I’ve always hated vacations. I last about a day and then I get antsy, cranky, restless, start eating junk food, and stop smiling. I soon start existing in a sort of twilight zone, of being too lazy and unmotivated to do anything yet also hating myself for being lazy and unmotivated. People also say that if you can’t rest peacefully, there’s basically something wrong with you on a deep spiritual level - perhaps you have committed some grave sin (sorry for religious terminology) and you can’t really be at rest.
I used to think my reaction was some sort of personality flaw or evidence of sinfulness but I’ve realised that my existence when I’m not working actually triggers a chemical imbalance in my brain (aka depression).
I’m about to take a vacation in a few weeks, to Michigan on a lake house to be at my cousin’s wedding. I was dreading it until today when I realised that in fact I could make a plan not to just ‘try harder not to be in a bad mood’ but in fact to do specific things so that I don’t trigger an episode of chemical imbalance.
Here are the specific issues I have when I’m not working:
Let’s break these down a bit:
1. No routineThis is a big one. I simply don’t cope well when I don’t have a routine, and especially a routine that means I need to fulfil my obligations to other people. When I have a routine, I’m motivated to get other stuff done - to fit in the gym, or meditation, or violin practice, because I know that my time is limited and much of it is spoken for.
On vacation, I can always do any of these good things at any time, so there’s no incentive to do anything urgently. Consequently, I lie around on the sofa and gradually become part of the furniture.
2. No meaningful goals
I am a very goal-oriented person: I do really well when I have a certain task to complete in a deadline. This is the very antithesis of a vacation - I’m meant to kick back, relax, not be under any pressure. This to me feels like I’m stagnating.
3. No exercise
One of the first victims of my lethargy is that exercise, which might help me loads, goes out the window. Or at most I’ll exercise at night, which is better than nothing, but usually comes after a long day of lying around feeling useless.
4. Not being in my own space
I really rely on having a certain quiet space that I can retreat into to meditate, read, or just recharge. It’s difficult when on vacation with other people to find this space, but more difficult than finding it is using it - again, the temptation to lie on the sofa drinking endless cups of diminishingly-returning coffee means I don’t get off my ass to meditate.
And the final piece is that after I’ve become cranky, fat, and lazy, I then feel too much like a waste of space to talk to people. I also have this weird feeling that if the day has been bad until a certain point (usually in the afternoon), there’s no redeeming it and I just need to go to bed and not see people and maybe tomorrow will be better (it usually isn’t).
But all is not lost! My plans for tackling this malaise are as follows:
Get an accountability partner to make sure I meditate first thing in the morning for ten minutes at a set time every day. It’s only one week so I know it’s an achievable goal.
Find a creative goal unrelated to music, tech, or code to achieve during this time. I’ve recently begun crocheting again, so I think I might bite off a more ambitious project than I’ve tried so far - perhaps a sweater! This also serves the crucial purpose of keeping my hands occupied NOT on my phone and I find it tremendously soothing. I will also bring a backup project in case I finish the first one so I don’t go into withdrawal symptoms.
I have to think seriously whether or not I will manage to get any running done in Michigan. I suspect not, and I don’t want to hike my running gear over for nothing. But I will definitely commit to walking my steps each day, and I will up my step count from 8250 to 8500 on my FitBit. On a more informal basis, I will play games of tag etc with my nieces and nephews!
Create a space, use it to meditate - and then get out and talk to people!
I will communicate all these ideas to my family and use that support structure to keep to my routines.
Do you have similar feelings when you go on holiday? How do you tackle them? Post in the comments below or send me an email!
As I wrote in a previous post, I was diagnosed with depression a few months ago. I started medication and I've been doing so much better.
So this morning's onslaught was a shock.
I was working remotely when I started feeling unbelievably sad, depressed, emotional, angry. I told my colleagues I wasn't feeling well, left the meeting and moments later I was huddled on the floor of my room crying.
Anyone who has experienced serotonin imbalance (depression) knows this feeling: sadness but with the rational brain saying, "Why? This doesn't make sense."
