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Active Listening

Active Listening is the act of fully understanding and comprehending what someone is saying. This is a skill that is absolutely crucial to have as a compassionate member of society. Here are some quick, actionable ways that you can use active listening to be a better listener right now:
  • Avoid getting distracted by thoughts.
  • Focus on speaker and topic instead. 
  • Try not to interrupt the other person.
  • Let them finish and then respond.
  • Use door openers. Phrases that show you’re interested and keep the other person talking. That’s interesting, go on, etc.
  • Show that you’re listening with body language. Paraphrase what others have said. Start those sentences with: “What I’m hearing you say is” or “I’m understanding that you”
At Crisis Text Line, we are taught about the two stages of an effective crisis conversation. These two steps stages can be easily applicable to a conversation with a peer who is undergoing mental distress. 
Step 1 is to explore the precipitating event. You can uncover what is causing the person to be in distress by using some of the active listening tips we talked about earlier. Here you can determine the person’s level of risk and validate their feelings.
Step 2 is to collaboratively problem solve. This empowers the person in crisis, develops their self-efficacy, and puts them in the driver’s seat to identify coping skills and a safety plan. 
Everyone has the ability to become a more compassionate listener. It just requires the listener to play a more active role in the conversation. I’m certain that you’ll find it to be so much easier to make a difference in someone’s life by having an impactful conversation.
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Why I Work for Suicide Hotlines

Mindfulness has helped me a ton through my own mental illness. Having anything that can ground us to the present and keep us from spiraling about past decisions or future issues that haven’t even happened yet can be one of the most useful things to have as a musician. As a yoga teacher and someone who works for suicide hotlines, I can’t tell you how many times a 10 second grounding exercise has been the difference between keeping myself or someone else from doing something they would always regret. 
And with that, I want to tell you all about why I got involved with suicide prevention in the first place.
8 years ago, I tried to kill myself. While I’ve really only shared this piece of myself with very close friends and family, I’ve reached a point of comfort with this part of myself that I want to share it as a way to make others feel ok about having these thoughts and urges. If I knew then what I know now, it probably wouldn’t have changed very much because sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you know. What you feel kind of just takes over.
There are so many ways that our perception becomes limited. These limits are created by a number of different factors; our biology, our psychology, society around us. These are the factors that create the bubble which surrounds us and makes up exactly how we perceive the world around us.
This bubble that is created for us has the ability to expand and contract based on how we interact with any of the factors that I just mentioned. Most of us have experienced the challenges of when our perception contracts. Think about the last time you were cut off in traffic or felt like a car was going to hit you while walking; and let’s face it, in South Florida it was probably today. When it happened, maybe you felt your heart rate start to quicken, your face flush and your blood boil, and then you focused on the license plate or the face of the person that almost caused you harm as they sped by. Or maybe you were just focused on how creative (or not creative) you could be with the words you wanted to hurl at the person. Then eventually, you would have relaxed and moved on with your day, and then you likely would have just forgot about it altogether. 
But imagine you couldn’t. Imagine you stayed stuck in this narrow, dark place. That’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness. At least, that’s what it was like for me at the depth of my own mental illness. My perception had become constricted and darkened and collapsed. I felt like an athsmatic who had lost his glasses in a hurricane. 
I was 20 years old when I tried to kill myself, and this was the result of things really not going right for a long time. The main cause of my depression had been a deep and complicated relationship with my body; I was always heavy growing up and the insults and teasing from high school classmates encouraged me to go on a serious diet in the summer of 2008. Even though it was nice to get compliments from people about my new body, these comments only encouraged me to keep going with my weight loss. The thought of putting on even a pound would send me into a tizzy; the longer I went without eating, the more “full” or “complete” I would feel, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that this was one of the key contributors to my dark and narrow perception. 
As time went on, my relationship with food became even more complicated. By my freshman year of college, I was eating one small meal every two days. My depression was really only perpetuated by the sluggishness that is accompanied by not eating, and at that time my doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. The doctors prescribed me with several different medications to combat the highest highs and the lowest lows I was feeling, and as a result I was feeling completely hopeless and thought that I would never get to a point where I would feel completely happy again. I was afraid I was going to feel this way forever. At one point, I was taking an anti depressant, an anti-psychotic, a mood stabilizer and an anti anxiety pill, and for any of you who have ever taken any anti-depressants, you know that, particularly if you’re not on the right one, this can really shroud your perception and seriously affect how you view the world around you. 
The doctors at my undergrad eventually got in touch with my professors, and they recommended that I take a leave from my studies to focus on my mental health. Without a reason to wake up in the morning, I just stayed in bed all day every day. I ignored my friends and family, didn’t eat at all. 
And so one night, about a week later, I was at home and something made me swallow about 75 of my antidepressants because I didn’t want to see the next day. Nothing happened at first; I was scared that I hadn’t taken enough pills so I took more. I remember then feeling really tired so I went to lay down, and the next thing I knew, I woke up on a breathing machine in the hospital.
Shortly after falling asleep, I began to have a seizure. If it wasn’t for my roommate who heard me fall out of bed and onto the ground from the next room, the doctors told me that I would have very likely had brain damage. He threw me over his shoulder and brought me to the hospital and I didn’t wake up for three days. After I had been physically rehabilitated, I was transferred to a mental rehabilitation center and spent four weeks being weaned off imy medication, because the doctors realized that it was the medication that really exacerbated my suicidal ideation and that I didn’t have bipolar disorder after all. You may be asking yourself “why is this guy who played tuba here a few years ago telling us this?” It’s really important to me that none of you ever feel so alone that you feel like you have no choice but to end it all. And one of the biggest things I want you all to understand is that your lives have so much value and that they’re important. That you’re important. You are so much more than a bad day you had on your instrument last week or a bad lesson you had a few days ago. 
People seem plenty eager to talk about suicide if it’s behind closed doors and in hushed voices. This is the part I’m doing differently with you today. By sharing with you, I hope to raise my voice and de-stigmatize the conversation surrounding mental health. Currently, there are some strong cultural taboos in discussing suicide. Oftentimes people will say that suicide is a choice. Can suicide be a choice if it’s the only choice available to the person at the time? 95% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable illness at their time of death which to many is seen as a character flaw. As long as mental illness and suicide are stigmatized, it will remain a very real, but hidden public health threat and a source of terrible pain for all those affected. My hope is that mental illness and suicide are no longer stigmatized and the cost on families and communities is diminished.
One final thought; if you’re contemplating suicide, I know there’s a hope somewhere deep inside you. Keep that hope alive. We need you and we need you to be leaders in this conversation whether we’re ready to have it or not. This is the conversation that may be able to keep someone alive. 
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Week 4 Routine Reflection: Variety is the Spice of…

