Yoga Wisdoms for the Practice Room

I find it fascinating that we use the same word for studying music and spending time on the yoga mat.

I practice music. I practice yoga.

Time spent in the studio playing an instrument isn’t all that different from going to a yoga class.

I have studied yoga off and on for most of my adult life. For the past four years, I have been a familiar face in the yoga class, attending classes at least twice a week. I am stronger, mentally and physically, than I have ever been. And I’ve found that yoga practice is influencing my music practice in perceptible ways. I blogged about this in a post titled “Practice” a few months ago, but I want to move into the subject deeper. I want to stretch it out and find its limits.

These are the yoga wisdoms I carry from the mat into the music practice room:

Show Up. Some days I don’t feel like going to the gym or rolling out the mat. My body is tired. There are too many things to do. I worry there might be a sub instead of my favorite teacher. The list of excuses is long. But I force myself to go to class and afterward I feel better, lots better. I can’t have a healthier body if I don’t exercise, just like I can’t be a better musician if I leave the instrument in its case. Practicing means we have to show up, regularly. Even when we don’t feel like it. Music and yoga have the power to transform mood. At the end of class and the end of a practice session, I feel better because practicing elevates me.

Humility. In yoga, there is always going to be someone stronger/more flexible/more graceful than me. In music, there will always be someone with faster technique/better tone/more sensitivity. Acknowledging that I’m not the best, nor will I ever be, has two benefits: 1. I’m not crushed when the new young person comes along with amazing skills and 2. It gives me a chance to learn with an open heart from the masters. I love going to music concerts and masterclasses because I always learn something new. My musical life is enriched, not diminished, by celebrating the best players.

Every day is different. The things I was able to do yesterday aren’t the same as the things I can do today; tomorrow will present new solutions and new challenges… And that’s OK. If I can’t balance in “Half Moon” or play the “Carnival of Venice” up to speed today, I’ll have another chance to try tomorrow. My yoga teacher encourages us to practice “non-judgment.” Of course that means not judging our abilities against others, but it also means that we don’t judge ourselves. I like to stay curious about how my body is able to move everyday. If I feel a tight muscle, I think “that’s interesting,” not “that’s bad” or “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Curiosity has the added benefit of being playful. So too in my music practice. If I notice that a difficult passage is causing stress and not improving, I’ll put it away until tomorrow.

Humor. At a recent yoga class, we worked on “crow” pose. Here’s a picture of what someone who can actually do it looks like:

crow pose

this is not me.

So basically, you are balancing all your weight on the back of your arms and trying not to fall over. Dutiful yoga student that I am, I worked my way into the pose, carefully following the teacher’s directions. I smashed my knees into the back of my arms, I began to shift the weight forward, I lifted my feet… and fell onto my face. It was an ugly and complete nose-to-the-mat crumple. I had a nice chuckle right there on the floor and then tried it again. I wish I could tell you that the second try was better than the first, but it wasn’t. But I laughed at myself a second time and moved on. I’ve learned that if I take myself too seriously, I don’t have any fun and I don’t learn how to be better. There’s no room for a big ego in yoga or in music.

Focus. When I am in the practice room or on the yoga mat, everything else can wait. This is the time to devote my whole attention to my intention. Whatever is on my mind, it can wait until I am done with my practice. I turn off my cell phone, try to quiet the monkey-brain. Everything will still be there in an hour. Multi-tasking is not helpful when doing yoga or studying music. It’s too easy to get distracted. When planning my day, I block out the time for music practice and yoga practice on my calendar. It’s a cyber reminder that these blocks of time are for practicing. I have plenty of time afterward to make a grocery list, worry about a family member, or think about events later in the day.