In that moment of being crouched on the floor crying, a thought came to me: "What's the bravest thing you can do right now?"
What I wanted to do was to curl up in a ball on the floor and cry myself to sleep.
What I decided to do was splash cold water on my eyes and go downstairs and talk to my wonderful landlord.
Because the worst part of depression might be the fear of being seen in that state. It's so easy to hide away, but hiding continues the cycle of sadness and isolation.
The bravest thing I could do was to walk downstairs with my eyes all puffy and swollen and say, "Depression just hit me like a truck and I've been crying." And then have a perfectly normal and lovely conversation about the Cambridge Beer Festival.
Then I had to write a note to my team about what was going on, and also what triggered it: the fact that yesterday's work experience was exhausting, frustrating, and unproductive for me. So this is another learning experience: working with part of a team, and standing up for what I know I need to be productive and happy (turns out a whole day of 5-person programming is not necessarily the ideal way to function).
Several hours later, I am exhausted but I am victorious. I wrote some good code with my pair. I reached out to friends for help. I didn't spend the day curled up in tears (although if that's the best I could have managed, that would be ok too).
I leave you with this quote from Extreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck :
"People develop software. This simple, inescapable fact invalidates most of the available methodological advice. Often, software development doesn't meet human needs, acknowledge human frailty, and leverage human strength. Acting like software isn't written by people exacts a high cost on participants, their humanity ground away by an inhumane process that doesn't acknowledge their needs. This isn't good for business either, with the costs and disruption of high turnover and missed opportunities for creative action."
Or, as I like to think of it, "people > code".
So I've finished the second week of Makers Precourse. Not gonna lie, this week was a lot harder than last week. I have finally dragged myself through the 40th chapter of Learn Ruby the Hard Way and a kicking back with a well-earned Franziskaner. FYI, LRTHW is hard, and I just bought Chris Pine's Learn to Program on Amazon, in actual book format which I shall mark up with a highlighter, because I think I need more practice. I even went back to Code Academy to have a look at their explanations for things - boy is anything easier than LRTHW.
My thoughts from this week:
- Fixed growth mindset is so important: our coach shared this fantastic Ted Talk which you should all watch.
The phrase "effort + difficulty = new neural connections" really resonates with me. Programming is hard, but I look back on this week and I think of all the things I've learned that I couldn't do before and that's pretty cool.
- Some katas on Code Wars are easy and some are beasts. Choose wisely, and take an ally.
- Pair programming is great. I did my first pair session today and having another head on a problem is really helpful.
- It's really important to understand what a piece of code does, rather than just call it blindly. Thanks to Gus, who spent two hours explaining arrays over Slack to me to make sure I REALLY understood everything before calling a function to do the dirty work for me.
- However, why not take the programming outside and work through with a pen and paper while being surrounded by daffodils?
- I might have given myself a pep talk as though I were a Starfleet officer.
- I'm trying not to go too crazy on the Precourse, simply because I know the course is going to be MEGA intense. So stopping when my brain says enough and making sure to have fun is important!
- My FitBit is totally getting me out of the house!
Until next week
This is me in China in December 2016, having a classic night out with a Long Island Iced Tea in each hand. Apparently having a great time. Ten days later I was diagnosed with depression.
More accurately, I finally accepted depression, having known for years that I had it but not been ready to face it. I started taking medication the day I returned to the UK and now, two months later, I feel well enough to write about it.
So how did I know I had depression? Well, turns out the following are signs of depression:
1. Waking up crying and feeling sad for no reason. This happened a lot over Christmas when I had no work to distract me.
2. Fantasising about being dead. (Every time I had a bad headache I took comfort in the fact that maybe this would be the brain tumour that killed me. No joke. Even as I write this, my mind goes back longingly to that idea. Or the one about being on an airplane and crashing and everyone else surviving unhurt but somehow I die. I took a lot of airplanes for tours and I thought this a lot.)
3. Feeling numb to pleasure or anything enjoyable. Books? Coffee? Lie-ins? Nothing.
4. Small things making me feel hopeless and despairing. (NB This is not being a drama queen or making a mountain out of a molehill. This is like putting any weight on a completely crushed foot that simply cannot bear any load.)
Depression in my case came with a lot of anxiety as well, very closely related to living in London. Moving out of London was the best mental health decision I could have made. It's taken me six months to be able to enjoy having a drink at the pub without being anxious and on edge about the "waste" of time.
So if you have experienced any of this, you may be depressed and you should go and see your GP. Except that part of my brain thinks that if you feel this, it's probably 100% accurate and you should just go and end your life. And that is the part of me that is depressed.
I'm still learning about depression and there are lots of things I don't know:
- Will I be on medication forever? (That's totally fine, if so.)
- What is "me" and what is "depression" and to what extent does depression = me?
- Can I find another way of exercising besides running that gives me good endorphins?
- Will I ever be "normal"? What is "normal"?
- How much does depression decrease my (already low) tolerance for fools?
- Will anybody love me if I am depressed?
- Can I be in a long-term relationship and be depressed? (I know that intellectually the answer to both these questions is yes, but intellectual knowledge is kind of useless in this situation.)
- Will I ever not be depressed?
Things that have helped me so far:
- Medication!!!!! I cannot say it enough!!!!! I wish I had taken drugs years ago.
- Meditation. Not good for crises, but really good for long-term changing negative thought patterns and corrosive self-hatred (have I mentioned that lovely symptom?)
- Friends and family who are just awesome safe spaces
- Saying no. Recognising that I am ill, that I can't do things, has been really tough. I have let people down. But permission to fail, to be imperfect, is so important.
So there you have it. Look forward to more blogs on this as I try to figure it out, in between coding and violining.
And if you know a depressed person and can find a way of letting them know it's totally ok for them to be sad around you, that they don't have to pretend, do that. Pretending is hard. It takes energy we don't have so we run away just when we most need to be around people who love and accept us unconditionally.
I've been thinking about how my violin skills can help (or hinder!) my programming. Thanks to over twenty years of musical training, my brain is programmed to do the following:
1. Search for patterns.
2. Pay attention to minute details.
3. Process multiple streams of information, mainly aurally but also up to about eight different written inputs, and also visual signals from a conductor (including deciding in a split second whether the conductor's input is useful or not!).
4. Execute the results of the "program" (i.e. the written music) in a timescale, in a coordinated effort with up to 80 other people. Execution means a) choosing which of four strings, four fingers, and roughly eight positions (which I believe is 128 possibilities, but someone correct me on the math if not; and bear in mind there is generally more than one way to execute, so this split second decision also factors in stylistic and other concerns). Furthermore, I have to understand and implement the duration of a note, both in a strictly metronomic sense and also accounting for any flexibility someone else in the group may decide is expressive.
Consider the following piece of music, one which every violinist will know by heart.
Lots of different rhythms, pitches, all sorts of variables to be executed rapidly, accurately, and in coordination with a large group of people. Seamless integration of all the different streams of information is child's play to an experienced violinist at the top of her game. Even a less familiar piece rapidly sorts itself out into patterns that my brain recognises and executes.
Now consider this screenshot of the command line:
Two colours (different colours, but neither one uses colours to indicate anything)
Text reads from left to right and top to bottom (except when the command line lists files, which it does in columns)
Details make all the difference - a missed " . " in coding can stop a program from running while a missed " . " can mean an incorrect note length.
Command line has no timescale
When reading music, I observe the following sequence:
1. Glance over the whole piece to get an overview
2. Mentally note any difficult spots
3. Play the piece, reading each line from left to right while keeping my eyes at least one measure ahead of where I am currently playing (this requires short-term memory to be functioning!)
When reading the command line, I find I often forget step three. It's frustrating how slowly I read code - I'm used to reading music very quickly - so I try to solve problems using just steps 1-2 without really going through each line. So my next challenge is to accept that for a while I'll be slower at reading code but that the time invested in learning to be really fluent will pay off later.
So I've finished my second day at Makers.
What I have learned so far:
1. My cohort's hive mind is great. We share information and it's wonderful to have access to their intelligence and drive.
