Yoga, Potassium, and Joni Mitchell…Christopher O’Riley’s Secret Weapons

For as long as I can remember, being of Irish heritage, and therefore I believe prone to moodiness, I’ve felt that every day has required a good start in MY mental health. When I lived in New York City, I would invariably start dragging myself over to Central Park, mumbling complainingly in an ongoing internal monologue about the world at large, my career, and my frustrations with everything else. By the end of the Big Loop–about 6 miles–I would find my inner monologue invariably altered by the endorphin surge into a sunnier, more positive disposition, ready to take on and solve all the world’s problems and utterly confident in my abilities and future. (I’m much less self-examining now during my morning endorphin dose: I do most of my reading on the StairMaster)

The more specific emotional and tension-related challenges I have come across consistently have to do with performance anxiety, and again, I’ve found proactive measures and vitamins to be the most efficacious. Physical tension, particularly playing an instrument, can be the mode of egress for all kinds of doubt to enter one’s head, and for that and a multitude of other ills, I have found Yoga to be indispensable in my pre-concert routine.

How many times have we had nightmares in which we are expected to perform on a world-class level in some task we may not have any expertise whatsoever? In pianistic terms, one practices in a relaxed mode a piece hundreds of times, but then when performance tenses us up and our shoulders hunch or our face turns grimace-ridden. Then, voila, we are performing something for the first time in those dire physical straits, and therefore have the feeling that we are doing it for the first time. (We never had those encumbrances in the practice room, right?), and the anxiety of the unfamiliar takes our heart rate through the roof. Yoga not only regulates breathing (the most important gauge and regulator of ease and comfort), but regulates and relaxes all the muscles and energy-centers of the body. Pianists with our hunched shoulders watch that posture evaporate as centering and relaxation radiate from our sacrum throughout our body. After an hour’s routine, I’ve found that not only am I tension free and my posture more centered, but that I have the feeling of riding high, soaring at great height over the keyboard.

One of nature’s great gifts is potassium, which eases digestion and is generally settling to the stomach, one of the places where our bad humors can pour and eddy. Bananas are one of the most concentrated sources of potassium, but with the pre-concert jitters, and grocery store bananas seem intended for a leisurely residence in the home for a few days while they lose their greenness, it’s a less than palatable prospect to be munching on unripe bananas. A lot of my musician friends still swear by them, and if there’s a ripe one at hand, they’re great. The other greatly concentrated source of potassium is the tomato, and so my most preferred potassium delivery system is vegetable juice–always available, always ripe, and quite delectable.

Just as music has been, professionally, a center of tension and concern, it has of course served as a source of solace and respite. There have been periods of my life when loneliness and depression seem insurmountable. When my family moved to Pittsburgh midway through my high school years and I knew no one, I would walk spookily through my neighborhood through total darkness (the steel mills were still evident). I found I was almost unable to speak properly anymore, such was my isolation. I listened every night to a little cassette player I had. On which I obsessively (though obsession is not a great sign of mental health) traversed Joni Mitchell’s debut album, Song to a Seagull. There was such an atmosphere of romance, dream, and fantasy that it really took me away and set me down gently afterwards.

These many years later, I’m revisiting this record in having been commissioned to arrange a set of pieces for me and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. And so, music from the same age as my colleagues on this date becomes a font of inspiration. Later, in college, there were also records that I found in the Classical repertoire that I found consoling and ultimately uplifting (symphonic forms tend towards conflict/argument/disputation in their opening movements, heart-focused in their slower movements, and physical-visceral exultation in their dance-like final movements): Stravinsky’s ballet, Apollon Musagete (my intimate familiarity with which eventually resulted in my recording and performing the string orchestra work on piano), Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #8 (another favorite in my lifetime repertoire) and Beethoven’s Symphony #7. I heartily recommend all of the above to boost your mental wellness.

2 Responses to “Yoga, Potassium, and Joni Mitchell…Christopher O’Riley’s Secret Weapons”

  1. Autumn Orme says:

    Thanks Mr. O’Riley for sharing your beautiful music with us. Your gift has helped many find their own peace of mind…that’s a beautiful talent to have.

  2. Terence says:

    Thank you so much for the awesome article. You may love Dr. David Jubb’s work, see his early early videos for his powerful poise achieved through diet. You’ll be amazed, he’s from Tasmania.

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