Learning to put the instrument down: The shame of not practicing enough

One of the hardest things for many injured musicians is to learn to practice in moderation.

From a young age we are taught to practice as much as we can and as much as we have time for. We are not taught very often until it’s too late that less is more, and that you can get the same effect from practicing well for two hours instead of practicing for five hours with less focus. So, when we start to experience pain or discomfort, a lot of musicians persist and continue to practice through it, instead of putting the instrument down, analyzing what’s wrong, and building their playing back up again.

I know that putting the instrument down when you’re in pain is a lot harder than it sounds. There are lots of reasons to keep playing: an audition coming up, a once in a lifetime performance opportunity, a lesson the next day with a teacher that has high expectations, or completing a prestigious summer festival and trying to get everything out of it that you can. These are all good reasons to keep playing.

But there’s an even better reason to put the instrument down: your career could be at stake. This means that if you keep playing until after that audition and then end up with an injury, you won’t be able to take that job. Or once you finish that summer festival, you will be in too much to pain to play when you start back at school. You might not even realize the effects until much later in your career.

The harsh reality about injuries is that there’s no good time for them to happen and no good time for you to deal with them. The good news is that if you start to reconsider and modify your practice habits as soon as you feel pain, or preferably even before, then you might avoid serious injury. You might even start to improve much faster.

As someone who always struggled to practice ‘enough’, I came to McGill with new goals of making up for all the practicing I’d missed. I was quickly learning that most people had been practicing several hours a day since they were young teenagers. I became ashamed that I had only practiced an hour, if that, and that the most I ever practiced was two or maybe three hours in one day.

So, I began to practice three or four hours a day, not realizing that this was a common mistake many musicians entering music schools make. Instead of gradually building it up, I leapt right in, thinking that if I was going to be a musician this was the kind of hard work I’d have to do.

This concept that you have to practice a certain amount of hours to be deemed a hardworking musician isn’t something I thought of on my own. I’d been encouraged by teachers, coaches at summer festivals, and even my professor for one of my first year classes that this was the time in my musical career that I had to practice, a lot. I was often told that this is what they had to do when they were a student and therefore this is what I would have to do in order to become a ‘successful’ musician.

I didn’t know that hard work comes in a variety of forms, and I could’ve put my efforts into learning how to practice more efficiently to get better results. I didn’t realize there were more ways you could practice away from the instrument than there were to practice with the instrument. I didn’t know that sometimes the most beneficial thing to do was to learn when to put the violin down. Most importantly, I hadn’t learned yet how to listen to my body when it was telling me it was too much and that I needed to stop.

I spent a lot of time being ashamed of how much I practice. I felt guilty when I told my teacher, my peers, or my parents how little I practiced. Now, on a good day, I don’t practice more than two hours. That means that most days I’m doing around an hour, maybe a bit more depending how strenuous the playing is. And I’m not ashamed of it anymore because I’ve found ways of practicing where I still get results and still improve.

My injury has of course made me drastically change the expectations I have for myself too, and I’ve reevaluated what’s important to me. I’m on the other side of the spectrum now, where instead of practicing too much, I’m not practicing enough to meet the demands of the performance program and had to switch to the faculty program.

This is when I had to seriously reconsider my performing goals, and I realized I’m no longer striving to be in that top percentile. I’m content being a more well-rounded musician, who may not be as good at her instrument as others, but who nevertheless enjoys playing and striving for musical goals, instead of technical ones.

But regardless of what your goals are, I think every musician can benefit from reevaluating their practicing. What would it look like to put down the violin thirty minutes earlier than you usually would? Maybe it would stress you out because you are cramming for your rehearsal or lesson or audition. Maybe it would make you feel like a lesser musician because you are not practicing to your full potential every day.

But maybe you would prioritize your practicing better. Maybe you would schedule your practice, use timers to map out how much you’re playing in a session. Maybe it would make you more mindful of the time you are spending with the instrument or spark a curiosity to research different types of practice techniques that focus on less playing time. Maybe it would even leave you with enough time in your day to cook a healthy meal for yourself or go outside for some exercise.

I think the shame of not practicing enough drives a lot of musicians to practice more. I know a lot of colleagues who claim that being shamed by their teachers for not practicing enough forces them to practice and therefore helps them improve.

Instead of using shame or fear as a tool for developing new practice habits, try to remember why you are practicing. Is it for your lesson, or something bigger? Even if you’re a student who doesn’t know what they want to do with music after they graduate, there’s still a fundamental reason why you are making music and why you’re willing to work hard to improve. For me, it was always because I loved playing and performing, especially chamber music, and I liked feeling the improvements in my playing.

Once you know why, it’s easier to incorporate meaningful and healthy practice habits into your daily lives. Next week, I’m going to outline some new practice techniques I’ve developed since being injured and how I’ve redefined what practicing means to me.

I think that every musician reevaluates the ways they practice throughout their career. There are so many books and pedagogues that tell us the way we should practice. But ultimately, we will spend our entire careers perfecting the right way for us. There is no right amount of time that you should be practicing. The only way is for each musician to judge if they’re making adequate progress (whatever that means for them), preventing injury and achieving their goals for themselves.

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