2. Leaving a problem for an hour and returning can magically make the problem go away. I was starting the mystery for the week, and literally couldn't figure out what step one was. Nothing made sense. So I cycled out to drop my violin off at the luthier for repair (it sounds terrible, am hoping it's just an open seam and not a crack), got some apples to make pie for American Pi(e) day, meditated, and then hey - GitHub, the command line, pushing, cd.. ...it all started making sense.
3. Diving into the command line takes away the fear and uncertainty. When I started doing the command line exercises, I really missed Ruby and the logic of programming. I felt like the command line was a bit of an annoying distraction from the main fun of coding, and it also looked like a lot of gibberish. Having spent a day with it, I know it a lot better. Also, changing the font to pale green on a black background definitely helped, as did making the text size bigger.
4. Starting the day with a walk around Cambridge is fantastic. I met a friendly cat, got a free map of the Sussex Downs, and saw some really beautiful houses
In non-programming news:
1. I have a violin recital on 2 April. This will be pure joy, but it's difficult to be motivated to practise, mainly because my violin is currently making dead cat noises (hence the trip to the luthier). Hopefully he can sort it out and I'll enjoy practising again.
2. I walked over 8,000 steps today. I definitely would not have walked anywhere near this if it hadn't been for my Fitbit. I am going to up the goal to 10,000 next week. I am still last in my competition but hey - I'm moving.
3. I made a pie for American Pi(e) Day! It wasn't my best pie (a bit out of practice, especially since I've been eating more healthily), but my landlord's dinner guests were very appreciative nonetheless.
Today I'm starting my first day of the Makers Academy programming course. (Pictured above: CodeAcademy Ruby study in Canterbury - I programmed for 4 hours before playing a rehearsal and concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra.)
Starting this course is scary and amazing. Scary because what if I turn out to be crap at coding and I spent a lot of money for nothing? Amazing because I'm pretty sure I'll keep loving coding and it'll be a great change in my life.
My prep for coding has consisted of:
Buying nerdy Tshirts so I will have a coding "uniform" to get my brain into coding gear for when the full-time course starts. The shirts will be arriving soon so you will see photos in a later blog.
Buying a FitBit so that I stay active during the course (I love walking and exploring Cambridge, and I will be kicking my 8,000 step goal out of the park). It also allows me to track water, nudges me every hour if I haven't moved, and does a guided 2-minute breathing meditation. (One of the things I loved about MA was its commitment to students' wellbeing - I totally agree that people learn better when their brains and bodies are taken care of!)
Buying a MacBook Air. WOOOHHOOO!!! I am a MacMommy! I have named it Emmeline (after the suffragette Pankhurst) Skål (the Danish word for "cheers", but also the Danish word for skull, because, you know, Vikings drank from skulls).
Now I'm off to learn some code!
I recently returned from a wonderful week coaching chamber music on the intermediate course at Pro Corda. Set in a ruined abbey in the midst of Suffolk, home to the most beautiful skies in England, a week of string quartets and wonderful students is always one of the most beautiful experiences in my life.
One of my groups was playing the fourth movement of the Schumann a minor string quartet. This movement is very fast, with lots of tricky notes to play. Throughout the week, we came across a recurring problem: all four musicians could play the notes when practising alone, but when in the group, they just couldn't. We did lots of slow work building up with the metronome, but inevitably there came a point where, at full tempo, either the notes would fall apart or the music would just hang together but feeling frantic and on the edge of falling apart.
So I suggested something I've never tried before - a five-minute meditation. Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I bashfully suggested one minute and then talked myself up to five. After all, it's hard to know how a group of teenagers would respond to the idea of sitting still and paying attention to the breath for five minutes. It could be quite embarrassing.
Fortunately, however, these were four very mature and committed students. So I set my insight timer app for five minutes and we all sat together in silence, eyes closed.
In fact, this was the first time I had ever done any group meditation and it was a very different experience from the private meditation I've done pretty much daily since May. It was beautiful to connect with myself while other people were doing the same. It was fidgety to start with, as we all settled into our bodies and giggled at the thought of what the passing course director might say if he looked in the window. We all sneakily opened our eyes at various intervals, I think to check that no one else was making faces at us.
