my own now that give me life. They make me feel like I have something to offer, and like I have control over something I care about. And this is the main difference between this year and last, and why I am not as burned out this year as I was last year.

Here’s the thing: I’m not going to pretend like this is a magic solution that will make everything better for everyone. Having something of my own to care about does not mean that I don’t get tired, or that I magically like working and am practicing every day because the only thing I needed to do was just FIND MY PASSION. But in my experience, having my own projects to work on makes my professional life feel more manageable, more tolerable, and gives me hope. It makes me feel like I have something to be proud of, to look forward to, to work towards...and it all comes from me. No one is making me do anything I don’t want to do. And that is when I feel my best.

12 Months of Practicing: March

12 Months of Practicing: March

I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been putting this off, and I think it’s because this is not such an easy thing to talk about. In my March video for 12 Months of Practicing, I mention feeling like I’ve worked really hard the whole month but still felt like it wasn’t enough. Now I will talk about this experience in a little more detail.

I had a lot of performances in March and I didn’t feel ready for any of them. I felt behind from the beginning. That doesn’t mean the performances didn’t go well, definitely some of them did. Maybe all of them. But sometimes I feel like I’m playing catch-up when it comes to cello* and it’s just too hard to get to where I want/need to be.

*Let me take a minute right now to describe what is happening as I am writing this. My inner voice is reacting to the statement I just made like, “Oh sure, person who started playing cello when she was 6 years old, came from a musical family, was forced to practice and had the best teachers. Yes, please keep telling me about how behind you feel.” While any other day when I’m preparing for something, my inner voice will tell me, “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re behind because you didn’t practice enough ever in your entire life, you wasted your time with your amazing teachers, and you can’t do anything really well so why bother trying? Just admit that you’ll never be at the level you want to be at and therefore you’ll never be truly prepared for this performance.” To me this seems like clear evidence that my inner voice is not as logical as it pretends to be. All it is doing is using the situation to figure out my worst fear and tell it to me like it is an inarguable fact. My inner voice is manipulative and will say anything with the goal of making me feel bad. This contradiction I’ve just noticed is proving to me at this very moment that I don’t need to wonder if maybe my inner voice is right. It’s just trying to make me feel less than, and I don’t need to listen to that. Easier said than done, but I think this is a step in the right direction.

Anyway, I want to share a story about a specific pre-concert experience that I find particularly upsetting to recall. This was on the last day of March, on my way to a performance that I had tried my very best to prepare for but still felt like I wasn’t ready. This wasn’t the first time this month I had felt this way, but for various reasons this time felt the worst. These were pieces I had never played before, so there was no vague familiarity or barely-coming-to-the-surface muscle memory I could rely on. Also, I was playing with new people, who already knew each other but didn’t know me. I already know from past experiences that I have a hard time feeling comfortable in those situations and that’s my own issue. These musicians were nice and extremely professional, and yet it was hard for me not to feel like the third wheel. They were also both really good, so that’s intimidating. They had just come from a concert at Carnegie Hall, playing almost all the same repertoire but with a different cellist who I was essentially replacing for this concert. Often I find situations like that invigorating, because regardless of my inner voice I sincerely believe in my ability to prove myself. But in this case...something felt wrong. I had played too many concerts in a row that I didn’t feel totally prepared for even though I had worked hard for those performances. I was finding these new people hard to read, and therefore hard to tell if I was having any luck connecting with them, either musically or personally. So on the last day of March, the day of the performance, I drove to Reisterstown feeling pretty down and not knowing what to do about it.

I’m not typically an anxious person, but of course I have done my fair share of catastrophizing (an anxiety-related behavior which involves not being able to stop imagining worst-case scenarios for any given situation). I try to distract myself by putting on the local pop music station but I can’t help it. I’m unable to think about anything except the seemingly inevitable total humiliation I am driving to. It truly feels awful. And so I start thinking about driving my car into a tree. Not very seriously, but not NOT seriously. Obviously I don’t do this. But then I really started to realize how messed up this is. Where did these thoughts come from? Why do I even consider the possibility that it might be better to put my life at risk than to give a bad performance? People think I am lucky to get to do what I love for a living, and they are right. What they don’t realize is that it is not easy to be part of a profession that determines your value by how good you are at what you do. And if you’re not good enough, you lose your value. And if you have no value, you are nothing.

I want to reassure anyone reading this that the way I felt that day is extremely rare for me (unfortunately I don’t think that’s always the case for everyone). And also, the concert went fine. No total humiliation. Which goes to show that our assumptions about ourselves, our abilities, and the outcomes of high-pressure situations like concerts are clearly not objective. Just like my inner voice. For some reason, our brain uses our worst fears to frighten us, thinking it is protecting us from harm but instead often causes harm instead. It’s not always easy to remember that, especially not in the moment, but reminding myself of this helps me move forward and keep trying. Hopefully it might help you too.

