I love watching the Olympics. Summer or winter, sports I like or those I have little knowledge about—it doesn’t matter, because it is always the human-interest element behind the athlete’s journey that draws me in.
The summer Olympics occur when I am not teaching or conducting full time. I am in big picture mode then, thinking about the year that ended and the year to come, usually writing or researching, always recalibrating. And I am outside more, enjoying nature as a backdrop for asking questions of myself about my role and my place in the big scheme of things. When I watch the summer events and follow the athletes’ backstories, I am inspired in my own journey as I consider what the future might hold.
The winter Olympics experience is different. These events happen during the most challenging part of the year. The shorter daylight hours and unpredictable Midwest weather can be tough on the tires and the soul and being in the middle of the concert season means we have neither the benefit of the fall “yay, we’re back” nor the spring “yay, we are finishing a great year.” Watching the stories behind the Olympic journey of the winter athletes has a different impact on me, one that reminds me of the grit, resilience, and commitment leading to the ultimate joy of being in the moment, regardless of the eventual outcome. It reminds me of our own “Olympic journey” of living and teaching well as makers of art.
Central to the Olympic experience is what yoga calls Abhyasa—focused, diligent practice, the commitment and discipline to stay on mission towards a larger goal. Like the athlete, the musician is no stranger to practice. We return to the keyboard time and again to practice those scales so we can perform them better, with more fluidity and a clearer understanding of how they support our overall musical growth. But we can get stuck, discouraged, and experience self-doubt along the way. We don’t like practice. We haven’t achieved what we thought we would “by now.” We feel stalled in a groundhog day loop of same-ness that leads nowhere so we procrastinate and distract ourselves and hope it will all magically work out. Maybe we walk away.
Abhyasa can apply to any “practice” in our personal or professional lives. In our personal lives, Abhyasa might mean recommitting to changing our dietary or movement habits toward the goal of becoming healthier and stronger. For conductors, our professional practice is everything we do as we choose repertoire, design rehearsals or curriculum, and metaphorically take the temperature of the ensemble to increase the chances of reaching musical goals while lessening the distractions that take us off balance as artists and humans.
The last two years have upended most everything in our lives. We feel like that athlete who wipes out big time on the slopes or falls hard in the middle of their ice dancing event with the world watching. How do we get up again (and again)? How do we recommit to our Abhyasa to support our own Olympic journey?
Start by stepping back to assess reality. Viveka (discernment) is needed to make choices about how we structure our practice. What is most important? What do we keep or let go of? What do our singers need? What do we bring into our lives (whether repertoire or the food we eat)? How might we innovate? How might we solidify? Discernment will guide us as we rebuild our practice. Beyond judgment, which is laced with emotion and the lingerings of past pleasure or pain, discernment calls upon our higher awareness to see what is real and accept that we can work with this reality.
Once we discern objectively “what is” right now we can develop a better plan, freshly inspired, to move towards new (not necessarily “lesser”) goals and establish a stronger commitment to our practice. But even the world class teacher or athlete needs to ultimately let go of the outcomes of their work. Vairagya (non-attachment) is often the most challenging for performers and most difficult to understand. On one hand, we know that the better our practice, the more likely we will be successful by the measure we choose (the “great” concert or an Olympic gold). But this is not always the case. We can have significant talent, training, and years of experience and still take that fall or have an unremarkable performance. What matters is our internal Abhyasa—did we do the best work we were able to do with the purest intention? And are we willing to continue to discern, commit, and let go as we embark on our own Olympic journey of our professional and personal lives?
When we can honestly answer “yes” to these questions, we know we are doing the work we are here to do. And that is a lifetime gold.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at: