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Mind Matters: Less is more

Full disclosure: I have repeatedly tried to write this column for a couple of weeks. I have thought about it for much longer. I usually have my Clavier Companion column completed long before it is due. I do not like last minute crunches. I have legitimate excuses. In the past couple months, I have been busy attending meetings, writing papers, and presenting at conferences. Writing this column was delayed until after those responsibilities were in the past. I thought I would have more time and interesting ideas. Although past deadlines and events are over and I have returned to my "normal" hectic schedule, there is continued creative work and additional deadlines on the horizon near and far. The to-do list is endless.

Feeling stressed

Work that I love has become my master. And, to the point, I cannot find creative traction to begin this article. I cannot even think of a topic that appeals to me. I definitely do not like to write papers at the last minute. My thoughts and articles need time to season, like a performance, and I need to compose, put them down on paper, and then reread many times to rethink and self-edit. But now, with my Clavier Companion deadline around the corner, I am feeling creatively dry and stressed. Uninspired. I have tried to develop particular ideas several times, yet nothing captures my attention. So I try harder. My "do more" attitude only makes my writing block worse.

Several days ago, I started and then disregarded an article about taking care of yourself. It didn't feel right. I composed a survey for you to think about your own busy life and work habits. My ideas went flat. Then I realized I was writing about my own busy life and work habits. As I recognized this, I gave myself time and permission to think, instead of repeatedly trying to crank out a column. Only as I paused and did not try so hard, did it become crystal clear what I would write about. I would write about just that—not trying too hard.

Take care of yourself

I have used a particular analogy many times with my overcommitted and work-stressed patients about an announcement we all hear, and probably ignore, every time we fly. Flight attendants tell us if there is a "loss of air pressure" that "oxygen masks will drop down." We are instructed to put the mask "over our face and breathe deeply first before helping the person we are traveling with" (especially if that person is a child). We have memorized this routine so well that many of us ignore it, continuing to play with our screens until we are told to put them away. It seems like a no-brainer to help a child or fellow passenger—a knee jerk response. But how could we possibly help anyone else if the unthinkable happens and we are gasping for air ourselves?

We often find ourselves gasping for air flying through our daily projects and over-commitments. We become so busy doing that we find ourselves needing mental oxygen as we search for time and seek unencumbered space in our day. Too often we forge ahead, fearing time will run out or that we will not be prepared enough for a performance or lesson or writing deadline.

The ten-minute challenge

Take this challenge—I will also pledge to do it with you. Find a way to take a ten-minute break (or longer) every day. Take a walk, find a short exercise routine on YouTube, enjoy the tranquility of relaxing in a rocking chair, close your eyes, and let your mind wander to a pleasing image, call a friend, do not call a friend, cuddle your pet, suspend your list of "must dos," be spontaneous, plan a fun weekend activity, read a magazine. Stop pushing yourself to do more in less time. You can do it and I can do it. I am doing it now as I talk with you. I am not trying to write. I am letting my thoughts flow freely while sitting at my computer. Writing is flowing.

Music teachers are creative and ambitious people. They love their work. They are good at giving of themselves selflessly to others. Teachers also must remember to love themselves. There are numerous external demands from students, parents, paperwork, financial issues, going to conferences, presenting at conferences, and organizing programs. The to do list is endless. Life has deadlines. Life itself is a deadline.

Teachers also resonate to internal pressures that include the wish to feel sought out by students, respected by 46 Perspectives Mind matters peers, and cope with normal competitive feelings that may prompt them to put in that extra hour or two (or more) of practice or teaching or travel on a weekend or for longer periods of time—stretching their mental and physical energy. How can teachers find ways to refresh their minds and bodies?

While we may wish for our external and internal pressures to disappear, similar to the wish to eliminate performance anxiety, we cannot be magicians and make stress disappear. Stress exists! Experiencing pressure is an increasing external element and emotional component in our lives compounded by instant access to information and communication that keeps us turned on. We may not turn off our electronic devices (although that would be a good experiment for a few hours during the day—if we could!) but we can turn down the volume that gnaws inside our minds and prompts us to try to accomplish more and more in limited time.

Breathe deeply

I am not suggesting that teachers slack off. Quite the contrary. I am recommending that we find ways to nurture ourselves in ways that make us more authentic to ourselves and realistically available to others. All of us need to be acutely sensitive to times when we would benefit from that proverbial oxygen mask (without the fright of losing air pressure on a plane!). The ability to master mental pressures lies very much within our grasp and inside our minds. It is up to each of us to allow ourselves the time to breathe deeply.

I just wrote my column. It happened when I didn't try so hard to produce it.

I look forward to hearing from you and learning how you take care of yourself. Please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. We can accomplish more when we are less demanding on ourselves.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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