12 Months of Practicing: February

12 Months of Practicing: February

I am posting this much later than I would like, but I am reminding myself that late is better than never. The funny thing is, I’ve neglected my writing for so long that I have decided to not let myself practice until I get this done. Ironic, but effective.

The topic from my February video that I’d like to expand upon is negative self-talk, which came up because I was judging myself harshly for not having done as well in February as I did in January. A lot of issues stem from the perfectionism I cited in my first post, and negative self-talk is definitely one of them. One of the side effects of perfectionism is constant comparison - between you and your heroes, between you and your peers, and even between present you and past you. For example, I was not only comparing the present February 2019 me with past January 2019 me, but also with past February 2018 me. This is objectively not a bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing that I have raw data on my practicing not only from a month ago, but from a year ago as well. Data helps us improve where we want to improve. Data shows us patterns that we can learn from, helps us find our baseline level so that we can make our goals realistic instead of abstract, and clears up any misunderstandings about whether we are doing more or less than we think we are. It has been incredibly useful to me during this project to have data on my practicing from the whole year of 2018. Specifically, I kept track of three things:

  1. The total number of days I practiced each month

  2. The total number of hours I practiced each month

  3. The longest unbroken streak of days I practiced each month

All of that was a long way of saying that, when trying to improve something in your life, collecting data is a great way to help yourself know which direction to go, or which area needs the most attention. The problem only occurs when we assign moral value to the data, aka calling the results “good” or “bad.” We all do this in many areas of our life.

“I was really good today, I didn’t eat any sugar!”

“I’m so bad, I haven’t practiced this piece at all.”

“I promise I will be good today and go to the gym.”

“I know it’s bad, but I don’t want to do anything today except stay in bed and watch Netflix.”

There are other variations on this theme, but you get the point. Data is inherently objective, but we humans are not. We are inherently emotional and judgemental, and it is difficult to look at data that doesn’t reflect a 100% success rate without coming to a conclusion about what that means about us as a person. What does it mean about me that I practiced for 25 total days in January and only 16 days in February? 16 is less than 25, so that means I am doing worse. And if I am doing worse, that means I’m doing a bad job. And if I’m doing a bad job, that means I am bad. And if I am bad, that means...what? That the best way to make myself do better next time is to berate myself about being bad? To joke outwardly about being bad but inwardly feel guilty and less than? Will that make me good? Will that make me do better next time?

NO! NONONONONONONONONO. NO. No. Here’s a more constructive way to look at the data and navigate the inevitable self-talk about it: In January I practiced 25 times total. In February I practiced 16 times total. 16 is less than 25. Yes there are less days in the month of February than in January, but the ratio does not match. 25/31 amounts to about 80%, and 16/28 is around 57%, which means there’s been a 23% drop in my output. This is the opposite of what I want, so let’s explore why this has happened.

  1. February was much busier than January in terms of gigs, and resulted in a much less regular schedule.

  2. Having a busy and irregular schedule is stressful and hard to plan around.

  3. Being stressed out often results in feeling overwhelmed.

  4. Feeling overwhelmed often results in me hiding in bed.

Because I lead a freelancer life, the irregular schedule is not going to go away. The busyness comes and goes, but I’ll never have a regular 9-5 I can work with (and I don’t want one!). This means that instead of hoping for a less stressful time, I need to find a way to work with what I know is my life. I need to accept that this is the way my life is, and find a way to optimize it. What are good ways to do this that I can immediately put into practice?

  1. PLAN AHEAD. This is hard for me, not because I am disorganized, but because I always end up resenting whatever plan I’ve come up with for myself, or because I get discouraged if things don’t go according to the plan I’ve created and then it all feels chaotic and pointless. But the data shows that not planning ahead doesn’t help my output, and my experience shows that not planning ahead does not help me feel better - it in fact does the opposite.

  2. PLAN AHEAD BEFORE IT GETS STRESSFUL. Also hard for me. When I’m less busy I’m not as hard on myself, because I still feel like I have time to get everything done. But when I’m busier, I start to feel out of control, but the problem is I don’t have a plan, and then my brain says “WELL you’d feel MUCH better if you were doing meditating/exercising/cooking/practicing/cleaning/ emails/friends/family/love, but it’s too late now!!! You have no time to do any of these things so there’s no point in starting! I’ll just make you feel guilty about it all the time instead because you know it’s something you should do AND it would help you but you can’t do it all because you’re too busy!!! Let’s stay in this feedback loop forever!!! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!”

  3. PLAN AHEAD BUT DON’T BE UPSET WHEN LIFE DOESN’T GO ACCORDING TO THE PLAN. This might be the hardest one of all. One of my colleagues has pointed out to me a few times that I like to be in control. At first I resisted this characterization, but then I thought, “who am I kidding?” and accepted it. It’s hard for me to remember that just because nothing went according to the plan I made does not mean that making a plan is pointless. Having a plan while also being flexible means my brain can function better, and that makes it easier to get back on the wagon the next day.

As you can see, instead of spiraling into a self-loathing destructive wormhole of sadness and not-good-enough-ness, looking objectively at data and coming to conclusions about it gave me information about how I might be able to improve. All I have to do now is put those conclusions into practice, gather more data, reevaluate based on the new information, and repeat. Why wasn’t I taught this in school? No one I know was taught to look at practicing objectively like this. I was definitely never taught that practicing could be viewed as data to collect, observe, and then used as a tool for improvement. Which is why I am learning now, writing it down, and sharing it with you. Don’t let your own negative self-talk and perfectionism talk you into feeling like a failure for not doing what you want to do. Collect data, and see those times you are inclined to feel disappointed in as opportunities to figure out how you can make it easier on yourself to do what you want to do.

Thank you so much for reading! I’ll be catching up and posting another one of these next week along with my overdue March video - see you then!

Introducing 12 Months of Practicing!

Introducing 12 Months of Practicing!

This post is to let everyone know about a year-long project I’ve started called 12 Months of Practicing! I’ll be posting one video on YouTube every month for 12 months, summarizing my journey with practicing throughout 2019. Click here to watch my first video of the year!

In 2018 I participated in the social media movement #100daysofpracticing on Instagram, but had to cut it short because I realized that social media was not a positive influence in my life. Of course, once I quit Instagram, I lost the accountability of #100daysofpracticing and fell off the wagon immediately. Looking back at the total number of days/hours I had practiced in 2018, I felt guilty, but then I realized that by gathering those statistics I had given myself a gift. The data made it clear that my longest streak of practicing happened in February, which was the same month I participated in #100daysofpracticing. So I thought, why not figure out a way to do it again, but without using social media and for a longer period of time?

This is where 12 Months of Practicing comes in. I’ve come up with this system not only to keep myself accountable, but also to explore the baggage I carry around when it comes practicing. My goal is to make this process relatable not only to other musicians, but also to anyone who struggles to consistently do the thing they know they need to do.

I’ve also decided to write a companion post on my website to go with each video. The idea is to expand on things that I mention in the video but don’t have the opportunity to discuss at length. In this case, I want to follow up on two things: 1) the fact that I’ve never practiced consistently, and 2) the impact that toxic practicing culture had on me as a young musician.

Whether you’re a musician or not, you’ve at least heard the saying, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” Carnegie Hall is one of the best music performance halls in the world, and the message objectively makes sense - if you want to play in the best hall, you need to be the best. In order to do that, you have to work as hard as you can, which means practicing as much as you can.

Here’s the issue that creates baggage for musicians, right from the beginning: we are all taught to have the highest expectations of ourselves. To be a perfectionist is the only way to become the best. But every day we don’t practice, we lose time, and there already isn’t enough time. Maybe if you start when you’re 3 years old you’ll be okay, but if you start later than that there is already a deficit, and it gets bigger every year you wait. I started cello when I was 6 years old, but most kids in my public school system in Seattle were introduced to instruments when they were 9 or 10, which is on the late side. Think of all the work they’ll have to do to keep up with the 4-year-olds who already have a year of practicing on them. And if you dare to start even later than 10? Forget about it, unless you’re ready to work your ass off to catch up with everyone else. We are conditioned to think that we have never practiced enough, that we have started with a deficit, and that the only thing we can do to get out of it is to make our whole life about practicing and to do it as much as possible. If you can handle this kind of pressure, you might end up at a conservatory. That’s when things really get good.

We all know 18-year-olds can be judgmental jerks. So imagine the pressure I’ve already described, and then imagine if the negative voice you have in your head was personified by your immediate group of peers. Add those two things together, and now you know what it’s like to be at a conservatory. If you’re not a musician, a conservatory is basically going to music university, the point being to major in your instrument, take lessons, and practice all day (with some other musical extracurriculars like orchestra, and basic humanities classes that almost no one takes seriously). Once you are there, it is hard not to believe that the whole point of your existence is 1) to compare yourself as a musician to everyone else, and 2) to have others compare you to everyone at the school who plays the same instrument as you. This is an enormous amount of pressure that everyone is expected to just deal with privately. The question “How much did you practice?” is asked incessantly (with implicit and sometimes explicit judgement about the answers), probably because practicing is the only thing that anyone can really control. You can’t control how talented you are, and you definitely can’t control how talented other people are.

