Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Bellies, Sausage Fingers, and John Psathas (but not how you think)

Anxious me had a list of ways that pregnancy would completely mess with my playing and thus my self, proof that I expected the worst as the reason for the lack of photographic evidence of others performing while expecting.  Doesn't mean they didn't, but wondering about it did fuel my fears of the journey into motherhood.  (And explains why I intentionally posted videos of performances with a baby belly! Proof!!)

I figured I'd have a belly that bumped bars from time to time, fingers that would be bigger than normal, and a back that would ache.  Spoiler alert: I did. 
There was nothing to do but laugh and go with it as little boy decided to take up core real estate.

1. Bumper Belly

This one I saw coming. It took about 7 months, but it definitely happened. Goodbye, accidentals; hello, surprise muffling of bars.
But it was a great way to break awkward tension in lessons. So there's that.  

2. Bye, Bye Balance

They tell you that things like riding a bike or climbing a ladder are dangerous while pregnant due to the change in weight distribution, ergo loss of balance. They should add playing vibraphone to that list. 
They should also add putting on socks and walking down stairs to that list.

L+M Duo rehearsed John Psathas' Happy Tachyons when I was about 7.5 months pregnant. I had to play vibes and marimba at the same time and switch quickly between them. Even in passages my hands could play, the rest of me, from my tummy to my feet, couldn't get it together. I kept nearly falling over.  It was a...grounding...experience.

3. A Heavy but Absent Core

You know how tugboats drag around giant cruise ships? That's what it felt like watching my hands drag the rest of me across the marimba.  Usually I rely on my abs and back to move and support my upper body, but when your abs are stretched thin and your center is 30 pounds heavier than normal, turns out you don't go anywhere fast: behind a marimba or otherwise.

A colleague drove by me one day during a run/walk somewhere during month 6.  I saw him the next day at the university:
Him: I saw you running yesterday! Good for you!!
Me: Tugboating. You saw me tugboating yesterday. 

4. Sausage Fingers

During the last month of pregnancy my fingers were so swollen that I couldn't play any instrument for longer than 30 minutes at a time.  I wore a ring [that's usually far too big] as a gauge: once it felt tight, I knew I had to stop, lest I be cursed with astronaut hands the rest of the day. 

5. Loose Ligaments

There's a hormone called relaxin that releases in order to prepare implantation as well as relax the ligaments around your pelvis and hips to prepare for birth.  The problem is it doesn't ONLY go to those places: it goes EVERYWHERE.  For marimba hands, this meant that I had to work extra hard to get my fingers to do what I wanted them to do. Gripping the mallets was more challenging, and certain repertoire just didn't feel good to play.  

L+M pulled our first piece from a program while I was pregnant: Happy Tachyons.  It was simply too technically demanding for my super-loose fingers.  My wrists were trying to compensate, which meant I got sore super fast.  Lucky for me, M was understanding even though she was killing her part.  I plan on redeeming myself this fall!

6. Achy Back

Find a pregnant woman whose back didn't hurt, right?  

If you can get through a marimba concert pregnant with a screaming back, you can do it on any regular day!

7. Baby Brain

Before becoming a parent I giggled at the absentmindedness of those with young families. Now I get it, and I want to send them all cookie bouquets for managing to even partly have their lives put together.  
It's strange how it feels like a chunk of my brain was simply replaced.  But not with obsessive worry or facts about infant health. It was replaced with joy and extra happiness. 

It feels important to say that having a baby doesn't destroy the work you've put into your playing, but it does change it for a little while. 

Having my son helped me see that playing well matters, but doesn't have the same gravity as other things.  

He has helped me realize that everything has its place in how I view the world, with the level of my playing positioned in a way that allows me to care deeply about it without obsessively comparing myself to who I think I should be versus who I am.  

That - and the departure of sausage fingers - feels really good.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

19 Summer Reading Ideas

Ah, summer. For those of us in academia it means time to work for yourself, and that includes feeding the mind literary goodness.  For when you're in the mood for word food, here are some ideas. 

Hyperlinks will take you to an excerpt on Google Books, if there is one.

About Percussion

The Percussionist's Art, by Steven Schick
Sticking it Out, by Patti Niemi
When the Drummers were Women, by Layne Redmond
Drumming at the Edge of Magic, by Mickey Hart and Jay Stevens
The Girl in the Back: A Female Drummer's Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the 70's Rock Scene, by Laura Davis-Chanin
Keiko Abe: A Virtuosic Life, by Rebecca Kite

About Artistry

Creativity, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Flow, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron
Walking in this World, by Julia Cameron
Finding Water, by Julia Cameron
Leonardo's Brain, by Leonard Shlain

About the Self

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
Notes to Myself, by Hugh Prather
The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton
Art is a Way of Knowing, by Pat B. Allen
The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin
This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin
Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, by Robert Jourdain

This is by no means exhaustive, so if you have a favorite, please leave it in the comments!

Friday, January 12, 2018

6 Ways to be Kind to Your Musical Self

Have a Project for You

Amid everything else going on professionally, academically, and personally, have a passion project that is for you.  It's a project that you can pour your interest, creativity, and energy into when that uneasy feeling strikes.  You know the feeling - the one that says "you're doing a lot of things, and you're active, but we both know that it's not feeding you." When that voice appears, it's time to dig in to your passion project.

It could be performance related, maybe a new piece you want to pursue.  
It could be a composition you've been drafting.  
It could be reading about a composer you've discovered and want to know more about.  
It could be your love of photography, videography, visual art...anything.  
Chances are, you already have an idea and just haven't started.  


Have a YOU Practice

There are certain fields that take an extraordinary amount of dedication to find success, and music is certainly one of them (not like I needed to tell you that).  The flip side of our ability to focus is that we can neglect ourselves for a significant amount of time until the self says, "Hey! What about me?!" in the form of depression, panic attacks, malaise, fatigue, illness, or a host of other things.  

We can't separate our musical selves from our complete selves: it's one of the reasons we choose to communicate emotion to the public.  Enjoy some self-care in the form of nurturing your mind, spirit, body, or heart, whichever speaks to you most fervently.  It can be making time to read, meditate, exercise, or call family or a long-distance friend.  

Sometimes "No" is the Right Answer

Overcommitment is one of the most common errors musicians make.  We simply say yes to too many projects, never knowing which one will be the one that "lands" and provides a long-term avenue for fulfillment - financial and artistic.  There's a time when saying yes to everything makes sense, like when you're trying to break into a new scene in a new place, but there's also a time when you have to start saying no for self-preservation. 

A proposed opportunity or activity should meet at least one of your needs: artistic, professional, social, or financial.  If it doesn't, it could be best to say no.  If you've played months of short, non-fulfilling gigs, presenting a concert of new music with friends could be artistically and socially needed.  If you're feeling particularly down about status, then aiming for - and saying yes to - any kind of professional opportunity can meet your needs.  

A danger of overcommitment is a decrease in quality in your performance.  We have to check and balance our level of activity with our ability to perform at that level well.  If you are so busy you're screwing up, you're just showing that to more and more people, right? It could be time to say no.

Mentally Practice/Score Study

When we start something new, it's really hard to get rid of that first practice sound.  If there's not a specific direction in mind, whatever comes out of the instrument will get stuck in our ears as the default sound of the piece and be really, really hard to get rid of. 

Absorb, wonder, and answer your own questions from the comforts of home, your favorite coffee shop, or a nice nook in the library.  Analyzing and digesting a piece away from an instrument often cues how to play it, and can put a sound in your ear before that first practice session.  

Think Long and Short Term

There's two ways to think of this: 1 - thinking/planning ahead in 5yr, 1yr, and smaller increments, and 2 - to be kind to your future self by working hard now.

On Thinking and Planning Ahead
It can be hard to think about a goal for 5 years from now when it feels like you can barely keep your head above water in the present.  But perhaps a farther goal can help you discern when to say no to certain things.  

Some goals, like building an interesting and active website, could take a year.  Others, like wanting to become a famous soloist, will take longer, much longer than 5 years.  You need to develop technique, win competitions, make recordings, find a niche that aligns with your passions, etc. Some of those steps can be 1yr goals that can only be met by smaller assignments made on a long term basis. 

Be Kind to Your Future Self by Working Hard Now
This one's for the procrastinators out there, myself included.  Though I don't procrastinate in a commitment that involves others, if I'm booked for a solo performance I sometimes wait too long to decide what to play or start working on the piece.  It's a problem because I know that I learn music quickly, so I know that I can do it; but I'm also going to be incredibly stressed and mostly unlikable during the process. 

I've realized that it's a kindness to my future self to not procrastinate, as a means to keep a balanced stress level.  It's a kindness to our future selves to work hard now.  It's a kindness to the abilities of your future self to make sure you develop great reading skills now.  It's a kindness to your future self, who will need employment, to attend the classes and develop the skills now.  

Get Quiet

Getting quiet doesn't have to mean anything formal, but it does mean for a short period of time to block out the needs and requests of others, turn off the screens, and put aside the studious self.  You can get quiet in your office between appointments, in a practice room between classes, or even at an uncrowded bar to enjoy a drink just for yourself.  In grad school my favorite place for quietude was in the courtyard at the Boston Public Library.  It was quiet and nobody knew I was there aside from other strangers who I can only assume were in search of the same quiet I was.

The main idea is that for a short while no information comes in and no information goes out. You just get to be for a minute and enjoy it.  The cleanse provided by these quiet moments makes room for creativity and music, and makes it possible to focus on the demands of meaningful performance.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Fall 2017 - as L+M Duo and co-founder of PercussionMind

Premiering Reef, by Jason Haney, at the Contemporary Music Festival

This fall has been a completely new adventure.  Not necessarily the events within it, but managing them while going through the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy.  In most cases, it posed no extra challenges, but in others...phew!...more on that in a different post! 

L+M Duo

In addition to my teaching at JMU, L+M Duo had an active start to its second season, featuring a premiere at JMU's Contemporary Music Festival (CMF), a new program at Virginia Tech University, and a residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where we workshopped and recorded 8 student compositions.  

I also performed Christos Hatzis' Fertility Rites at CMF, a piece I booked long before having any inclination I'd be almost 8 months pregnant during the performance.  At this time I could still maneuver behind a marimba pretty well!

I also presented a masterclass at Virginia Tech for the entire School of Music, all about using personal observation as a means to prevent injury.  I think some are too quick to jump straight to manipulative methods to relieve symptoms without addressing the cause, so it's become a passion of mine to help guide young musicians to examine their playing with curiosity to find those causes. 


Revealed at PASIC 2017, PercussionMind is a project over a year in the making.  It's now live on the web:, and represents another interest and passion of mine - understanding one's self in order to make decisions and proceed in directions that are congruent with personal habits and natural tendencies.  Mike Cerreto, my co-founder, was instrumental in the success and validity of the project.  He even flew to Indianapolis to unveil the study with me in our session.

Even now, after revealing the results, we are still actively inspecting ways to make the study even more in-depth and personally meaningful to those who come in contact with it.  There's an exciting new development in the works with The Highlands Ability Battery, but that's all I can say about that for now! 


In the teaching and accompaniment realms, this semester (thankfully) fit expectations.  I taught the number of students needed for the percussion studio, but I did scale back accompaniment activities, simply because I had no idea how I'd be feeling towards December, which is when coachings and recitals always ramp up. 

Luckily, I haven't dealt with extreme wrist swelling or tendonitis as a result of pregnancy, something that women who aren't musicians often complain about! I figure this is because I practiced regularly and when technical demands of a piece did start to cause pain, I worked through them slowly or, in the case of Happy Tachyons by John Psathas, I had to admit that I needed to postpone performance.  A great amount of pride can be gleaned from pushing through for all obligations, but is it worth it if you injure yourself in the long run?

 This post seems so short, but in the midst of the semester it felt so busy!  Many pieces learned, lessons taught, and projects completed. The @ percussion podcast is still going strong; we just released our 126th episode!  We've managed to not miss a week in our 2 years of existence, and that's the goal for the immediate future.  

For now, the next big projects are completing arrangements for L+M, editing audio and video, and having a baby at some point in the first half of January. Standard fare. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Marimba Body: Aching Elbows

As we gear up for fall and the concert season ahead, whether as a student, professor, or touring artist, it's a good time to reflect on our technical habits.  For those that took time off over the summer, there's the process of re-integrating hours of practice. For those that are preparing entire new programs (ehhem...yours truly), there's the challenge of not rushing through the learning process, mentally and physically. 

Throughout my time writing the Marimba Body series, folks have approached me with different questions of "do you have anything about ___?"  Coming up a few times is the issue of elbow pain - what it is, how we get it, and how to heal and then prevent it. 

Here's what I've learned, experienced, and found.

Three Common Pain Areas

Most commonly, percussionists experience elbow pain:
- on the outside of the elbow (lateral epicondylitis, aka: tennis elbow)
- on the inside of the elbow (medial epicondylitis, aka: golfer's elbow)
- at the back of the elbow (posterior impingement or triceps tendonitis)

Lateral Epicondylitis

Symptoms: tenderness and perhaps pain around the lateral epicondyle (bony bit outside the elbow);
          weakness when gripping small objects, such as mallets;
          weakness and tenderness when supinating the forearm (rotating outwards, as in to play mallet 2 or 3)

Causes: excessive use of the forearm that strains muscles;
          repetitive twisting of the wrist and forearm

Related to activities like writing, typing, playing instruments (guitar, violin, percussion, etc), painting, racquet sports (especially backhands)

Definition: inflammation at the attachment of the Extensor carpi radialis brevis (the muscle that extends the wrist, ie: during an upstroke) and humerus at the lateral epicondyle

Healing: go easy, and don't try to "play through" the ache, as it could result in a tear, as the drawing above shows;
          ice the area if it helps;
          apply a compression wrap

Awareness and Prevention: pay close attention to tightening the elbow during passages of tremolos, quick tempi, and large leaps - pause and relax the area before playing the passage again, focusing on a different physical sensation in the elbow than the time before

Medial Epicondylitis

Symptoms: slow-growing tenderness and pain at the medial epicondyle (bony bit on the inside of the elbow);
          pain while pronating the wrist (using the inside mallet on a surface too low for your height);
          tenderness during wrist flexion;
          numbness in 4th and 5th fingers

Causes: gripping a small object for long period of time (like mallets or sticks);
          repetitive wrist flexion

Related to activities like golfing, maxing-out with free weights, rock climbing, squeezing and rotating an object (ie: doorknob)

Definition: inflammation at the attachment of Flexor pronator muscles and humerus at the medial epicondyle

Healing: take a break from the painful activity;
          ice the area if it helps;
          begin therapeutic stretches and exercises as soon as possible

Awareness and Prevention: pay close attention to holding mallets or sticks tighter than necessary;
          when working on fast finger strokes, focus on a relaxed elbow and neutral shoulder

Posterior Impingement

Symptoms: pain and tenderness at the back of the elbow when the arm straightens;
          sensitivity to touch at the back of the elbow

Causes: activities that repetitively straighten the elbow while adding sideways pressure

Related to activities like pitching, martial arts, repetitive throwing, locking elbows during planks, or reaching for a note in an upper or lower octave from the elbow instead of the center of the body

Definition: compression and damage to soft tissues at the back of the elbow due to excessive extension

Healing: take a break from the painful activity;
          begin therapeutic stretches and exercises as soon as possible     
*Unlike the other injuries, posterior impingement is usually not damage to a tendon, and may take longer to heal.
Awareness and Prevention: take care that the instrument is the correct height;
          in sports activities, keep a slight bend in the elbow to prevent hyperextension

Triceps Tendonitis

Symptoms: pain at the back of the elbow when pushing against resistance;
          back of the elbow is sensitive to touch

Causes: forceful pushing, throwing, pressing as in a push-up (or applying too much tricep pressure during a stroke)

Related to activities like bench presses, pushing heavy objects, or push-ups without proper support from the shoulder and back

Definition: inflammation of the attachment of the tricep to the ulna at the olecranon process (bony bit at the back and bottom of the elbow)

Healing: stop the painful activity;
          ice the area, and use a compression brace if helpful;
          elevate the elbow

Awareness and Prevention: pay attention to not applying too much downward pressure with each stroke, especially during tremolos, rolls, and loud passages;
          when leaning against a table during study or meals, keep the back of the elbow relaxed
- - - - -
In conversations with different players, it seems that aching elbows most often occur in the non-dominant arm, while shoulder pains (especially at the insertion of the bicep) most often occur in the dominant arm.  This is just anecdotal evidence I've collected, but it would be interesting to investigate in a more formal way.

My hunch as to why it could happen is connected to my theories that improper shoulder alignment causes pain down below, as I talked about during my PASIC 2015 presentation.  Without proper support from above the elbow joint, the strength needed is dispersed to smaller muscles below the joint, hence the gradual appearance of aches and pains.
- - - - -
Sports Injury Clinic
Mayo Clinic
Hand and Wrist Institute
New York Orthopedics

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Highly Sensitive Person/Artist/Musician

Coming across a Facebook conversation about a child who was labeled as so sensitive to criticism that he was assigned to a special class, I found myself inspired to share one of the books nearest and dearest to my heart: The Highly Sensitive Person, by Dr. Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Image result for the highly sensitive person

"How to thrive when the world overwhelms you" mmm, yes

I found this book years ago, and immediately knew it was for me.

Even the cover of this edition suits a sensitive person, with mild contrasts and just enough darkness to make sure you can read what's on the cover. Lovely

There's all kinds of info in this book, from a self test, to discussion on therapy options, to discussion on how to be proud of this trait, not ashamed by it.

What does it mean to be highly sensitive?

An HSP observes before acting, notices more about any situation (artistic, natural, social, etc.) than others, and is therefore more easily overwhelmed than his or her peers.

