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  • Leah Stevens, Flutist

Body Awareness in Practice: A Form of Self-Care

This post is not a "how-to" cope during a worldwide pandemic. It is not my business to make those suggestions to anyone- everyone needs something different. This is simply a detailing of my own journey, and my own evolving relationship with my flute, and myself over the last couple of months.


A few days into Spring Break, my final Spring Break of my college career, I kept refreshing the WPXI page, watching the number of cases in PA rise. I watched as the virus crept into Allegheny County, and questions began to bubble up about returning to school. Emails from Carnegie Mellon rolled in, notices from city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide, world-wide representatives persistently lit up our phones. I saw surrounding institutions announce delayed and cancelled operations, and before the end of my Spring Break, I learned I would never return to school. CMU would be closing, and just like that, my six years of college came to a close.

Each shift I worked at Tazza D’oro, my barista job, came with new changes- paper cups only. Paper plates only. Then take-out only. Then limited hours. Then closed for two weeks. Then closed indefinitely, like dozens and dozens of small businesses in Pittsburgh and around the country. I felt dizzied in the following weeks, trying to grasp the reality of our changing world, the end of my college career, the loss of my job, the filing for unemployment, the immense suffering of our society. There were waves of realization of the profound effects this will have on the music and arts community, an already under-appreciated and under-funded faction of our society. There was the teetering seesaw between fear of my own well-being and guilt of my own privilege in this situation.

How could I practice flute? Each moment I spent practicing flute was a moment away from the news, the news I felt that I needed to digest constantly to be sure I was informed about the virus, the warnings, the legislation, the workforce, financial aid. Practicing felt like an act of ignorance, as if my knowing was connected with the safety of my family and community. I quickly learned that this mentality was toxic and anxiety-inducing. I was more than well-informed, and all I could do was stay inside. Feeding my own fears wouldn’t heal the world, only staying inside, and encouraging others to stay inside. Support small businesses. Let the at-risk shop first. Wear a mask, always. Stay inside, until April 30th the earliest.

At this point, my mentality changed. I disconnected from social media, ignored the emails from school that rolled in telling us that we need to take advantage of this time, share our playing, produce, produce, produce. I started to lean into things that felt good for me (practicing for the sake of practicing, creating, reading, doing yoga, talking to my family), and working to avoid the things that made me feel bad (but not guilting myself for it if I slipped up). My rather tumultuous relationship with the flute began to heal as I realized I could slow down, work without deadlines, review old music that brings me joy. I could learn not for the sake of productivity, but because in the moment, learning felt good to me, and improving my connection to my craft felt good to me.

Being able to step back from deadlines made me want to shift my focus to fundamentals. I wanted to work on my tone, and for me, working on fundamentals is not only a necessity, but can almost feel meditative. Revisiting vinyasa yoga for the first time in a few years helped me connect with myself and my body in a positive way when I was feeling particularly depressed, and the physical and mental benefits quickly began to transfer to my playing. I began internalizing a sense of body awareness when I played like never before.

Etudes and scales became an experiment- what would happen if I thought of stacking my joints over my feet, like in yoga? If I relaxed the pressure of the headjoint on my chin, the pressure of the flute into my left pointer finger, the pressure of my fingers on the keys? What if I thought of lifting and opening my chest, lengthening my spine? What if I took note of all the tiny movements in my body when I play, and notice how they affect my sound? I decided to absolutely commit to a resonant, singing sound, and make it a non-negotiable, regardless of dynamic or tempo. It is one thing to think I always do this while I play, and another thing to actively participate in body awareness and be absolutely sure I do this when I play. I held myself accountable each time I took a breath and my shoulders clenched, each time I played in the high-register and my weight shifted to one foot, and each time I played a technical passage and my hands clasped the keys. I slowly and methodically began to unravel these tensions, taking notice without judgment. Rather than being accusatory towards myself, I thought of passages that didn’t play out as I would have liked as “interesting information,” as my dad would say.

In my first few weeks I applied these concepts to scales and etudes, and even old repertoire, reviewing a different piece every day. The biggest challenge was when I began to revisit orchestral excerpts. In these excerpts, I held the tensions and anxieties of many, many years. The words and interpretations of countless teachers swirled around in my mind. My own bad habits were ingrained in these, as well as my insecurities of the many times I have felt failure. While I was doing everything more or less “right” musically and technically, I wasn’t satisfied- the excerpts still were not working. The issue, I realized, was that it was as if I were spending my time perfecting this stunningly gorgeous china cabinet in a luxurious dining room... in a house with no foundation, ready to collapse. There was a lot to unpack, and I needed some sort of fresh slate, a new perspective. Again, a heightened sense of body awareness had to be THE priority, a non-negotiable.

I practiced doing body scans before and during these excerpts, noticing how my body reacts to certain moments. I began thinking of the unnatural, asymmetrical shape of a flute posture just like a yoga pose, where we strive for the breath to be just as uninhibited as if we were standing normally. Slowly figuring out how to release tension in these excerpts and allow my air to flow freely was a revelation for my sound, and a revelation for my flutist identity. I was beginning to dissipate the many negative feelings I had around these excerpts and my playing. I was beginning to learn how to be my own best teacher.

Working with body awareness and learning to be kind to myself was huge for me, leading to greater strides in one month than my progress over the course of several years. The heat and competition of music school and the constant cramming to learn an insurmountable body of music built so much stress and poor practice habits into my playing. Of course I learned countless valuable of skills too, but needed a chance to step back and reevaluate everything. All of this is to say that working on body awareness during quarantine ended up being an act of self-care. I physically drained the stress, fears, and anxieties I was holding in my body, and mentally fueled a sense of accomplishment, worth, and purpose. Do I still have immense fears (and angers) about my community, our world, and our government? Yes. But, I am filled with gratitude to have my own good health and safety, a small stream of income, and a chance each day to feel okay within my own body through my practice.


Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments, and what kind of posts you would like to see!

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