My experience with this toxic practicing culture made me feel like there were two options. I could make my whole life about practicing, neglecting my physical health and my mental health, not to mention my studies. Or the other option…rebel. Choose NOT to make my life about practicing. Do other things. Read. Watch TV. Be in love. Take classes about non-musical subjects. Be friends with people who aren’t musicians. Go to the gym (a subject for another time). This is the path I chose, and because I was an arrogant, judgmental, 18-year-old jerk just like everyone else, I took pride in the fact that I could get by without practicing. The short-term gains were great. People were jealous because I got to say that I barely practiced, but I still got to have amazing performance opportunities. It wasn’t fair.

And yet. The long-term results of this rebellion were: stasis (if you don’t practice, you don’t get better), and an inability to make myself want to practice, because I had spent years being rewarded for not practicing. Lots of questioning and feeling sorry for myself ensued: Why is it harder now? Life is unjust. Time to hide in bed and avoid practicing. All of this compounded the problem, resulting in a turbulent cycle of not practicing, feeling guilty, making grand proclamations about practicing every day for 5 hours for the rest of my life, failing on the first day, feeling overwhelmed, hiding in bed, and starting over.

I finished my conservatory studies five-and-a-half years ago, and only now am I learning how to deal with the pressure and baggage of practicing, how to set reasonable goals for myself, how to have my own voice as a musician and artist without comparing myself to others, and how to be kind to myself when I don’t live up to my perfectionistic expectations.

I hope to explore all of this and more this year, and invite you to join me! If you saw my video or read this post and found any of it helpful or cathartic, that’s awesome and it means so much to me. Thank you for your time, and please come back in March for the next installment(s) of 12 Months of Practicing!

The Beauty of the Protest

The Beauty of the Protest

“I wanted people to see the beauty of the protest”
-Devin Allen, Baltimore photographer whose photos of the 2015 Uprising inspired Judah Adashi to write The Beauty of the Protest.

Today is a day filled with mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, my husband and I are both experiencing professional success, achieving things that have been on our want-to-accomplish list for some time now. Together, we are releasing a recording of a piece that he wrote for me called The Beauty of the Protest for singing cellist. Also happening today is an extremely important event that Judah runs called RiseBmore, that I am proud to play a small part in this year. These are wonderful successes that we both worked very hard to accomplish.
On the other hand, the reason this day is significant is not actually because of our release, or because of RiseBmore. In fact, neither the piece nor the event would even exist if the Baltimore Uprising of 2015 hadn’t happened. And the whole reason the Uprising happened is because two years ago today, Freddie Gray died. And all of this, ultimately, is about and because of him. 
I never knew Freddie Gray, but we were both born in 1989. He would have turned 28 this year a few weeks before I did, if he were still alive. He’ll never know that people marched for him, that people chanted his name on the streets of Baltimore. My husband wrote his name in his piece, and I sing it, but he will never know either of us.

In The Beauty of the Protest, Judah brilliantly deconstructs the chant “all night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray,” quoting directly from the Uprising itself. One of the ways to keep fighting is to remember him. Judah has done that by writing this piece, and I have taken part by playing and singing it. Now that I have sung those words, I will never forget that I have to keep fighting. The best outcome of this piece is that it becomes irrelevant - a historical artifact, after the true end of the danger Black Men and Women face every day. Unfortunately our country is not even close to that point yet, so we have to keep fighting, and remembering.

It is important to note that The Beauty of the Protest is as much about and inspired by the city of Baltimore as it is about Freddie Gray. I am not a Baltimore native. I love this city more and more every year that I live here. It is a raw, unusual, and beautiful place unlike any other - I have done my best to represent that in the way I play and sing this piece.

P.S. I have no interest in telling anyone how to listen to a piece of music, but I want to say a few words about how I approached this one because it is the first recording I’ve ever made of myself singing and playing at the same time:
I always wondered why Judah decided it should be for singing cellist, instead of a singer and a cellist - why one person instead of two? Judah will tell you that it’s because he loves hearing me sing in the house and he wanted to write for my voice, which is very sweet, but I’m not a singer. My thought, though, is that it would feel wrong for this piece to be played by two people - it isn’t chamber music, and it’s also not a piece for solo singer with cello accompaniment. I find this dichotomy to be incredibly important to my interpretation of the piece. There is struggle, and there is ease. There is light and there is dark. There is the chant of many being sung by one. There is, as Devin Allen says, beauty in the protest.