In the Author's Note for her 2012 printing of The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine writes that the word DOES contains the main characteristics:

     D - depth of processing
     O - over-stimulated easily (due to depth of processing)
     E - emphasis to empathy and emotion
     S - sensitivity to subtlety

As percussionists/musicians/artists/good humans, there are clear lines to be drawn between these traits and our requirements and responsibilities throughout our lives.  A life in the arts particularly suits an HSP, due to the narrow focus, thoughtfulness, and innate vulnerability attached to making personal expression a regular act in the public sphere.

Here are some experiences that you may identify with if you're a fellow HSP.

- I've always worked better alone, even when I was a kid.
- I'd rather work a long time on a project and then show it to you when it's complete, not show you my process.  This means adapting to the private lesson model, where you are criticized and guided in-progress.
- I am highly self-critical, to the point that it's debilitating.  So being called out in rehearsal is the worst.
- In conversations where a person criticizes something I'm tangentially related to, I have to remind myself that it isn't a reflection on my choice to be involved, just a response to the situation in question.
- As a child, it was very easy to discipline me: no harsh tones or increased volume was needed.
- Small group social situations are easier for me, as they facilitate more 'real' discussion over 'small talk.'

Are you highly sensitive?
You can take the self test for high sensitivity on Elaine's website.

Favorite moments from The HSP

On being an HSP but functioning in a world that isn't necessarily "HSP friendly"
Some HSPs, perhaps all of us at times, get sidelined because of thinking that there is no way an HSP can be out in the world and survive.  One feels too different, too vulnerable, perhaps too flawed...  (p. 49)

Note: Elaine uses the word "arousal" to speak about the heightened state of the nervous system.
It is important not to confuse arousal with fear.  Fear creates arousal, but so do many other emotions, including joy, curiously, or anger.  (p.9)

Our culture has an idea of competition in the pursuit of excellence that can make anyone not striving for the top feel like a worthless, nonproductive bystander.  This applies not only to one's career but even to one's leisure.  Are you fit enough, are you progressing in your hobby, are you competent as a cook or gardener?... There is one other reason HSPs drive their bodies too hard, and that is their intuition, which gives some of then a steady stream of creative ideas.  They want to express them all.  (p. 52-53)

The world, as it is today, more readily rewards those that are loud, extroverted, and tend to act before thinking. see: the 2016 election
Ironically and sadly, it is not necessarily the loudest among us who are best-suited to certain positions, leaderships, and mentor roles.

On an open, sensitive mind
An expanded, loving mind, one that is open to the whole universe, is the opposite of a tightly constricted, overaroused mind.   (p. 58)

Introversion arises from a need and preference to protect the inner, "subjective" aspect of life, to value it more, and in particular not to allow it to be overwhelmed by the "objective" world.  (p. 99)
She goes on to quote Carl Jung:
They [introverts] are living evidence that this rich and varied world with its overflowing and intoxicating life is not purely external, but also exists within...Their life teaches more than their words...Their lives teach the other possibility, the interior life which is so painfully wanting in our civilization.

On social discomfort
Elaine talks about the awkward juxtaposition of an HSPs desire for deep connection with the overarousal a new social situation can create.  Often, an HSP will retreat to a corner or sit quietly alone.  The book talks about ways to combat this part of being an HSP, as functioning socially is certainly an important part of leading a fulfilled life.  My experience of social discomfort comes in waves: sometimes I can meet new people and love it, but other times I shut down and cling to my husband like there's no tomorrow.

According to Elaine's research, HSPs tend to strive for deep, meaningful relationships.  "Small talk" does not interest an HSP, and I'd assume that "shop talk" doesn't either, based on my experience.  HSPs want to talk about the inner life full of meaning and depth. can feel wonderful to stay home once you accept that home is truly where you sometimes belong  (p. 154)

You can tolerate high levels of stimulation, especially when you are with someone who relaxes you and makes you feel safe.  (p. 155)

On figuring ourselves out and perhaps going through therapy
Because HSPs have such close contact with the unconscious, such vivid dreams, and such an intense pull toward the imaginal and spiritual, we cannot flourish until we are experts on this facet of ourselves.  (p. 184)

The book goes on to provide tips on how others can deal with working with, raising, or dating an HSP.  Elaine estimates that only about 15-20% of the population could be characterized as being highly sensitive.  She says that's not enough to be widely understood but too many to be called a disorder. (Thanks, Elaine.)
_ _ _ _ _ 

Whether for yourself, your students, your life partner, or your children, learning about this trait can only help in relating to others in terms of communication style and empathy.  I highly recommend any of Elaine's writings.

I'd love to hear from you if you are a fellow HSP, or think this book may be useful to you.