After the five minutes passed, one student couldn't believe how quickly it had gone. I asked them to play the Schumann, and it was very different - much more controlled, much more sense of a longer phrase. I could see the students start to panic, and then re-ground themselves.
Quartet playing is completely different from solo practising in one crucial respect: suddenly, instead of only receiving input from ourselves, we receive information from three other people. We have to listen and respond to much, much more information than we do practising. This is one of the most important aspects of rehearsing - that we are able to communicate and process in a different way than when practising alone. And of course, the more you can remain calm and in a listening state, the better you will be able to communicate!
The quartet meditated on their own before the two concerts they played in. In the first concert, there was a moment of instability near the beginning - but instead of falling apart, I could sense a group moment when they chose to listen and be aware and they pulled the performance back together magnificently. The second performance was simply marvellous. I am very proud of them for their maturity and willingness to try something new! And I will definitely be trying meditation more often for my quartets.
One of the best musical lessons I ever learned was during a collaborative piano masterclass with Martin Katz at the University of Michigan. I was playing a Beethoven sonata and at one point he stopped us and asked the pianist if she liked how I had played a certain phrase. The pianist said no, and Mr. Katz then asked, “But how did you play the lead-in to her entrance?” The pianist then played the phrase differently, which completely altered how I played the subsequent phrase.
“What will come next will be determined in large measure by how we are now.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn, Where You Go, There You Are
This sort of attention is crucial to being a great musician. It has to do with being able to listen and respond, but also understanding and attention to one’s own role in the present moment.
It is also a difficult skill to practise. We can ask ourselves, “Is it in tune? Is the rhythm good?” and these are fairly straightforward questions, even if the execution may be difficult.
But this skill of listening and responding must be practised with another musician(s).
The practice of mindfulness can help, however, for it trains our minds to be aware.
Why not try 20 minutes of mindful ensemble practice? I suggest the following for a string quartet:
Choose a movement to work on, one that you are comfortable playing.
Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Record your playing.
The upper 3 voices focus on the cello line. This focus will be similar to the focus on the breath during mindful meditation - you will find your mind wander to all kinds of things, but keep bringing it back to the cello line.
The cellist focuses on something physical - the breath, or the feeling of the feet against the floor. But just one focus for the whole 20 minutes.
There should be no speaking during the 20 minutes (clarify repeats before you start the timer!). Assuming your piece lasts less than 20 minutes, continue to cycle through it, each time reminding yourselves to refocus your attention.
At the end of the 20 minutes, listen to the recording and see what you notice!
Feel free to leave comments!
I had my first ever Baroque violin lesson recently. This was tremendously exciting for me, as I’ve wanted for years to do it. It was also terribly irritating, as I noticed pretty quickly that what everyone had told me about Baroque violin being a different instrument was pretty much true, and that my years of modern violin training were going to hinder almost much as they helped.
I also realized that I was going to have to come up with new ways of practicing. My intensely analytical style of tearing things apart was pretty much going to get in the way of actually playing music. In my lesson, I was absolutely terrified of “getting it wrong” and consequently paralyzed and unable to produce the sound I envisioned in my head.
So I toddled off home and decided to try the very sound (pun intended) advice of my teacher: trust your singing voice.
So the next day, I recorded myself playing some Monteverdi, and then listened back. I sounded like a truck.
Then I recorded myself singing, listened to it, and then recorded myself playing it back. Hm, a lot less like a truck. More like an SUV. I resisted the urge to analyze and repeated the process several times, until my Monteverdi had scaled down to a Volkswagon Beetle. Still not the lithe unicorn of my dreams, but I left it alone, figuring that overcooking the piece would be just as bad.
So the new challenge to you mindful practicers out there: find the part of yourself that gives musical inspiration. Feed that. Don’t try analyzing and changing. Listen and respond instead
I am an Irish-American violinist living in Cambridge, UK. I perform with the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, and many other top groups, and am also the Business Developer for Encore Music and am on the Makers Academy course for programming.