Push the Boundaries. At least once in every single yoga class, I want to give up. My body screams “Get me out of here! I’m done!” It might be a painful pose that sets me off or just a series that makes me sweaty. And every time I have to dig deep and tell my body to keep going. I’ve had this experience many times in the music practice room also. There have been times that I’ve wanted to give up because something seemed too difficult, but I kept trying and eventually it all worked out. But I also know the difference between pushing the boundaries and hurting myself. In yoga, it’s fine to feel some muscle burning, but sharp pain is not OK. So too in music, we have to be careful not to be extreme in our practice and hurt ourselves mentally or physically. Cultivate perseverance, but know when to back off.

It’s hard to keep our aspirations in balance. But balance is the gift yoga can add to our mental, physical, spiritual… and musical lives.


Concentration Exercises for Musicians

Concentration Exercises for Musicians

The prevailing wisdom for many years was that our minds could handle about seven things at once. This was supported by research in 1956 that showed people could remember up to seven numbers, a telephone number being the classic example of seven digits we can commit to memory. George A. Miller’s paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” was widely accepted. I learned about “Miller’s Law” in Psychology 101.

More recent research is showing that the number of things we can keep in working memory may be a lot lower. Perhaps FOUR.  The Magical Mystery Four: How Is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? So, if we can only remember four things at once, we can’t let extraneous thoughts distract us in the practice room.

Musicians have to remember many things at once. Consider that instrumentalists have to control their bodies, monitor the sound, interpret rhythms, translate written pitch to finger combinations, decode other symbols in the music, plan for phrases, and many more complicated processes. As we gain mastery, we are able to shift some of these processes into an automatic reflex, freeing up mental space for adding levels of difficulty. There is very little room in the mind of a musician for externalities like thinking about what we’re going to eat for dinner or being bothered by something that happened earlier in the day.

Monkey Brainconcentration games help "monkey brain"

Monkey brain is when your mind is constantly jumping from one thought to the next, like chattering monkeys in the trees. It is the enemy of good practice and musical performance. We know that the brains of musicians are lighting up like fireworks when performing music (see my blog post titled “Brain Imaging on Musicians.“) It takes a lot of mental power to play an instrument. If the brain is thinking about irrelevant details, there is not enough mental capacity for the music.

Monkey Brain is an epidemic. As a music teacher, I work with my students to help them focus on the music. The mind must be quiet and empty before we can fill it with music.

Try these concentration exercises to chase away the monkey brain:

  • Breathe through your toes. Place your feet firmly on the ground. Imagine roots are growing through the soles of your feet. Imagine that your toes have little nostrils on them and when you take a deep breath, visualize the oxygen coming in through your toes. This is a great way to feel grounded. The image is silly, but that’s OK. We remember things that are ridiculous and by smiling you are releasing dopamine, the feel-good chemical!  (Addicted to Smiling: Can the Simple Act of Smiling Bring Pleasure?)
  • Focus the eyes. Pick something small upon which to rest your eyes. You might look at one measure of music, the title of the method book, the barrel of the flute, the brand decal in the center of the piano, your hands in your lap, etc. Begin to draw all your awareness to that place. Breathe. Focus until the image becomes very clear and things in the background begin to recede. Your focal point should now be the brightest and clearest thing in your field of vision. After 30-60 seconds focusing and breathing, close your eyes. When you slowly reopen them, you will find your mind is sharp and ready for learning.
  • Crossing the midline. Because music is a full-brain activity, it’s important that the hemispheres are communicating with one another. (*See below for a discussion of the corpus callosum in musicians.) At my kids’ school, the teachers use “Brain Gym” exercises to help the children get ready for learning every morning. Researchers are not convinced Brain Gym has any measurable benefits in the academic classroom but I have found that doing one or two of the crossing the midline activities is helpful for redirecting an unfocused mind in music lessons. Here are two activities for crossing the midline and improving concentration:
    • Stand with your ams in “goalpost” or “cactus” position (elbows straight out from the shoulders, hands and fingers pointing up.) Lift the right knee and reach over to touch it with the left elbow. Repeat with the left elbow and right knee. This exercise looks a lot like the ones we do at the gym. Make sure the elbow and knee make contact in the center of the body. Repeat several times.
    • Stretch your arms straight out, cross right under left and flip the palms. Now interlace the fingers and draw the hands down and toward your body. This is hard to describe but this short video will give you the idea.


      With your fingers interlaced, wiggle your right hand thumb. Choose another digit like the left hand ring finger or right pinky. It’s harder than it might seem. This is a good exercise to try with teen and adult students who might feel silly standing up and touching their elbows to knees like the first activity.

  • Yoga balance poses. Use these exercises to bring balance, physically and mentally, into your practice. There are many good balance poses in yoga. Here are two that my flute students seem to enjoy:
    • Tree. Stand with knees slightly bent. Check that the ears are over the shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over ankles. Find a place to rest your gaze on the floor a few feet ahead of you. Shift your weight onto the right food, being mindful that the weight is evenly distributed through the whole foot. Place your left foot in a comfortable spot on your right leg (either above the knee or below but not on the knee.) Rotate your left leg so the knee is pointing to the left and gently press your standing leg into the left foot. When you feel balanced, raise your arms. If you’re feeling playful, you can make your branches grow tall in the sun or sway in a gentle breeze. Take a deep breath and release on an exhale. Repeat with the other side.

      from yoga: tree pose

      tree pose

    • Airplane. Begin standing as for “tree pose” described above. Shift the weight into the left foot and hinge forward at the hips. Keep your eyes focused on a spot on the floor to help with balance. Extend the right leg straight out behind you, foot flexed. Bring the arms out to the sides in a “T.” Keep the neck and spine in a comfortable alignment. Hold for as long as comfortable, taking deep breaths. On an exhale, pivot back to standing and repeat with the other side.

      yoga pose for concentration

      airplane yoga pose

Parents, if you notice your child is having difficulty paying attention to the music or if he explodes in conversation after each exercise, you can help by suggesting these activities. Do the exercises with your child and you’ll both get the benefit. Remember, the tricks that work today may not be the ones that work tomorrow so try out all the ideas and see which ones are best for your child.

Our minds are filled with all kind of thoughts. As musicians, we have to be extra vigilant about making sure our minds are focused on the challenging tasks of playing a musical instrument. A little mental hygiene in the practice room will help also. I always silence my phone when practicing and say to myself “I am practicing now. This is the most important thing I can be doing at this moment. Everything else will wait until I am finished.” When a distracting thought comes, I imagine that it is being surrounded by a bubble and floating away. For persistent thoughts, I keep a note pad handy. Once I write something down, I no longer have to carry it in my mind.

When you notice that your mind is wandering, take a moment to try some of the exercises listed above. I’d like to hear about which ones work for you. For more ideas about how yoga can improve your music practice, check out the book Musician’s Yoga by Mia Olson


*The underlying science – that performing an activity that simultaneously engages both cerebral hemispheres can improve cognition – does appear to be true. The best studied example of this is musicians who began training during early childhood. Neurons on either side of the cortex send axons across the midline, which then make synapses with neurons on the other side. The axons are covered in a white substance called myelin, which acts as an insulator, protecting the electrical communication between neurons from leakage, and increasing the speed at which the signal can travel down the axon. This collection of axons between the midline is called the corpus callosum, and research has shown that the corpus callosum is larger in early-trained musicians compared to late-trained musicians and nonmusicians, especially if the training began before the age of 7.

The hypothesis is that because musical training involves the coordination of multiple modalities – i.e. taking visual and auditory input (reading and listening to music, respectively) and coordinating it with motor output (playing the instrument) – the connections between these brain areas become stronger and more tightly connected, resulting in better sensorimotor integration. And indeed, early-trained musicians have better spatial and verbal memory, attention, mathematics skills, and perform better on other tasks involving the integration of multiple sensory and motor inputs…. encouraging your students to learn an instrument could go a long way in improving their cognitive functions.” (from NeuWrite West — Ask a Neuroscientist.)