I decided to go in a different direction with my routine this week after three weeks of very regimented practice sessions.
Bill Lucas, Professor of Jazz Trumpet at the University of Michigan, once asked me if I ever sat in a practice room with no music and just played music. While this concept seemed a little foreign to me because I like to structure my practice sessions thoughtfully, I gave it a shot and was very pleased with the results. By introducing a sense of randomness to my daily routine, I was eliminating the voice in my head that would say: “Oh, you’re not so good at Snedecor #7, maybe you should just skip it.” Additionally, there was something liberating about walking into the practice room not knowing exactly what I was going to be working on that day.
However, I didn’t feel like this routine offered the same level of top to bottom maintenance that I was looking for in a daily routine. Simply put, it became a little difficult for me to remember exactly what I had done on Monday so as not to do the same thing on Saturday. I suppose I could have just written down what I had done, but I really wanted to feel like what I was doing was unregimented and somewhat random, so I tried to avoid writing things down or following a set routine as best I as a could. If anything, this proved to me that having a precise idea of a) exactly what I want to improve on and b) how I’m going to do it is by far the best way to ensure steady growth and avoid random practicing.
Here’s exactly what I did: I took two ziplock bags, and filled one with the names of the composers of the books I was working out of or the particular exercise (Arban, Kopprasch, Snedecor, Olka Giant Steps etc…) and the second with numbers 1-30. I then chose two exercises/studies from each section per day. Again, it was really nice to break away from having an extremely regimented routine, but I find that the regimented routine is a much better way to go in terms of ensuring growth and improvement.
BUT, it is important to not be a slave to a routine and simply do things because you think they may be good for you. I’ve found that the times I’ve felt like I’ve improved the most were times that I knew exactly what I needed to work on, and also knew exactly how to improve that part of my playing.
Two quotes I remember writing down from a Warren Deck/Floyd Cooley masterclass at ITEC a few years ago ring particularly true right now:
“It is important to remember a daily routine is not set in stone. It must be flexible to accommodate changes in yourself or your circumstance.”
“Your routine should be like home. Use it as a reference to gauge your needs, weaknesses and strengths.”
Here’s the routine! Next week I’ll be comparing three popular routine books and posting my thoughts. Thanks so much for reading!
Summer Routine v4
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Week 3 Routine Reflection: Bodybuilding