Practice: The journey is the destination.

Practice leads to harmony.

picture in music studio

“Never forget the pleasure of the journey.”

This picture hangs beside the door to my music studio. No one can leave without seeing it, including me. The text reads

“Never Forget the Pleasure of the Journey. This Chinese word means Traveling and Playing, whether it refers to studying a discipline, climbing a mountain, going through life…”

A friend recently posted on Facebook an article titled “We are graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians.” The author, and the book he reviews, are concerned that there are more musicians than there are jobs. Music schools are graduating a record number of highly-skilled musicians, yet there are fewer and fewer jobs available in orchestras. While this is true, I don’t see it as a crisis. Anyone who makes it through music school will possess abilities that are highly in demand in the workforce: the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to set goals and complete them, the understanding that criticism can lead to transformation, persistence and patience, among others. The resourceful music graduate will either create a job in music (perhaps where none has existed before as an entrepreneur) or will market their unique skill set to their advantage. These are not people who give up easily. They know how to spend hours alone doing hard work. Musicians know how to practice.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in flute performance at The Ohio State University, I continued my studies at the University of Colorado and completed a Master of Music degree in Flute Performance. Throughout my college years, I was aware that I didn’t want to be in the flute section of a major symphony orchestra. So why on earth would I spend thousands of dollars to get a degree that I would not use to the letter? Because I wanted to be the best I could be. I knew that if I wanted to teach, I had to immerse myself in the material. I had to learn everything I could before passing that knowledge on to others. Learning how to practice, studying, seeking out teachers, facing my performance anxiety… these were the goals.

Giving a child music lessons does not mean that the child will grow up to be a classical solo artist. Speaking as a parent, my children take lessons and practice everyday because the skills they learn will help them for the rest of their lives. I’ve been collecting articles about research on the brains of musicians. You can read about some of these studies elsewhere on the blog (Brain ImagingBetter Brains) so it seems there is compelling evidence from science that musicians have different skills than non-musicians.

I teach many adult students in my music studio. Most of them will never play professionally. They play because they love music, they love learning.

Musician's Yoga book


Recently, I read the book Musician’s Yoga: A Guide To Practice, Performance, and Inspiration by Mia Olson. This excellent book draws beautiful connections between the breath and body work of yoga and music practice. Even in yoga, the word practice is used to describe the time we spend on the mat. When I first started going to yoga classes, I was goal focused. I had the idea that I was going to be able to touch my toes within a month. I’ve never, ever been able to touch my toes and after four years of regular practice, I still can’t. I know that I won’t ever become a yoga teacher or a master yogi, and I’m OK with that. Some poses are easier for me than others. I show up for class with my mat and I breathe. Most days I flow with the instructor and I leave the gym feeling refreshed. Other days, I struggle against my body and I want to give up halfway through class. But I’m learning to turn off the judgement and just be glad that I showed up, that I practiced. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to touch my toes, but I can now reach my shins– progress!

Six wisdoms from practicing yoga:

  1. Humility- there is always going to be someone better/more flexible/stronger than me.
  2. Whatever is on my mind, it can wait until I am done with my practice. I turn off my cell phone, try to quiet the monkey-brain. Everything will still be there in an hour.
  3. Breathe deeply and consciously.
  4. Be playful and have a sense of humor. It’s not unusual for me to fall over during balance poses. A little laughter goes a long way toward healing a bruised ego.
  5. Today my practice will be different than yesterday; tomorrow will be different from today.
  6. Pay attention to my body. It’s good to find the edges of my ability but I always have to be careful not to injure myself.

I wonder what would happen if we re-framed music practice in a similar way. How would we feel if the goal was the practice and not the performance? What if the action of showing up in front of the music stand every day is the highest achievement? Don’t forget to breathe. Namaste.

drawing by MMH