In the world of bodybuilding, there are (generally) two main workout regimes that lifters like to follow. Firstly, the full body approach forces lifters to work most (if not all) of their body parts every day. This approach generally allows for more calorie burn and fat loss, and a more balanced body because all muscles are being hit equally. Secondly, the split body part routine puts the focus on one single body part per day. This routine makes it easier to shape your body (because you can zero in on particular body parts) and slightly easier to lift heavier weights due to the fact that it is less tiring and less metabolically exhausting (although you normally burn less calories with the split routine).  A regular 5 day a week routine would look something like this:
Monday: Back
Tuesday: Chest
Wednesday: Arms
Thursday: Shoulders
Friday: Legs
More info on the differences between the two routines here:
http://www.builtlean.com/2011/09/15/full-body-workout-vs-split-routine-which-is-better/
My aim this week was to build a routine that is modelled after the split body part bodybuilding regimen. My hypothesis was that if bodybuilders can have success in focusing their energy on one body part per day, then musicians should be able to have success by focusing their energy on improving one specific part of their playing per practice session.
I found that my hypothesis was fairly successful! It may have just been that I was feeling energized by virtue of the fact that I completely upended my standard approach to daily practice, but I feel like this approach is much more logical as it allows for even growth across all parts of playing. I also added a couple new exercises this week:
Giant Steps: 
This isn’t technically a new exercise, but this is one that I’ve found very useful, and as a result I’ve been doing it nearly every day. It focuses on improving evenness of tone, pitch centering and flexibility, and really forces you to try and get an even sound in every register.
Giant Steps
Pokorny Flow Exercise: 
This was an exercise that Gene Pokorny showed me in a lesson not too long ago that is a terrific alternative to the Beautiful Sounds (Arnold Jacobs Flow) exercise or the Stamp exercise. Use it if you’d like a new exercise that zeros in on achieving an even sound in the middle/high register.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 3.03.28 PM
Here’s the routine! You certainly don’t need to follow this routine religiously, but it proved to be quite the workout for me. Thanks again for reading! I’ll post another next week, but in the meantime, enjoy the routine and let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Summer Routine v3

 

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Week 2 Routine Reflection: Pushing The Limit

You’re back! If you returned, you’re either bored or you read something last week that you found useful. Regardless, thanks for reading again!
This week, I made a point of including some exercises that I’ve been wanting to include in my routine for a while; namely the slew of incredible exercises that Chris Olka (Principal Tuba of the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops) has uploaded to Youtube. If you haven’t taken a look at them before, I would definitely recommend you do. They’re difficult, but extremely useful in targeting specific technical areas.
If you played through last week’s routine, you’ll notice that some of the exercises are the same, except for a few key additions:
  • Under melody, I added a few movements of a Bach Cello Suite every other day, instead of just simply doing Bordognis every day (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
  • I added the following of Chris’ exercises: Bridge Building (essentially a two octave arpeggio with a lip trill at the top), Giant Steps and Threading the Needle, (a slurred or tongued exercise that traces the entirety of the range, targeting flexibility, pitch and tone) and Whack a Mole and In and Out (two high volume exercises, the former an arpeggio at full volume and the latter an exercise that outlines the tonic-dominant tonic of each note, ascending chromatically). If you’d like to check out these exercises for yourself, check out his channel, or send me an email and I’ll send you my transcribed version (jmccourt55@gmail.com).
In addition to adding exercises, I chose to mix up the order in which I perform the exercises. Each day, I would start with the next area, which certainly helped with having a fresh mind before playing each exercise.
Finally, I chose to spend a little more time with each exercise this week, instead of just blowing through each one. This certainly lengthened the routine, but taking my time and actively listening to things like sound quality and note shapes felt like I was actually working towards improving a given skill. This was an obvious but key discovery: why even do the exercises if we’re not working towards improving by doing them?
Here’s the routine! Thanks so much for reading. Next week, I plan on trying to not target every single area every day, and instead only target a few areas each day in hopes of giving more focus to those exercises.

Summer Routine v2

 

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Week 1 Routine Reflection: Getting My Feet Wet

Hello! After spending a few weeks on the road performing with a couple summer music festivals, I’ve decided to experiment with a number of different daily routines and see what works best for me, and post my thoughts here.
Regardless of your opinions regarding regimented daily routines, I think most musicians can agree that routines are great ways to track (and be accountable for) your regular progress. Some desire a slightly more flexible warm-up and routine, but the purpose of these reflections will be to determine which routines work best.
Firstly, the pros. What I found extremely helpful was the control I had over my routine due to its pre-determined nature. Given the fact that I planned out each part of my routine, my mind was focused on the sound coming out of my bell and not the next exercise I’d be working on. This routine also forced me to work through exercises that I sometimes don’t do everyday (ahem…scales….), and made work through nearly every aspect of my playing. I found that taking a break at the halfway point made me feel fresher at the end of the routine, and allowed me to practice an additional 1-2 times later that day.
A couple of brief observations:
-I found that working on the daily orchestral excerpt in a later practice session was beneficial, as I could tackle it with fresh chops.
-Spending 30 minutes in the extreme low register made working in that register SO much easier in practice sessions later that day, and even more as the week went on. In general, I feel like tuba players don’t spend nearly enough time in the low register because it’s potentially the most difficult part of our instrument to sound good on (for most), and we should certainly spend more time working on the things that we find the most difficult (both in music and in life).
-Working on a few Bordogni etudes felt so good after most of the heavy lifting of the routine was complete. I’ve never really been the biggest fan of “warm-downs”, so this was kind of a game changer for me.
I didn’t find the cons to be terribly extensive, beyond the fact that I was more tired after these routines than my normal haphazard warmup. In the coming weeks, I will strive to organize the exercises a little better; each day became slightly more difficult because I was simply going chronologically through each etude book, and therefore each day was getting harder and harder.
That’s it for this week! I’ll switch up my routine and post more thoughts next week. Here it is for your reference:
Summer Routine